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).

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Voyages Extraordinaires #28: Un billet de loterie

"What time is it?" inquired Dame Hansen, shaking the ashes from her pipe, the last curling rings from which were slowly disappearing between the stained rafters overhead.

"Eight o'clock, mother," replied Hulda.

"It isn't likely that any travelers will come to-night. The weather is too stormy."

"I agree with you. At all events, the rooms are in readiness, and if any one comes, I shall be sure to hear them."

"Has your brother returned?"

"Not yet."

"Didn't he say he would be back to-night?"

Dame Hansen owns a little inn, which she and her chidren, Hulda and Joel, run. Hulda is waiting for her betrothed, Ole Kamp, to return from his last big sailing trip, on which he hoped to earn enough money to marry and start their life together. But the days stretch out; no word of Ole or his ship comes, even after the day they were supposed to come into port. The only clue that anyone has been able to discover is a lottery ticket in a bottle, on which Ole Kamp wrote a last, brief note for Hulda in the midst of a storm. But Sylvius Hogg, professor of law, parliamentarian, and friend of the family still searches in hope of finding him, although as days pass his chances of being alive become slimmer than the chances of winning the capital prize in a lottery.

The Lottery Ticket, also translated under the title, Ticket No. "9672", of all the tales by Verne that I have read, is one of my favorites, but every time I read it it strikes me that a great many people, picking it up as one of Verne's voyages extraordinaires, are bound to be a little disappointed with it. The story itself has no scientific or exploratory expedition, no robinsonade, no cutting-edge invention, no massive feat of adventure. It occurs entirely in Norway, and, indeed, almost entirely in and around the tiny hamlet of Dal; the most consequential trip is to Christiania (modern-day Oslo). But it fits. First, we forget that on all of these voyages extraordinaires that it is not only the people whose lives are in danger who are at risk of losing something; there are often people living quieter lives back home who will feel the loss. But more importantly, an extraordinary voyage is not made by traveling a long way or by doing a difficult thing at improbable odds. We all know the hope with a one-in-a-million chance. We have no more ability to guarantee success on our long shots than to guarantee that a ticket wins the lottery. But, win or lose, what makes it an extraordinary voyage is that we face the outcome with hope, decency, and the fellow-feeling that binds us together to do what is worth doing.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Dark Eyes or Blue

Sweet Poets of the Gentle Antique Line
by J. H. Reynolds

Sweet poets of the gentle antique line,
That made the hue of beauty all eterne;
And gave earth's melody a silver turn,--
Where did you steal your art so right divine?--
Sweetly you memoired every golden twine
Of your ladies' tresses:--teach me how to spurn
Death's lone decaying and oblivion stern
From the sweet forehead of a lady mine.

The golden clusters of enamouring hair
Glow'd in poetic pictures sweetly well;--
Why should not tresses dusk, that are so fair
On the live brow, have an eternal spell
In poesy?--dark eyes are dearer far
Than orbs that mock the hyacinthine-bell.

Blue! 'Tis the Life of Heaven
by John Keats

  Written in answer to a Sonnet ending thus:--
  Dark eyes are dearer far
  Than those that mock the hyacinthine-bell--
  by J. H. Reynolds.

Blue! ‘Tis the life of heaven,–the domain
Of Cynthia,–the wide palace of the sun,–
The tent of Hesperus and all his train,–
The bosomer of clouds, gold, grey and dun.
Blue! ‘Tis the life of waters–ocean
And all its vassal streams: pools numberless
May rage, and foam, and fret, but never can
Subside if not to dark-blue nativeness.

Blue! gentle cousin of the forest green,
Married to green in all the sweetest flowers,
Forget-me-not,–the blue-bell,–and, that queen
Of secrecy, the violet: what strange powers
Hast thou, as a mere shadow! But how great,
When in an Eye thou art alive with fate!

Keats and Reynolds had been introduced to each other by Leigh Hunt, and they became very close friends. Some great poetic talents (Edna St. Vincent Millay comes to mind as an especially clear example) ruin the lesser poetic talents around them by being so overwhelming; but with Keats it was the opposite, and he often brought out the best in other poets, and let them draw out the best in him, and Keats's correspondence and interaction with Reynolds is the best example of this feature of his poetic career. Keats was infinitely the better poet, but Reynolds was much wittier (he became best known for his satirical work) and, equally important, very generous to friends, so it is not surprising that they became and remained friends. Reynolds lived longer; and he insisted that his tombstone read, "The Friend of Keats".

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Neither Evening Nor Morning Star

And the law bids us do both the acts of a brave man (e.g. not to desert our post nor take to flight nor throw away our arms), and those of a temperate man (e.g. not to commit adultery nor to gratify one's lust), and those of a good-tempered man (e.g. not to strike another nor to speak evil), and similarly with regard to the other virtues and forms of wickedness, commanding some acts and forbidding others; and the rightly-framed law does this rightly, and the hastily conceived one less well. This form of justice, then, is complete virtue, but not absolutely, but in relation to our neighbour. And therefore justice is often thought to be the greatest of virtues, and 'neither evening nor morning star' is so wonderful; and proverbially 'in justice is every virtue comprehended'. And it is complete virtue in its fullest sense, because it is the actual exercise of complete virtue. It is complete because he who possesses it can exercise his virtue not only in himself but towards his neighbour also; for many men can exercise virtue in their own affairs, but not in their relations to their neighbour.

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics V.1

Monday, February 05, 2018

What Is Needful

When Aquinas and Augustine discuss "the needs of this life," whether in the context of food or money, they emphasize not just what is necessary for bare subsistence, but also what is necessary for living a life "becoming" or appropriate to human beings. The point is not to live on crusts of bread with bare walls and threadbare clothes. The point is that a fully human life is lived in a way free from being enslaved to our stuff. Our possessions are meant to serve our needs and our humanness, rather than our lives being centered around service to our possessions and our desires for them. What is "needful," even in this more expansive sense, is meant to be a limiting rule, so that our acquisitiveness does not expand without any bounds.

[Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, Glittering Vices, Brazos (Grand Rapids, MI: 2009) p. 106.]

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Music on My Mind

Peter Hollens, "The Parting Glass". One of the true greats among all folk songs. We know that some version of it existed by the very early seventeenth century, because we have quotations from it in letters and the like; it was first printed in full in the eighteenth century, and very few things have had its staying power. It captures almost perfectly part of human experience itself, a small part, but a genuine part. My favorite version is still George Donaldson's, but this one works fairly well.