(Boye Karin)


Karin Boye - A Biographical Profile. 1900-1922

Karin Boye was born on 26 October 1900, in the Swedish city of Göteborg. On her father's side she had German blood. Her paternal grandfather, Carl Joachim Eduard Boye, was the Prussian consul in the town. The Boye family originally came from Bohemia, and most of its male members devoted themselves to various forms of financial or commercial activity, both in Europe and in South America. As a young man, Eduard Boye was head of a large English clothes manufacturing business in Hamburg until the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842 destroyed the office, warehouse and shops. He then moved to Leeds, in England, and took up clothes manufacturing there; later, he moved to Göteborg, where he was his firm's agent for a number of years. Eventually he established his own cotton and textile importing business in Göteborg, E. Boye & Co., and adopted Swedish citizenship in 1849. In addition to cotton importing, he also took an interest in industrial and marine engineering. Eduard Boye was one of the pillars of Göteborg society, and together with his wife, Hilda, ran both a town and a country home in patriarchal style, entertaining many guests at dinners and soirées, and patronizing the arts. They had five children, and it was their eldest son, Fritz (Carl Fredrik) who was Karin Boye's father. Fritz Boye trained at the Göteborg Technical High School as a civil engineer, practised as a draughtsman and designer at various works and plants, but eventually moved into the insurance business, becoming head of the Svea Fire-Life Company. He married Signe Liljestrand, an employee at his office, some eighteen years his junior - she made up in vitality and energy for his somewhat dour and retiring nature. The couple had several children, of whom Karin was the first. At first, her education was undertaken by her mother, who was very well-read in European classical literature and was also influenced by spiritualism and oriental religions. Her father remained a somewhat distant figure - his sons said later in life that they had never known him, and he seldom showed any tenderness towards his children. On the other hand, he possessed a speculative, imaginative mind, and even wrote a 'Fragment of a Story About the Future', which is inspired by notions of utopian reform. His emotional instability and nervous temperament were perhaps the real reason why he found it difficult to come close to his children.
Karin Boye attended a private junior school in Göteborg. According to Karin Boye's biographer, Margit Abenius (author of Afflicted by Purity, a Swedish-language account of the poet's life, published in 1950), her first teacher, Fröken Mimmie Agardh, had almost never had a pupil who stayed in her memory as Karin Boye did:
The round, soft little girl was far ahead of her school-mates, she was remarkably well-informed and could answer any question, often did so with a little rhyme or other inventive and well-chosen words. Fröken Agardh offered to let her sit and read an interesting book while the others did their spelling, but Karin wanted to take part and help. Fröken Agardh especially remembers her delight at the spring. She would jump and rejoice: 'Aunt Mimmie, Aunt Mimmie, it's spring! How happy I am!' Jeanna Osterdahl also taught at the school, and Karin told 'Aunt' Jeanna that she wrote stories. Among her papers Fröken Agardh has preserved some short verses and fables by her pupil, including this 'Story of the Crocus, by Karin Boye, aged 7':
There was once a little boy who had a little crocus. Inside the crocus there was a little elf; she could do magic spells. The crocus was yellow, and pretty. Now autumn came, and the crocus began to wilt. Krokusa (that was the elf's name) thought that was nasty, and flew away. Then the crocus fell. Have you seen a crocus fall?
The story is illustrated with a drawing of the flying Krokusa with a crown on her head, and underneath are the words: 'Krokusa flew away'.
In 1909 the family moved to Stockholm after Fritz Boye went into premature retirement because of nervous debility. This involved some reduction in the family's standard of living, but it did not affect the children's lives. Later on, Fritz Boye became an inspector in the Swedish Private Insurance Supervisory Service. At her new school, Karin made friends with a few girls of similarly introspective and imaginative temperament. Together they read the works of Dumas, Rydyard Kipling, H.G. Wells and Maeterlinck, and also those of Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore's poetry seems to have made an especially strong impression on the young Karin Boye: she immersed herself in Indian mythology, and sought to experience the country itself through Karl Gjellerup's Indian novel Pilgrimen Kamanita ('Kamanita the Pilgrim'). Above all, she studied Buddhism, and made serious efforts to learn Sanskrit. With her friend Signe Myrbäck as 'disciple', Karin played the role of guru, and the two girls would sit crosslegged on the lawn together, practising the art of breathing in and out. Signe Myrbäck relates that when their ecclesiastical history teacher once told the class that Sweden had only a small minority of Buddhists, Karin claimed to be one of them. Her history teacher, Lydia Wahlström, also once made some slightly disparaging remarks about Buddhists during a lesson, and Karin Boye put up her hand and said sternly: 'I'm a Buddhist!'
During her last two years at school, Karin Boye moved away from Buddhism and towards Christianity. Many of her schoolfriends found it hard to understand how she could have accepted Christianity, as previously she had always talked about it with cynicism and a kind of dry laughter. At first, the change seems to have been a source of happiness and self-discovery for her. Buddhism had become a life-denying influence on her, and for the first time she began to experience a sense of personal and inner freedom. At this time, she kept diaries. These are mostly of an 'inner' nature, containing meditations on religious experience. In one passage she describes how she came to her religious awakening:
Now I have reached the age of twelve or thirteen, the borderland between child and young person. Like a milestone shines the memory of one single book: Kipling's Kim. It is the last of my childhood books that I remember, and at the same time the one that probably meant most for my development.
In the moving figure of Teshu Lama, religion entered my life for the first time as a living reality. That may seem strange for a child who had had a good Christian upbringing. But the child's religion is often so far from deserving the name 'religion' that it seems to me fruitless - with perhaps only a few exceptions - to offer a child the divine beauty of the Gospels, and a sacrilege to set the Gospel stories as homework. For me 'the Bible stories' were worn, everyday, already too well-known, when the hunger for religion began to awake. Teshu Lama - prepared by Puran Bhagat of The Jungle Book - came like a message from a world that had hitherto been closed, and I trembled, and I fell down and adored.
At the age of eighteen, she experienced a liberation and a transformation: an entry from the summer of 1918 reads: 'Domine, rex, venisti, vidisti, vicisti.' And on the eve of 1919: 'My birth-year is at an end.'
The diaries also concern Karin Boye's experiences not only at school, but also at Christian summer camps, where she seems to have approached the fairly routine group discussions with extraordinary intensity, forming close attachments to other girls and women in the groups. Two such relationships seem to have been particularly important for her. Agnes Fellenius, one of her classmates with whom she mutually shared all secrets, became quite severely depressed because of conflicts within her home, and Karin Boye took it upon herself to rescue her from the effects of this. She began to supervise Agnes' schoolwork, and made her take the final school examinations, trying by strength of willpower to make her pass, which she did. Margit Abenius describes how Karin stood outside the examination room, 'wrapped in intense concentration and the desire for a good outcome'.
The other important relationship was with Anita Nathorst, a woman who was seven years older than her and was a student of theology and the humanities at Uppsala University. At the Christian summer camp Karin attended at Fogelstad, Anita Nathorst was a group 'mother', looking after the young female students. Karin Boye wrote to her friend Signe Karlsson:
Our 'mother' was Astrid Nathorst's sister, Anita Nathorst. Do you know who she is? Oh Signe, such a person! She is so wonderful! One day Ruth, Brita, Daisy and I carried blankets out into the park (it was immensely large) and took Anita with us and lay and talked. I don't think I shall ever forget it. I think I could dare to say all that I think and wonder to Anita and be certain that she would never misunderstand me. And one understands so well what she says. My goodness, it is not everyone of whom one can say that one understands what they mean.
By 1920, Karin Boye was a student at Uppsala University, and was herself a group mother at one of the meetings, held at Almnäs on Lake Vättern. It was at this meeting, with its 'question box', into which the schoolchildren put their questions about life and God, that Anita Nathorst helped her through her revulsion at, and fear of, human suffering, emotions that had led her to adopt Buddhism. A long letter from Karin Boye to Agnes Fellenius tells us something about the relationship between Karin and Anita:
Then there was a question about the innocent suffering and death of creation. What it said, more or less, was: the animals eat one another. Can one hope for a continuation for the poor innocent victims? Can one believe that suffering has a meaning? Anita had the question and answered yes. She demonstrated that the lower life was sacrificed so that the higher could stretch ever further upward towards the divine, and she ended by reading a poem by Jeanna Oterdahl about a little boy who sits weeding in a garden plot, but suddenly feels sorry for the weeds. Then his mother says that the weeds will later become soil, and from the soil the beautiful flowers and the nice vegetables will get their nourishment. Must not the weeds like giving them their nourishment? Then the boy is pleased that he can help the weeds to become soil. That answer acquired a deep significance for me. When I did not yet believe in God, I saw creation's innocent suffering and was horrified: that was why I so eagerly clutched at Buddhism's life-denying pessimism. Later, when I directly perceived life's value, I no longer dared to think of anything but human life. The other seemed terrible to me. Now I see suffering again - but in a different light. I said to Anita: 'Then that means that every meal we eat is a sacrament.' 'Of course,' she replied, 'have you never thought about it? That is why we say grace at table.' 'I have never understood why one ought to pray more there than elsewhere.' 'Formerly it was conceived as a sacrament. The first ritual action of the savage was shared meals. That is also the meaning of holy communion. The whole of life is a sacrament.' Do you understand this? Do you also understand how deeply this must move me? I fancied I saw the world in a new light - in the sign of the Cross, of representative suffering. God's cross extends through every time and every space. And what else is holy communion but an initiation to the Cross, the new union with God: one initiates oneself in order for His sake to take a part of His eternal suffering - upon oneself, to fight God's fight in the world: it involves great pain. I understood, or thought I understood, how Christ at the moment of communion gave himself as a sacrifice (oh, those old, worn-out phrases, something new shimmers through them now), when he said: 'This is my body - this is my blood.' Do you understand me? (NB You understand, I don't have in mind representative suffering as Anselm did, it is only this I mean: one person's suffering can serve and light the way for others.)
Karin Boye felt that her life was in some way mysteriously linked to the act of self-sacrifice, whether in the work of teaching to which she aspired, in her personal relationships, or in her writing. As a young student she underwent a severe inner crisis that was sparked by her decision to study, not theology, as the rector of her training college wished and advised, but psychology and teaching. This decision, which involved a dispute with and rebellion against the rector, also went against inner promptings which told her that to study theology would be true self-sacrifice, whereas psychology and teaching represented self-assertion. In a letter to Agnes Fellenius, Karin Boye says:
'For several days afterwards I wept like a rainy day in Göteborg. I prayed on my knees for guidance, but I received no direct revelation. A voice said: 'Sacrifice yourself! You, what are you? An ant. What are your possibilities? They must serve where they are needed, not where they would most fully develop. You must bow down, give up your will! Do you not see, it is in God's service? Your place is where you do good, not where you feel happy. Selfish, selfish creature!' But, much more loudly, self-assertion cried: 'I don't want to!'
One fundamental element of this crisis seems to have been Karin Boye's discovery of her own sensual and, more particularly, sexual self, and of the fact that her sexuality was oriented towards women, not men. If she chose the path of theology and a career in the church, she would have to deny that part of herself. To her, and to the artist in her, that seemed tantamount to denying everything. The startlingly direct and revealing letter to Agnes Fellenius continues:
Once before I cast a glance into myself, without on that occasion seeing in any way that within my religious and moral notions, within everything I had made mine from without, without it being mine, there was a reality that conflicted with this outward self, beautiful but not my own. You see, there has been a hard battle within me, and I have stood hesitating between whether to give up my will or to worship my will. Forgive me if I hurt you by writing this. You will quite certainly say that I did the wrong thing - I have chosen the latter. One should perhaps say that there are two gods: the God whom we have created from our notions, and the God whom we do not know, but who creates us and is in us and wills in our wills and in all the world's will. Is that pantheism? Possibly. The most weighty consequence of the choice between them is this: in the first case there is a given morality, a fixed law (for me, who have received my image of God principally through the dreaming saints and the mystics: St Francis, Meister Eckhart, Mme Guyon, even Tagore, their experiences would therefore principally be laws). In the second case one has to followoneself and be one's own law. Yes, of course - through one's conscience, you say. No. One's conscience may be split, divided between different psychic complexes. During this crisis I have had the conscience of a saint, which invited me to completely crush my will, take it as a sacrifice to God (which God? The created one! How otherwise would it be possible?) and a Nietzschean conscience, which invited me to take soundings of myself and make my innermost I into the highest law.
In this letter, which contains quotations from Nietzsche and Angelus Silesius, we find an early version of the poem 'Inwards', with its affirmation of 'my truth / and my God'.
It was this crisis, in February 1921, that led Karin Boye to write the poems that are gathered in her first collection, Moln ('Clouds'). For her, it was as though a shell that had contained her had been cracked, and she began to realize her true subjectivity in symbols, images and forms. Her approach to God was that of the mystic, who proceeds not along the way of the grand and the transcendental, but in terms of the personal, the intimate and small. The discovery that she could by means of poetry rise above the dilemma that had tormented her, that she could sacrifice and serve as well as realize her gifts in art, must have been a profoundly life-altering experience for her. Yet still she doubted. When she took the manuscript of the poems to the distinguished Stockholm publisher K.O. Bonnier, she did not dare to go alone, but took her mother with her. Bonnier promised to read the poems, but warned her that 'so many people are writing poems just now, and no one buys poetry.' None the less, on 10 February 1922 she received a letter from Bonnier in which he confirmed that he had read the poems with great interest, and told her that she really could write poetry; he would publish the collection, though could not offer her more than 200 kronor by way of an advance. The reviews, when they came, were by and large good, though one, by a male reviewer, was snidely patronizing, with an assertion that 'one should not expect too much when one opens a volume of poems with a woman's name on the title page.'
2. 1923-1932
As a student of humanities at Uppsala University, her plans to become a teacher abandoned, Karin Boye began with the study of Greek, as she 'wanted to read Plato in the original'. In the Uppsala of the 1920's, with its receptivity to European influences and the readiness of a new generation to experiment with unfamiliar lifestyles and ideas, the passionate 'Teo', as Karin Boye soon came to be known by her fellow female students, was the subject of much interest and distant adulation. She made a striking visual impression on many who encountered her: there was something boyish about her, something inward-turned in a pre-Raphaelite manner, and it was an effect obviously achieved with conscious purpose. Though she could not be said to be beautiful in a conventional way, her face had an openness and a sensual prettiness that were given added fascination by the sense of intellectual clarity and emotional depth that lay behind them. She herself had certain reservations about her appearance, and beneath them lurked feelings of inferiority. These, Margit Abenius writes, 'concerned not her face but her figure, which she would have liked to be more supple and masculine. "It's a pity I'm so ugly," she told her friend Agnes. When Agnes Fellenius got engaged and the two were about to go their separate ways, she took a farewell photograph of Karin standing in bright sunlight against a white wall. Karin placed a hearth cushion over her feet because they were "so ugly", adding: "I want everything to be beautiful!"'
The second subject studied by Karin Boye was Nordic languages. In particular, she undertook the study of Icelandic, and thoroughly relished the prose and poetry written in it. The songs of the Edda made a lasting impression on her, and she wrote that the lectures about them were 'the only ones that go too quickly... the translation of a description of a chieftain: "Helgi rose high above chieftains as the nobly-born ash-tree above the thorn-bush or as a young deer, dew-sprinkled, rises above all other deer, and his horns burn high to heaven itself." It sounds better in Icelandic. And then, in the midst of it all, come barbaric, brutal similes, especially from the battlefields and their atrocities, but it is so magnificent, in spite of its nastiness, that one shivers with devotion...'
As her third subject, Karin Boye studied the history of literature, which she came to with great expectations but began to dislike because of the over-systematized nature of the teaching and its discouragement of independent thinking. She failed the first term examination in this subject, an experience that shocked her, who had never failed an examination before. In fact, her time at Uppsala University seems to have been spent less in formal study than in activity of an extra-curricular nature. In particular, she was secretary and later president of the students' union, where she also helped to organize discussion groups and theatrical events. At this time, too, she had a brief love affair with the poet Nils Svanberg. She was an eager participant in the activities of the students' 'messes'(matlag), which performed the function of societies, and were an important feature of Uppsala student life at this time. Karin Boye and Anita Nathorst belonged to the same society, and both were by now adherents of Freudianism. Many of the discussions held in the society concerned psychoanalysis, and although there is no evidence that Karin Boye was psychoanalysed at this time (though she was later), it would not have been surprising if she had made some experimental moves in this direction. She was also interested in the ideas of Adler.
During her last year at university, Karin Boye joined the idealistic peace organization Clarté, which counted Ellen Key and Selma Lagerlöf among its members, and had a decidedly left-wing and anti-religious orientation. Many of those who knew her, including Anita Nathorst, were surprised at this step. It seems to have been motivated in part by Karin Boye's desire to assert herself as a 'normal' young woman, in tune with the progressive movements of her time. This desire for 'normality' almost certainly received impetus from her growing awareness of her inverted sexuality, which imparted an ever darker and more tragic note to the poems she was writing. She lived an emotionally strained existence, was prone to attacks of weeping, and came to rely more and more on Anita Nathorst for support and sympathy. Margit Abenius writes that 'Anita was able, in her austere way, to tell Karin a few home truths when her urge for unhappiness made itself felt. It could take strange forms of expression, as though she were positively looking for burdens to take upon herself. Was it the basically harmonious need of the one weighed down by guilt to 'create happiness out of what one has broken' or merely the flagellant's desire for the lash, or was it the wish of a heroic soul armed with great strength to bear heavy woes, the certainty that in the hard and difficult one comes close to life's heart? Perhaps it was some of all this at the same time. Anita Nathorst brooded a great deal abouyt how life was going to work out for Karin. It seemed as though she considered a marriage founded on friendship with a fatherly oriented man as the most practicable path. "But he will have to be understanding," these worried conversations concluded. "Good Lord, how understanding he will have to be!"
The collection Gömda land ('Hidden Lands') was considered both by the critics and by the poet herself as somewhat 'better' than Moln, and indeed many of the lyrics make a stronger, less hesitant impression, though their tone is predominantly sombre. The influence of Freud may be seen in the concept of the 'hidden lands' which the poet makes it her task to discover - the journey is one towards the interior of the psyche. A key poem is 'Spring Song', with its assertion of a 'natural' freedom:
In springtime, in sprouting time,
the seed its shell destroys,
and rye becomes rye and pine becomes pine
in freedom without choice.
The poem is related to two diary entries about inner freedom, one from 1919, the other from 1920: 'Precisely in the freedom of the will (to choose) does our unfreedom lie. Freedom is to act in full accordance with one's nature: thus, true freedom has no choice, only one way to go.' 'Every action is unconditionally caused by inner or outer circumstances. But for that reason to call every action unfree is shortsighted. The will that is the deepest foundation of our being is naturally a natural product and none the less our own ego. Outside of this we possess no being. An action is unfree that is enforced not by our being's own nature but in conflict with it. But an action that is caused by myself, my will, is free.'
Another striking feature of the collection is the influence on it of Old Icelandic literature, in particular the poetry of the Edda. The qualities that seem to have attracted Karin Boye in these poems are the ones associated with emotional and spiritual directness, or 'erectness' or 'straightness' - rakhet. In 'Æsir and Elves' Odin hangs in the world tree 'erect' or - an image of unyielding hardness and inflexibility that may easily become fanaticism. This kind of emotional colouring becomes more and more frequent in Karin Boye's poetry as it develops, and it is possible to detect a connection between it and the poet's concern with issues of freedom, unfreedom and determinism. Her interest in left-wing, Marxist political theory and in Freudian psychology is rendered more comprehensible in this light. The dominant conflict in her work increasingly becomes that of a passionate, almost desperate desire for personal freedom and self-assertion with an awareness that such freedom may be impossible, and that the only solution is to submit to powers that are mightier than the human 'I'. It is a conflict that has its roots in the poet's personal crisis of 1921.
The poems of Härdarna ('The Hearths'), which was published in 1927, represent further evidence of the flow of poetic inspiration that visited Karin Boye during her years in Uppsala. The Swedish title has associations that are perhaps not so immediately evident in English - in Swedish, härd or 'hearth' can mean a seat, focus or centre, and the ancient 'hearths' the poet is trying to invoke are symbols of culture and the creation of culture throughout the ages. Perhaps the collection's most famous and characteristic poem is 'In Motion' (I rörelse), with its call for perpetual movement and quest:
Yes, there is goal and meaning in our path - but it's the way that is the labour's worth. The best goal is a night-long rest, fire lit, and bread broken in haste.
One critic who noticed the originality of the new collection was Hagar Olsson, the friend and confidante of the Finland-Swedish poet Edith Södergran. In the newspaper Svenska pressen she wrote, under the headline 'New Tone in Swedish Poetry':
One has long looked in vain for a sign of renewal within Swedish poetry. All the lights seemed to have gone out. The 'young generation' has displayed an aspect of effeteness, carefully concealed beneath a shimmer of echoes. One cannot characterize its striving better than with the catchword employed by Diktonius, 'rather pretty everyday product' [vackrare vardagsvara]. When one has with effort and a good deal of melancholy read österling's new collection of poetry with the elegant title Earth's Honour and the equally elegant publicity, one has said to oneself: will one single spark ever be lit in this suffocating atmosphere? Will there ever be a single lyre in the land of Sweden that is able to create life and tone in this oppressive, twilight-of-the-gods silence?
Recently a small, unassuming collection of poetry appeared: The Hearths, by Karin Boye. No advertising surrounds it and the publicity states that the author is not one of the most prominent. But the cover shines with a brilliance that is different from and more enduring than that of fame: the brilliance of fire fighting its way through. One reads: Karin Boye, and it is with love that one commits it to memory. One thinks: here is one of the first swallows...
Swallow - that is perhaps the word for Karin Boye's poetry. It is not strong like the eagle; its wingbeat does not have that breadth and boldness - but neither does it belong to the grey and twittering breed of sparrows. It flies high and beautifully and the wind murmurs in its trembling wings...
These are different tones from those one is accustomed to hearing in modern standard-Swedish poetry. It is something that ignites, awakens, carries away, it is truly - poetry! One encounters here no aestheticized hypocrisy about a simple little everyday, a simple little home and a simple little happiness, one encounters an honest soul that looks with completely illusionless eyes on that which is, sees the inevitability of suffering and the vanity of happiness, but does not seek a port of refuge from it, rather instead prepares itself for - higher flight. One encounters for once a courageous spirit, one that has passed through the destruction of the 'I' without stopping at this, without complaining and feeling sorry for itself, finding its strength in a higher reality...
There is an extraordinary purity in this spirit, it is without fear and far from sentimentality. It is always ready for departure, that is its distinguishing mark... It is never tepid, never in two minds. It is in other words - inspired.
The poems singled out by Hagar Olsson for special praise in her review include 'In Motion', 'We Sleepy Children' and 'The Sea', which she called 'a proof of the lapidary strength of Karin Boye's style'. Though the reviewer considered the book uneven, the review article itself was probably responsible for confirming the poet on her path, and for establishing her as a major name among contemporary Swedish poets.
The years that followed were hectic ones, full of drama, both inner and outer. In 1927 Karin Boye's father, Fritz Boye, died of cancer. Immediately after graduating from Uppsala in 1928, Karin Boye moved to Stockholm, where she began a course of psychoanalysis with the analyst Alfhild Tamm, initially without her mother's knowledge. She took this first analysis very seriously, and could become quite upset if any of her friends criticized psychoanalysis, saying they could only do so if they tried it themselves. The work affected her quite deeply, and some of those who knew her considered that it changed her in many ways. Without it she would probably not have found her way to marriage, nor to the radical ideas that for a time were important to her.
In Stockholm, Karin Boye also became seriously involved with the organization and administration of the Clarté movement, with which she had already come into contact in Uppsala. She also helped to edit the movement's magazine of the same title. The meetings and activities of Clarté, a loosely-organized assembly of some five or six hundred radical intellectuals and political activists from all over Scandinavia, were above all meant to free the minds of its members from the constraints of bourgeois upbringing, education and prejudice. There were two main strands of concern, both of which derived from the movement's central aim of establishing world peace and the happiness of human beings: one focused on the social transformation of the world, and the other was mainly preoccupied with questions of inner transformation by means of psychoanalysis. Among the Swedish members were the poets Gunnar Ekelöf, Nils Ferlin, Harry Martinson, and Karin Boye herself; among lesser-known names were the young poets Stellan Arvidson, Leif Björk, Ingeborg Björklund, Ebbe Linde, Arnold Ljungdal, Erik Mesterton, Ellen Michelsen, Victor Svanberg and Herbert Tingsten. Leif Björk, a young left-wing radical with an interest in psychoanalysis, became Karin Boye's partner, and after some time the couple married. Together with Björk and some other male Clarté members, Karin Boye visited the Soviet Union. It is probable that her experiences there stayed in her subconscious and influenced her in the writing, much later, of her novel about a totalitarian state, Kallocain.
Karin Boye's marriage to Leif Björk did not last long. The couple were too estranged from everyday reality, too over-complicated, and their household economy too precarious for this essentially bourgeois 'social form of love', as Margit Abenius calls it. In addition, it seems to have been more a friendship, or comradeship, than a marriage, and its sexual component was probably not very strong. Karin Boye had already experimented with one extra-marital affair, which brought her a disturbing sense of being hunted by the man for her innermost being. In order to escape having to surrender her inner self, she gave herself to him sexually, in body rather than spirit. These confusions and disturbances grew more frequent after the divorce from Leif Björk, and there were many more opportunities for casual relationships. In 1931 she fell into a severe depression, with suicidal phases. From a friend she obtained the name and address of a psychoanalytic doctor in Berlin.
Her analyst in Berlin, where she moved in January 1932, was Walter Schindler, a Freudian who used techniques of active suggestion. He considered Karin Boye's situation extremely serious, and found her a difficult patient. She herself suffered greatly during the two months of analysis, which came to an end after a crisis. After this, Karin Boye began to be analysed by a woman, Grete Lampl. Of the analysis with Schindler, Scharp noted in his diary that the analyst had said: 'This will end badly. Within ten years she will have taken her own life.'
Apart from analysis, Karin Boye's life in Berlin also involved work. She was an editor of the Swedish avant-garde literary magazine Spektrum, which modelled itself on Eliot's Criterion, and took its name from the idea expressed in one of her poems ('Man's Multiplicity'):
In us a multiplicity lives.
It fumbles towards unity.
Its capturing, gathering burningglass
we were born to be
Spektrum published the early work of Gunnar Ekelöf, Harry Martinson, Karin Boye and other Swedish modernists; Karin Boye wrote editorials and essays and commissioned work on contemporary European poetry: Erik Mesterton's 'Poetry and Reality in Modern English Lyric Poetry' and 'The Method of T.S. Eliot' first appeared in Spektrum.
Karin Boye also worked as a literary translator, producing a Swedish version of Frieda Uhl's book about Strindberg. Little of this work brought in any money, however, and what with the expense of the psychoanalysis, the poet's financial situation was very precarious. She did, however, manage to see something of Berlin's theatre and café life, moved among male and female homosexuals, witnessed the clashes between extreme left wing and right wing sympathizers, and through Vilhelm Scharp, who knew the Swedish-born Göring, and also Goebbels, gained some insight into the true nature of Nazism. She even attended an election meeting in the Sportpalast at which the Shakespeare-admiring Göring used all his rhetorical skills to outmanoeuvre Hindenburg to Hitler's advantage. It is at this meeting that Karin Boye is reported to have raised her arm in the Hitler salute - not to do so could have cost her her life. Yet there is also some evidence to suggest that she found the mass spectacle fascinating, and that she found some release in surrendering herself to the well-directed and orchestrated cries of 'Die Treue ist der Mark der Ehre'. There is, however, no evidence of her ever having embraced the ideas of Nazism. Scharp related that they agreed during a conversation that 'it was impossible to unite a faith in man, his worth and personality, with obedience to dictatorship' (Margit Abenius).
In Berlin, Karin Boye also began a sexual relationship with Margot Hanel, a German-Jewish woman who was twelve years younger than her. It was a relationship that was to have a tragic end. In many ways, Karin Boye's life in Berlin was influenced by the confused and gloom-laden atmosphere of the last years of the Weimar Republic, and her involvement with Margot Hanel was a part of that reality. The 'psychoanalytic' circles she frequented could not have been further removed from the Christian summer camps of her early twenties; while the contrast was necessary and salutary, there are also some factors that suggest her life might have taken a more fortunate turn had she avoided those circles.
3. 1933-1938
One of the ways in which Karin Boye sought to clarify the problems in her inner and emotional life, and even to seek answers to them, was the writing of prose fiction. In novels such as 'Crisis', 'Astarte' and 'Merit Wakes Up', she explored the themes of the strong woman and the weak man, of lifelong self-deception, of the 'doil's house', and other problems of inner and outer existence. These works, of which she wrote many, are less 'pure' than her poetry. They are often somewhat schematic, and the characters tend to be merely vehicles for the author's ideas. From many angles these works can even be viewed as commercial, which they were insofar as another aim of her writing them was to secure herself an income, a task made all the more pressing by the expense of analysis. Yet in these books she tackled themes that were controversial in their time, and she probably helped others by publishing them. This was particularly true of 'Crisis', a book which depicts her own adolescent religious crisis and discovery of her own bisexuality. Around 1933, at the time it was written, there was much discussion in Sweden about a liberalization of the laws on homosexuality, and her documentary novel was a contribution to the public debate. It is probably her strongest prose work after her masterpiece, Kallocain, and it was widely read and discussed.
Back in Sweden in 1934, the poet bought a small flat in Stockholm consisting of two rooms and a kitchen 'in an environment so devoid of tradition, more functionalistically cold and impossible than anywhere else in Stockholm... a hell of lines that gives not the slightest opportunity to the imagination.' According to Margit Abenius, however, the flat possessed a good view in summer of flowering gardens and a fountain, and it is possible that Karin Boye felt less lonely in a city than she might have done living alone in the countryside. There was, nevertheless, the fact that all her attempts to make a life with another human being had failed. Temperamentally unsuited to solitariness, she must have found her life at this time extremely difficult. In desperation, she decided to invite Margot Hanel to come from Berlin and live with her. At first the experiment went well: for the first time in her life, Karin Boye felt calm and reassured, and as if she had some sort of root in existence. But Margot Hanel was extremely jealous amd dependent, and as time went by she began to develop chronic illnesses, making Karin look after her and take complete responsibility for her. In a matter of months, the 'marriage' degenerated into a destructive symbiosis: while, out of jealousy, Margot refused to let Karin see her literary friends and tried to make her stay in the flat and talk about trivia, Karin repaid her with personal cruelty, talking to others condescendingly about her, and even calling their relationship 'ein ausgehaltenes Verhältnis'. Yet the couple stayed together. Karin evidently found in Margot, who made such very great demands on her, an outlet for her need for self-sacrifice and self-immolation. Margot Hanel also seems to have been a substitute for the child Karin Boye never had. And, while it must have been profoundly tormenting for both partners much of the time, the relationship also had its brighter moments. According to Margit Abenius, the couple 'became welded together in the way that cannot be avoided between two people who share life's troubles for a long time.' It was to Margot Hanel that Karin wrote the epigram 'To You':
You my despair and my strength,
you took all the life I owned,
and because you demanded everything,
you gave back a thousandfold.
At this time, also, Karin Boye wrote her novel Too Little. Its hero, Harald Måhrman, is torn between art and life, and ends by choosing neither, creating an atmosphere of disharmony and hostility wherever he goes. His failure is a failure to love - either his art or his family, or both. Margit Abenius quotes Karin Boye's diary of 1921, with its entry: 'I believe that what one receives in love is precisely what one gives - not necessarily from and to the other person, but from and to love.'
1935 saw the publication of Karin Boye's fourth book of poetry, För trädets skull ('For the Tree's Sake'). This met with a mixed response from the critics, many of whom saw in it a capitulation to free-verse modernism. In fact, however, the volume continues and develops many of the poet's earlier themes and concerns, though now with more austere technical means, and an almost 'neo-classical' restraint. The free verse poems give the impression of avoiding rhyme and metre in order to approach the truth more closely, not in order to shock, or to disrupt conventional modes of perception. One detects a shift away from Christianity, and at the same time away from the ideals of Clarté towards a more abstract, impersonal kind of art - yet the familiar themes of love, suffering, sacrifice, hope and betrayal are always present, too. Much of the negative thrust of the critcs' response to the collection - they wanted the 'old' Karin Boye back - was precisely because she had moved on from political radicalism towards an individually-conceived view of the world and of cosmic reality.
Margit Abenius describes a dream which Karin Boye related to Harry Martinson: 'She was dead and had come to paradise. Heavenly bliss was organized like a school. On the wall hung a timetable showing hours and lessons. Karin and the other blessed ones had to sit in the chalices of sweet-scented roses and God hurled the roses with their souls through the azure. A radiant, unutterable sense of happiness accompanied the rose lesson. After that came the "lily lesson". Brilliant white madonna lilies grew everywhere in large clumps and clusters as far as the eye could see. One could hear singing. Pilgrims walked in multitudes. But the lily lesson was not as eventful and highly-charged as the rose lesson; it led nowhere but seemed to stand still. Then an immensely large female figure appeared. She was wonderfully beautiful, but her hands were large and coarse like a charwoman's. Karin knew that this was Reality. She suddenly saw this hybrid of goddess and charwoman sitting on a throne, and seized by reverence she bowed down and kissed her foot. And then Reality asked: "Why are you kissing my foot? After all, you do not know me."'
In 1936, Karin Boye started work as a teacher at Viggbyholm boarding school, near Stockholm. The school's founder, a Christian pacifist named Per Sundberg, wanted to bring together children from different ethnic backgrounds, and many of the pupils were refugees from Hitler's Germany. There were also many children of divorce, and children with problems of development. At first, Karin Boye went on living in Stockholm and travelling to the school to teach, but eventually she moved to Viggbyholm and spent all her time there. It was a milieu that brought together several of the previous environments in which she had lived: the radical, pacifistic intellectual atmosphere was reminiscent of that of Clarté, while the Christian element in the teaching was similar to what she had experienced as a young theology student at summer camps. There was also the presence of trees and nature. Initially, Karin Boye taught very young children. There were problems attendant on this, however, for the children tended to laugh at their teacher and call her names. One little boy even said, when the children were asked why they laughed at her: 'because she looks like a little pig!' Thereafter, Karin Boye was transferred to the school's higher classes, the 'gymnasium', or grammar school, where she became a much-admired and loved teacher.
Far from being the 'school of reality', however, this was hardly an an ordinary environment. In many ways, it seems to have functioned in Karin Boye's life as a kind of continuation of her psychoanalysis: spending so much time in the company of children and young people, she found that new layers of her personality were constantly being opened. This process of 'opening' or 'being broken open' had become very important to her: 'All human beings want to be broken open', she wrote to her friend Anna Petri. At this time, too, she developed a lively interest in Gestalt psychology.
Among the German-Jewish emigré friends she made during the summer of 1937 time were several men. To one of these she became very closely attached, and it seemed that some kind of decision was imminent. But at the last moment the poet went away to Stockholm to see Margot Hanel for a few days, and when she came back she asked the man to forget everything that had passed between them. Something seemed to have changed in her relationship with Margot, and from that time onwards she ceased to talk of it and her in condescending tones. The epigram 'To You', written in July 1937, put the seal on this. Yet the problems within the relationship were not resolved: indeed, they seemed to intensify. In 1938 Karin tried to send Margot to Paris to live with a family there, but Margot returned within a month. Karin spoke of 'events that have made my life into chaos', and in a letter to the handwriting expert, Dr Blum she wrote, in German:
Nur tun mir Ihre Schlussworte über die notwendige Resignation ein bisschen weh. Ich stehe eben in einer Situation, wo eine absolute Selbstaufopferung - von Arbeitsfreude, Kameradschaft, künstlerischem Schaffen, Ruhe, Harmonie - verlangt wird, und ich habe so schwer ein solches Opfer zu bringen, jedenfalls kann es nicht mit Freude geschehen. Glauben Sie wirklich, dass Resignation der Sinn meines Lebens sein kann? {Eine zu persönliche Frage... Die Antwort kann nie von einem Anderen kommen.)
Only your words at the end about necessary resignation hurt me a little. For I am in just such a situation where an absolute self-sacrifice - of joy in my work, of friendship, of artistic creation, of peace, of harm ony - is demanded of me, and I find it so hard to make such a sacrifice - at any rate, it cannot happen with joy. Do you really believe that resignation can be the meaning of my life? (A too personal question... The answer can never come from someone else.)
In February 1938, Karin Boye visited the cathedral town of Linköping in order to give a reading of her poems. While staying there, she visited the cathedral and had a deep spiritual experience while standing before the altar-painting of Christ by the modern Norwegian artist Anna Sørensen, and the tapestries by Märta Afzelius. The result of the experience forms the subject of the long poem 'Linköping Cathedral', in The Seven Deadly Sins.
During the summer of the same year, the poet visited Greece on a travel scholarship from the Swedish Academy. On the way she visited Vienna, Prague and Istanbul. In Greece she travelled from Athens to Delos, where she wrote: 'the Aegean sea is brilliant blue, and on the other side of the water lie other rocky islands in a thick heat haze. The light is wonderful. It overwhelms one, takes one's breath away. It is apt here. After all, Apollo was the one "whose eyes had never seen the darkness".'
In the autumn of 1938, at her own request, Karin Boye took up full-time teaching at Viggbyholm, but the workload proved to be too much for her, and she suffered from overstrain and exhaustion. Her consciousness of the cruel and terrible events that were taking place in Europe at this time, the German invasion of Czechoslovakia and the persecution of the Jews, also contributed to her sense of confusion and breakdown. She was unable to write or work on her poetry, a condition which for her was tantamount to a complete paralysis of spirit, and she developed a severe and acutely painful inflammation of the nerves in one of her arms, which nothing would cure. Eventually she left Viggbyholm, and returned to Stockholm.
4. 1939 - SUMMER 1941
It was at around this time that the poet began to correspond again more frequently with Anita Nathorst, whom she had now known for almost twenty years. Anita had contracted a disastrous form of skin cancer, which was eating its way inwards into her body. Karin, who was still in love with Anita, travelled to Alingsås, near Göteborg, in order to be with her and look after her. While she was there, she wrote letters to Margot Hanel assuring the latter of her continued loyalty. In many ways, the poet seemed split in two - something noticed by her mother, who wanted to encourage her daughter's move away from Margot Hanel, but was concerned by her psychological state. This may not have been made any easier by the fact that Anita was by now the assistant of the psychoanalyst Iwan Bratt, who lived in Alingsås and whose house she frequented. Karin came into contact with many seriously disturbed patients, and Bratt himself seems to have been a somewhat controversial figure, with an approach to psychoanalysis that some called crude and oversimplified.
Nonetheless, all this time Karin Boye continued to work at her writing with great application and an almost demonic intensity. Not only did she produce a large body of poetry - she also wrote and completed her prose masterpiece, the novel Kallocain, which bears an epigraph from T.S. Eliot:
The awful daring of a moment's surrender,
which an age of prudence could never retract,
by this, and this only, we have existed...
Kallocain, a strange, nightmarish novel of cells and staircases and corridors, is open to several interpretations. On one level, it may be read as a political satire in the tradition of Zamyatin's We or Huxley's Brave New World: it concerns events within a World State of the future, which resembles both the Third Reich of the Nazis and the Soviet Union of Stalin. A central role is played by a truth serum ('Kallocain') invented by Leo Kall, a worker in a state chemical plant, who seeks to overthrow the state and the lies with which it has indoctrinated humanity. On another level, however, the novel may be read as a meditation on inwardness and confession, or 'breaking-open'. It contains many passages of extreme power and evocativeness, underscored by the eerie presence of wartime Sweden, with its military personnel on the streets, its whispered conversations held in fear of being overheard.
When it appeared in the autumn of 1940, Kallocain met with enthusiastic reviews. Artur Lundkvist declared that it was in 'the international class', while another critic called it 'a thoroughly thought-through, thoroughly felt, one might even say thoroughly suffered work of art.' The poet herself wrote to Ingeborg Holst on 23 January 1941:
You asked me how it (the novel) had gone and how it had been received. It has had consistently excellent reviews and has even come out in a second edition... All kinds of people, friends and strangers alike, have written and thanked me...
As Margit Abenius writes in her biography, both Kallocain and the poems of The Seven Deadly Sins should be seen as the fruits of the liberation experienced by Karin Boye when she perceived that 'our most intimate and most extreme problems are and remain problems of life-philosophy and faith': 'It was an image of man that was formed in her view of life - an image that hads probably always been there in rough outline - a Spinozan image, in which man is a multiplicity of countless forces that strive towards the 'unity' which it reflects in its broken life-utterances. In 'Man's Multiplicity' the prophetess speaks as out of a dark Middle Ages:
We were born of mothers of heaven and earth
and of powers with no end in view,
nocturnal wills and wills of light
with names that no one knew.
May one of the many
not gain power over us,
though she be of heaven's race
and shine in magnificence.
In us a multiplicity lives.
It fumbles towards unity.
Its capturing, gathering burningglass
we were born to be.
Great is man's striving,
great the goals it has set
but much greater is man himself
with roots in universal night.
So give, that we shield a secret room
and never a flame do lack
on the altar of an unknown god,
that may tomorrow wake.
The last year of Karin Boye's life was one of tragic contrasts, paradoxes and deepening insight. Realizing the depth of her love for Anita Nathorst, she also realized that that love could not be returned to her. In a letter to a friend, she wrote:
That not even the times and the decline of the West should prevent one from collapsing like a house of cards and burning like a piece of tinder and that when one finally attains something that has lain in one for twenty years, the person concerned is dying of cancer and sufficiently exposed to radium not to have a spark of sex left. We agreed that life is macabre in a way that no reforms can ever remove, macabre to its innermost kernel.
Yet this was also the year in which she visited Denmark, which was now under German occupation. Conscious of the propaganda value of cultural visits, the German authorities in Copenhagen had arranged for a delegation of German writers and poets to come and give readings there. No one attended them. Then the Danish cultural authorities invited a group of Swedish poets and writers, including Karin Boye, to take part in a 'Swedish week' in the Danish capital. Karin Boye was introduced to the Danish royal family, and Kallocain was written about enthusiastically in the Danish press. This visit was perhaps the nearest the poet ever came to a direct political action, and it also set the seal on her fame and international reputation. She is now considered one of the major Swedish poets of all time, in the same tradition as Viktor Rydberg, Gustaf Fröding and Vilhelm Ekelund. She was also a seminal influence on the development of Swedish modernism, in particular the generation of 1940's poets that included Gunnar Ekelöf, Harry Martinson, Erik Lindegren and Artur Lundkvist.
The inner conflicts that split Karin Boye and which were reflected in her tortured love relationships gained the upper hand over the artist in her. Inwardly doubting about Anita, whose move away from Alingsås to Malmö may not have been entirely for medical reasons, and deeply ambivalent about Margot Hanel, who was still completely emotionally dependent on her, Karin Boye succumbed to an access of despair. On 23 April 1941 she left the house at Alingsås and walked off into the surrounding countryside, taking only a bottle of sleeping tablets with her. Some days later, after a police search of the district that proved fruitless, she was found by a passer-by, dead from exposure. A month later, Margot Hanel gassed herself. Anita Nathorst died of cancer in August.


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