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Letters of Blood and other works in English

Göran Printz-Påhlson

Other Prose

Part Eight. The Canon of Literary Modernism: A Note on Abstraction in the Poetry of Erik Lindegren

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1In 1943 the Swedish poet Erik Lindegren—at that time still comparatively unknown—published a long essay, in the Swedish journal Ord och bild (Words and Images), on the poetry of W. H. Auden. It is important not only in that it adds to the bibliography of early Auden criticism and gives an ingenious and sometimes striking interpretation of Auden’s poetry and character, mainly based on ‘Paid on both Sides’ and ‘Journal of an Airman’ from The Orators (1932), but also in view of the light it sheds on Lindegren’s own poetics and poetic practice, then in a period of fertile development.

2It is known that Auden himself was not very satisfied with ‘Journal of an Airman.’ In his illuminating preface to The English Auden, Edward Mendelson quotes several letters from Auden, who deplores its obscurity and in particular the equivocal nature of its political message. ‘It is meant to be a critique of the fascist outlook, but from its reception among some of my contemporaries, and on rereading it myself, I see that it can, most of it, be interpreted as a favorable exposition’ (xv).

3Not so Lindegren, who is admirably clear on its political implications and who in addition recognizes the paramount importance of Lawrence for the psychotherapeutic element running through this work. Auden corroborates this in a letter to a friend: ‘In a sense the work is my memorial to Lawrence; i.e., the theme is the failure of the romantic conception of personality’ (xv).

4What particularly fascinated Lindegren was what he refers to as Auden’s specific perspective, the bird’s-eye view: ‘Consider this and in our time / As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman’ (Collected Poems 57).

5It is true that the vertical is Auden’s favored dimension and that there are many bird images in his poetry; but the Auden who admits, in the ‘Letter to Byron,’ that his overriding desire as a child had been to become a mining engineer, is always more likely to let the vertical get its proper extension in some gloomy subterranean world. Even when he assumes the persona of a bird, as the seagull in the humorously auto-analytical ‘The Month was April,’ it is not the soaring so much as the ultimate bringing down of the bird that interests him.

6When Lindegren writes: ‘The hawk and the airman are among the constant symbols with Auden, the concentrated, detailed observation of the quarry and the extended, always varying panorama regularly recur’ (123), it may be partially true as description of Auden but is even more a description of an ever present theme in Lindegren’s own poetry, at this time mostly still to be written. ‘Old Red Indian’ and ‘Zero Point’ are two splendid instances. An even more apt illustration is found in ‘Icarus’ (Auden’s Icarus poem, ‘Museé des Beaux Arts,’ had previously been translated by Ekelöf):

His memories of the labyrinth go numb with sleep.
The single memory: how the calls and the confusion rose
until at last they swung him up from the earth.

And how all cleavings which have cried out always
for their bridges in his breast
slowly shut like eyelids,
and how the birds swept past like shuttles, like arrows,
and finally the last lark brushing his hand,
falling like song.

Then: the winds’ labyrinth, with its blind bulls,
cacophonous lights and inclines,
with its dizzying breath which he through arduous
struggle learned how to parry,
until it rose again, his vision and his flight.

Now he is rising alone, in a sky without clouds,
in a space empty of birds in the din of the aircraft…
rising toward a clearer and clearer sun,
turning gradually cooler, turning cold,
and upward towards the spring of his blood, soul’s cataract:
a prisoner in a whistling lift,
a seabubble’s journey toward the looming magnetic air:
and the vortex of signs, born of the springtide, raging of azure,
crumbling walls, and drunkenly the call of the other side:
Reality fallen
Without reality born!

(translation by John Matthias and Göran Printz-Påhlson)

7The poem is in many ways a reversal of Auden’s Icarus poem (or any conventional treatment of the Icarus theme). While Auden is content to follow the Brueghel painting in noticing the surroundings of the fall more than the fall itself, and in particular the indifference of the surroundings, Lindegren boldly concentrates on the protagonist. Auden’s language is resolutely discursive and expository:

…some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. (
Collected Poems 179)

8Although ‘the aged’ were ‘passionately waiting for the miraculous birth’ the fall is for the busy ploughman ‘not an important failure.’ Life goes on, Auden seems to be saying; even when tragedy occurs ‘someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along’ (179).

9This sapient moralizing is not for Lindegren. The indifference in his poem is not a property of the surroundings but the exalted ataraxia of the protagonist himself. The very fall is in defiance of the law of gravity: it is a fall upwards, toward empty space, leaving the contingent things of this world almost contemptuously behind. ‘The miraculous birth,’ tentatively dismissed by Auden, here becomes a reality, a bursting of the fetal membrane of the sky, even if the reality born is, although triumphantly proclaimed, syntactically ambiguous (the last line of the poem in the Swedish original contains an untranslatable syntactic ambiguity). The heroic identification of protagonist and poet is never in doubt in the Lindegren poem.

10In the aforementioned essay, Lindegren says about the airman: ‘It is not unimportant to remember that his genealogy goes back to Icarus, the symbol of the tragedy of setting one’s goal too high, or that the mythical aura surrounding him may derive ultimately from popular ideas of the nature of epilepsy’ (125). Epilepsy is, of course, the falling disease (in Swedish, fallandesjuka) and altogether this seems to be more a prophetic gloss on the future poem of his own than on Auden’s text. One has no difficulty in recognizing this protagonist as the true hero of modernism; Walter Benjamin presented him admirably in relation to the grandeur and squalor of Paris in the Second Empire and called him Baudelaire. ‘The hero is the true subject of modernism. In other words it takes a heroic constitution to live modernism’ (74).

11The hero is dandy, flâneur, suicide, sufferer, social outcast, diseased, in his pursuit of the absolute. Like Baudelaire’s Icarus he has broken his arms in trying to embrace the clouds. This is indeed a far cry from Auden’s innocent Icarus, let alone from his crafty airman.

12It seems probable that Auden’s poem exerted some influence on the rhythm and organization of Lindegren’s ‘Icarus.’ But the real sources of inspiration for the poem have to be sought in other quarters, in a tradition of modernist exemplars that are by and large alien to Anglo-American poetry.

13When Icarus-the-Poet soars to greater and greater heights, shedding gradually the encumbrances of things, his flight or fall may be meant to illustrate the pursuit of a pure language or an absolute diction. Clearly, the poem lends itself willingly to an allegorical interpretation on even a merely personal and mundane level. There is the distinct possibility that it can be read as a description of Lindegren’s own poetic development.


14There is perhaps a sense in which it is altogether useless to talk about the ‘canon of modernism’ or even about ‘canons of modernism.’ ‘Modernism’ or its etymon ‘modernity’ is clearly, historically and logically, opposed to the formation of the models or measuring rods that infuse the classical mode with rigor and stability. ‘Canon formation in literature must always proceed to a selection of classics,’ says E. R. Curtius, quoted with approval by Harold Bloom, who writes on canon-formation in relation to his own theory of revisionism: ‘“Canon” as a word goes back to a Greek word for a measuring rule, which in Latin acquired the additional meaning of “model.” Canon-formation or canonization is a richly suggestive word for a process of classic formation in poetic tradition, because it associates notions of music and of standards’ (Poetry and Repression 29). Bloom goes on to consider the relationship between religious and secular canon-formation with the hardly surprising result that secular canon-formation is more amenable to ‘intruders of genius,’ and thus to revisionism. Bloom’s now well-known essay, ‘The Primal Scene of Instruction’ in A Map of Misreading, does not, however, seem particularly useful in dealing with either the classical or the modernist mode, owing to his dependence on the Freudian model of nuclear family relations. This may be obscured by his customary brilliance of analysis in writing on some modern-era poets, but for the Anglo-American poetry he is confining himself to almost exclusively, the romantic and historicist mode reigns supreme. ‘Modernism’ is as militantly anti-historical as it is anti-classical: what is ‘modern’ is dependent on what models offer themselves for emulation today, not at any past or future illud tempus.

15The dilemma of the modernist is that he will invariably find that this has always been the case. ‘When they assert their own modernity, they are bound to discover their dependence on similar assertions made by their literary predecessors; their claim to being a new beginning turns out to be the repetition of a claim that has always already been made’ (de Man, 161). So the only course open to the modernists is to set out on a quest for their lost traditions, their forgotten ancestors. In modernism it is not the oedipal Primal Scene of Instruction sketched by Bloom which is invoked; the modernist is not a parricide because he is already an orphan: the mythic figure of his choice must rather be Telemachos, looking for a lost father. Joyce was, of course, very much aware of this when he had his hero of modernism, his Icarus-figure, address the old craftsman and inventor in the well-known lines from the end of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: ‘Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead’ (253). He could then send Stephen Dedalus on a quest for a paternal substitute, donning the disguise of Telemachos, in Ulysses.

16If the modernist chef-d’oeuvre tends in this way to include an allegorical account of the conditions of its own creation, it will also more and more be inviting readings of a flat and abstract character. Lindegren’s poem has been read as an allegory of the poetic development of its author (see my own account in Solen i spegeln [The Sun in the Mirror] 155).

17Erik Lindegren did not leave a voluminous poetic oeuvre behind him. After a conventional first book of poetry, Postum ungdom (Posthumous Youth, 1935), he produced his first major opus, mannen utan väg (the man without a way), a rigidly formalized collection of forty ‘broken sonnets,’ in a highly personal surrealist style, which has been one of the most influential and normative works in Scandinavian modernism. It was privately printed, in the austere publishing climate of the war years, in 1942. In 1945 it was re-issued commercially and had subsequently an enormous impact in Sweden on the then prevalent style of the forties and the concomitant critical debate on modernism in which Lindegren took part as an eloquent defender of modernism of the more traditional kind. In 1947 he published Sviter (Suites) in a more lavish and sensuous surrealist manner, which book proved to be, if possible, even more seductive than the previous austerity. A third major collection, Vinteroffer (Winter Sacrifice, 1954) exhibited a more subdued and reflective mood developing alongside a growing desperation. Both these volumes are, in true modernist fashion, strewn with analogies and parallels with music and the fine arts. For the remainder of his life he wrote some highly praised opera libretti, mainly in collaboration with the composer Karl Birger Blomdahl. He died in 1968. His influence and reputation, although to some extent eclipsed by his friend and near contemporary Gunnar Ekelöf’s uncommonly fertile poetic flowering in the late fifties and the sixties, remains strong in Sweden. Lindegren was also a proficient translator, from several languages, of Faulkner, Rilke, St John Perse, and of modern French poetry in general.

18It is tempting to read ‘Icarus’—which is the introductory poem to the last volume—as a poetic summary of his momentous and short career. The labyrinth can be read as referring to the labyrinthine labours of mannen utan väg, the contortionist encompassing of experience in maze-like patterns. ‘The wind’s labyrinth’ is then clearly related to Suites with ‘its dizzying breath,’ the transports of sensuous experience, gradually shedding its objects. And the remaining flight towards a cooling sun associates with the wintry landscapes of the last volume a voice like icicles faintly dripping under a bleak sky. No more poetry can be conceived after the rebirth, which represents the final silence towards which all poetry strives. The poem is thus read as a history of its own language, fugitive of its content.

19This represents a paradigm familiar from at least one mainstream of continental modernism (French and German) that can be associated with a line from Hölderlin to Baudelaire, to Mallarmé, to Rilke, to Celan. These are indeed the ancestors claimed by Lindegren in translations and essays (which also led him, mistakenly, to make the same claims for Auden’s true ancestors).


20In 1942, Lindegren claimed another, somewhat more surprising ancestor in an essay on Ibsen’s Brand, also collected in Tangenter. This is indeed another ‘vertical’ hero, but Lindegren is not interested in psychological analysis. Instead he praises its classical virtues of abstract clarity and, following a hint from Ibsen, syllogistic structure, and says, very characteristically: ‘The Idea is put forward in such an objective way that it becomes form rather than content, that it is chilled through by the elevated meaninglessness which for many seems to be immanent in the great shaping energies of history’ (105). The wording is perhaps more revealing of Lindergren’s own method than of Ibsen’s. He further enlarges on the same theme: ‘Central to the nature of objectivity is also the fact that it conceals the truth about the individual. In any case, it transposes truth to an esoteric level. Truth is not to be seen, as little as the works of a watch’ (105).

21Abstract, objective: the qualities referred to are more easily assimilated in a classicist poetic than in a modernist one. The amphibological structure of modernism is such, however, that it most readily tends to direct its canon-formation towards models of the classicist mould. The destruction of the past that is a commonplace strategy in modernism since Nietzsche makes it necessary to create a canon outside history: the precursors in time are not so much instructors or mentors as problems of assimilation. For that purpose they have to be deprived of all contingent qualities, to be reduced to abstract formulae applicable to all times and all places. This is in sharp contrast to romanticism, which sees history as an organic succession, a handing down of skills through generations. One could be tempted to say, reductively, that modernism equals romanticism minus its historicism, classicism minus its primitivism.

22To put a hasty end to this farrago of -isms, let us be reminded by Walter Benjamin, sometimes so surprisingly down to earth, that this attitude of the modernist is to a large extent created by the ‘polemical situation’ (82). This is certainly applicable to Lindegren who attained his status as modernist hero in a harsh polemical climate. It is, in such a situation, of paramount importance to select your right teammates. And that is what canon-formation in modernist practice ultimately comes down to.

23The question of abstraction, of objectivity, is no doubt, as almost everything else, in the last analysis a question of language. Hegel asked himself ‘Wer denkt abstrakt?’ (‘Who Thinks Abstractly?’) and came up with an answer that discredited abstract thinking outside the sciences for a long time to come. Modern poetry of the romantic persuasion has been involved in a drawn-out campaign against abstraction, taking its arsenal from various modern, not always correctly understood, philosophies of language. It is good to be reminded, in the book The Situation of Poetry by Robert Pinsky, that words are not to be confused with things and that a word is always an abstraction in relation to its referent (5). Perhaps somewhat misleadingly, he relates the common mistake of thinking otherwise to the conflict between realism and nominalism, a conflict that he sees as a crucial area of dispute in most recent poetry.

24Even leaving aside the old question of the arbitrariness of the relation of words to things, familiar from a long tradition of contention, from Cratylus to Saussure, we may notice that any possible realist theory of language has been severely undercut by the largely nominalist, positivist and pragmatic accounts of language acquisition of the last hundred years. In their insistence on making usage and naming the basics of linguistic understanding and in their neglect of formal principles, these also favor the position that language is in essence a system of designation of things rather than ideas, of individuals rather than universals, and that the abstractions of language are somehow secondary and supererogatory to its real core of concrete semantics. The reductive and primitivist notions of this kind have been seriously challenged from various most dissimilar positions in more recent years.

25Even the simplest first order logic operations involve a great deal of abstraction, and as Bruno Snell very convincingly pointed out in relation to the formation of the Greek mind, even the naming of primitive objects requires some degree of comparison and classification (191).

26Attacks launched against ‘vapid generalities’ or ‘empty abstractions,’ whether these occur in poetry or in any other context, are, of course, always valuable, but they are essentially a concern of a legitimate demand for specified information and in no way linked to abstraction as a principle of language. It is not possible to say that a dog is a more abstract animal than, say, an Irish setter, nor is the word ‘dog’ in any significant way either abstract or concrete (one can regard it as either a token or a type).

27In the case of poetry this whole matter has been obscured by the general confusion about what a poem refers to. Can it possibly be linked to reality in some way that insures it against drifting to some misty land of generalities? T. E. Hulme and the imagists believed that this could and should be done through some undefined property of language that constituted an image as ‘an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’ (see Pound 336–37).

28Imagism is perhaps only an extension of the Pictura ut poesis doctrine in modern terms (it is to be noted that the famous Imagines of Philostratos may have given rise to the nineteenth-century prose poem, through Goethe’s admirable translations, but, far from being imagist ‘instants of time,’ they are just descriptions of pictures, real or imaginary, and not to be mistaken for substitutes of these pictures).

29Representations—whether in words or in pictures, whether of concrete objects or of abstract concepts—always involve abstractions, and in order to be representational a work of art has to be selective. The crucial question comes when a work of art is representational of a representation, when it is two steps removed from what was originally represented. This one can call, in accordance with the usage of Walter Benjamin in particular, allegory. Representation as abstraction, in its turn, involves interchangeability.

30Lindegren shows himself to be very well aware of the nature of these principles when he stresses the timelessness of the representative work of art, in his essay on Brand. The warning against historical contingencies should be taken seriously. In particular as regards mannen utan väg it has been very tempting to offer specific interpretations or critical translations of its surrealist imagery. The critic Bengt Holmqvist ingeniously specified the meaning of a famous line of the poem (from Sonnet xxvi): ‘and the dismal flight of fate in the feathered garb of somersault’ (in Franzén 38). This line, according to Holmqvist, could be ‘translated’ as referring to the flight of von Ribbentrop, then foreign secretary for Germany, to Moscow in August 1939. No doubt many of the lines of the poem could be translated in a similarly reckless way into the world events of these dramatic years. This does not make the poem a history of World War II.

31Paul de Man, in the ‘Lyric and Modernity’ section of Blindness and Insight, has an unusually subtle piece of argumentation in which he attacks the view expressed by Hans Robert Jauss and his colleagues and pupils that modernism can be regarded as a movement in history, with a beginning and a (possible) end. He is particularly concerned with an interpretation of Mallarmé’s ‘Tombeau de Verlaine’ by the German critic Karlheinz Stierle. He quotes from this: ‘For Mallarmé the concrete image no longer leads to a clearer vision.’ If one considers what makes the object of the poem unreal, one is bound to realize that it is ‘a poem of allegorical reification’ [Vergegenständlichung]. This is in contrast to traditional allegory, the function of which was ‘to make the meaning stand out more vividly’ (182).

32Although agreeing with Stierle about the importance of allegory (here taken in the sense championed by Walter Benjamin), as opposed to the merely representational, de Man maintains quite convincingly that there is no fixed point where representation ends and allegory takes over: ‘Up to a very advanced point, not reached in this poem and perhaps never reached at all, Mallarmé remains a representational poet as he remains in fact a poet of the self, however impersonal…’ (182). From what was said above about representation one can draw the conclusion that all the possible readings of the poem exist simultaneously. The allegorical reading does not follow on the representational, or on any other reading. They are interchangeable, but not in an ordered sequence as in the solution of a riddle.

33The French critic Georges Périlleux has, in an article bravely and successfully written in Swedish, given a detailed analysis of the rhetorical tropes used in mannen utan väg (see Bolckmans). The highly intricate and artificial rhetorical patterns revealed—Périlleux adapts the methods of analysis of Rhétorique générale by the semioticians of ‘Groupe μ’—point to the rigidly formal organization of the work. But rhetoric in this sense—as a set of linguistic or paralinguistic rules—is, as Harold Bloom has reminded us in Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate, defiantly anti-historical (375). This is rhetoric which has renounced all pedagogical intent, thus keeping company with an allegory which has renounced all representational intent.

34Lindegren is clearly realizing this in his frequently invited parallels between his poetry and music or mathematics. ‘Poetry as higher calculus’ is the formula given in his polemical apologia ‘Tal i Egen Sak,’ reprinted Tangenter. Twenty years ago I suggested—following a hint from William Empson’s treatment of George Herbert in Seven Types of Ambiguity—that the mathematical analogy could be more than vaguely useful for this kind of poetry, as the elements seem to be freely interchangeable while the structure remains the same (see Solen i spegeln [The Sun in the Mirror], 162). From his point of view, and from the fact that, in contrast to traditional allegory, the readings or transformations are unordered, it follows that no reading can be regarded as in any way privileged. Is there any sense in calling the reading of the political content in the Lindegren poem representational and the personal reading allegorical, and not vice versa? The significance of the allegory is ultimately that it signifies nothing.

35How is this dilemma to be resolved? Lindegren seems to be going even further in some poems in Vinteroffer where no hints of representation or allegory remain, and the rhetorical devices seem to provide merely a mechanical inspiration:


Feel the throb of spring in the glade of simple hearts
(in aliens’ oblivion we live and we die)
Mark our shadow there beneath the arch of night
(for what we never uttered we remember best)

See the desert tracks which evanesce like roses
(the wild is not astray, but it is fugitive)
Remember trees like dogs leashed tight in dreams
(domesticity’s not home, but it is ill)

[‘Cover with your glance the dying mayfly’s gleam
(like scythes the grass is waving on our grave)
Contain the arch of spring, and touch the desert trees
(and yet we all are like the grass)’]

(translated by John Matthias and Göran Printz-Påhlson)

36This poem seems to be moving its symbols at random within a confined space where no references to public or personal experiences are possible. It could evidently go on forever. Maybe it is just the anticipated exhaustion of the poet, in realizing that it could go on forever, that makes him put an end to it at this early stage.


37The canon-formation of literary modernism is in quite a profound sense an act of recognition, not of affinities but of identity of content. If Harold Bloom has for our time given a romantic interpretation of a literary theory of succession in saying that the meaning of a poem is always another poem, one is perhaps justified in offering a rival modernist theory of discontinuity in saying that all modernist poems have the same meaning, which the poets try to approximate in stating its essential inaccessibility. As this inaccessibility is the meaning of the modernist poem, they have, in the vein of classical paradox, quite literally managed both to express the meaning and fail to do so. The only possible remaining step must be silence.

38There is no evidence that when translating Lindegren’s poetry Auden approached it with anything but suspicion and misgiving. The vatic stance, the orphic mysticism, the rhetoric of paradox: this is a tradition of modernism he could not make his own. Only in the attraction to the renunciation of poetry could these two poets meet. Auden’s revolt against poetry as a high vocation was clear already in his early acceptance of a tradition of light verse, of Carroll, Lear, Chesterton, Belloc, Kipling, as his true ancestry. Perhaps it could be said that he had renounced serious poetry for verse by the time of, say, The Age of Anxiety. For Lindegren, adhering to a more exacting canon, there was only one way to go, to silence. The moving last lines of Winter Sacrifice give his version of the modernist question:

Why blow on the candle of life
with all this talk
of life or death…


Works Cited

Auden, W.H. The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writing 1927–1939. Ed. by Edward Mendelson. London: Faber, 1977.

Auden, W.H. Collected Poems. Ed. by Edward Mendelson. New York: Modern Library, 2007.

Benjamin, Walter. Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism. London: Verso, 1973.

Bloom, Harold. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

—. Wallace Stevens: The Poems of Our Climate. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1980.

Bolckmans, Alex, ed. Literature and Reality: Creatio versus Mimesis. Ghent: Scandinavian Institute, 1977.

Franzén, Lars-Olof, ed. 40-Talsförfattare. Stockholm: Aldus, 1965.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking, 1977.

Lindegren, Erik. Tangenter. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1974.

Man, Paul de. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.

Pinsky, Robert. The Situation of Poetry. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Pound, Ezra. Make it New. London: Faber, 1934.

Printz-Påhlson, Göran. Solen i spegeln. Stockholm: Bonniers, 1958.

Snell, Bruno. The Discovery of the Mind. New York: Dover, 1982.


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