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Johan Ludvig Runeberg

Born February 5, 1804, Pietarsaari. Died May 6, 1877, Porvoo

Master of Philosophy 1827, Imperial Academy of Turku

Home tutor 1822–1826
Docent of Eloquence 1830, Imperial Alexander University
Teacher 1831–1836, the Swedish-language Helsingfors Lyceum
Lektor in Roman and Greek letters 1837–1857 and rector of the Gymnasium at Porvoo 1847–1850

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Written by Tero Juutilainen
Translated by John Calton

From poet of the people to national poet laureate

Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s move to Porvoo (Sw. Borgå) in 1837 meant something like ostracism from the academic world. He was later offered a professorship in Greek letters but he didn’t take it up. Being shut out of academia was no impediment to his success as a poet however. In fact the education he had received at the University, together with his interest in classical literature and poetry, had a great influence on his own poetic output, according to the Finnish historian professor Matti Klinge.

At an early stage, this interest in the classics brought him into the realm of Balkan folk poetry, especially Serbian ballads. These were generally held to be a continuation of the antique culture and were much in vogue. For Runeberg, like the English romantic poets, folk poetry was the poetic muse at its most essential. Runeberg’s view was that poets “should accordingly paint pictures which convey to their readers beauty, not strive after it by the naming of parts.” Depictions of the scenery and Finnish people were typical subjects for Runeberg’s verse.

Besides his own work, he showed a keen interest in his fellow poet Elias Lönnrot's work Kanteletar (‘Muse of the kantele’), based on Karelian folk song, and subsequently his framing of the Finnish folk ballad tradition as the epic poem Kalevala. However, Runeberg left it to Lönnrot to travel the country collecting the songs while he concentrated more on writing his own verse or translating Lönnrot’s into Swedish. In this translation work, it is perhaps worth noting that Runeberg’s command of Finnish wasn’t terribly good. Allegedly, his wife Fredrika said that a friend of his supplied him with literal translations of the Finnish word or words in question. And it was with these rough drafts that Runeberg proceeded to write to translate a portion of Kalevala.

Runeberg published his first collection of poems in 1830, and it was immediately taken up in cultural circles. This first collection included a ballad ‘Bonden Paavo’ (‘Farmer Paavo’), inspired by the rural village where Runeberg had been working a few years earlier as a home tutor.

The best known of Runeberg’s verse is probably The Tales of Ensign Stål ( Sw. Fänrik Ståls sägner) which was published in Swedish in two parts, in 1848 and 1860. The opening stanzas were adapted as the anthem ‘Maamme’ (‘Vårt land’, ‘Our land’). With this, Runeberg had finally secured the accolade of national poet laureate.


  • Citation: Raija Majamaa & Marjut Paulaharju, p. 46.
  • Raija Majamaa & Marjut Paulaharju, J. L. Runeberg. Suomen runoilija. Hämeenlinna: Karisto , 2004.
  • Matti Klinge, ’Runeberg, Johan LudvigNational Biography of Finland. Accessed 19 December,2014. (in Finnish)
  • Wikipedia, ’Johan Ludvig Runeberg’. Accessed 19 December, 2014.
Photo: Kansalliskirjasto, digitoidut sanomalehdet, Borga Tidning 10.3.1847 s. 2.​​​
Photo: Kansalliskirjasto, digitoidut sanomalehdet, Borga Tidning 10.3.1847 s. 2.​​​


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