Issue 4/1985 | Archives online, Fiction, poetry

Introduction by George C. Schoolfield

Birds of passage

Ye fleet little guests of a foreign domain,
When seek ye the land of your fathers again?
When hid in your valley
The windflowers waken,
And water flows freely
The alders to quicken,
Then soaring and tossing
They wing their way through;
None shows them the crossing
Through measureless blue,
Yet find it they do.

Unerring they find it: the Northland renewed,
Where springtime awaits them with shelter and food,
Where freshet-melt quenches
The thirst of their flying,
And pines’ rocking branches
Of pleasures are sighing,
Where dreaming is fitting
While night is like day,
And love means forgetting
At song and at play
That long was the way.

In peace do the happy things build where they please
Their nests of repose in the moss-covered trees;
And tempests, complaining,
Dissention and malice
Find no way of gaining
The unguarded palace,
Where dawn’s flaming embers,
And nightfall, that sends
The young to their slumbers
With rosy-hued hands,
Are all Joy demands.

Thou small, fleeting soul in a foreign domain,
When seek’st thou the land of thy fathers again?
When palm trees within it
Are come to fruition,
Then, faithful, begin it –
The joyous migration:
Wing up and soar onward
As little birds do;
None points the way sunward
Through measureless blue,
Yet thou’lt find it too.

From Dikter I (‘Poems’), 1830

Paavo of Saarijärvi

High among the pines of Saarijärvi
Peasant Paavo farmed a frosty homestead,
Tended it with unremitting labour,
But for increase trusted to the Lord.
And he bided there with wife and children,
Ate in sweat his scanty bread beside them,
Dug his ditches, plowed the land and sowed it.
Springtime came: the snowmelt off the meadows
Carried with it half the sprouted seedlings;
Summer came, and in a storm of hailing
Half the ears were beaten down by hailstones;
Autumn came, and frost killed all the rest.
Paavo’s woman tore her hair despairing:
‘Paavo, Paavo, born to bear misfortune,
Take your staff! for we are God-forsaken;
Hard it is to beg, but worse to starve.’
Paavo took her hand and said, all patient:
‘God but tries us, he does not forsake us.
Mix the bread with bark, a half of either,
I shall dig us twice as many ditches,
But for increase wait upon the Lord.’
So she kneaded bark into the bread-dough,
Paavo dug them twice as many ditches,
Sold the sheep, and bought the rye and sowed it.
Springtime came: the snowmelt off the ploughland
Never washed away a single seedling;
Summer came, and when the hail fell rattling
Half the ears were beaten down by hailstones;
Autumn came, and frost took what was left.
Paavo’s woman beat her breast despairing:
‘Paavo, Paavo, born to feed misfortune,
Let us die, for we are God-forsaken.
Death is hard, but living worse than death.’
Paavo took her hand and said, all patient:
‘God but tries us, he does not forsake us.
Mix the bread with bark, a double measure,
I shall dig the ditches even bigger,
But I look for increase to the Lord.’
So the extra bark went in the bread-dough,
So he dug the ditches wider, deeper,
Sold the cows, and bought the rye and sowed it.
Springtime came, again the snowpack melted,
Taking with it not a single seedling;
Summer came, and brought the hail as ever,
But no ears were beaten down by hailstones;
Autumn came, and frost, the fields avoiding,
Let them stand in gold and wait the reaper.
Then upon his knees fell Paavo, saying:
‘God but tries us, he does not forsake us.’
And his woman knelt beside him, saying:
‘God but tries us, he does not forsake us.’
But to Paavo then she said rejoicing:
‘Paavo, Paavo, wield your sickle gladly,
Now’s a time for pleasure and good living,
Now’s a time for bark to be got rid of,
And to bake our bread of rye alone.’
Paavo took her hand and pressed it, saying:
‘Woman, woman, he but bears the trying
Who will not forsake a needy fellow.
Mix the bread with bark, a half of either,
For our neighbor’s fields stand black and frozen.’

From Dikter I

Vain wish

Uncountable breakers billow
Upon the shimmering sea.
O would that I were their fellow,
A wave in the ocean, free,
As blank in all my affections,
As blithely chilly and clear,
As empty of recollections
Of joys from a bygone year.

Yet, billow or wave or comber,
I’d follow the same way still.
I live here now with a number
Of waves as thoroughly chill.
They jest at delight and at torment,
Their tears and smiles are for play,
But I have my hot heart’s ferment –
And O, to be heartless as they!

From an anthology of poems by various writers, Necken, 1849

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, 1833


Maid at his side, the lad
leaned to the fence’s rail,
gazed o’er the stubblefield:
‘Summertime’s over now,
flowers all withering;
yet still thy cheek’s abloom,
roses and lilies there
never more beautiful.’
Spring came once more; the lad
stood by the fence alone.
Gone was the maiden – lay
withered in earth’s embrace.
Green was the field again,
radiant, flower-thick.

From Dikter I

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 Heaven’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 to 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 ground 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!
They say a 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 Fanrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål), 1848-1860

Translated by Judy Moffett

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