Elsa Grave was one of the first Swedish modernist poets. Her output spans nearly half a century. In addition to lyrical poems she also wrote plays and novels, and she painted and composed music.
Elsa Grave was born in 1918 in Gunnarstorp in north Scania. Her father was the chief engineer at the local coal mine. She graduated from school in Helsingborg in 1938. The following year she travelled across Europe and enrolled in classes at various art schools. In 1939 she began studying at Lund University and gained her degree in the humanities (Romance languages, history of religions, art history, Nordic and comparative archaeology) around 1942. She became friends with Sven Alfons while she was in Lund, and he too was both a painter and a budding poet. In 1940 they held a joint exhibition at the Scania art museum located in the university attic.
Around 192 Elsa Grave moved to Stockholm in order to attend the Isaac Grünewald art school. She stayed there for a few years and socialised with those who went on to become the poets of the 1940s. She married the doctor Olle Henschen-Nyman in 1945. They had two daughters, born in 1945 and 1949 respectively. The family moved around between several smaller towns, Boden, Linköping and then returned to Lund again. In 1955 Elsa Grave ended her marriage when she was awarded a stipend which enabled her to undertake a lengthy visit to Capri. On her return to Sweden in 1957 she settled in a brick villa named Blomstervången in Vapnödalen near Halmstad. She would remain there for the rest of her active life.
Elsa Grave went on to have another daughter from a relationship with a married artist in 1958. During her pregnancy the man in question died in a motorbike accident. Elsa Grave then became a single mother to three daughters. She mainly provided for herself by writing, which left her with limited finances. Before giving birth to her first daughter she had apparently had three abortions, according to her own accounts. Later in life she would also have further abortions.
In many ways, Elsa Grave was and remained a typical modernist of the 1940s, but some variations both in language use and themes occurred over time. Her lyrical poetry can be divided into three periods. Her debut came in 1943 with the collection entitled Inkräktare. This was also when Erik Lindegren’s Mannen utan väg, 1942 and 1945, and Karl Vennberg’s Halmfackla, 1944, were published. The two early poetry collections of the 1940s (apart from Inkräktare and Som en flygande skalbagge, 1945) have more charm than gravity. Elsa Grave’s second period began when she was living in Lund in the early 1950s and she was part of a circle now known as Lundagruppen. During this time Elsa Grave developed her own use of language which was marked by grotesque irony and an existential perspective. The poetry collection entitled Bortförklaring, 1948, and in particular the poem “Svinbortsnatt” are early examples of her new writing style, but it was with the release of 9 elegier, 1953, that she fully adopted it. Here lie the origins of the grotesque and ironical tradition which from then on was represented in Swedish poetry, particularly by female lyricists. Elsa Grave’s third creative period began with Avfall in 1974. From this point on the societal perspective dominated and her tone became simplified partly through the use of newly matured language as displayed in Slutförbannelser in 1977. This also introduced a new readership to her work. Her last collection of poems was Sataneller, published in 1989.
Elsa Grave represents an unusual movement in the literary scene. When she made her debut in 1943 she was part of the avant-garde in Stockholm, the so-called new generation of the 1940s. Her existentialism-inspired poetry of the early 1950s once again placed her in the avant-garde, this time with the approximately ten young members of the Lundagruppen. She thus managed to be counted among seminal young poets on two separate occasions.
Elsa Grave’s poetry contained humour and fantastical elements from the very outset. Her first collection, Inkräktare, already used themes which would become typical in her later poetry, such as plant metaphors, the sea and the odd bat. She turned the irony of the 1940s into something altogether juicier and more grotesque. One of the sources for her fantasy-like imagery may have been surrealism which emerged in the 1940s. Chagall’s paintings with unnatural animals have been suggested as inspirational for Grave’s surrealistic elements – she was also a painter herself. The animal symbolism she used was largely pejorative given that it centred on pigs, rats and beetles.
Grave also discussed the status of women from the very beginning, and later narrowed this down to considerations partly of mothers’ responsibilities for their children, and partly of women’s demands on men. Three distinct themes dominate in her writing. She discusses the problems of motherhood, treats the loss of a beloved partner, and deals with the major humanitarian issues of the day such as war and famine, oppression and environmental destruction.
There is a curious connection between motherhood and violence in Elsa Grave’s poems. Mothers set fire to their own children, children hunt their mothers, and they mutually seek to end each other’s lives. Motherhood is portrayed as an official responsibility – it is pushed to its extreme as mothers, instead of protecting them, kill their children. Despite utmost efforts it is impossible for the children to have good lives and so relieving them of their lives becomes the best solution. The existential approach is apparent here. Mothers bear the responsibility to entirely protect their children from evil and violence and the existential choice does not shy away from grim solutions. The difficulty of protecting your child attains a sort of resolution in Mödrar som vargar (“Mothers as wolves”), 1972. The wolf has the ability to both protect and retain her children, even if she has to chew her enemies to death and injure her children.
Another important theme of Elsa Grave’s writing is the relationship to men and love. Here, too, the texts are strikingly ambivalent, which is very apparent in the title “Kärlekens nidvisor” (“Love’s lampoons”) in Bortförklaring, 1948. In the autobiographical En tid i Paradiset, 1981, the male character wants to shoot a fox and fashion a fine fur hat for his beloved whilst the female character silently identifies with the wild animal. The male character is a traditional macho man, a hunter, but the female character desires only him and the situation become impossible. Elsa Grave’s love poetry shows this torturous conflict again and again. In the novel Luciafirarna, 1959, set in an environment reminiscent of Capri, the children are sent away when an earthquake is imminent and the main character can then follow her desires. There is a conflict between sexuality and the duties of motherhood.
Throughout her active period Elsa Grave was interested in societal issues and she would occasionally enter into the public debate. Her third writing period, from 1974 to 1989, was dominated by apocalyptic visions. The poetry describes a post nuclear bomb, post ecological devastation era. The ideas presented resemble those of Elin Wägner as expressed in Väckarklocka, 1941, which was current during Elsa Grave’s youth. Wägner’s views on pacifism and ecology have been kept alive by the Swedish alternative movement, a movement which Elsa Grave also subscribed to. She also joined Miljöpartiet (the Green Party) in the early 1980s.
The 1960s and 1970s introduced a new societal atmosphere of activism which suited Elsa Grave. Avfall- från och till contains a series of “citatsamtal” (quotation conversations) which specify her ideological points of view. The people quoted include Sven Lindqvist, Richard Matz, Heidegger, Lévi-Strauss, Hannes Alfvén, Ingmar Hedenius, Diderot, Maria Bergom-Larsson, Orwell, Nils Lundgren, Tor R. Gerholm and Einstein. The new simplified writing style was noted in Slutförbannelser, which led to a new and younger readership discovering Elsa Grave. The poetry collection is a vision of destruction, an apocalypse. War and environmental devastation has killed all life. The only thing left are voices of complaint and condemnation.
Elsa Grave died in 2003 in Venice.