Tuesday, April 07, 2015

J.L. Runeberg: Tales of Ensign Stål (1848, 1860)

Illustration by Albert Edelfelt

[Image source: http://allthingsfinnish.tumblr.com/post/101044861262]

The original title is Fänrik Ståls Sägner – Ensign Stål is the supposed originator rather than the hero. His voice is not often heard, but his shade hangs over the ballad-poems – a figure of undaunted resolve in age.  

Johan Ludvig Runeberg was born in 1804 and died in 1877. He was only a small child in 1808 when the Czar suddenly declared for Napoleon and, since Sweden was now his enemy, invaded Finland without warning. (Finland had for six hundred years been loosely united to Sweden). The Finns defended heroically but they  had been taken by surprise; the Swedish king was not helpful and the war ended in subjection to Russia. This war of 1808-1809 is the subject of Ensign Stål.

Both volumes were eagerly awaited, many of the poems having been published in advance. The subject of Finnish heroism against the oppressor spoke to a young audience who were ardently patriotic. They reacted as Runeberg claimed to have reacted to a neglected history-book:

Oh what a land, what men were these,
How resolute, how glorious!
An army that could starve and freeze
And yet remain victorious!
Onward and ever on I sped;
I could have kissed each page I read.

The hour of danger spurred this band
To bolder resolution.
What love didst thou inspire, O land,
Despite thy destitution, -
A love so strong, a love so sweet
From those thou gav’st but bark to eat!

Runeberg’s work nurtured a new, Scandinavian style of patriotism. “Our land is poor”, he says with pride, but

            We love the thunder of our streams,
            Our torrent’s headlong bound,
            Our gloomy forests’ mournful themes,
            Our starry nights, our summer’s beams...

Patriotism in most countries involves some recognition of the beauty of one’s land (“England’s green and pleasant land”), but in Sweden and Finland the beauty is more intensely experienced. It is omnipresent and has a certain uniformity: the largely poor, acidic soils, and the long winters see to that. There is no rank overgrowth, and birch by a wooden shack by a lake is an extremely sparse symbol that evokes everything.

Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804-1877) was one of the founders of Finnish literature but he wrote in Swedish, which had become the standard language of the educated classes. Runeberg tells us that Otto von Fieandt could speak Finnish to his men, but that remark seems positioned as a further instance of von Fieandt’s likeable eccentricity; I think that is the only reference to the existence of a second language. Though his intensely patriotic vision meant nurturing in poem after poem a sense of the people as a whole community (traitors only to be excluded), it is ironic to reflect that many of the commoners he hymned would have been unable to understand his poems, or he theirs (e.g. the Kanteletar poems collected by Lönnrot). Runeberg, Lönnrot and Snellman (the class of 1822 at the University), were each in different ways preparing the ground for a Finnish nation, but it was a nation that was bound to suffer the consequences of a struggle between two languages.

Runeberg’s cycle of poems has a cumulative impact. The army became itself the image of a united nation seen in its best light; in The Aged Lode, for example, the veteran campaigner’s inner boyishness combines a simple faith, military zeal, humanity to the stricken of both sides, and playful humour. It’s the civvies (pastors, for example), who Runeberg sometimes suggests may be less than humane; cold self-seekers, uncommitted to the common cause. When the doctor sweeps his medicines from the table in Döbeln at Jutas, he becomes a man. 

Runeberg’s idea of a nation (symbolized by the army) is inclusive. He finds room for the dim-witted (Sven Duva), the vagabond (Number Fifteen Stolt), the camp-follower (Lotta Svärd), the renegade eccentric (Otto von Fieandt), for aged veterans and untried youths. Runeberg is inspiring his readers, teaching them what to think and how to feel, but the emphasis is usually on warmth and comedy, not on austerity. It is a martial ideal, but also a civilized one.

Thus, of the treachery that relinquished Sveaborg, Stål says:

Young man, you love the ring of verse,
Our past you love right well,
It may be sometime you’ll rehearse
This tale you’ve heard me tell.
Speak of his guilt, which none deny,
But hide his name, then, as do I.

Let not his kindred share the blame,
None else his guilt should own,
Or blush with sympathetic shame;
Its weight be his alone.
The traitor, nevermore has he
Son, father, kin or family.

The civilisation comes out in the total exoneration of kindred; the unsparing zeal in the separation of the scapegoat.

One should be ready to die for Finland. In The Cloud’s Brother this is presented with compelling seriousness, when the dead hero’s girl says:

Dear he was, when to my bosom folded,
Dearer than all else the world had given,
Doubly dear he now is in his glory,
Coldly clasped unto the cold earth’s bosom.
Sweeter far than life I found that love was,
Sweeter far than love to die as he did.

But this powerfully unsmiling poem of 1835, though Runeberg included it in Ensign Stål, is different in tone from the rest: its locale is much vaguer and more distant than the events of 1808, and this sanctions a ferocity that the author did not permit elsewhere.

Many another poem celebrates death in the cause of one’s country, but the starkness of The Cloud’s Brother is modified by a change of focus; for example, Munter makes comic capital of its subject (a man of few words), or The Girl of the Cottage laments that her non-returning lover ran away from battle and did not die as she had supposed.  

Ensign Stål is a cycle with other intent than accurately recounting the war of 1808-09. Runeberg slightly idealizes it; his war is terrible but not obscene. He also artfully mixes up the chronology so we see the war in fragments, returning again and again to Siikajavi, Oravais, and Virta Bridge. These vivid glimpses permit the controlled release of shaped symbols; a chronological view would have emphasized the disaster rather than the heroism (and complicate matters by forcing attention onto such matters as the Swedish king’s failure to provide timely support). The magnificent triumph celebrated in Döbeln at Jutas is held at arm’s length from the “bloody rout” of Oravais, which in fact followed only a few days later; the shadow of Oravais, here, would have imposed unwanted complexities. 

Runeberg’s desire to mould a nation leads to a number of scenes in which the army unites men of different ranks. He is wise enough to steal the power of class prejudice; to make us cheer when Von Konow is struck by his corporal, or when Von Essen’s stallion is raced without his permission for a patriotic wager. In The Ensign at the Fair the figure of the general is at first presented coldly, hinting at arrogance. We are shocked when he scatters the grenadier’s coins, and reconciled when he proclaims the grenadier his comrade and takes him into his carriage. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. Runeberg has tried to identify the general’s stiffness with a principled military pride, but the offer to make the man his pensioner leaves a taste in the mouth. Stål’s earlier words still ring:

“Strut and sparkle there! You once were one of us,” within I said;
“Not so proud but better garnished with the drops of blood you shed.”

Is it possible now, in peace, to truly resurrect the comradeship of war?

It is a proud freedom, though a freedom displayed in sacrifice, that animates the cycle. One of its most powerful images comes in Döbeln at Jutas. The poem begins comically with a cleric (between mouthfuls of roast beef) bemoaning Döbeln’s unregenerate state. Döbeln is laid up with fever, but the army is in sore straits without him. After the scene with the doctor, Döbeln rises to unite his troops again. We pass down the tattered ranks with him:

Illustration by Albert Edelfelt

[Image source: Wikimedia Commons]

Such an old veteran was Number Seven,
A corporal in von Kothen’s regiment.
The single shoe he wore was badly riven,
His other bare foot left a bloody print...

Such are the soldiers with whom Döbeln wins his brilliant victory. Afterwards he stands on the deserted field at dusk, and makes his address to God:

Our duty’s done, my soldiers are victorious,
And that which now is left concerns but me.
I’m called freethinker, and I count it glorious;
Free-born I am, and so my thought is free....

You have restored my country, by no merit
Of mine, for every other hope was hid.
Do You, all-seeing, look into my spirit,
If gratitude be there for what you did.
The slave may court his god with genuflexion;
I cannot cringe and grovel for protection,
I seek no favor, ask for no reward.
I would but stand here happy in your presence,
With fervent heart but yielding no obeisance;
That prayer a free man’s soul may still afford.

You gave me courage, when our foes assembled,
To lead my men unswerving through the fight.
My body failed me and my sinews trembled;
Your strength upheld me in my own despite.
The army was beset from every angle,
But with my help today it broke the tangle,
The road to glory opened out anew.
But You it was who saved us and none other,
How shall I speak to You? My God, my brother,
Giver of victory, my thanks to You!

[Most of the poems – all the ones I’ve quoted – were impressively translated into English verse by the resourceful Charles Wharton Stork. Runeberg’s metrical schemes are varied and often demanding. Clement Burbank Shaw picked up the remainder; he did a reasonable job, but is driven to excessive inversion. The combined collection was published in Finland by Söderström & Co., 1952.]


Runeberg Torte (Runebergintorttu / Runebergstårta)

[Image source: http://www.kotikokki.net/reseptit/nayta/7807/Runebergin%20tortut/]

This is a Finnish seasonal cake typically eaten between early January and February 5th (Runeberg's birthday).

The connection with Runeberg is that it appears in his wife Fredrika's recipe book. According to legend, Runeberg liked eating it for breakfast, along with a glass of punsch.

Runeberg torte is flavoured with arrack. Punsch, the Swedish "national drink", is flavoured with arrack too.

Arrack is a strong SE Asian liquor. Its slightly surprising place in Nordic cuisine dates from 1733, when the Swedish East India Company began importing it from Java. The taste for it quickly caught on, and persists to this day (as in the confectionery below).

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