Issue 3/1984 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

The poems of Aleksis Kivi were long considered no more than a peripheral aspect of his work. They were, as Kivi’s friend Kaarlo Bergbom wrote in a review, ‘gold that can’t be minted into coins’. The reason appears to have been Kivi’s poetic technique, which made a clear break with tradition. He did away almost completely with rhyme and instead emphasised the rhythm and musical sound qualities of words. He shortened words in a way that did not find favour with any subsequent Finnish poets. He avoided emotional expressions of patriotism and romantic love poetry; instead, he composed poems that were extended, narrative and fresco-like. Lauri Viljanen, whose 1953 study brought about a re-evaluation of Kivi’s poetry, has given them the apt soubriquet ‘epic idyll’.

The first of Kivi’s poems appeared in the Kirjallinen Kuukauslehti (‘Literary monthly magazine’) in 1866; a collection of his poetry entitled Kanervala was published the same year. Other poems appear in his novels and plays, and some have appeared in a collection after his death. Karhunpyynti (‘The bear hunt’) is from Kanervala. Its descriptive nature is typical of Kivi. The verse structure is tightly controlled but unrhyming. The winter landscape of the third verse, repeated at the end of the poem, is a ceremonious point of rest among the otherwise busy activity.

– Kai Laitinen


The Bear Hunt

The men on skis set out for the forest, a brave company
With guns and bright spears
And clamouring dogs on the leash,
With blazing eyes,
As the dawn chases gloomy Night
From the sky’s brow,
And the sun raises his head.

Northward they journey, the hunters
Hissing over the snow-crust,
Their frosted hair floating out over their shoulders
As they speed along;
And from the ridge-tops
Blows a biting wind
Lashing the valleys with its wings
Roaring through the snowy forest:

In the bear’s domain they stand at length
On the high fell-top,
Where even at noon
The world below looms wanly
And the rayless disc of the sun
Travels on the rim of sky and earth
Over the blue haze of distant forests.

Unleashed, the clamorous hounds escape
Into the kingdom of their quarry;
Silently, on their skis, the hunters range
About his desolate stronghold.
But the bear’s ear is sharp,
And the barking of Killi and Leiju
Echoes from the frost-clad firs.

The king of the wildwoods, mossy-browed
Flees from his winter lair.
Fire and bullets speed after him
But he does not cease his flight.
Purple stains the snowy track
As he crashes onward
Making for shelter among the fir-trees.

The dogs give chase, heading him off
In a wide curve;
The skiing men hurry to reach him
Over the open country.
Panting, he turns in anger,
Faces them, head erect,
A bloodstained hero.

But now the hunter’s fiery bullet
Brings the hero to the ground;
once again he rises, fleeing headlong
With a dreadful bellow.
Now the blow is struck;
The snow flies up,
As bear, dogs and man
Wrestle on the upland ridge.

At length a comrade’s spear
Ends the bitter contest;
The bear in his shuddering breast
Feels the cold iron,
Falls forward
On to his snowdrift bed,
And the eye is dark
That once flashed fire and flame.

Around the fallen he huntsmen stand
Rejoicing on the high fell-top,
Where even at noon
The world below looms wanly
And the rayless disc of the sun
Travels on the rim of sky and earth
Over the haze of a distant forest.

And now, with quick steps, they bear him home
In the splendour of the winter night,
While the Northern Lights wreathe with their flashes
The brow of the sky,
And the pallid moon,
Smiling ever,
Travels across her skyey meadow,
Shepherding the starry flock.

Translated by David Barrett


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