Stig Dagerman never published a book of poetry but regularly contributed poems to magazines and newspapers. Some fifty poems are available in the collected works (Dikter, noveller och prosa fragment, Norstedts 1983).

”Birgitta Suite” stands out as Dagerman’s major piece of poetry. The long poem was written in 1949 as he struggled with the completion of Wedding Worries. After confiding in a letter to his editor that he felt suicidal, attaching “Birgitta Suite”, Dagerman again got wind in his sails and was able to finish the novel.

The thread of unrequited love, of loss and unfulfilled longing that runs through Dagerman’s writing, is
countered by a belief in the potential healing power of “compassion, solidarity and love”. In a 1950 interview,
headlined by the question Do We Have Faith in Humankind? Stig replies:

The fate of humankind is at stake at all times everywhere and the significance of one human being to another is immeasurable. I believe in compassion, solidarity and love as humankind’s ultimate white shirts.

The “white shirt” image is taken from a Tarjei Vesaas novel, where a dying character prepares for Judgment Day.

In 1951, Dagerman pens the non-religious “Julbudskap” (Christmas Message) that expresses a similar belief in the potential good in man and woman. This is the well, Dagerman seems to say, from which communion and meaning can be derived. He wrote texts for Red Cross campaigns to help victims of war and natural disaster. One short poem, titled “Jorden kan du inte göra om” from 1954, has in Sweden become widely known and oft cited. The first stanza reads: “Jorden kan du inte göra om, stilla din häftiga själ. Endast en sak kan du göra: En annan människa väl.” (You can’t reinvent the world, still your hurricane soul, one thing only is within your power: to treat your fellow man well)

Listen to Stig read “Birgitta Svit” (in Swedish)

Listen to Nancy Naomi Carlson read the poem in English translation in the Jill poetry series.

Nu slår en blomma ut…

Nu slår en blomma ut i kalla kvällen.
Nu lyfter fågeln som är gjord av eld.
Kort är flykten för en sådan fågel.
Hastigt vissnar trädgårdar av ljus.
Kort är livet hos de ting som brinner.
Snart slocknar vingar över mörka hus.
Snart slocknar rosorna i nattens trädgård.
Men aldrig slocknar längtan efter ljus.

A Flower Opens…
A flower opens in the cold of night.
A bird of fire is rising to the sky.
The flight of such a bird is fleeting.
Gardens of light quickly wither.
The life of things that burn is fleeting.
Wings over dark houses soon will dim.
The roses soon will dim in night’s garden.
But the yearning for light will never dim.

Till hundarna
Vesuvius är släckt
och det är jag som gjort det
det hände mig igår
ber ödmjukt om förlåtelse
ni som begravt Pompeji
i lavan från ert hjärta
och bestrött mitt Herculaneum
med era dödas aska
kommer aldrig att förstå mig
men en av Neaples hundar
såg jag i dag i ögonen

To the Dogs
Vesuvius is snuffed out
and I’m the one who did it
it happened yesterday
I humbly beg for forgiveness
you who buried Pompeii
with the lava from your heart
and sprinkled my Herculaneum
with ashes of your dead
will never understand
but today one of the dogs from Naples
looked me right in the eye

Translations by Nancy Naomi Carlson with Lo Dagerman


Don’t believe in stars. Stars are distant things,
that do not dispel the dark above any Bethlehem.
They are not lit for us. They burn for themselves.
For people eyes are lit. Let us follow them.

Don’t believe in kings who think themselves wise.
The don’t travel through the desert to a newborn life.
They stay in the desert that separates them from us.
Their gaze a sword, and their hands a knife.

Don’t believe in angels. They will not soon appear.
They find space empty and cold. The road too long.
If we seek song, if light, we must seek
the light in a brother’s gaze and in our throats the song.

Don’t believe in stars. Stars are objects
since long burnt out, dead grasses on the steppe of the universe.
But lighthouses radiate and they radiate close to earth.
Toward eyes a man must steer his ships.

Don’t believe in kings. They themselves doubt.
That which is life and death to us is their pastime.
Only believe in the shepherds. They know the life of lambs.
To the belts of shepherds we may tether our lives.

Don’t believe in angels. They are prisoners.
They drag their wings as prisoners their shackles.
If there is freedom, it lives in our brother’s eyes.
If freedom sings, the song is heard in our blood.

         Translation by: Lo Dagerman

Editions and Translations

  • Swedish:     Stig Dagerman. Dikter, noveller, prosafragment, Samlade skrifter no. 10, Norstedts, 1983.
  • English:       “Birgitta Suite” (excerpt) , translation by Thomas and Vera Vance, Poetry Magazine, January 1964.
                         “Birgitta Suite”, translation by Nancy Naomi Carlson with Lo Dagerman, Asheville Poetry Review, Vol. 29, 2022.
                         ”A Flower Opens …”, “To the Dogs” and “The Long Lake Lies Shimmering”, translation by Nancy Naomi Carlson with Lo Dagerman, Loch                                 Raven Review , 2023.
  • French:        Suite Birgitta, translation by Claude Le Manchec and Philippe Bouquet, Édition Centrifuges, 2019. Illustrations by Daphne Bitchatch; Poem                            republished by Aencrages & Co. 2022.
  • Italian:          Breve è la vita di tutto quell che arde, translation by Fulvio Ferrari, Iperborea 2022

Blank är den långa sjön

Blank är den långa sjön
Av tunt tunt silver
så sprött som min älskade

henne krossar ett moln
henne bländar en stjärna
himlen här är för tung
en fågel vore hon annars
gräset här för strävt
annars var hon en hind

nu andas den mörka vinden
lätt på vattnets yta
då fryser min älskades ögon
fäll natt dina värmande ögonlock
smek natt min älskades panna
med sina vänliga händer

min sjö som viskar i mörkret!
när dimman sänks över vattnet
skall jag vara din enda båt
vaggad av mjuka vågor
lyft över nattens botten
lyft över dagens stenar
sövd av de tysta sånger
som genomströmmar din kropp

min sjö som drömmer om döden!
när dimman lyfter ur vattnet
ser jag min älskades ansikte
som belyst av en blixt
lugnt som en sovande fågel
klart som ett sovande hav
och så vackert som min största längtan

tänk inatt har jag byggt av min längtan
ett högt, ljust valv
mellan himlens stenar
och henne jag älskar
och när morgonen kommer
skall min älskades fötter vada
i min längtans varmaste dagg
i min längtans mjukaste gräs.

The Long Lake Lies Shimmering

The long lake lies shimmering
like thin thin silver
as delicate as my lover

a cloud can crush her
a star can blind her
here the sky is too heavy
or else she’d be a bird
here the grass is too coarse
or else she’d be a doe

now the dark wind breathes
lightly on the water’s surface
then my lover’s eyes grow cold
night, lower your warming eyelids
night, caress my lover’s brow
with your gentle hands

my lake that whispers in the darkness!
when the mist descends upon the water
I shall be your only boat
rocked by the softness of waves
lifted above the bottom of night
lifted above the stones of day
lulled by the quiet songs
that flow through your body

my lake that dreams of death!
when the mist lifts out of the water
I see my lover’s face
as if lit up by lightning
peaceful as a sleeping bird
transparent as a sleeping sea
and as lovely as my greatest longing

imagine tonight I have built out of my longing
a tall, sun-lit vault
between the stones of heaven
and her whom I love
and when morning comes
the feet of my lover shall wade
in my longing’s warm dew
in my longing’s tender grass.

This poem was published posthumously.

Translation by Nancy Naomi Carlson with Lo Dagerman