For the Tree’s Sake, by Karin Boye


I am sick with poison. I am sick with a thirst
for which nature has not created any drink.

From every field leap streams and springs.
I stoop down and drink from the earth’s veins
its sacrament.

And the heavens overflow with holy rivers.
I stretch up and feel my lips wet
with white ecstasies.

But nowhere, nowhere…

I am sick with poison. I am sick with a thirst
for which nature has created no drink.


At last I stand near the mountain of the fates.
All around like stormclouds
crowd formless beings, creatures of the twilight,
Shall I stay? Shall I go? The road lies dark.
If I stay peacefully here at the foot of the mountain,
then no one will touch me.
Calmly I can see their struggle like a play of the mist in the
myself merely a lost eye.
But if I go, if I go, then I shall know nothing more.
For the one who takes those steps
life becomes legend.

Myself fire
I shall ride on coiling snakes of fire.
Myself wind
I shall fly on winged wind-dragons.
Myself nothing,
myself lost in the storm
I shall fling myself forth dead or living, a fate future-heavy.


You call for people of great stature. What gives great stature
to a person?
To become nothing and forget oneself for that which is greater
than she.

The unrepentant call out. They themselves would grow into giants
the moment they bowed their knees in the shadow of the immense

But raise your voices until the gods awake, until new gods
rise up and answer!
When no one asks for people any more, then your people will be


Also you, who suffer the agonies of everyone’s condemnation,
also you are called to your place among the cherubim –
with lion’s feet, with wings of sun,
with venerable human head:
They call after you: ‘Impure, impure!’
Because they were never afflicted by purity.
Flame, gather your sparks out of the corners,
the forge awaits, and the hammer that welds you to lightning
will teach you the lightning’s swift purity
and your name among the cherubim.


No breathless summer night sky
reaches so far into eternity,
no lake, when the mists lighten,
mirrors such stillness
as that hour –

when loneliness’s limits are effaced
and the eyes become transparent
and the voices become simple as winds
and there is nothing more to hide.
How can I now be afraid?
I shall never lose you.


The night’s deep violoncello
hurls its dark rejoicing out across the expanses.
The hazy images of things dissolve their form
in floods of cosmic light.
Swells, glowing long,
wash in wave upon wave through night-blue eternity.
You! You! You!
Transfigured weightless matter, rhythm’s blossoming foam,
soaring, dizzying dream of dreams,
blindingly white!
I am a gull, and on resting, outstretched wings
I drink sea-salt bliss
far to the east of all I know,
far to the west of all want,
and brush against the world’s heart –
blindingly white!


Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking.
Why else would the springtime falter?
Why would all our ardent longing
bind itself in frozen, bitter pallor?
After all, the bud was cover all the winter.
What new thing is it that bursts and wears?
Yes, of course it hurts when buds are breaking,
hurts for that which grows
and that which bars.

Yes, it is hard when drops are falling.
Trembling with fear, and heavy hanging,
cleaving to the twig, and swelling, sliding –
weight draws them down, though they go on clinging.
Hard to be uncertain, afraid and divided,
hard to feel the depths attract and call,
yet sit fast and merely tremble –
hard to want to stay
and want to fall.

Then, when things are worst and nothing helps
the tree’s buds break as in rejoicing,
then, when no fear holds back any longer,
down in glitter go the twig’s drops plunging,
forget that they were frightened by the new,
forget their fear before the flight unfurled –
feel for a second their greatest safety,
rest in that trust
that creates the world.


A stillness expanded, soft as sunny winter forests.
How did my will grow sure and my way obedient to me?
I carried in my hand an etched bowl of ringing glass.

Then my foot became so cautious and will not stumble.
Then my hand became so careful and will not tremble.
Then I was flooded over and carried by the strength from fragile


You are the seed and I your soil.
You lie in me and grow.
You are the child expected.
I am your mother now.

Earth, give your warmth!
Blood, give your sap!
An unknown power requires today
all the life I have had.

The flowing warm wave
knows no dam on earth,
wider it wants to create,
breaks its way forth.

That is why it hurts to the living quick
inside me now:
something is growing and breaking me –
my love, it is you!


If I could follow you far away,
further than everything you know,
out to the world-loneliness
of the outermost regions go,
where the Milky Way rolls
a bright dead foam
and where in dizzying space
you seek a home.

I know: it is impossible.

But when from your baptism
shivering blind you rise,
all throughout space
I shall hear your cries,
be new warmth for you,
be a new embrace,
be close to you in a different world
among things with unborn names.


Blonde morning, lay your soft, smooth hair
against my cheek and breathe undisturbed in your silence.
The earth opens wide and wider your giant chalice,
born anew in closed darkness.
On bright wings
the Miracle lands like an immense insect
to lightly graze against unsuspecting
awakening pistils.

Morning on the seventh day…


Ripe as a fruit the world lies in my lap,
it ripened last night,
and its rind is the thin blue membrane that stretches
and its juice is the sweet and fragrant, streaming, burning
torrent of sunlight.

And out into the transparent universe I leap like a swimmer,
submerged in a baptism of ripeness and born to a power of
Consecrated to action,
light as a burst of laughter
I cleave a golden sea of honey that desires my hungry hands.


I would like to have woken you to a nakedness like a naked
evening in early spring,
when the stars brim over
and the earth burns beneath melting snow,
I would like to have seen you just once
sink in the darkness of creative chaos,
would like to have seen your eyes like wide-open space,
ready to be filled,
would like to have seen your hands like flowers unfolded,
empty, new, in expectancy.

You are going, and nothing of this have I given you.
I never reached to where your being lies bare.
You are going, and nothing of me are you taking with you –
leaving me to defeat.

Another farewell I remember:
we were hurled from the crucible like a single being,
and when we parted, we no longer knew
which was I and which was you…

But you – like a bowl made of glass you have left my hand,
as finished as only a dead thing is and as changeable,
as without any memories other than the light imprints of fingers
that are washed away in water.

I would like to have woken you to a formlessness like a
formless flickering flame
that finds at last its living form, its own…
Defeat, oh, defeat!


Now I know how much you hid and kept silent about.
That was your shell.
But why have you hidden yourself so well from me?
The thought grinds still.

I know. I remember: one single case,
where judgement was mine to wield –
and then your inner world’s enchanted land
was forever concealed.

As long as our love has one chance left,
if even only one,
that long will our love be a closed hand –
and to us justice be done.


My skin is full of butterflies, of fluttering wings –
they flutter out across the meadows and enjoy their honey
and flutter home and die in sad small spasms,
and not a grain of pollen is disturbed by light feet.
For them the sun exists, the hot, immeasurable, older than the

But under skin and blood and inside the marrow
heavily heavily imprisoned sea-eagles move,
broad-winged, that never let go of their prey.
How would your tumult be in the sea’s spring storm?
How would be your cry, when the sun annealed yellow eyes?
Closed is the cave! Closed is the cave!
And between the claws twist white as cellar sprouts
the nerves of my innermost being.


There grows a tree beneath the earth;
a mirage pursues me,
a song of living glass, of burning silver.
Like darkness before light
must all weight melt,
where only one drop falls of the song from the leaves.

An anguish pursues me.
It oozes out of the earth.
There a tree suffers deeply in heavy layers of earth.
Oh, wind! Sunlight!
Feel that agony:
the promise of fragrance of paradise miracles.

Where do you walk, feet, that tread
so soft or hard
that the crust cracks and yields up its prey?
For the tree’s sake, have mercy!
For the tree’s sake, have mercy!
For the tree’s sake I call you from the four points of the

Or must we wait for a god – and which one?


Our eyes are our fate.
So lonely you become, poor eyes,
with stars that refuse to have mercy
in a living, earthly way.
Had I seen less,
I would think other thoughts,
and an outcast grows slack,
abandoned to the just.

Holy, holy, holy
is the truth, the terrifying,
I know it, I bow down,
and it has a right to everthing.
But flesh and blood shiver,
the living seeks life,
and warm is humans’ company
and cold their contempt.

And praying I wander
among freezing light-years,
seeking for help
ro rise from my grave.
Remember with ardent tenderness
eyes far away,
also those that are lost
in the sea of loneliness.

Then I cannot complain.
Then I must give thanks.
With them I have shared
what I know, what I remember.
And through the darkness I sense
home and company.
Beloved sister eyes!
You existed. You exist.


Never meant to be a rebel,
and yet it was forced on me.
Why is my fate not private?
Why can I not let it be?
Or, if now I must fight,
why is there torment there?
Why not with sounding music,
when at last I am forced to dare?

Blood of my blood, that judged me harshly
and cast me out into shame,
I knew when I was ejected,
that I broke on a whole all the same,
felt a sacred communion
behind the condemning words,
knew with anguish: you are I –
and was bowed down to the earth.

But as I lay and believed myself mute,
I heard the darkness whine.
Souls from the same torments’ room
were breathing by my side.
I heard my own cry for help
rise up from deserts void,
knew with dread: I am you –
and could not be quiet.

Cowardly, cowardly, thrice cowardly,
All the same, I must fight,
be struck to the ground and rise again
with all my nerves snapped.
must feel like branding irons
the judgements of the stark –
and obey and obey a scorching fire
that blossoms out of the dark.


Merciless one with eyes that have never seen the dark!
Liberator who with golden hammers breaks blocks of ice!
Save me.

Straight as thin lines the flowers’ stems are sucked into the
nearer to you will their calyxes tremble.

The trees hurl their strength like pillars towards their glory:
only up there
do they spread out their light-thirsty leaf-arms, devoted.
Man you drew
from an earth-fixed stone with blind gazes
to a walking swaying plant with heaven’s wind about his forehead.
Yours is stalk and stem. Yours is my backbone.

Save it.
Not my life. Not my skin.
Over the outer no gods dispose.
With extinguished eyes and broken limbs
he is yours, who lived erect,
and with the one who dies erect
you are there, when darkness swallows darkness.
The rumbling rises. The night swells.
Life shimmers so deeply precious.
Save, save, seeing god,
what you gave.


Young wills whine
like masterless spears.
Fear has hurled them
into space’s spheres.
Trembling with battle
and strength in surfeit
they seek targets to strike
they seek powers to worship.

But wills that ripen,
they become trees and strike root,
ready to shield
a land at your foot,
a small stretch of ground,
but necessary, like life,
where something precious grows,
torn by the winds’ strife.

If the glade seems narrow
against space without end
and the tree perhaps lifeless
against spears that blind,
then forget not the leaf
with its life-green colour,
and forget not the sap
that seethes through the marrow.

Be not afraid, be still
that harvest night,
when the voices say:
‘Your bounds are set.
You too shall be silent
among the watching faithful.
You also shall strike root,
and become tree, and ripen.’


Too many times have I passed through the doorway.

It rises so high and is erased in sunlight,
and under the arch one hears passing
eternal winds in eternal spaces.
The threshold is made of promise-stones, the staircase to an
to which he slips through who consecrates himself to a gift
with his past time and his time to come
and a will that is whole.

Too many times have I passed through the doorway.

And yet I pray:

Watchman at the door, lord of all beginning,
let me through! I still have strength.
As truly as I never hid anything away,
take, but take to the last fragment.
The day I divide, the day I reckon,
bar my way and cast me into the melting-oven.
All is a door. All is a beginning.
The axle of life is in your hands.

Whole I pass under the dizzying arch,
and eternal winds in eternal spaces
drink my gift.


Your voice and your footsteps fall soft as dew on my working
Where I sit there is spring in the air around me from your living
You flower in my thought, you flower in my blood, and I wonder
that my happy hands do not blossom into heavy roses.

Now the space of the everyday closes around us two, like a soft,
gentle mist.
Are you afraid of becoming a prisoner, are you afraid of drowning
in the greyness?
Do not be afraid: in the everyday’s innermost depth,
in the heart of all life,
there burns with quietly humming flames a deep, secret festival.


For the hour of great humiliation I would also give thanks,
the hour when one sees that one is naked
and without a muddying vestige of pride
lets oneself be arranged
like a speck of dust in the gleam from wondrous worlds –
wondrous everything, wondrous health and life,
wondrous shelter, bread and water,
and more than anything wondrous the undeserved favour
of a human being’s eternally established trust.


Transparent, bright and ardent,
beautiful mantle, flare,
slip your way close as water
round my body, waiting here.
I stand bound and quiet,
have no unshed defiance.

Have no resistance left,
no futile strugglings.
Thus in anguish without air
comes the peace that waiting brings.
Here all hope is laid over,
wants nothing other.

Like an aspen leaf my body,
my soul like a flickering flame,
and there far away inside
I am free all the same.
Great silence moves me
beyond all that destroys me.


Invulnerable, invulnerable
is he that grasps the primordial saying:
There is no happiness and unhappiness.
There is only life and death.

And when you have learnt it and ceased to chase the wind
and when you have learnt it and ceased to be frightened by the
then come back and teach me one more time:
There is no happiness and unhappiness.
There is only life and death.

I began to repeat it when my will was born,
and will cease to repeat it when my will has ceased to be.
The secret of the primordial sayings
we acquire until our death.


All the cautious ones with long nets
meet with the sea’s giant laughter.
Friends, what do you seek on the shore?
Knowledge can never be captured,
can never be owned.

But if, straight as a drop,
you fall into the sea to dissolve,
ready for any transformation –
then you will awake with mother-of-pearl skin
and green eyes
on meadows where the sea’s horses graze
and be knowledge.


Here in eternal gales
dwarf pine works its way up from the stone,
bends wearily,
knots itself defiantly,
creeps subdued.

Black against the evening’s stormy sky
twisted ghostly outlines are drawn.
Monster is seized by loathing
for monster.
A groaning passes through the torn crowns:
Oh, to look one single time
straight towards the light,
to rise, a royal oak,
a boyish birch,
a golden virgin maple.

Hide your dreams, cripple.
Here are the outermost skerries. As far as the eye can see:
dwarf pine.


Around me float terrible mouths.
The suburban train is thudding.

These are mothers.
Mouths of predatory fish,
locked and tensed in greedy fear:
to eat or be eaten.
Themselves eaten away (no one has noticed)
they lug their entrails in string bags.
Dead eyes, dead fear,
mouths of predatory fish.

This is the lover.
Paint-swollen mushroom mouth
sucks for prey.
The shame of having given herself, the shame of the cheated
sucks for revenge of a thousand triumphs,
is never sated,
settles in layers of tortured impudence
around a wet mushroom mouth.

This is the pious man,
who with holy pursing
hides and denies his lips.
They cannot be seen, do not exist –
God himself cannot see them.
Why is he afraid of his lips?
What do they look like when he is asleep?

This is the happy woman,
she who became a possessor.
Among all those who struggle
she is the one who prevailed.
No lever will ever force open those jaws,
screwed tight around life’s prize.

But over there by the window,
flowers a mouth that captures nothing.
What do you breathe over the wide world,
so world-estranged?

When will you be scared down there into the deep
to predatory fish
and sucking mouths,
snatch wildly after hunted prey,
slash desperately at the others?
if you want to live.

So I will take my staff and wander
and seek another world for you,
a world where mouths are allowed to be flowers
and breathe like flowers
their life’s breath
and flow like flowers
from deep sources
and stand like flowers
happily open.

Around you snap our deep-sea mouths.
The suburban train is thudding.


Sea swell, come washing,
let me taste that sound’s round, salty flow,
the sound that was given me
as primordial name aeons and aeons ago!
Words that no mortal
lips can tell
lie hidden
in the fresh, cold swell.

Long, too long
I starved on human words too easily told.
I want to rise up,
I want to satisfy my mouth at my mother’s board.
Like a child in loathing’s remorse
lost far away to roam,
I turn hungrily round
to the songs of my home.

Let me drink
the speech of speech from a dull roar that never abates.
Let me clear
to your resting depth of light that creates.
Within soul and spirit
I hear your song.
Rise in my blood, and flower
in my tongue!


The way is narrow that two must go,
inhumanly narrow, it can seem sometimes,
and yet it is a human way, even so.

From buried things’ primordial slime
rise monsters woken by the warmth,
and bar the way where you would climb.

No flight can make you free at last.
They appear again by new waysides.
You have no choice. You must go past.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way is steep that two must go,
a way of degradation, it can seem sometimes,
and yet is a way of victory, even so.

Lonely path goes round in rings,
the same mirage in the same sand,
the same thirst for far-off things.

For two that strive, one gain know I,
more solid, heavier than the hermit’s dreams:
the difficult growth to reality,

yes, all the way in to the innermost core,
where the person grows out of splintered nerves
and becomes a root and a mountain there.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

The way is long that two must go,
a lost way, it can seem sometimes,
and yet has its goals and signposts, even so.

Has its angels, in lightning dressed.
They touch our dust with burning hand,
and heavy chains become breezes and mist.

With burning feet they touch earth’s floor,
and create it anew in the morning glow
and full of health and solace and cure

and full of power over approaching fate
and intimate light, that two acquire.


You weigh with false balances
and measure with false gauges,
not before the qadi, who judges criminals,
but before Allah, Allah, blessed be his name,
he who has created life.

A thousand dates you buy for one small pearl,
but I, who hungered in the desert,
am weary of my pearl-sewn belt,
that gives no nourishment,
and I, who pined away in the sand,
will not recover the splendour in my dagger hilt,
decked with jewels
that slake no thirst.

Still in this city of minarets, far from the desert,
I will bow not before those proud portals,
those golden gates,
but before those lowly, those out-of-the-way wells
to where dusty herdsmen lead their herds,
when they bring milk in the evenings.


Your warmth, your tender warmth
I ask to share,
that streamed long before man
on earth was there.
In the deep primordial forest’s
downy bird’s nest
that same protective warmth bore
life’s founding rest.

From anguish-burning heavens
we sink down where
in the nest’s darkness, life
asks nothing more.
For the clouds’ games are a mirage
and mirror spray,
but all that is born and bears
is what depths give away.

Day dawns, and the skies resound
with rushing of wings.
The soaring bird rejoices:
On light I live! he sings
But hidden in the silence rests
his weal and woe.
Your warmth, your deep warmth
gives me a soul.


Over the city’s sighing towers
sank all the earth’s distress:
fire, plague and hunger,
war and sudden, cruel death.

The people thronged in the churches,
bowed their knees in fear,
heard the priests pray to God
for strength his penance to bear.

The mothers by the well
despaired, and help they missed.
‘For the children’s sake, for the children
mercy must exist.

Though in sin they were born,
to us they are very dear,
they are much dearer to us
than heaven’s glory in there.’

A white-haired stranger,
one step before the rest,
beckoned them to follow,
began to wander thence.

Swarming out through the gates
more and more followed on.
In the city’s midst stood a house.
A staircase there led down.

Hard-trodden floor of earth,
stool and wooden bowl.
Clad in a cloak of hair
a man knelt in that hole.

Humble veneration
burned in every gaze:
‘The city is wealthy yet!
Here a holy man lives and prays.

There in intercession
his face is upward-turned;
the marks in his careworn features
by our sins have there been burned.’

Bitterly the old one laughed.
‘What is it you behold?
A great, holy love,
and beyond that, nothing more?

A face’s open bowl
of patience, blessed, sane,
that rises up in hunger
towards the flood of pain –

an ardent spirit’s chalice
of bleeding rubies that shine,
waiting here devoutly
for the Lord’s wrath’s wine –

a desire to suffer
the beloved’s worst punishment —
and does no one see the lightning
down from heaven sent?

The city gave an echo
and in the same sound shook,
when he, the man strong in prayer,
his lord subdued.

Pull up all the poppies
that ask for springtimes of pain!
Cut down all the black trees
that yearn to bear tears’ rain!’

Then from the crowd there stepped
a man full of fiery dread,
felled the old one to the ground –
she fell and there lay dead.

They crossed themselves, they crept away,
the daughters and sons of men.
And up to heaven’s angry vault
the holy man’s prayers rose again.


An eternity long
our summer was then.
We roamed in sunny days
that had no end.
We sank in fragrant green
depths without floor
and felt no fear
of eventide’s hour.

Where did our eternity go?
How did we forget
its holy secret?
Our day became too short.
In strife we form,
In spasm we rhyme
a work that shall be eternal –
and its essence is time.

But still timeless drops
fall into our arms
at a time when we’re absent
from goals and names,
when the sun falls silent
over straws there alone,
and all our striving seems to us
like a game and a loan.

Then we sense that condition
we once received:
to burn in the moment
that living bequeathed,
and forget the temporal
that lasts and endures,
for creation’s second,
that no gauge ever nears.


Sweetly singing maidens, my limbs can no longer
carry me – o would, would that I were merely the kingfisher,
when, carried across the foam of the waves by the halcyons,
he soars with sorrowless heart, the sea-dark, sacred bird!

Note. The ageing chorus leader alludes to the legend that the
kingfisher, when he grows old, is carried by the females, the

Karin Boye: För trädets skull (1935)

-translation © David McDuff 2011

Hidden Lands, by Karin Boye

Hidden Lands


We, we are older than you,
you earth’s children, proud and young.
Chaos’ age-old voice are we,
Chaos’ formless song we sing.

We, we are wind, we are water,
we are clouds in flight,
lamenting softly, lamenting shyly
far through the black late autumn night.

We, we are falsehood and play,
with tears a restless, playing call.
The moon, our lord, stands piningly pale.
King Ves„ll, he attracts and bewitches us all.

Children of the earth – when the rain grows cruel,
hearths and bright homes you build.
A power you have that frightens us sore,
the hard steel in hands surely held.

Come, taste the pale enchanter’s drink,
drink us out of the moon’s bowl,
submerge yourselves in Chaos’ formless power,
throw by the wayside your firm steel!

But to the sun in storming autumn
you build temples to shield against the night.
We seek woe like a drunken solace –
we are water, we are wind in flight!


Adeptly do you prick, thorn.
Well do you bite, cruel small arrows of the earth.
Slack, slow, carelessly heavy
my foot rests on the road.
Compelled harshly to tension,
when thorns sting,
my smarting foot flexes to run –
in flight onward it runs.


The sea rests morning-still,
never does it seem to have had storms,
like a mighty spirit
sunnily morning-still,
heavy with devotion – light
with clarity’s strength.
Sharply and exactly is mirrored
the cliffs’ naked precipice.
Transparently simple
lie the wide depths.
light and pure all stands,
drawn surely in airy calm,
washed in the fragrance of salt.
even and pure, with thought alone
the day strides into the sky’s light,
fine as a precious stone.


I know a way that leads home.
It is hard to go that way.
Every traveller there grows poor
and small and ugly and grey.

I know a way that leads home.
That way is bare, pure-blown.
It is like leaning one’s warm cheek
against unmerciful stone.

But he who has felt that stone
on his cheek’s frozen blood,
will perceive how gentle its hardness is,
how faithful and firm and good.

And he will thank the stone
and the hardness love will he,
and praise the only battle
that was worth his victory.


O sea, sea,
how strong that drink you brew!
Your great cold
is holy purification clear.
Your light-embrace
is cool health for human children, for us who love healing.

For you, sea,
beaming soft, roaring hard
false, and faithful always,
are a beautiful simile for beautiful things:
for the bold heart’s salt-foamed way in the world.


You my day! I do not want
to be only night, and hard dross, too –
for from your cheek spreads sweetly untouched
spring mornings’ brilliance of dew.

You my sun! I do not want
to be only autumn and wind blowing cold –
for in your gaze smiled triumph-glad
blue crystal that spring skies hold.

You my peace! I do not want
to be only defiance, war’s obstinacy –
for too young and budding golden
was the new life you gave to me.


Now it is over. Now I awake.
And it is calm and easy to go,
when there is nothing left to expect
and nothing to suffer any more.

Red gold yesterday, dry leaf today.
Tomorrow nothing will be there.
But stars burn silently all around
tonight in the sky as before.

Now I want to give myself away,
so I have not a fragment left.
Say, stars, will you receive
a soul of treasures bereft?

With you is freedom without flaw
in peace of far eternities.
He never heaven empty saw
who gave you his battle and dreams.


I have never seen your healing hand.
You come in the dark, when no one knows.
I wait in silence and reliance shy
in loneliness.

You my sister and mother, you and I and not I,
your name is night, an enigma’s dark sun,
I sense you immense and mighty and blind
and soundlessly dumb.

You know depths of horrors I have not seen,
I tremble to break your law’s secret way,
But you know a solace mild denied to me
by sunbright day.

I have silently hidden in you my wound
and ached among thorns till my soul was bare.
In the darkness you touched the bush – it leapt
into wild roses there.


Happy he that has gods,
he has a home.
Solace and a sure ground
are granted only by them.

Pledge yourself as a warrior
at an altar there.
Delivered is your soul
in the hour of prayer.

Rest there awaits you
only in battle’s stress.
Only between the shields
is there rest.

Compulsion to shiny weapons,
peril and faith, as well –
then will a home be raised for you,
where you can dwell.


You knew, then…!
For had you not known,
you would never have been able to say such things.

Strange twilight joy, that you also knew
all this heavy grief.
Your lost friendship wanders through centuries.
It calms fever’s fire.
And when I fall asleep consoled,
it feels as though you sat by my bed, like father,
and held my hand.


They have won. They rest. How their crowns shine.
Their long, long rest has no end.
They have tasted darkness. They have drunk death.
Their word was eternal: ‘Amen!’
Their faithful God
in the hard night bound their garland of honour.
Its name is more than joy.
Its name is life’s deep courage.

They have won. They rest. How their crowns shine.
May we endure. See, life is not long.
May we remember the rest. May we remember the crown.
May we remember the watchword.
In the safety of a barren sky
is our last dwelling prepared and our secure stronghold.
Its name is greater than joy.
Its name is life’s deep courage.


Each night on earth is full of pain.
Heart, learn to be silent.
The hard souls, hard shields
reflect light from the home of the stars.

Your lament makes you weaker.
Heart, learn to be silent.
Only silence heals, silence hardens,
untouchedly chaste and guiltlessly true.

You seek suffering’s ardent life!
Heart, learn to be silent.
By wounds and fever no one is made strong.
Bright as steel is heaven’s stronghold.



You faithful things
that would my faith desire,
With you I forget
that I hold people dear.

You things secure.
before you I can fall in peace,
but mists and dew
are all friendship’s promises.

You strong things,
that have no body and no soul,
Oh, make for me with you
the safest bed of all.


And yet – you, my friend,
the things you gave to me.
Your beauty, it is in them.
Else none in them would be.

You became my heavy thirst
for worlds of white relief,
You became the vision cool
that steels me to all grief.

You glimpse of distant goals,
that stretch your wing so free,
my way is a way to you.
Else none in them would be.


The night’s baptism of the deep,
you, in whose rivers
the spirit thinks it strokes against
the sea that is called death –
it is life’s sea he touches,
life’s to-be-feared

Pour your trance’s riddle!
Slowly I step out
into the subterranean
misty water
that which unseen washes
the roots of our daily lives,
that which carries
of foam of our daily lives –
that from whose darkness
raised itself, woken,
too deep for what thought knows,
the body’s fine, venerable,
immense, immense magnificence.
Pour your trance’s riddle,
wash from my spirit
the past day’s faded
dust and residue!
Death, who give life,
let me plunge again
into the light, life-renewed!


Here new ways go.
Quietly let us fare.
Come, let us seek
a new flower, and fair.

Throw away what we possess!
Everything attained, complete
lifelessly oppresses us,
not worthy of dream, song and deed.

Life is that which awaits,
what one cannot know of, or speak…
Come, let us forget!
New things and fair let us seek!


Unscathed from smoke and fire
goes he that wills a work.
Listen, o spirit, adventurous one,
listen well and mark!

Wild-winged butterfly,
every bloom is yours.
Unpunished you stepped in
to death’s bitter flowers,

flit childishly out of depths
where your need was most,
innocent and pure as fire
with your future-thirst.

laughing gently, gently
– for what way is worth tears? –
see life enticing
as discovery’s voyage nears.

Without shame, without guilt
you weigh evil, you weigh good.
All that you sought and all that you found
were merely steps to you –

steps that led to deeds.
Listen, o my spirit, listen and mark!
Unscathed from smoke and fire
goes he that wills a work.


In springtime, in sprouting time,
the seed its shell destroys,
and rye becomes rye and pine becomes pine
in freedom without choice.

A thrill of voluptuousness
passes through body and soul –
that I am I, necessarily I –
a sprout that’s come up whole,

a spring shoot whose growing power
I scarce envision yet –
but the stem’s sap of bitter taste,
with pleasure I know it.

Then begone, all my cowardice!
To my future I belong.
I take the right to grow now
as my roots will, and as strong.


I asked a star last night
– far away, where no one lives, a light -:
‘Whom do you light, strange star?
You move so large and bright.’

It made my pity grow mute,
when she looked with her starry gaze,
‘I light a night eternal,
I light a lifeless space.

My light is a flower that withers
in the skies’ late autumn, rough.
That light is all my solace.
That light is solace enough.’


Feel how near Reality dwells.
She breathes near here
on evenings with no wind.
Perhaps when no one looks, she shows herself,

The sun glides over rock and grass.
In her silent play
life’s spirit is concealed.
Never as this evening was he so close.

I have met a stranger with silent lips.
If I had reached out my hand
I would have brushed his soul,
as we passed each other with timid steps.


Victory, victory has no voice,
no rushing sound of delight.
Are there such simple and even roads
Under such soberly sparing light?

Victory, victory has no hue.
Against his gaze splendour seems thin.
Quiet and pale in his halo pale
he glides home out of falsehood and din.

Victory, victory is seldom seen,
moves past like a spirit-guest.
Blessed are those whom his clear form
awaits with light at death’s feast.


To the rock Prometheus lay bound.
A child went out in the early morning hour.
‘Stop, child, and here behold
man’s friend bound in iron
for all the good he did!’
But the child, frightened
by the words’ greatness, the eyes’ defiance,
crept past with a prayer to Zeus
away to gentlest games. – –
I would follow you silently, where you go.
The wise and the children, they play their way to
that which in heaven is hid.


A spring water is justice,
clear and colourless.
A scarce-perceptible and strange
fine taste it has.
But when wine is to be had,
such drink is so poor.
Nothing but water is the spring.
Yet I yearn for it there.

Nothing but water is justice,
nothing much to attain –
too close, too hard to love,
a bitter drink to drain.
Lord, give me justice,
give my soul its peer!
Lord, give me water,
colourless and clear!


You shall thank your gods,
if they force you to go
where you have no footprints
to trust to.

You shall thank your gods,
if all shame on you they pin.
You must seek refuge
a little further in.

What the whole world condemns
sometimes manages quite well.
Outlaws were many
who gained their own soul.

He who is forced to wild wood
looks on all with new sight,
and he tastes with gratitude
life’s bread and salt.

You shall thank your gods,
when your shell they break.
Reality and kernel
the sole choice you can make.


I have seen Grandfather in the summer night’s light,
alone in the night’s clover-scent.
By the well of the farm
he stood bowed,
and sharpened the harvesters’ scythes.
Like a fading shadow so grey,
as old he as the farm,
he seemed yet to live as living a life as it.
His fragile song I will not forget.

‘O masterful father in the farm,
to grandfather you are nought but a boy.
I am the first who turned your earth.
When the plough strives in the furrow,
do you remember me then?
In times beyond memory
I began, from stones heaved aside,
to raise the cairn that marks the land’s limit.

For a thousand years
I have built it and built with all of you who built,
held the plough’s shaft with all you who ploughed.
I have a share in your work,
have a right to demand.
You know well what it is:
that the holy seed shall grow
constantly, constantly
here on those fields where I
for the first time sowed it.’


Some hearts are treasures
that never can be done.
Their owners strew them generously
out in streams of sun.
Gratefully we take
the gift in cautious hand.
Hail and happy, blessed one,
who handles gold like sand!

Some hearts are fires
that burn deep below.
In coldest night thrown there
a reflection on the snow.
Enchanted thus, no one
in constant longing burns
as he that sees that shimmer one night
and forth to the fire yearns.


Tonight the heaven has no garb.
He shivers naked.
And never saw I yet his gaze
so all-too waking.

Say, when you fall asleep tonight:
A day is won.
On the road where one loses all
a rest’s begun.

Then you will live from day to day
and lose, lose fast,
and yet desire still to remain
until the last.

Then you will find life strong,
if you can burn.
Then will each loss become a gain –
for you shall turn

ever further towards that ground of life
that gave you birth,
and beyond all dreams’ deceit
the cause is there –

until in the hour of your greatest loss
your soul, burned down,
goes to the place of extinguished lights.
A day is won.


Tell me, nymph from Knowledge’s wells,
are there things to show to me here?
Dizziness seizes me, laughter and terror.
The air has paths that bear!

Alone with you, you eagle-eyed one,
I wander far, so far ascend,
frozen roads, chiming roads
without a goal or end.

All the holy days of love
their evening and aloneness know.
Faithful wait in the evening light
you that search and know.

All that I meet I will leave again.
Nymph, you heal burning woe.
Chiming roads, chiming roads
happy with you I will go.

Follow me hence through life’s days,
teach me to say at darkness’ door:
‘Nothing I knew, little know I –
yet it is more than before!’


Oh let me live aright,
and rightly die some day,
so that I touch reality
in evil as in good.
And let me be still
and what I see revere.
so that this may be this
and nothing more.

If of all life’s long course
a single day were left,
then I would seek the fairest
that lives on earth possess.
The fairest thing there is on earth
is only honesty,
but it alone makes life to life
and to reality.

So is the wide world
a dew-cup’s petal here.
and in the bowl there rests
a drop of water clear.
That single still drop
is life’s eye-apple, sure.
Oh, make me worthy to look in it!
Oh, make me pure!


On outspread wings in the heights the eagle sails.
The air is thin where he glides, and hard to breathe.
In the mountain winter’s desolate air he is lonely far.
Twilight and cold are his retinue –
his only joy
the joy of feeling himself fly on strong wings.

How high you move in the emptiest winter skies,
brave as the eagle because of a lightning will.
You abstained from striving for happiness, you chose steep
paths that frighten us weak ones.
How pale you wander,
wander with swift and resilent steps like the wind.

My world is like yours, and yet it is not like it.
Laughing, my star dances among starry riddles.
Your iron-grey joy, I love it from far in the distance.
Let me go by your side
and reach with my gaze
into your wintry world and your lightning will!


Now cries the night aloud in need,
with unknown dread a-quake.
Now light I here two candles straight
for eternal darkness’ sake.

If the Lord’s angels pass by here,
the light will call to them,
then they will hear the flames sing my prayer,
and bear it with them home.

They are warriors who go in armour of fire
with word from the Almighty’s house.
Their speech has no words for harsh and sweet.
but for burning candles it has.

That is why they stand on the storm’s back
between the whipping wings’ din,
that is why they smile at the darkness’s power
and meet the cold with disdain.

O Lord my God, O terrible God,
Your mantle’s roar booms free.
I pray for flowers and pray for peace –
but give burning candles to me!



Fate is a desert.
God dwells in its sand.
If you seek your Sinai
you receive his command.

Fate is a strip of land
with many stones spread.
Happy he that endures:
he shall earn bread.

Into heaven’s halls
no one goes before
he has stepped unafraid
through Fate’s door.


You know you bear a shackle
and hear the chain rattle.
But one who hammers hard and long
Can make a shield of its metal.

You know you bear a poison.
But all death’s juices
becme in a wise and careful hand
kind healing forces.

You think you bear a cross,
but it’s a tool, you know.
Your life’s the material. Look here, take hold,
and let the martyr go!


Wish for nothing that others have had:
all happens one single time.
Wish for nothing that some bard
has sung in his loveliest rhyme.

One star-bright night, when you lie awake,
Fate will knock at your door
and seek you with eyes of colour strange,
which no one spoke of before.

She fell like dew from the air,
from the bosom of space she came,
and no one, no one has met her gaze,
and no one has given her a name.

To you she has come from Nothing’s land,
she has been created for you,
and no one, no one in age upon age
has kissed her lips more than you.




The ’sir rode over the rainbow bridge
with frost-white weapons,
glimpsed far in the Iron Forest’s darkness
the dripping monster’s maw.
The swords rang and gleamed
when giants’ names were heard.
The voices’ echoes, the hooves’ thunder
carried far into space.

The elves walked in sprouting grass
softly on supple feet.
Trees leapt into blossom when the elves stepped
lightly over twisted roots.
Earth’s kingdom rejoiced,
sprouting spring came in.
the May night shone white
with elves’ white skin.

’sir and elves went to sessions
and divided the power of the earth.
The ’sir sat like hewn statues,
heavy with primeval splendour.
The elves slid like shadows
– they saunter as they will –
shadows of all that does not exist
but one day perhaps will.

’sir and elves conferred
and divided the earth up thus:
to ’sir all that a hand can take
and all that a word can reach,
to ’sir all that is spoken
and all the time that flew –
to elves that which thereafter remains :
all that is namelessly new.

’sir and elves conferred
and divided the family of men:
to ’sir those who hold fast
to their fathers’ inherited right,
chieftain and warrior
and every sacrificial priest
and all who pray in temples –
from east and to west.

’sir and elves conferred
and divided the race of men:
to elves those who obey blindly
a day that has not yet dawned,
all who sacrifice in the forest
and do not support the fathers’ laws
and all who grow like wild trees –
all, from north to south.

Thus did they confer, and thus it was.
Thus they steer the earth’s ring.
The ’sir dispose over watchwords in battle
and visible signs and things.
But the elves they control the things
that have never had a name,
and all that they have and all that they give
is the force of fertility’s flame.



In the world’s tree nine days
sacrificed he hung
– so pale I never saw any,
god or man –
erect, with relentless mouth,
his ruler’s hands clenched,
above the sacrifice he made
his eyelids closed.
But my mind
jumped like a snake – I cried: ‘Who has done it?’
The dark voice answered, tremblingly low:
‘I myself have done it.’

Little do I know of wisdom’s well,
never yearned to be there.
Its lustre is black. I know a spring,
gleaming silver-white:
deep, deep near life’s roots
a wave washes my mind.
No one demanded my eye as a pledge.
I drink freely in there.
Like a stream
flows my day – as though I had never heard
the strange answer I hear each night in my dreams:
‘I myself have done it.’

Then the earth’s blossoming spring seems to me
like dead things and dust
against him, sacrificed to himself
in the ash’s whistling air.
Then my thought seeks in vain a well
that seems worthy of the feat.
a drink that must be cruelly won
with costly sacrifice.
No power
resembles theirs, who were silent, were silent and did it.
Through the darkness shines with splendour of flames:
‘I myself have done it.’

The old witch spoke the truth.
‘The strong,’ she said one time,
‘are born for gaze of lofty powers
and song of trembling man.
The more a strong one can suffer harm,
the more difficult things can he learn,
and dark Norns rejoice to see
how heavy a load a man can bear.’
Never yet
bore I a burden – and am not aware that I ought to.
But that dream, none is as proud as it:
‘I myself have done it.’



(By means of forbidden magic Odin had won the elf-daughter Rindur,
who according to the counsels of the Norns would give birth to
Baldur’s avenger.)

‘Dark runes I carved, which no hand should carve,
I who am called chieftain in heaven’s hall.
Heaven and earth are sick. Heaven and earth will break.
Myself guilt-bowed I will fall on Vigrid’s slope.
Once, irrevocably, happens all that happens,
lonely, eternal, carved in stone it stands.’
‘King, one thing I know that always returns:
the earth’s holy breathing, autumn and spring.’

The earth’s forests murmured quietly in time’s dawn,
murmur still, when the gods’ power is all.
Under the spinning, under the swell of the fates
moves an engendering sea of deep crystal.
Sleep, shuttle of the Norns! Nothing is transformed.
Worlds waken in new suns’ gold.’
‘Once, irrevocably, have I already acted –
yearn to pay on Vigrid’s slope my debt.’


When my door is shut and my lamp has gone out
and I sit in twilight’s breathing wrapped,
then I feel around me move
branches, a tree’s branches.

In my room where no one else lives
the tree spreads a shadow as soft as gauze.
It lives silent, it grows well,
it becomes what some unknown one thinks.

Some spirit-power, power secret made,
in the trees’ hidden roots its will has laid.
I am frightened sometimes and ask in fear:
Are we so surely friends?

But it lives in calm and it grows still,
and I know not where it strives and whither it will.
It is sweet and bewitching to live so near
one whom one does not know…


I dreamed about swords last night.
I dreamed about battle last night.
I dreamed I fought by your side
armoured and strong, last night.

Lightning flashed harsh from your hand,
and the giants fell at your feet.
Our ranks closed lightly and sang
in silent darkness’ threat.

I dreamed about blood last night.
I dreamed about death last night.
I dreamed I fell by your side
with a mortal wound, last night.

You marked not at all that I fell.
Earnest was your mouth.
With steady hand the shield you held,
and went your way straight forth.

I dreamed about fire last night.
I dreamed about roses last night.
I dreamed my death was fair and good.
So did I dream last night.

*In Norse, skjaldmey (Swedish sköldmö), an ‘Amazon’, a female warrior who fought alongside men [tr.]

Karin Boye: Gömda land (1924)

– translation © David McDuff 2011

Clouds, by Karin Boye


See the mighty clouds, whose distant lofty tops
proud, shimmering rise, white as white snow!
Calmly they glide on, at last in calm to die below,
slowly dissolving in a shower of cool drops.

Majestic clouds – smiling onward they go straight
through life, through death in brilliant sun,
in ether so clear and pure, dark care unknown,
with quiet and grand contempt for their fate.

Would I were granted, festively proud as those,
to climb where the bustle of worlds does not tread
and bear the sunlight’s golden wreath around my head
no matter how angrily round me the storms’ roar goes.


Unlocked is the world’s copper gate.
High in its gate-vault here I stand,
and what I see is infinitely great,
and no sight is so without end.

However deep I look, however far,
my gaze receives no help beneath.
All that I know exists no more –
not great, not small – not life, not death.

One single step on pathways free,
and for me all return is closed…
Why do you quake? Up, follow me!
For the universe’s copper gate is forced!


Half awake the summer night broods
quietly on dreams that no one knows.
The tarns’ glistening floods
reflect a twilight sky’s
infinity, pale, morose,
Whiter grow the stars on high.
Afar, afar
the nightjar
sings alone her toneless, comfortless melody.

Never boldly, towards the heights she swings,
because of her lowness hovers low.
Downy twilight wings
seem bound to the earth,
by dust and soil weighed down below.
Woe to him whose wings in pair
cannot rise,
only linger,
helplessly drawn to the mud, whose colours they bear.

But the whitest of white among swans,
that travel in morning’s bright space
their royal lanes,
never cherished a yearning
such as the nightjar has.
None has a longing so true
for the distant and far
as the nightjar
for the ever beckoning, ever yielding blue.


You are like the mollusc in chilly ponds
where sunbeams never get.
She never creeps out from her shell,
her prison she cannot forget,
she can only hide
her deepest essence
and dream of exploits great
among the waterweed,
but never wholly
and undividedly
empty herself into word or deed.

With irony your speech full spills.
You try to cover
with pretended cold
life’s warmth that inside dwells.
But your voice trembles,
is strangely weak,
A blush hovers
behind each pale cheek.
A sea of fire burns
in a secret place
that no one knows,
no one can trace.

You are too frail and too weak and tame
for all the discords that sever:
to wear armour you must endeavour
in life’s hard-handed game.
You are like the mollusc in chilly ponds
that never creeps out of her shell,
so unattainable,
so incomprehensible,
that no one will near you, ever.


Here I go not. This is not I.
This is a lying reflection alone,
asking, wondering where I have gone,
yearning one day to meet its reality.

The legend tells: far in a distant land
flows a mirroring flood from invisible source.
Thousands of beings, blessed, holy souls,
lean like lilies o’er the banks of sand.

Light without limit envelops their eye,
air trembles, sated by a beauty without like.
In this realm perfect spirits walk,
There stands in eternal light my true I.

The reflection is gone from the glittering surge.
It was once torn away by the angry stream,
wanders around, unreal as in a dream,
unfinished, broken, of itself in search,

Do I not hear the flood’s waves far away?
Deep from my inmost depths its water flows.
There, where life’s swell into day breaks and goes,
it waits for me concealed, my god-begotten I.


No time is like this one,
the evening’s final, silent hour.
No sorrows burn any longer,
no voices crowd any more.

Then take now into your hands
this day that is past, like a token.
For I know: into good you will turn
what I have held or broken.

Evilly I think, evilly I act,
but all things you heal and cleanse.
My days then you transform
From gravel to precious stones.

You must lift, you must carry,
I can only leave all things behind.
Take me, lead me, be close to me!
Show me what you next may intend!


Candles I saw burning, yes, holy candles on the eternal
Blessed ones walked there in a trembling mystic light,
radiant with God as with the sun the falling drops,
radiant with sleep in worlds where time was not.

Woe is me, my foot is too heavy for those giddying high paths,
woe is me, who was formed from clay and whose thought is steel and
Never will I find a place among those dreaming holy silent ones,
never will my head by seeing’s halo be crowned.

You will I seek, my God, in the simple, the grey, despised,
you will I seek in the world, in the everyday’s striving and
The sky’s golden stillness, to which my heart aspired,
is it better than your labour, your holy, burning fight?

Lord, your bliss is yours. You gave, and you took,
and you hide yourself.
Give what you offer – not peace, but your fight, and
your spirit to fulfil.
Lord, on the world’s battlefield like sword or bow I follow you.
Give me a throne, if you wish, or a cross, if you will!


The best that we possess,
we cannot give away.
we cannot write it either.
and neither can we say.

The best that is in your mind
no one can make unclean.
It shines there deep inside
for you and God alone.

It is the glory of our wealth
that no one else can gain it.
It is the torment of our poverty
that no one else can attain it.


This is life’s silent hour,
sunny and blessed,
laughing white in power-conscious peace.
The rejoicing and the songs fell silent,
for Joy overflowed the shores.
Hail to you, Joy, Joy,
in your silent, vainglorious smile!
You alone can plumb
the secret of the worlds.

O bubbles, bubbles, o foam, foam
are all our care, all our grief,
yes foam on measureless expanses,
bubbles on the ocean
is that which we chase and cherish and fear,
but Joy, Joy is the world’s foundation.

How do I dare…? And yet!
Do you think that life’s flower,
carved a thousand times by suffering.
would continue in darkest darkness
to shine in beauty in spite of everything,
were not its root and heart
heavy, yes, brimful of bliss?

O bubbles, bubbles, o foam, foam
is all our pain, our blind grief.
Joy alone knows more than others.
Yes, in its holy white hours
rests in the leaves’ quivering daylight
the reflection of godlike depths,
smiling, smiling.

Like tidal waves, like thunderclouds
day’s care will soon envelop me.
Let me remember in tears and greyness,
that clarity’s blinding moment
forced me to say to life and death,
to the whole world and even to myself:
‘Amen, amen,
happen, then!’



A veil-light mist stands over the meadow,
and pearl-grey dew sprinkles pale leaves –
a spring morning, cool and melancholy-glad,
when airy flowers unfold from humid groves.

In the grass narcissi dully gleam in rows.
From fragile chalices a scent of spring spreads down,
when over them with dreamy gaze there goes
a noble boy from Arno’s town.

A happiness of wonder rests upon his face.
His walk is full of awkward charm and pliancy.
A book he bears, as careful as a sage.

He scarce perceives the meadow’s paradise,
but stares foreboding-pale as the spring day
at mysterious distance, hidden in morning haze.


I would like to paint a meagre fragment
of the shabbiest everyday, so worn and grey,
but radiant with that fire that made
the whole world leap from the Creator’s hand.
I would like to show how what we disdain
is holy and deep and the Spirit’s attire.
I would like to paint a wooden spoon in such a way
that people had an inkling of God!


I broke my bread which others’ hands had to bake,
and drank my wine, which I did not prepare.
Those who had the toil never got to taste
its fruit, before they trod on dark roads there.

What I have sown, tomorrow you will harvest.
Oh may my seed an hundredfold bear deep!
They bear delight, who bear others’ burdens.
they harvest life, who others’ harvests reap.


My God
and my truth
I saw
in a strange hour.
People’s words
and commands were silent.
Good and evil
my soul forgot.
My God
and my truth
I drank
in the hour of my angxiety.

My God
was salt darkness,
my truth
hard metal.
Deeply I shook.
Naked I stood,
washed by waves
of cold truth,
cold, strong,
contemptuous truth –
my Truth
and my God.


Gold and pale copper! Hoar frost on fields of brown gold!
The wide and golden world is glittering cold.

Through the clouds I see rivers, of sun and gold they are made,
forcing through, laughing chill as their wills’ sharpened blade.

Smiling, defiant, breaking forth through the spaces it goes,
sunbeam-yellow and frosty round meadows and fields it flows.

Hear, sound it acquires, and the clear expanses rejoice!
Hear how, to reply, the whole world receives a singing voice!

A thousand times beaten and sacked and put to the knife
defiant she sings the songs of eternal desire for life.


Do I not walk here drunken with fragrance of roses
– yet no roses have come! –
Does not all tremble, wrapped in divine gossamer?
The reflected light whispers secret promises.

From far away a wind reached me lately,
light as a held-back breath,
full of a fragrance of shyly trembling expectancy.
Ever since then I have sensed a miracle.

I know nothing – walk as in a far-off land,
walk as in a dream, a dream of roses.
All is as before – yet all is changed.
Strange mystery over things!


If a star comes loose
and falls white through the air,
then, it is said, she answers our prayers, that reach
that short glimmering path.

I wait and wait. It is April,
a warm and sharp-eared night in April,
when the grass grows and the stars listen –
tonight they go so peacefully their way,
and not one trips and falls!

But if I fall asleep, it matters not at all:
if a star tears itself loose tonight,
then she must feel my prayer, where she descends,
even though I sleep –
for all the silent, silent night
all of wide, wide space
is completely full of my only wish!


O a blade,
yieldingly supple and strong,
o a lithely dancing blade,
proudly obeying the sternest law,
the rhythm’s hard law in the steel –
o a blade
I would be in body and soul!

You I hate,
you my wretched willow-being,
you that twine, you that twist,
patiently obeying others’ hands.
You I hate,
you my lazy dreamer-being.
You shall die.
Help me, my hatred, you sister of longing,
help me to become
a blade, yes a blade,
a dancing sword of hardened steel!


Cool is your voice as murmur of springs, and your being
tartly fresh as the autumn’s fragrant fruits.
Clear in your eye rests
high September’s chill merriment.

A fountain you are, whose sunnily glittering beam,
beautiful in its equilibrium, beautiful in its form-strict arc,
beautiful in its strength, possesses
the power to love limits and noble dimensions.

Hail to your playing calm, your springtime health!
Hail to your spirit’s sweet, godlike nobility,
drawn in your features’ purity
and the singing harmony of your limbs!


When the morning’s sun steals through the window-pane,
happy and cautious,
like a child who wants to surprise
early, early on a festive day –
then I stretch full of growing exultation
my open arms to the coming day –
for the day is you,
and the light is you,
the sun is you,
and the spring is you,
and all of beautiful, beautiful
waiting life is you!


Twilight over an unknown path…
Colourless earth-plants,
great mushrooms
sprout from the ground, where sound is choked.
Winding naked trunks
stretch up and vanish in the darkness.
Hear the fearful roar up there,
that never falls silent!

Just now in the sun
I sang on flowering meadows
Pan, Pan, the great Pan.
Scornfully whisper now
the marshes’ murmuring bubbles:
‘Here in the forest of the secret depths,
here too is his dwelling!
Do you still dare to sing
Pan, the great Pan?’

Help, my foot is sinking!
Quagmire is the ground.
Brooding lurk
black waters, half in sleep,
unmoving, unfathomable,
in wait for me, their prey.
The snakelike trunks of the alders,
grown out of the wet marsh,
twist wailing this way and that.
Fear stretches from muddy water
hands, black and gnarled,
like the damp-dripping
rotten branches on which the moss grows.
Help, oh, help, what secret
depths, that desire me!

Yet – is that not the scent of flowers?
All around above dark marshes
buds gleam,
white buds –
oh, they unfold, they shimmeringly unfold!
My foot finds a hold among white chalices,
and over the depths moves a light –
the sweetest mocking smile.

Bow down, heart,
bow down and pray!
Here in the forest of the secret depths
I sing Pan
I sing trembling
Pan, Pan, the great Pan!


When our gods fall
and we stand alone among wreckage,
as much without a hold for our feet any longer
as spheres in space –
then you are dimly seen for a moment, lofty Beauty.
Then, only then.
As stern as fire you speak consolation:
‘Whatever else falls – I remain.’
O stay, stay, holy one,
and save my soul
from the falsehood of a measureless sorrow!


Quietly would I thank my fate:
never do I lose you entirely.
As a pearl grows in the mussel,
so within me
grows your dewy essence sweet.
If at last one day I forget you –
then you will be blood of my blood,
then you will be one with me –
may the gods grant that.


‘Child!’ said Life to me one day.
‘How young you are! A little unripe fruit…
I want to teach you the adornment of youth:
modest discretion,
lowered eyes and quiet voice.
Go softly now – go on tiptoe over the meadows!
Silent, be silent – hold your breath and listen!
If Joy greets you, if Pain greets you,
don’t make such a dreadful fuss (you usually do)!
Be infinitely quiet! Listen! Listen!
Then perhaps you will
find the way home to my rose-garden.’


You who are called by the names of flowers,
now I want to give you another:
The Surgeon’s Knife.
A cold, hard name.
But so gleamingly hard
is your image in the silent hours.
I am doomed when I see you,
doomed like one who is sick
before your health of springtime morning.

It is good that one suffers and sickens.
You are refreshingly free from mercy
towards torments of pathos.
Afar, afar you smile mysteriously.
I would breathe your lofty air.
I would tread those dewy paths
where you walk.


I love those white mountains, the marble white
with foreheads rinsed by the heavens’ high blue repose,
and the storming glitter of the salt sea,
and Doric temples, and thought’s cool crystal.

But I have also lingered by doors left ajar
and seen inside, into sounding twilight depths,
where the shimmer of altar candles quietly rejoiced
in the face of trembling time, Advent,
while the winter morning stared dark through vaulted windows.

Those radiant saints, those who overcame,
could be sensed, blessed, beyond the darkness,
and God’s yearners
bent their knees in prayer, lonely in their hosts,
and saw with closed eyes the Only One’s brilliance,
the soul’s innermost worlds,
and mystical truths they learned listening.
If you have ever listened near burning altar candles,
then you will never forget God’s silent, blossoming gardens –
you will kiss the stone of the gate-arch and turn away.
White mountains, marble white in dazzling sun,
beloved, distantly-seen, my home in presentiment,
I come to you!
Life is to cut and to break so that something may grow.
Everyone is so many people,
but more than one road no one goes.


To lose the soul’s home and to wander far
and then be unable to find anything else,
and feel that one’s forgotten what truth is,
and fancy one is made of nought but lies,
be sickened by oneself and hate oneself –
yes, that is easy, that is very easy.
Sorrow is easy, but joy is proud and hard,
for joy, it is the simplest thing of all.

But he that seeks for himself a home
must not believe that it exists just anywhere –
he must go wandering homeless for a time;
and he that’s made of lies and would be well,
must hate himself until the day he knows
of truth what others as a gift receive.
What point is there in grieving so for it?
Wait then, my heart, and have some patience yet!


If this life is the only one…!
Oh, these short hours…
An hour – how much an hour can become!
Those deep springs where no one yet has drunk,
the light-expanses no one yet has fathomed,
And we, we dully doze in cowardice.
Oh, these short hours…
O world of hidden possibilities,
O God in the becoming,
give us an undaunted piety,
a pure will,
and initiate us to the adventure of the spirit!


If you cannot manage one step more,
cannot lift your head,
if you are sinking wearily under hopeless greyness –
then be thankful for the kind, small things,
consoling, childish.
You have an apple in your pocket,
a book of stories there at home –
small, small things, despised
at the time, that radiated living
but gentle footholds during the dead hours.


The world streams with dirt, emptiness fills it.
Wounds that the day made heal when evening is at hand.
Calm, calm, I lean my head
on a holy vision, your lingering memory.
Temple; refuge; purification;
my sanctuary!
On your steps saved from the darkness
secure as a child I fall asleep.


Life acquires a different hue –
trembling, trembling it listens and is silent,
when like the shimmer from V„ttern’s stone in the folktale
the thought of you from the depths
rises wholly through-annealing all the world.
Newly-woken I see reality,
where aching dreams burdened me just now.
The air is living, life I breathe,
life from you, from you.


In your beauty submerged
I see life explained
and the dark riddle’s answer
made plain.

In your beauty submerged
I want to say a prayer.
The world is holy,
for you are there.

Endless with brightness,
I would die with you,
in your beauty submerged.


You are my purest consolation,
you are my firmest protection,
you are the best thing I have,
for nothing hurts like you.

No, nothing hurts like you.
You smart like ice and fire,
you cut like a steel my soul –
you are the best thing I have.


Hail to those warriors who bleed in the battles,
in spite of scars and wounds shining,
hail to their hard struggle,
hail to their dearly bought victories!

But O young tree, you blossoming maple,
you I love more than warriors’ scars.
Your unacquired, happy nobility
is greater than their won battles.

Fresh in life’s morning you sprouted from the earth,
fresh, fresh you grew calmly in sun and rain;
anguish you did not know, nor remorse,
nothing of all our sickness.

You blossom in gold and gold vine; in sighings you laugh,
when the wanderer kisses your trunk.
His kiss is a prayer to the eternal beauty
your lovely blossoms thought in the day.

Blessed be, blessed be, fair-growing maple!
You do not need the combatants’ victories.
In you is the repose of lonely forests.
In you is sun of divinity.


Dream vision, dream vision,
sun-clear revelation,
lit for my gaze by a single
human creation,

dream vision, dream vision,
sweet among fighters maimed,
sweet in a torn-apart
world of pain.

dream of a race
growing forth through the ages,
proud people, who play their way to
victory in battles’ rages,

flowerlike grown
unhesitatingly harmonious from each root,
trusting calmly in a holy
earth beneath each foot,

whose flesh is spirit,
whose spirit is flesh –
flowerlike grown
like a strange person I met.


The gods’ chariots
do not shake the clouds,
they glide silently
forward like rays.
The gods’ steps are
as hard to hear
as the grass’s scarcely
perceived murmur.

Cautiously, cautiously
follow those paths
that smell of their
healing closeness.
Call no names!
They will fly, they will leave you
in an empty world.


I see a glimpse of you,
O Carolina, my friend, behind the birch’s frosty twigs,
quietest light falls on my road
like sun in mist.

Stern and distinguished
you are like one whom life has given a protecting armour,
but by a sceptical mildness’s light
sprinkled over –

like an old man’s
smile of light, light snow and autumn-gentle irony,
thoughtfully, with warmth and wisdom underneath
and inside meek humility.


Deceit, deceit –
other was never my life.
All my shame,
pen, poor thing, write.
Write of roads far, far
from my truth away,
write of a wall round all that was best…
No, stay.

Threat of unfathomed darkness
fills my mind.
thunder-oppressive budding time
is still mine.
I want to be still,
wait and see a while,
wait for the sun,
softly smile.

What is happening in the darkness,
as I smile in vain?
Is my soul dying?
Will I never come home again?
God, God,
only keep secure
a glint of my intention
pure, pure!


I once asked for joy without limits,
I once asked for sorrow, infinite as space.
I wonder if modesty grows with the years?
Fair, fair is joy, fair also is sorrow.
But fairest is to stand on pain’s battlefield
with stilled mind and see that the sun is shining.


Sparkling creaking hard crust.
Lonely, lonely is the night sky over white roads.
I am filled with a angry thirst
for the winter sky.

Will you not soon leap up before my foot,
deep earth-cold water that sometimes chilled me,
O strong darkness that
my star conceals?

Then dizzyingly hard and pure
you will drown putrid lies as before you mercilessly did.
Where are you, bitter sea
of ice and truth?


When you are gone, then wildly hungers my soul.
When you are near, I yearn even so –
in despair I see,
stiffened, closed,
how empty and vain
the minute flows.

Your being’s proud, royal flower-scent fine
I would secretly drink, a holy wine –
but mortally heavy I stand
as in dreams,
with thirst like Tantalus’
in clear, bright streams.

In solitude’s time my tongue has burned
to tell you the beautiful things I knew and dreamed –
but in your nearness
my thought drowses, dumb.
my gate is closed,
and my heart goes numb.


Many things hurt that have no name.
Best to keep silent and accept all the same.

Much is secret, with danger obscure.
Best with respect and caution endure.

Best in the secret to firmly believe
And not to poke at the growing seeds.

‘Here thought never went out searching.
All-mother, guide me with sure exhortation!’

Good to heed one’s Mother’s voice near –
wordless concern receives wordless cheer.


Pray for one thing:
deep earnestness
– that which proved fatal to many –
But pray for one more thing more,
a thing that only the strong are granted:
taciturnity of heart.

Karin Boye, 1922

-translation © David McDuff 2010