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by Bamber Gascoigne

Yrjö Jylhä (1903-1956)


Finnish poet, and translator, whose poems were brusque and masculine, but who was inwardly responsive and sensitive. The turning point in Yrjö Jylhä's career was the Winter War (1939-40), when he witnessed as an officer the horrors of the front line. His major work, Kiirastuli (1941, Purgatory), is generally considered the best lyrical work emerging from this period of the Finnish history. The title of the book, "The Purgatory," do not necessarily refer to the second part of Dante's Divine Comedy, but more to the grave personal and national situation, in which there was no way out.

You know not who he is or whence hailing,
Know nothing of the man within ken
But that against your pistol's mouth comes, assailing,
Some one of the race of men.
Thus do East and West each other encounter,
Thus do men facing each other fare.
The one lived, of this the mindful recounter,
The other is being missed somewhere.

(from 'Meeting in the Woods,, in Kiirastuli, 1941, translated by Cid Erik Tallqvist)
Et tiedä, ken on hän, mistä,
et tiedä hänestä muuta,
kuin että käy joku ihmisistä
päin pistoolinsuuta.
Niin kohtaavat toisensa länsi ja itä,
niin kohtavat ihmiset toisiaan.
Vain toinen muistelemaan jäi sitä,
ja toista jossain kaivataa.

(from 'Kohtaus metsässä', in Kiirastuli, 1941)

Yrjö Jylhä was born in Tampere. His mother, Iida Maria (Kovettu) Jylhä, had deeply religious, withdrawn personality. She died in 1917. Kaarle Juho Jylhä (until 1906 Lindeman), his father, was a merchant. He traded in lumber, but lost his relatively large fortune, never gaining his former wealth. Throughout his life, Jylhä blaimed Alfred Kordelin and Emil Aaltonen, two leading businessmen of Tampere, for the fate of his father. Kaarle Jylhä read historical books, his favorite character was Napoleon. During the Finnish Civil War (1917-18), Jylhä's brothers served in the White Army. When the experience broke one of his brothers, it shadowed Jylhä's youth. This family burden, and the fear of its consequences for his own psychical strength, created a dark undercurrent in Jylhä's writings.

At school Jylhä was especially interested in drawing and athletics. In 1921 he won a gold medal in javelin throw in an athletic contest between schools. While studying in Helsinki, he joined a boxing club to fight in the lightweight division – Jylhä weighed 60 kilos. Poetry and boxing were both rhytmic arts, he argued. As an aspiring poet, Jylhä was encouraged by the literary association Nuoren Voiman Liitto, founded to help secondary school students to develop talents. Especially Juhani Siljo's collection Maan puoleen (1914)  interested Jylhä. His early poems Jylhä published under the pseudomyn "Y" in Nuori Voima magazine.

After graduating from lycée (Tampereen Klassillinen lyseo), Jylhä volunteered in the army. He entered the University of Turku in 1924 and later in the same year he began his studies at the University of Helsinki. In the mid-1920s, Jylhä had an affair with the poet Katri Vala. Their work had little in common, but they both moved in the same literary circles, and shared the ideal of creating something new in literature. "His love poems are more about hate than love," Jaakko Ahonen characterized Jylhä's work from this period in A History of Finnish Literature (1973).

In the anthology Nuoret runoilijat I (1924) Jylhä published six poems, which were also  included in his first collection of poems, Ruoskanjäljet (1926, The Weals). This work, which was praised by Uuno Kailas and Viljo Kojo, contained some sadomasochistic poems about his affair with Vala, such as 'Mustat helmet' (The Black Beads) and 'Haavoitettu' (Wounded): "Löi veitsen kylkeeni seisomaan / ja vavisten juoksi pois." Vala recorded their relationship in the collection Sininen ovi (1926) with a more gentle and longing voice. 'Ylösnousemus' (Resurrection) is one of the poems in which the speaker tells of her emotional breakdown after her beloved with "fiery and proud eyes" has left her: "Olen kuollut, mut minne sa kulkenetkaan, / on hautani aina sun vierelläs. / Mene toiselle tähdelle rakastamaan, / on hautani vierelläs!"

Two years later followed Kurimus (1928, The Whirlpool), but then Jylhä concentrated on translating works for nine years. After his father died in 1928, Jylhä left his studies without graduating, and devoted himself entirely to writing. He became a member of the literary group Tulenkantajat (The Fire Bearers) with Olavi Paavolainen, Elina Vaara, Lauri Viljanen, Ilmari Pimiä, Viljo Kajava, and Katri Vala. Like so many artists, writers, and musicians, Jylhä frequented the café Bronda. Occasionally he visited the notorious salon of Minna Craucher; the writer Joel Lehtonen called it a "private brothel" in his novel Henkien taistelu (1933).

In 1929 Jylhä married Kirsti Svensson, the daughter of the elocutionist Helinä Svensson-Timari, who lived with the artist Einari Vehmas. Kirsti had been an aspiring actress, but never gained success. Without doubt Jylhä knew the family story, that she had been raped in her childhood, which had left her somewhat unbalanced. In the mid-1930s, she was treated for syphilis. Once she tried to commit suicide by slashing her wrist. (Yrjö Jylhä, talvisodan runoilija by Vesa Karonen & Panu Rajala, 2009, pp. 291-292) Jylhä, a quick-tempered and jealous man, occasionally beat her and dragged her by the hair across the floor. Their family friend, the writer Oiva Paloheimo, spread a rumor that Jylhä forced his wife to eat mice. (Ibid., p. 92)

The literary scholar Eino Kauppinen considered Jylhä's early poems more personal than those of the young generation of writers at his time. ('Yrjö Jylhä 1903-1956' by Eino Kauppinen, in Valikoima Yrjö Jylhän runoja ja käännöksiä, 1960, p.7)  Although Jylhä searched new ways of expression, he also translated into Finnish works from such classic authors as Heine, Shakespeare, La Fontaine  and Milton. Jylhä's Shakespeare translations relied on Paavo Cajander's work. Most of his major works in this field, such as Milton's Kadotettu paratiisi (Paradise Lost), published by WSOY, and Rolandin laulu (The Song of Roland), published by Otava, Jylhä produced in his thirties. Noteworthy, Jylhä never studied English at school, so he learned  the language by himself. He also got help from his sister Anna, who had lived in the 1920s in London, New York, and Canada.

On ilo sulla, mut suru mulla,
on mulla hautajaiset, sulla häät.
(in 'Häätanhu,' Risti lumessa, 1937)

When his colleagues spent much time in cafés and restaurants discussing about literature, Jylhä helped his brother, Kalle, who was a surveyor and traveled around Finland. In the late 1930s Jylhä broke his silence as a poet and published two collections, Risti lumessa (1937, A cross in the snow) and Toiviotiellä (1938, On a pilgrimage). His poem, 'Lasten ristiretki' (1935, 'The children's crusade'), ironically depicted the youthful enthusiasm of The Fire Bearers, and dissolution of the group. "Osa tieltä ei väistyä saata: / yhä etsien untensa maata / he samoavat kukin yksikseen / yön autiuteen."

During the Winter War and the Continuation War against the Soviet aggression, Jylhä served in the army as a company commander, and at the information department. When the Winter War broke out, six Finnish divisions fought on the Karelian Isthmus against twelve or fourteen divisions, and in north of Lake Ladoga, two divisions held a sixty-mile front against the Soviet Eight Army of seven divisions and a brigade of armor.

The infernal fights in Taipaleenjoki (the Taipale river) between the years 1939 and 1940 were basis for Jylhä's poems in Kiirastuli; its first poems, a kind of prelude, dealt with time priot to the war. Jylhä portrays the Taipale river as a river of death. The central theme is humanity over front lines, as exemplified in the poem 'Kohtaus metsässä.' Another painful scene about a dying soldier, 'Kaivolla,' is one of Jylhä's most quoted verses. There is nothing of the idealism of Runeberg's Ensign Stål in Jylhä's work, although nowadays, perhaps against the poet's wishes, it is often read as a patriotic celebration to honor the deeds of the past. To Olavi Paavolainen Jylhä told that he had felt guilt and shame for working as a poet, but in the war he had the feeling of being a useful member of society.

Between 1943 and 1944 Jylhä served at the State Information Bureau.  After the Soviet attack in the Karelian Isthmus, was called to back duty in July 1944, serving behind the lines in Tyrvää. Kiirastuli was Jylhä's last major collection of poems. An abridged edition of the work, illustrated by Erkki Tanttu, was published in 1951. And selection of Jylhäs' poems, Runoja, came out in 1943. The conductor Jussi Jalas set to music in the 1940s five poems from Kiirastuli (Kiirastulen lauluja: 'Tuomittu talo,' 'Siellä jossakin,' 'Pyhä yö,' 'Toivomuksia,' and 'Ristilipun alla').

While the tone of Kiirastuli was dark and differed from the propaganda of the period, Runoja reflected the official belief in victory. "The year of 1943 was the turning point in my life and poetry," he later said. About this time also his wife Kirsti Jylhä died.

After the war Jylhä retired nearly completely from writing poetry. He published only some translations and a few poems. His companion during the last ten years of his life was a widow, with whom he spent much time in Sysmä. When the Academy of Finland was established in 1947, Jylhä was among the first writers to receive its award. He planned to translate T.S. Eliot's play Murder in the Cathedral, but he often felt himself tired and depressed. Erkki Reenpää, who worked for the publishing company Otava, visited occasionally his small apartment, which "smelled of blood." Reenpää suspected that Jylhä was suffering from syphilis. On several occasions, the author himself had made references to it. Yrjö Jylhä died in Turku on December 30, 1956. He shot himself in the head with a Belgian FN pistol, in the toilet of his brother Väinö. The 6.35mm gun, considered too ineffectual for the purposes of self- defence, Jylhä had carried with him for a long period.

A statue in Jylhä's honor, designed by the sculptor Terho Sakki, was erected in 1964 in Tampere. Still in the 1990s,  Kiirastuli was voted by Finnish readers among the three most popular books, along with Väinö Linna's Tuntematon sotilas and Erkki Palolammen's Kolaa kestää, which all depicted the war years.

For further reading: 'Yrjö Jylhä' in Aleksis Kivestä Saima Harmajaan, ed. by Albin Ahonen, Martti Haavio, V. I. Mikkonen (1943); Voices From Finland, ed. by Elli Tompuri ( 1947); Yrjö Jylhä by Kauko Kare (1957); 'Yrjö Jylhän daimoni' by Lauri Viljanen in Lyyrillinen minä (1959); 'Kuoleman ajatus Yrjö Jylhän runoudessa' by Eino Krohn in Kaksi lukittua lipasta (1961); 'Before and After World War II,' in A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); 'Jylhä ja Viljanen' by Markku Envall, in A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by George C. Schoolfield (1998); Suomennoskirjallisuuden historia 2, ed. by H.K. Riikonen et al. (2007); Yrjö Jylhä, talvisodan runoilija by Vesa Karonen & Panu Rajala (2009); 'Traces of the Birth of the State of Finland in Jylhä's Translation of Paradise Lost' by David Robertson, in Milton in Translation, eds. Angelica Duran, Islam Issa, and Jonathan R. Olson (2017); Erään soturin loppu: runoilija Yrjö Jylhän tragedia by Panu Rajala (2019)  

Selected works:

  • Ruoskanjäljet: runoja, 1926 [The Weals]
  • Kurimus: runoja, 1928 [The Whirlpool]
  • Viimeinen kierros. Urheilurunoja, 1931 [The Last Round]
  • Meidän pihan urheilija, 1932 (edited by Yrjö Jylhä, illustrated by R. Koivu)
  • Synnyinseudun näkyjä, 1934
  • Risti lumessa: runoja, 1937 [The Cross in the Snow]
  • Toiviotiellä: runoja, 1938
  • Sotatalvi: runovalikoima, 1940 (with others)
  • Kiirastuli: runoja rauhan ja sodan ajoilta, 1941 [Purgatory]
  • Jännittävin sotaelämykseni, 1942 (edited by Yrjö Jylhä, Päivö Oksala, Olavi Paavolainen)
  • Runoja: valikoima eri kokoelmista, 1943
  • Ihminen ja elementit: kantaattu teknillisen korkeakoulun satavuotisjuhlaan 1949, 1949 (music by Kalervo Tuukkanen)
  • Kiiratuli, 1951 (illustrated by Erkki Tanttu)
  • Hyvästi, Kirvesmäki!: Yksitoista "Kiirastulen" runoa näköispainoksineen, 1954
  • Yrjö Jylhän kauneimmat runot hänen itsensä valikoimina, 1957
  • Valikoima Yrjö Jylhän runoja ja käännöksiä, 1960 (edited by Eino Kauppinen)
  • Kiirastuli, 2007 (illustrated by Erkki Tanttu, 7th. ed.; originally published 1951)


  • Edgar Allan Poe: Kultakuoriainen y.m. kertomuksia, 1927 (with Yrjö Kivimies):
  • Bertel Gripenberg: Runoja, 1929
  • Hallitse, Britannia!, 1929 (a selection of British poetry)
  • John Milton: Kadotettu paratiisi: runoelma, 1933
  • Runon pursi: maailmankirjallisuuden kertovaa runoutta, 1934 (epic poetry)
  • La Fontaine: Tarinoita, 1935 (forword by Aarne Anttila)
  • William Shakespeare: Kuningas Lear, 1936
  • William Shakespeare: Macbeth, 1936
  • Rolandin laulu: Ranskan kansalliseepos, 1936
  • Heinrich Heine: Laulujen kirja, 1937
  • William Wordsworth: Runoja, 1949 (with Aale Tynni, Yrjö Jylhä, Lauri Viljanen)
  • Veri ja kulta, 1954 (world poetry)
  • William Shakespeare: William Shakespearen suuret draamat 1: Romeo ja Julia; Kesäyön unelma; Macbeth, 1955 (introduction by Eino Krohn)
  • William Shakespeare: William Shakespearen suuret draamat 2: Hamlet; Othello, 1955 (introduction by Eino Krohn)
  • William Shakespeare: William Shakespearen suuret draamat 3: Kuningas Lear; Venetsian kauppias, 1955 (introduction by Eino Krohn)
  • Viktor Rydberg, Kotitonttu, 1981 (illustrated by Harald Wiberg)
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Hunt Emerson: Vanhan merimiehen tarina, 1990

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