Pioneer of poetry in the Swedish language in Finland, who died of lung disease. Södergran’s impact on the Nordic poetry, especially the Finnish modernism in the 1920s, was significant in liberating verse from the confines of rhyme, regular rhythm, and traditional imagery. As a modernizer of poetry only Katri Vala has been generally compared to Edith Södergran, who has eventually become one of the most loved Nordic writers.
Jag längtar till landet som icke är,
ty allting som är, är jag trött att begära.
I long for the land that is not,
for everything that is I am weary of craving.
(from ‘The Country That Is Not’, trans. by Keith Bosley)
Edith Södergran was born in St. Petersburg into a Swedish-speaking bourgeois family. Her father Matts Södergran worked for Alfred Nobel’s company, and then was employed by a factory in Raivola. Although in the official papers he was titled as ‘mechanic’, his actual responsibilities were those of an engineer. In 1890 he married Helena Lovisa Holmroos, whose father had created a successful career in the foundry business.
In 1902 Södergran entered the German Petri-Schule in St. Petersburg. Influenced by Heine and Goethe she also wrote her first poems in German. Later she switched to Swedish, but ‘Germanisms’ remained a permanent feature of her language. In her works composed during the school years she criticized amongst other things the tsarist system, but without any clear political stand. Her father, who suffered from tuberculosis, returned in 1907 from Nummela sanatorium to home. Death themes, popular among the décadents, started to appear in her poems.
Tief unten am Meeresgrunde
Da such ich das Sonnenlicht
Ich friere, und Algen umflechten
Mir Körper und Angesicht
After catching cold Södergran contracted the same disease as her father, and in 1909 she was treated in Nummela. From 1911 to 1914 she lived mainly in Switzerland in sanatoriums, where she started to study Italy and read Dante. In 1914 she returned to Finland, with high hopes for the future. Next year Södergran met in Helsinki the writer Arvid Mörne (1876-1946) who encouraged her in her writing aspirations. A chance meeting with the philologist Hugo Bergroth (1866-1937) is thought to have persuaded her to abandon German for Swedish as a vehicle of lyric expression. The German pre-war expressionism interested Södergran as well as the Russian futurism of Vladimir Majakovski.
On the eve of World War I Södergran settled with her mother permanently in the family’s summer house at Raivola on the Karelian Isthmus. Her first book, DIKTER (1916), depicted the nature of her home village, but gave it a dream-like quality. In a love poem Södergran wrote: “You searched for a flower / and found a fruit. / Your searched for a spring / and found an ocean.” The collection represented a new avant-garde voice in literature, but did not cause much debate. Reception varied from puzzled admiration to ridicule. It hurt her deeply. Södergran ended her attempt to enter the Finland-Swedish literary circles of Helsinki in a flight to Raivola.
Södergran’s family lost its property in the Russian Revolution of 1917. She suffered from depression and extreme poverty, but in spite of the insecure, hard conditions, SEPTEMBERLYRAN (1918, The September Lyre) reflected strong Nietzschean visions, and Dionysian euphoria. Its appearance gave rise to a journalistic debate that cast doubts on her sanity. In this collection Södergrand wanted to show that critics, the bloody Russian revolution, tuberculosis, and the Finnish Civil War did not manage to stop her from writing poems.
Södergran’s poems did not gain wide acceptance in her lifetime, but they nevertheless opened for her doors into the literary world. During a visit to Helsinki in autumn 1917 she met such writers as Hans Ruin, Jarl Hemmer, Runar Schildt, Juhani Aho, and Eino Leino. The most important writer in her life was the critic and writer Hagar Olsson, who reviewed enthusiastically Södergran’s Septemberlyran. Olsson visited her in Raivola, and the two women had an intense correspondence.
Pain governs all, she smooths the thinker’s brow,
she fixes the jewel round the desired woman neck,
she stands at the door when the man comes out from from his beloved…
What else does pain give her lovers?
I don’t know any more.
Södergran’s best later collections include ROSENALTARET (1919, The Rose Altar) and FRAMTIDENS SKUGGA (1920, Shadow of the Future). Now she left behind her the Nietzschean will for life, and accepted comfort from religion, which Nietzsche denied. In the early 1920s she become member of Anthroposophical Society, and abandoned writing poetry for some time. She read widely Rudolf Steiner’s works. Her last book, LANDET SOM ICKE ÄR, was Södergran’s preparation for death; it was published posthumously in 1925. “Who is my beloved? The night is dark / and the stars tremble in reply.” The resigned poems, which searched ‘the land that is not’, were assembled and issued by the poet Elmer Diktonius. Södergran died in Raivola on June 24, 1923. In the 1930s Raivola became a pilgrimage for her fans and aspiring lyricists. Her Complete Poems (1984) are available in English, translated by David McDuff.
See: Hagar Olsson: Edith’s brev, 1955 – Edith Södergranin kirjeet – See also: Edith Södergran -seura – For further reading: Edith Södergran by L. de Fages (1970); Les structures de l’imaginaire chez Edith Södergran by R. Boyer (1971, in Études Germaniques, 26); Edith Södergran: A Pioneer of Finland-Swedish Modernism by G. Hird (1978, in Books from Finland, 12); I’ll Bake Cathedrals: An Introduction to the Poetry of Edith Södergran by C.L. Mossberg (1978, in Folio, 11); Edith Södergran: Modernist Poet in Finland by G.C. Schoolfied (1984); Edith Södergran by Gunnar Tideström (1991, appeared originally 1949); Edith by Ernst Brunner (1992); Edith Södergran: A Changing Image, ed. by Petra Broomans, Adrian van der Hoeven and Jytte Keoning (1993); Edith Södergran by Eva Stöm (1994); Ediths jag by Ebba Witt-Brattström (1997); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin, (1999) – Note: Edith Södergran monument is situated in the town Hyvinkää
DIKTER, 1916 – Runoja (1942), suom. Uuno Kailas, kuv. Tapio Tapiovaara
BROKIGA IAKTTAGELSER, 1919
FRAMTIDENS SKUGGA, 1920
LANDET SOM ICKE ÄR, 1925
MIN LYRA, 1929
LEVOTTOMIA UNIA, 1929, suom. Uuno Kailas
EDITH SÖDERGRANS DIKTER, 1940
SAMLADE DIKTER, 1946
TRIUMF ATT FINNAS TILL, 1948
EDITHS BREV, 1955 – Edith Södergranin kirjeet
SAMLADE DIKTER, 1957
TULEVAISUUDEN VARJO, 1972, suom. Pentti Saaritsa
TRIUMF ATT FINNAS TILL, 1974 – dikter i urval av Sven Lindner, förord av Jörn Donner
We Women: Selected Poems, 1977
Love & Solitude: Selected Poems 1916-1923, 1981
Collected Poems, 1984 (trans. by David McDuff)
DIKTER OCH AFORISMER, 1990
KULTAISET LINNUT, 1990, suom. Uuno Kailas