A sense of order

Issue 2/1987 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

Solveig von Schoultz

Solveig von Schoultz. Photo: Charlotta Boucht

That Solveig von Schoultz occupies the position of ‘grand old lady’ of Finland­-Swedish poetry is beyond question; yet it is an epithet that fits her badly. It all too easily suggests the image of a stern and queenly poetess, an Edith Sitwell, Marianne Moore or Gabriela Mistral. The poetesses of Scandinavia are, by and large, less solemn – more gentle and down-to-earth, even when they grow older and wiser and ascend some of Parnassus’s more elevated thrones.

Solveig von Schoultz has, of course, had a long journey to the top. She has behind her twelve collections of poetry, at least fifteen volumes of prose, and an even greater number of plays for radio, television and theatre, spanning a good fifty years’ acitivity as a writer.

In this long artistic career there is both continuity and development. It might be said that the continuity is represented by the fact that from the very beginning she has preferred to describe women – their daily lives, their loves, thoughts, impulses, relationships. But since so much in the world of women and in women’s thinking has changed during the decades since her literary debut in the 1930s, both her themes and her outlook have necessarily altered, too. Among other things, she has had many of her early, then only half-developed ideas taken up by a later generation, and has thereby had them given back to her renewed. As a feminist she has always been one of the least militant, and for a short time some of her younger co-sisters were uncertain about the strength of her commitment to the Cause.

It is the psychological perspectives and problems of women which have for the most part preoccupied her, rather than the sociological ones. How it feels and what it is like, not in society’s terms, but in terms of mind and soul to be an unmarried woman, a wife, a mother in youth as well as in old age. She has written about all the ages of man and woman, and has experienced them from within.

What Solveig von Schoultz very frequently depicts is a life-situation. In order to analyse it – or perhaps rather in order to make a synthesis from it – she employs her emotional experience and her intuition. Her great talent for empathy can on occasion extend to objects that others consider dead. This also means that her point of departure and method of coming to grips with a literary task are nearly always those of a lyrical poet. This is also true, by and large, when she is writing a short story. She herself says that her true native language is poetry. As a poet she is, however, seldom a painter of moods, and she does not usually seek the fleeting moment which cannot really be captured. She writes analytically in the sense that she seeks the ker­nel or the quintessence of an experience, a situation, a state of mind.

Solveig von Schoultz is an orderly and conscientious person. Any irregularity must be set right; the wrong words in the wrong place disturb her peace of mind but also confront her with the agony of choice and discernment. She has sometimes said that the constituent parts of a poetry collection in progress can cover half of a floor, waiting alongside one ano­ther until they find their proper place. Those who have been her literary editors have often had to make up their minds between alternative words and phrases written on narrow strips of paper and fastened in layers on top of one another with pins on their place in the manuscript.

Le mot juste has not always been Solveig von Schoultz’s foremost aim. In her earlier writing, both poetry and prose, she was more inclined towards the method of hemming in a state of mind or a situation by means of associative descriptions. She has a marked tendency towards thinking in symbols, a language that is natural to her. Thus the poems she wrote at the beginning of her career were often more gentle and lacking in contours than she would permit today.

It is possible that a certain modesty and reserve lay behind this earlier, slightly vague diction, with its gentle, sometimes all-forgiving declarations. She was at that time neither old enough nor courageous enough to express her feelings in a more clearly defined and open­hearted manner. This may be attributed to her background and upbringing. She has described her childhood home with the words ‘my home, my castle, where modesty was the cardinal virtue, whether one possessed it or not, and where aggression was either forbidden or concealed.’ She was taught not to have too high an opinion of herself, and it took her an unnecessarily long time to become conscious of her true dimensions as an artist.

During her adolescence, however, she also learned something else, which was to stand her in good stead later on: to set herself a little to one side, to observe, to withdraw in order to avoid being forced into anything against her will, or being too strongly influenced, and thus dominated – to preserve her integrity, in fact. And perhaps the impressions of her childhood helped her, later in life, to look at children with understanding. Solveig von Schoultz is a professional teacher who has worked mostly with very young schoolchildren. Frequent encounters with the openness and imaginative power of children are an important emotional contact for a lyrical poet and psychologist. Nor is it any accident that one of the finest books about the mother-child relationship and about child-rearing in Finland has been written by Solveig von Schoultz, concerning the childhood years of her own daughters.

Translated by David McDuff

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