Tove Ditlevsen (1917-1976) wrote poems from the age of ten; in 1937 she managed to get one of them published in Vild Hvede (Wild Wheat), a journal for young writers and artists. The title of the poem is “Til mit døde Barn” (To My Dead Child), the form is traditional, eight four-line stanzas with end-rhyme, but the content is striking: a mother talking to her dead baby boy as she lays him in the coffin.

Ungermann, Arne (1902-1981): Book cover. Pigesind by Tove Ditlevsen. 1939. Photo: Geert Nicolai Vestergaard-Hansen

The poem was incorporated in the debut collection Pigesind (1939; A Girl’s Mind), which received excellent reviews. The readers viewed Tove Ditlevsen’s poems as beautiful and natural expressions of genuine femininity: no one seemed surprised that a nineteen-year-old publishing her first poem had chosen so morbid a subject as a stillborn baby – without apparently having any first-hand experience of either motherhood or death.

Til mit døde Barn (To My Dead Child)

I never heard your little voice.
Your pale lips never smiled at me.
And the kick of your tiny feet
Is something I will never see.

We have been together many days,
all my sustenance I shared with you.
You and I can surely not be blamed,
for all our weakness, yours and mine.

Infant child, you now will never feel
the heady pulse of life for good or bad. –
’Tis for the best, sleep soundly darling boy,
for we must yield to those of greater strength.

See how I kiss your icy hand,
happy to be with you yet awhile,
silently I kiss you, weeping not, –
though the tears are burning in my throat.

When the men bring in the casket white,
you need not fear, for mother will come with you,
I will dress you in your tiny silken shirt
for the first time – and the very last.

I will make believe you lived some days,
I will pretend that you have smiled at me,
and your little mouth has suckled at my breast,
so not a single drop remains.

How heavy is the footfall of the casket-bearers,
to no avail my laden breast awaits you.
Infant child, my golden now dead dream. –
Your tiny feet I kiss – and weep.