Edith Södergran in 1918
|Died||24 June 1923 (aged 31)|
Edith Irene Södergran (4 April 1892 – 24 June 1923) was a
Edith Irene Södergran was born in
Edith's mother came from a well-positioned family, and the status of women within the family is thought to have been strong. It is apparent that Edith and her mother shared a strong bond. Considerably less is known about her relationship to her father, who died when Edith was only 15.
When Edith was just a few months old, the Södergrans moved to the village of
Edith attended the girls school at
In 1904, her father was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and in May 1906 he was admitted to Nummela sanatorium in
Under these complicated circumstances, Edith's mother was responsible for the well-being of the family, especially as Mats Södergran's health deteriorated. This is believed to have been an early influence on Edith's belief in women and feminism. Though her first real encounter with a more structured questioning of the gender dynamics and the 'new woman' is believed to have taken place during her time in a sanatorium in
Edith was a keen photographer, and there are many pictures of her mother, albeit few of her father. Helena Södergran was a robust, petite and intelligent woman with a broad and captivating smile. Helena may have seemed stable, but was often nervous, shaken and restless. Edith enjoyed a close bond with her mother, and Helena supported her daughter's wish to become a poet. Edith and her mother spent a lot more time together than Edith and her father. Edith and Helena would move into St. Petersburg during the school terms, living in the Wiborgska part of the city. Edith's father only lived with them in the city for short periods of time.
Edith had made a few friends, but Helena feared her daughter might be lonely. Some biographers, including Gunnar Tideström, have claimed that Helena had found a foster sister of a similar age to Edith, named Singa. Singa is believed to have lived with the Södergrans during school terms, but moved back to her biological family during the holidays. On one visit, Singa supposedly ran away back to her biological family, but while walking along the train tracks she was run over by a train, and Helena later found the mutilated body. However, other biographers, such as
In 1902, Edith began her schooling in
Edith was an intelligent pupil with the ability to assimilate knowledge quickly, needing to spend little time revising. One of her classmates described her as the class' most gifted pupil. More and more she became interested in the French lessons she received. To a certain extent, this was due to her teacher, Henri Cottier, to whom she directed a large proportion of the love poems that appear in Vaxdukshäftet.
During 1908, Edith appears to have made a decision to make Swedish the main language of her writings and her poems in German suddenly stopped. This was not a self-evident decision. She had no close contact with Swedish literature, and Finland-Swedish poetry was in a depression. An important impulse to the decision might have come from one of her relatives, the Finland-Swedish language researcher
Hugo Bergroth. Some years earlier she had published a poem, Hoppet ("The Hope"), in a membership newsletter for the
One day in November 1908, Edith came home from school saying that she was restless and that she did not feel well. Helena called for a doctor, who diagnosed that Edith had an inflammation of the lungs. According to the mother, the girl understood what it was as she asked several times if she had got "lung soot". Edith had guessed correctly. On New Year's Day 1909, it was established and Edith tested positive for
Edith was unhappy at Nummela. The place was altogether too strongly associated with her father's death. She lost weight, her mood was low, and she was described afterwards as unkempt and "strange". She was even thought to have a mild mental illness after she proposed to one of the doctors. It is apparent that she did not get on well at Nummela and felt that the place resembled more closely a prison. During the long days, Edith daydreamed of other lands and exotic places. She willingly shared her dreams, which made her seem even more peculiar. During the following year, her condition worsened, and the family looked for help abroad. The obvious choice was Switzerland, which was at the time the centre for tuberculosis treatment within Europe.
At the beginning of October 1911, roughly three years after the start of her illness, Edith and her mother travelled to
Her time in Switzerland played a large role in Edith's international orientation. From a remote part of Finland she had arrived in an intellectually vital country where, not least at the sanatorium, she met many gifted people from the whole of Europe. With them she felt a connection that she had rarely felt in St. Petersburg.
Finally, Edith felt better, her cough had disappeared, and she was perkier than normal. In the spring of 1914 she finally travelled home, but the sickness shadowed her and her poetry faced a struggle against illness and, later, fatigue.
Her debut book Dikter ("Poems"), which came out in the autumn of 1916, gained no great notice, even if a few critics were slightly perplexed – Södergran was already using associative free verse and describing selected details instead of entire landscapes. Expression of a young, modern, female consciousness in poems like Dagen svalnar... ("The Day Cools...") and Vierge moderne ("Modern Lady") was entirely new within Swedish language poetry.
Her new poetic direction with Septemberlyran ("The September Lyre") met no greater understanding from the public and from critics. She tried to discuss her poetry in a notorious letter to the editor in the Helsinki newspaper Dagens Press on New Year's Eve 1918 in order to clear up some of her intentions with the paradoxical visions in her new book. She succeeded instead in provoking the first debate about
Olsson became a first breach in her isolated and threatened existence in the distant village – she made a number of visits, and the two women remained in contact by letter until a few weeks before Södergran's death, when Olsson went on a tour to France without an inkling that she was to lose one of her best friends. She was to grow into one of the most powerful modernist critics in Finland, and at times she has been seen as almost a posthumous spokeswoman and interpreter of Södergran, not least because so few others had been in continuous and close long-term contact with the poet and were still alive and willing to speak in public when Södergran became an established classic. It was a position with which Olsson was, by her own admission, uncomfortable, but her accounts of Södergran and her edition of the author's letters to her, with Olsson's own evocative commentary (her own letters were lost after Södergran's death), have had an incalculable effect on the later image of her friend.
In the next book, Rosenaltaret ("The Rose Altar"), printed in June 1919, a cycle of poems, Fantastique celebrates the sister, a being who seems to hover between reality and fantasy in some of the poems while some of the details are quite close to subjects that had been discussed in the letters of the two. The poem Systern ("The Sister") is silently dedicated to Olsson, and contains the line "She got lost to me in the throng of the city" which, as biographer Gunnar Tideström has put it, corresponds to Södergran's dismay after the too-short visits by Hagar Olsson and her return to Helsingfors. Olsson has later recalled Södergran's lyrical, funny, warm, and sometimes frightening and imposing personality. Both of them have sometimes been seen as bisexuals, and the question of whether there was a lesbian element in the emotional bond between them remains a disputed one.
With the next collection of poems, Framtidens skugga ("The Shadow of the Future") (whose original title was "Köttets mysterier" ("Mysteries of the Flesh")), the visions that had exhorted Södergran culminate in poems speaking of a renewed world after the wars and catastrophes that now ravage the Earth – Raivola was, as stated earlier, a war zone in 1918, and even later Edith was able to hear gunfire from her kitchen window. The wording can lead one to think both of
Despite the visionary overtones, Södergran was during this period an
From the summer of 1920 on, she abandoned her poetry until August 1922; during the autumn and winter she wrote her final poems, stimulated by the review Ultra; the short-lived review, started by Elmer Diktonius, Hagar Olsson and other young writers, was the first publication in Finland to embrace literary modernism, and it hailed Edith as a pioneering genius and printed her new poems. Left behind were the expectations of a leading role for herself but not the daring descriptive language, and some of these final poems have come to be her most-loved.
Edith died on Midsummer Day 1923 at her home in Raivola, and was buried at the village church. Her mother continued to live in the village until 1939 and died during the evacuation that occurred due to the winter war. Following
Edith Södergran was a trailblazer within modernist Swedish poetry and had many followers, including, amongst others,
It took many years for her to gain recognition. Fourteen years after Södergran's death, the author
She was often fascinated by expressionism but later broadened her lyrical expression. She has come to be called a
Of her poems, some of the most well-known are Svart eller vitt ("Black or White"), Ingenting ("Nothing"), Min barndoms träd ("My Childhood's Trees") and Landet som icke är ("The Land which is not"). Her most quoted poem is probably Dagen svalnar... ("The Day Cools..."), which deals with feelings such as longing, fear, closeness and distance.
Södergran's poetic authority and her sense of herself were clearly liberated by her reading of Nietzsche and her acceptance of the concept of the superman. In her middle-period poems, we often meet a commanding figure – a prophet, a princess, a saint, or simply an imposing "I" projecting their will, visions and feelings. This kind of assertiveness, particularly coming from a woman writer, has been an obstacle to some reading her work and a highly attractive and convincing element to others. But Södergran herself was enough of a realist to know that these personae are not simply to be conflated with her own private self – she obliquely refers to that distinction several times in her letters to Hagar Olsson, and many people who knew her have attested that she was aware of it – so the ego in her production can be a role that she will visit and investigate, as in the poems Rosenaltaret ("The Rose Altar"), Stormen ("The Storm") (there are two poems with this title, both of them with a visionary slant), Skaparegestalter ("Creator Figures"), Vad är mitt hemland ("What Is My Homeland?"), and many others. In Den stora trädgården ("The Big Garden), a beautiful 1920 poem about the mission of artists and the new age, she states openly that "Naked we walk in shredded clothes ..." and that artists have no outward power and should not aim to have any:
The poem was originally sent to Hagar Olsson in an April 1920 letter where Edith recounts flu, abject poverty, and a humiliating attempt to sell some old underwear to get money. Gunnar Tideström has commented that "few documents of her hand give such a striking idea of her day-to-day self", and that "she admits that life is cruel and that she will perish if this goes on for much longer – but it is not a self-pitying letter; it glows with light".[