Bitter moments, luscious moments

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Poems from Fänrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål, 1848–1860) and Dikter II (‘Poems II’. 1833), translated by Judy Moffett. Introductions by Pertti Lassila and Risto Ahti

Sven Duva

Sven Duva’s sire a sergeant was, had served his country long,
Saw action back in ‘88, and then was far from young.
Now poor and gray, he farmed his croft and got his living in,
And had about him children nine, and last of these came Sven.

Now if the old man did, himself have wits enough to share
With such a large and lively swarm – to this I cannot swear;
But plainly no attempt was made to stint the elder ones,
For scarce a crumb remained to give this lastborn of his sons.

Sven Duva, all the same, grew up broad-shouldered, strong, and sound,
He slaved and sweated in the fields, he cleared and broke the ground,
Was faithful, cheerful, willing – more than many a quicker lad,
And did whatever he was told, but bungled all he did.

‘In Heavens’s name, tha hapless boy, what’s to be done wi’ ‘ee?’
Thus oft and oft the father cried, so at a loss was he.
But when the tune had played too long, Sven’s patience snapped in two,
And he himself as best he might, set out to think things through,

So when the sergeant, one fine day, came cooing yet again
This selfsame weary old refrain: ‘What shalta be, O Sven?’
Unused to getting answered back, it like knocked him flat
When Sven let down his jaw and said ‘A soldier!’ quick as that.

The elder Duva smiled in scorn when Sven’s bold answer came:
‘Tha blockhead, get a musket tha, play soldier? Fie, for shame!’
‘Well,’ said the younger, ‘here, seems like I can’t do nowt aright.
To die for king and country, see, that’s sommat that I might.’

Old Duva was amazed and moved, a moisture dimmed his eye,
And Sven strapped on his pack and went to join a corps nearby.
He was in health, and tall enough, that’s all he had to be.
And so the new recruit was sworn in Duncker’s company.

Now Duva must be taught his trade, to drill and march in file;
This practice was a sight to see; he had a special style.
The corporal might shout and laugh, and laugh and shout away,
But his recruit remained himself, in earnest as at play.

The man was tireless, certainly, if e’er a man was that,
He stomped so hard the gournd would shake, and ran till drenched in sweat;
But every time he’d hear the cry to change direction sung
He’d firmly pivot right or left, whichever way was wrong.

They showed him how to ‘Shoulder arms,’ to ‘Order arms’ as well,
‘Present arms’ too, ‘Charge bayonets’ – he’d seem to know the drill –
But if ‘Present’ was called, he’d charge, with blade thrust out ahead.
And if the cry was ‘Order arms,’ he’d shoulder arms instead.

Ere long, Sven Duva’s drilling grew notorious far and wide,
And officers and men alike would smile to see it tried;
But he pursued his even course, as patient as before,
And waited for a better day – and then we were at war.

The troop would now decamp, and so the point must be addressed:
Should Sven be rated sound of mind, and marched out with the rest?
He let them talk, stood calmly by, then said when they had done:
‘If ye won’t let me come wi’you, I’ll just come on me own.’

He got to keep his musket, Sven, and heavy pack to hump,
Was soldier while the battle raged, and serving man in camp,
But, fight or serve, his even course was all it e’er had been,
And never was he called ‘afraid’, just ‘simple’ now and then.

Now Sandels’ troops were in retreat before a Russian force;
Slow step by step the men fell back, beside a watercourse.
Ahead, along the army’s route, a footbridge spanned the flow
Where stood a little outpost now, some twenty men or so.

As they were only sent to mend the roadway to this spot,
They lay at ease when that was done, secure from blade and shot;
They foraged in a farmstead there and took what fell to hand,
And let Sven Duva serve it up, for he was in their band.

Then of a sudden down the slope pell-mell in mad descent,
Upon a spent and foaming horse, came Sandels’ adjutant.
‘The footbridge, lads!’ he called at once, ‘To arms, for God’s sake – quick!
The Russian troop is there, and means to cross the creek.’

‘And sir,’ to him who’d rushed to move the detail out forthwith,
‘Destroy that bridge – but if you can’t defend it to the death!
We’re done for if the enemy should slip behind our rear.
The General is on his way, he’ll reinforce you there.’

He dashed back. But no sooner had the detail gained its goal
Than on the farther bank appeared an enemy patrol.
It widened, tightened up, took aim, there came a burst of sound;
By that first Russian salvo fired, eight sturdy Finns were downed.

It made no sense to stand and fight, each man’s resolve gave way.
A second volley left but five still upright in the day.
None failed to follow orders then: ‘Port arms, retreat, retreat!’
– Except Sven Duva got it wrong, and charged-with-bayonet.

What’s more, the order’s second part went equally awry,
For down upon the bridge he leapt, when told to turn and fly.
Broad-shouldered, solid, there he stood, quite calm and easy still,
Prepared to teach the world and all how well he knew his drill.

Nor was it long before he’d got his opportunity;
That instant all the bridge was filled with charging enemy.
Man after man ran at him, but, as each would join the fray,
Sven did ‘Right turn’ and ‘Left’ as well, and dropped them either way.

To cast that giant down was more than human arm could do;
Against their fire he had a shield in all the men close-to;
The fiercer aye his foe’s attack, the more it came to naught;
Then Sandels with his flock arrived, and saw how Duva fought.

‘Well done, well done!’ he cried, ‘hold out, brave fellow – that’s the style
Don’t let a single devil cross, hold out there yet awhile!
That’s what I call a soldier, there, that’s how a Finn should fight,
Quick, lads, and to his aid at once. That man has kept us right.’

Ere long this force had turned and crushed the enemy attack;
The Russian troops turned tail themselves, and slowly all drew back.
Then Sandels might at last dismount, approach the water’s edge,
And ask them where the soldier was who’d fought upon the bridge.

They pointed out Sven Duva then. He’d battled like a man,
He’d fought till he was all fought out, and now the strife was done.
He looked like one who after play has laid him down to rest,
No calmer than he’d been before, but so much paler-faced.

And Sandels bent him down and gazed upon the fallen one:
This was no stranger, no indeed, this was a famous man;
But where he lay the trampled grass was painted red beneath.
His breast had stopped a musket ball; he’d swiftly bled to death.

‘It knew precisely where to strike, that little ball of lead,’
Said Sandels then, ‘and more by half than some of us,’ he said.
‘It knew to let his head alone, which was the poorer part,
And aimed for what was worthier, his noble, valiant heart.’

And this was through the army spread, and everywhere discussed,
And far and wide the men agreed that Sandels’ words were just.
‘For, right enough,’ they’d say, ‘that brain knew less than all it should,
His head was bad, was Duva’s, but his heart, now – that was good.’

From Fänrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål, 1848–1860)
(First published in English in 1925, translated by Clement Burbank Shaw)

The single moment

Alone was I
he came alone;
past my way
his own way led.
He did not stop,
but thought of stopping,
he did not speak
but his eyes were speaking.
O thou, unknown –
o thou, well-known!
A day is vanished,
a year elapses,
the one memory
hunts the other;
that little moment
has aye been with me,
that bitter moment,
that luscious moment.

From Dikter II (‘Poems II’. 1833)

Translated by Judy Moffett

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