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The Making of a Poet: Runeberg’s Student Days

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Ulf Fagerlund

Two hundred years have passed since the birth of Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland's national poet. It is thus opportune to reflect on the circumstances in his youth that contributed to the emergence of this poetic genius.

JOHAN LUDVIG RUNEBERG's father, Lorenz Ulrik, grew up in a Finnishspeaking area near Tammerfors. After completing school he commenced studies to enter the priesthood but soon changed course and went to sea. As a captain, his home port was Jakobstad. He married Anna Maria Malm who came from a respected and well-to-do family in the same town. Their first child, Johan Ludvig, was born on the 5th of February 1804.

That Runeberg was born in a coastal town in a sea captain's home, rather than in a vicarage in the interior of the country, had a significant effect on his character. Also, in searching for an explanation for the development of such a prominent poetic talent in the narrow confines of a small town in the north, one has to take into account, apart from family traits, the character of the surrounding landscape and the people who populated it.

Ostrobothnia is distinguished by an industrious, action-ready people known for self-esteem that can turn to prowess, and frankness bordering on arrogance. The Ostrobothnian carries his head high, strides ahead in a forthright fashion, has a practical mind, and is not inclined to dream or speculate. The Gulf of Bothnia has imposed its own influence, inviting men to the dangerous occupations of seal hunters and seafarers and boys at an early age to deal with the toughening element.

Lorenz Ulrik, educated and interested in poetry, provided some exposure to the arts, although this was diminished because of his lengthy sea travels. However he followed and corrected his son's early attempts at writing poetry.

As a young girl growing up in a small town at this time, Anna Malm received scant education. But, she had a warm heart and an idealistic view of life. She eagerly read novels and her children praised her for her great talent in telling tales. She is also known to have had a voice for singing, and her son Johan learned the songs of the time from her lips. He got his first exposure to literature, mainly the Swedish poet Mikael Choræus, through Anna, who knew the poet at a time when he lived in Jakobstad.

Under these living conditions Runeberg grew from a sickly child to a strong, cheerful boy who handled play, pranks, and school work with energy and gusto. He gained skills in rowing and fishing and handled gun and fishing gear and was a master at hitting a target with stones, even a bird in flight. He carried from childhood the wish to communicate with nature and to observe it, which was very important to his later poetry.

At the age of eight, when it was time for the boy to enter public school, Johan was sent to Uleåborg to live with his uncle, a customs officer, who agreed to bring up the oldest son in the family in order to lighten his brother's burden of raising a growing family. Johan, at this age, has been described as a frank boy with large, blue eyes and brown, curly hair, and also as "a most beautiful, nimble and unruly boy one could find and everybody's favorite."

While Johan was in Uleåborg, his uncle died and he had to break off his studies, which had lasted for two school years, 1812 to 1814. But soon he returned to school in Vasa, graduated at the top of the class, and entered Åbo University in 1822 to study Greek and Swedish literature.

Manners of the students at the school in Vasa were raw, but not depraved. The foolhardy minds of the Ostrobothnian boys resulted in practical jokes. The inclination to play pranks still followed him in later days. It pointed to a reckless impetuousness, but did not come from ill will. Goodheartedly, he tried to make amends for his pranks.

He was strong and brave, but his standing amongst his friends also seemed to have come from generous traits in his nature. He was forthright and did not abide falseness or slyness. Compassion showed in his willingness to protect a weaker one from bullying, although he allowed himself to jest at a lesser comrade. As a student and even after receiving his master's degree, he showed an inclination, typical for an Ostrobothnian, to strike when defending himself against aggression. Sometimes his displeasure showed in an uncommon way. A well-known story tells about the way he attacked with snowballs junior university lecturers, who he felt were arrogant or had an offensive manner.

During his school years in Vasa, Johan lodged with five or six other students in a household. Other pleasures than play and pranks were pursued. The boys sang songs to the accompaniment of a violin or staged comedies. His father had taught him popular songs written by his predecessor, the classical Finnish poet, Frans Mikael Franzén, without at that time knowing his name. Poetry remained a refining element in Johan's coarse living habits, and these early literary pleasures probably made him detect a talent for writing verse.

The only man of letters who Johan later remembered as having been a model during this time was Choræus, whose verses didn't seem to him to be better than those he made himself. A model of greater importance was the Roman poet Virgil, whose major work The Aeneidhe read from beginning to end. In the school in Vasa, the foundation was laid for a thorough knowledge of the classics which Johan possessed. From Choræus he learned to write poetry in alexandrine (iambic) format, and from Virgil he learned the hexameter line length (six "foots" per line).

From the above one should not assume Johan was a precocious poet. From his school years there remains nothing with certainty. The verses he produced then were products of his jocular mind, meant only to amuse himself and others.

An inspiration of another kind was the tender bond that grew between him and Fredrika Juvelius, daughter of a chaplain in Vasa. They were both 15 years old when they revealed their feelings to each other. When they parted as he commenced his studies in Åbo, he presented her with some poetry. He later incorporated this as his first attempt under the title Farewell to Friggain the book of lyrics he started during his time in Saarijärvi, the so-called Blue Book, which is the main source of his earliest poetical writing.

The ease with which Johan handled realism is shown in the narrative poem The Wolf. Since this poem is the starting point for Johan's epic writing which, from there, developed step-by-step its origin as well as its makeup, it is of special interest.

Traditionally it has been told that, when a group of schoolboys were on the way to Vasa they heard, while stopping at an inn, a story about a hunt for a wolf that had been mauling a farmer's livestock. The farmer had planted parts of the torn cattle in a hut made of branches. Laying in pursuit at the hut for a while the farmer killed the wolf with a single shot. Already at the inn, Johan started to describe the story in hexameter form and then finished it in Vasa. The poem was initially written to amuse the student and his friends in Vasa. An improved version of the poem appeared while Johan stayed in Lundo near Åbo in the house of Professor A.J. Lagus. His purpose was to entertain the professor's friends, but Johan had no thought of pretending to be a poet at the time. It was only a literary game and there is no evidence of a poetic inspiration.

On the basis of a letter of recommendation, Professor Lagus came to Johan's aide at a time when the small monetary support from home had come to an end. He asked Johan to tutor his children and to give lessons at a boarding school for women, where his duties also included accompanying the professor on his daily walks, during which they usually had along a pig on leash, as Johan has merrily described. One day when the promenade went across a foot bridge over a creek, the professor first, then the tutor, and finally the pig, the desire for a prank became too strong and, unobserved, Johan dispatched the pig into the creek with a swift kick. The professor stopped and made a comment about the lack of intelligence in animals and the walk then continued with the pig still swimming.

Upon entering the university in Åbo in 1822, Johan hadn't felt any deprivation except during the fall term of 1823. He did not have an income during the summer and his clothes - mostly his father's old ones - were worn. There were days when his only meal consisted of roasted potatoes. To live on borrowed money was less common in those days; furthermore, it clashed with his strongly developed sense of independence.

At this point in the emergence of Johan's literary output, there was a change in his life that was to become of the greatest importance to his further development. He left Åbo at Christmas time 1823 and accepted a position as tutor for two families in Saarijärvi. It was there that he experienced the inland nature and came in contact with the Finnish-speaking population. For the 20-year-old student, there followed a time of wakening when he began to develop the deepest feelings for his homeland as expressed in his poetic work The Tales of Ensign Stål ( Fänrik Ståls Sägner). One could ask if he would have developed into a great poet had he not been forced to this change in his life.

Johan's development did not occur in drastic changes. The deep impulses he received in the interior flowed as an undercurrent that did not surface until the end of the 1820s. When he returned to Åbo in January 1826 after two years absence, he was a tall young man, described by his pupils as serious and demanding respect but, on the other hand, friendly and warmhearted and ready for practical jokes. He did not have much time to take part in student activities, having to concentrate on exams for his master's degree.

Johan selected his closer friends mostly among Ostrobothnians, though not exclusively. Some of these acquaintances later played important parts in the country's intellectual development. To these belonged two students who both enrolled as students at the same time as Johan: Elias Lönnrot, the son of a Nyland tailor who later compiled the national epic The Kalevala, and Johan Vilhelm Snellman, statesman and economist, a seaman's son from Ostrobothnia. The bond of friendship between Snellman and the young Runeberg was such that it did not break regardless of differences in mind and viewpoints which developed later in life.

The association with such different, deep-thinking, and gifted friends had a most important influence on Johan; it changed him from a spirited and sometimes rash youngster to a high-minded, noble, and humane literary mind. Another influence came from the association with Archbishop Jakob Tengström and his family circle. After receiving his master's degree in the spring of 1827, Johan took a position for one year as tutor for the Archbishop's children in Pargas near Åbo.

Johan was distantly related to the Tengström family - his father was the Archbishop's cousin. Jakob Tengström, the central figure in this large and prominent family, was a man molded in the Gustavian era with a fine and urbane education. He played a significant part in changing the conditions in the country. Also in this extended family was the Archbishop's brother and his two daughters. The younger daughter, the gifted and highly literate Fredrika, soon became the object of the poet's love.

In this company of people, influenced by the highest form of culture that the country could produce, Johan developed an appreciation for matters of the human heart, especially the female heart, which later characterized his person. In this family circle, one enjoyed games and songs and also the reading of poetic output, one's own as well as that of others.

There is no doubt that Johan's aesthetic viewpoints, which deviated from the romantic as well as from the academic school, were rooted in the studies of the poetic creations of the time, as well as in studies of the classics. He was acquainted with poetry produced by members of the New School. In a letter, he wrote: "I first learned to know Tegner, Atterbom, and the whole New School in University, a proof for how little knowledge of literature existed in the surroundings where I spent my first eighteen years. Franzén, who was commonly considered Sweden's greatest poet, became my most cherished author. He became dear to me early and still is so."

Wikipedia:Johan Jakob Tengström, associate professor of literary history, in the journal "Aura" presented a program for education which the Swedishspeaking public generally came to follow: "After the separation from the former motherland the educated classes ought to join the people, absorb its essence as expressed in customs, songs and stories, and above all its language. The educated classes, while maintaining their language of education, should learn to use the language of the people in all communications with the common man. Of the Old Finnish myth there is no direct gain for literature to be expected; this myth is now lost forever, but the Finnish folk song in general could bring to literature new, warmer, and deeper inspirations." Johan Runeberg and his friends, many of whom later influenced the country's development, discussed these and other ideas concerning their native land.

In the fall of 1828, Johan moved to Helsingfors and worked for a while as assistant lecturer. In the fall of 1830, he was appointed associate professor in Roman literature. After a long engagement, he married Fredrika in 1831.


Based on "Runebergs Skaldeskap" by A.E. Estlander in "Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Samlade Arbeten," VIII. Helsingfors, 1902.

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