Apr/May 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

Crossing the Cold River

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Dream We Carry.
Olav H. Hauge.
Trans. by Robert Bly and Robert Hedin.
Copper Canyon Press. 2008. 128 pp.
ISBN 978-1-55659-288-1.

According to his online biography, Olav Hakonsson Hauge was a "very shy and restrained" young man. Being a second son, upon his father's death his brother inherited the large family farm and he a modest house on 3 acres in Ulvik, Norway, the town in which he had been born. With the exception of a few years away at agricultural schools, he lived all his adult life in Ulvik, at the head of the Hardanger Fjord, tending his small apple and cherry orchards and hiring himself out as a gardener.

As an adult, Hauge did occasionally travel the 250 or so miles from Ulvik to Oslo to buy books. As the years passed, more and more of the house filled with them. When he was 15 years old, he began a diary of his friendship with books and with nature. It is by far the most extensive Norwegian diary known to exist, coming to over 4,000 printed pages when published after his death.

Early on, Olav Hauge was a voracious reader. His father—and an uncle and the town librarian, both of whom had lived many years in America—encouraged him to improve upon the English he'd been taught in school, and, as the result, he was widely read in English and American literature (among his early favorites were Tom Sawyer and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan series). He also learned German in intermediate school (our "high school") and taught himself French. He published translations from a wide range of authors in the languages, including Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Rimbaud and Stephane Mallarme.

During his 40s, it seems, he also came to love reading translations from the Chinese poets of the T'ang Dynasty and from the great Taoist literature of the country. He largely gave off the traditional forms of his first volume—Glor in Oska (published in 1946, when he was 38 years old)—for brief lyrics mindful of the T'ang poets, the French Symbolists and Emily Dickinson.

In fact, Hauge, at his best, in The Dream We Carry, might be called a Norwegian T'ang poet. At times the effect is direct, as in the poem "T'ao Ch'ien":

If T'ao Ch'ien
comes to visit someday, I will
show him my cherry and apple trees.
I hope he'll come in the spring
when they're all in bloom. Then we'll relax in the shade
over a glass of cider, perhaps I'll show him
a poem...

It is not difficult to imagine the twinkle in the poet's eye as he substituted good ole Norwegian apple cider for the omnipresent wine of the T'ang poets. Of course, Hauge's cider was not of the variety commonly found on our supermarket shelves, but rather fermented, or "hard," cider.

Far more often, however, China is only present as "the Tao that is not spoken" in the poems. In the perfectly simple poem "Cold Day":

The sun squints hard
behind the glacial crag...

As the temperature rapidly falls, like the 11 line poem down the page, the poet makes his accommodations:

I stock firewood,
keep my poem short..

These are poems filled with hardiness and joy.

But Olav Hauge also regularly traveled to another destination. At age 22 he underwent a "long illness." He was removed 100 miles along the Hardanger Fjord, toward the sea, to Valen Psychiatric Hospital, a very modern facility for its time. Valen was actually a working farm tended by the patients.

Valen also proudly advertised a private hydro-electric plant allowing it and the farm to utilize all the latest in technology. In a long interview given near the end of his life to Norwegian journalist Olav Vesaas, Hauge recalled that the electrical plant had another use not specifically advertised. His treatments at Valen had consisted of electroshock, as well as injections and regular beatings from the staff.

Minus the beatings, this generally describes the standard treatments for schizophrenia or depression. There are poems in The Dream We Carry that suggest that Hauge underwent periodic depression, most particularly "It's Cold in Big Houses":

It's cold in big houses.
I notice it in the fall
when the first grains of snow start falling
and fields grow hard and cold.
then my loneliness grows huge and barren
and leaky under the roof...

His loneliness is described as distinctly female:

The few people and creatures that I meet
who putter about the dawn carrying branches of pine or birch
leaving their tracks in the frosty grass,
are shadowy
glimpses of shadow in her dream.

Today we might call his illness Seasonal Affective Disorder, the depression always having appeared, it would seem, during the winter season.

A 2008 article on the 100th anniversary of Olav H. Hauge's birth, however, posted on the internet by the Norwegian media outlet Adressa, states outright that the poet was diagnosed as schizophrenic. It also states that he was only institutionalized three times, beginning when he was 40 years old, which would seem clearly to be incorrect, but the error could well indicate that records of the type consulted at Valen were not maintained indefinitely.

While all of this goes just over the borderline into conjecture, it is worth noting that, going a little farther still, another fascinating possibility presents itself. By all accounts, including his own, Olav Hauge was socially maladroit from an early age, almost certainly since childhood. He compensated for this by finding his best company in books. His time with the mentors who encouraged him in his pursuit also amounted to successful social interactions which, on the whole, he could only have valued.

Hauge managed, via his poetry, to work his way into a social milieu by utilizing the limited means at his command. In the 1960s he gained the additional advantage of having achieved a degree of fame in his field and his social life blossomed. Photographs show him sporting a little alpine hat jauntily pulled down over one eye. The visits to Valen came to an end at this time. Lonely no longer, he lived together with the artist Bodil Cappelen, in his house in Ulvik, from 1975, both traveling frequently to Oslo. The two married in 1978. In his interview with Vesaas, he says that the best years of his life were those from age 60 onward.

This is a common pattern in the lives of historical figures suspected to have had Asperger's Syndrome. Periods of secondary (or "co-morbid") depression might also be suspected as they are certainly a common feature of Asperger's today. The rate of suicide for those who have the syndrome is well above the average.

Hans Asperger's 1944 paper on a syndrome he had observed in young children (a syndrome which took his name when Doctor Lorna Wing revived Asperger's findings in a now famous 1981 paper) had yet to be written when Olav Hauge was diagnosed in 1930, having just returned from his first year away from home, where agricultural school surely demanded stress-inducing social skills from the "shy and restrained" young poet. It is fair to describe the syndrome as unknown until 1981, little known until ten years later.

Even today, when the syndrome is well known among psychiatric professionals, specialists warn their colleagues that it can easily be misdiagnosed as schizophrenia, especially if the patient is anxious or co-morbidity is involved. Until recently, "undifferentiated" schizophrenia was a garbage-pail diagnosis into which many cases exhibiting unfamiliar or inconsistent symptoms were thrown.

What is certain is that, in The Dream We Carry, Olav Hauge often reads his own emotions into nature. In the poem "Erratic Boulder," written in the 1960s, at the point that the poet made his remarkable "recovery," the boulder has come to rest upon

a ledge poised
on the brink.

His joy in the small things in life came in the midst of loneliness and emotional struggle. In the poem "One Word" poetry sustains him, as, one word at a time, he makes his way to the "other side":

One word
—one stone
in a cold river.
One more stone—
I'll need many stones
if I'm going to get over.

On the other side friends would be waiting for him. They would embrace him, accept (perhaps even value) his eccentricities.

Olav H. Hauge tended his little garden and spent his nights in the good company of Basho, Brecht, Emily Dickinson, the T'ang poets and others, and the poems of The Dream We Carry make clear that it was, in many ways, an unusually rich life. Being a fundamentally healthy man, however, he could only need more. He needed to share love and laughter with friends from his own time, to tip his hat over his eye and share a glass of cider with someone who thought that he was interesting and fun to be with. One word at a time, he made it over the cold river.


Olav Hauge died in 1994, at the age of 85. It has been said that he died "the old way" one day simply taking to his bed and refusing to eat for ten days at the end of which he quietly slipped away. The mare that drew his coffin along a picturesque mountain road, just outside of Ulvik, had recently foaled and the colt danced playfully alongside her as the funeral procession followed.


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