Boye, Karin (1900–1941)

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Boye, Karin (1900–1941)

Swedish writer who is often considered Sweden's greatest woman poet. Born in Göteborg on October 26, 1900; walked into the woods on April 23, 1941, and was found dead, apparently a suicide, a few days later; daughter of Carl Fredrik "Fritz" Boye (manager of an insurance business) and Signe (Liljestrand) Boye; attended a private junior school in Göteborg; married Leif Björk (divorced); no children.

Selected works:

Moln (Clouds, 1922); Gömda land (Hidden Lands, 1924); Härdarna (The Hearths, 1927); Astarte (1931); Merit vaknar (Merit Awakes, 1933); Kris (Crisis, 1934); För trädets skull (For the Tree's Sake, 1935); För lite (Too Little, 1936); Kallocain (1941); (published posthumously) De sju dōdssynderna (The Seven Deadly Sins, 1941).

Widely regarded as Sweden's greatest woman poet, Karin Boye lived a short life marked by the struggle to understand and be worthy of her own personal freedom. In her youth, the conflict between her religious callings and her growing awareness of her sexual preference for women foretold the passions and contradictions with which she would live and ultimately choose to die. With her suicide, at age 40, following the warm reception of her prose masterpiece Kallocain, a voice that had spoken to the universal defeats and triumphs of existence was silenced, yet the honesty of her poetry and prose secured for Boye a reputation from which to inform future generations about her most private, as well as life's most public, dilemmas.

She was born at the turn of the century, on October 26, 1900. Originally from Bohemia, Boye's paternal family had produced men who typically engaged in commercial and financial activity in South America and Europe. Her grandfather established a cotton and textile importing business in Göteborg, the place of Karin's birth, and took up Swedish citizenship in 1849. Karin's father Fritz was head of Göteborg's Svea Fire-Life Company; he married one of his employees, Signe Liljestrand , 18 years his junior, whose vitality is said to have complemented his retiring, somewhat dour disposition. Karin was the first of their several children.

Extremely well-read in European classical literature, Karin's mother Signe provided her initial education while Fritz Boye remained a distant, relatively insensitive figure in his children's upbringings. His speculative, imaginative mind, however, foreshadowed his daughter's inclinations, as did Signe's interest in spiritualism and oriental religions. At her private junior school in Göteborg, Karin—described as a "round, soft little girl"—made a lasting impression on her first teacher. Boye's biographer Margit Abenius writes that in these early years Karin outdistanced her schoolmates, often answering questions posed to her "with a little rhyme or other inventive and well-chosen words."

Fritz Boye suffered from an emotional instability that perhaps contributed to the distance he maintained from his children. In 1909, after his early retirement due to illness, the family moved to Stockholm, and he would later serve as an inspector in the Swedish Private Insurance Supervisory Service. During these years, Karin read Rudyard Kipling, Dumas, Maeterlinck, and H.G. Wells. The poetry of Rabindranath Tagore was evidently an enormous influence, as she sought to immerse herself in Indian mythology. Making serious attempts to learn Sanskrit, she identified strongly with Buddhism and acted the part of

guru as she and her friend Signe Myrbäck sat crosslegged together, practicing the art of breathing. When their ecclesiastical history teacher informed the class of Sweden's small minority of Buddhists, Karin maintained that she was one of them. She began a move from Buddhism toward Christianity in her last two years at school, recording her religious meditations in diaries.

Boye also wrote in her diary about her experiences at Christian summer camps where she is said by biographer David McDuff to have "approached the fairly routine group discussions with extraordinary intensity." Of the close attachments she formed to other girls and women at this time, one would be of great importance until the end of her life. Seven years older than Boye, Anita Nathorst was a theology and humanities student at Uppsala University who served as the group mother at the Christian summer camp Boye attended at Fogelstad. Wrote Karin to another friend: "I think I could dare to say all that I think and wonder to Anita and be certain that she would never misunderstand me. And one understands so well what she says. My goodness, it is not everyone of whom one can say that one understands what they mean." A student at Uppsala University by 1920, Boye also became a group mother. McDuff credits Nathorst with helping Boye work through her "revulsion at, and fear of, human suffering." In a letter to her friend Agnes Fellenius , the young Boye articulated her growing identification with Christ:

I fancied I saw the world in a new light—in the sign of the Cross, of representative suffering. God's cross extends through every time and every space. And what else is holy communion but an initiation to the Cross, the new union with God: one initiates oneself in order for His sake to take a part of His eternal suffering—upon oneself, to fight God's fight in the world: it involves great pain.

Boye's struggle over whether to study theology—as was the wish and advice of the rector at her training college—or psychology and teaching was a major crossroad in her life. Unlike the study of theology, which she saw as an act of true self-sacrifice, the pursuit of psychology and teaching was for Boye a powerful act of self-assertion. The decision sparked a crisis that was fueled by Boye's discovery of her sexual desires for women. She would have to deny her sexuality if she pursued a career in the Church, a denial which, she felt, would kill the artist in her. "You see, there has been a hard battle within me," she wrote Fellenius, "and I have stood hesitating between whether to give up my will or to worship my will. Forgive me if I hurt you by writing this. You will quite certainly say that I did the wrong thing—I have chosen the latter." The decision, however, did not immediately resolve Boye's internal conflict. In February of 1921, the 20-year-old found a means to express her turmoil, writing the poems that would comprise her first collection, Moln ("Clouds"), and perhaps finding in her art a means of both sacrificing and realizing the self.

She became a student of humanities at Uppsala University, studying Greek (she wanted to read Plato in the original), Nordic languages (she was influenced particularly by the songs of the Edda), and the history of literature (which she found to discourage independent thinking). Becoming known as "Teo" to her fellow female students, she was a subject of much interest and, in McDuff's words, elicited "distant adulation" from those who encountered her. McDuff continues: "She made a striking impression…. Though she could not be said to be beautiful in a conventional way, her face had an openness and a sensual prettiness that were given fascination by the sense of intellectual clarity and emotional depth that lay behind them." Nonetheless, Boye had reservations about her appearance which, according to Margit Abenius, "concerned not her face but her figure, which she would have liked to be more supple and masculine. 'It's a pity I'm so ugly,' she told her friend Agnes."

Boye spent a good deal of her time at Uppsala in extra-curricular activities, serving as secretary and later president of the students' union. She had a short love affair with poet Nils Svanberg and participated in activities of the students' "messes" (matlag) which served as societies. The society to which Boye and Anita Nathorst belonged was largely involved with discussions of psychoanalysis, and both women were by this time adherents of Freudianism. In her last year of school, Boye joined the peace organization Clarté, of which Ellen Key and Selma Lagerlöf were also members. Her decision to join this idealistic group, with its left-wing, anti-religious orientation, surprised many who knew Boye, including Nathorst. Increasingly looking to Nathorst for support, Boye was prone to episodes of weeping, and her deepening awareness of her sexual orientation is said to have influenced the darker, tragic note developed in her poetry.

Published in 1924, Gömda land ("Hidden Lands") was considered by both Boye and the critics a better work than Moln. Härdarna ("The Hearths") followed in 1927, with critic Hagar Olsson (who was a close friend of Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran ) writing in the newspaper Svenska pressen:

One has looked in vain for a sign of renewal within Swedish poetry. … [One has said to oneself:] Will there ever be a single lyre in the land of Sweden that is able to create life and tone in this oppressive, twilight-of-thegods silence? … Recently a small, unassuming collection of poetry appeared: The Hearths, by Karin Boye. … The cover shines with a brilliance that is different from and more enduring than that of fame: the brilliance of fire fighting its way through. One reads Karin Boye, and it is with love that one commits it to memory. One thinks: here is one of the first swallows.

Olsson's review was likely responsible for adding Karin Boye's name to the list of major contemporary Swedish poets.

Fritz Boye died of cancer in 1927. The following year, Karin graduated from Uppsala and moved to Stockholm where her involvement with the Clarté movement continued. The two main threads of the movement, whose goal was world peace, centered around social transformation and inner transformation via psychoanalysis. Participating in the administration and organization of the movement, which included some five or six hundred Scandinavian political activists and radical intellectuals, Boye also edited the movement's magazine.

Precisely in the freedom of the will does our unfreedom lie. Freedom is to act in full accordance with one's nature: thus, true freedom has no choice, only one way to go.

—Karin Boye

She began psychoanalysis with Alfred Tamm, an experience, said some who knew her, which changed Boye in myriad ways. McDuff maintains that without it she likely would not have arrived at marriage. Leif Björk was a left-wing radical with whom Boye shared a common interest in psychoanalysis; their marriage, which probably did not have a strong sexual component, did not last long. "The couple," writes McDuff, "were too estranged from everyday reality, too over-complicated, and their household economy too precarious for this essentially bourgeois 'social form of love'."

Following her divorce from Björk, Boye experienced a severe depression in January 1932 and became suicidal. That month, she moved to Berlin and began analysis with the Freudian Walter Schindler. He worked with Boye for two months, during which he considered her a perplexing patient whose situation was serious. Schindler apparently remarked to a colleague: "This will end badly. Within ten years she will have taken her own life."

She then began analysis with a woman, Grete Lampl . In Berlin, Boye and a German-Jewish woman named Margot Hanel , 12 years Boye's junior, began a sexual relationship, and Boye became an editor of the Swedish literary magazine Spektrum, an avant-garde publication which published the early works of Harry Martinson, Gunnar Ekelöf, Boye, and other Swedish modernists. Though she also worked as a literary translator, Boye made little money, a situation compounded by the expense of psychoanalysis. Despite her precarious financial state, she attended the theater and enjoyed the cafe life of Berlin, moving with a gay crowd. In these years of Nazism, she viewed clashes between extreme left-wing and right-wing sympathizers. Boye is said to have raised her arm in the Hitler salute during an election meeting in the Sport-palast, but it must be remembered that a refusal to do so could have cost her life. McDuff maintains that there is no evidence to suggest that she ever embraced the principles of Nazism.

In addition to her poetry, Boye wrote fiction as both a means to express herself and earn a living. Novels such as Crisis, Astarte, and Merit Awakes have been described as schematic and "less pure" than her poetry; however, by speaking to her day's controversial issues, some of this work was undoubtedly of strong significance to her readership. The documentary novel Crisis, which reveals Boye's discovery of her own sexual orientation and the religious crisis of her youth, was written while discussions were taking place in Sweden around 1933 about a liberalization of the laws regarding homosexuality. Considered one of her strongest prose works, Crisis contributed to the continuing debate.

In 1934, Boye was back in Sweden where she purchased a small, "functionalistically cold" flat in Stockholm. Desperate from the solitude, she invited Margot Hanel to move from Berlin to be with her. Initially, the arrangement provided Boye with an unprecedented reassurance and calm. Within months, however, the jealous, dependent Hanel was refusing to let Boye see her literary friends, and Boye was retaliating with personal cruelty. As Hanel developed chronic illnesses, her emotional and physical dependence on Boye became total. Boye's novel Too Little was written at this time, and in 1935 her fourth poetry volume För trädets skull ("For the Tree's Sake") was published to mixed reviews.

The following year, she began teaching at Viggbyholm boarding school. Located near Stockholm, the school had been founded by Per Sundberg, a Christian pacifist seeking to bring together children of differing ethnic backgrounds; the school educated many children who were refugees from Hitler's Germany, as well as many children of divorce and children with developmental difficulties. Boye began by instructing very young students but soon lost control of her charges. She was then relocated to the gymnasium, or grammar school, where she became a beloved teacher. In time, she moved to Viggbyholm, and her relationship with Margot Hanel evidently took on a somewhat different tone. Boye stopped referring to her disparagingly. "It was to Margot Hanel," writes McDuff, "that Karin wrote the epigram 'To You' in July 1937."

You my despair and my strength,
you took all the life I owned,
and because you demanded everything,
you gave back a thousandfold.

Nonetheless, the problems inherent in their relationship seemed to intensify, with Boye remarking of "events that have made my life into chaos." She wrote in German to the handwriting expert, Dr. Blum: "[Y]our words about resignation hurt me a little. For I am in just such a situation where an absolute self-sacrifice—of joy in my work, of friendship, of artistic creation, of peace, of harmony—is demanded of me, and I find it so hard to make such a sacrifice—at any rate, it cannot happen with joy. Do you really believe that resignation can be the meaning of my life? (A too personal question. … The an swer can never come from someone else.)"

On a travel scholarship from the Swedish Academy, Boye journeyed to Greece in the summer of 1938, visiting Vienna, Prague, and Istanbul en route. That autumn, she began teaching full time at Viggbyholm; the resulting strain and exhaustion were compounded by her sensitivity to the horror unraveling in Europe which saw the persecution of the Jews and the German invasion of Czechoslovakia. Her inability to write poetry crippled her spirit. Suffering from a painful nerve inflammation in one arm, she left Viggbyholm for a return to Stockholm.

Around this time, she began a more frequent correspondence with Anita Nathorst, her friend for almost 20 years. Still in love with her, Boye traveled to Alingsås, near her own childhood home of Göteborg, to attend to the ailing Anita who had contracted a form of skin cancer that was devouring her body from the outside in. Wrote Boye to a friend: "That not even the times and decline of the West should prevent one from collapsing like a house of cards and burning like a piece of tinder and that when one finally attains something that has lain in one for twenty years, the person concerned is dying of cancer. … We agreed that life is macabre in a way that no reforms can ever remove, macabre to its innermost kernel."

While in Alingsås, Boye corresponded with Hanel, to whom she expressed continued loyalty. The stay with Anita was accompanied by a feverish pitch of writing, resulting in a good deal of poetry and what is considered Boye's prose masterpiece, Kallocain. This novel, a fierce protest against totalitarianism, takes its title from a truth serum invented by Boye's character Leo Kall, a worker in a state chemical plant. In a World State of the future, reminiscent of the Nazis' Third Reich and Stalin's Soviet Union, Kall seeks to overthrow the nation. In a Europe draped with totalitarianism, enthusiastic reviews met the work's publication in 1940, with one critic calling it, "a thoroughly thought-through, thoroughly felt, one might even say thoroughly suffered work of art." Boye was among the writers and poets invited to the German-occupied Denmark for participation in a "Swedish week," during which she was introduced to the Danish royal family, and the Danish press wrote enthusiastically of her novel. Reinforcing her fame and international reputation, this experience helped insure that she would be remembered as one of Sweden's greatest poets.

Though Boye was still in Alingsås, Anita Nathorst relocated to Malmö in a move that McDuff says was perhaps not entirely motivated by medical necessity. Margot Hanel, despite the geographical separation, remained completely emotionally dependent on Boye. Doubting Nathorst, and experiencing profound ambivalence toward Hanel, Karin Boye could no longer stave off the despair that had accompanied so much of her life. Taking with her only a bottle of sleeping pills, the 40-year-old left the Alingsås house on April 23, 1941, and walked into the winter forest. Some days later, she was found dead of exposure by a passer-by. The two women whom she loved would not long survive her absence. Margot Hanel gassed herself a month after Karin's death, and in August Anita Nathorst succumbed to cancer.

Published posthumously in 1941, the collection of poetry De sju dōdssynderna (The Seven Deadly Sins) is often considered Boye's finest work. The following lines in the poem "Your Voice," translated by McDuff, were written to Anita Nathorst:

All say it: your time is short, I know.
I cannot imagine that you will ever go.
There is no world to live in, where you do not live.
My mind denies the miracle. But in my heart, belief.


Boye, Karin. Complete Poems. Translated by David McDuff. Great Britain: Bloodaxe Books, 1994.

suggested reading:

Abenius, Margit. Drabbad av renhet (Afflicted by Purity). Stockholm: Bonniers, 1950.