Tranströmer's Thoreau

by Michael Peverett

Funnel Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis)

[Image source:]

Five strophes to Thoreau

So another has left the heavy town's
ring of voracious stones. Crystal-clear salt is
the water that comes together round all true
                         escapers' heads.

Up a slow vortex silence has climbed to here
from the middle of the earth, to put down roots and to grow
and with a leafy crown to shade the man's
                         sun-warmed steps.


The foot kicks thoughtlessly at a mushroom. A thundercloud
grows big on the rim. Like copper trumpets
the tree's bent roots sound a note and the leaves
                          scatter frightened.

Autumn's wild flight is one's own light cape,
its flap-flapping, till once more from frost and ashes
comes the flock of calm days to bathe its
                          claws in the spring.


Believed by nobody is the one who saw a geyser,
who escaped the stone-lined well like Thoreau and who knows
like him to vanish deep in inner greenery,
                            wily and hopeful.

Runmarö cottages

[Image source:]


This is my quick translation of one of Tomas Tranströmer's early poems (published in 17 Poems  / 17 dikter, 1954). Previously I've always read Tranströmer in Robin Fulton's translations, but now that I'm reading the Swedish I discover that Fulton's translations are often quite free and sometimes not so clear as the original.  Of course my own translations are always the clearest!  Though in this case I will probably confuse readers with the "steps" at the end of the second stanza: I'm thinking of external wooden steps up to the veranda of a summer cottage.

And that's what I think Tranströmer had in mind too. Many of the images here relate to the common Swedish summer departure from the city into nature, and the poet himself is the "another" of the poem's opening line.


Interesting discussion of the poem by Henrik Gustafsson and Niklas Schiöler in the Thoreau Society Bulletin, Fall 1998

They also supply translations of the three additional stanzas in the original 1951 version of the poem (they were positioned as 2, 6 and 7). Tranströmer realized his poem could get along better without them.

I don't really agree with their symbolic interpretation of the thunder and the wild autumn, nor with their over-interpretation of "stenad brunn" in the final stanza as a stagnant well. Google searches confirm that the phrase merely specifies a well lined with stones, which is how most Swedish wells were made in the past. But the water in a well, though not fast-flowing, oughtn't to be stagnant. For me the main point (aside from recalling the city's "voracious ring of stones" in line 2) is to suggest the difficulty of clambering out.

Yellow Foot Chanterelles (Craterellus  lutescens) and Funnel Chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis)

[Image source: This image was taken on Runmarö, the island on the Stockholm archipelago where Tranströmer had his summer cottage.]

Tranströmer himself saw geysers in Iceland in 1951. Geysers are very rare phenomena, there are only about 1,000 worldwide.

The poem is characterized by an insistent crossover of images that doesn't necessarily follow the prose sense. (For example the ascending vortex and the man's wooden steps in Stanza 2.) In the fifth stanza it's difficult to ignore the connection between the geyser and the stony well of the following line. Momentarily, we glimpse a Thoreau exploding out of the city-well with a geyser's force. But only momentarily. The verb "flytta" in the following line (to move, leave, depart or flit) is far from explosive. Quietness is re-established. Significant actions, we learn, may often be quiet ones. So, of course, may trivial ones.

More distantly, both this geyser and this well make connections with the spring of stanza 4 and the crystal-clear water of stanza 1. The latter, I think, is the icy, only-slightly-saline water of the Stockholm archipelago. And I think the image is of someone swimming, the waters merging round his head rather than over his head.


[Image source:]

NB Robert Pogue Harrison  (NYRB, Aug 2017), in an article titled "The True American"  claims, bizarrely, that Thoreau is of interest only to fellow Americans. "Unlike his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau hardly makes it onto the list of notable American authors outside his home country."  I suppose Harrison does believe this and isn't just writing clickbait, but it's surprising .  My experience is exactly the opposite. But then it's surprising, too, that Harrison and his editors think it's worthwhile and meaningful to foreground Thoreau's "American"-ness. But as Tranströmer's poem shows, most of us see Thoreau as transcending nationality.

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