What makes a classic?

Issue 1/2004 | Archives online, Authors, Reviews

In the bicentenary year of Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Pertti Lassila sets his work against the background of the country’s turbulent history

The fifth of February, birthday of Johan Runeberg (1804–1877), a Finnish poet who wrote in his native Swedish, was already a patriotic festival in the 19th century; lighted candles were set in the windows of the Grand Duchy of Finland. Late in the century, the custom became a silent protest against the measures which, in the opinion of Finns, represented Russian oppression and threatened the country’s autonomy. The candle tradition later moved to Finland’s independence day, 6 December.

When, in 1904, the centenary of Runeberg’s birth was celebrated, Russian pressure meant that this was a politically uncertain and dramatic period. A crisis developed when a Finnish student named Eugen Schauman, in the June of the same year, murdered the Russian governor general, Nikolai Ivanovitch Bobrikov, in Helsinki for political reasons. Runeberg’s centenary year gathered the nation around the poet who, more than any other in Finland, was the symbol of love of the country. The first systematic translation project for the rendering of Runeberg’s work into Finnish was also in progress.

One hundred years later, Finland has gone through enormous changes, among them independence, a civil war, the Second World War, membership of the European Union and giving up the national currency. But what of Runeberg’s works? How to define the ‘life’ of a classic, and how many readers does the sustenance of that life demand?

The readers of a book do not make up an audience like that in a theatre or at a concert, in which it jointly shows its approval and demonstrates to itself that the work of art in question is alive.

If the interest of professional readers were sufficient to confirm Runeberg as a living classic, there would be nothing to worry about. The first thoroughgoing study of Runeberg’s work was written in 1837 by the leading critic of the day, Fredrik Cygnaeus. He began a scholarly tradition that has now continued for almost 170 years. Runeberg is overwhelmingly the most and longest studied Finnish writer in Finland but also, in particular, in Sweden.

The life of a classic, however, generally means something different: are his works read spontaneously, without any intention to study; do they have something to ‘give’ to today’s reader or are they ‘only’ a part of what is known as culture, whose definition some special group considers its exclusive province?

To readers accustomed to novels or to modern poetry, such works as Elgskyttarne (‘The elk-hunters’, 1832), Hanna (1836) or Julqvällen (‘Christmas night’, 1841), idyllic epics written in hexameters in the spirit of the renowned German poet Johann Heinrich Voss seem unapproachable and old-fashioned. The genre is indeed an obsolete one, and no one writes that way any more – but Homeric epics are not penned today, either.

It is wrong to compare Runeberg to Homer – who would bear the comparison? There, are, however, no absolute values in literary history, only relative ones. What Homer means in the macrocosmos of western literary history recalls the significance of Runeberg in the microcosmos of Finnish literary history.

Runeberg’s hexametric poems or his other works such as the romantic Nadeschda (1841) or the Ossian and Tegnér pastiche, Kung Fjalar (‘King Fjalar’, 1844) are not, despite their formal virtues, so general in their ideas that they have any life far beyond their time. Runeberg’s ambitious attempt in the field of drama, the tragedy Kungarne på Salamis (‘The kings of Salamis’, 1863), is theoretical and is not performed.

Many of Runeberg’s poems live on as songs and hymns, some of them by now almost as part of the folk tradition, but they are also read. The best of his love poems are timeless and also challenging to interpret. His narrative folk-like poem about a peasant who fights against the frost, trusts in God and helps his needy friends and family has created an ideal symbol of Finnishness, Paavo of Saarijärvi. Although the character’s origin may be unknown to many, its meaning is still familiar.

Runeberg’s major work, Fänrik Ståls sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål I-II, 1848, 1860), is a collection of romantic poems set in the time of the War of Finland of 1808–09, as a result of which Finland, which had until then formed part of Sweden, came under Russian control. It is among the most often printed, most read and most influential works in Finnish literary history. In its time, the vitality of the work was not doubted by anyone. Changes in culture and society nevertheless influence the literary canon. More than other classics of Finnish literature, Fänrik Ståls sägner has been affected by the turbulence of history.

Part of the reason is that, as early as the turn of the 20th century and finally after the Finnish civil war of 1918, Fänrik Ståls sägner became politicised: it became the cultural property of the nationalist and bourgeois winning side, as a result of which the losing socialists found it distasteful. This attitude persisted among the left after the Second World War.

Runeberg’s poetic work became politicised in a way which Runeberg himself would never have been able to imagine, let alone intend. During the period of bourgeois hegemony between the two World Wars, Fänrik Ståls sägner were felt to belong to what was known as the nationally important memories, which were protected by law. On this basis the work enjoyed the same kind of security as national symbols such as the flag or the coat of arms.

When, during a leftist political evening in the 1930s, jokes were made at the expense of Fänrik Ståls sägner, the performer was taken to court and fined. The peculiar legal protection enjoyed by Runeberg’s work, which went far further than normal copyright law, was unique in Finland and unusual in western literature.

The first poem of Fänrik Ståls sägner I is Vårt land, written by Runeberg in the 1840s as Finland’s national anthem. As early as the end of the 19th century the first and last (eleventh) verses of the poem became established as Finland’s national anthem, with music composed by Fredrik Pacius. Almost every Finn knows it by heart – either in Swedish or in Finnish.

Nationally important organisations were named for the poems of Fänrik Ståls sägner. In 1919 the winners of the civil war founded a women’s voluntary defence organisation which was named, after a poem by Runeberg, Lotta Svärd. During the Second World War it was of great importance in supply and medical roles. In 1944 more than 440,000 women were members. Similarly, the role of the Sotilaspoika (‘Young soldier’) organisation, founded between the wars, was to encourage young boys to the defence of the country and to educate them in military and patriotic virtues. This, too, received its names from one of the poems in Fänrik Ståls sägner, ‘Soldatgossen’. Another poem in the work, ‘Björneborgarnas marsch’ (‘The march of the Pori regiment’), Runeberg wrote to a traditional international march tune. In independent Finland, the tune became the official march of the Finnish defence forces; it is played on official occasions before the arrival of the commander general of the defence forces, the Finnish president.

Fänrik Ståls sägner are so closely bound to national institutions and symbols that it is impossible to read its poems alongside others. The heroic pathos, the patriotic sacrifice, the contempt of death and the simple religious ethic on which the thematics of the work are based have not disappeared from the world, even if they are no longer of significance in Finland and comparable western countries. We have learned to see that what can be idealism in literature too easily becomes fundamentalism in reality. We cannot read Fänrik Ståls sägner with innocent eyes. We hear the charming rhythm, the apt phrases and rhymes, the artfully sketched characters and dramatically developed schemes, of its poems, but we understand that they are from another world and for another world.

The question of whether J.L. Runeberg’s major work Fänrik Ståls sägner is a classic is unsuccessful; from one generation to another it has been admired, but it has also given rise to self-criticism and resulting self-understanding. No work of writing exists an sich. When it is read, it connects with both literature and the traditions of reception. In Runeberg’s case, the reception has been so extraordinary that the meanings of Fänrik Ståls sägner can no longer be separated from it.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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