A neurological disease like multiple sclerosis ruins lives and minds, but in certain individuals it seems to serve as a catalyst for the release of artistic talent. The Norwegian poet Elling Solheim (1905–1971) suffered from multiple sclerosis for most of his life. The disease crippled his body, but left his mind free; although he was unable to use a pen, his paralysis shaped his poetry.
Elling Solheim grew up in the country and earned his living as a lumberjack until in 1935, at the age of 30, he was struck down by multiple sclerosis. The symptoms progressed rapidly from relapsing and remitting numbness to almost complete quadriplegia, making manual labor impossible. Although there was a rudimentary form of social security in prewar Norway, disease was still synonymous with poverty. Solheim had begun writing poetry before he fell ill—his first collection of poems came out in the same year as he received his diagnosis—and now writing was the only way he could maintain a decent and independent life.
His writing was very successful, and in 1948 the local government authorities granted him a guaranteed annual income for life as a reward for artistic merit. The local authorities also hired a nurse to take care of him. Her name was Gunhild Hoff, and given his now severe paralysis and poor general condition, she was assured that the post would be for a year at most. Instead the two fell deeply in love and Solheim lived for another 23 years, during which he dictated a total of four collections of poetry and two collections of short stories to his partner.
“Fate” and “Your Hands and Mine” were published in 1958, by which time Solheim had been almost quadriplegic for a decade. But the poems are not autobiographical. Solheim was never the tough guy described in “Fate.” He neither drank like a fish nor walked with a swagger. Nor when chained to the bed did he become a passive melancholic. “Fate” is about the transitory nature of vitality and the drama of its loss, whether through disease, through age, or perhaps even under the burden of duty and responsibility.
Although writing helped him to avoid the disgrace of poverty, Solheim was ashamed of his paralytic hands, and kept them covered under a blanket when visitors came. Gunhild Hoff not only wrote down his poems, she fed and washed him—her hands became his. But the hands described in “Your Hands and Mine” are not those of his beloved nurse, they belong to someone very similar to the character in “Fate”: a strong, virile man and lover, with both feet firmly on the ground. Again, the poet is describing the loss of vitality through disease. Is “Your Hands and Mine” about envy? Perhaps, but what makes the poem so moving is that by depicting his sense of powerlessness Solheim gives us an insight into the nature of our own helplessness. With the authority of the sufferer, he leads us into his world.
“The Blue Jug” is also about powerlessness—the jug is beyond reach. But here the poet seems to be saying that perhaps this does not matter: “Out of my reach, it glows and fills/my days with joy.”
Solheim himself may have given a clue to the understanding of these poems, and the impact of his disease on his life and writing, in a newspaper interview on his 60th birthday, when he said: “I was enrolled in the school of resignation, and have studied there for many years. For me there was something right about being put aside, and thus given the opportunity to perceive more important things.”1
The three poems reproduced here are all in their different ways about powerlessness. Paralysis is the ultimate expression of the loss of power: it is plainly visible, both to the sufferer and to the observer. But in his poetry Solheim goes beyond the world of muscular strength; in doing so, he transcends his own powerlessness.
Solheim's early poems, before he became ill, were about the joy of work, the pulsing of machinery, and tributes to progress and the working man. He was known as a working-class poet, radical and deliberately nonintellectual, with “resin on his hands and poetry in his heart.” Gradually, as he lost his health, revolution was replaced by resignation and exultation by tenderness.
Did multiple sclerosis, his teacher at the school of resignation, make Elling Solheim a better poet? We cannot know how his poetry would have developed without the disease. What we do know is that he would not have written what he did. And that he would not have been able to speak to us about the “more important things.”
Trygve Holmøy, MD, PhD
Alison Arderne Philip
1 Gylseth CH. Kvae på Nevene, Dikt i Hjertet. Elling M. Solheim—En Biografi (Resin on the Hands, Poems in the Heart. Elling M. Solheim—A Biography). Hønefoss, Norway: Ringerike Historielag/Sokndalen lokahistoriske forening, 2004.