“Warm words, fine words, deep words …
They are like the scent of a flower in the night
That one cannot see.
Behind them lurks empty space…
—Edith Södergran (1892-1923), from “Words” (1916)
Frequently used metaphors are figurative versions of stereotypes, prejudices fossilized into exterior objects, cultural biases applied to the natural, neutral world. Through metaphor, Romantic poets reveal the place of women in 19th century Europe: for Lord Byron, a woman’s voice is like “The charmed ocean’s pausing” (Stanzas for Music), and for Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the innocent lover is a “white-flowered Jasmin” (The Eolian Harp). Finnish-Swedish poet Edith Södergran challenges these metaphorical tropes in her poetry, and simultaneously challenges the limitations and stereotypes surrounding women at the turn of the 20th century.
Growing up in St. Petersburg at the cusp of revolution, Södergran describes her passion for societal reformation in her artistic manifesto “Individual Art” (1918): “I regard the old society as the mother cell, which must be sustained until the individuals it produces can raise the new world,” she writes. But her enthusiasm was limited to the written word, as at the age of 16, Södergran was diagnosed with tuberculosis, shortly after her father died from the disease. Confined thereafter to Swiss sanatoriums and the Finnish countryside, Södergran’s connection to the wider Finnish-Swedish modernist movement was largely epistolic. But in 1911, when Södergran’s illness temporarily waned, she journeyed to Helsinki to meet with members of a modernist literary society mostly composed of other Finnish-Swedish writers. These writers have supplied most of the information (mostly anecdotal) regarding her personal characteristics and artistic intentions. Poet Jarl Hemmer recounts his first meeting with Södergran, age 19: “I have never seen a being that was so identical with its poems…Her manner of speech was not like ours: between fits of coughing, paradoxes and ineptitudes…just when one felt she was approaching something like common sense, she would laugh and then proceed to turn the whole conversation on its head.”
The physical confinement of illness Hemmer describes typifies Södergran’s writing: its frustrations, desires, and psychological manifestations. Often, Södergran’s repressed physicality (from her poem “Life”: “I, my own prisoner, say so: life is not the springtime clad in light green velvet…Life is the narrow ring that holds us captive, the invisible circle we never cross” ) directly relates to a feminist cause, where limitations of illness are nearly indistinguishable from the limitations of being a woman in Europe at the turn of the century. For Södergran, liberation from the body and the sanatorium is also liberation from the patriarchy. In “My Soul,” from her earliest collection, Poems, published in 1916, Södergran writes: “When the knight came the maiden was red and white, / but I have dark rings below my eyes”, evoking both the ‘dark rings’ of illness and subverting the saved-maiden trope.
In “Foreign Countries,” the narrator’s soul is personified, and its components straddle the globe, disjointed but empowered: “in far off realms great boulders stand / on top of which my thoughts rest.” Södergran’s alienation is momentous, all-encompassing: she defies the typical diminished, weakened image of the terminally-ill woman. In “Autumn’s Last Flower,” the flower is the narrator and ridicules its supposed role as delicate decoration: “I was stationed as guard against the northern wind, / red flames bloomed / on my white cheek.” In other poems, the natural world becomes a surrogate for the empowered woman: she is literally the sea, the water, the fire.
As noted by her friend—and possible lover—Hagar Olsson in a book of Södergran’s letters, The Poet Who Created Herself: Södergran was obsessed with Nietzsche. Södergran’s letters to Olsson reveal both intellectual idolatry and a fandom similar to those surrounding celebrities today. In one letter, Södergran writes of dreaming and crying out for the Übermensch (briefly: Nietzsche’s concept of a being liberated from Christian morality). Importantly, Nietzsche’s Übermensch explicitly excludes women—a fact that influences Södergran’s particular brand of feminism. In some interpretations of her poetry and writings, Södergran’s image of a liberated woman is essentially the Übermensch, only genderless.
In order to fully understand Södergran’s vision for the future of women, recognizing the depth of her passion for Nietzsche is essential. In Benjamin Mier-Cruz’s dissertation Edith Södergran’s Modern Virgin: Overcoming Nietzsche and the Gendered Narrator, Cruz identifies how “both Nietzsche and Södergran are able to rhetorically construct new figurations of bodies—bodies that are independent of their historical and cultural meaning.” While Nietzsche aimed to dismantle conventional Christian morality and other 19th century institutions, Södergran’s narrators go beyond these goals and transgress the bounds of gender entirely. In perhaps Södergran’s most prescient line, she writes: “I am not a woman. I am neuter.” Södergran explains her desire to transgress the blatant misogyny that ran rampant in the written works of Nietzsche and the Romantic poets. In a letter from 1919, she writes, playfully: “Don’t laugh at me, I’ve freed myself from prejudices.”
A century later, a central theme of Södergran’s work runs through Lorde’s latest song, “Liability”: emotional depth and baggage (usually personified through bodies of water) resulting in a woman’s isolation. The song is about the requirement that, in order to have intimate relationships and respect, a woman needs to be complacent and calm rather than someone who can “get you wild, make you leave.”
They say, ‘You’re a little much for me
You’re a liability
You’re a little much for me’
So they pull back, make other plans
I understand, I’m a liability
Lorde’s refrain relates to a number of Södergran’s poems; in “The Day Grows Cool,” the narrator speaks to her former lover: “You searched for a flower / and found a fruit...You searched for a woman / and found a soul— / you’re disappointed”; in Södergran’s “I,” the narrator asks, “was I fruit, too heavy for its branch?”
Throughout the 19th and early 20th century, women who deviated from the emotional and social norm were seen as physical liabilities; confined to mental asylums for ‘conditions’ such as postpartum depression and anxiety. Sylvia Plath’s 1963 novel The Bell Jar describes some of the most gruesome ‘cures’ such as electrocution, lobotomies, and insulin injections.
Södergran herself was known for transgressing social norms throughout her childhood: preoccupied with photographing cats, hiding on roofs (beyond the age when that was considered acceptable), neglecting her appearance, and refusing to bathe. Town members near Södergran’s first sanatorium in Southern Finland, led David McDuff, a translator of her work, to propose that “there is reason to believe that her illness [tuberculosis] was then less physical than psychological.” Incredibly skeptical of biographers and literary critics, Södergran destroyed the majority of her notes and letters before her death in 1923.
By attempting to prevent biographical speculation, Södergran hoped her poetry itself—its rejection of lyrical constraints and social boundaries—would influence generations to come. In one of her most celebrated poems “On Foot I Wandered Through Solar Systems,” Södergran describes the astronomical distance she hopes her poems will travel: “Somewhere in space my heart hangs, / emitting sparks, shaking air, / to other immeasurable hearts.”
While Södergran’s feminism is chiefly conveyed through poetry, other female poets of the 20th century waged both literary and literal interventions. Born six years after Södergran’s death, poet and activist Adrienne Rich took up the potential for political opportunities only nascent in Södergran’s poetry. A leader of the anti-Vietnam War effort, Rich believed in poetry’s transformative power and potential for political impact. In 1997, she rejected a National Medal of Arts and explained her decision in a letter to the committee’s chair that her art “means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage,” referencing the economic and racial injustice propagated by the Clinton administration.
Using androgynous narration and the subversion of stereotypical metaphors, Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” inspects underwater wreckage to figuratively interrogate water’s traditional association with womanhood:
I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he
Like Rich to follow, Södergran’s narrators have strong imperative force. In “The Stars,” she warns her reader: “Don’t walk barefoot in the grass.”
One of Rich’s last published poems, “Powers of Recuperation,” concerns the figurative creation of an alternate, equitable reality, where in the final stanza a woman ponders this “unbuilt city.” When asked in a 2011 interview with the Paris Review about the poem, Rich stated: “My hope is that these metaphorical creations don’t stay metaphorical for too long.”
TATIANA DUBIN B’18 lurks in empty spaces.