Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Roaring Twenties of Elmer Diktonius: A Centenarian as Wonder Boy

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

The Roaring Twenties of Elmer Diktonius: A Centenarian as Wonder Boy

Article excerpt

Although the writings that carry his name vary wildly in quality, Elmer Diktonius lived all his life by the ink of his pen. But the name itself was consistently too good to be true. People kept wondering. Artur Lundkvist as a young man, for example, was aware of Diktonius's penchant for music as well as literature and he initially mistook the name for a clever pseudonym.(1)

"Dikt," of course, is Swedish for "poem" or "poetry"; with a Latinate "-onius" appended, one cannot help imagining its bearer as an archpoet incarnate. Diktonius himself succumbed to the temptation. "Dikt-och-ton-i-ljus" was one of his self-referential puns: Poetry and tone in light. "Diktafonius" was another spoof of his to signal the workman writer who was no less vociferous as a poet than as a newspaper polemicist.(2)

Elmer Diktonius (1896-1961), the angry young man of the Finland-Swedish modernist movement, would seem to have had his literary calling handed to him on a platter. In actual fact, no omens were built into the name. He was the son of a printshop foreman, but the family was upwardly mobile, albeit at a snail's pace. Compared with the other writers who pioneered the movement, Diktonius's circumstances were modest from the very start. He never had any money, then or later. Bertolt Brecht, hibernating in Finland during World War II, observed that small countries throw writers like Diktonius -- "der finnische Horaz" as he called him -- upon their own means through endless hackwork (Brecht 97, 158). The pursuit of an artistic vocation was no primrose path in the fledgling, republic.

Yet, at least as a young man, Diktonius moved in remarkable circles. Before the age of twenty-five, he was viewed in certain quarters as the poet-to-be of the world revolutionary cause, as "the poet of the millions." This tale of great expectations is the political peak of his roaring twenties. The early stages of this tale -- beyond which he never really advanced -- have been deftly mapped by Thomas Henrikson in a 1971 dissertation.(3) One of those who ventured the prophesy of red stardom was Otto Wille Kuusinen, "the red eminence" (John H. Hodgson) who was a founder of the Finnish Communist Party, a commissar in the civil-war red regime of 1918, and a confidant of Soviet leaders from Lenin to Khruschev; he now rests in the Third Rome columbarium of the Kremlin wall. Kuusinen was a man of many talents. He was also an astute critic and a formative influence on Diktonius.

Other believers in the budding poet's talent were found in Paris and in London. He had been assured -- even before it was published -- that his first book was "den som komma skall," the one that was to come, a phrase with unmistakable overtones.(4) The firmest believer in this mission, braced no doubt by his co-enthusiasts but sanguine enough on his own, was the poet himself. He and his friends were the harbingers of the future.

Diktonius used both first-person pronouns, the singular and plural, as collectives. There was in fact a more genuine ring to the "I" from the start, and he knew it. A telltale aphorism from 1921 claims that "Jag ar kommunist darfor att kommunismen ar i min riktning" (Henrikson 264.) [I am a communist because Communism inclines in my direction]. In the following year, Diktonius launched and co-edited the little magazine Ultra which had three cognate purposes: it was to open windows on the world, to further the cause of expressionism, and to make the poetry of Edith Sodergran better known. The following, culled from a credo he signed in Ultra, appeared as a spaced-out final flourish: "Ingen kan ge patenterade skildringar av det kommande -- det kommer med fotterna forst, och dess hjarna ar dess gravskrift. Men det ar stort att vara dess storta och det kan vi" (Enckell 32-3) [No one can offer patented descriptions of what is to come -- it comes feet first, and its brain is its epitaph. But it is grand to be its big toe -- and that we can be]. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.