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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

Foreword Göran Printz-Påhlson, a Life in and beyond Letters1

Elinor Shaffer

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  • 1 The above is a slightly expanded version of my obituary of Göran Printz-Påhlson published in The Gu (...)

1The Swedish-born intellectual Göran Printz-Påhlson was known internationally for his modernist criticism and poetry, and his translations of major American, Irish, and English poets into Swedish, as well as of Swedish poets into English. He taught at Harvard, Berkeley and, from 1964 to 1989, in the Scandinavian department of the medieval and modern languages faculty at Cambridge University.

2Printz-Påhlson was born into modest circumstances in the town of Hässleholm in southern Sweden. As a student at Lund University he became part of a circle of young writers now known as the Lund group, actively concerned with modernism in poetry and art. He distinguished himself early by his critical work Solen i spegeln (The Sun in the Mirror, 1958), which was immediately acclaimed in Sweden and has established itself as a major work on modern poetics.

3Printz-Påhlson began to publish his own poetry—his first collection appeared in 1956—and worked on a doctorate in Nordic languages at Lund, before moving to Harvard University, where he taught from 1960 to 1962. His time there, with his young family and as part of a lively community, began a long and fruitful engagement with America and American writing, music, and mores. In 1963, he moved to the University of California at Berkeley, again teaching his own language, but discovering another American language and world, and exploring the poetry of the west coast in the heyday of the San Francisco movement. At Berkeley he met Thom Gunn, a British poet born in Kent and educated at Cambridge, who like several poets taught at the University, with the backing of Tom Parkinson, an enthusiast for contemporary poetry; Gunn’s experimental lifestyle depicted in his poetry of the San Francisco ‘scene’ was to bring him attention (some shocked at his departure from the ‘movement’ he had belonged to in Britain) and, later, renown. Poetry readings were a constant feature of the period, set off by Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which had been published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran the City Lights book shop where the Beat poets stayed when they passed through. Ferlinghetti had survived the court case against him for publishing Howl, and was vindicated by the verdict: the poem’s literary merits outweighed its ‘obscenity.’ At all the ‘readings’ the oral, performative element was powerful, and poems were often accompanied by some kind of musical or rhythmic beat. This encounter with America and with a vibrant new poetry scene coloured and animated Printz-Påhlson’s lifelong activity of translation of American poets into Swedish, and of Swedish poets into English.

4The following year Printz-Påhlson moved to Cambridge, where he taught in the Scandinavian department headed by Elias Bredsdorff, the noted Danish critic, historian, and former resistance fighter. He was elected a fellow of Clare Hall, a newly founded, mixed graduate college, which under its first President, the distinguished physicist Brian Pippard, was an innovative, democratic institution dispensing with high table and chapel. The college absorbed several lecturers in languages with relatively small student numbers, including Norwegian and Russian; it also boasted the only Lecturer in Finno-Ugrian languages in the country. It was then that I met him, as I was a Research Fellow of the College—though we agreed we could just as well have met at Berkeley, where I had held my first teaching post.

5While Cambridge was apparently a far cry from Berkeley, there was also a poetry scene in and around Cambridge. Indeed, Donald Davie (who was still at Gonville and Caius College at the time Printz-Påhlson arrived in Cambridge) was promoting American poets there, and the young Jeremy Prynne was beginning his long and intricate correspondence with them. Other poets lived in and around Cambridge, some teaching part-time at the then polytechnic, now known as Anglia Ruskin University. A poetry festival grew up alongside this second University, organized by poet and translator Richard Burns (now Richard Berengarten), in which Göran was happy to take part. Writers, colleagues, and students who went to learn from him usually stayed to call him friend; his home in the village of Stapleford, and afterwards in a converted pub in Norfolk Street in Cambridge, was a centre of conviviality. The sounds of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman often rang out in his vicinity.

6Printz-Påhlson always continued to write his own poetry, if somewhat sparsely; he could link his imaginative places with a light yet learned hand, as in ‘Sir Charles Babbage Returns to Trinity College After Having Commissioned the Swedish Mechanic Scheutz to Build a Difference Engine,’ and his poems and letters to and from his friends and co-translators form a sub-genre of conversation poem. Moreover, his translations of other poets changed the poetry scene in Sweden, in particular his translations of the great and challengingly idiomatic American poet John Ashbery, whom he had started translating as early as in 1961, and who along with the Black Mountain poets, was also being discovered in Britain by Donald Davie. He also translated the major American poet Robert Lowell into Swedish, a labour of love that took many years to complete. These are permanent acquisitions for Swedish poetry, and for world poetry.

7Printz-Påhlson also came to know the local poetry scene in Cambridge, which flourishes somewhat apart from the university. In 1975 he helped the local poet Richard Burns to bring several Swedish poets—Lars Forssell, Lars Gustafsson, Gunnar Harding, and Tomas Tranströmer—to the first Cambridge poetry festival. Later there was a Swedish counterpart: at the Malmö poetry festival in 1989, Printz-Påhlson, Seamus Heaney, John Matthias, and Lars-Håkan Svensson appeared on a panel about ‘poetry of place.’

8Printz-Påhlson also developed a keen interest in the Irish poets who were so strong a voice in the poetry of the English language. He began to study Gaelic (it was ‘very hard,’ this accomplished linguist admitted ruefully). One of his most important contributions as a translator into Swedish was a large volume called Färdväg (Itinerary), which introduced some thirty American, British, and Irish poets whose work exemplified the ‘poetry of place’ (Heaney pre-eminent among them). The American academic and poet John Matthias, who became his main collaborator in bringing Swedish poetry to English, met Printz-Påhlson in Cambridge in 1973, and returned as a Clare Hall visiting fellow in 1976, when they translated and published Contemporary Swedish Poetry (1980), including some of Printz-Påhlson’s own.

9But Printz-Påhlson was not merely a Scandinavianist, nor an adoptive Americanist, but a comparatist. He joined the editorial board of Comparative Criticism (Cambridge University Press, 1979–2004), the journal that I edited for the newly founded British Comparative Literature Association, and he contributed to the journal on Swedish poets. These included in particular Gunnar Ekelöf, in whom W.H. Auden had taken an interest, as he had in Nordic literature generally—a translation of the great poem on a par with The Waste Land, ‘En Mölna Elegi’ (‘A Molna Elegy’), appeared in volume one—as well as Erik Lindegren, whom Auden had translated with Leif Sjöberg, he contributed an essay ‘The Canon of Literary Modernism: A Note on Abstraction in the Poetry of Erik Lindegren’; and he contributed on Strindberg, ‘Historical Drama and Historical Fiction: The Example of Strindberg.’ Printz-Påhlson was a leading critic and scholar of Strindberg, whose complexities he explored in essays and lectures throughout his life, in both Swedish and English. His writings on Strindberg are being collected in Sweden; they should also be collected in English. His Lindegren essay is reprinted in the present volume. He also generously allowed part of a wide-ranging dialogue on politics and literature that he had held with Raymond Williams, the radical critic and novelist, and a good friend, to be published in Comparative Criticism. The whole of it, as recorded, still deserves to see the light of day. Over the years his ‘advice to the editor’ never failed to be imaginative, unexpected, and well-grounded. Finally, Printz-Påhlson contributed to a variety of periodicals in the United States, Britain, and Sweden.

10As a scholar, critic and, above all, a poet, Printz-Påhlson’s range of reference and allusion was extraordinarily wide, but it always homed in on a fine point. The 1980s brought an increasing harvest. He acted as head of the Scandinavian Department from 1982 until his retirement in 1989, three years before the closure of the department together with other small language units, as part of a national reorganisation of university modern language provision that left only five Scandinavian departments in the country (including a new one opened at Edinburgh). This was a source of pain to him, and to all of us. In 1984 he delivered the Ward-Phillips lectures in poetry at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, on ‘The Words of the Tribe: Primitivism, Reductionism and Materialism in Modern Poetics.’ Those lectures are brought together and published in the present volume for the first time. His volume of essays, ‘När jag var prins utav Arkadien’ (‘When I was Prince of Arcadia’), appeared in Sweden in 1995; it has still to be translated into English. His Collected Poems 1956–83 (Säg Minns Du Skeppet Refanut?,’Tell Me, Do You Remember the Ship Refanut?’) published in Sweden in 1983, included his witty but moving brief ‘epic’ on the Scanian region of Sweden from whence he came. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Lund University in 1987.

11Printz-Påhlson’s last years, after his return to Sweden in 1998, were however darkened by accident and illness. He is survived by his wife, Ulla, daughter Unn, son Finn, grandson Olof, as well as his great grandson Bruno. His posthumous publications, it may be hoped, will carry his work into still wider international circles.


1 The above is a slightly expanded version of my obituary of Göran Printz-Påhlson published in The Guardian, Monday 6 November 2006 (


Elinor Shaffer FBA, is Senior Fellow of the merged Institute of Germanic & Romance Studies, University of London. She is also Research Director and Series Editor of The Reception of British and Irish Authors in Europe (Continuum 2002-). Her publications include The Fall of Jerusalem: The Mythological School of Biblical Criticism and Secular Literature 1770–1880 (1975), Erewhons of the Eye: Samuel Butler as Painter, Photographer and Art Critic (1987). Elinor Shaffer has taught at Berkeley, Cambridge, University of East Anglia, and held Visiting posts at Berlin, Brown, Zurich, and Stanford


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