Friday, April 10, 2020

Panu Rajala: Kansallisrunoilija. J. L. Runebergin elämä (a book on the poet J. L. Runeberg)

Helene Schjerfbeck: En sårad finsk krigare utsträckt på snön / A Wounded Warrior in the Snow (1880). Oil on canvas. 39 x 59,5, signed b.r. H Schjerfbeck. There are other variants of the subject. Opus 52 in the 2012 HS Catalogue / Ahtela 1953 #52. Not an illustration of Runeberg's The Tales of Ensign Stål but a work of Runebergian inspiration. The painter was 17 years old, and her work was at once purchased to what is today called the Finnish National Gallery. From the Finnish National Gallery website.

Helene Schjerfbeck: Wilhelm von Schwerins död / The Death of Wilhelm von Schwerin (1886). Oil on canvas, 90 x 117,5, signed b.r. H. Schjerfbeck, 1886. Opus 139 in the 2012 HS Catalogue / Ahtela 1953 #148. Åbo konstmuseum, Finland. Source of image: Pinx - maalaustaide Suomessa: Suuria kertomuksia. Weilin+Göös 2001. Based on J. L. Runeberg's poem "Wilhelm von Schwerin" in The Tales of Ensign Stål. The middle one of three different versions, the others being from the years 1879 and 1927. Photo from Wikipedia.

Helene Schjerfbeck drew the illustrations to Runeberg's poem Grafven i Perho / Hauta Perhossa / The Grave at Perho, to its editions in 1884 (in Swedish) and 1896 (in Finnish). The artist's credit is missing from the illustrations of the 1896 edition (there is only the signature of the printer-publisher Tilgmann) but Leena Ahtola-Moorhouse confirms that they are all by Schjerfbeck (e-mail 13 April 2020). The complete 1896 edition is free online as a handsome digital publication in Doria.

Panu Rajala: Kansallisrunoilija. J. L. Runebergin elämä / [National Poet. The Life of J. L. Runeberg]. Helsinki: Minerva Kustannus Oy, 2020. 416 p. Illustrated.
    Runeberg's language was Swedish. This book is in Finnish, but the poems are both in Swedish and Finnish.

The author Panu Rajala keeps a breathtaking pace in creating a one-man library about giants of Finnish literature.

Last week he published a biography of J. L. Runeberg, a weighty addition to an incredible series published in less than 15 years, subjects including Yrjö Jylhä (twice: 2019 and 2009), Ilmari Kianto (2018), Eino Leino (2017), I. K. Inha (2015), F. E. Sillanpää (2015), Olavi Paavolainen (2014), Veikko Huovinen (2012), Juhani Aho (2011), Aila Meriluoto (2010), Mika Waltari (2008) and J. H. Erkko (2006).

Certainly all his books contain a lot of familiar material. But all also offer something new and interesting and provide an original twist to the well-known. The fact that these books have been written fast means that it is futile to expect vast original research of details. On the other hand, a new context is created since many of the subjects were contemporaries, and all were influenced by their predecessors in one way or another. Having studied the lives and letters of so many artists in such detail Rajala has an unusually rich and vast source from which to draw. Everything connects in original ways.

J. L. Runeberg (1804–1877) was born to what was then the Finnish side of the Kingdom of Sweden. When he was still a little boy in 1809 Finland became an autonomous principality in the Russian Empire. There was no official title of a poet laureate in Finland, but Runeberg certainly achieved an equivalent status.

Runeberg's funeral, engagingly discussed by Rajala, was one of the most prominent events in the history of Finland, not only because of the attention and respect on display, but because it contributed powerfully to a spirit of freedom and independence just when a current of national awakening was building momentum, leading to a Golden Age of Finnish culture.

Runeberg was a high profile successor to the finest legacy of Swedish poetry, he gave a voice to the newly autonomous Finnish spirit, and he expressed that spirit proudly in the circumstances of the Russian Empire. He also inspired many other artists, including composers (Jean Sibelius wrote many songs to Runeberg's poems), painters (Albert Edelfelt, Helene Schjerfbeck) and film-makers. The lyrics of Finland's national anthem are by Runeberg, and he wrote dozens of hymns that are still part of the living legacy.

Runeberg's magnum opus was The Tales of Ensign Stål, Finland's greatest epic poem after Kalevala. It is the saga of the Finnish War of 1808-1809 when Sweden lost Finland to Russia. It belongs to the sagas about "triumph in defeat". The war is lost, but the spirit is indomitable. The heroic poem became a bestseller, and it was still a major boost of morale in our wars against the USSR in 1939-1944. Runeberg's view of the people in war was challenged by Väinö Linna in The Unknown Soldier in 1954, but Jyrki Nummi discovered in his dissertation Jalon kansan parhaat voimat that Linna was also profoundly influenced by Runeberg not only in The Unknown Soldier but also in his epic Under the North Star. A new twist in Panu Rajala's new book is that Runeberg actually already promoted key viewpoints that have been thought original to Linna.

Besides epic poetry, Runeberg excelled in lyrical poetry. A favourite selection of mine is the one made by Bo Carpelan for the series Den finlandssvenska dikten, curated by Jörn Donner. Many of the finest poems were composed by Jean Sibelius with immortal dignity. Other evergreens include "Joutsen" ("The Swan") and "Lähteellä" ("At the Fountain") by other composers.

In Runeberg's private life Panu Rajala goes further than his predecessors. Johan Ludvig raised a large family with his wife Fredrika, née Tengström. All their eight sons became prominent cultural figures (there were no daughters, to the parents' dismay).

Johan Ludvig had also a long love affair with the poet Emilie Björkstén from the late 1830s to the end of his life. It was not a physically consummated affair but its impact was profound. Fredrika certainly suffered, but the relationship was not clandestine, and the two women remained friends.

Today we are no longer looking for scandal, nor are we easily scandalized. What is most precious remains a secret, but the account of the love affair is meaningful because it was a major source of inspiration for the poet. After what was understood was the final meeting of Emilie and Johan Ludvig, he suffered a debilitating stroke and became paralyzed and unable to write. I am grateful for the tact Panu Rajala displays in his discussion of the love story which was much more important than we have known.

The book contains a fine and representative selection of Runeberg's poetry. All poems are in the original Swedish, and of all there are translations in Finnish from a wide variety of translators from three centuries. The references to a vast field of Runeberg research extend to January 2020.

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