Go Back

Fredrik Cygnaeus

Born April 1, 1807, Hämeenlinna. Died February 7, 1881, Helsinki.

Master of Arts, Imperial Alexander University, 1832

Vice-rector, Imperial Alexander  University, 1865-66
Dean, Division for History and Philology, Imperial Alexander University, 1856-67
Professor of Aesthetics and Modern Finnish Literature, Imperial Alexander University, 1854-67
Docent, History, 1839-54, acting Professor, Imperial Alexander University, 1848-53
Rector, Helsingin yläalkeiskoulu (Helsinki secondary school), 1839-52
Teacher, political and civic studies, Hamina military cadet school, 1833-37

President, Finnish Art Society, 1863-78
'Curator', Ostrobothnian student ‘nation’, 1838-49

Counsellor of State, 1867
Knight, Order of the Polar Star, 1867
Order of Merit (for service to the state), 1865
Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, Imperial Alexander University, 1860
Knight (2nd class), Order of St Stanislaus, 1856
Memorial Plaque, Hämeenlinna, 1948
Postage stamp, 1948

Photo: Helsingin yliopistomuseo / Timo Huvilinna
Written by Tomas Sjöblom
Translated by John Calton

Poet and historian

Born into a well-heeled family of clergymen, Fredrik Cygnaeus enrolled in the Imperial Academy of Turku in 1823. His studies, encompassing history, literary studies and modern languages, were protracted: it was not until 1832 that he graduated from the Imperial Alexander University.

Upon graduation Cygnaeus was appointed the following year to a teacher’s post in the Hamina military cadet school on the south-eastern Finnish coast, teaching history, geography and statistics. In Hamina he forged new contacts with the officer class. Previously he had many contacts with the aristocracy and the upper echelons of the civil service.

Cygnaeus returned to Helsinki in 1838, and the following year he was made a docent in general history. At the same time he was appointed rector of the Helsingin yläalkeiskoulu, Helsinki’s secondary school. For his docentship he published a doctoral thesis on the historical figure of Hannibal. Reflecting Cygnaeus’ desire to praise great men, the study was hagiographical in nature, dealing with large themes, and was more an extended speech than an academic treatise. This was a style to be repeated in several other of Cygnaeus’ works.

Cygnaeus saw himself as first and foremost a historian. In the introduction to a work dealing with the 1741-2 war, he laid emphasis on how Finland should be treated as a distinct historical entity. In this respect his scholarship was groundbreaking, which influenced the historical understanding of people like Georg Zacharias Forsmanin (later known as Yrjö Sakari Yrjö-Koskinen).

Cygnaeus was part of the conspicuous set in the 1830s who were steeped in idealism and romantic aesthetics. He was a recognised literary and art critic and wrote poetry, publishing his first collection Jääkynttilät (‘Ice-candles’) in 1837. The critics judged his poetry to be excessively prolix and meandering. He was not put off by this criticism however, and continued to publish his wordy verse.

Cygnaeus was also an acting professor of history between 1848 and 1853, and was then chosen for the chair of Aesthetics and Modern Finnish Literature, a post he held until 1867. During this time he also served as dean of the division of history and language sciences. He was also the vice-rector of the University in 1865/6. Cygnaeus was a well-regarded orator and lecturer, with a spontaneous style, without papers or notes. He retired after almost thirty years of service to the University in 1867.

Painting: Helsingin yliopistomuseo / Timo Huvilinna.​
Painting: Helsingin yliopistomuseo / Timo Huvilinna.​


Go Back