Vilhelm Ekelund’s career as an essayist began only after he had already established himself as one of Sweden’s foremost poets of the early 20th century. Between 1900 and 1906 he published seven volumes of poetry which were highly original yet also full of resonances of Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, Stefan George, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, thereby becoming Sweden’s most important contributor to the international symbolist movement. In 1909 he published his first collection of meditations, Antik ideal (The classical ideal), not only launching his career as an essayist but at the same time completely taking his leave of poetry. During his lifetime he published some 20 volumes of prose, consisting overwhelmingly of essays and aphorisms, supplemented by several posthumous volumes.
Ekelund’s abandonment of poetry and cultivation of the essay was motivated on one level by a desire to maintain his mental health. His poetry, animated by shifting moods and subtle nuances, seemed to threaten the spiritual health of his overly sensitive soul. In pragmatic terms, he needed a mode of expression that at least seemed to him more objective and univocal. His desire to maintain his mental balance not only required a change in genre but also suggested the theme of mental and spiritual well-being that in some way or other informs everything else he wrote. In more specific terms, Ekelund’s essays explore how anxiety, melancholy, and solipsistic introversion can be avoided, and balance, stability, and peace maintained. Although he had great admiration for Friedrich Hölderlin, he saw in him the poet who, unable to withstand the demands of his own poetry, ended in madness; a poet like Walt Whitman, however, was of a more rugged nature and could endure.
On the whole, Ekelund’s essays are anti-Romantic and antilyrical. They both reflect and exemplify a commitment often articulated in almost moralistic terms to precision, clarity, and aesthetic rigor. Among ancient authors, they celebrate Heraclitus, Sophocles, and Pindar, while the moderation and deferential if not obsequious attitudes of Socrates are scorned. Fortitude and the search for harmony stand out as the most salient characteristics of antiquity in Ekelund’s mind, and are contrasted with the servile and accommodating in contemporary life. In their disparagement of the tepid, impassive, or halfhearted, the essays reveal their kinship with the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche, which is also reflected in their ecstatic exultation. Like Nietzsche, Ekelund despised erudition for its own sake, believing it to be stultifying and lifeless pedantry. “Bagage” is the derisive term Ekelund uses for useless knowledge that fails to engage life. Formally, Ekelund’s essays gradually discarded more and more of what was considered inessential
and became more narrowly focused. Essays in the usual sense became briefer and more concentrated and were eventually completely supplanted by aphorisms.
In addition to the heroic spirit he shared with Nietzsche, Ekelund also valued the search for balance and harmony as exemplified in more moderate and humane models like Goethe and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Although in general terms Nietzsche loomed larger in Ekelund’s earlier essays and Goethe predominated in the later, the two coexisted and exercised influence throughout his career. The essay “Doric Apollo” (1908) compares the two and, with striking insights, delineates the complementary relationship Ekelund saw linking them. Indeed, many of his most significant essays are a form of biographical literary criticism in which Ekelund seeks to unveil the hidden recesses of writers’ psyches and reveal what makes their spirits great and of enduring interest. To be counted among such essays are “Carlyle och Emerson” (1915), “James Russell Lowell” (1914), and “Leopardi—Nietzsche” (1918).
Ekelund was an aristocratic and exclusive spirit who could never appeal to a broad audience. After an absence from Sweden of several years, he returned hoping to lead a new generation of writers, but was frustrated and disappointed to find himself isolated and alienated to a degree from the public. Nonetheless, a small group of appreciative readers loyally supported him and saw his works into print (though in relatively small editions) even after his death.
Ekelund was a master of the Swedish prose style, using the language with great flexibility and inventiveness. His fluidity and eloquence reveal frequent traces of his mastery of Greek and Latin but without being labored or heavy-handed. Although capable of great clarity and lucidity, his prose became more cryptic and at times almost opaque as he found himself more and more marginalized. He used common words in personal and unusual ways that all but precluded comprehension except by those acquainted with his specialized vocabulary. He also derived crucial terms from Greek but assigned to each his own personal semantic meaning.
One of the many ironies central to Ekelund’s career as an essayist is that the enduring and most obvious influence of his essays is not so much on the genre as such but rather on the poetry of the Finland-Swedish Modernist poets, Elmer Diktonius, Olof Enckell, and Edith Södergran. Not even those who most admired his prose have tried to imitate it.
Thus his essays stand as magnificent achievements—though often dense and cryptic—but singular and relatively remote.
Otto Vilhelm Ekelund. Born 14 October 1880 in Stehag. Studied at the University of Lund, from 1898, degree, 1937. Left Sweden to avoid a prison sentence for a minor offence, 1908, living in Berlin for four years, then Denmark until 1921, when he returned to Sweden. Married. Awards: Bellman Prize, 1944; Tegnér Prize, 1947. Died in Saltsjöbaden, 3 September 1949.
Essays and Related Prose
Antik ideal, 1909
Böcker och vandrigar, 1910
Båge och lyra, 1912
Tyska utsikter, 1913
Nordiskt och klassiskt aforismer, 1914
Veri similia, 2 vols., 1915–16
Attiskt i fågelperspektiv, 1919
På hafsstranden, 1922
Sak och sken, 1922
Väst-östligt: Tankar till en minnesdag, 1925
Passioner emellan, 1927
Lyra och Hades, 1930
Spår och tecken, 1930
Valda sidor och essays, 1908–1930, 1933
Det andra ljuset, 1935; as The Second Light, translated by Lennart Bruce, 1986
Concordia animi, 1942
Atticism, humanism, 1943; enlarged edition, 1946
Plus salis-, 1945
Prosa, edited by K.A.Svensson, 2 vols., 1952
Nya vakten, 1953
Saltet och Helichrysus: Atticism, humanism Il, 1956
In silvis cum libro, 1957
Skoltal, ett urval aforismer, 1961
Campus et dies, 1963
Essayer och meditationer, 1901–1943, edited by Nils Gösta Valdén, 1978
Aforismer och sentenser, 1907–1949 (selections), 1980 Den ensammes stämningar: Artikler och dikter, 1898–1910 (includes poems), edited by Jonas Ellerström, 1984
Other writings: seven volumes of poetry, and journals. Also translated Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal.
Ekman, Rolf, Vilhelm Ekelunds Estetik, Lund: Gleerup, 1953
Johannesson, Eric O., “Vilhelm Ekelund: Modernism and the Aesthetics of the Aphorism,” Scandinavian Studies 56, no. 3 (Summer 1984): 213–34
Naert, Pierre, Stilen i Vilhelm Ekelunds essayer och aforismer, Lund: Gleerup, 1949
Sjoberg, Leif, and Niels Lyhne Jensen, “Early Scandinavian Symbolism,” in The Symbolist Movement in the Literature of European Languages, edited by Anna Balakian, Budapest: Akademiai Kiado, 1982: 575–85
Valdén, Nils Gösta, Inledning till Vilhelm Ekelund, Lund: Gleerup, 1965
Werin, Algot, Vilhelm Ekelund, Lund: Gleerup, 2 vols., 1960–61
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