Rut Hillarp was one of the central figures within Swedish literary modernism of the 1940s. She is known for her innovative and what – at that time – was considered audacious erotic lyricism.
Rut Hillarp was born in 1914. She was brought up within a non-conformist religious home in Hässleholm. Her father Nils Bengtsson, an iron-merchant, and her mother Hulda were both leading members of the Svenska Missionsförbund (Swedish missionary association) in that town. Rut Hillarp was deeply influenced by Christian concepts and dreamt of becoming a missionary when she grew up. Her favourite reading material was Gustave Doré’s illustrated Bible and its “wonderfully lovely and lurid illustrations”.
Following the death of her father Rut Hillarp moved to Lund along with her mother and younger brother Nils Åke. She maintained her religious activism throughout her teenage years. During her highschool years in the Latin section of Lund’s fullständiga läroverk för flickor (complete school for girls) she joined Aithon, a non-conformist highschoolers’ association where she got to know the chair, the poet Karl Vennberg. Their friendship became a lifelong one. Vennberg later became one of the leading figures of the Swedish literary modernist avant garde of the 1940s in which Rut Hillarp held a central position as both a poet and a translator.
It was not until 1946 that Rut Hillarp made her debut as a poet with a collection entitled Solens brunn. In 1948 she released Dina händers ekon, and in 1950 she published Båge av väntan. As a girl and young woman who had grown up in the shadow of world wars she was drawn to the dramatic events of life and art. She wanted to break free from the narrow confines of the contemporary ‘women’s world’ and educate herself. In her imaginary world she awarded special places to male heroes such as Richard Wagner, whose musical dramas – especially Tristan and Isolde and Ring of the Nibelungs – became never-ending sources of inspiration.
When she was 15 Rut Hillarp became engaged to her French teacher, Birger Thorén, who was a lodger in her parents’ house. They got married after she had gained her school-leaving certificate in 1932 and moved to Stockholm. Rut Hillarp returned to her studies and began to read English at Stockholm college, and later also added literature and Nordic languages as subjects. After gaining her Bachelor’s degree she got her first job as a teacher at Spånga municipal mellanskola (a special type of middle school). She remained a teacher throughout her working life. Her longest period of employment was at the Statens normalskola where she was initially an assistant teacher and later senior teacher. Alongside her teaching activities she also added to her qualifications by undertaking a licentiate course in literature in the 1940s. At this time Dagmar Lange – whose pseudonym was Maria Lang – was one of her fellow students.
During the Second World War Rut Hillarp increasingly sought membership in the intellectual and artistic circles outside her home. She was active in Clarté, attended literary readings in the evenings, took up painting, and socialised with radical writers. After reading Erik Lindegren’s 1942 book Mannen utan väg she became inspire to begin writing. In 1945 she gained her Licentiate for her thesis on the women in Verner von Heidenstam’s novel Hans Alienus.
Her marriage to Birger Thorén was dissolved in 1948 and Rut Hillarp then moved into an apartment in Siljansvägen in Årsta, where she remained until her death. Following her divorce she re-assumed the name Hillarp (which comes from the family farm in Skåne). Her literary socialising intensified even within her private life. Once the war had ended she made repeat visits to Paris where she indulged in her particular interest in ballroom dancing. In addition to her teaching and writing she also began to experiment with photography and short films, which in 1950 resulted in a surrealist art film called De vita händerna.
Rut Hillarp’s poetry benefited from the rich sounding-board generated by her multi-faceted artistry. Demands for political responsibility arose out of the post-war debates in Sweden as well as a demand for poetry that exhibited a contemporary awareness. Rut Hillarp’s original contribution was to include the ideal of romantic love among the ideologies and value systems which were found to be lying in ruins following the war. An erotic-carnal style of writing became her particular trademark became; the relentless power of passion became her domain. In her poetry the female narrator is torn between a longing for freedom and a desire to be dominated. The male figure often takes on the form of a deified superior with an averted face and closed eyes.
Within this emotional choreography Rut Hillarp found a strategy for representing – as she herself put it – the “relationship between women and men within the patriarchy”. In the face of the establishment of the Swedish ‘folkhem’ (welfare state) policies of the 1950s she continued her research into love through prose in Blodförmörkelse, from 1951, in Sindhia from 1954, in En eld är havet from 1956, and in Kustlinje, from 1963. She employed a feminist analysis where the focal point was embodied by modern womanhood’s most difficult dilemma: the seemingly unresolvable equation containing both romantic dedication and emancipation.
Almost three decades passed between Rut Hillarp’s prose publications and her return to the lyrical form of expression. During this time she dedicated herself entirely to her work as a teacher and was active in issues of pedagogical importance within the SOL (socialist schoolwork) association and on the editorial board for KRUT (critical educational journal).
Rut Hillarp returned, following the lengthy poetical silence, in an expression of uninterrupted erotic vitality as seen in three collections of poems and photographic art: Spegel under Jorden, from 1982, Penelopes väv, from 1985, and Strand för Isolde, from 1991. Her gaze encompassed the stylised worlds of ancient mythology where the focal point lay on the female perspective. This return to poetry resulted in Rut Hillarp gaining a new generation of readers and the attention of literary-researchers focused on feminist literature.
Rut Hillarp died in Årsta in 2003. A selection Rut Hillarp’s literary diaries which she had kept throughout her adult life was published posthumously by Birgitta Holm in her book Dagboken, published in 2011.