Two poems by Dag Hammarskjöld

I first came across the writings of Dag Hammarskjöld in 1976, after the Soweto Uprising. This was through the English translation by W.H. Auden and Leif Sjöberg of his Vägmärken  –  Markings. It was a collection that I would frequently reflect on during the tumultuous years in which South Africa battled the shackles of apartheid.

Dag Hammarskköld was a Swedish diplomat who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in 1961.

He had been on his way to the former Belgian Congo – the newly independent Congo – to negotiate a cease-fire, when the plane he was travelling in crashed near Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (Zambia).

His manuscript was found after his death, together with a letter to the Swedish Permanent Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Leif Belfrage, allowing for his writings to be published, some day.

Hammarskköld’s writings do not make direct reference to his career as an international civil servant, nor to the historical events of his time. Instead they reveal a deeply spiritual person, one concerned with the need for peace. His journal is now referred to as a ‘modern spiritual classic.’

August 24, 1961
Dag Hammarskjöld
Translated from the Swedish by Lennart and Gillian Nilsson

Is this a new land,
in a different reality
from today’s?
Or have I lived there.
before this day?

Woke up,
an ordinary day with grey light
reflected from the street,
woke up –
from a sombre blue night
above the tree line
moonlight on the moor
the mountain ridge in shadow.
different dreams,
the same mountain landscape:
twice did I climb the ridges,
I lived by the inmost lake
and followed the river
towards its source.
The seasons have passed
and the light
and the weather
and the hour.
But it is the same land.
And I am beginning to know the map
and the points of the compass.


Towards new shores
From: 1945-1949
Dag Hammarskjöld
Translated from the Swedish by Lennart and Gillian Nilsson

Quiet – as when long bitterness breaks in tears: bare ground.
Soft light over wide, shimmering waters –
Around me soft walls of thaw and haze, low ceiling of clouds, mauve from the setting sun.
In the lake’s world of mirrors, pale olive and pewter, bare alder branches are reflected, swayed by slow, invisible waves.

And then:
Around the lone flame an embrace of warm light in the soft darkness. The white clouds of hyacinth over the mirror, the deep, sombre well. Glimpses of tree trunks in a whispering forest of books.

Not for us, perhaps never for us:
Through the silence the jarring telephone signal from conversations we fled from but shall not escape. Beneath the calm your memory whispers of promises and the peace of burdens shared.
No rest if it is not everybody’s, no peace until all has been fulfilled.


About the translators: Lennart Nilsson was born in Sweden in 1936. A former high school teacher of Swedish and English, he is now a writer, editor, translator and amateur ornithologist. Gillian Nilsson, née Walker, was born in Britain in 1939. Formerly employed by the Workers’ Educational Association (ABF) of Sweden, she is now engaged in adult education projects in South Africa.

August 24, 1961; and Towards new shores From: 1945-1949 are included in Africa! My Africa! an anthology of poems selected by Patricia Schonstein, sold to raise funds for Seed Readers.

Seed Readers is a project that will produce story books based on principles of peace, non-violence, non-racism and care of the earth. They will seed an understanding of our true role as custodians of the earth and oceans. They will inspire children to live ethically and in a sustainable manner.

Please email to place your order

R295 plus R55 postage & packaging.

For more about Dag Hammarskjöld See: The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation



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