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Johan Ludvig Runeberg
by Thanos Kalamidas
2007-02-07 08:36:46
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The first time I heard his name was in Porvoo, a small town south west of Helsinki. It was a really cold day and I was getting ready to enjoy my coffee when I heard that I should try “Runeberg’s tart”, so I did. Runeberg’s tart is a small, cylindrical shape, sponge cake decorated with a spoonful of jam and it seems that it was the favorite delicacy of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg.

Runeberg wrote in Swedish standing on the edge of Finnish and Swedish literature, since most of his themes were taken from the Finnish every day life and his most famous poem, ‘The Tales of Ensign Stål’ (‘Fänrik Stäls sägner’ in Swedish and ‘Vänrikki Stoolin tarinat’ in Finnish) goes through the Finnish War (1808 – 1809) between Sweden and Russia when Sweden lost Finland. The first verses of the poem became the national anthem of Finland – ‘Stål’ in Swedish means ‘steel’:

Our land, our land, our motherland,
Sound loud, O name of worth!
No mount that meets the heaven's band,
No hidden vale, no wavewashed strand,
Is loved, as is our native North,
Our own forefathers' earth.
Thy blossom, in the bud laid low,
Yet ripened shall upspring.
See! From our love once more shall grow
Thy light, thy joy, thy hope, thy glow!
And clearer yet one day shall ring
The song our land shall sing.
(The poem has been translated from the Swedish version by Clement Burbank Shaw)

Perhaps this was not the best way to start talking about Runeberg’s poetry but it excuses why the verses became part of the Finnish national anthem and Runeberg himself became Finland’s national poet. The truth is that most of his work can be compared only with the work of European romantics like Shelley, Keats and Hugo.

Who has given the wind wisdom,
Lent the air a tongue so lightsome,
Ready speech to the yard’s rowan,
And the small birds’ tender bevy?
(From the poem “All seemed to be speaking, speaking

This is an example of a romantic soul that praises the beauty of his native land. Johan Ludvig Runeberg was born to a middle class Swedish-speaking family in Pietarsaari (Jakobstad) on the shores of Bothnia. His father was a captain who had briefly studied theology and his mother came from a family of merchants. At the age of eight he was sent to Oulu (Oleåborg) to start his studies, staying with his uncle. After his uncle’s death he continued his studies first at the Vaasa Gramar School and later at the University of Turku (Åbo) where he became friends with J.S. Snellman and Zachris Topelius, two giants of Finnish literature.

In Vaasa, Runeberg started reading Swedish poetry showing his preference to the Swedish romantics, like Bellman, and later moving to Turku he started writing and contributing poetry for local newspapers. Due to his financial situation he had to move to central Finland where he took over as the personal tutor of a family. This is where he actually met the rural Finnish speaking population and for the first time he heard the stories about the Russo-Swedish war that led Finland in the hands of the Russians.

His romantic nature led him into idealizing the people and their bravery and the same time further studied Greek literature and German idealism. The combination of these three became the base of his ideal patriotism and the inspiration of his major work, ‘The Tales of Ensign Stål’.

In 1827, Runeberg received his Master of Arts degree and following the fire of Turku and after the university was forced to move to Helsinki, Runeberg followed to continue his studies. In 1830 he became lecturer of Rhetoric and the very same year he published his first poetry collection. The poems are a hymn to his love for Finland, its nature and his admiration for the people who live under so difficult circumstances and the weather always their enemy.

His romantic and sometime idealistic view of the common people led sometimes to controversy where he was blamed that his characters were never rebelling against God and bosses but accepting their fate only fight as far as they could. And his sympathetic but idealized picture was often adopted by the leading and educated elite.

1831 he married Frederika, a pioneer of historical novel in Finnish literature influenced by Walter Scott and talented painter. With Frederika he had eight kids. In 1833 Runeberg published his second major poems collection “Dikter” and three years later “Hanna”, his most romantic work written in the spirit of J.H. Voss. For the next years while Runeberg becomes more involved in the life of the small town Poorvo he published a series of works and in 1841 when he started reading more about Russia and Russian literature he wrote “Nadeschda”.

His life in Poorvo was the quiet life of an intellectual who loved fishing and hunting till 1863 when an accident left him paralysed for 13 years till the end of his life. He finally died on May 6th, 1877 in Borgå and his death became a national mourning.

"The sullen, needy, humble, and holy Fatherland."

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J2007-02-05 17:19:01
Porvoo is not southwest of Helsinki, more like east of helsinki. And just to clear out one more thing for all, Borgå is Porvoo in swedish. But anyway thanks for this article about this great man :)

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