Runeberg, Johan Ludvig

views updated May 11 2018

Johan Ludvig Runeberg

Hailed as Finland's national poet although writing in Swedish, Johan Ludvig Runeberg (1804–1877) significantly contributed to the Finnish people's sense of national identity and patriotism. One of Runeberg's most famous works was Fänrik Stål Sägner, an epic saga based on the Swedish-Finnish war against Russia waged from 1808-1809. The first ballad in that lengthy epic was set to music following World War II and became the national anthem of Finland.

The eldest of six children, Runeberg was born on February 5, 1804, to Lorenz Ulrik Runeberg and Anna Maria (Malm) Runeberg in Jakobstad, Finland. His grandparents had emigrated from Sweden to Finland, and his father was a ship captain who had once studied theology. Just four years after Runeberg's birth, war broke out with Russia. The resulting 1809 Treaty of Hamina broke the almost 700-year-old political ties between Sweden and Finland, attaching the latter to the Russian empire as a relatively autonomous grand duchy. The long-assimilated Finns, which had shared a written language and literature with Sweden, were thrown into a state of flux as they struggled to build a new identity and culture.

After some early schooling in Jacobstad, Runeberg was sent at the age of eight to live with an uncle and obtain further education in Oulu. He spent three years on more primary studies before attending the Vasa Gymnasium to prepare for higher education. Seven years later, in the autumn of 1822, Runeberg entered the University of Turku. Coincidentally, his class also included such future luminaries as Johan Vilhelm Snellman, who was to have a great impact as a philosophical activist and writer, and Elias Lonnrot, who was destined to create Finland's national epic, the Kalevala. Indeed, the three, along with fellow student and future author Zachris Topelius, had integral roles in establishing both a Finnish literature and a national identity.

While in college, Runeberg subsidized himself by working as a tutor for the children of wealthy families during the summers. His time spent in central Finland in that pursuit acquainted him with the peasantry, who spoke Finnish; the educated, such as Runeberg, spoke Swedish at the time. He also learned to appreciate the spectacular local scenery, and returned to Turku with stories about the war of 1808. All these influences affected him deeply and eventually surfaced in his poetry.

By the time Runeberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Turku in 1827, he had already begun to contribute poetry to local newspapers. Shortly after graduation, he moved to Helsinki, where his alma mater had relocated after a great fire in Turku. There, he began to make his mark on his future and the future of Finland as well.

Early Career and Marriage

In 1830, Runeberg took a job as secretary to the council of the University of Turku, then located in Helsinki. That same year, he also published his first collection of poems, simply titled Dikter. The work drew on his experiences in central Finland, reflecting his admiration of the landscape and its simple denizens. One of those rural characters, Farmer Paavo, was depicted as the epitome of working-class fortitude as he uncomplainingly suffered setback after setback and was reduced to eating bread made from pine bark. While some came to criticize Runeberg's sympathetic ideal of the peasantry as paternalistic, Paavo nonetheless was seen as the very personification of the Finnish concept of sisu, or endurance, a perception that lingered until the outbreak of the country's civil war in 1917.

In 1831 Runeberg married Fredrika Charlotta Tengström, daughter of the archbishop of Finland and a writer who would later become a pioneer in Finnish historical novels. The couple had eight children, one of whom, Anna, died in 1833, and another, Walter Runeberg, who went on to become a sculptor of note and in 1885 installed a statue commemorating his father in Helsinki. To support his growing family, Runeberg took a job teaching at a local secondary school, and the newlyweds also began to take in lodgers, including Topelius, to make ends meet. In 1832, he published the very well received Elgskyttarne (The Elk Hunters) and founded a literary newspaper, the Helsingfors Morgonblad. The paper went on to become quite influential in Finland and Sweden, and counted among its prolific contributors none other than Runeberg's old classmate, Lonnrot.

Runeberg continued to publish and gain prominence as a poet. Additionally, he accepted a position as a professor of Latin and Greek literature at Borgå College in 1837, and moved to its small town, where he would make his home for the rest of his days. In 1839 he received a gold medal from the Swedish Academy for his poem "The Grave in Perrho."

Gossip and Flattery

Runeberg stirred up his sleepy new hometown of Borgå in a number of ways. First, he was founding editor of the Borgå Tidning, which published his liberal views and instigated one of the largest religious debates of the time after Runeberg criticized the conservatism of the church. Second, tongues wagged over a suspected illicit relationship between the poet and the much-younger daughter of the head pastor of Porvoo. Thirdly, Runeberg's disciplinary style as a teacher was judged harsh and rigid by some parents, straining relationship in a few more quarters. Despite all the small-town mutterings, however, Runeberg found his popularity and celebrity continue to blossom.

1841 saw the release of Runeberg's poem on Russian life, Nadeschda, as well as another idyll of Finnish life titled Christmas Eve. In 1843 a third volume of his poems appeared, and in 1844 a cycle of unrhymed verse called Kung Fjalar was published. Runeberg had become one of the most esteemed poets in Finland and his most popular effort had not yet been written.

Wrote Fänrik St ål S ägner

Runeberg was named rector of Borgå College in 1947. The following year, he published what was to become his best known work, Fänrik Stål Sägner (Tales of Ensign Stål). The classical epic poem was composed of 35 heroic ballads, and set during the 1808-1809 war with Russia, an era that had first captured Runeberg's imagination during his tutoring days. The poem's themes of humanity and patriotism even passed muster with the Russian censor before its release, and its mission to stir feelings of Finnish pride and nationalism was overwhelmingly successful. The book was hugely popular, and Runeberg was promptly dubbed the national poet of Finland. Finns were so smitten with the saga that many were moved to send the poet more tales of the war, which led to an expanded version of the work in 1860. Its more immediate impact, of instilling a sense of a Finnish national identity, was illustrated most aptly on May 13, 1948. On that day, a musical version of the first ballad by composer Fredrik Pacius of the University of Helsinki, titled Our Land, was debuted by a university choir in Helsinki. Pacius himself conducted, and the crowd was moved to tears as Finland's national anthem was born.

The first two stanzas of Fänrik Stål Sägner, published on The Swedish Finn Historical Society Website, give an indication as to why its effect was so great: "Our land, our land, our fatherland, Let the dear words ring forth! No hills to heaven their heights expand, No valley dips, seas wash no strand, More cherished than our home far north, Than this our native land. Our land is poor, it has no hold On those who lust for gain, And strangers pass it proud and cold, But we, we treasure every grain, For us, with moor and fell and main, It is a land of gold."

Fänrik Stål Sägner continued to be plumbed for cultural and political inspiration well into the twentieth century. Its verses were cited by restless proponents of Finnish independence from Russia and used in political debate. Such lines as "Let not one devil cross the bridge," were extracted and used as rallying slogans in both Finland's civil war and World War II. In sum, Runeberg's epic was a tremendous contribution to his country.

Later Years

In the wake of his artistic and historic triumph, Runeberg continued his duties at the college, taking time out in 1851 to make his only journey out of Finland, a trip to Sweden. In 1852 he moved his family into a new home, the house eventually becoming the first Finnish museum dedicated to an individual when it was opened to the public in 1882. He also kept busy throughout the 1850s with such projects as the writing of psalms and hymns, and an 1854 compilation of his prose titled Smärre Berättelser. Neither did Finland's national poet forget his literary roots, publishing such pieces as the comedic Kan ej in 1862 and the more successful Kungarna på Salamis in 1863. Always an avid fisherman and hunter, Runeberg maintained those pursuits as well. Then fate dealt the inspiring bard a blow even his enviable vigor could not withstand.

In 1865 the 61-year-old Runeberg suffered a debilitating stroke that left him severely incapacitated for the remainder of his life. His devastated wife tended to him 12 hours a day, reading aloud and easing his suffering in any way she could. He died on May 6, 1877, 40 years to the day after his taking the position at Borgå College. Runeberg was buried on May 17, and the day was declared a national day of mourning. Indeed, so numerous were the floral tributes alone that Finnish flower shops ran out and more flowers had to be ordered from Russia. The grateful Finns did not let the passing of their national poet go unnoticed.

Time has not diminished Runeburg's influence. His birth date of February 5 became celebrated as "Runeberg Day" and was marked by feasting on little cakes named in his honor. Myriad musical compositions, including many by distinguished Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, were based on his poems. Writings were collected and published posthumously. The resonance and influence of Fänrik Stål Sägner continued to echo long after Runeberg's passing, and as late as the twenty-first century, his work remained still widely read in Finland.


Nordic Business Report, January 27, 2004.


"Finnish National Anthem," Virtual Finland Website, (January 8, 2005).

"Home of J. L. Runeberg," Museums in East Uusimaa Website, (January 8, 2005).

"Johan Ludvig Runeberg," Books and Writers Website, (January 8, 2005).

"Johan Ludvig Runeberg," Swedish Finn Historical Society Website,–articles/Pelo20.htm (January 8, 2005).

"Mythical Runeberg,",–runeberg.htm (January 8, 2005).

Project Runeberg Website, (January 8, 2005).

Runeberg, Johan Ludvig

views updated May 17 2018

Runeberg, Johan Ludvig (1804–77) Finnish-Swedish poet. Among his works are two epics, The Moose Hunters (1832) and Hanna (1836), and the patriotic poems of the Russo-Swedish War, Songs of Ensign Stal (1848–60).