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Lauri (Sakari) Viljanen (1900-1984)


Finnish poet, biographer, critic, one of the most prominent literary critics in Helsingin Sanomat from the 1930s. Viljanen was a member of the literary group Tulenkantajat (The Fire Bearers) with Olavi Paavolainen, Katri Vala, Elina Vaara, Viljo Kajava, Ilmari Pimiä and Yrjö Jylhä. As a poet Viljanen was considered somewhat impersonal, but as an essayist he was highly respected.

"Harva kansa varmaan on yhtä luottavaisesti kuin Suomen kansa kuunnellut kirjallisuuden salaperäistä merkkikieltä etsiessään varmuutta omasta erikoislaadustaan ja historiallisesta tehtävästään. Toisille - aikaisemmin kypsyneille -eurooppalaisille kansoille, pienillekin, sanokaamme menneisyyden valtiollis-sotilaalliset teot ja johtajapersoonallisuudet ovat merkinneet enemmän, ja ne ovat löytäneet näistä itsetuntemuksen ja itsetunnon lähteitä. Suomen kansalle elävä sana, vähitellen myös kirjoitetussa asussaa, on ollut yhä pätevämpänä takeena siitä, että sen yksilöllisyys, sen 'sielu' ja 'henki', ei voi kadota maailmasta." (from 'Kirja ja sota', 1942)

Lauri Viljanen was born in Kaarina, the son of carpenter Stefan Viljanen (until 1895 Wikman) and Aina Sofia Mantere, a farmer's daughter. At lycée (Turun Suomalainen Klassillinen Lyseo) Viljanen was a good student, with exceptional talents in languages. He also edited the school magazine, tried his had as a painter, and visited exhibitions. For a period he studied at Turku Art Association's School of Drawing. Especially he admired the work of Claude Corot and Tyko Sallinen. Viljanen's favorite authors included Nietzsche, Giacomo Leopardi, and later Goethe – his first poems Viljanen wrote at the age of 13.

After the obligatory military service, Viljanen entered the University of Turku in 1922, but dropped then his studies and devoted himself to writing. As a poet Viljanen began under the influence of V.A. Koskenniemi, his teacher at the university. Through his career, Viljanen remained more a traditionalist than a revolutionary, but he was also open-minded to new forms of expression. His first collection of poems was Auringon purjeet (1924), full of zest for life. Koskenniemi's half-hearted review of the book in the newspaper Uusi Aura depressed for a period the aspiring poet. He later said that "The first generation of poets in independent Finland had had a close experience of wartime anguish, poverty, and ugliness at a time of their development when their minds were most impressionable. . . . In the atmosphere of new liberty, they were ov erwhelmed by the idea that everything that was evil was behind and that the building of the Athens of beauty, so to say, could earnestly begin." (A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas, 1973, p. 294)

Between the years 1921 and 1923, Viljanen worked at the university's library and wrote in his spare time. His reviews appeared in Turun Sanomat and Uusi Aura. For a year, he was a teacher in Hamina (1924-25) and contributed to the magazine Aamulehti (1925-26). While in Hamina he found the works of the French writer Paul Valéry and translated his long poem 'Le cimetière marin' into Finnish. When Olavi Paavolainen held a "poetic masquerade" at his house in Vienola, Viljanen played the role of the merchant of Bagdad; his friend Yrjö Jylhä was a Spanish toreador. Elina Vaara, whom he dated but who was also attracted by Jylhä, was there too. Together with Jylhä, Vaara, Katri Vala, and Lauri, Pimiä, he published a collection of poems, entitled Hurmioituneet kasvot (1925), which received a negative review by Uuno Kailas.

Poetry formed only one aspect of Viljanen's literary career – he was also one of the leading literary critics of his generation. Viljanen settled in 1926 in Helsinki, where he contributed to the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, the leading liberal newspaper. His own room in the upper floor formed a legendary meeting place for writers. Viljanen was keenly attentive to cultural trends in Europe. In Merkkivaloja (1929) he introduced Henri de Montherlant to Finnish readers. Viljanen considered him as a model for young, sporting people. At least once, Viljanen tried his hand in the javelin. With Vaara and Erkki Vala,  he travelled in 1929 to Paris.

Viljanen was married from 1926 to 1930 to the writer Elina Vaara (1903-80), who turned Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered and Dante's Divine Comedy into Finnish. They shared similar background – both rejected modernism and favored traditional lyrical expression, were active in the literary association Nuoren Voiman Liitto, and had the same publisher, WSOY. Vaara fell in love with the writer Mika Waltari in 1926, when she was engaged with Viljanen, but months later their marriage, anyhow, began happily. Viljanen wrote for her some of his most beautiful love poems. "Sun suusi suloinen kuin nuori kukka on – / maan aran kevään voi sen tuoksu yksin tuoda. / Sun silmäs vihertää kuin meri pohjaton – / vain niissä syvyyden voi villin unhon juoda." (from 'Serenadi.' in Tähtikeinu, 1926) Viljanen's essay on Vaara, published in Lyyrillinen minä (1959), was a warm and insightful portrayal of her development as a writer from the 1920s to the 1950s. However, Viljanen did not even hint to his earlier relationship with her. Originally the text was written as an introduction to Vaara's selected poems from 1959, but she had rejected it.

Viljanen spent the summer of 1934 in Travemünde in the German-Nordic writer's home. During this visit he married Tyyne Maria (Kaima) Vuori (1901-1977), whose brother was the artist Ilmari Vuori. In his most important collection of essays, entitled Taisteleva humanismi  (1936), Viljanen introduced the phrase "fighting humanism" to Finnish. He criticized false and old-fashioned values and the oppressive atmosphere of cultural life. He advocated a return to bourgeois, liberal values, which he saw threatened by class struggle, national isolation, and the passivity of educated people to examine the traumatic experience of the Civil War of 1917-18. "Nobody doubts that the greatest ideal of modern Europe is the feeling of togetherness..." (from Taisteleva humanismi, 1936) His views had a deep influence on Finnish literature in the 1930s and early 1940s, during the period when German influence with its totalitarian ideology gained footing among the cultural and political élite.

Viljanen's Näköala vuorelta (1938), a collection of poems, received a state award. He prophesied that soon a "cry of hate will cut the air," and the summer of the earth will be torn to pieces by furious metal. One of the poems, 'Uusi Don Quijote' (the New Don Quixote) was directed against General Franco. Cervantes wakes up in the poem and asks, "who is greeted with horns and drums?" He sees a new but familiar figure leading the people. "If I weren't already dead, / I would be jailed instead," he concludes. In his essays Viljanen paid a special attention to such writers as D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, Eugene O'Neill, and Per Lagerkvist, all controversial and pathbreaking writers. Koskenniemi was a problematic figure – Viljanen respected the older poet but did not share his nationalism. However, in 1935 Viljanen published on Koskenniemi an admiring book, which celebrated his 50th anniversary.

Viljanen's other major literature studies included Runeberg ja hänen runoutensa (1944-48), which questioned the previous picture of the national poet as a harmonious personality. Aleksis Kiven runomaailma (1953) drew on lectures he gave at the University of Turku. Also his study on the life and work of Henrik Ibsen (1962) was based on lectures. Koskenniemi valued Viljanen's work as a literary critic. He always gave good reviews to his books.

Following the outbreak of the Winter War (1939-40) between Finland and the Soviet Union, Viljanen entered the army, serving as an information officer. During the Continuation War (1941-44) he worked at the State Information Office (VTL). On occasions, he traveled in Karelia where the front lines were, and wrote articles about the Kalevala and folk poetry. In 1942 he went with the writers Toivo Pekkanen and Yrjö Kivimies and the composer Sulho Ranta to Äänislinna, occupied by Finnish troops, and met there Yrjö Jylhä, who had witnessed as an officer the infernal fights in Taipaleenjoki (the Taipale river). Jylhä occasionally mocked Olavi Paavolainen, who had been wounded when Russian planes bombed Mikkeli: a filing cabinet fell on top of him and he broke his tail bone. For a long time he had to sit on a rubber ring to avoid direct pressure on the anus. Viljanen advocated the idea that Karelia was the vanguard of the Western civilization. Surprisingly, possibly resulting from the general nonchalance toward Soviet literature, he dealt in his collection of essays, Illan ja aamun välillä (1941), two Russian writers, Aleksei Tolstoi and Mikhail Sholokhov.

After the war Viljanen completed his academic studies, receiving his M.A. in 1947 and Ph.D. in 1949. In 1945 he visited the Soviet Union as a member of a cultural delegation. He met Otto Ville Kuusinen and Stalin and wrote in Helsingin Sanomat that he was impressed by the dictator's "modest and warm-hearted personality" – these flarrering words had more to with the dangerous political situation in Finland than with real appreciation. Viljanen's dissertation dealt with the national poet J.L. Runeberg.

Viljanen was appointed in 1950 professor of Finnish literature at the University of Turku, succeeding V.A. Koskenniemi. Four years later he moved to the same post at the University of Helsinki, where he worked until 1967. In his inauguration lecture, 'Kotimainen kirjallisuus yliopistossa' (1955) he rejected literary criticism, which focus on the mind and personality of the author, emphasizing the importance to study the work itself. As an example he took the Finnish Nobel writer F.E. Sillanpää, whose public image – a warm and social pyknic – was in contrast with the author's sensitive and seclusive alter egos, Juha Toivola and Kustaa Salmelus. After retiring from the university, Viljanen planned to continue his research projects. His own libraries in Helsinki and Otalampi, his summer house, consisted of 10,000 volumes. While traveling in Italy he collected material for his study Romanttinen Hellas ja Rooma, which he never finished.

Between the years 1953 and 1955, Viljanen edited the most prestigious Finnish literary magazine, Parnasso, an advocate of modernism. Viljanen opened its pages to such bold new voices on the literary scene as Paavo Haavikko, Veijo Meri, Anselm Hollo, and Tuomas Anhava. Viljanen also translated into Finnish works by Knut Hamsun, Heinrich von Kleist, Hagar Olsson, William Wordsworth, T.S. Eliot, and Gottfried Keller. He was a member of the editorial staff of Venäjän runotar (1946), which introduced Soviet poets – Aleksander Blok, Boris Pasternak and others – to Finnish readers.

"My soul's years
from springtime to springtime
have awaited the coming marvel:
the holy light upon the treetops,
Ever new, inscrutable, secret
is your life's renewal..."

(from Trees in Spring in Tuuli ja ihminen, 1945; translated by Cid Erik Tallqvist)

In his youth Viljanen read Shelley, Goethe, Kleist, but especially V.A. Koskenniemi's use of traditional forms and cultural subject matters were seen his early lyrical works. Tähtikeinu (1926), in which the subjects changed from passionate love poems to cosmic visions, is Viljanen's best-known early collection. Its title poem became especially popular.

Keinu heilahda kultainen
pitkin yöllistä linnunrataa!
Usmat tähtien ylhäisten
unhon valkeaa vihmaa sataa...

(From 'Tähtikeinu', 1926)

Musta runotar (1932) was more pessimistic, disappointments in love and suffering are central subjects. In the mid-1930s Viljanen and Mika Waltari became interested in the 18th dynasty Pharaoh Ikhnaton. Waltari wrote a play (1937) and later his most famous novel, Sinuhe, egyptiläinen (1945). Viljanen's poem 'Ekhnatonin viimeinen laulu', about the end of an era, was included in his collection Näköala vuorelta (1938). In the 1920s, Viljanen had moved in the same literary circles as Mika Waltari, but after he had crushed both Waltari's Muukalaislegioona (1929), a collection of poems, and his novel Palava nuoruus (1935), their friendship cooled. Waltari denounced Viljanen for "intellectual infiltration work," practically calling him a Communist fellow traveler.

Tuuli ja ihminen (1945) examined permanent values of human reality. In this work Viljanen moved from bitterness to optimism, to love for native region as in 'Sydämen maa'. Seitsemän elegiaa (1957) showed Viljanen's familiarity with modern world lyrics and classical tradition. He turned away from contemporary subjects and found consolation from the ancient world, as in the poem 'Empedocles' (1957), in which a small temple still awaits a wanderer among the ruins. The figure of Odyssey became important for Viljanen – not only as a link to basic, unchanging elements in European culture, but as an universal personification of rootlessness. "Lyhyt aika on jumalien. Ikä pitkä ihmisen vain on."

Lauri Viljanen died in Helsinki on September 29, 1984. During his last spring, he read Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.

For further reading: 'Lauri Viljanen' by Unto Kupiainen in Suomalainen lyriikka (1948); Lauri Viljasen muodonvaihdos tutkijana by Kerttu Tanner (1960); Lauri Viljanen esseistinä by Eino Krohn (1960); Lauri Viljasen lyriikan keinoja ja ratkaisuja by Kaarlo Marjanen (1960); Raamatullinen aines Lauri Viljasen lyriikassa by Maunu Niinistö (1960); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); 'Maisema sieluntilana - Lauri Viljasen runouden näkymiä' by Aulimaija Viljanen, in Rivien takaa, ed. by Ritva Haakko (1976); Kirjailijat puhuvat, ed. by Ritva Haavikko (1976); Elämä ja teokset: Lauri Viljasen kirjallisuuskäsityksen ääriviivoja by Päivi Lappalainen (1993); 'Jylhä ja Viljanen' by Markku Envall, in A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfiel (1998); Lauri Viljanen by Yrjö Hosialuoma (2001) - Other Finnish professor-poets: Julius Krohn (pseudonym: Suonio), August Ahlqvist (pseudonym: A. Oksanen), V.A. Koskenniemi, Unto Kupiainen, Martti Haavio (pseudonym: P. Mustapää).

Selected works:

  • Auringon purjeet: runoja, 1924
  • Hurmioituneet kasvot, 1925 (with others)
  • Tähtikeinu: runoja, 1926
  • Kevätsade. Valikoima ruotsalaista lyriikkaa, 1926 (translator, with Elina Vaara)
  • Herman Löns, Kultakaula, 1928  (translator)
  • Knut Hamsun, Viktoria: kertomus, 1928  (translator)
  • Ihanteellinen rakkaus, 1928 (translator, foreword by V.A. Koskenniemi)
  • Merkkivaloja: kirjailijoita tällä ja tuolla puolen maailmansodan, 1929
  • Musta runotar: runoja, 1932
  • Heinrich von Kleist, Homburgin prinssi Friedrich, 1934 (translator)
  • V.A. Koskenniemi, 1935
  • Taisteleva humanismi: kulttuurikriitillisiä ääriviivoja Goethestä nykypäivään, 1936
  • Näköala vuorelta: runoja, 1938
  • Atlantis: runoelma, 1940
  • Sotatalvi, 1941 (with others)
  • Illan ja aamun välillä, 1941
  • Hagar Olsson, Karjalainen vaeltaja, 1944 (translator) 
  • Finland berättar: trettio noveller, 1943 (editor, with Elmer Diktonius):
  • Runeberg ja hänen runoutensa 1: 1804-1837, 1944
    - Runeberg och hans diktning 1804-1837 (bemyndigad översättning av Kaj Lindgren, 1947)
  • Tuuli ja ihminen: runoja, 1945
  • Kootut runot, 1946
  • Venäjän runotar:  valikoima venäläistä lyriikkaa, 1946 (editor, with V. Kiparsky):
  • "Vanhan puutahurin kirjeistä" "Kuningas Fjalariin": Runeberg ja hänen runoutensa 1837-1844, 1948
    - Runeberg och hans diktning  1837-1877 (övers. av Eva Stenius, 1969)
  • William Wordsworth, Runoja, 1949 (translator, with Aale Tynni, Yrjö Jylhä)
  • Venäjän runotar, 1949 (editor, with others)
  • T.S. Eliot, Autio maa, 1949 (translator, with Yrjö Kaijärvi, Sinikka Kallio-Visapää, Kai Laitinen, Juha Mannerkorpi, Kaj Mäkinen, Leo Tiainen)
  • Helikonin lähde. Maailmanlyriikan suomennoksia, 1951 (translator)
  • Aleksis Kiven runomaailma, 1953
  • Gottfried Keller, Seitsemän legendaa, 1953 (translator)
  • Aleksis Kivi, Kootut runot, 1954 (editor)
  • Hansikas ja muita kirjallisuustutkielmia, 1955
  • Seitsemän elegiaa, 1957
    - "On kuin nuori Viljanen yhtäkkiä astuisi esiin vuosien kätköstä ja johdattaisi meidät kipeimpien luomistuntojensa lähteille, nuoruutensa lähtöjen ja paluiden laitureille..." (Arvo Turtiainen in Kansan Uutiset, 8.12.1957)
  • Valikoima runoja, 1958
  • Lyyrillinen minä ja muita kirjallisuustutkielmia, 1959
  • Henrik Ibsen: elämä ja draamat, 1962
  • Suomen kirjallisuus III, 1964 (editor)
  • Ajan ulottuvuudet: kotimaisen ja yleisen kirjallisuuden tutkielmia, 1974
  • Kansojen kirjallisuus 1-11, 1974-78 (editor, with others)
  • Kootut runot, 1979 (originally published 1946)

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