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Elmer (Rafael) Diktonius (1896-1961)


Poet and composer, compared to Edith Södergran as a reformer of the poetic expression. Diktonius was exceptionally talented in using the both Finnish languages, Finnish and Swedish. He also borrowed elements from one language to another. With Edith Södergran, Gunnar Björling, Rabbe Enckell and Henry Parland, Diktonius was a member of a new avantgarde school of Swedish-speaking poets, who were interested in experimenting with new ideas and stylistic means. In his lifetime, Diktonius failed to achieve wide acceptance as a poet.

"Over there our houses lie
cowering tight to one another.
And they are not fair to behold
even in summer dress 
now faint the darkling shacks appear
from which not many glints of light
can reach us.
Meagre poverty, mostly, and creeping fear:
our world."

(from 'Finnish Winter Dawn,' 1948)

Elmer Diktonius was born in Helsinki, the son of August Viktor Diktonius, a print shop foreman, and Adelaide Malmström, the daughter of a contractor. The family spoke Swedish, but for practical reasons Diktonius attended Helsingin normaalilyseo, a Finnish-language school, which helped him to acquire bilingualism.

Diktonius was a lazy pupil and at the age of sixteen he left the school. Following the death of his father in 1912 he started a period of voracious reading, which included such writers as Friedrich Nietzsche, August Strindberg, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Walt Whitman, and Knut Hamsun. After a brief stint as a sheet-music salesman, he enrolled Helsingfors Music Institute, studying violin and composition from 1915 to 1919.

In 1915 Diktonius met then 19-years-old Otto Ville Kuusinen, who became later a member of the Soviet politbyroo and whose socialist views influenced him deeply. Diktonius published in Työväen Joulualbumi his first text and was encouraged by Kuusinen to study Marxist literature. Kuusinen preached the aesthetics which aimed to awaken the masses to revolution.

During the Finish Civil war (1917-18) Diktonius's sympathies were on the Red's side, but he did not join the Red Guards. Between August 1919 and September 1920 Diktonius served in the army. Part of the time he spent in medical corps on Valamo in Lake Ladoga. His modernistic songs - first presented in a concert in 1920 - were condemned by critics. Financed by Hella Wuolijoki, his mother and possibly Swedish communists, Diktonius traveled in 1920-21 in Sweden, France, and England. Before starting the journey, Diktonius sent the composer Arnold Schönberg three letters, but dropped his plan to move to Wien as his student. While abroad, he met representatives of the international Communist movement, wrote several poems, and had an affair in London with Mary Moorhouse, a feminist and Communist party worker. She later married the leftist Finnish politician Eino Pekkala.

Diktonius's first book, Min dikt (1921), was published in Stockholm and edited by Kuusinen. The work was made up largely of aphorisms. "Democracy is the last refuge of the bourgeoisie," Diktonius declared. "Communism is going to be their end." Although Min dikt was ignored in Finland, the young poet was introduced by the critic Hagar Olsson to Edith Södergran and other members of the modernist group. Diktonius also contributed in 1921-22 to the magazine Arbetarbladet. In his sharp and sometime cruel reviews he attacked such writers as Gripenberg, Runar Schildt, and Jarl Hemmer. With the Swedish writer Eyvind Johnson he began a correspondence which continued for decades.

Hårda sånger (1922), Diktonius's second collection of poems, was also received with little notice. However, it included 'Jaguaren' (Jaguar), perhaps the most famous poem of the author. Jaguar is a machine that hits, it has heart and it longs for beauty. The duty of the jaguar is to fly and bite and tear apart, to "kill the cry of those without feeling, the sympathy of the heartless." The text was written in Paris and it was later printed in Ivan Gollin's anthology Les cinq continents, translated by Lidia Stahl, and in a Finland-Swedish anthology edited by Edith Södergran. Stahl, a Comintern agent and the former lover of Kuusinen, John Reed and Wäinö Aaltonen, corresponded with Diktonius in broken Swedish.  

With Brödet och elden (1922) Diktonius became a recognized member of Helsinki literary life. Tassiga lågor (1924) presented a set of "portrait poems" of the poet's cultural heroes, and showed the influence of Edgar Lee Masters. In Stenkol (1927) Diktonius's vision of revolution frightened his conservative readers. Diktonius called attention to the graves of Reds, who died during the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), a nationally traumatic period. With this work he won the appraisal young young leftist poets in Sweden. The book appeared in a period of personal crisis - his marriage to the singer Meri Marttinen, the most important woman in his life, came to pieces. A journey to Paris (1925-27) was abrupted by illness and shortage of money. His marriage ended in divorce and his wife's subsequent suicide in 1930. Diktonius devoted the poem 'Vi sjöng' in the collection Stark men mörk (1930) to her memory. Both Meri and Diktonius loved cats. In one poem he referred to her as a cat with sharp claws.  

Because of financial reasons Diktonius lived in the country for some time. In a letter to his mother he once told that he had only one pair of trousers, with a hole at the back. Especially Diktonius enjoyed stays at Lumparland in Ahvenanmaa islands. Some of his time Diktonius spent in Röykkä, Nurmijärvi. In 1931 he moved with his wife to Kauniainen. Stark men mörk marked the end of his rebellious, international period. Diktonius became interested in nature and Finland's literary heritage, exemplified in his tribute to J.J. Wecksell. Like Uuno Kailas in Uni ja kuolema (1931) he saw threats emerging from the east.

Diktonius participated in the establishment of the modernist journal Quosego (1928-29), and wrote music critics for Nya Argus. In 1929 he married Anna-Leena Jyrkkä, whom he had known from the late 1910s. "I'm living only for you," he said in a letter. The second marriage turned out to be more stable. Diktonius contributed to Sosialidemokraatti, Elanto, Tulenkantajat, and the Swedish magazines and newspapers Arbetet (Malmö), Nya Daglig Allehanda, Clarté and Spectrum. To protest the right-wing Lapua movement he joined Helsingfors svenska arbetarförening. In his poems and other publications Diktonius's revealed his mellower side as is seen in Jordisk ömhet (1938). In Medborgare i republiken Finland (1935), his citizens in the Republic of Finland included democratically farmers, Fascists, orphans, and mothers.

Janne Kubik, Diktonius's most important novel, came out in 1932. The expressionistic story depicts a longshoreman, who joins during the Finnish Civil War first the Red Guard, later the winning side of White forces, starts then during Finland's prohibition a career as a romrunner, becomes a fascist sympathizer and a bullyboy, a prematurely aged dockworker and strikebreaker, and finally falls to his death through a ship's cargo hatch. The events are quasi-scholarly commented by the author, who tries to find some sense in the life of the poor protagonist. The elliptic sentences, quick shifts of time and place made the book a pioneer work in the Scandinavian novel. Diktonius, who was completely bilingual, claimed that Janne Kubik was conceived in Finnish and published the "original" Janne Kuutio in 1946.

In 1936 Diktonius's satirical article in Arbetarbladet on Adolf Hitler prompted a reaction from the German ambassador in Finland, and the editor of the paper, K-A. Fagerholm, was condemned to a fine. In 1940 Diktonius joined the circle around Bertolt Brecht, who stayed in Finland for a period. Brech characterized Diktonius as "der finnische Horaz."

After the outbreak of the Continuation War (1941-44), Diktonius served in the army at the information department for a short period. He did not much appreciate war poetry and propaganda but one of his poems from Stenkol, 'The Tile Workers,' was published in Waffenbruder Finnland (1942). Its foreword was written by President Svinhufvud and the Nazi ideologist Alfred Rosenberg. The beginning of the year 1943 Diktonius spent in a hospital. To a friend he wrote: "For the last two decades, I have never felt healthy." Ideologically he had taken distance to leftist views. He eulogized in the patriotic Varsel (1942) the composer Jean Sibelius, the novelist Frans Emil Sillanpää, and the president Kyösti Kallio. In the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter Diktonius defended Finland's pact with Germany and the conquest of the Russian Carelia. Following the end of hostilities between Finland and the Soviet Union, Diktonius made again an ideological turn and started to write critics for the Communist paper Työkansan Sanomat. His unconventional Swedish translation of Aleksis Kivi's (1834-1872) classic novel Seitsemän veljestä (1948, Seven Brothers) showed his skill to create a language entirely his own.

"Evig lever jag.
Om människa eller fixstjärna,
solsystem eller martall
på en öde klippa vid havet,
är detsamma."

Diktonius's last collections of poems, Annorlunda (1948) and Novembervår (1951) witnessed the author's emotional tiredness, with few exceptions, among them a poem about his dead mother; she died in 1940. Most of the final decade of his life Diktonius spent in hospitals and sanatoriums. With his wife he went in 1956 to Sochi, Russia, but eventually he stopped traveling because he could not afford it. In the 1950s he published several selections and collections of his works, among them Dikter (1955), Prosa (1955) and Meningar (1957). Diktonius died on September 23, 1961, in Helsinki.

For further reading: Den unge Diktonius by Olof Enckell (1946); 'The Postwar Novel of Swedish Finland' by G.C. Schoolfield, in Scandinavian Studies, 34, pp. 85-110 (1962); Romantik och marxism: Estetik och politik hos Otto Ville Kuusinen och Elmer Diktonius by Thomas Henrikson (1971); 'The Birth of Finland-Swedish Modernism' by J. Wrede, in Scandinavica, 15, pp. 73-103 (1976); Diktonius: modernisti ja säveltäjä = Diktonius som tonsättare by Matti Vainio (1976); Expressionisten Elmer Diktonius by Bill Romefors (1978); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); Elmer Diktonius by G.C. Schoolfield (1980); Kapinalliset kynät by Raoul Palmgren I-III (1984); 'Avantgardet i öster' by Clas Zilliacus , in Den Svenska Litteraturen, Vol. 5 (1989); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Poesi som rörelse i tiden: om vers som källa till kognitiv rytmisk respons: exemplet Elmer Diktonius by Jörgen Larsson (1998); Diktonius: Elämä by Jörn Donner (2007)

Selected works:

  • Min dikt, 1921
    - Runoni (suom. Arvo Turtiainen, 1972)
  • Hårda sånger, 1922
  • Brödet och elden, 1923
  • Ungt hav: ny dikt i övers., 1923
  • Taggiga lågor, 1924
  • Onnela: finsk idyll, 1925
  • Stenkol, 1927
  • Ingenting och andra novellistiska skisser, 1928
  • Stark men mörk, 1930
  • Lyriskt urval / Eino Leino, 1931 (translator)
  • Janne Kubik: ett träsnitt i ord, 1932
    - Janne Kuutio: puupiirros sanoin (suom. Elmer Diktonius, 1946)
  • Opus 12: musik, 1933
  • Mull och moln: nöjd prosa, enkla dikter, 1934
  • Dikter i urval / Carl Sandburg, 1934 (translator, with Artur Lundkvist and Erik Blomberg, foreword by Anna Lenah Elgström)
  • Medborgare i republiken Finland: novelliad, 1935 (illustrated by Tapio Tapiovaara)
    - Suomen tasavallan kansalaisia: novelliadi (suom. Marianne ja Pekka Tarkka, 1972)
  • Gräs och granit: valda dikter och nya, 1936
  • 20 år ung dikt, 1936 (editor, with Rabbe Enckell)
  • Jordisk ömhet, 1938
  • Medborgare: andra samlingen, 1940
  • Varsel: dikter, 1942
  • Finland berättar: trettio noveller, 1943 (editor, with Lauri Viljanen)
  • Karu nuoruus / Jan Fridegård, 1943 (translator; original titlet: Jag Lars Hård, Tack för himlastegen, Barmhärtighet)
  • Höstlig bastu, 1943
  • Vår sång: lyriskt urval / Katri Vala, 1943 (translator, with others)
  • Hård början, 1946
  • Sju bröder / Aleksis Kivi, 1948 (translator, illustrated by Marcus Collin; original title: Seitsemän veljestä)
  • Annorlunda: dikter, 1948
  • Novembervår, 1951
  • Ringar i stubben:  dikter och småprosa 1918-1953, 1954 (edited by Jörn Donner; illustrated by Tapio Tapiovaara)
  • Dikter 1912-1942, 1955 (edited by Olof Enckell)
  • Prosa 1925-1943, 1955 (edited by Olof Enckell)
  • Kirjaimia ja kirjavia: runoja, 1956 (edited by Jörn Donner)
  • Meningar; Aforismer; Musik; Kivi och Södergran; Mänskor, böcker, städer, natur, 1957 (edited by Olof Enckell)
  • Runoja, 1963 (suom. Viljo Kajava)
  • Dikt och prosa, 1975 (edited by Thomas Warburton)
  • Frysom: lysom!: Elmer Diktonius och Gunnar Ekelöf brevväxlar, 1984 (edited by Ulf Thomas Moberg)
  • Samlade dikter, 1987 (introduction by Thomas Warburton, edited by Andreas Gedin)
  • Brev, 1995 (published by Jörn Donner and Marit Lindqvist)
    - Kirjeitä ja katkelmia (toim. Jörn Donner ja Marit Lindqvist, 1955)
  • Och så vill jag prata med dig: brevväxlingen mellan Eyvind Johnson och Elmer Diktonius, 1997 (edited by Örjan Lindberger)
  • Finlandssvenska dikten. 7, Elmer Diktonius, 2001 (edited by Bo Carpelan) 

Selected compositions:

  • Väntan (lyrics by G. Fröding)
  • Kring valnötsträdens tomma grenar (lyrics by Wilhelm Eklund)
  • Aus den Himmelsaugen droben (lyrics by Heinrich Heine)
  • S'ist stille (text by Guido Gezelle)
  • Det första vårregnet (lyrics by Wilhelm Eklund)
  • Ich höre Hörner blasen (Guido Gezelle)
  • Jag sitter ensam i mörkret (Hjalmar Söderberg)
  • Diktonius's compositions include 11 works, ten songs and a piece for piano and violin. His early music critics were collected in 1933 under the title Opus 12For further information:  Diktonius: modernisti ja säveltäjä by Matti Vainio (1976). Other Swedish-speaking Finnish writer/music critics: Ralf Parland

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