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By Eric Axel Karlfeldt
Translated with an introduction by Charles Wharton Stork
Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1938
145 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
April 2014

The translator has a dedication which reads: “To my friend, ROBERT FROST who is to America much what Karlfeldt is to Sweden.”

This seems very accurate as one reads the volume. Frost’s poems are specially related to the northeast of rural U.S. and Karlfeldt’s poems are particular to the rural area of his home in Sweden, but there are many similarities in the sentiments and even style of poetry.

In the introduction “A Swedish Arcadian” Charles Wharton Stork writes of the consistency of Karlfeldt’s poetry over his whole life:

“He always wrote in rhyme and in fairly regular meters; he always wrote of the landscape, the animals, the plants, the people of his native Delacarlia.”

He might only have added that he wrote often of the poet himself who is writing and thinking these thoughts.

It took a good deal of effort for me to let go of biases formed in the past forty years or so. I grew up reading poetry that was mainly rhyming, sing-songy iambic pentameter. Ta da, ta da, ta da. As I grew and began to read many new poets, especially the beats of the 1950s, the sing-song rhythms of the iambic disappeared as did the rhyming. I have come to develop a bit of a bias against that form of poetry. On the other hand, when these poems were written, it was still a dominant form of western poetry. A further disclaimer of my own bias is that there are many rhyming poems of Robert Frost which I do love and some other well-known poets. However, overall I’m drawn to non-rhyming poetry.

Along the way of this modestly pleasant reading I made the follow notes.

Stork does point out that he wrote by writing who he was:

“He did not merely look at nature, he shared actively in the life of the soil. He knew what it was to be a farmer, a miner, a hunter . . . And he had, besides, his peasant heritage. He mixed with the toilers as one of their own stock, he danced with them in the open air at their Midsummer Night revels. It was thus that he always remained in spirit a northern Arcadian.”

In the opening poem of the collection Karlfeldt spells out his mission as a poet:

I’ll tell now of summer and harvest time
With a merry turn in the play of the rhyme,
‘Tis the task of a poet to sing.
And should any poem of mine recall
The surge of the storm, the cataract’s fall,
Some thought with a manly ring,
A lark’s note, the glow of the health, somehow,
Or the sigh of the woodland vast –
You sang in silence through ages past
That song by your cart and your plough.

His beautiful poem “Imagined Happiness” is to an imagined would-be wife. It’s so lovely and utopian I rather doubt if he ever really met such a woman.

There is certainly an appeal to the romantic notion of “good farm life” and the “rightness” of it. Yet when I read his verse in “Preferences:”

Of the farm girl buxom and bold
. . .
These cheeks can take with never a twinge
The ugly buffets of life . . .

Hail to you, hands that in childhood learned
The joy of the fight for bread,
Hands that are deft with the clacking loom
And the rake, when hay is spread.”

I have to step back a bit. It is not Karlfeldt himself I would criticize, but the romantic idealization of courage in the face of the brutal hardships in this idealized subsistence level struggling. Rather than romanticize the struggle to survive, I lean much more to a rebellion against such modes of living and the acceptance of their right to be.

It seems even likely that in his time, especially in rural Sweden, that may have been a healthy attitude. But times have changed and yet many, even today, seem to idealize poverty in the midst of the world’s great wealth and ease. It makes me a bit uncomfortable.

“The Girl At The Inn” is a beautifully written poem of a young man’s love of, of course, the girl at the inn! Very nice.

“The Snake Song” is an hilarious poem with tongue-in-cheek comparisons of a beautiful young woman and a dangerous snake. The joke is clear.

I especially liked “The Silent Songs.” He tells of the joys of youth, often filled with plans and dreams of great things for the future. But, the poet, looking back realizes that perhaps those very joys of youth were themselves the very best of life.

We met, we parted, again we met
In those silent festival bowers,
We parted forever and knew not yet
That the best of life had been ours.
Those were the days of our youthful prime
When eager spirits rejoice
In the song that shall sound in some future time,
But that song never finds a voice.

I was quite touched by the short three stanza poem “A Vagrant.” When questioned by a local he reveals his complexity. He is a stranger with no home. He has no religion but loves and seeks God. His life is hard, an endless “battle-drive.” Yet:

“But still I am glad I’m alive.”

The second section, Dalecralian Frescoes in Rhyme, are all Biblically based poems and “The Voyage of Jonah” is as funny, and silly, a poem as I’ve ever read. A warrior group from the poet’s region is on a mission asea. A storm comes up and the ship is listing dangerously so they throw overboard their fattest soldier who happens to be Jonah, and, as they say, the rest is history. It is truly a very funny poem.

In the section of Narratives, story poems, we find the lovely poem of a wandering musician who looks like a total bum and comes begging a bed and meal. He is very grudgingly received, but when he once pulls out his fiddle and plays he wins not only food and the day, but the farmer’s daughter as well.

The same section carries a touching and sad story of the death of a lumberjack.

The poem “Sub Lune” is a dark poem, yet there is gentleness in it too. He looks at five areas of darkness that define his life: his bride, his brew, his songs, his life and grave. I found it to be touching, instructive and compelling.

“In The Elk Season” is a hunter’s tale well told and honorable. The hunter is stalking a large and venerable elk and having no luck. So he goes out at night, concealing himself with care and is offered the elk with only an easy shot. But he just can’t take it. “No fair” cries his heart and inner being and he listens. He doesn’t agree to spare the elk, but if he takes him another day he have to do it by fair play and the ancient traditions of hunting. Ah me, I liked that poem and went away rooting for the elk!

The very last poem is “Old-Fashioned Christmas – Written during the World War.”

The poem calls on all to “Yule as of old” despite the war, perhaps precisely because of it. He calls the people to feed the birds as ever, to continue the old traditions, to sing the old songs. But he calls on all to recognize the times as they are.

“With neighbors in Christmastide communion
As sure as never shell can fell to sunder
The concord sealed by Bethlehem’s night of wonder.
Yule as of old
Before our tired world grew hard and cold.”

Bob Corbett


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