Karlfeldt, Erik Axel (20 July 1864 - 8 April 1931)
Erik Axel Karlfeldt (20 July 1864 - 8 April 1931)
University of Washington
BOOKS: Vildmarks- och kärleksvisor (Stockholm: Seligmann, 1895);
Fridolins visor och andra dikter (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1898);
Fridolins lustgård och Dalmålningar på rim (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1901);
Fridolins poesi och Dalmålningar på rim (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1902)–includes Fridolins visor och andra dikter and Fridolins lustgård och Dalmålningar på rim;
Valda stycken (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1904);
Flora och Pomona (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1906);
Vid Gustaf Frödings bår, by Karlfeldt and Nathan Söder-bloom (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1911);
Minne af skalden Lars Johanssen (Lucidor) (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1912); republished as Skalden Lucidor (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1914);
Flora och Bellona (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1918);
Dalmålningar utlagda på rim (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1920);
Valda dikter tillägnade ungdamen (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1922)–comprises excerpts from Vildmarks- och kärleksvisor, Fridolins visor, Fridolins lustgård, Flora och Pomona, and Flora och Bellona;
Kärleksdikter i urval (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1923);
Carl Fredrik Dahlgren: En bild ur svensk romantik för hundra år sedan (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1924);
Hösthorn (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1927);
Tankar och tal med ett lyriskt bokslut, edited by Torsten Fogelqvist (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1932);
Karlfeldts ungdomsdiktning, edited by Sven Haglund and Nils Afzelius (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1934);
Henry Fielding: Ett författarporträtt, edited by Sven Stolpe (Borås: Norma, 1985).
Editions: De 29 dikterna samt en visbok, edited by Lars Forssell (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1955);
Samlade dikter (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1981).
Arcadia Borealis: Selected Poems of Erik Axel Karlfeldt, translated by Charles Wharton Stork (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1938);
Selected poems, in The North! To the North! Five Swedish Poets of the Nineteenth Century, edited and translated by Judith Moffett (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2001), pp. 165–203.
OTHER: “Minne af Claes Teodor Odhner: Inträdes-tal i Svenska akademien den 20 december 1904,” in Svenska akademiens handlingar: Ifrån år 1886, D. 19, 1904 (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1906).
Erik Axel Karlfeldt was one of several poets who came to prominence in the 1890s in Sweden. Social realism and naturalism, primarily expressed in prose fiction and drama, had been the literary norm in the 1880s. The emphasis was on “putting problems up for debate,” in the phrase made famous by the Danish critic Georg Brandes. A reaction against the naturalism of the 1880s was heralded by the young poet Verner von Heidenstam in his programmatic essay “Renässans” (1890, Renaissance). Heidenstam, Oscar Levertin, Gustaf Fröding, and eventually Karlfeldt became the leading figures in the resurgence of Swedish poetry during this time. In certain respects the social concerns of the 1880s did continue into the next decade. However, the new emphasis on imagination, individualism, and aesthetic values was favorable for poetry. The period is often associated with “national Romanticism” in both literature and art, and parallel trends, including the celebration of Swedish provincial life and nature, can be found in the visual arts, in the work of such painters as Carl Larsson and Anders Zorn.
Of the poets of the 1890s, Karlfeldt was the last to make his literary debut, but he continued to write and publish poetry longer than any of his contemporaries. His literary production consists of six volumes of poetry, published between 1895 and 1927, and two monographs of literary history, one on the seventeenth-century Swedish poet Lars Johansson Lucidor (a poet for whom Karlfeldt felt a special affinity) and a second on the Swedish Romantic poet Carl Fredrik Dahlgren. Selected speeches and essays were also collected in a posthumous volume of prose that included his final poems.
Karlfeldt was born Erik Axel Eriksson on 20 July 1864 on the farm “Tolvmansgården” in Karlbo village, Folkärna parish, near the town of Avesta in the southern part of the Swedish province of Dalarna. Centered around Lake Siljan in central and western Sweden, Dalarna was the region where elements of traditional Swedish rural culture persisted the longest. His native region played an important role in Karlfeldt’s poetry. His mother, Anna Jansdotter, had a son and two daughters from her first marriage to the farmer and county official Matts Larsson. After her first husband’s death, she married her second cousin, Erik Eriksson; Erik Axel was the oldest of their four sons.
A promising student from an early age, Erik Axel enrolled in the secondary school (gymnasium) in Västerås at the age of fourteen, the first person in the family to continue his studies past the elementary school level. From an early age, he had expressed a desire to become a poet, and as a student he wrote poetry and became involved in student literary societies. Erik Axel completed his studentexamen (entry examination for university studies), an important academic milestone in Sweden in 1885. That same year, however, a family crisis altered the promising young student’s prospects drastically. Against a backdrop of unwise business speculations and a national crisis in agriculture, his father was accused of forging signatures on financial documents. The charges were especially serious as Erik Eriksson held a position of responsibility in the community as nämndeman (analogous to a member of a county board), and he was given a sentence of two years at hard labor. The resulting bankruptcy led to the loss of the family farm at public auction, an event that clearly affected Erik Axel deeply, both by the sudden and irrevocable separation from his childhood environment as well as by the stain on the family’s honor. Erik Axel’s father died a few years later, in 1889, at the age of fifty-one.
Because of his now financially unstable situation, the first few years of Erik Axel’s university studies in Uppsala were frequently interrupted by periods of employment as a private tutor in various places. In 1888 he was employed for a short time as a journalist for the liberal newspaper Aftonbladet in Stockholm. The editor of the newspaper, Ernst Beckman, became a friend and mentor. Thanks to a sum of money collected by Beckman (on his own initiative) among his friends and colleagues, Erik Axel was able to pursue a more continuous period of study in Uppsala from 1889 to 1892.
In 1889 Erik Axel changed his surname to “Karlfeldt,” a name linked to his home village, Karlbo. In the Swedish countryside, relatively few people had surnames; instead, the patronymic system persisted, in which a person was identified as someone’s son or daughter (hence “Eriksson” or “Eriksdotter”). It was becoming more common at this time, however, for a person to choose a surname. After completing his studies, Karlfeldt took a series of positions as a teacher, first in the newly established progressive community of Djursholm, near Stockholm (where he was hired by Beckman, who had left his position as editor of Aftonbladet to become president of the development), and then in the town of Molkom in the province of Värmland.
By Swedish standards, Karlfeldt matured slowly as a poet. While at the university in Uppsala, Karlfeldt wrote verse, at first in the prevailing style of the 1880s with its emphasis on social realism. Some of these poems were published in newspapers and student literary journals under various pseudonyms (and collected after his death in Karlfeldts ungdomsdiktning [Karlfeldt’s Juvenilia], 1934). In the terms of the American poet Richard Hugo, Karlfeldt seems to have found his “triggering subject” in his discovery, or rediscovery, of his home landscape of Dalarna sometime in the early 1890s. This discovery was personal but also in tune with changing trends in literature during that decade. Interest in Swedish rural traditions was also finding popular expression in the hembygdsrörelsen (home district movement). The centuries-old rural culture was beginning to disappear; symptoms included mass emigration (especially to North America) as well as a rapid movement within the country from rural villages to cities and towns as industrialization progressed. A notable event in the attempt to preserve remnants of traditional culture was the opening of Skansen, the open-air museum in Stockholm, in 1891.
Karlfeldt’s first collection of poems, Vildmarks- och kärleksvisor (Songs of Wilderness and Love) was published in 1895. This collection attracted little notice and sold about two hundred copies. While this volume is not as formally accomplished as his subsequent collections, certain themes important to the poet are already apparent. Karlfeldt uses the Swedish word visa (meaning song, especially a folk song or ballad; plural visor) in the title, rather than the word dikt (poem). Earlier in the decade there had been a debate about “art poetry” (dikt) and “folk poetry” (visa) between the poets Fröding and Levertin. By using the word visa, Karlfeldt underscores both the song-like nature of his poems and their connection to his rural heritage.
In the opening poem of the collection, “Fäderna” (The Forefathers), the poet evokes a long line of anonymous ancestors, who lived “i ringhet och frid” (in humbleness and peace). The poet has been torn from his ancestral soil: “Jag är ryckt som en ört ur sin groningsgrund, / halvt nödd, halvt villig er sak jag svek” (I am torn like a plant from its seedling bed, / half in need, half willingly your cause I betrayed). Karlfeldt returns often to this theme of longing for a lost way of life, especially in his early collections. In its celebration of the free and independent Swedish peasant, the poem recalls the early-nineteenth-century Romanticism of Erik Gustaf Geijer and his poem “Odalbonden” (1811, The Yeoman Farmer). Karlfeldt’s poem, however, is much more personal in tone; he finds solace and, he hopes, inspiration from the toil of hardworking forebears, along with a sense of guilt for having abandoned their way of life, willingly or not.
The love songs in the collection often depict transitory meetings, while the object of the poems is some times nature rather than a human being. In “Bekransa mig!” (Make a Garland for Me!), the poet addresses his “vildmarksbrud” (“wilderness bride,” the late-autumn forest) and states that “Jag är den siste, trogne truba-duren / som höjer sång i dina öde salar” (I am the final, faithful troubadour / who raises a song in your desolate halls).
Another noteworthy poem in this first collection, especially from a psychological perspective, is “Avskedssång” (Song of Parting). The poem begins in a moment of departure from an apparent crisis. The time is evening, and a storm approaches that will shake the “arma agnar i ödets såll” (poor husks in fate’s sifting sieve). Nature (the storm) and traditional ways (the harvest “sieve”) are used as realistic elements with symbolic overtones. Separation (from the family, from familiar surroundings) is imminent, and the poet’s mother is addressed; in her eyes, “sorgset fromma” (mournfully pious), he seems to read a “biblisk dikt” (biblical verse). The poem ends with a (Lutheran) hymn-like final verse, suggesting reconciliation and the solace of a traditional faith: “Var jordisk kansla som brutet talar / skall strömma frigjord i evig sång” (Each earthly feeling which brokenly speaks / shall flow, set free, in eternal song). Karlfeldt often adopted this hymn-like tone, perhaps to greatest effect in his final collection, Hösthorn (1927, Horn of Autumn), some thirty years later.
In 1896 Karlfeldt returned to Uppsala for further studies in literary and art history. In February 1898 he completed his licentiatexamen (doctoral degree) with a thesis on the eighteenth-century English novelist Henry Fielding. While in Uppsala, Karlfeldt became acquainted with Fröding, who had moved to the university town after controversy (including a charge of blasphemy) surrounding his third book of poems. Fröding critiqued many of the poems that appeared in Karlfeldt’s second, breakthrough collection, Fridolins visor och andra dikter (1898, Fridolin’s Songs and Other Poems).
Fridolins visor och andra dikter was the book that established Karlfeldt’s reputation. It was generally (though not unanimously) praised by critics in the leading Swedish newspapers and well accepted by the reading public. In this second collection, Karlfeldt has created a character, Fridolin, a university-educated bachelor who has returned to his rural roots. (Correctly or not, Karlfeldt came to be identified with Fridolin for the rest of his life.) Fridolin attempts to bridge the worlds of book learning and peasant knowledge: “och han talar med bönder på böndernas sätt / men med lärde män på latin” (and he speaks with farmers in farmerly ways / but in Latin with learnéd men). The tone of the poems in this collection ranges from sonorously mournful to gently bantering.
Fridolins visor och andra dikter is divided into four parts. The first, “Ur en landtlig ungkarls visbok” (From a Rural Bachelor’s Songbook), is most explicitly identified with the Fridolin character. The opening poem, “Rimsmeden” (The Rhymesmith), depicts the poet as a blacksmith, forging his poems “i kvällen då min ungdoms sol gick ned” (at evening as the sun of my youth went down), an example of a persistent theme of decay or mortality in Karlfeldt. His calling as a poet is depicted here in masculine, even muscular, terms that match the physical labors referred to in “Fäderna.”
Another theme stands out in the next poem, “Från beväringsåren” (From Years as a Conscript). Starting from a military metaphor of enlistment, the poet is “mönstrad in i Amors här” (recruited into the army of Amor) and “kallad in av sångens gud” (called up by the god of song). The end of the poem suggests a psychological interpretation: “Jag går ut i livets fejder; / om jag ej med ära kommer, kommer aldrig jag igen” (I go out into life’s battles; / if I come not back with glory, I will never come back again).
The second section of Fridolins visor och andra dikter, “Cecilia Bölljas visbok (fragment),” is, again, presented as a personal collection of songs. The hand-copied visbok (visor) was popular among the upper classes in seventeenth-century Sweden, a period that greatly interested Karlfeldt. Several of these song collections had been edited, and published, in Sweden in the 1890s. Use of the term lends the collection an archaic quality, emphasizing Karlfeldt’s tendency to cultivate the past.
The third section of the book, “Från Folkare-stigar” (From Folkare Paths), depicts the landscape and characters of his home parish. In, for example, the poem “Uppbrott” (Departure), the poet “greedily collects” sensory impressions from his childhood surroundings. The final section, “Liv och död” (Life and Death), offers an alternative to the Fridolin persona in “En löskerkarl” (an archaic-sounding word meaning literally “a loose fellow,” a man with no attachments). In contrast to Fridolin, who is a kind of country gentleman, the “löskerkarl” is a homeless, wandering figure, clearly representing another aspect of Karlfeldt’s personality. (With its question-and-answer form, this poem also alludes to a well-known seventeenth-century hymn by Lucidor.) In other poems, a similar character is represented by the figure of a spelman or wandering musician.
In 1899 Karlfeldt accepted a position as a part-time teacher at a school in Stockholm, where he was employed until 1902. At the end of 1900 he was also granted a position as an assistant librarian at the Royal Library. His third collection, Fridolins lustgård och Dalmålningar på rim (1901, Fridolin’s Paradise and Dala Paintings in Rhyme), further established his reputation as a major poet in Sweden. The word “lustgård” (literally “pleasure garden”) means paradise, with direct reference to the biblical Garden of Eden. The darker tone of this collection, compared to Fridolins visor och andra dikter, suggests that the allusion to “paradise” is at least in part meant ironically.
As in Karlfeldt’s other books, the first poem sets the tone for the entire collection. The initial poem in Fridolins lustgård och Dalmålningar på rim is often quoted as a statement of Karlfeldt’s poetic program. The first lines read: “Min sångmö är inte af Pinden, / hon är av Pung-makarbo” (My Muse is not from Pindos, / she is from Pungmakarbo). Clearly the poet’s inspiration comes from his native province, but he is far from being a “primitive” or “naive” artist. (Pindos is a mountain chain associated in Greek mythology with Apollo. Pungmakarbo is a village in Dalarna; when he wrote this poem, Karlfeldt had never actually visited the place, but he was struck by the way the name sounded.) One of the strengths of Karlfeldt’s poetry stems from his fusion of local, specific traditions with references to European literary tradition. While the musicality and beauty of his lyrics can be enjoyed for their own sake, careful reading reveals Karlfeldt’s attention to realistic detail and the sometimes erudite sources for his poems.
In “Lustgården” (Paradise), Fridolin hears a song “att tron är död och kärleken förbrunnen” (that faith is dead and love extinguished). Despite that, “Jag har en sal, mot aftonen belägen, / en lustgård och en borg i ungdomslandet” (I have a hall, toward evening situated, / a paradise and fortress in the land of youth). Rather than abandon his youthful “tjänst i diktens land” (service in the land of poetry), Fridolin has withdrawn to a personal, rural paradise. A parallel to Voltaire’s Candide (1759) might be drawn; Candide withdrew from public life to cultivate his garden, while Fridolin cuts himself off from the outside world (described as “den borgerliga, stora Staten,” the bourgeois, massive State). But Fridolin, and other characters who appear in Karlfeldt’s poems, are not meant to represent a philosophy of life. They serve as masks, as Sven Delblanc writes, to “depict his feelings of rootlessness and homesickness.” Furthermore, this fictional rural paradise is “without any counterpart in the world” and is “a world which shows nothing of the hardships of work but all the more of play and dance, of holiday and harvest festival.”
Several poems in this collection are identified as inspired by a “folk book,” Bondepraktiken (roughly, “Farmer’s Practical Handbook”) which had wide distribution in Sweden and other parts of northern Europe. Originally published in Germany in the early 1500s, the book spread first to Denmark, then to Sweden, and was an often-consulted agricultural handbook for several centuries, with information, for example, on when to sow and harvest. One of the poems inspired by Bondepraktiken, “Mikrokosmos” (Microcosm), devotes each of its four stanzas to one of the four traditional elements: earth, water, air, and fire.
Several of Karlfeldt’s most lyrically evocative love poems are found in this collection, including “Dina ögon äro eldar” (In your eyes a fire is burning) and “Nu öppnar nattglim sin krona” (Now the eye-catch opens its calyx). The latter poem is an excellent example of how specific Karlfeldt is in his depiction of nature, here in reference to particular plants–“nattglim,” English “eye-catch”; “ögontröst,” English “eyebright”; and “jungfru Marie halm,” English “lady’s bedstraw”–that bloom in late summer, and whose names in Swedish are themselves allusive: literally night-gleam, eye-solace, and the Virgin Mary’s bedstraw. As in other poems, Karlfeldt here shows a remarkable ability to dissolve the boundaries between nature and an individual, human sensibility. The poet becomes submerged in his beloved, not a woman but revealed instead in the last line to be “mörkögda augustinatt” (dark-eyed August night).
“Längtan heter min arvedel” (Longing is my inheritance), which is well-known in Sweden as set to music by Wilhelm Peterson-Berger in 1906, conveys a theme that underscores much of Karlfeldt’s production, characterized in one poem as “längtan för längtans skull” (longing for longing’s sake). Some critics have detected Nietzschean overtones in several of the poems in Fridolins lustgård och Dalmålningar på rim, for example in “Höstens vår” (Autumn’s Spring), described as “den vär de svaga kalla höst” (that spring the weak call autumn). The influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, however, especially widespread at this time, can be detected in virtually any writer of the period at one point or another.
“Dalmålningar på rim” is a separate section of eight poems, and these pieces occupy a distinctive and popular place in Karlfeldt’s production as well. These poems purport to imitate a type of folk art prevalent in Karlfeldt’s home province of Dalarna, especially in the early to mid nineteenth century. Scenes from the Bible or Swedish history, as well as stylized floral patterns, decorated the rooms of houses as well as furniture and trunks. A key element of these paintings is that the biblical figures are depicted as though they were from the province of Dalarna, dressed in provincial costume. While Karlfeldt may have seen such paintings as a child, it is likely that he at least became more closely acquainted with such folk paintings during the years, starting in 1897, when he spent most of his summer and winter vacations in Dalarna. Dala painting was becoming more widely known and appreciated at the end of the nineteenth century. Interest was sparked by reproductions of these paintings published by Ernst Bössus in the 1870s and 1880s, and collectors, including the recently established Nordiska museet (Nordic Museum) in Stockholm, had begun acquiring and cataloguing them.
Karlfeldt is not describing actual paintings in these poems, and he makes clear in a short preface to this section that some of these “paintings” exist only in the poet’s own imagination. He does draw on some particularly popular motifs for the Dala painters, however, such as Elijah’s ascent into heaven in “Elie himmels-färd” (The Assumption of Elijah) and Jonah and the whale in “Jone havsfärd” (Jonah’s Sea Journey). “Jungfru Maria” (Virgin Mary) is one of Karlfeldt’s most popular poems. Not biblical in reference, the poem describes an ethereal peasant girl with “mandelblom-mans hy” (almond-flower skin), carrying a rose brought by “en ängel från en salig örtagård” (an angel from a blessed herb garden). This female figure can be seen as an example of a femme fragile, in sharp contrast to the many femmes fatale of the literature of the period. “Tuna ting” (The Assembly at Tuna), a Dala painting with an historical theme, depicts a gathering of peasants from Dalarna, preparing a letter of protest to King Gustav I Vasa; after they helped him drive out the Danish king and take power, he seems to have forgotten his former allies. Karlfeldt works a variety of registers in these poems, from the humorously ironic to the melancholy. The influence of the great eighteenth-century Swedish poet and troubadour Carl Michael Bellman, who also composed Bible parodies, is apparent in “Jone havsfard” in particular. Other poems of this type can be found in Karlfeldt’s later collections.
Karlfeldt was extremely well-versed in the Bible, and his preferred translation was the so-called Karl XII Bible of 1703, which built upon the earlier Gustav Vasa Bible of 1541. (The Lutheran church was the official, state church in Sweden from the 1520s until the year 2000, and the translation and publication of the Bible was authorized by the king in consultation with church officials.) This translation was the standard version in Sweden for many years and corresponds in importance and literary quality to the King James Bible in English. Several references to the Bible can be found in each of Karlfeldt’s books, whether as paraphrase, as allusion, or in the use of particular words that are peculiar to the old Bible translation. As he stated once in an interview, “De gamla uttryckssäten från denna bok ha för mig blivit naturliga” (The old expressions from this book have become natural to me).
The critic Olof Lagercrantz characterized Karlfeldt’s poetry in terms of its continuity in his 1938 study, Jungfrun och demonerna (The Virgin and the Demons). The title suggests an ongoing opposition in Karlfeldt’s work between purity and passion. Lagercrantz writes:
There is in Karlfeldt’s production a continuity of an almost unbelievable type. The same themes are repeated in poetry collection after poetry collection, are deepened and refined, but nevertheless remain the same. It is the mystery of repetition which often takes hold of us when we read his poems. Like his peasant ancestors, he lived along with the solemn rhythm of the year, marked by the great festivals and by the changes of the seasons.
Lagercrantz also remarks on the specificity of Karlfeldt’s poems, “localized and time-specific through allusions to harvest or planting, spring floods or fields of snow, ringing Dalecarlian names, trees, flowers and birds.”
Familiarity with the flowers and plants referred to in Karlfeldt’s poetry is often beneficial for a complete appreciation of the work. In his study of plants in Karlfeldt’s poetry, Thorsten Thunman lists more than 280 names of plants which are specifically mentioned, not including more generic references to parts of plants. As many as seventy trees and bushes are referred to as well. As might be expected, these references are generally quite specific with regard to characteristics such as the time of year a flower blooms, whether the plant is wild or cultivated, or whether it has medicinal or culinary properties.
In 1903 Karlfeldt took a position as librarian at Lantbruksakademien (the Agricultural Academy). It was at about this time that he became more closely acquainted with the painter Zorn, also from Dalarna. Zorn’s paintings parallel Karlfeldt’s poems in many ways; both, for example, shared an interest in female beauty and in the folkloric traditions of their native province. In a memorial speech given when a monument to Zorn (who died in 1920) was dedicated at the cemetery in the town of Mora, where the artist was buried, Karlfeldt wrote that for him, “the memory of Zorn is illuminated most fully and most beautifully when I see it in connection with his native province.” In contrast to Karlfeldt, Zorn acquired an international reputation in his lifetime; painting is not hindered by the need for translation into other languages.
Also in 1903 Karlfeldt was asked to become a member of the Swedish Academy, but he refused. (The Swedish Academy, whose eighteen members are appointed for life, was founded in 1786 by King Gustav III.) In 1904, however, there was another vacancy in the Academy, and this time Karlfeldt was elected without his prior knowledge. The selection was met with general acclaim in the press. Under the leadership of the extremely conservative Carl David af Wirsén, the Academy’s permanent secretary since 1884, the Academy had acquired a negative reputation and was perceived as hostile to any new developments in literature. Wirsén viewed the poets of the 1890s with particular suspicion, and Karlfeldt, considered by Wirsén to be the least offensive of the group, was the first writer of that generation to join the Academy.
Despite the continuity in Karlfeldt’s production, there is a distinct change between Karlfeldt’s first three collections and his next book, Flora och Pomona (1906, Flora and Pomona). While the earlier collections frequently dealt with youth and the fear of aging (or at least of leaving youth, “spring” in seasonal terms, behind), beginning with Flora och Pomona the poet, now middle-aged, adopts a more consistently autumnal tone. The last two lines of “Augustihymn” (August Hymn) are representative: “Den som bär höstens krona över pannan / drömmer och ler, men skrattar ej som förr” (The one who bears the crown of autumn on his brow / dreams and smiles, but laughs not like before).
Flora and Pomona were the Roman goddesses of flowers and fruit trees, respectively, and references to classical mythology are much more prominent than before in this volume and Karlfeldt’s next collection. The opening poem of Flora och Pomona, “Tillägnan” (Dedication), announces the contradictions within the poet: “Min mun är full av glädjerop och klagan” (My mouth is full of joyful cries and complaint). A sense of isolation, or of separation from contemporary events, might be read in the line “Jag är den siste riddaren av liljan” (I am the last knight of the lily). Despite the arrival of evening and autumn (suggestions of aging and approaching death), the poet still finds inspiration: “Ur dagens stungna hjärta droppar bloden, / hans bleka mun är varm ännu av sånger” (From the stung heart of day blood is dripping, / his pale mouth is still warm with songs).
A series of poems deals with particular flowers. “Nattyxne” (Night Violet or Butterfly Orchis), described as an “älskogsört” (herb of sexual love), associates this plant with female sexuality. Thunman points out in his study that to “strengthen the poem’s erotic mood,” Karlfeldt has also used several older names for this flower, such as “Satyrium” (the last word in the poem). “Hjärtstilla” (Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca) is a medicinal plant considered helpful for heart ailments. In this poem, the plant is seen as soothing after “rosor-nas rus” (the intoxication of roses) of a passionate summer, or youth. By comparision, “höstblommar, / tröstblommar, / armt är ert sånglösa sus” (autumn flowers, / consoling flowers, / poor are your tuneless sighs).
The subject matter of “Häxorna” (The Witches) stands in sharp contrast to “Jungfru Maria.” The poem may have been inspired by the witch trials of the 1600s in Sweden, as well as by a well-known case in France from the same period that is also the basis of books by the Swedish novelist and Nobel Prize winner Eyvind Johnson (Drömmar om rosor och eld, 1949; translated as Dreams of Roses and Fire, 1984) and Aldous Huxley (The Devils of London, 1952). The poem is in four parts. In the first part, certain signs on a woman’s body witness “att blickens duva / kan lyftas till korpens flykt” (that the glance of the dove / can be raised to the raven’s flight), indicating that the young woman is susceptible to temptation. In the second part, the young woman is warned to avoid certain places where demons lurk in wait for young virgins, and instead to “Bed vid din moders grav” (Pray at your mother’s grave). The third section describes a witches’ sabbath, while the fourth and final section describes how
bort i kvållarnas kväll
har skymningsfursten sin boning.
away in the evening of evenings
twilight’s prince has his abode.)
A tree grows there, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil from the Book of Genesis:
Kunskapens frukt av glädje och sorg,
som Eva blott flyktigt fick smaka,
flöder ur kvistarnas flätade korg.
(The fruit of knowledge of joy and sorrow,
which Eve could only taste in passing,
floods from the woven basket of its twigs.)
“Häxorna” is perhaps Karlfeldt’s darkest poem, exemplifying, as Jöran Mjöberg writes, “the antithesis which is the basis of Karlfeldt’s concept of woman” as well as his “old-church experience of dualism in the nature of woman.”
Upon Wirsén’s death in 1912, Karlfeldt became the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, a full-time occupation. That same year he completed his study of Lucidor. Karlfeldt had a long-standing interest in the Swedish poets of the seventeenth century, the so-called period of great power, when Swedish military successes gave the country unprecedented status in Europe. Karlfeldt probably began background study for this book while a student in Uppsala in the late 1890s. Lucidor was a François Villon-like figure who traveled widely in Europe, mastered several languages, made his living primarily by writing occasional poems (mainly for weddings and funerals), and was killed in a tavern brawl in 1674 at the age of thirty-six. One of his early wedding poems offended the bridegroom, probably unintentionally, and Lucidor spent time in prison as a result. Lucidor’s poems, which embraced both secular and religious themes, were not collected in book form until eighteen years after his death. Several of his hymns were included in the official hymn-book of 1695.
Karlfeldt was drawn to the seventeenth-century Swedish poets in general, and perhaps to Lucidor in particular because of his “outsider” status. (He uses the term löskerkarl to describe Lucidor, the term he also used in several of his own poems as a contrast to Fridolin.) Lucidor shared Karlfeldt’s knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, botany and the natural world. Karlfeldt’s description of Lucidor’s depictions of Swedish nature could easily be applied to his own poetry: “Här är ingen idyllens diktskog. Det är den svenska vildmarken med sina djur, svensk folktro, svensk folktron” (This is not the poetic forest of an idyll. This is the Swedish wilderness with its animals, Swedish folk belief, a Swedish folk tone). Karlfeldt’s characterization of Lucidor highlights his dual nature: “Han är rusets och ruelsens skald som ingen i hans svenska samtid och som få efter honom” (He is the poet of intoxication and remorse like no other in the Sweden of his time, and like few after him).
Despite the prominence of his position as a cultural figure, both as a poet of growing reputation and as a member, then secretary, of the Swedish Academy, Karlfeldt was extremely guarded about his private life. Even among his acquaintances, few knew, for example, that he was the father of two sons, Folke (born in 1903) and Sune (born in 1907), with Gerda Holmberg, whom he had first met in 1901 and who for a time had been his housekeeper.
In March 1913 Karlfeldt experienced a life-threatening illness. Because he was a public figure, news of his condition and eventual recovery was carried in the press. While ill, Karlfeldt confided to a friend that he had decided to marry Holmberg; this long-considered decision, however, was not carried out until 1916. By then they had another child together, Anna Blanzeflor, born in 1915. Their fourth child, Ulla, was born in 1917.
Karlfeldt was a poet who wrote when he was inspired. Thus, long periods of poetic silence might be followed by a burst of creative activity. Torsten Fogelqvist, Karlfeldt’s successor in the Swedish Academy and the author of a biography of the poet, has written that the years 1910 to 1915 were essentially “songless” for Karlfeldt. At the same time, Karlfeldt worked carefully on drafts of poems, often over a period of years, until he felt they were finished, as evidenced by his notebooks. Because he was occupied with other duties, especially involving the Swedish Academy, his next book, Flora och Bellona (1918, Flora and Bellona), did not appear until twelve years after Flora och Pomona.
Flora och Bellona is in some respects a continuation of themes from the previous book, and it is likely that many of the poems in this collection were written in the years immediately following the publication of Flora och Pomona. Bellona was the Roman goddess of war, described as either the wife or sister of Mars. The title poem suggests the range of this collection, from “vårlig dal” (spring valley) to “kala berg” (bare mountain), as well as the poet’s greater acceptance of the characteristic oppositions of life.
“Blommornas kärlek” (The Flowers’ Love) was written for the 1907 bicentennial celebration of the birth of the great eighteenth-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Carolus Linnaeus). Besides developing the system of classification of plants (still in use today), Linné attached special importance to the sexual nature of the plant world. Karlfeldt plays on two writings by Linné in this poem, in which Linné is depicted as “en from naturens präst” (a pious priest of nature), who finds that “guden var när” (the god was nearby) in “blommornas kärleksfest” (the flowers’ love-feast).
Winter themes are prevalent in this collection, in poems such as “Fjällstorm” (Mountain Storm) and “Mikael,” with a patriotic exhortation to youth in “Ny Nord” (New North). Unlike poets such as Heidenstam, Karlfeldt seldom used overtly patriotic or nationalistic tones in his poetry. Themes of passing are seen in poems such as “Klagosång över en landtman” (Lament for a Country Man).
One of Karlfeldt’s most personal poems is “Sjukdom” (Sickness). Simple in vocabulary and diction, and speaking in the first person rather than through a third-person mask, the poem describes what would now be called a near-death experience: “Jag seglar till ett fjärran land, / ett fjärran land” (I am sailing to a distant land, / a distant land). He feels an unspecified longing: “Det är en längtan på egen hand, / en längtan för längtans skull” (It is a longing on its own, / a longing for longing’s sake). Turning back from “en obeskrivlig port” (an indescribable gate), what he recalls of the “outsägligt ord” (inexpressible word) that he has experienced is “att rosten lät som en väns” (that the voice sounded like a friend’s). In part, this poem can be read as a reply to a well-known hymn by J. O. Wallin (number 451 in the 1819 hymnbook). Despite his frequent biblical allusions, this poem is perhaps the closest that Karlfeldt comes to a declaration of faith, and it is characteristically inward and reserved.
In humorous contrast, Karlfeldt pokes gentle fun at his own public persona, and the institution of the Swedish Academy, in “Till en sekreterare” (To a Secretary). His position as permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy involved many public functions with “Kungen själv från bur av guld” (the King himself from a cage of gold) as well as “en strålkrans av prinsar och princessor” (a halo of princes and princesses).
While Karlfeldt is never an overtly political poet and rarely refers to contemporary events, there are political undertones in a few of the poems in Flora och Bellona. “I Marsvind” (In the March Wind), for example, sets up a conversation among Fridolin and a group of friends. When the subject of Russia comes up, Fridolin has the last, brief (and perhaps ironic) word: “Hvad bry vi oss om tsaren? / Se staren, se staren!” (What care we about the czar? / See the starling, the starling!). This statement might be read as a quietistic rejection of public involvement on the part of the character Fridolin, or as simple irony, or perhaps as a call to pay attention to the real world of nature (“staren”) rather than the abstract world of politics.
“Till en jordförvärvare” (To a Land Acquirer) is directly critical of corporate interests who at the time were buying up farms, and their accompanying forest lands, in rural Sweden. The poem also touches on environmental concerns, including pollution.
World War I is clearly referenced in poems such as “Till Bellona” (To Bellona), which includes an unusually topical reference to “din tjänare Wilson” (your servant Wilson [the American president Wood-row Wilson]); “Svart jul” (Black Christmas), dated 1917 (Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas” had of course not yet been written); or “En pesthymn” (A Plague Hymn). “Det roda korset” (The Red Cross), again with a war theme, is one of a few examples of blank verse (rather than rhymed verse) found in this collection.
“I Fridolins spår” (In Fridolin’s Tracks) marks the end of Fridolin’s rural world: “O Fridolin, din borg är stängd, / och skum och stum också” (Oh Fridolin, your fortress is closed, / and murky and mute as well). The mood of this poem is in the spirit of the times, as World War I was a pivotal moment in European history; the poem also amplifies Karlfeldt’s continual awareness of the passing of traditional ways of life.
In 1916 the family moved to a house on the island of Lidingö, just outside Stockholm, where they lived for two years. However, because of Karlfeldt’s official duties and his son’s enrollment in a Stockholm gymnasium, the family moved back to Stockholm in the fall of 1918. The last poem in Flora och Bellona, “Oktober,” expresses Karlfeldt’s delight in renting a country house and “för första gången på många år” (for the first time in many years) experiencing “vinter, höst och vår” (winter, fall and spring).
After the death of Alfred Nobel in 1896, his will and testament assigned the role of selecting the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature to the Swedish Academy. This charge encountered some resistance within the Academy, but Wirsén, the permanent secretary at the time, saw the chance to administer a literary prize with such a sizable endowment as a unique opportunity. The Academy presented the first Nobel Prize in Literature in 1901. World War I presented problems, however, for the Swedish Academy in this role. Sweden of course remained neutral during that conflict, and the Academy took pains to avoid granting the prize to authors who might offend any of the warring countries. Because of difficulties in shipping and communications, it also became harder for the committee to acquire the materials needed to form a coherent picture of literature from other countries. These wartime conditions thus tended to favor Nordic authors, close neighbors whose work was already known to the Academy.
No prize was awarded in 1914, and the prize for 1915 (which went to the French writer Romain Rolland) was awarded a year late, together with the prize for 1916 (which went to the Swedish author and Academy member Heidenstam). Karlfeldt’s name came up at that time as a possible candidate for the award, the proposal being to share the prize with Heidenstam and Per Hallström, another member of the Academy. (Other suggestions involved a shared prize with authors from at least two Nordic countries.) A similar idea emerged in the deliberations for the 1919 award, this time for an award shared between Karlfeldt and Hallström. Karlfeldt, however, refused to be considered, arguing that it would be unseemly for the Academy to grant the prize to its own permanent secretary.
Karlfeldt fulfilled a long-held dream by purchasing an abandoned farm, “Sångs,” in the village of Sjugare in Dalarna in 1921. A friend, the painter and book illustrator Gustaf Ankarcrona, helped design the expanded house and adjoining buildings, and in 1922 the family was able to take up part-time residence there. Over the remaining years of his life, Karlfeldt applied his considerable botanical knowledge to designing and planting extensive gardens on the grounds.
A footnote in Karlfeldt’s production is his second monograph in literary biography, this time a study of the Lutheran minister, poet, novelist, and humorist Dahlgren. Subtitled En bild ur svensk romantik för hundra år sedan (A Picture from Swedish Romanticism One Hundred Years Ago), the book describes Dahlgren as “a forgotten poet, who does not deserve to be thrown onto the scrap heap.” Karlfeldt’s study, showing positive interest while pointing out Dahlgren’s shortcomings as a writer, was not sufficient to reawaken interest in Dahlgren, who is no longer included in anthologies or even mentioned in overviews of the Romantic period in Sweden.
Karlfeldt’s final collection, Hösthorn, brings together poems written after the publication of Flora och Bellona in 1918. The image of the “autumn horn” of the title poem is not a cornucopia but rather a cow’s horn, in traditional peasant culture used as a simple musical instrument. The poet uses the instrument to sound the praises of the autumn months, the “princes” of the year, and finds depth in its limited range: “Jag tvingar till andakt dess trotsiga ton” (I force to devotion its contrary tone). Hösthorn demonstrates Karlfeldt’s continued vitality as a poet, with further refinement of his considerable verbal instrument. On the other hand, the simplicity of a poem such as “Första minnet” (First Memory) suggests a receptivity to new, “modernist” currents in poetry.
Noteworthy in this collection are several poems of a more personal, lyrical nature than in Karlfeldt’s previous work. A common theme in these poems is, not surprisingly, death and aging. Several poems in this collection rank among Karlfeldt’s best work, including “Sub luna” (Latin for “Under the Moon”) and “Vinterorgel” (Winter Organ). Karl-Ivar Hildeman, who wrote extensively about Karlfeldt, often stressing a biographical approach to his poetry, reads “Sub luna” as a retrospective look by the author on both his life and work. “Vinterorgel,” which ends the collection, describes a majestic instrument that stands in sharp contrast to the simple peasant horn of the title poem.
The sense of smell was of enormous importance for Karlfeldt, as evidenced by many of his poems. In the opening poem of Hösthorn, for example, the poet refers to himself as a servant of “Maj, de ljuva dofters patron” (May, the patron of sweet scents). Karlfeldt’s 1930 essay “Lukt och doft” (Smell and Scent), published in the posthumous collection Tankar och tal med ett lyriskt bokslut (1932, Thoughts and Speeches with a Lyrical Conclusion), explores the wide variety of aromatic plants that inspired or, much less often, repulsed him.
Although Karlfeldt’s health had not been excellent since his serious illness in 1913, his death on 8 April 1931 came suddenly. Earlier that year, he had once again been suggested as a recipient for the Nobel Prize, and in contrast to 1919, he told his wife privately that this time, if it were offered, he would accept the award. He would soon have reached the manda tory retirement age and would be stepping down from his post as permanent secretary (though he would still be a member). Gerda Karlfeldt, however, had no advance knowledge of the Academy’s official intentions until the award was announced in October. It was the first, and only, time that the Swedish Academy granted a Nobel Prize in Literature to an author no longer living.
It is also one of the few times that the award has been made to a writer whose work cannot really be appreciated outside its original language. While the considerations of Academy members in this decision were not written down, Karlfeldt’s Nobel Prize might be interpreted as a belated recognition of his standing as a “national” poet. This reason, however, would seem to contradict the requirement of “universality” in granting the Nobel Prize. Karlfeldt was not well known outside of Sweden, mainly because of the lack of translations, and the prize was probably a contributing factor in the 1938 publication of the only book-length translation in English.
In formulating the reasons for awarding the prize to Karlfeldt, Swedish poet and Academy member Anders Österling acknowledged that “It is the deliberate self-limitation of lyrical poetry, and at the same time its fate, that its most profound qualities and values are indissolubly connected with the character and rhythm of its original language.” He added, “even the treasures of the so-called great literatures have only rarely been enriched by such jewels as Karlfeldt has created in a so-called minor language.” The process by which the Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature over the years, including Karlfeldt’s role during his tenure as permanent secretary, can be followed in Kjell Espmark’s 1986 study. Why Sinclair Lewis Got the Nobel Prize (1931) is Naboth Hedin’s translation of Karlfeldt’s presentation speech at the awarding of the 1930 Nobel Prize in Literature to American novelist Sinclair Lewis; it also includes Lewis’s Nobel lecture.
Karlfeldt’s widow outlived her husband by almost fifty years, carefully preserving their home in Dalarna, and his memory, until her death in 1981. The gardens are open to the public during the summer months.
At the time of his death, Karlfeldt’s reputation and popularity were at a high point. While at one time there had been discussion among Swedish critics of the so-called danger of Karlfeldt as a literary model, the fact was that literary norms were rapidly changing, most notably by the introduction of literary modernism, and many of Karlfeldt’s concerns were already seen as old-fashioned even at the time of his death. If Karlfeldt did have a successor, however, it would arguably be the popular songwriter and troubadour Evert Taube.
Erik Axel Karlfeldt’s standing as a poet was revived in the 1950s by a younger generation of poets, among them Lars Forssell, who especially admired his mastery of form and linguistic virtuosity. Although he is no longer a model for younger poets, many of his poems do remain inimitable (and, it might be added, untranslatable) classics of Swedish poetry.
Nils Afzelius and Arne Bergstrand, Erik Axel Karlfeldts bibliografi, 2 volumes (Stockholm: Kungliga biblioteket, 1974, 1989).
Torsten Fogelqvist, Erik Axel Karlfeldt: En minnesteckning (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1940).
Majt Banck, ed., Karlfeldt synpunkter och värderingar (Stockholm: LTs förlag, 1971);
Sven Delblanc, “Karlfeldt–sångare och kyrkvärd,” in Den svenska litteraturen: Den storsvenska generationen 1890–1920, edited by Lars Lönnroth and Delblanc (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1989), pp. 88–93;
Kjell Espmark, Det litterära Nobelpriset: Princi per och värderingar bakom besluten (Stockholm: Norstedts, 1986); translated as The Nobel Prize in Literature: A Study of the Criteria behind the Choices (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1991);
Ingegerd Fries, Karlfeldt och dalmålarna (Falun: Karlfeldt-samfundet, 1996);
Karl-Ivar Hildeman, En löskekarl: En Karlfeldtsbok (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1977);
Hildeman, “Erik Axel Karlfeldt: An Evaluation,” Scandinavian Studies, 40 (1968): 81–94;
Hildeman, Sub luna och andra Karlfeldtessäer (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1966);
Olof Lagercrantz, Jungfrun och demonerna (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1938);
Jöran Mjöberg, I Fridolins spår (Stockholm: Natur och Kultur, 1945);
Thorsten Thunman, I susande hymner går Flora: Växtmotiu i Karlfeldis diktnmg (Falun, Sweden: Karlfeldt-samfundet, 1979);
Carin von Sydow, Jag ville ha sagt dig det ömmaste ord: Kärleken mellan Gerda och Erik Axel Karlfeldt (Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand, 1999).
Collections of Erik Axel Karlfeldt’s papers are housed at the Royal Library in Stockholm and at the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.