Wednesday, February 10, 2010

20th Century Finnish Poetry by Kaye Langit-Luistro

Like many geniuses of her distinction, poet Edith Södergran (1892–1923) failed to witness the immense popularity of her poems during her lifetime. Today, however, her works have been embraced anew by Finnish readers and the poet hailed as “one of the greatest modernist poets of the Nordic countries.”

Edith Södergran (1892–1923)


Strongly influenced by French symbolism, German expressionism and Russian futurism, her poems are exemplified by “a free rhythm and a gentle intimacy that makes them easily accessible to the reader,” Stina Katchadourian explains in her article “Edith Södergran’ Fame is Spreading” for

In her first work, “Poems,” Södergran wrote some of her most popular love poems after a love affair gone sour. On her succeeding works, however, her poems became intensely prophetic, filled with cosmic visions and exalted strength, explains Katchadourian. “These poems shocked most critics and some even questioned her sanity.”

Life and Literature
Despite the eccentric style and tone found in some of her works, not to mention the illnesses, poverty and defeats in Södergran’s short life, she managed to leave us with poems celebrating “life’s beauty and the triumph of the human spirit,” Katchadourian explains. In her last poems, penned shortly before her premature death at the age of thirty one, “she speaks of a humble and childlike acceptance of God and of a closeness to nature which is free of all artifice,” according to Katchadourian. “It’s an intimate voice, but it has carried far.” Perhaps Södergran’s enduring legacy lies in her poems’ ability to evoke feelings common to all regardless of race and creed. True enough, her works have been translated into all the major languages and managed to create new readers, “even among those who don’t usually read poetry,” Katchadourian explains.

Here’s the poem “My Soul,” taken from “Love & Solitude,” (Bilingual centennial edition) selected poems by Edith Södergran, translated by Stina Katchadourian.

“My soul can tell no tales and knows no truths,
my soul can only cry and laugh and wring its hands;
my soul cannot remember and defend,
my soul cannot consider or approve.
As a child I saw the sea: it was blue.
In my youth I met a flower: she was red.
Now a stranger sits by my side: he is colorless,
but I fear him no more than the virgin feared the dragon.
The knight came upon the virgin, red and white,
but I have dark rings under my eyes.”
Eino Leino (July 6, 1878 - January 10, 1926)

Eino Leino


If Edith Södergran is viewed as a great modernist poet, Eino Leino is Finland’s most cited poet and the most important developer of Finnish-language poetry at the dawn of the 20th century. A master of song-like poetic forms, Leino mixed “the archaic and mythic tradition, symbolism, and influences from Friedrich Nietzsche with his romantic concept of the poet as a truth-seeking visionary,” scholars explain. His mastery of the Finnish language was beyond amazing for he dared translate Dante’s works in seamless perfection.

His gift of translation, combined with his ability to infuse the modern with Finnish folk elements, have produced a string of works—mainly about nature, love and despair—reminiscent of the Kalevala (Finnish national epic) and Finland’s most beloved folk songs. Here is a sample from Leino’s “Hymn to Fire:”

“Short time’s to us allotted till our urn.
Living, like furnace flames then let us burn,
High let us in the fire be ascending,
Earth stays below, the spirit's heavenward tending.”

Another popular poem, “Nocture,” first published in Talvi-yo in 1905, shows an interplay of modern and Finnish folk elements.
“I have stopped chasing Jack-o’-Lantern,
I hold gold from the Demon’s mountain
around me life tightens its ring
time stops, the vane has ceased to swing;
the road before me through the gloom
is leading to the unknown room.”
Ilmari Iki-Kianto (May 7, 1874 - April 27, 1970)

Ilmari Iki-Kianto
Like Södergran and Leino, Ilmari Iki-Kianto is a beloved poet in his native Finland. He is best known for his books “Punainen viiva” (1909) and “Ryysyrannan Jooseppi” (1924). What makes him immortal however is when his poem “Lastu lainehilla” (Driftwood or Wood in Water) was used as the lyric by celebrated Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (December 8, 1865 – September 20, 1957) for the last of his Seven Songs, opus (work) 17 for solo voice and piano finished in 1902.

Today, Södergran, Leino and Kianto’s distinct 20th century poetry is made available to a wider audience in fresh editions and translations. Proof of how much Finnish poetry has enriched world literature through the years.

Think About This
Based on the information found in this article, what do you think is the major reason why 20th century Finnish poetry continues to churn out fresh editions and translations in our time?

Edith Södergran.
Edith Södergran’ Fame is Spreading by Stina Katchadourian.
Eino Leino.
Eino Leino.
Jean Sibelius.
Lastu lainehilla.

This article appeared in the 2007 edition of Magica, a High School REference material published by the Diwa Publishing Group.
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