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Finnish Literature

by Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edition

The earliest writer in the Finnish vernacular was Michael Agricola (1506-1557), who published an A B C Book in 1544, and, as bishop of Åbo, a number of religious and educational works. A version of the New Testament in Finnish was printed by Agricola in 1548, and some books of the Old Testament in 1552. A complete Finnish Bible was published at Stockholm in 1642. The dominion of the Swedes was very unfavourable to the development of anything like a Finnish literature, the poets of Finland preferring to write in Swedish and so secure a wider audience. It was not until, in 1835, the national epos of Finland, the Kalewala (q.v.), was introduced to readers by the exertions of Elias Lönnrot (q.v.), that the Finnish language was used for literary composition. Lönnrot also collected and edited the works of the peasant-poets P. Korhonen (1775-1840) and Pentti Lyytinen, with an anthology containing the improvisations of eighteen other rustic bards. During the last quarter of the 19th century there was an ever-increasing literary activity in Finland, and it took the form less and less of the publication 387of Swedish works, but more and more that of examples of the aboriginal vernacular. At the present time, in spite of the political troubles, books in almost every branch of research are found in the language, mainly translations or adaptations. We meet with, during the present century, a considerable number of names of poets and dramatists, no doubt very minor, as also painters, sculptors and musical composers. At the Paris International Exhibition of 1878 several native Finnish painters and sculptors exhibited works which would do credit to any country; and both in the fine and applied arts Finland occupied a position thoroughly creditable. An important contribution to a history of Finnish literature is Krohn’s Suomenkielinen runollisuns ruotsinvallan aikana (1862). Finland is wonderfully rich in periodicals of all kinds, the publications of the Finnish Societies of Literature and of Sciences and other learned bodies being specially valuable. A great work in the revival of an interest in the Finnish language was done by the Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (the Finnish Literary Society), which from the year 1841 has published a valuable annual, Suomi. The Finnish Literary Society has also published a new edition of the works of the father of Finnish history, Henry Gabriel Porthan (died 1804). A valuable handbook of Finnish history was published at Helsingfors in 1869-1873, by Yrjö Koskinen, and has been translated into both Swedish and German. The author was a Swede, Georg Forsman, the above form being a Finnish translation. Other works on Finnish history and some important works in Finnish geography have also appeared. In language we have Lönnrot’s great Finnish-Swedish dictionary, published by the Finnish Literary Society. Dr Otto Donner’s Comparative Dictionary of the Finno-Ugric Languages (Helsingfors and Leipzig) is in German. In imaginative literature Finland has produced several important writers of the vernacular. Alexis Stenwall (“Kiwi”) (1834-1872), the son of a village tailor, was the best poet of his time; he wrote popular dramas and an historical romance, The Seven Brothers (1870). Among recent playwrights Mrs Minna Canth (1844-1897) has been the most successful. Other dramatists are E.F. Johnsson (1844-1895), P. Cajander (b. 1846), who translated Shakespeare into Finnish, and Karl Bergbom (b. 1843). Among lyric poets are J.H. Erkko (b. 1849), Arwi Jännes (b. 1848) and Yrjö Weijola (b. 1875). The earliest novelist of Finland, Pietari Päivärinta (b. 1827), was the son of a labourer; he is the author of a grimly realistic story, His Life. Many of the popular Finnish authors of our day are peasants. Kauppis Heikki was a wagoner; Alkio Filander a farmer; Heikki Maviläinen a smith; Juhana Kokko (Kyösti) a gamekeeper. The most gifted of the writers of Finland, however, is certainly Juhani Aho (b. 1861), the son of a country clergyman. His earliest writings were studies of modern life, very realistically treated. Aho then went to reside in France, where he made a close study of the methods of the leading French novelists of the newer school. About the year 1893 he began to publish short stories, some of which, such as EnrisThe Fortress of MatthiasThe Old Man of Korpela and Finland’s Flag, are delicate works of art, while they reveal to a very interesting degree the temper and ambitions of the contemporary Finnish population. It has been well said that in the writings of Juhani Aho can be traced all the idiosyncrasies which have formed the curious and pathetic history of Finland in recent years. A village priest, Juho Reijonen (b. 1857), in tales of somewhat artless form, has depicted the hardships which poverty too often entails upon the Finn in his country life. Tolstoy has found an imitator in Arwid Järnefelt (b. 1861). Santeri Ingman (b. 1866) somewhat naïvely, but not without skill, has followed in the steps of Aho. It would be an error to exaggerate either the force or the originality of these early developments of a national Finnish literature, which, moreover, are mostly brief and unambitious in character. But they are eminently sincere, and they have the great merit of illustrating the local aspects of landscape and temperament and manners.