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Poems by Karin Boye (1900-1941)


translated by Michael Peverett




Swedish texts of Karin Boye’s poems can be found here:



David MacDuff’s biographical note, and his complete English translation of the poems, can be found here: http://www.halldor.demon.co.uk/boyepage.htm


The translation of Önskan (“Wish”) is dedicated to my mother, Eva Gulliksson. ]



from Clouds (1922)



            A Buddhist fantasy



from Hidden lands (1924)


            The stars

            New paths

            The star's prize

            The old dad


            Burning candles


from Hearths (1927)


            The two lineages

            Keep moving

            The falling morning star

            Lilith's song


from For the tree’s sake (1935)


            A stillness spread

            If I could follow you

            Blonde morning

            Ripe like a fruit

            The tree under the earth

            Our eyes are our fate

            The portal

            The mouths


from The Seven Deadly Sins and other posthumous poems (1941)


            The blossom Bitterness

            Never was the wood so joyful as now...

            Wild apple-tree

How can I tell...

            To you






From Clouds (1922)









Look at the towering clouds, whose high distant cloudtops

proudly, shimmeringly rear up, white as white snow!

How calmly they glide forward, how calmly in the end to die

by soft dissolution into a shower of cool raindrops.


The majestic clouds whether living or dying

they move forward smiling under the brilliance of the sun,

with no furrowing unease, in ether so openly clean,

they move with a stately, silent disdain for their undoing.


If only I too, with all that pomp of festivals,

might lift myself up to where the world’s bustle is gone

and no matter how furiously round me the storm howls on

might bear the gold garland of sunshine on my temples.






A Buddhist Fantasy



Unhasped is the world’s copper gate.

High in its gatevault, there I sat

and what I saw was infinitely vast;

there is nothing so infinite.


Searchingly and long I gazed.

My eye found not the least relief.

There what I knew did not exist;

not great, not small – not life, not death.


Just one step on that markless way

and all return for me is past.

Why are you trembling? Up, follow me!

For nature’s copper gate is forced!








Coolness in your voice like the murmur of springs, and your soul

sour-fresh like autumn's scented berries

and clear in your eye rests

chilly merriment of high September


Like a fountain whose sunny glittering jet

is lovely in its balance, in its strict bow-shape

and in its force, because it has

enough power to love limits, and noble proportions


Hail to your laughing calm, the bloom of May!

Hail to your spirit's sweet surpassing excellence!

what I see in the clarity of your brow

and in the singing harmony of your limbs






From Hidden Lands (1924)






The stars



Now it's all over. Now I wake.
It's calm and easy to disappear -
when nothing remains to hang on for
and nothing remains to suffer here.

Redgold last night, a dry leaf now,
tomorrow nothing in this place.
But stars burn silent as before
at night in the surrounds of space.

Now I want to give myself
so not one single scrap remains.
Will you, stars, accept a soul
with no possessions in her train?

With you is freedom, perfect in
the peace of far eternities.
Heaven is not blank to one
who gives her dream and her unease.






New Paths



Here they start new paths.

Let us walk in calm.

Come, let us search for

some new and lovely bloom.


Cast off what was ours!

Things won and complete

lifelessly oppress us,

not worth dream and song and feat.


Life is what is waiting,

what no-one can know...

Come – let us forget.

Seek where new and fair things grow.






The Star’s Prize



I asked a star last night

– a light far off, where no-one lives –

“Whose way do you light, strange star?

You shine so bright, so big.”


She looked with a starry eye

until my heart grew dumb.

“I light an eternal night.

I light a lifeless vacuum.


My light is a flower that withers

under late autumn skies.

That light is my only prize.

That light is sufficient prize.”






The old dad



The old dad, I have seen him in the dusk of a summer night,
in the clover-scented night, working on his own.
By the spring that belongs to the farm
he stood, a bent figure,
sharpening the haymakers' scythes;
he was barely a shadow - so grey,
and quite as old as the farm,
yet he seemed to live on with as sturdy a life as it.
His fragile song, this I shall not forget:

Oh you, the lord and master of the farm,
to the old dad you are only a boy.

I was the first one who broke your soil.
When the ploughshare labours in the furrow –

then, do you think of me?
In ancient times 

with the stones I threw aside I began
to raise the stone-pile that marks the edge of the farm.

For a thousand years

I have built it now and built beside all who built;
I have held the ploughshaft with all who ploughed.
I have a part in your work,
have a right to claim.
You know it well:
that the holy seed may grow
always, always,
here in the fields
where I first sowed it.








I want to live the right way,

and die the right way, too.

Let me hold on to what is real

in grief, as much as joy.

And I would like to be still,

to reverence what is here

for what it is, for what it really is

and nothing more.


Suppose of all my lifetime

only one day remained,

then I would want the loveliest

thing that earth contained.

The loveliest thing on earth

is merely, Honesty.

For that alone brings life to life

and to reality.


The whole wide world is 

an Alchemilla-cup,

and resting in its greenness

one clear water-drop.

That one, still, drop

is the apple of life’s eye.

Oh make me fit to look in it!

Oh make me purified!






Burning Candles



Now night is crying aloud in its need,

oppressed by an unknown sickness.

Now I’ll light a brace of candles here

for the sake of eternal darkness.


So if the Lord’s angels pass this way,

the gleam will summon them,

they’ll hear how the flames are singing my prayer,

and they’ll carry its burden home.


They are warriors sent out in fiery mail

from God Almighty’s house.

Their speech has no words for bitter or sweet,

but for burning candles it does.


That’s why they stand on the stormcloud’s back,

within the clap of its wings.

That’s why they smile at the power of darkness

and think its cold is nothing.


O Lord my God, O terrible God,

I hear the surge of your mantle.

I pray for flowers and pray for peace,

but let me have burning candles!





From Hearths (1927)






The Two Lineages



This song is for the children of wrath

on the thistle-heath, the heathen;

those the angel with the flaming sword

expelled from their lost Eden.

Thistledown, thistledown

across the ground is windblown,

having no means to root or grow

inside the closed-up garden.



Yet the myths say that sons of God

thought the earth then so gorgeous,

on the dawn hills, in the gold lustre

of day in the first ages,

they met with the daughters of men

under moonbillowing darkness,

and seeded children with aether-seed,

the stock of celestial hierarchies.



To meet their descendants is a joyous thing;

their hands are profuse with joys.

I have seen some passing among the thistles,

who passed along sacred shores... –

Yet nights of sleepless grieving,

they too amount to something;

and any who has known what anguish is

knows more than most who study.



I have seen some passing among the thistles;

free, light, transparent –

and I quivered with worship, with longing

for a glimpse, for just a movement.

But tell me – who has touched our race’s root,

those souls of glimmering streams,

or you – with your eyes that are full of night,

your mouth red with bloody dreams?






Keep Moving



The day of satisfaction is not best.

The better day — that is a day of thirst.


Though there’s a goal, a reason for our journey,

really the road itself is why it’s worth it.


The best goal is to make camp overnight,

with the fire lit, and something quick to eat.


In places where you only stay the once,

your sleep is sound, your dream is just a song.


Break up, depart! The new day grows pale.

Our great adventure is perpetual.






The Falling Morning Star



“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall,

obstinate morning star! Yes,

gladly I give you darkness,

you that are dearest to me of all.”


“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall,

fire of blazing turquoise!

Gleam in the deep’s long tortures,

raise your citadel’s coal-black wall!”


“Fall,” said the Lord then, “fall!

You that would taste all evil,

will you come back, as usual?

You that are nearest to me of all.”





Lilith’s Song



Rainclouds hanging heavy,

ripen in tender darkness, where they’re stored,

night-blueish grapevine clusters

heavy with wine, that hushed over earth is poured,

heavy with deep-born wine,

heavy with secret force,

wrested from sea and heavens

and bitter dew in the utterest dark’s expanse.


Living’s heady vapour

cools into droplets, falls through the dead-still night.

Drink deeply! you will maybe

grasp the key, where no-one has set his foot –

land where the spirit, loosed

out beyond time’s frontiers

tastes in eternal spaces

things that no-one thinks of or sees or knows.


Under waking country

seethe unearthly seas of joy and woe,

world-deepest smithy-forges

whence sprang, like a wave-spat, all we see.

Dare you attempt the road

opened in horror’s rush?

Fear-stricken, favoured,

you reach the eternal Mothers’ sombre house . . .


Flakes on widest waters,

deep-born flower who never saw its root,

may-fly averse to nightfall –

comes the time you’ll enter the Mothers’ night!

Dying is black with pain.

Dying is white with bliss.

Plunged in its murmuring waves you

cease to think of life’s pale, clouded coast.






From For the tree’s sake (1935)





A stillness spread



A stillness spread, gentle as the sun-filled winter woods.

How was it, my will grew certain and my path obedient to me?

I bore in my hand an etched bowl of ringing glass.


Then it was my steps became cautious and would not stumble.

Then it was my hand became careful and would not shake.

Then I was suffused and borne along by the strength of fragile things.






If I could follow you



If I could follow you far away

further off than all you knew

out to the uttermost regions

the world's solitude

where Wintergate* is rolling

its brash, dead trace

and you're looking for a foothold

in overwhelming space


I know - it can't happen.


But when you stagger shivering

blindly baptised

then right across the universe

I will hear your cry

and be your new warmth

and be your new arms

be near you in a different world

of things with unborn names



*The Milky Way






Blonde morning



Blonde morning, lay your soft hair

along my cheek and breathe unstirred in your silence.

The earth opens wide and then wider its great bowl

that was born as new in the secret dark.

On bright wings

the Miracle comes to rest like a huge insect

that lightly brushes the unconscious

awakening stigmas.



Morning on the seventh day . . .






Ripe like a fruit



Ripe like a fruit, the world lay in my arms —

it ripened overnight —

the peel was a delicate blue membrane that spanned — like a bubble —

and the juice was the sweet and fragrant, streaming, consuming flood of sunlight.


So I’m leaping now like a swimmer into the clear everything.

I’ve been plunged in a font of ripeness and reborn with the power of ripeness.

Holy, for doing it.

Light like a laugh.

I’m cutting into a gold sea of honey; it wants my famished hands.





The tree under the earth



There grows a tree under the earth;

a mirage pursues me,

a song of living glass, of burning silver.

Like darkness before light

all weight must melt

when only one drop falls fom the song of the leaves.


An anguish pursues me.

It trickles out of the earth.

A tree suffers agonies in the heavy stratum of the earth.

Oh wind! Sunlight!

Feel that agony:

the promise of scent of paradise wonders.


Where are you wandering, feet, that trample

so soft or hard,

that the crust fragments and gives up its booty?

For the tree's sake, have pity!

For the tree's sake, have pity!

For the tree's sake I'm calling you from the four points of the compass!

Or must we wait for a god - and which?





Our eyes are our fate



Our eyes are our fate.

You grew alone, poor eyes,

among the stars who do not  pity

in a living, earthly way.

Had I seen less,

my thoughts would be different but

indifferent the outcast

to justice made a prey.


Holy, holy, holy

is truth, dismaying truth;

I know it, I bow to it,

its right to all maintain.

But flesh and blood shiver,

the living seek the living,

warm is human company,

cold its disdain.


Pleading I wander

through the ice-cold light-years,

seeking for a help

to stand up in my grave.

I recall with hot affection

eyes of long ago,

these too were lost

in loneliness's wave.


So, I cannot lament.

So, I must give thanks.

With them I have shared

everything I knew.

Through the darkness comes

home and company.

The sister eyes I love!

You did exist. You do.





The Portal



Too many times have I been through the portal.


It rears up so high it is rubbed out by the sunlight,

beneath the arch one hears the passage

of eternal winds in eternal space.

The threshold is of promise-stones, stairs to an altar,

where she may go who binds herself to a gift,

with all her time past, and all her time to come,

and an entire will.


Too many times have I been through the portal.


And still I pray:


Watcher at the door, master of all beginnings,

let me pass! I am not finished yet...

Truly as I never put anything by,

take it, but take it all, to the last penny.

The day I quibble, the day I calculate,

then block my way and throw me in the furnace.

Everything is the door. Everything is the beginning.

Life’s axis is in your hands.


Entire I go beneath the dizzying arch,

and eternal winds in eternal space

drink my gift.






The mouths



All round me frightful mouths are swimming.

The suburban train is juddering.



These are mothers.


locked and straining in greedy torment:

to eat or be eaten.

Themselves eaten up (nobody has noticed),

they haul their intestines in the shopping-bags.

Dead eyes, dead torment,




This is the lover.

Paintswollen toadstoolmouth

sucking at its prey.

The shame of giving oneself, the dupe’s shame

sucking to avenge a thousand triumphs

is never sated,

and settles into anguished pertness

around a wet toadstoolmouth.



This one is pious

who with holy pursing

hides and disowns his own lips:

what you can’t see can’t be –

God himself can’t see them!

Why is he so afraid of his own lips?

What do they look like when he sleeps?



This – oh, the happy one.

She who became a possessor.

Among all those who struggled

it’s she who won through.

No lever can force apart the jaws

clamped round life’s prize.



But over there by the window,

a mouth half-opened

is flowering and taking nothing.

What is it you are breathing across the wide world,

you stranger in the world?




How soon will you be scared down into the deep,

among the predatorfish

and the suckmouths,

to strike viciously at your quarry,

and to chop in despair at these others?

By tomorrow,

if you wish to live.



So I’ll take my stick and I’ll go.

I’m going to find you a different world,

a world where mouths can really be flowers

and breathe like flowers

their life’s breath,

and break forth like flowers

from deeper sources,

and abide like flowers

gladly open.



All round me the deepsea mouths are snapping.

The suburban train is juddering. 





From The Seven Deadly Sins  and Other Posthumous Poems (1941)





The blossom Bitterness



Blossom blossom Bitterness,

how full you now appear

with ripe golden honey,

for all your bitter cheer.

How weighed down with your gifts,

which the almonds in the field,

so gentle and correctly dressed,

surely never yield.


Affliction and benediction:

each receives his own.

I cannot take life’s measure,

but I know that you were mine.

Your cup contained fire.

Your nectar was like gall.

Seven griefs you brewed for me,

and I drank them all.


Blossom blossom Bitterness,

how rich at last your freight

of warm golden honey,

which is like the sun’s light.

Faint with sweetness, here I stand

in all your gift’s brightness.

I will exult with Adam, and

with Job I’ll witness.





Never was the wood so joyful as now...



Never was the wood so joyful as now in the sun and the rain,

never so overflowing with wood-scents and wood-glitter,

never so free with the sweet solace I alone cannot obtain,

though I seek it and pray, but my grief is too bitter.


Drink in, my two eyes, the golden light that I myself don't see.

Breathe deeply in, my two lungs, the mist of wet moss.

I am a dead stone. Forget me and live for yourselves,

Pull in to your secret chambers everything, whatever you come across.


Inaccessible is the room where the day's crop gently ripens

from the shimmering, the scents and the breath of wind. When the moment arrives

a compacted splendour bursts its cell: rushes over me

keen and wild like a waterfall, the memory of my griefs.






Wild apple-tree



How is it possible?

How could it spring up, such lovely multiplicity,

such a fresh, fine and airy crown of flowers,

such a forest of wild, twisting branches,

such rugged bark, green with lichen,

the whole lot, all

from the same one little dark pip?

There it all lay –

stem, boughs, leaves and bark and bright flowers,

crowded together, within a heart-shape.


But we are the apple-tree’s reflection in the water.

From abundances without limit or bottom,

from our younger days’ airy, pale fruit-blossom,

from the hundred-ways forest of interwoven branches,

from the plain bark of an ordinary life,

we accumulate slowly,

till everything lies still, close, and sealed

within the heart’s core...

How is it possible?





How can I tell...



How can I tell, if your voice is lovely.

I just know this, that it penetrates me

so deep it makes me tremble like a leaf

and rips me into shreds and detonates me.



What do I know about your skin, your limbs.

Just that it jolts me they belong to you,

so that for me there is no sleep and peace

till they are mine too.






To you



You my despairing and my strength,

you took away all my own life,

and since you had to have it all,

gave it me back a thousandfold.













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