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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)
THE GRAND DUCHY of Finland, “torn like a bloody shield from the heart of Sweden” in 1809, by the ruthless despot who was then all-powerful in Europe, and who now, by the irony of fate, lies buried in Paris beneath a sarcophagus of Finnish porphyry, has not become Russianized to any considerable extent, and still looks to the old mother-country for its social and intellectual ideals. This fact is due in part to the force of historical association upon the mind of a simple and conservative race, and in part to the fact that the Russian treatment of the conquered province has been fairly lenient, and most strikingly contrasted with the repressive policy pursued toward Russian Poland. It is not, then, as surprising as might at first sight appear, that the greatest name in Swedish literature should belong to a native of Finland, who was but five years of age at the time of the Russian annexation.  1
  Johan Ludvig Runeberg was born February 5th, 1804, at Jakobsstad, a small seaport town on the Gulf of Bothnia. He was the oldest of the six children of a merchant captain in reduced circumstances. He went to school at Vasa, and in 1822 to the university at Åbo, supporting himself in part by tutoring. He was so poor that he literally lived on potatoes for months at a time. He took his doctor’s degree in 1827, and soon thereafter was betrothed to Fredrika Tengström, a woman who afterwards attained some celebrity as a writer on her own account. The year that Runeberg left the university was also the year of the great fire that destroyed the greater part of the capital, and led to the transfer of both university and seat of government to Helsingfors. The years immediately following were decisive for the poet’s development, since they took him to Sarkijarvi, a town far to the north in the heart of Finland, where he came into close contact with the purest type of the Finnish peasantry. In this poverty-stricken wilderness, where men toiled incessantly for a subsistence so precarious that those were deemed fortunate who did not have to live upon bread made in large part from the bark of trees, the young scholar learned really to know his fellow-countrymen, to enter intimately into their humble lives, and to collect a wealth of first-hand impressions that were afterwards to be turned to literary account. The years at Sarkijarvi were devoted to earnest study, and to the composition of poems that showed his powers to be steadily ripening; so that when, in 1830, he received a university appointment at Helsingfors, he was able to bring back with him to civilization the material for the volume of poems that saw the light in that year.  2
  The publication of this volume was coincident with a stirring of the Finnish national consciousness that promised much for the future. The Russian yoke turned out to be no very heavy burden, since Finland was left a considerable degree of autonomy, and since the Russian censorship was disposed to deal very leniently with the literary expressions of national aspiration, and even with the most passionate assertions of spiritual allegiance to the Swedish tradition. This was also the time when the consciousness of Finland was quickened by the restoration of the ‘Kalevala.’ Dr. Lönnrot, a physician and professor at the university, had been traveling through the country for the purpose of collecting fragments of folk-song and popular tradition, and had made the great discovery that there still existed on the lips of the people a popular epic that had been transmitted from generation to generation through the centuries,—an epic which was comparable with, let us say, the ‘Nibelungenlied,’ and which the discoverer pieced together and reconstructed into substantial unity.  3
  This was clearly an opportune time for the appearance of a national poet; and in Runeberg the man of the hour was found. Fortunately for the history of culture, he realized that the aspirations of Finland were best to be furthered by an adherence to the Swedish tongue, and so it came about that Sweden as well as Finland gained a new poet of the first rank. The influence of Runeberg’s appearance upon Swedish literature in the narrower sense was also of the utmost importance. Swedish poetry up to this time had been divided into the two camps of Phosphorists and Gothics. The former were the torch-bearers of the German romantic movement; and had, if anything, made its mysticism more exaggerated and its extravagance more unreal. If they had lived in New England, they would have been called transcendentalists. The Gothics, on the other hand, had sought to bring about a more strictly national revival of letters; and as represented by Geijer and Tegnér, had endeavored to reproduce the spirit of the past. But even Tegnér, great and true poet as he was, could not escape from the prevailing artificiality of an essentially rhetorical age; and so the work of Runeberg, with its vivid realism, its direct simplicity, and its fidelity to the facts of nature and human life, came into Swedish poetry with a new note, and helped to accomplish a sort of Wordsworthian revolution in literary standards.  4
  The ‘Poems’ of 1830 were well received, and were followed in the same year by a collection of Serbian folk-songs, translated from Goetze’s German version. A certain kinship between the popular poetry of Finland and Serbia has been more than once pointed out. In both cases the utterance of races that failed to reach the front in the struggle for existence, the resemblance of the two bodies of folk-song is noticeable when we consider their spirit alone, and is made still more noticeable by their common employment of an unrhymed trochaic verse. This work in Serbian poetry is also significant because it was the direct inspiration of Runeberg’s ‘Idyll och Epigram,’ a collection of short original pieces in the same manner. In 1831 the poet received a prize from the Swedish Academy for an epic composition called ‘Grafven i Perrho’ (The Grave in Perrho), and in the same year married the woman to whom he had so long been engaged. A university promotion also came to him, and he felt himself to be on the high-road to success. He soon became editor of a newspaper as well; and for it he wrote most of the critical essays and prose tales that occupy an honorable place among his collected writings. His stay in Helsingfors lasted until 1837; and during this period he published, besides the works already mentioned, ‘Elgskyttarne’ (The Elk Hunters),—a beautiful epic in hexameters, which more than once suggests Goethe’s ‘Hermann and Dorothea’; a second collection of ‘Poems’; a comedy in verse entitled ‘Friaren från Landet’ (The Country Suitor); and the village idyl ‘Hanna,’ a love story in hexameters, with an exquisitely beautiful dedication to “the first love.” In 1837, Runeberg’s friends obtained for him a professorial appointment at the gymnasium of Borgå, a quiet country town on the Gulf of Finland, about thirty miles from Helsingfors. Here he remained for the last forty years of his life, and his biography from this time on is little more than an account of his successive publications. Externally, there is almost nothing to record beyond the promotions which finally gave to him the rectorship of the gymnasium (followed after a few years of service by a pension for life), and the trip to Sweden in 1851, which was the only occasion upon which the poet ever left his native Finland. He died May 6th, 1877, after having been in precarious health for several years.  5
  Four years after his removal to Borgå, Runeberg published ‘Julqvällen’ (Christmas Eve), the last of his hexameter narratives,—a somewhat less successful idyl than its predecessors. A more important work, also produced in 1841, is the narrative poem ‘Nadeschda,’ a study of Russian character and manners. It is written in a variety of unrhymed measures, and tells of the love of a nobleman for a beautiful serf. In this work, and those that follow, the powers of the poet have outgrown the somewhat close limitations of the idyl, and seek to bring deeper and more tragic themes within their grasp. In ‘Nadeschda’ we have for essential subject-matter the struggle between the institution of serfdom and the freedom of the individual. In a still nobler poem, ‘Kung Fjalar’ (1845), we have the conflict between the will of man and the inscrutable purposes of the gods, presented in the spirit, although not in the form, of a Greek tragedy: an ‘Antigone’ or an ‘Œdipus Rex.’ It is a poem in five cantos of four-line unrhymed stanzas, telling how the king, defiant of the gods, orders his infant daughter to be thrown into the sea, that he may avert the doom that has been prophesied to come upon his race through the child. But the child is rescued, and taken to the Ossianic kingdom of Morven, where she grows to be a beautiful woman. Twenty years later. King Fjalar’s son conquers Morven, and bears away the maiden as his bride. On the voyage homeward she tells him the story of her rescue from the sea: and he, filled with horror when he realizes that his bride is his sister, slays both her and himself. The old king, conquered at last by fate, puts an end to his life, finally recognizing the existence of a power higher than his own.  6
  The poems thus far described, together with a third volume of short pieces, bring us to the year 1848, when was published the first part of ‘Fänrik Stål’s Sägner’ (the Tales of Ensign Stål), Runeberg’s greatest work. The second part bears the date of 1860. This collection of poems, thirty-four in number (besides one that was suppressed for personal reasons), deals with episodes of the war which ended with the annexation of Finland to Russia. The several poems are supposed to be related by a veteran of the war to an eager youth who comes day after day and hangs upon the lips of the story-teller. They are tales of a heroic age still fresh in the recollection of the poet’s hearers, tales of famous battles and individual exploits, of historical personages and obscure peasants united by a common devotion and a common sacrifice, of the maiden who is consoled for her lover’s death by the thought that his life was given for his fatherland, and of the boy who is impatient to grow up that he too may give himself to his country’s cause. The poems are dramatic, pathetic, even humorous by turn; breathing a strain of the purest patriotism, and flowing in numbers so musical that they fix themselves forever in the memory. And besides all this, they are so simple in form and vocabulary that they reach the heart of the unlettered as well as of the cultured; so deep in their sympathy with the elementary joys and griefs of humankind that they found a widely responsive echo from the beginning, and still constitute the most treasured possession of Swedish literature. Indeed, the first poem of them all, ‘Vårt Land’ (Our Country) became at once, and has ever since remained, the national song of both Finn and Swede, bound together by the genius of the poet in a closer union than the old political tie. A close reproduction of the form of this poem, and perhaps something of its beauty as well, may be found in the following translation of its closing stanzas:—

  “Here all about us lies this land,
    Our eyes may see it here;
We have but to stretch forth our hand,
And blithely point to sea and strand,
  And say, Behold this land so near,
    Our fatherland so dear.
“And were we called to dwell on high,
    Of heaven’s own blue made free,
To dance with stars that deck the sky,
Where falls no tear, and breathes no sigh,—
  We still should yearn, poor though it be,
    This land of ours to see.
“O land! thou thousand-lakèd land,
    With song and virtue clad,
On life’s wild sea our own safe strand,
Land of our past, our future’s land,
  If thou art poor, yet be not sad,—
    Be joyous, blithe, and glad.
“Yet shall thy flower in beauty ope
    Its petals without stain;
Our love shall with thy darkness cope,
And be thy light, thy joy, thy hope,
  And this our patriotic strain
    To nobler heights attain.”

This song Mr. Gosse declares to be “one of the noblest strains of patriotic verse ever indited; it lifts Runeberg at once to the level of Callinus or Campbell,—to the first rank of poets in whom art and ardor, national sentiment and power of utterance, are equally blended.”
  The works remaining to be mentioned include a volume of ‘Smärre Berättelser’ (Short Stories: 1854), the sixty-odd hymns written for the official Lutheran hymn-book of Finland, and the two plays, ‘Kan Ej’ (Cannot: 1862) and ‘Kungarne på Salamis’ (The Kings at Salamis: 1863). The former of these plays is a sentimental domestic comedy in two acts, and in rhymed verse. The latter is a five-act tragedy written upon a Greek theme in the classical manner, and in iambic hexameter verse. It was the last work of any importance published by Runeberg, and one of the noblest of all his works, worthily crowning a great career.  8

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