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Runeberg defined the Finnish spirit


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The Finnish identity began to take it current shape when Sweden lost its eastern section, Finland, to Russia in the war of 1808-09. At that point the Finns began to concentrate on spiritual independence, encouraged by statements from Czar Alexander I. The Russian emperor hoped to turn Finland away from its previous ruler as quickly as possible, and to clarify the new relationship between the Grand Duchy of Finland and Russia.

Finnish officials were enthusiastic about it because all the languages in Finland were spoken widely by the people, except Finnish which was incomprehensible to anyone else. Bishop Jacob Tengström of Åbo wrote a plan for the future on the subject. Its most important element was a national writer. He had in mind the poet F. M. Franzén, until Johan Ludvig Runeberg arrived in Åbo and began his studies.

Born in the west coast town of Pedersöre on February 5, 1804, Runeberg was the right man in the right place at the right time. What sort of a man was he? How did he look and what kind of personality did he have? This is the man who wrote The Tales of Ensign Stål, including its opening poem "Vårt Land", which became the highly praised national anthem.

When Runeberg arrived in Åbo he was already considered a promising poet and was showing signs of focused ambition. This was boosted by his obvious literary gift. In 1830 and 1833, the Swedish-speaking people read Runeberg’s first poetry collections. They wondered about verses about nature and the common people that were written by an upper-class academy student. Runeberg’s feeling for nature was born early in the shore landscapes along the Gulf of Bothnia. It was strengthened by a few years as a home tutor in Saarijärvi, a Finnish-speaking part of the countryside. He ended up there because he was short of cash. He was enthusiastic about hunting and rambling in the wilds in his imagination as well.

It was a great fortune that Runeberg ran short of money as a student and that he ended up among the common folk along with his teaching responsibilities. In those days, the segments of the population who had attended school considered those who had not to be primitive and amusing. In his fellow Finns, Runeberg saw dignity and valuable life experience, not least from the War of Finland that had been fought 14 years earlier. He met two veterans who are considered the role models for his best-known character, Ensign Stål.

Runeberg took advantage of the unique opportunity to listen and ask these men about their war stories. At the same time, the landscapes of inland Finland were etched deep in his heart, later to emerge in many of his poems as the archetypal image of the fatherland. Professor Matti Klinge has said on various occasions that the moral values and ideals that are portrayed in the Ensign Stål poems, such as bravery, faithfulness and endurance, can also be seen represented in Finland’s natural landscapes. He said that since this book appeared, it has formed a basis for patriotism which is different from that of the Swedes or Russians.

There were efforts to memorialize Runeberg’s cult status with a statue while he was still living. When he died in May 1877, the project was revived. His own son, the sculptor Walter Runeberg, completed a rough version in 1882. He portrayed his father in his creative heyday at age 55. The bronze monument in Helsinki’s Esplanade Park is a typical portrait of Runeberg, one hand in the pocket of his priest’s coat.

He is depicted as tall, handsome, broad-chested, open and manly. His authority is emphasized by his spectacles and his clerical outfit. The national flower, the lily-of-the-valley was Runeberg’s favorite. Not to mention the sweet pastry, now known as the Runeberg tart, with which he is honored.

By Irmeli Tanttu Suomen Silta No. 2-2004

June Pelo

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