A short poem has recently been “doing the rounds” on various social media platforms. It’s Norwegian, and it’s about carrots. It’s also quite, quite brilliant. Here it is – in its original text and with an English translation beneath.
Lever I gulrotens skygge
And the translation:
Lives in the shadow of the carrot
Moving stuff, right? Now, aside from the fact that this is probably the best poem ever written about carrots, it’s more than just a social media oddity to be marvelled at – perhaps even laughed at (who would laugh at a poem about carrots?) – and passed on to Twitter followers and Facebook friends. Here’s why.
The author isn’t dead
Okay, well, technically, because this poem was written sometime in the 19th century, and because of time and everything, the author of this poem is actually dead. But in analysing the poem, it’s important to take into account who the author is (despite what Barthes might say).
This is because the poet is Henrik Ibsen – the acclaimed Norwegian playwright often considered to be “the father” of modern theatre and one of the founders of modernism in theatre.
He’s even been cited as the most important playwright since Shakespeare, because of the revolutionary role his writing played in shaping not just theatre, but also poetry and fiction and modern art.
At its heart, Ibsen’s writing is about sub-text, and realities that exist beneath the surface of any superficial context or subject. This actually was a bit of a scandal in 19th Century Europe, because people were scandalised by the idea of realities being hidden behind facades.
This is crucial in deciphering the real meaning of the Babygulrot poem, because it means we can’t take it at face value: we have to strip away the superficial context and look at the realities of what is going on underneath. So, what does this mean for the poem?
The shadow of the carrot
Obviously, because the poem is so short, there’s not so much text available that can have much context. So we have to identify what’s going on in each word.
Clearly, the most important line – insofar as it gives us the most detail and emphasis in the poem and thus highlights where readers should focus their analysis – is the longest: “Lives in the shadow of the carrot”.
Using this, it is possible to identify how we’re supposed to read the poem; and what it’s really about.
So – what lives in the shadow of carrots?
This question moves us onto a crucial element in the poem – and modernism in general. This is symbolism, and the use of images and symbols to represent other ideas, emotions or qualities.
From this, we can ask a more pertinent question: what does the babycarrot really represent?
Literature, as the record of universal experience, has gradually acquired certain symbols that have become conventionalized–a kind of stage property of poets and artists and common people. The lily is a symbol of purity, the eagle of strength, red of passion, and gray of peace. These are symbols that carry their meaning in the mere naming of them. They serve their use most perfectly when the symbolic quality is most revealed. Rossetti’s work is full of conventional symbolism–mystery and charm and unreality. We walk among his poems as in a garden where perfume and shape and colour haunt the senses with curious, hidden meaning. One may not pluck a flower, or touch it, lest the dream be broken.
Ibsen’s writing has no trace of this conventional understanding of what symbolism means and is. As essayist Jennette Lee wrote in 1910: “Ibsen’s work gives, first and foremost, a sense of intense reality–of actuality even. It is not till later that a hidden intent is guessed, and when this intention is traced to its source, the symbols discovered are original. Each of them–the pistol, the tarantelle, the wild duck, the white horses, the rotten ship–reveals perfectly that for which it stands. They originate in Ibsen’s imagination, and serve his purpose because they are the concrete images of his thought.”
Lee continues: “The symbols are as intricate and as simple as cunningly fashioned as a nest of Chinese boxes. Each complete in itself and each finished and perfect, giving no hint of the unguessed symbols within reaching to the heart of the matter itself. It is a conscious art, but nonetheless beautiful and wonderful. […] Of his work Ibsen himself is the supreme symbol hidden in silence and snow, sending forth his ventures year after year, with no hint of the cunning freightage they carry, concealed in bales of flax and wool, in tons of coal and grain and salt.”
Does this mean, therefore, that Ibsen himself is the babycarrot? Well, there may be something in that. As this biography notes, Ibsen was constantly at odds with the media establishment, and with the majority of 19th Century society, who viewed his work as scandalous and – sometimes – vulgar. It seems reasonable to suggest, therefore, that Ibsen may see himself as the babycarrot – always in the shadow of the bigger, more powerful mainstream, which calls it “ugly”.
Yet this explanation doesn’t seem to fit right. Perhaps the babycarrot is modernism in general – that artistic movement that would shape culture for more than the next century, but which was still scorned by those artists operating in the mainstream.
This perhaps holds more weight. After all, as Andrzej Gasiorek points out in A History of Modernist Literature, “most modernist writers defined their groundbreaking work in opposition to the tame production of their fellow literati”. Perhaps Babygulrot is simply evidence of Ibsen contrasting his new modernist, realist style with existing literary and artistic consensus.
But perhaps there’s another interpretation.
In his extensive essay The Quintessence of Ibsenism, George Bernard Shaw explains the underlying socialist principles in much of Ibsen’s work. Indeed, he goes as far as to suggest Ibsen issued clear challenges to the “ruling classes”, and was essential in allowing the ideas of socialism to come into common public discourse because it enabled “the replacement of old institutions by new ones”. Indeed, he suggests Ibsen’s writing is one repudiation of existing societal structures after another, nothing that, “if one does not repudiate one’s absolute obedience to [old institutions], political progress is impossible”.
Within this context, therefore, the babycarrot in Ibsen’s poem could be seen as the working classes, who are perceived as “ugly” and insignificant (“small”) by those in power and are thus forced to live in their shadow.
Indeed, if we take this interpretation, we realise that Ibsen is pointing out the extreme problems of inequality and regressive class structures that Orwell (among countless others) would discuss in his various essays, including The Lion and the Unicorn, in which he notes how “the governing class control […] the press, the radio and education […] and ignore the slums, unemployment […] the mass of the people.”
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels also denote the established structures of society: in which “an oppressed class lived under the sway of a feudal nobility, […] and now live only so long as they can find work. These labourers are ignored by the bourgeoisies […] must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity […] they have lost all individual character and, consequently, all charm of the workman. He [the worker] becomes an appendage of the machine.”
Clearly then, we have a inherent similarity between the babycarrot, overshadowed and diminutive compared to the carrot, and the proletariat or working classes, and how they are ostracised by the ruling establishment.
What is striking is how so many other socialist thinkers took pages upon pages of text and essays to elucidate their ideas. Henrik Ibsen took eight words in one short poem. And he did it by talking about carrots.
We are all babycarrots
The ideas at the core of Ibsen’s poetry are not confined to the 19th century. We live in a world of rampant inequality caused by the unfettered and uncontrolled excesses of neoliberalism and right-wing politics. With continued attacks on worker’s rights and stripping away of the welfare state, while bankers who crash the economy are rewarded with million dollar bonuses and CEOs are given government subsidies, we have created a society in which all the power and wealth lies in the hands of a few. Just 62 individuals, in fact, own as much as 3.8 billion people across the world combined. And these individuals cast a long shadow in which the rest of us live.
In other words, therefore, we live in a world in which we are all babycarrots: disregarded by the ruling classes and confined to the margins and their shadow.
It is no surprise, therefore, that Ibsen’s poem has been picked up by social media: his words resonate through time, and paint a picture of a world that we recognise (even if we might, at first, just think it’s a poem about carrots).