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Bridges to Scandinavia

Andrea Meregalli
Camilla Storskog

Iceland and Old Norse Poetry in Two Unpublished Texts by Tomas Tranströmer

Maria Cristina Lombardi


This article analyses two unpublished texts (thank-you speeches) of Tomas Tranströmer’s, where the poet describes his experiences about travelling in Iceland and reading Old Norse literature. We show how the poet uses both the Icelandic landscape and Old Norse mythological beings in his poems by giving them new symbolic meanings and values. Specifically, eddic lays, in particular Vǫlundarkviða, seem to have provided him inspiration for both images and metrical structures.

Texte intégral

1Among the unpublished texts Tomas Tranströmer gave me in May 2013, when I went to visit him in Stockholm, I have found the variants of some chapters of his memories Minnena ser mig (Memories Look at Me), some prose poems and two tacktal, thank-you speeches, which he delivered when he received two literary prizes: one in Sweden (in 1988) and one in Iceland (in 1995). As on other occasions, it seems to me that Tranströmer wanted someone to re-collect his own loose papers and notes and give them a sense. Therefore I intend to translate, study and very respectfully recompose these memories. Some are manuscripts, some are tapescripts, or tapescripts with manuscript additions.

2I was pleasantly surprised when I realised that one of these two speeches, given in Reykjavík at the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Award in 1995, contained fragments of poems. In this speech the author provides his audience with some valuable information about his sources and his poetics, thus confirming the hypothesis I raised in the critical introduction to my Italian translation of Tranströmer’s haiku poems, Den stora gåtan (The Great Enigma). There I showed a possible influence on those texts by Old Norse poetry (Lombardi 2011, 8-9), an assumption which this speech supports by supplying some external criteria.

3First of all, however, I will consider another thank-you speech, the acceptance speech for the Pilot prize in 1988, where Tranströmer points out the Eddic poems, in particular Vǫlundarkviða (The Lay of Vǫlundr), as his models and sources:

De fornordiska verserna var nämligen en sorts poesi som jag kunde stå ut med och ibland ryckas med av. I första bandet av Grimbergs Svenska folkets underbara öden, fanns det gott om citat ur Eddan och ur medeltida krönikor. Mycket intressant: jag kände mig via de verserna ofta transporterad direkt in i det jag föreställde mig var stämningen under forntid och medeltid.

Ensam satt Volund
i Ullvadalarna,
slog guldet röda
kring glimmande sten.

Eller slutet på Volund kvädet: kung Nidud har gjort Volund till krympling. Denne hämnas genom att döda kungens söner och göra hans dotter med barn.
Till sist flyger han bort på hemmagjorda, hemmasmidda vingar:

Leende Volund
i luften sig höjde,
och kvar i sorg
sänkt satt Nidud.

  • 1   “Old Norse poetry was a kind of poetry I could be enraptured by. The first volume of Grimberg’s S (...)

Lakonismen var mycket tilltalande. Omedvetet hade jag tillägnat mig en sanning om poesin: stämningen tätnar när man säger för lite (Tranströmer’s unpublished manuscript, Tacktal 1).1

4Here the poet gives us four precious guidelines for understanding his poetry:

  1. his early fascination for the Scandinavian Middle Ages and their atmo- sphere;
  2. his interest in Old Norse poetry (in Swedish translation), by indicating the Swedish historical work Svenska folkets underbara öden by Carl Gustaf Grimberg ([1913] 1959) as his source.
  3. his preference for Vǫlundarkviða (Neckel and Kuhn [1914] 1983, 116-23), a poem about the mythical goldsmith Vǫlundr, who marries a valkyrie like his two brothers (though she flies away from him like the other two wives, longing for war, whereas he decides to wait). While his brothers go in search of their wives, he does not follow them, but instead waits for his own wife at home. But as Vǫlundr is left alone, the Swedish king Níðuðr cuts the tendons of his feet and forces him to work for him. Then Vǫlundr builds two wings and succeeds in flying away. Interestingly, Tranströmer does not choose one of the well-known Sigurðr Fáfnisbani lays. Instead, he quotes two stanzas from Grimberg’s Swedish translation of Vǫlundarkviða, one of the oldest and most tragic Eddic poems.
  4. He connects Vǫlundr’s lay to what he considers the main feature of poetry: “lakonismen”, concision:
    Leende Volund
    i luften sig höjde,
    och kvar i sorg
    sänkt satt Nidud.

    The triumph of the marvellous craftsman over the violent king is expressed in a few words.

5Here the value of craftsmanship is strongly emphasised. In the Nordic medieval world, poetry consisted both of óðr ‘inspiration’ (Óðinn being the ‘inspiring god’) and craftsmanship, as Snorri clearly shows in his Edda (with Bragi as the god of poetry; cf. Snorri Sturluson 1982, 25). But the peculiar aspect that Tranströmer seems to find in this stanza is a metaphorical allusion to a crucial opposition between art and political power as well as the capacity of poetry to fight for freedom and victory. Besides the interesting technical and formal qualities (density and compression of meaning as well as solemnity of rhythm), this stanza clearly shows the opposition between the artist’s smile and the tyrant’s sorrow and disappointment.


7Tranströmer has exposed political abuses against art and literature in some of his interviews and articles as well as in his literary texts, advocating the right to free expression for poets and artists in all countries. According to his poetic method of hiding thoughts and ideas in images and rapid flashes rather than openly stating them, his texts are full of allusions and images expressing the obscure and destructive results of censorship and dictatorship. I quote some examples from different poems.

8From Östersjöar (Baltics, 1974), the subject is the wind:

  • 2   “It’s about places where citizens are under control, / where their thoughts are made with emergen (...)

Det handlar om platser där medborgarna är under kontroll,
där tankarna byggs med reservutgångar,
där ett samtal bland vänner verkligen blir ett test på vad vänskap betyder.
Och när man är tillsammans med dem som man inte känner så väl. Kontroll.
En viss uppriktighet är på sin plats
bara man inte släpper med blicken det där som driver i samtalets utkant:
någonting mörkt, en mörk fläck.
Någonting som kan driva in
och förstöra allt. Släpp det inte med blicken!
(Tranströmer 2012, 216)2

9From Ur stigar (Outside Paths, 1973):

Till vänner bakom en gräns

[…] Nu är brevet hos censorn. Han tänder sin lampa.
I skenet flyger mina ord upp som apor på ett galler
ruskar till, och visar tänderna!

  • 3   “To Friends behind a Border / II. […] The letter is now at the censor’s. He lights his lamp. / In (...)

Läs mellan raderna. Vi ska träffas om 200 år
då mikrofonerna i hotellets väggar är glömda
och äntligen får sova, blir ortoceratiter.
(Tranströmer 2012, 195)3

10From Det vilda torget (The Wild Square, 1983):

  • 4   “Dream Seminar / […] Annihilation. As when suspicious men / in uniforms stop the tourist - / open (...)

[…] Utplåningen. Som när turisten hejdas
av misstänksamma män i uniform -
de öppnar kameran, rullar ut hans film
och låter solen döda bilderna:
så mörkläggs drömmarna av dagens ljus.
(Tranströmer 2012, 302)4

11Vǫlundr is therefore a symbol of victory on tyranny. Vǫlundr’s condition as a cripple is also noteworthy. He is an artist working in pain and under constraint like the god Vulcan, who, too, is a cripple, as if the abilities of an artifex, a manufacturer, were enhanced and reinforced by a compelling situation. In a way Tranströmer’s preference for Vǫlundr is strikingly premonitory, if we think of his serious illness, which constrained him to immobility and silence for 25 years.

  • 5   “Laconicism […] the atmosphere thickens when one says too little.”

12As mentioned above, it is interesting to note that Tomas Tranströmer quotes his direct source, Svenska folkets underbara öden, a miscellaneous text where he finds ancient lays and fragments of poems translated into Swedish, as well as parts of chronicles of medieval Scandinavia. Here the Eddic lays are regarded as a direct and consistent part of the Swedish cultural heritage. Tranströmer accepts and uses this cultural viewpoint together with the form in which these thematic aspects are conveyed. In it he also finds what he thinks is the dominant quality of poetry: concentration. Density and concision are its kernels, as he expresses it: “lakonismen […] stämningen tätnar när man säger för lite” (Tranströmer, Tacktal 1).5

13The second thank-you speech, given in Reykjavík in 1995, as a recipient of the Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Award, is a taped text (3 pages) with several hand- written additions. Here Tranströmer mentions two earlier trips to Iceland. On the second trip, which occurred in 1980, he spends only a few words to quote one of his most famous prose poems Isländsk orkan (Icelandic Hurricane, published in the collection Det vilda torget, 1983), written during that trip (Tranströmer 2012, 286).

  • 6   “Sven and I had prepared for the trip by reading Old Icelandic literature.”

14In contrast, the poet devotes most part of his thank-you speech to his first trip to Iceland in 1951, at the age of 20, when he left from Gothenburg with a friend, Sven. He says that he had prepared for the voyage by reading Old Norse and Old Icelandic literature: “Sven och jag hade förberett oss för resan genom att läsa gammal isländsk litteratur” (Tranströmer, Tacktal 2).6

15After leaving Gothenburg, a violent seastorm broke out, which lasted the whole voyage (four days). Tranströmer became sick and had to lie in his cabin the entire time. Then poetry came to his mind: he needed to escape from that precarious situation and did so by writing three poems.

16In the first one he describes a green landscape of forests and trees:

Jag låg i kojen och malde på en sapfisk strof. Jag föreställde mig att jag var i en stor och stilla skog en svensk sommarnatt. Ofta hade jag gått i skogen och längtat efter att vara ute på havet. Nu när jag var på havet längtade jag intensivt efter skogen. De sapfiska rytmerna rullade sakta fram:
Stilla vaktar skogsmyran, ser i intet
in. Och intet hörs utom dropp från dunkla
lövverk och det nattliga sorlet djupt i
sommarens canyon.

  • 7   “I was lying in my cabin modelling a sapphic stanza. I imagined being in a vast and silent forest (...)

Granen står som visaren på ett urverk,
taggig. Myran glöder i bergets skugga.
Fågel skrek! Och äntligen. Långsamt börjar
molnforan rulla.
(Tranströmer, Tacktal 2)7

17He describes himself while lying in the cabin and modelling a sapphic stanza. He actually reveals a peculiar feature of his creative method by stating that he composed the text imagining himself being in a vast and silent forest on a Swedish summer night. And he adds that, in this way, the sapphic rhythm came to him easily and slowly. Conversely, he says that once as he was walking in the woods, he felt a longing for the open sea and began composing poetry on the sea and other related subjects.

18The text presents formal and metrical features (the sapphic stanza) as well as rhetorical figures typical of Tranströmer’s first collection 17 dikter (17 Poems), where it appears with the title of Dygnkantring (Day-overturning). The verse is classic but allitteration dominates the first part. The dominant sibilant sounds convey a sense of stillness and contribute towards a whispering effect. Like in all Tranströmer’s early production, the word jag ‘I’ is carefully avoided, as the author has often stressed in interviews and speeches, as well as in the film recently shown at Nobelhuset, in May 2013, during the exhibition dedicated to his most precious editions and insect collections. The first personal pronoun will appear only later in his texts.

19Here he describes a cosmic landscape where natural cycles flow and alternate, free from human presence, in a kind of telescopic imagery, where the extremely large and the extremely small meet and live together in harmony. Seasons use trees as their chronological mechanisms. A dramatic distinction between the poet’s inner world and the world around him is made and the artist, like Vǫlundr rising in the sky over the kingdom of Níðuðr, rises above all social and human surroundings.

20The poem’s inner correspondences and dynamics of meaning are emphasised by the absence of superfluous words. Experience is rendered in a compressed form and is transformed into poetry. Compression comes at the cost of narrative qualities, the construction of clauses is simple, and yet, through metaphorical passages, clauses are laid over rather than after each other.

21An artistically productive paradox arises from the fact that the concreteness of details in the images expresses something elusive. We catch fragmentary glimpses of the life of the universe, which foreshadows den stora gåtan, the great mystery, his latest work.

22The second very short poem he writes during his voyage to Iceland is particularly striking because of its opposite mood and swift turn to the poet’s individual topology and chronology.

  • 8   “Finally the sea subsided. I went up on deck and saw the Icelandic coast. A seagull flying along (...)

23In the following passage of his thank-you speech, he goes on to describe the end of his stormy travel experience: “Till sist blev havet lugnt. Jag vacklade upp på däcket. Islands kust siktades. En mås gled förbi och sneglade på mig. Likt en av de forntida skalderna yxade jag hastigt till en strof för ögonblicket och frammumlade” (Tranströmer, Tacktal 2).8

24He then quotes a text, which has never been published:

  • 9   “Sick I sit / on the starboard side / I feel how the cold bites. / The sea-gull travels / smiling (...)

Sjuk jag sitter
på styrbordssidan,
känner hur kölden klöser.
Måsen far
längs med skeppets sidor.
(Tranströmer, Tacktal 2)9

  • 10   “As you can see, this innocuous stanza appears, mostly, as something murmured in ljóðaháttr, with (...)

25And he goes on to tell about his experience: “Som man ser, i stort sett frammumlat på versmåttet ljóðaháttr, med stavsrimmen något överdrivna. Denna harmlösa vers skrevs aldrig ner men har av någon anledning fastnat i minnet” (Tranströmer, Tacktal 2).10

26When finally the sea is calm, he goes up on deck and sees the Icelandic coast. A seagull flying along the side of the ship looks at him. Then he improvises the above quoted text: “Likt en av de forntida skalderna yxade jag hastigt till en strof för ögonblicket och frammumlade: Sjuk jag sitter...”. The verse is in ljóðaháttr metre with allitteration and internal rhymes. The beginning is partly reminiscent of the above-quoted Vǫlundr lay: “Ensam satt Volund / i Ullvadalarna” (Tranströmer, Tacktal 1). The poet tells the audience where the protagonist is, through the use of an adjective to qualify him.

27Tranströmer never wrote the stanza down, but he confesses that for some strange reason it stuck in his mind – unlike the third poem he composed, which he claims to have completely forgotten.

28Only when he sees the Icelandic coast, does he fully recover and realise where he is. Therefore he uses the present tense and, what is more interesting, the pronoun jag, always carefully avoided in the previous as well as in all contemporary texts. Iceland inspires him Old Norse rhythms – the eddic ljóðaháttr – but the mood is rather skaldic. Eddic lays are anonymous, while skaldic texts are strongly I-oriented. Skalds willingly speak about themselves, even when praising the Norwegian kings. Moreover, skaldic poetry was quite often made of situational verse, improvisation being a typical element of that genre. This verse by Tranströmer is improvised, too. The poetic subject that abruptly creates the text embedded in the thank-you speech seems to seize the author, who describes it like being possessed. As if landsvættir – the mythical Icelandic land spirits whom settlers had to please and venerate when they arrived in Iceland during the Viking age (Clunies Ross 2009, 15-16) – were the inspiration for this verse. Their way of welcoming him.

29The text has the structure of a lausavísa (lausavísur were loose stanzas usually spread in prose texts; they were improvised by poets on different occasions). Words are bound by internal rhymes and allitterations, which help to memorise the stanza. And Tranströmer stresses this aspect – alluding to the stability of skaldic stanzas committed to memory and passed down through the oral tradition – saying that he did not forget the text. After forty years he still remembers it for “some strange reason”, although, as already mentioned, he never wrote it down – and indeed he claims that he has also forgotten a third text composed during the same voyage.

30Like skaldic poets who consider themselves artisans – and unlike anonymous Eddic poets –, he is aware of the uniqueness of his craft. The text is closely connected to his personal experience, giving an account of his arrival in Iceland. The interrelation between Icelandic nature (climate and animals) and the protagonist is also underlined by the words “kölden klöser” (“the cold bites”) and “måsen […] mysande” (“the sea-gull […] smiling”), which outdo, in sound symmetry, Iceland’s laconic welcome message.

  • 11   “The sea is a wall / I hear the seagulls cry. / They wave at us.”

31In Tranströmer’s haiku, we can find echoes of these early verses and experiences, like the greeting seagulls: “Havet är en mur / jag hör måsarna skrika – / de vinkar åt oss” (Tranströmer 2012, 427).11

32Similarly, we have correspondences between elements in this thank-you speech and images in Tranströmer’s later production:

  • 12   “We had moved from Siglufjörður to Akureyri and from there to the Mývatn region. It was a great g (...)

Vi hade tagit oss från Siglufjördur till Akureyri och därifrån till Myvatn-området. Det blev den stora geologiska uppenbarelsen… nu var vi på en annan planet. Stenarna var färgsprakande som koraller. Marken kokade och stenarna levde. Man måste skriva om detta. Men nej… det var omöjligt. Alla utkast havererade (Tranströmer, Tacktal 2).12

  • 13   “Some stones shine like full moons.”
  • 14   “[…] white stones / signalled to the moon.”

33We find again the motif of the ‘shining stones’ in the poem November, belonging to the haiku-collection from 2006, where a verse reads: “Några stenar lyser som fullmånar” (Tranströmer 2012, 381).13 Or in Nattbokblad (Nightbook Page), in Sorgegondolen (The Sorrow Gondola), we find ‘living stones’: “[…] vita stenar / signalerade till månen” (Tranströmer 2012, 347).14

34To conclude, these two thank-you speeches give us the opportunity to point out correspondences and analogies between and within Tranströmer’s texts. Hidden patterns of meaning are shown here and we are led into the core of Tranströmer’s poetic universe, its symbols and its mysteries.


Clunies Ross, Margaret. 2009. Old Icelandic Literature and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grimberg, Carl Gustaf. [1913] 1959. Svenska folkets underbara öden. Stockholm: Norstedt.

Lombardi, Maria Cristina. 2011. “La luce al limite della parola.” In Tomas Tranströmer. Il grande mistero, ed. Maria Cristina Lombardi, 7-12. Milano: Crocetti.

Neckel, Gustav, and Hans Kuhn, eds. [1914] 1983. Edda: Die Lieder des Codex Regius nebst verwandten Denkmälern. Heidelberg: Winter.

Snorri Sturluson. 1982. Edda, Prologue and Gylfaginning, ed. Anthony Faulkes. Oxford: Clarendon.

Tranströmer, Tomas. 2011. New Collected Poems, trans. Robin Fulton. Tarset: Blood-axe Books.

—. 2012. Samlade dikter och prosa 1954-2004. Avesta: Bonnier.


1   “Old Norse poetry was a kind of poetry I could be enraptured by. The first volume of Grimberg’s Svenska folkets underbara öden [The Marvellous Destinies of the Swedes] contained several quotations from the Edda and from different medieval chronicles. Very interesting. I often felt as if I were carried directly to what I supposed were the ancient and medieval worlds. // ‘Volund sat alone / in Ulvadalen, / he beat the red gold / around shiny stones.’ // At the end of Volund’s poem, king Nidud has made him a cripple. But Volund takes revenge by killing the king’s sons and by making his daughter pregnant. Finally he flies away with two wings he built himself: // ‘Smiling Volund / rose through the air / and Nidud remained sitting / deeply in sorrow.’ // The laconicism was very appealing. Unconsciously I had captured the true essence of poetry: the atmosphere thickens when one says too little.” All translations are mine, if no other reference is given.

2   “It’s about places where citizens are under control, / where their thoughts are made with emergency exits, / where a conversation between friends really becomes a test of what friendship means. / And when you are with people you don’t know so well. Control. / A certain sincerity is in place / if only you don’t take your eyes off what’s drifting on the outskirts / of the conversation: something dark, a dark stain. / Something that can drift in / and destroy everything. Don’t take your eyes off it!” (Tranströmer 2011, 107).

3   “To Friends behind a Border / II. […] The letter is now at the censor’s. He lights his lamp. / In the glare my words fly like monkeys on a grille, / rattle it, stop, and bare their teeth. / III. Read between the lines. We’ll meet in 200 years / when the microphones in the hotel walls are forgotten / and can at last sleep, become trilobites” (Tranströmer 2011, 98).

4   “Dream Seminar / […] Annihilation. As when suspicious men / in uniforms stop the tourist - / open his camera, unwind the film / and let the daylight kill the pictures: / thus dreams are blackened by the light of day” (Tranströmer 2011, 142).

5   “Laconicism […] the atmosphere thickens when one says too little.”

6   “Sven and I had prepared for the trip by reading Old Icelandic literature.”

7   “I was lying in my cabin modelling a sapphic stanza. I imagined being in a vast and silent forest during a Swedish summer night. I had often been in a forest longing for the open sea. Now I was on the open sea and I deeply longed for a forest. The sapphic rhythms came to me slowly.” (My translation) // “The wood-ant watches silently, looks into / nothing. And nothing’s heard but drips from dim / leafage and the night’s murmuring deep in / summer’s canyon. // The spruce stands like the hand of a clock, / spiked. The ant glows in the hill’s shadow. / Bird cry! And at last. The cloud-packs slowly / begin to roll” (Tranströmer 2011, 28).

8   “Finally the sea subsided. I went up on deck and saw the Icelandic coast. A seagull flying along looked askance at me. Then like Old Norse skalds I improvised a stanza and muttered.”

9   “Sick I sit / on the starboard side / I feel how the cold bites. / The sea-gull travels / smiling / along the side of the ship.”

10   “As you can see, this innocuous stanza appears, mostly, as something murmured in ljóðaháttr, with somewhat exaggerated allitterations. In fact, I never wrote it down but for some reason it stuck in my memory.”

11   “The sea is a wall / I hear the seagulls cry. / They wave at us.”

12   “We had moved from Siglufjörður to Akureyri and from there to the Mývatn region. It was a great geologic revelation… now we were on another planet. Stones were shining with different colours like corals. The ground was boiling and the stones were alive. One should write about this. But no… it was impossible. All the notes perished.”

13   “Some stones shine like full moons.”

14   “[…] white stones / signalled to the moon.”


Università degli Studi di Napoli, L’Orientale – Is Associate Professor of Nordic Languages and Literature at the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’. She earned her MA from the University of Florence in 1983 (Dissertation: The Swedish Novel Doktor Glas by Hjalmar Söderberg and its European Context) and her PhD in Germanic Philology at the University of Florence in 2001 (Dissertation: Friðþjófsrímur, Rhetorical Figures in Medieval Icelandic Poetry). She was the recipient of a research fellowship from the Swedish Institute and studied critical methods (at PhD level) under Prof. Kjell Espmark at the University of Stockholm in 1984-85. She serves on the editorial board of the academic journal AION, Germanic section, published by the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’, in addition to being a member of the PhD programme in literary, linguistic and comparative studies at the same university. In 2006 she was awarded the Natur och Kultur prize by the Swedish Academy for her work as a literary translator. Her main research fields include: Scandinavian languages and literatures; Nordic philology; rhetorical figures in Icelandic medieval poetry; translation studies. She has translated many modern and medieval literary works from both Swedish and Icelandic into Italian. She has translated Tomas Tranströmer, the 2011 Swedish Nobel Prize winner, thus introducing him to Italian readers.


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