Poetry and politics


This poem is linked to my blog post last weekend about my smoked reindeer rye quiche recipe which made me think of  Lapland and a beautiful classic Finnish poem by Eino Leino. The poem then lead me to the history of Russian oppression in Finland at the turn of the 20th centrury and unfortunately it felt topical again.

Saana fell By Kanuto90 via Wikimedia Commons

The poem describes the beautiful nature of Lapland and the unique, unrelenting rhythm of seasons, with the intense, short and nightless summer and the protracted Arctic winter that can drive a man to madness.

It talks about the melancholy mind-set of the people, tendency to brood rather than live in the moment. It compares our children and young men who are ready for their graves to shiny and golden old people of other countries - I think he might have had some Mediterranean types in mind.

The poem describes the annual migration of the whooper swan, the magnificent national bird of Finland. Every spring these faithful birds return with their joyous trumpeting sounds from their winter exile to nest with their life-long partner on the exact same lake shore that they left the previous autumn. It is a touching and stunning cycle that will easily make a Finnish eye well up.

By Ken Billington (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
via Wikimedia Commons

But the poem is not really just about Lapland. The Lapland of the poem symbolises the whole of Finland under the oppression from the Tsarist Russia. That time gave birth to the big artistic movement of national romanticism. It became a mighty weapon of passive resistance that increased the Finnish cultural identity and national pride and made us ready to fight for our independence when the day came.

In the end of the poem Leino urges the great ideas, ideals and thoughts of freedom and progress to follow the example of the swans and prays that they return when the winter of oppression has ended.

Whilst writing the post I realised I couldn't find a good translation of the poem online, there may be one out there, but I couldn't find it - I rarely venture outside the first page of Google search results, so I might be to blame. Some translations are literal - telling the story well, but not getting across any of the rhythm of the original poem. And some others take too many liberties with the story, the original words and English grammar. (Not that I presume my grammar to be perfect either.)

So I translated the poem. It would take a native English speaking poet, and a damn good one at that, to do justice to the beauty of the poem. So I freely admit the shortfalls of my work, but I hope I managed to get most of the meaning right, retain some of the rhythm and have some rhyme, although if something had to give it was the rhyming.

Summer of Lapland - poem by Eino Leino

In Lapland all the life blossoms so briefly
Earth, grass and barley, even the dwarf birch
I've felt this often in my heart so deeply
for history of the nation of my birth
Why does all beauty tend to die in our land
And all that's great just withers into mean
Why do so many lose their minds and reason
Why only few make music their ideal
Why everywhere the men fall down before us
Like grass, the men of hope, they all must fail
The men of idea, feeling, turn to earth must 
Or break down in the middle of their work
Elsewhere the silver haired glow bright with fire
The old men shine with light of spirit's sun
Our little babes are born so old and tired
A young man ready for the grave today 
And why do thoughts like these come filling my mind
It is a sign of growing old too soon
Why can't the call of blood be my desire 
Instead I sigh for destinies of men.
Summer of Lapland is the only reason
The thought so quickly fills my mind with gloom
Bird song is short in Lapland, fleeting all fun
And glory of the flowers, gladness too
The only lasting reign is winter's power
The thoughts but swiftly rest here in mid flight 
And then anew set on their sunny journey
And leave the icy Lappish land behind
White birds, you welcome quests of Lapland's summer
Great ideas, you receive my greetings warm 
Stop here and stay to build your nest among us
even if lands of South call you away
Please let the faithful swans become your teachers
They leave in autumn and return in spring
Our lakes and shores are safe and calm and peaceful 
And sheltering the silent side of fell
With rushing wings across the sky go soaring
Create great deeds and shine a light on lands
But when you see the winter is withdrawing
I pray, I beg, I ask oh please return

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