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Saima (Rauha Maria) Harmaja (1913-1937)


Finnish poet, who published her central collections of poems in five years period from 1932 to 1937. Saima Harmaja poured out her heart in her poetry and died young, and rapidly gained a cult status amongst young female readers. Her works have been published more posthumously than during her life time.

"A horrible dog, it is barking
Into the darkness black as the tomb."

(in 'The Freezing Lake,' Voices from Finland, edited by Elli Tompuri, 1947)

Saima Harmaja was born in Helsingissä into a well-to-do family. Her father, Leo Harmaja (1880-1949), and mother, Laura Harmaja (1881-1954), were both economists and university teachers. Leo Harmaja had a distinguished career as a civil servant. He was editor of Kauppalehti and professor of ecomomics, and published a number of books in the field of social sciences. Saima's mother was the daughter of the famous poet Arvid Genetz. She wrote a number of pioneering artices in domestic science for the magazine Kotiliesi, but also published non-fiction.

In 'Oma elämäkerta,' an autobiographical article, Saima Harmaja tells that she began to write prose and poems at early age. She also mentions her depression and weak health, and that she did not attend school for a year. In the 1920s Harmaja started to contribute to the children's magazine Pääskynen, edited by Helmi Setälä, but otherwise her parents did not encourage her writing. She suffered bouts of depression was sent, at the age of thirteen, to the Tyynelä rest home in Oitti. After this, she spent nearly every year a few weeks in some rest home or hospital  to recover. Moreover, like so many teenage girls, Harmaja was obsessed with her weight and her big nose made her miserable.

At the age of sixteen Harmaja made with her mother a journey abroad to cure her Weltschmerz. To express her feelings he began to kept a diary, where she showed the sense of humour that lacs from her other works. She also dated her poems.

Harmaja records her emotions nearly daily. "Life is so empty, empty. There is nothing to fill it. Everything is meaningless." (on June 13, 1927) "Today I realized I must die." (on June 16, 19327) Watching a military parade, she waves enthusiastically the Finnish flag with other children for General Mannerheim, and soon she fights with her father, who tells her to focus more on school work than writing poetry. She composes a poem in a state mania and afterwards feels herself exhausted.

Encouraged by her sister Outi, who was at home her most trustworthy critic, Harmaja joined the young literary association Nuoren Voiman Liitto at the age of fifteen. In this period the works of Edith Södergran, Uuno Kailas, Aleksi Kivi and Dante were especially important for her writing aspirations. The young Mika Waltari encouraged Harmaja in her writing, and she admired him greatly for the rest of her life. However, Harmaja was kissed first time by another young man named Jake (Jaakko Holma) – she was 19 at that time. He became Harmaja's only great love, and she dealt their relationship in several poems. "Nämä kädet, vain sinua hyväilleet, / ei kosketa toista miestä. " (These hands, caressed you only, / will never touch another man.) Jake is an athletic type of person, not interested in poetry, but in sports, and falling in love with him is a puzzle for her. Holma ended their affair several times.

In 1932 Harmaja graduated from a secondary school and started her studies at the University of Helsinki. In autumn 1933 she entered the University of Tarto. Harmaja attended lectures on Dante and read half of a short story by Tuglas. During this period she met Aino Kallas, whose polished, diplomatic behavior she found false. Harmaja's first collection of poems, Huhtikuu (Aril), came out in 1932. Tauno Nurmela gave the work in Kaiku good reviews and referred to Harmaja's grandfather Arvid Genetz. Elmer Diktonius made a remark of Harmaja's "Victorian" tones but considered her nature poems fresh. Huhtikuu was followed by Sateen jälkeen (1935, After rain), Hunnutettu (1936) and Kaukainen maa (1937). All these works did not gain much attention – the leftist press was critical.

Ensimmäinen kevätpäivä jää
vielä väreilemään yllä pihan.
Pieni talvilintu livertää
uusin äänin, uupumatta ihan.

(in 'Ensimmäinen kevätpäivä,' from Kaukainen maa, 1937)

In 1935 Harmaja made a hopefully journey to Italy, but returned to Finland with worsening health problems. While being treated in a sanatorium, she continued to write poems, in which she shared Edith Södergran's search of "the land that is not." With her health becoming frailer, Harmaja's weight dropped from 54,5 kg to 32 kg.

Saima Harmaja died of tuberculosis at home on April 21, 1937. Most likely she died a virgin. Just before the death, she noted in her diary the arrival of the first day of the spring. The diary, Elämän auetessa, came out in 1939. Harmaja's Kootut runot ja kehitys runoilijaksi (1938) was edited by her mother who influenced deeply the poet's posthumous image. Harmaja's brother Tapani, a fighter pilot, was killed in 1940 in the Winter War. Her younger sister Kirsti Toppari (1923-2018) made a career as a journalist and editor of the Finnish Donald Duck magazine, Aku Ankka. Toppari edited the diaries Varhainen kevät (1977) and Palava elämä (1985) for publication.

As Kaarlo Sarkia (1902-1945), Harmaja wrote in traditional rhyme. She was not interested in free verse but used skillfully existing poetic techniques. Her favorite subjects were changing seasons, young love, suffering, and death. Perhaps unjustly, critics later labelled her works as "girls poetry" because of her confessional tone and accounts of her inner feelings.

For further reading: 'Oma elämäkerta' by Saima Harmaja, in Kootut runot (1938); 'Saima Harmaja,' in Uuno Kailaasta Aila Merilutoon, edited  by Toivo Pekkanen and Reino Rauanheimo (1947); Voices from Finland, edited by Elli Tompuri (1947); Saima Harmaja - legenda jo eläissään by Kaarina Helakisa, (1977); Saima Harmaja: Palava elämä, ed. by Kirsti Toppari (1985); 'Poets of the 1930s' by Markku Envall, in A History of Finland's Literature, edited by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Koskettavia naiskohtaloita Suomen historiasta by Caius Kajanti (2000); Saima Harmaja, runoilijoista runoilijoin, edited by Päivi Istala (2007); Kirjeitä Saima Harmajalle, edited by Päivi Istala (2013) Saima Harmaja – Sydänten runoilija 1913-1937 by Ritva Ylönen (2019)  - See also: Frederic Mistral

Selected works:

  • Huhtikuu: runoja, 1932 [April] 
  • Sateen jälkeen: runoja, 1935 [After rain]
  • Hunnutettu: runoja, 1936 [Veiled]
  • Kaukainen maa: runoja, 1937 [A distant land] 
  • Kootut runot ja kehitys runoilijaksi: päiväkirjaotteiden valossa, 1938 (edited by Laura Harmaja)
    - Tidig kallelse. Dagbok och dikter (övers. av Joel Rundt, 1947)
  • Elämän auetessa: Koulutytön päiväkirjoja, 1939
  • Päiväkirjan lehtiä vv. 1933-37, 1942
  • Valikoima runoja, 1958
  • Varhainen kevät: lisälehtiä Saima Harmajan päiväkirjoista, 1977 (edited by Kirsti Toppari) [Early spring]
  • Kootut runot, 1984 (14th ed.)
  • Palava elämä: päiväkirjaa, kirjeitä, 1985 (edited by Kirsti Toppari) [This burning life] 
  • Sydämeni soi: valikoima runoja ja päiväkirjaotteita, 1988
  • Aamusateen maa, 1988 (edited by Aino-Kaarina Mäkisalo)
  • Läheisyys, 1994
  • Kootut runot sekä runoilijakehitys päiväkirjojen ja kirjeiden valossa (1942/2013), 2013

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Some rights reserved Petri Liukkonen (author) & Ari Pesonen. 2008-2018.

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