<cite>Linköping Cathedral February 1938</cite> In February 1938 Karin Boye visited Linköping to read her poems to the members of a women’s club there. While in the great 13th to 15th-century cathedral, she became engrossed in two modern works of art: the altar-piece painted in 1933-35 by the Norwegian Expressionist Henrik Sörensen (1882-1962) and three tapestries by the Swedish artist Märta Afzelius (1887-1961) recently installed behind the altar. During hours of reflection, Boye conceived a poem cycle, eventually published posthumously in 1941 in De sju dödssynderna (The Seven Deadly Sins). She said her first poem was inspired by Sörensen’s centre panel (depicting a Nordic-looking Jesus), her second by the side panels (portraying Biblical and ecclesiastical figures), her third mainly by the recumbent blue figure on the left, and her fourth by Afzelius’s ‘Creation’ tapestries. Boye did not know the identity of the blue figure (Paul) and thought the adjacent green figure, Jeremiah, was Job.

The translation fully reproduces Boye’s rhyme scheme (except for the composite rhyme‘bådar han…genomskådar han’ in poem I, partly represented in ‘prefigures…rigours scan’). This meant deviating from the literal meaning, rhythm and individual line length of the original, although all lines still have 4-11 syllables. The more widely-spaced rhymes of poems II, III and IV invited greater literalness in translation than did poem I’s dense and multiple rhymes. Poem IV is now more or less in iambic pentameters, but perhaps such changes are appropriate where Swedish grammatical features (for example, the suffixed definite article or infinitives ending in weakly stressed ‘-a’) create natural rhythmic differences.

Photos of the artworks referred to in the poem can be found on the cathedral's website: The Altar Piece and one of the tapestries (first row of thumbnails, left hand side, or view image directly). Please note that the website pages are in Swedish only.


The Altar-Piece

I

Do not look here for the silence of the dead.
The walls drip with the ages’ watchful waking.
With living spirits on their journey back
the vaults are quaking.
The circling flow
of the centuries is slow.
Everything is close. Nothing
is long ago.

The spirit that lifted stone on stone,
like a sap that through the temple’s tall trunks surged,
has made a new branch sprout.
In the pictures’ flashing brilliance are shown
demands for sacrifice; and what they urged
relentlessly, our fathers carried out.

That thin-lipped man never sat by the well
contentedly, while evening fell
and weary flocks surged home, with dusk ablaze
as its grief-relieving work began.
He is fire. Blazing fire he prefigures,
as much a god as a young man.
His eyes with piercing rigours scan
all secret things, as only young eyes can.
High in the gaudy arches’ frame
his purity conveys
a call to arms. Across his forehead flame
the hard, young medieval days.

Altartavlan

I

Sök inte här de dödas tystnad.
Murarna droppar av tidernas vaka.
Valven skälver av levande andar
på väg tillbaka.
Seklernas ring
vänder sig långsamt kring.
Allting är nära.  Förgånget
är ingenting.

Den ande, som lyfte sten på sten
lik en tempelstammarnas drivande sav,
har skjutit en gren på nytt.
Från bilderna går ett ljungande sken
av obönhörliga offerkrav,
som fäderna hört och lytt.

Den mannen där med den smala munnen
satt aldrig lycklig vid aftonbrunnen,
då hjordarna böljade trötta hem
och en sorgelösande skymning brann.
Han är elden.  Branden bådar han,
gud lika mycket som ung man.
Allt som är hemligt genomskådar han
strängt som bara de unga kan.
Hög i sin renhets bjärta bågar
bjuder han strid.
Över hans panna lågar
hård ung medeltid.

II

The centuries in kindred train,
prophets side by side, process,
darkly real against the spaces’
silver air and nothingness.

So essential in the phantom
of creation, man alone
in the ages’ vast cathedral makes
his heavy soul a stone. –

And their gazes are far off
with what will never fade,
their features caskets closed with locks
that frozen passion made.

II

Århundraden i syskontåg,
profet vid profet,
mörkt verkliga mot rymder
av silverluft och intighet.

Så ensamt väsentlig
i skapelsens fantom
bär människan sin tunga själ
till sten i tidevarvens dom. --

Och deras blick är fjärran
hos det som ej förgås,
och deras drag är slutna skrin
med stelnad lidelse till lås.

III

So heavily the light strikes
that no dust can bear it.
Begone, light!You are crushing
your dwelling-place of clay.
How many you afflicted
from the earliest times –
and ‘Mercy!’ was always
the prayer their lips would pray.

How many you have wrestled with,
yet merely consoled
with visions’ baffling promises
those you overcame.
How many walked at daybreak
from the Jabbok’s ford
with the sum of their lives
in a hip your hand left lame.

We saw their movements,
unlovely and deformed,
thinking: Are they instruments
for the light to use?
See, the sunlight of health
can gently heal the world,
but not these sick ones;
only soundness it renews. –

We saw their smiles
and could not read their meaning;
we saw their tracks
of which the legends tell.
Who knows what he is choosing?
for we grew drunk
on splendours of their heaven
and splendours of their hell.

Yes, who now knows the paths
to the philosophers’ stone
and the red cores of life –
is anyone still sure?
They boldly risked their souls.
Can the Jabbok’s mighty one
give the race beneath the stars
of the fear of death a cure?

III

Så tungt slår ljuset
att inget stoft bär det.
Gå bort, ljus!  Du krossar
det ler du tar till boning.
Hur många har du hemsökt
sen urtidens dagar --
och alla alla
bad samma bön: förskoning!

Hur många har du brottats med
och segrat över
och tröstat blott med synernas
förvirrade löften.
Hur många gick i gryningen
från Jabboksvadet
med summan av sitt liv
i den lamslagna höften.

Vi såg deras rörelser
av oskönt lyte
och tänkte: Är det redskap
för ljuset att bruka?
Se, hälsans solljus,
som milt läker världen,
är mäktigt i det friska,
men dessa är sjuka. --

Vi såg deras leende
och kunde inte tyda det,
vi såg deras spår,
som legenderna förtäljer.
Prakt av deras himmel
och prakt av deras helvete
grep oss som ett rus.
Vem vet vad han väljer?

Ja vem vet ännu,
ja vem vet vägarna,
som leder till de vises sten
och livets röda kärnor.
De vågade sin själ.
Så säg, Jabboks väldige,
har du bot åt släktet
under dödsfruktans stjärnor?

The Tapestries

IV

But just as in the fields that lately lay
quite empty, plants develop and unfold,
in space’s springtime, slowly, earth began
to blossom after waking from the cold.

From club-moss forests and from lizards’ mud
life, creeping upwards, scaled the precipice.
There, on the edge, a kneeling human child
is looking out across the deep abyss.

How did the birds’ wings sprout in their soft down,
the chestnut’s candelabrum rise to glow
with lovely candles gently held aloft,
while snake and dragon languished far below?

In spring we know the power of the depths
cannot have emptied out its gushing source.
So let us sense in everything that is
the well-heads swelling with creative force,

let go of righteousness’s crafty schemes,
as anguished Job did on his heap of pains,
and rather lean our sick and stubborn hope
against the one true wonder that remains.

Bonaderna

IV

Men så som örterna vecklas ut
där markerna nyss låg tomma,
så vaknade jorden i rymdens vår
och började långsamt blomma.

Ur lummerskogar och ödleslam
kröp livet uppför stupet.
Där ligger ett människobarn på knä
och ser utöver djupet.

Hur växte där vingar i fåglarnas dun?
Hur lyftes kastanjens stake,
som varligt och stolt bär de finaste ljus
ögt ovanför orm och drake?

Vi vet om våren, att djupens kraft
kan inte ha tömt sin källa.
Så låt oss förnimma i allt som är
de skapande brunnarna svälla

och släppa som Job på sin plågas hög
rättfärdighetens funder
och luta vårt sjuka och sega hopp
mot undret som än är under.