Sisters beneath the skin — the letters of Edith Södergran and Hagar Olsson
Almost one hundred years ago, a small Karelian village close to St Petersburg, near the Finno-Russian border, saw the birth of a fearless new form of modern poetry.
The Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran (1892–1923) began writing her burning lines inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideal of the new man and his philosophy of creativity. Södergrans’ poems were free of any traditional pattern and full of strong images. Her work, which ran to six collections of poems, later achieved classic status in the modernist traditon that she presaged.
In 1919, after the publication of her second collection of poems, Septemberlyran (‘The September lyre’), Södergran found a soul sister in the Helsinki writer and critic Hagar Olsson (1893–1978).
Living in poverty, Södergran died of tuberculosis at the tragically early age of 31. Olsson, who deeply mourned the loss of her friend, returned to their exchange of letters 22 years later, in her book Edith’s brev (‘Edith’s letters’, Schildts/Bonniers, 1955).
We publish some of their correspondence as well as some of Södergran’s poetry here. The extracts from the correspondence of Olsson and Södergran are from The Poet Who Created Herself. Selected Letters of Edith Södergran (translated and edited by Silvester Mazzarella; Norvik Press, 2001).
See also Damned nihilist, an article by the social scientist and philosopher Kalle Haatanen, in which he takes a look at Nietzsche, a philosopher more often than not misinterpreted.
Edith Södergran to Hagar Olsson:
Raivola, Jan 1919
….Nietzsche says: Ich ging zu allen, aber kam zu niemand. [‘I approached everyone, but reached no one.’] Will it happen to me now to find someone? Could we reach out our hands to one another? You are now the object of my offensive, I want you to see me as I really am and show yourself to me as you really are. Could we become divine companions, so that all barriers fall away? I am still speaking to you in a tentative and humiliating foreign language. Nietzsche is the only human being before whom I would not be afraid to open my mouth. Are you that sea of fire I want to dive into? If you laugh you are my own. If you don’t laugh you must even so be mature enough to achieve the highest form of friendship Nietzsche in his wisdom warns his own people against.
I enclose a new letter I’ve written to the paper. If you think it could be a great help to the cause please let them have it or write and tell me to send it to them.
Address: Raivola Edith Södergan
Hagar Olsson comments (1955):
I cannot describe the joy I felt when I received this letter. It was a joy which reached deep inside me to where I felt most lonely. I understood at once that I was being approached by a sister-spirit. In his Södergran monograph [Gunnar] Tideström [Edith Södergran, 1949] makes some rather far-fetched attempts to explain why Edith called me ‘sister’ and what this could have meant. To a woman nothing could be easier to understand. I felt we were ‘sisters’ as soon as I read Edith’s first letter. A ‘sister’ is someone who speaks the same language as you do, who understands things implied but not stated, and for whom you feel intimate affinity regardless of whether or not the two of you otherwise share views and feelings.
In those days I was a sociable person; life bustled around me as it does when you’re young, and I was full of activity. But I never opened my inner self to anyone. I felt other people spoke a different language, that even my friends were on a different wave-length. I longed for sister-language. I thought it must be possible for people to understand one another intimately and know they shared one heart and soul. Not just couples but many together, a group or large family. I constantly dreamed of this. It may have been because in childhood I’d never had the opportunity to experience close family intimacy but grew up under psychological pressure: this kind of thing generates a hunger that can hardly ever be satisfied. But I also felt people were too dull and sluggish in their thinking and reactions and in their relationships. It seemed to me my own psychological make-up and consciousness were unlike those around me, and that I lived on two separate planes: one plane where I was surrounded by friends and one where I was alone and unable to share my intimate life with anyone….
….when I read Edith’s first letter, I knew immediately that here was someone who was conscious not only superficially but also deep inside, someone I’d be able to approach on the plane where I’d always been completely alone. She wrote in this first letter of ‘the highest form of friendship’ and asked ‘could we become divine companions?’ This was music in my ears. I opened myself at once and wrote an answer from my heart.
Edith Södergran to Hagar Olsson:
Raivola, 26 Jan 1919
My delightful young thing! Can’t come. Insomnia, TB, empty cashbox. (I live by selling furniture and household utensils. Capital tied up in Ukrainian and Russian bonds, salvation depends on fall of Bolshevism). If I can manage to sleep a bit better I’ll try and come in a few months, but I can’t be sure. I’ve found what I need now: your objective eye, and your brain is big enough for both of us. May one ask? Do you work for the cause in a general sense or are you anxious to meet particular individuals? Give me a list….
I share Severyanin’s view that if a talent is a trifle dull it isn’t brilliant enough. Igor Severyanin is Russia’s greatest lyric poet of the present day. I’ve seen him at a poetry reading, never talked to him. But I’ve felt confidence in him the way I feel confidence in you. He’s a very powerful force and bound to be receptive to our ideas. But first we’ll have to train him properly, he has trashy manners and doesn’t know how to look after himself. He can be our bridge to Russia, through him we’ll get the best of Russia on the move. How about Sweden? Will it work there? We’ll reach the rest of Europe one fine day. Do you speak to individuals? Is that something you plan to do? You should read Severyanin’s best poems, it would refresh you even though he’s obsessed with the boudoir and so far hasn’t aspired to our heights.
….I suddenly felt with utter certainty that a stronger hand had grasped my painter’s brush. How old are you? Health? Nerves? I want you well and strong. Send me a short CV! Mrs or Miss? Level of education? As for me: residence: Raivola, educated at Petrischüle, TB at 16, sanatoria at Nummela and Davos, induced pneumothorax, waiting for someone to discover a cure for TB.
We’ll be ruthless with one another and sharp as diamonds.
It’s horrible for me to address you in this virtual journalese, I want to use only beautiful words, our real mutual language, but in any case who wants to waste hard-won strength on letters? We have a beautiful dilapidated old place like something in a fairy tale. Come in summer (for several days at least) if we haven’t already been forced to sell it by then. We could lie on the grass and sunbathe and talk and gossip. We have a great ancient ramshackle house, uninhabitable in winter but in summer it would make a fabulous meeting place for our people from Finland and Russia, we could have a heavenly party with drunken speeches. I once spent an evening with Hemmer and Grotenfelt and it’s one of my happiest memories. I long to have congenial company now and then. We could run riot here just as they do in Gösta Berlings saga [a classic Swedish novel by Selma Lagerlöf, 1891], just think what a blessed place this is – hard to get hold of a copy of H:bladet [Hufvudstadsbladet, a Helsinki daily paper] and our nextdoor neighbours have only just discovered that I can even write….
Oh, it’d be such fun to come to you, I’d rush up the stairs.
I have a sister and I’ve never heard her wonderful voice – I’m determined to see deep down inside you, you holiest person of all….
I shall write my love-letters to you, Hagar, when I’m in the mood. Now I’ve got someone of my own, for the rest of my life. Two years ago I wrote a poem. Each stanza began ‘I want a playmate’ (of course I was thinking of a male one) and it ended ‘I want a playmate who can break forth from dead granite and defy eternity’. Now I have my happy playmate, after waiting two years….
I’ve kissed your letter countless times. I do so desperately want to come. I’ve been sleeping better at night, it’ll give me the courage to become ‘reisefähig’.
Hagar Olsson comments (1955):
Edith asks whether I ‘work for the cause in general’. That’s exactly what I was doing, and I was often disconcerted when she demanded precise tasks from me as if we were taking part in a carefully planned and organised operation. Edith loved a concrete, hands-on approach. During the autumn I’d written a good deal in my articles about the ‘cause’ (she must have got the word from there) and living ‘for the sake of the cause’. This simply meant not being egocentric, having nothing to do with art for art’s sake, and keeping an elevated concept of humanity in view in all one’s activities. To live for the ‘cause’ was to fight for a higher consciousness, and to appeal in all circumstances to the free creative spirit which alone is capable of raising us to a level where true fellowship can become a reality. It was in this spirit that in one of my first articles I cited Nietzsche’s words, ‘Man is something that must be conquered’. Edith was on the same wavelength, which is why she talks about the ‘cause’ and ‘our ideas’ as though they were to be taken for granted.
Those who are young now may find it difficult to imagine the excitement we felt. Nowadays we are rushed round so fast on a merry-go-round of change that it’s difficult for us to grasp what’s happening to us. But in the First World War period, when these ideas first took root, it really was possible to understand what was going on if one had one’s ear to the ground. We took a deep breath and realised the world was being turned upside down and that the future lay before us like virgin earth so that all we needed to do was sow seed. And who better to do the sowing but young poets and artists who had repudiated the old contaminated values and who carried within themselves an inspired vision of a new humanity, something higher and more sensitively organised and conscious of its mission. That’s how we felt, Edith and I; each of us had reached this point independently by her own route which is why we were so happy when we found one another.
Out in Europe and Russia there were many who felt the same way, and it was Edith’s constant dream that one day we would make contact with our soulmates in the great world. She was to sacrifice much of her strength for this dream, only to see her hopes bitterly dashed. Of course this was not a question of ‘ideas’ developed by theoretical thinking so much as a spiritual impulse which was in the air at the time. It was something one was instinctively aware of, a longing or cry in one’s nerves and blood that was constantly in one’s thoughts as a tremendous opportunity. When one reads the view of learned literary historians that Edith’s ‘commonwealth of the future’ was ‘a metaphysical, even religious idea’ and other such grandiloquent stuff, one can’t help being reminded of Faust’s words to his assistant Wagner, that prototypical academic pedant: ‘You’ll never understand what you haven’t experienced’.
Edith writes that with Severyanin we’ll be able to get the ‘best of Russia’ on the move. By this she means quite simply the best spiritual forces in Russia and not at all, as Tideström claims, the old Russian ruling class. One can do a writer no greater injustice than load her words with opinions and judgments that can’t possibly have been relevant at the time her words were written. It was a time when no one knew what would eventually become of Russia or what form Russia’s relations with Finland would take in the future. Everything was still in a state of flux. In his monograph, Tideström is anxious at all costs to detect a hostile attitude to revolutionary Russia in Edith’s words….
She hadn’t committed herself either for or against anything definite. To her the whole course of events was a process of creation like childbirth; beyond this, like the keenly aware person she was, she thought it best to wait and see. When she writes as she does in this letter, ‘salvation depends on fall of Bolshevism’, she’s clearly not expressing a carefully thought-out political attitude. She’s just explaining why she and her mother are now destitute, and giving her opinion that if Bolshevism were to fall they might get their money back. She wasn’t one to let her personal economic problems influence her political views. I’ve never known anyone so completely indifferent to horrible circumstances in their own life as she was.
Edith Södergran to Hagar Olsson:
Raivola, 9 Feb 1919
Welcome to Raivola. I’ll be at the station and from there it’s 2 kilometres to our place. My mother’s very happy you’re coming. Cat Nonno and dog Martti will also be very pleased to see you, as will our Punikki Aino.
The night before your malheur-letter came I dreamed a magnificent black horse broke loose and rushed at me. The night before my S. letter to the paper I dreamed a herd of cows came after me with clanging bells and I also dreamed I was walking in the street in a red cap, and a pedantic person I know nodded to me from the church tower – which you will see.
Just got your travel-letter. In my letter I said nothing except that after 24 hours I’d come to see there could have been a misunderstanding so I retracted my harsh offended letter. But surely you’ve already had that letter, or has there been some muddle? Bring a piece of soap with you. Come but be careful, don’t jump off the train! Don’t hurt yourself.
Hagar Olsson comments (1955):
The whole family was waiting to welcome me, even the cat and dog, a sign that even these high authorities presumably approved of my coming. ‘Our Punikki Aino’ was a maid who slept in the kitchen. Punikki is derived from the Finnish word for red and has long been used as a traditional and honourable name for cows though during the civil war it gained political overtones as a term for the Reds. But in the present context it is of course teasingly affectionate.
Edith met me from the train with horse and sleigh as she had promised but I have no visual memory of our first meeting. I can no longer see her in my mind’s eye standing as she must have done in deep snow on the station platform at Raivola that cold February day thirty-six years ago, watching out for me with her characteristic half-cheerful and half-melancholy but always expectant smile. I was much too deeply affected by the dramatic aspects of the situation to take in any external details. I was also shy and perhaps a little afraid. The only thing I can be certain of is that from the first moment I was drawn into a field of energy that made quite different demands on my inner resources from anything I’d experienced before. And no one should be under any illusion that I’d found favour through writing nice things about Edith in a newspaper! She made it absolutely clear from the first that she was no sort of mystic medium but a realist of the most uncompromising nature, indeed a pagan. I felt pretty crushed and realised there would be no point in trying to get her to understand that it was necessary for tactical reasons to emphasise the elevated passages in her work in an attempt to neutralise the effect on the general public of the vulgar ridicule she‘d been subjected to.
I was able to stay only a few days; naturally I had to get back to my editorial work on the paper, and the long journey from Helsinki almost to the Russian border, involving a change of trains at Viipuri [Vyborg], took time. But it was a rare experience. The word ‘fairy tale’ springs to mind when I think of it: the little low-roofed wooden cottage where the Södergrans lived near the Orthodox church with its cheerful bells, the two delightful women in their old-fashioned clothes – one with the bold profile of a young hawk and the other with her rosy cheeks the image of a beaming little mother troll – their merry mutual banter, their eccentric manners and wonderful capacity to accept whatever life might bring them quite independently, it seemed, of the material side of existence over which they had no control; all this contributed to the impression that they were living in a fairy tale, far from the familiar realities of everyday life. This impression was reinforced by the spell that bound Edith to me. I can’t use any other word: it was simply a magic spell that held us in its power, creating an atmosphere in which one felt everything was possible and anything could happen.
The future burned in us, making us long for the tempting but terrible crown we expected it eventually to bring. As we sat at dusk in the little old-fashioned living-room with its view of snowbound garden and lake, chattering of this and that, reading poems to each other, daydreaming and looking through Edith’s many delightful albums full of pictures of cats, this was the predominant atmosphere and it filled everything with implicit significance.
‘Did we not live in a fairy tale, where all impossible things become possible….’ Today’s young people may perhaps find it difficult to understand the magic power the future held over us then. We were poor and unknown and lived in a distant corner of the world yet we felt like royalty. Our wealth was buried in hopes which hovered like the hands of angels over a shattered world pointing the way to a new human society. At that time the elite of Europe still had the self-confidence to dream a great dream, that it would become possible for every individual human being to share in one single spiritual community. Being young, we felt we had been given a tremendous opportunity on the threshold of a new world.
This mix of emotional intoxication, intellectual delight and secret excitement together with our impulsive girlish enthusiasm made of our being together a celebration as gentle and full of dreams as spring itself….
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About the writer
Soila Lehtonen is a journalist and theatre critic and the Editor-in-Chief of Books from Finland from 2007 to 2015. She edited a collection of writings about the city of Helsinki together with Hildi Hawkins, Helsinki: a literary companion (The Finnish Literature Society, 2000).
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