Sparrow looks back on the life of Dag Hammarskjöld, the Secretary General of the United Nations during the the 1950s. Hammarskjöld is regarded as one of the great statesmen of the 20th Century and his book Markings is regarded as a mystical and poetical masterpiece.

 by Sparrow

When I was seven years old, in 1961, Dag Hammarskjöld died in an airplane crash in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia). Hearing the news, I learned that planes could crash. (Children's books never revealed this.) I had a vague sense that Hammarskjöld was a great man, but his exact identity was unclear to me. Four years later, I noticed his book, Markings, and was struck by the strangeness of the title. By then I knew that Dag had been Secretary-General of the United Nations. Three months ago, I found myself thinking about Hammarskjöld, as if my unconscious mind anticipated the 50th anniversary of his death. I ordered Markings from the library, just to skim it. When the book arrived, I discovered that it was translated by W. H. Auden, with the assistance of a Swede named Leif Sjoberg. "Now I'll really read it," I vowed.

Markings was my companion for the next three months. Though it is the sole book Hammarskjöld wrote, this is not a political autobiography -- in fact, the work never mentions his career. Markings is a spiritual journal consisting of just over 600 "notes," beginning in 1925 and continuing till the statesman's death. The closest parallel, to my mind, is Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Thoreau was living in a hut in the woods, and Hammarskjöld led our largest international organization, yet either of them might have written:

Every deed and every relationship is surrounded by an atmosphere of silence.

I read Markings slowly, falling into its meditative spirit. After each brief entry, I'd look up, on the subway or in my living room, pondering its concentrated message:

Regard yourself as an exception, if you like: but, in that case, abandon your hope of finding "rest in that Peace which has created the world." (Karin Boye)

I suspect that Auden took a free hand in the translation, beginning with the title. Vägmärken, the original Swedish, means "Guideposts." The poet feared that his book would resemble "that dreadful American college phenomenon, Spiritual Emphasis Week, at which talks are given entitled Spiritual Guideposts." Though Auden's title deviates from the literal meaning, it perfectly captures the resolute humility of the book, as if Hammarskjöld were saying: "I am not a true writer, merely a maker of small marks."

Hammarskjöld's humility, however, is not entirely convincing. One does not become Secretary-General of the UN without some worldly goals. Dag chides himself for ambition often in his diary. From 1952:

"I am being led further" -- Yes, yes -- but you have not been blind to the main chance.

He analyzes himself with the same detachment that served him well as a politician:
Tomorrow, you will have to play a much more difficult piece -- tomorrow, when the audience is beginning to listen for wrong notes, and you no longer have me in the wings. Then we shall see what you can really do.


"What? He is now going to try to teach me!" -- Why not? There is nobody from whom you cannot learn.

Auden knew Hammarskjöld slightly, and wrote:

Brief and infrequent as our meetings were, I loved the man from the moment I saw him. His knowledge and understanding of poetry, the only field in which I was competent to judge the quality of his mind, were extraordinary, and, presumptuous as it sounds, I felt certain of a mutual sympathy between us, of an unexpressed dialogue beneath our casual conversation.

It is touching that one of the greatest poets of the 20th century translated Hammarskjöld (without knowing a word of Swedish!). Though Auden notes in the introduction that the entries are of "varying merit," and that the Swede's theological thinking was not original, he recognized Hammarskjöld's uniqueness as a public figure. How many economists could write:

To preserve the silence within -- amid all the noise. To remain open and quiet, a moist humus in the fertile darkness where the rain falls and the grain ripens -- no matter how many tramp across the parade ground in whirling dust under an arid sky.

Though the book does not discuss his career, some of the entries are precisely dated, particularly in the later sections, and biographers such as Henry P. Van Dusen comb through the entries finding parallels between Hammarskjöld's inner life and outward career.  Dag Hammarskjöld was born in 1905 into a distinguished Swedish family long known for public service. Government officials would respond to a difficult problem by suggesting: "Try one of the Hammarskjölds." In 1907, Dag's father Hjalmar became Governor of Uppland, moving his family into the massive castle in Uppsala which would become their home for most of the next 25 years. (The one exception was Hjalmar's term as Prime Minister of Sweden, during the First World War.)

Dag studied economics, graduating with a doctorate from Stockholm University in 1934. He was associated with the Stockholm School, a Keynesian group of economists which included Gunnar Myrdal. Even before graduating, Hammarskjöld served as secretary of a government committee on employment -- at the age of 25. In 1936 he took a position at the Sveriges Riksbank, but was soon advising the Swedish cabinet on economic issues. Hammarskjöld worked his way up through the Swedish bureaucracy, helping to establish the Marshall Plan, then joining the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. In 1951, he became a cabinet Minister without Portfolio.

Hammarskjöld's work schedule was legendary in Stockholm. He could finish work at five o'clock in morning and start again at 9:30. Nonetheless, he would take a break every evening to dine with his parents, then enjoy an hour of conversation. Dag lived in the familial household until he was 40, and had already been Under Secretary of the Finance Ministry and Charman of the Bank of Sweden. Was Hammarskjöld gay? Markings hints at this. One entry refers to a unnamed man Dag seems romantically drawn towards:

When he told me that he had many friends, could easily make new ones and have a high old time with them, it struck hard like a blow which had been very carefully aimed. A question had become meaningless.

Auden can't discuss such passages in his introduction, without "outing" Dag -- years before the phrase was used -- but Hammarskjöld's pervasive sense of guilt and unworthiness may have been connected to his homosexuality. In his introduction, Auden psychoanalyzes the author:

An exceptionally aggressive superego -- largely created, I suspect, by his relation to his father -- which demands that a Hammarskjöld shall do and be better than other people; on the other hand, an ego weakened by a "thorn in the flesh" which convinces him that he can never hope to experience what, for most people, are the two greatest joys earthly life has to offer, either a passionate devotion returned, or a lifelong happy marriage.... Consequently, too, a narcissistic fascination with himself.

His analysis is accurate, but quaint. In the intervening half-century, Freudian terminology has gone out of fashion. And Hammarskjöld analyzed himself better in this entry:

Narcissus leant over the spring, enthralled by the only man in whose eyes he had ever dared -- or been given the chance -- to forget himself.

Narcissus leant over the spring, enchanted by his own ugliness, which he prided himself upon having the courage to admit.

I know this is an ethnic stereotype largely constructed from Ingmar Bergman movies, but Hammarskjöld fulfills my image of the depressive Swede. Early in the book, in the section for 1945-1949, two suicides occur. One is a woman who drowns herself, and has a strangely erotic ending:

During their attempts at artificial respiration, they have laid bare the upper part of her body. As she lies stretched out on the riverbank -- beyond all human nakedness in the inaccessible solitude of death -- her white firm breasts are lifted to the sunlight -- a heroic torso of marble-blonde stone in the soft grass.

The very next entry begins: "When the gun went off, he fell on his side beneath the maple trees." Was Dag himself suicidal? Quite possibly. In Dag Hammarskjöld: The Statesman and His Faith, Van Dusen describes the years 1950-1952 as ones of despondency. Hammarskjöld finished his work with the Organization for European Economic Corporation in Paris and returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Stockholm. On one level, he was restless, frustrated by Sweden's provinciality, but uncertain how to leave. Also, his crisis was spiritual. Dag was in his late 40s, and had not yet found his soul's purpose.

Markings is saturated in death. On the second page of the journal (in the section for 1925-1930) is the poem:

Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I --
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.

But in the meantime how grievous the memory
Of hours frittered away.

Throughout, death is one of the main motifs:

The pulley of time drags us inexorably forward towards this last day. A relief to think of this, to consider that there is a moment without a beyond.

... this evening I would say Yes to the execution squad, not out of exhaustion or defiance, but with an untroubled faith in the co-inheritance of all things -- to sustain this faith in my life among men.

Do not seek death. Death will find you. But seek the road which makes death a fulfillment.

Van Dusen associates a change in outlook with Hammarskjöld's election as Secretary-General in 1953. Soon after receiving the news, Dag wrote: "To be free, to be able to stand up and leave everything behind -- without looking back. To say yes --" The tone of Markings begins to change: amid the brutal self-abnegation come the glimmerings of love. Hammarskjöld's mystic efforts were beginning to bear fruit. On Christmas 1955, he wrote:

In a dream I walked with God through the deep places of creation; past walls that receded and gates that opened, through hall after hall of silence, darkness and refreshment -- the dwelling place of souls acquainted with light and warmth -- until, around me, was an infinity into which we all flowed together and lived anew, like the rings made by raindrops falling upon wide expanses of calm dark waters.

At moments, Hammarskjöld sounds like a prophetic environmentalist:

Not to encumber the earth -- No pathetic Excelsior, but just this: not to encumber the earth.

In one surprising passage, Hammarskjöld sympathizes with rebellion:

To separate himself from the society of which he was born a member will lead the revolutionary, not to life but to death, unless, in his very revolt, he is driven by a love of what, seemingly, must be rejected, and therefore, at the profoundest level, remains faithful to that society.

The man John F. Kennedy called, "the greatest statesman of our century" may have been a revolutionary in a business suit. By the end of the journal, the pages are given over almost totally to poetry. Writes Auden:

It makes me very happy to see that, in the last three years of his life, he took to writing poems, for it is proof to me that he had at last acquired a serenity of mind for which he had long prayed. When a man can occupy himself with counting syllables, either he has not yet attempted any spiritual climb, or he is over the hump.

Hammarskjöld discovered haiku in 1959, and wrote dozens of them. Several are obliquely sexual:

In a gray twilight
His sensuality awoke.

In the Stone Age night
A church spire, erect on the plain
Like a phallus.

The boy in the forest
Throws off this best Sunday suit
And plays naked.

He lowered his eyes,
Lest he should see the body
To lust after it.

The Japanese poetic form gave him the freedom to speak his shrouded wishes. Other haiku express an embattled self-pity:

The winter twilight grays
Beyond the pane.
The caged bird's breast is bleeding.

My home drove me
Into the wilderness.
Few look for me. Few hear me.

In the penultimate poem, written just months before his death, Hammarskjöld finds transcendence in upstate New York:

August 6, 1961

The meadow's massive
Green wave rises
Over the rolling ridge,
Crested with the white foam
Of a thousand oxeye daisies
Which blush
As the midsummer sun
Sets scarlet
In a haze of heat
Over Poughkeepsie.

Seven weeks have gone by,
Seven kinds of blossom
Have been picked or mowed.
Now the leaves of the Indian corn grow broad,
And its cobs make much of themselves,
Waxing fat and fertile.
Was it here,
Here, that paradise was revealed
For one brief moment
On a night in midsummer?

This might be the most ecstatic poem ever written about Poughkeepsie. Today, Hammarskjöld is terribly out of fashion. No one I meet knows Markings -- even literary intellectuals. New Age seekers prefer their mysticism exotic, articulated by a Vietnamese monk or African shaman. They aren't looking for the Christian musings of a Swedish diplomat.

As a writer, I find Dag highly appealing -- like a deeply serious cousin you want to hug and encourage: "Lighten up, Morris!" The weight of the world is on Hammarskjöld's shoulders, but it's hard to blame him. The weight of the world really was on his shoulders.

Markings is simultaneously a highly private spiritual study and a public performance -- like all of Dag's life. I find it reassuring that at least once a century, a truly sincere, compassionate man can attain high political office. (The Secretary-General is sometimes compared to Lincoln.) If Hammarskjöld did achieve the spiritual paradise he longed for, he is probably delighted that Markings has been forgotten. Dag's final act of self-erasure has been accomplished.

Sparrow is a poet and the author of Republican Like Me, Yes You Are a Revolutionary and numerous essays and magazine articles.