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Rabbe Enckell (1903-1974)


Writer and painter, one of the main theoreticians of Fenno-Swedish modernism. Enckell's production is interlaced with poetry, aphorisms, drama and prose. There are also symbols from ancient Greece and Rome in his verse and plays. With Edith Södergran, Elmer Diktonius, Gunnar Björling, and Henry Parland, Enckell became a member of a new avantgarde school of Swedish-speaking poets in Finland, who introduced new ideas into literature. His brother Olof also gained fame as a critic, novelist, and literary scholar.

"One can find nothing in life
unless one finds those words
that are transparent with
what the spirit has in common with everything and everyone.
One can find nothing unless one is able to weave oneself
a net that fits every sea and every river."


Rabbe Enckell, born in Tammela, was a member of a distinguished intellectual family. His father was Karl Enckell, a professor of agriculture (1853-1937). Olof, Enckell's brother (see below), was a prolific critic and literary scholar, while another, Torger, gained international reputation as a painter. Later Enckell portrayed his father in Essay on livets framfart (1961). Enckell graduated from the high school Svenska normallyceum of Helsinki in 1921, and studied then art at the University of Helsinki. From 1924 Enckell worked as an artist, also publishing nearly 40 books. He debuted as a poet with Dikter (1923), intense lyrics of love and nature. Next year he had his first art exhibition. At the age of nineteen, he began to contribute to the short-lived culture magazine Quosego, which was the forum of Finland-Swedish modernist writers and polemicized against "village romanticism."

In his early artistic program Enckell declared that the "power which drives art to the highest achievements can not be anything but the interest in art". Quesego, like its predecessor Ultra (1922), attracted young writers who did not accept the aestheticism of the older generation, but at the same time they could embrace the Romantic "art for art's sake" ideal. However, the young Fenno-Swedish modernist writers never formed any cohesive group. When Edith Södergran wrote visionary poems in Raivola, coping with the inevitability of death, Enckell was devoted to beauty and his observations of nature.

"Havet ältar sina minnen,
tills de blir glattslipande:
och ändå betyder de så litet."

Vårens Cistern (1931) presented Enckell's 'matchstick poems' equivalent of the Japanese haiku, in which he apprehended specifically the Finnish pastoral scene. In Tonbrädet (1935) the tone is resigned: "On earth happiness is prohibited" the theme of human fate became central in later works.

Because of medical disqualification, Enckell never served in the army. His fascination with Greek and Roman myths in the middle of WWII was seen in his verse collection Lutad över brunnen (1942), in which he occasionally uses classical meters. This work expressed alarm about the fate of man and humanistic ideals, which he further examined in his  Greek-inspired plays Orpheus och Eurydike (1938), and Agamemnon (1949).

In Andedräkt a koppar (1946) Enckell analyzed modern poetry itself. 'O prång av mellanord' (o steps of words between) was about language in which he joined Gunnar Björling who constantly struggled with the limits of language: "One finds nothing in life, / if one cannot find those words, / made transparent by that / which the spirit has in common with all and everything." When Björling solved the problem by attacking the language, Enckell relied on mystic unity with the world.

Enckell became first known as an essayist and theorist, who analysed modernist poetical language. Typical of his own work was precision of language and lucidity. According to Enckell, in the old lyrics the pictures appealed to our sight and the rhythm to our emotions, pictures in modernist lyrics appeal directly to our sight and hearing. Between the years 1929 and 1965 he made several journeys to France and Italy and had art exhibitions among others in Stockholm (1929, 1940, 1944), Oslo (1929, 1936), Moscow (1934-35), in Berlin, Düsseldorf and Hamburg (1935), in Milano and Rome (1935) and in Göteborg (1940), where later in 1956 Enckell also edited the art magazine Paletten. His paintings and other works of art are in several collections in Finland and abroad.

In 1941 Enckell was arrested and confined in a mental hospital for a short period of time after stabbing with a knife Oscar Parland, who had began a relationship with his wife, the critic and translator Heidi Runeberg. Parland did not press charges against him. Enckell then had a short-lived marriage with the painter Alice Kaira (1943-46). His third wife was the painter Aina Dagny Maria Erikson.

While Enckell's early collections poems were characterized by self-assurance and uninhibited expression, his work began to reflect the fragility of human existence after a personal crisis in the late 1930s. From Tornbrädet Enckell started to use images from antiquity; he became a cool, meditative observer, strongly self-critical. His classical studies also gave birth to such verse plays as Orfeus och Eurydike, Iokasta (1939), Hekuba (1952), and Mordet på Kiron (1954). These dramas set in the Ancient world drew from his personal inner experience, but at the same time they expressed collective fears of the time.

In the late 1930s Enckell's cosmic views changed into microcosmic explorations: small animals and insects started to appear in his poems. As a theorist of modernism Enckell clarified that these images were meant to capture the reader with their fast movements before disappearing. After World War II Enckell gained fame in Sweden with Andedräkt av koppar (1946) and Nike flyr vindens klädnad (1947). Its introduction was written by the Swedish modernist poet Erik Lindegren. The title referred to the headless statue of the Nike of Samothrace, discovered in 1863.

As a prosaist Enckell generalized the results of his self-examination as common reactions. He was above-all an aesthetician, who cultivated an objective approach to his subjects in his confessional prose. In Tillblivelse (1929), a collection of his early essays, and Ljusdunkel (1930), its title referring to the Italian word chiaroscuro, he examined loneliness, shyness, and alienation. Heidi Runeberg, his first wife, Encell portrayed in Ett porträtt (1931). Landskapet med den dubbla skuggan (1933) contained a sketch of playground cruelty, 'The Japanese Children'.

Enckell received in 1960 an honorary doctorate at the University of Helsinki, thus securing his position as poeta laureus of the Swedish-language writers in Finland. From 1959 he lived in Porvoo at the Poet's House. Following the post-1968 radicalization in Finland, Enckell was criticized an elitist. Claes Anderson, a writer and leftist politician, attacked Resenören med fågelfoten (1972) in Hufvudstadsbladet, partly due to Enckell's aloofness from contemporary politics and retreat into his private world. Enckell himself accused his critics of "ignorance, lack of upbringing and broad aesthetic views, indifference, arrogance and unfairness" (A History of Finland's Literature, edited by George C. Schoolfied, 1998, p. 618). Enckell died on June 17, 1974 in Helsinki. His last collection, Flyende spegel, which included diarylike travel impressions, appeared posthumously in 1974. Enckell son Michael has published a three-volume biography on his father: Under beständighetens stjärna: en biografisk studie över Rabbe Enckell 1903-1937 (1986); - dess ljus lyse!: en biografisk studie över Rabbe Enckell 1937-1950 (1991); Öppningen i taket: en biografisk studie över Rabbe Enckell 1950-1974 (1997).

Olof (Wilhelm Toussaint) Enckell (1900-1989) was a Swedish-speaking Finnish author and literature historian. He studied at the University of Helsinki, receiving his M.A. in 1923 and Ph.D. in 1958. From 1921 to 1923 he worked at the library of the University of Helsinki, and from 1924 to 1932 he was a journalist at the newspaper Hufvudstadsbladet. In 1950 Encell become a professor of Swedish literature at the University of Helsinki, retiring in 1967. Enckell's first novels and short stories appeared in the 1930s, among them Ett klosteräventyr (1930), Halmstacken (1931), Vårt hjärta (1933). Later he became interested in exploring new surroundings, which can be seen in his travel books from Carelia, Corse, Ireland etc. Among Enckell's scientific studies are Den unge Diktonius (1946), Den unga Hagar Olsson (1949). He translated also works from such writers as Iris Uurto (Farväl Maria, 1936; Den tappra kärleken, 1937), Olavi Paavolainen (Flykten till en ny värld, 1938), Ilmari Kianto (Det röda strecket, 1946), Tyyni Tuulio (Florence Nightingale: en levnadsteckning, 1950), Unto Seppänen (Markku och hans släkt, 1940), Gustaf Mattsson ("I dag": kåserier: ny serie, 1950: Kreatur och professor och andra kåserier, 1953; "I dag": kåserier: ny serie. Andra samlingen, 1955; "I dag": kåserier: ny serie. Tredje samlingen, 1956), Elmer Diktonius (Prosa 1925-1943, 1955; Meningar, 1957).

For further reading: 'Canals on Mars' by G.C. Schoolfield, in Books Abroad, 36, pp. 9-19 (1962); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); 'Rabbe Enckell' by Louise Ekelund, in Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland (1974); 'Four Finland-Swedish Prose Modernists' by K. Petherick , in Scandinavica, 15, pp. 45-62 (1976); Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature, ed. by Jean-Albert Bédé and William B. Edgerton (1980); 'Rabbe Enckel - lyriker av den svåra skolan' by Louise Ekelund, in Skrifter utgivna av Svenska Litteratursällskapet i Finland (1982); A History of Scandinavian Literature, 1870-1980 by Sven H. Rossel (1982); Under beständighetens stjärna by Mikael Enckell (1986); 'Avantgardet i öster' by Clas Zilliacus, in Den Svenska Litteraturen, Vol. 5 (1989); Dess ljus lyse! En biografisk studie över Rabbe Enckell 1937-1950 by Mikael Enckell (1991); A Way to Measure Time, ed. by Bo Carpelan et al. (1992); Öppningen i taket. En biografisk studie över Rabbe Enckell 1950-1974 by Mikael Enckell (1997); Encyclopedia of World Literature, Vol 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999)

Selected works:

  • Dikter, 1923
  • Fljötblåsarlycka: dikter, 1925
  • Tillblivelse, 1929
  • Ljusdunkel, 1930
  • Ett porträtt, 1931
  • Vårens cistern, 1931
  • Landskapet med den dubbla skuggan , 1933
  • Modärn finlandssvensk lyrik, 1934 (edited by Rabbe Enckell)
  • Tonbrädet, 1935
  • 20 år ung dikt, 1936 (ed., with Elmer Diktonius)
  • Björling urval, 1937 (ed.)
  • Herrar till natt och dag: noveller, 1937
  • Valvet, 1937
  • Orfeus och Eurydike, 1938
  • Iokasta, 1939
  • Lutat över brunnen, 1942
  • translator: Jörgen Ulrich, Jag är Frans: roman, 1945 (original title: Jeg er Frantz)
  • Andedräkt av koppar, 1946
  • Nike flyr vindens klädnad: lyrik 1923-1946, 1947 (introduction by Erik Lindegren)
  • Kantat vid de av Åbo akademi den 18 september 1948 anställa magister- och doktors-promotionerna, 1948
  • Agamemnon, 1949
  • Relation i det personliga, 1950
  • Sett och återbördat, 1950
  • Hekuba, 1952
  • Skuggors lysen, 1953
  • Traktat, 1953
  • Mordet på Kiron, 1954
  • Strån över backen, 1957
  • Dikter i urval, 1957
  • Dikt i utvalg ved Erling Nielsen, 1958 (editor)
  • Landskapet med den dubbla skuggan: ungdomsprosa 1928-1937, 1958
  • Alkman, 1959
  • Kärnor av ögonblick, 1959
  • Essay on livets framfartr, 1961
  • Kalender i fragment, 1962 (with Aina Enckell)
  • Det är dags, 1965
  • Kunsten at faa fiasko, 1965 (translated by Kurt Sørensen)
  • Och sanning?, 1966
  • Dikt, 1966
  • Tapetdörren, 1968
  • Dikter: Flöjtblåsarlycka: Vårens cistern: Dikter från Landskapet med den dubbla skuggan: Tonbrädet: Valvet, 1971
  • Resenören med fågelfoten, 1971
  • Dikter: en antologi, 1974 (edited by Ingemar Hedenius)
  • Flyende spegel, 1974
  • Inledning till modärn finlandssvensk lyrik, 1991 (foreword by Mikael Enckell)
  • Den finlandsvenska dikten 8, 2001 (selected by Bo Carpelan, prod. by Jörn Donner)
  • Hiljaisuuden varjo: runoja vuosilta 1923-1974, 2004 (translated by Tuomas Anhava)

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