Saturday, February 10, 2018

Elias Lönnrot, The Kanteletar


Sample Passages: From "My Kantele" (1:1; p. 9):

Truly they lie, they
talk utter nonsense
who say that music
reckon that the kantele
was carved by Väinämöinen
fashioned by a god
out of a great pike's shoulders
from a water-dog's hooked bones:
no, music was made from grief
moulded from sorrow--
its belly out of hard days
its soundboard from endless woes
its strings gathered from torments
and its pegs from other ills.

From "The Orphan" (1:25; p. 14):

The calloo's spirits are low
swimming on the chill water
but the orphan's are lower
walking down the village street.

From "Katri the Fair" (3:15; p. 142):

That strong Riiko's son
the fat boyar's son
went to the end of his field
pressed the butt into the field
turned the point towards the sky
turned himself upon the point
like a dry spruce bough
like a lopped juniper top
and with it he brought about
his doom, met his death
and said while he was going:
'Don't, bridegrooms to come
force another man's daughter
to marry against her will!'

Summary: Finnish poetry is famously dark; "music was made from grief". In the poems in this collection, we find a parade of all the things that can go wrong in life: losing one's parents, poverty, abusive spouses, unfaithful spouses, death in war, losing one's children, losing one's spouse, slanderous gossip, malicious jealousy, nasty-tempered mothers-in-law, endless toil to no avail, disease and plague, famine, cannibalism, murder, rape, damnation, martyrdom, the Crucifixion of Christ. The Finnish winter is cold indeed, and dark indeed.

But as the darkness of clouds makes the escaping rays of sun seem all the more precious, so too the extraordinary darkness of the background makes the rays of joy and goodness stand out in brighter relief. We get all the evils that can come with marriage -- but marriage itself is not an evil; the hope of marrying, the wedding, a good match, the hope to have children, all of these get their passing celebration, and it is not the less bright for being light in the darkness. And so it is with all else. One gets a lovely picture of this in the fifth of the set of poems that Bosley calls "The Ballad of the Virgin Mary". God Himself is dead, killed upon the Cross, thrown into the grave with rocks above him, and guarded by soldiers, and the sun itself, asked by the Virgin, goes seeking to find him, and when it does, it puts forth its power to put the soldiers to sleep, to melt the rocks ice-like to water, and Christ arises like the spring. It is perhaps a flaw in human beings, but there is one thing that guarantees that we will not take for granted the joy of the sun melting the frost, and that is knowing winter.

There's also another side. The darkness is very deep, but so is Finnish humor. It is often humour noir, but black humor is itself an interesting thing. In black humor, we look in the face of something so terrible that one can hardly be amused at it, and yet still, whether with bitterness, or resignation, or a long-sighted fearlessness that cannot be broken, see the incongruity, the absurdity, of it all. And, strange though it may seem, be relieved, and -- sometimes -- even laugh. In 1941, the flagship of the Finnish navy, the Ilmarinen, hit a mine, perhaps more than one, and sank in seven minutes. Two hundred seventy-one Finnish sailors died, drowned as they were trapped within the hull. It was the worst disaster in Finnish naval history, and the nation mourned. And they called the dead Ilmarisen uimaseura, the Ilmarinen Swimming Society. It was well within a long national tradition. It was not a trivialization of the tragedy. It was the sort of humor that can only take its origin in hearts that have been torn in two. Such black humor is naturally kin to the kind of music "made from grief / moulded from sorrow". Sometimes in the face of darkness we smile. Sometimes we sigh. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we hope. Sometimes we sing. And sometimes we mix them all together, and that is what gives us the traditions that Lönnrot tried to represent by the Kanteletar.

Bosley's translation is serviceable, and certainly readable. I think his approach works much less well with these lyric poems than with the more epic Kalevala, although sometimes it rises to simple sublimity. We will have to wait a time yet, I think, until we get translations of these poems that really begin to capture in English the depth of the Finnish, to the extent that it can be done. I hope when it arrives, we get the whole Kanteletar, and not, as here, just selections.

Favorite Passage: From "The Ballad of the Virgin Mary" (3:6; p. 100), the second poem:

On Christmas Day God was born
the best boy when there was frost
in a horse's hay-outhouse
at a rough-hair's manger-end:
an ox spread out straw
a pig rooted up litter
to cover the little boy
to protect the Almighty.
On Christmas Day God was born
the best boy when there was frost:
the moon rose, the sun came up
the dear sunlight woke
and the stars of heaven danced
and the Great Bear made merry
when the Creator was born
and most merciful appeared.

Recommendation: Recommended.


Elias Lönnrot, The Kanteletar, Keith Bosley, tr. Oxford UP (New York: 1992).

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