Poetry, Translation

Two poems by Pär Lagerkvist


Pär Lagerkvist is one of my favourite Swedish authors. His poetry is brilliant, and so is his prose. There’s a sadness and longing in most of his writing: sometimes more of the longing, sometimes more of the sadness, but usually both of them tightly wound together.

Lagerkvist often expresses the kind of direct, raw emotion that is hard to capture in anything but poetry. His poem ‘Ångest’ / ‘Anguish’ (from the collection by the same name, published in 1916) is one of my all-time favourite poems. I’m posting it here without being able to name the translator: my googling continues.

W.H. Auden translated Lagerkvist’s Aftonland / Evening Land (a collection of poetry) in 1953 (collaborating with Swedish translator Leif Sjöberg), and Jag ville veta / I Wanted To Know is from that collection.

If you’d rather read prose, I’d recommend Lagerkvist’s Dvärgen / The Dwarf, and ‘Barabbas’.

From Wikipedia:

Pär Fabian Lagerkvist (23 May 1891 – 11 July 1974) was a Swedish author who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1951.

Lagerkvist wrote poems, plays, novels, stories, and essays of considerable expressive power and influence [citation needed] from his early 20s to his late 70s. One of his central themes was the fundamental question of good and evil, which he examined through such figures as Barabbas, the man who was freed instead of Jesus, and Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew. As a moralist, he used religious motifs and figures from the Christian tradition without following the doctrines of the church.

Jag ville veta

Jag ville veta
men fick bara fråga,
jag ville ljus
men fick bara brinna.
Jag begärde det oerhörda
och fick bara leva.

Jag beklagade mig.
Men ingen förstod vad jag menade.

I Wanted To Know

I wanted to know
but was only allowed to ask,
I wanted light
but was only allowed to burn.
I demanded the ineffable
but was only allowed to live.

I complained,
but nobody understood what I meant.



Ångest, ångest är min arvedel,
min strupes sår,
mitt hjärtas skri i världen.
Nu styvnar löddrig sky
i nattens grova hand,
nu stiga skogarna
och stela höjder
så kargt mot himmelens
förkrympta valv.
Hur hårt är allt,
hur stelnat, svart och stilla!

Jag famlar kring i detta dunkla rum,
jag känner klippans vassa kant mot mina fingrar,
jag river mina uppåtsträckta händer
till blods mot molnens frusna trasor.

Ack, mina naglar sliter jag från fingrarna,
mina händer river jag såriga, ömma
mot berg och mörknad skog,
mot himlens svarta järn
och mot den kalla jorden!

Ångest, ångest är min arvedel,
min strupes sår,
mitt hjärtas skri i världen.


Anguish, anguish is my heritage,
the wound of my throat,
the cry of my heart in the world.
Now the lathered sky congeals
in the coarse hand of night;
now the forests
and the rigid heights
rise barrenly against
the dwarfed vault of the sky.
How hard everything is,
how stiffened, black and silent!

I grope about this darkened room,
I feel the sharp edge of the cliff against my finger.
I tear my sore and aching hands
on the hills and darkened woods,
on the black iron of sky
and on the cold earth!

Anguish, anguish is my heritage,
the wound of my throat,
the cry of my heart in the world.


2 thoughts on “Two poems by Pär Lagerkvist”

  1. I read everything of Lagerkvist 50-40 years ago, prose and poems. I remember his poem Anguish and could recite it by heart for many Years. The beginning of the poem Anguish is famous and known to most Swedes (age +50).
    I I found his prose similar to Hemingways, bot a word to much, seemingly simple but precise.
    Compare for example Hemingways The old man and the Sea, and Lagerkvists Barabbas.
    I must read his poetry and novels again.
    Thank you Maria for reminding me.

    Liked by 2 people

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