I was idly leafing through a book on Gunnar Ekelöf‘s “A Mölna Elegy” (don’t ask me why, since I knew nothing about Ekelöf and have never been particularly interested in Swedish poetry) when I was struck by the mention of his great respect for the poet Edith Södergran. (So great was his respect that he incorporated chunks of her poetry into his own long poem without attribution, about the ethics of which there has been much discussion, but that’s another story.) It turns out Södergran was one of the first modernist poets in Scandinavia, one of the Swedish minority in Finland… and she was born in Saint Petersburg in 1892, a year after Mandelshtam! She went to a German-language school in SPb and started writing poetry in German, only switching to Swedish later; as this impassioned webpage says:
Her first poems fill a school notebook, 225 altogether, never published. Most of these youthful poems were written in German — only 10% in her mother tongue, Swedish. At fourteen Edith Södergran had become a cosmopolitan, reading Heine, Goethe, and other classical poetry in French, Russian, German and Swedish. One day she wrote in her notebook, Ich weiss nicht, in wessen Sprache schreiben (‘I don’t know in which language to write’). At this point in her writing a long series of poems in German comes to an end. After one poem in French, she now began to write exclusively in Swedish.
For any poet, fluency in foreign languages enriches the diction of the mother tongue, as Chaucer’s daily use of French as ambassador in Paris brought so much wealth to the English language. At the beginning of her switch to her mother tongue, Edith showed better mastery of German than Swedish. She had been intensely studying Goethe, Heine and other German poets, whereas she had read very little Swedish poetry. She grew up outside the boundaries of Swedish culture, just as Jules Laforgue and Isidore Ducasse (“le comte de Lautréamont”) grew up outside of French culture in Montevideo, Uruguay. She spoke an old-fashioned Swedish, often grammatically incorrect. Her spelling was also shaky.
All of that interested me enormously, and of course one can’t help but be fascinated by poets who die young (she died in 1923 of that killer of poets, tuberculosis, in Raivola, then part of newly independent Finland but now the town of Roshchino in Russia, a northwestern suburb of Saint Petersburg). When I looked her up in Martin Seymour-Smith’s Guide to Modern World Literature, I was very taken with the brief bit he quoted in translation:
For my little songs,
The funny plaintive ones, the evening purple ones,
Spring gave me the egg of a water-bird.
I asked my beloved to paint my portrait on the thick shell.
He painted a young leek in brown soil—
And on the other side a round soft mound of sand.
So when I discovered there was a bilingual Selected Poems available, I sent off for it. I may even learn a bit of Swedish.
There’s surprisingly little on her in Russian, considering that she was born and spent most of her life in what was then Russia and could rightly be considered part of the generation of Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, and Tsvetaeva, but here‘s a nice page with pictures of her, her gravestone in Roshchino, and a sculpture of her favorite cat Totti.
Addendum. Thanks to prinses Hyacinta, I’ve discovered a lengthy review by Johannes Goransson of the Selected Poems, which is well worth reading.