The Poem that Built a Nation: Finland and the Kalevala

by Adam Sedia

Nowhere perhaps is the power of poetry more apparent than in its ability to unite a culture—literally to build a nation. Homer’s epics forged a bond of cultural unity between the various city-states of the Greek world. Not coincidentally, the Iliad appeals to unity among the Greeks by recounting a united effort among the Greek city-states against an enemy in Asia—a situation paralleled in Greek cities’ defense of their liberty from the Persian invasions. Centuries later in Latin, Virgil consciously imitated Homer’s example in his Aeneid, ascribing Rome’s remote origins to a character from the Iliad and through that story asserting Rome’s world dominance as divinely ordained.

In the Middle Ages, the Castilian epic Poem of the Cid commemorated a hero of Christian Spain in its battles of the Reconquista against the Muslims, and the French Chanson de Roland likewise commemorated the battles of one of Charlemagne’s knights against the same enemy. Both epics inspired the chivalric culture of the Middle Ages.

Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy takes the epic form into the realms of theology and philosophy, departing from the Iliad and following the model of the Odyssey to describe a personal journey from sin to salvation. This epic would be the foundational poem of the Italian Renaissance, both as the linguistic basis for the modern Italian language and the Renaissance revival of classical culture that frequently figures in the poem’s allusions.

These epics—and many others like them—are more than mere works of literature. They are constitutional documents. Their stories became the foundational narrative of entire cultures; they served as inspiration for the aspiring heroes of those cultures; and in some cases their very language set the standard for proper usage. National epics give birth to nations. Nor is this an ancient phenomenon: well into modern times an epic poem founded a nation well known to the present world. Finland, the reputed Scandinavian utopia, owes its very existence as a nation in large part to a single epic poem, the Kalevala.


I. Linguistic and Historical Background

Finland is commonly lumped in with its neighboring nations in Scandinavia, but linguistically it could not be more different. Whereas Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish belong to the North Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family, Finnish (Suomi in Finnish) is not even an Indo-European language. This means that Hindi, Persian, and Greek are all more closely related to the Germanic languages of Scandinavia than Finnish, even though it is their neighbor.

Instead, Finnish belongs to the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. Its closest relatives include Estonian, Hungarian, and various languages of the Russian backcountry, including Udmurt and Mordvinian along the middle Volga, and Khanty and Mansi in the Urals. Like Hungarian, Finnish is notoriously difficult and alien to speakers of most European languages: it is agglutinating, has fifteen noun cases, and features consonant gradation and vowel harmony
—the latter of which it shares with Asian languages like Korean, Manchu, and Turkish.

Politically, Finland was dominated by its neighbors through most of recorded history. Between 1155 and 1249, Sweden and Denmark led a series of crusades to convert the Finnish lands to Christianity. For the next six centuries, Finland would be ruled as a vassal of Sweden, with a Swedish-speaking elite dominating its cities. Then in 1809, Russia occupied Finland during the Napoleonic Wars, with its annexation confirmed by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. During the next century of Russian rule, Finland would experience a rebirth of national identity culminating in its independence in 1917—a rebirth sparked largely by a single poem, the Kalevala.


II. The Kalevala

The clergyman Michael Agricola created the first comprehensive writing system for Finnish in the mid-1500s, but publications in Finnish were limited only to religious texts for nearly three centuries. During that time, Finnish literature was effectively non-existent.

In 1832, the physician Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884)—descended from the Swedish gentry—began his practice in a poor, rural area in eastern Finland, where he served as sole physician to about four thousand people. But Lönnrot was something of a renaissance man with wide interests that included both linguistics and folklore (as well as botany). He made frequent travels throughout rural Finland, compiling folksongs that had been transmitted orally since time immemorial—some of the songs are estimated to be as old as three thousand years. He collected these into a single epic, the Kalevala, which he first published in 1835 and expanded in 1849.

Despite the vast geographic area from which Lönnrot gathered his folksongs, the verses were always sung in the same meter: a form of trochaic tetrameter, known afterwards as “the Kalevala meter.” Other stylistic features include alliteration and parallelism, including a form of chiasmus—common features of epic verse across cultures. The songs also feature the same characters—pre-Christian divinities

The poem is divided into fifty cantos. It begins with the traditional Finnish creation myth and follows the exploits of three main semi-divine protagonists: Väinämöinen, the first man, a sage and bard; Lemminkäinen, something of a Byronic hero; and Ilmarinen, a smith and inventor, similar to Vulcan. The three feature separately, then together in cantos 39 through 49. Also, in cantos 31 through 36, Väinämöinen recites the tragedy of Kullervo, who, though not a protagonist, is one of the main characters in the epic. The final canto contains an allegorical tale of the conversion of Finland to Christianity and Väinämöinen’s departure by sea, leaving his songs and the kantele—the zither-like Finnish national instrument—as his legacy.

To illustrate the sound and rhythm of the epic in its original language, the following fourteen lines from the creation myth in the first canto provide a good example (note the alliteration, and in Finnish the accent always falls on a word’s first syllable):

Ajat eellehen menevät, vuoet tuota tuonnemmaksi
uuen päivän paistaessa, uuen kuun kumottaessa.
Aina uipi veen emonen, veen emonen, ilman impi,
noilla vienoilla vesillä, utuisilla lainehilla,
eessänsä vesi vetelä, takanansa taivas selvä.
Jo vuonna yheksäntenä, kymmenentenä kesänä
nosti päätänsä merestä, kohottavi kokkoansa.
Alkoi luoa luomiansa, saautella saamiansa
selvällä meren selällä, ulapalla aukealla.
Kussa kättä käännähytti, siihen niemet siivoeli;
kussa pohjasi jalalla, kalahauat kaivaeli;
kussa ilman kuplistihe, siihen syöverit syventi.
Kylin maahan kääntelihe: siihen sai sileät rannat;
jaloin maahan kääntelihe: siihen loi lohiapajat;
pä’in päätyi maata vasten: siihen laitteli lahelmat.
Ui siitä ulomma maasta, seisattelihe selälle:
luopi luotoja merehen, kasvatti salakaria
laivan laskemasijaksi, merimiesten pään menoksi.



In a relatively free English translation, these verses read:


The ages go on
the years beyond that
as the new sun shines
as the new moon gleams.
Still the water-mother swims
the water-mother, air-lass
on those mild waters
on the misty waves
before her the slack water
and behind her the clear sky.

Now in the ninth year
in the tenth summer
she raised her head from the sea
she lifts up her poll:
she began her creation
forming her creatures
on the clear high seas
upon the open expanse.
Where she turned her hand around
there she arranged the headlands;
where her foot touched the bottom
there she dug out the fish-troughs;
where else she bubbled
there she hollowed out the depths.
She turned her side to the land:
There she brought forth the smooth shores;
she turned her feet to the land:
there she formed the salmon haunts;
with her head she reached the land:
there she shaped the bays.
Then she swam further from land
paused upon the main;
formed the crags in the water
grew the hidden reefs
to be places for shipwreck
the dispatch of sailors’ heads.

(Tr. Keith Bosley. Oxord Univ. Press, 1999.)


III. Legacy

Almost immediately, the Kalevala galvanized Finnish national identity. The poem was the first true work of creative literature in the Finnish language, and it initiated an explosion of new Finnish literature. Poetry and drama in Finnish began to proliferate, and the first significant Finnish novel appeared in 1870.

The decades between approximately 1880 and 1910 are known as the Golden Age of Finnish Art, encompassing all arts —literature, music, architecture, and the visual arts. A significant number of the artists from that time found their inspiration in the episodes of the Kalevala.

Eino Leino (1878-1926), regarded as Finland’s national poet, found inspiration in both the style and subject matter of the Kalevala. His poems, which fill more than seventy books, make extensive use of Finnish mythology and folklore as well as of the Kalevala meter.

The composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)—recognized in his lifetime as Finland’s national composer—found inspiration for his most famous works in the Kalevala. His early choral symphony Kullervo (Op. 7), his orchestral Lemminkäinen Suite (Op. 22), and his tone-poems Pohjola’s Daughter (Op. 49) and Luonnotar (Op. 70) all portray episodes from the epic—some with lyrics, some without.

Sibelius’s friend, Akseli Gallén-Kallela (1865-1931), one of Finland’s most important painters, created several monumental works depicting scenes from the Kalevala. The most famous include The Defense of the Sampo (1896), Lemminkäinen’s Mother (1897), Kullervo’s Curse (1899), and The Departure of Väinämöinen (1906). These works are in an idiomatic and immediately recognizable style highly influenced by French Symbolism, and did much to popularize the Kalevala stories outside of Finland.

The Kalevala inspired the popular imagination, as well. Finnish parents began naming their children after several characters from the epic. Finnish clergy at first refused to baptize babies under non-Christian names, but later relented. By the mid-twentieth century, almost a third of Finns had names taken from or inspired by the Kalevala, and those names remain common in Finland to this day.

During this entire time, Finland was still a mere Grand Duchy within the Russian Empire. The artistic movement sparked by the Kalevala grew into a larger rebirth of national pride, with even the Swedish aristocracy adopting the Finnish language and Finnish surnames to show pride in their Finnishness. The Russian Empire increasingly clamped down on this new nationalism, twice attempting “Russification” of the Finns. But at last the empire collapsed during the First World War, allowing Finland to assert its independence, which the new Soviet Union recognized. The nation that materialized really had its origins in the poem published 82 years before. Befitting the poem’s importance, Finland celebrates Kalevala Day every February 28—the date of Lönnrot’s first publication in 1835.

Outside of Finland, the Kalevala had a lasting impact, as well. Longfellow read the epic through its German translation and in it found inspiration for his Song of Hiawatha (1855), which similarly assembled indigenous folksongs from the Ojibwa nation and retold them in a trochaic tetrameter similar to the Kalevala meter.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) studied the epic while an undergraduate at Oxford and translated the Kullervo cantos into prose in 1914-1915. Later, he cited the Kalevala as one of his sources for The Silmarillion and drew inspiration from it for several characters in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.


IV. Conclusion

Finland is a nation born of poetry, and its very recent but very rich cultural tradition—including the music of Sibelius and the paintings of Gallén-Kallela—sprang from the fire first sparked by the Kalevala. While its art is enduring, Finland itself is very much a place of the present, a concrete location with living people speaking a living language. Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy can be experienced only through their monuments and their literature, but Finland is only an airplane ride away. But like Ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy, Finland first found its national identity in the verses of a poem. Epic poetry is not an archaeological curiosity relevant only to the study of the past. Rather, it remains very much part of the human condition, continuing to inspire nations and peoples to great works. The nation of Finland serves as a living testament to that power.



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13 Responses

  1. Yael

    Very interesting, I had never heard about any of this. How did you learn of these things? Do you speak Finnish? Have you lived there?

    • Adam Sedia

      I’m not Finnish, I don’t speak Finnish, and I’ve never been to Finland. Actually, it was the music of Sibelius that first exposed me to the Kalevala. After seeing references to it throughout my reading, including in Tolkien, I finally decided to pick up a translation and read it. It’s definitely worth a read. The stories are engaging and the characters memorable.

      I’m glad I was able to introduce the work to someone new.

  2. BDW

    In “Finland and the Kalevala”, Mr. Sedia touches upon some aspects of the importance and “the power of poetry”. His examples include the “Iliad”, largely compiled by Homer, Vergil’s literary epic, “the Aeneid”, the enduring classical epic (though unequal to the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”), “El Cid”, whose compiler is a matter of conjecture, as is the creator of the “Chanson de Roland”, and Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. His thesis, that “National epics give birth to nations”, then moves on to the Finnish epic the “Kalevala”, compiled by Elias Lönnrot, where he makes the rather outlandish statement that “Finland…owes its very existence as a nation in large part to a single epic poem, the ‘Kalevala’”. The actual picture is a much larger landscape. Take, e. g., the historical divisions of Sibelius’ original “Press Celebrations Music”: Preludium, the Song of Väinämöinen, the Finns are Baptized by Bishop Henry, Scene from Duke Johan’s Court, the Finns in the Thirty Years War, the Great Hostility, and Finland Awakes.

    It would be interesting to know what Mr. Sedia’s thoughts might be on any of the above mentioned individual works, as well as many other large works, like the Old English epic “Beowulf” and Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, and how they relate to his own poetry. Although I can’t be sure, I do feel his collaboration (give and take) with Canadian writer Mr. Gosselin, and the Romantic bent, a la Goethe, Schiller, et. al., of the Schiller Institute, seem to suggest the choice of his thesis here. I should admit my own early poetic proclivities (1977-1979, when I lived in Germany—Deutschland) were deeply influenced by German literature as a whole, with an emphasis upon its poets and philosophers.

    My own experience with Finnish literature began afterwards, when I married Dawn Maia Lewis, who was half Finnish, and we moved to the American-Finnish community of Naselle, Washington. I remember the Finnish pronunciation of the town, the song my wife and I made up on going to the biennial “Suomi Finland Fest” in 1984, my wife’s and children’s contributions to it over the years, including my wife’s dozen maps on the history of Finland (which was appreciated by visiting Finnish government officials) and my costumed children singing “Maamme” in Finnish. The original music for the national anthem came from the Finnish-German composer Fredrik Pacius (1809-1891) in 1848 and the original Swedish text by the Finnish priest, poet and hymnist Johnann Runeburg (1804-1877), translated into Finnish, by folklorist Julius Krohn (1835-1888) in 1867, and later by Finnish poet Paavo Cajander (1846-1913). Here is the first stanza.

    Oi maamme, Suomi, synnyinmaa
    so saana kultainen!
    Ei laaksoa, ei kukkulaa,
    ei vettä, rantaa rakkaampaa
    kuin kotimaa tää pohjoinen,
    maa kallis isien.

    Although Finnish (and Estonian, as well) is not an IndoEuropean language, when I taught Finnish literature at the high school, I demonstrated Finland’s literature was au courant with World literary history, id est, Romantic, Realist, Modernist, PostModernist, and New Millennial. The single foreign language teacher at our small high school of 100 students taught Finnish, along with German, and Spanish. Her husband was a modern master of the kantele. It did not matter that Finnish was not an IndoEuropean language; and, in fact, it might be one of the reasons Finns are so good, as a nation, at mathematical logic, etc. Certainly Finland has been dominated by its neighbours, particularly Russia, like Ukraine; and even now Putin threatens nations, like Finland and Sweden, while he and his military are destroying Ukraine.

    Philologist and folklorist Elias Lönnrot was part of the Romantic period in Finnish literature; his collected materials show the long history of Finnish folk poetry, which commonly fell into the trochaic meter, which as Mr. Sedia points out were utilized by the noted Modernist poet and journalist Eino Leino (1878-1926), who frequently used the trochaic meter and the “Kalevala” in his writing, and was the first translator of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” into Finnish. I very much appreciate Mr. Sedia’s account of the “Kalevala”, and he correctly points out Longfellow’s interest in it in his “Song of Hiawatha”, and Tolkien’s as well. I look forward to seeing what paths Mr. Sedia continues to explore.

    • Adam Sedia

      My attribution of Finland’s “very existence as a nation” to the Kalevala is a rhetorical flourish. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was minimizing other aspects of Finnish culture or overlooking the fact that the Finns lived in their land for thousands of years. Obviously, nations are made of people and their shared values, languages, and traditions, and poems do not on their own create geopolitical entities. My point was to illustrate how important the Kalevala was to galvanizing Finnish national identity, and I still maintain its publication was the key event that spurred the revival that led to Finland’s birth as an independent nation.

      I see my Romantic bent is obvious in this essay (although I am more inclined to Chateaubriand than Schiller, whom I nonetheless appreciate), and I won’t deny that those inclinations inspired me. But to answer your question, English epics have an odd role. There really isn’t a single culture-defining epic analogous to the Iliad or the Kalevala. Beowulf has always been an archaeological curiosity, and its action does not even occur in England. Paradise Lost is an apology by a failed revolutionary (as beautiful and well-composed as the epic is), very much written “from the outside,” and with heroes not particularly English. The Idylls of the King is an attempt to create a national epic from Arthurian legend, and in that respect comes closest to a national epic, but it is too clouded with Victorian morality to be convincingly authentic. English, it seems, is a language that desperately desires a national epic without realizing that epics are creators, not products, of nations.

  3. Joseph S. Salemi

    An epic cannot build a nation. The Greeks, who honored and cherished the Iliad, remained separate in their little city-states like Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Megara, and scores of others, with internecine warfare. Even the dire threat of non-Greek invasion barely united them for a little while. It took the brutality of Alexander of Macedon to eventually pull that off.

    El Poema del Myo Cid did not unite Spain or even create Spain. The peninsula was divided into separate kingdoms of Leon, Navarre, Aragon, Castile and the regions of Galicia and Catalonia — all mutually distrustful and often at war. It took the overwhelming strength of Ferdinand and Isabella to put Spain together in 1492, and even then the various components of the nation remained fiercely attached to their local “fueros,” or special territorial and legal rights. Even today that Catalans and the Basques do not consider themselves Spanish.

    France was put together (with a great deal of trouble and not a little violence) by Louis XIV and steel-backboned ministers like Mazarin and Richelieu. Le Chanson de Roland played no role in this, and neither the Roland poem or the El Cid poem were widely known enough in the medieval period to have been the source of chivalry and the chivalric code.

    As for Dante’s Commedia being the “foundational” text for the Renaissance and the revival of classical learning, this gives far too much credit to one book by a Florentine exile. The Renaissance, like the Age of Chivalry, was a wide historical event that was multidimensional, and certainly beyond the life and work of one individual. The explosion of classical studies has far more to do with the invention of printing, the recovery of manuscripts from monastic libraries, and the influx of Greek scholars into Italy after the fall of Constantinople.

    Dante may have set the stage for standard Tuscan to become the source of Italian, but as late as the sixteenth century the dispute over its primacy was still hotly debated in Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, and it never became a “national” standard until the unification of 1870. Even today, the “language and dialect” question is a hot topic in Italy.

    I had this very argument with David Gosselin here at a past thread, and I still think that the idea of special “classical” texts being somehow endowed with the magical quality to create political reality is just LaRouche-ite ideology, or something that will be defended at the Rising Tide Foundation.

    Nations are created by swords and spears, not by works of literature. And the English, without a national epic, seem to have done pretty well for themselves in empire-building.

    • David B. Gosselin

      Dear Mr. Salemi,

      I welcome your thoughts. I think the reality of poetry and its role in building cultures (which are necessary for the survival of any nation, people, or empire) is more nuanced.

      Why did Virgil write the Aeneid?

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Well, for one thing, the Emperor Augustus asked him to do it, and he specified that it should be comparable in depth and significance to the Iliad.

        Vergil obliged, and gave us the magnificent work that we have today about the founding of Rome. But do you really think that the text had anything to do with the Roman conquests that established their huge empire? Those conquests were effected by Roman legions with spears, swords, ballistae, and a good officer corps. Besides, the Roman conquests predated the composition of the Aeneid by centuries. And the conquests that came after the poem’s composition would have happened whether or not Vergil picked up a stylus.

    • David B. Gosselin

      No, I never said anything of the sort about a poem helping a conquest or winning a military battle. Naturally, I’m sure you don’t think I believe a poem can fight a sword lol. However, I’m sure you’re also perfectly comfortable admitting that a culture is not just the product of a sword and fighting. For a civilization to last it needs a lot more than just the sword… Enter the question of art, taste, and culture, the realm in which the fundamental ideas and sense of identity of a people are cultivated and developed.

      Warring Bronze Age tribes will only get civilization so far. Homer’s Iliad is in many ways a depiction of how these cultures destroyed themselves, and dramatizing that so that people might listen to the stories, or see the drama performed on the state in a theater, rather than the stage of history.

      Shakespeare did the same thing, such that I think it doesn’t matter that there is no primary English epic. I don’t see why there needs to be an epic. I do see the need for literature if a culture is to actually develop beyond just a primal animistic existence though.

      Stories are the keepers of a people’s identity, their roots, and also serve as the basis for the further development of their identity. The sword is a means of guarding against enemies, such that these higher faculties might be explored and cultivated, lest we all just remain warring tribes who forgot why they’re fighting long ago.

      There is a great book by British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders called ”The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters.” It documents in detail how the Anglo-American intelligence establishment created something called the Congress for Cultural Freedom in order to promote Modernism, Modern Art, and Abstract Impressionism across the world, branding it as symbol of ”free” and democratic countries and trying to frame that in contrast with the kind of rigid Soviet Realism of the time.

      The idea was that if the US was going to win the cold war against the Soviet Union, they needed to project some kind of high culture, of refinement, because one of the big clubs the Soviets had, was their cultural heritage going back to the Russian empire, a classical culture. They used this to paint the Americans as crass, consumers of mass culture, people who just liked baseball and had no taste. And that was a major obstacle for winning the hearts and minds of Europeans, who were also proud of their cultures.

      The CCF become the front for waging a cultural war, using art as a weapon for psychological warfare. Now whether good guys or bad guys, everyone understands the importance of art in either promoting a desired social order, being used a vehicle to capture ideals and convey something meaningful, how things should be, or with many novels, how things might have been, etc… These kinds of things transcend rational argumentation and consecutive reasoning, and seep into the deep structures of the psyche. Schiller understood this, but so did the CIA.

      This is all well documented in the book I mentioned, The Cultural Cold War.

      Art has always been central to forging the identity of a people, and it always will be. The ”art for art’s sake” stuff is a very new idea and a very bad one, based on the most arbitrary and epistemologically flimsy notion of freedom conceivable.

    • Adam Sedia

      At the risk of appearing to “pile on,” I will respond as well. I never said that a nation or an empire could never arise without a unifying epic, nor have I said that every nation has one. Rather, some poetry has the power to build nations and define cultures, and I illustrate that point with a very recent example.

      Britain built an empire without a real epic, true — but why did Tennyson, poet laureate, feel compelled to write the Idylls of the King? He felt his nation deserved its missing epic. Indeed, the Arthurian legend defines English nationhood in much the same way as the Homeric epics defined Ancient Greece — they just lacked a unifying poem akin to the Iliad, and that’s what Tennyson tried to supply. But he was putting the cart before the horse (or rather, the horse behind the cart that was already there), and his epic could not have the same impact as the Iliad because it was not foundational.

      Or take Germany, of Bismarck’s “blood and iron” fame. Surely there was an empire built by swords — or was it? The idea of a German nation was kindled with Romanticism, with the Weimar poets playing no small role in that development. There was already a desire for nationhood in the air, and Prussian arms just happened to make that desire a reality. Without that desire, would the 25 other German states have been motivated to yield their sovereignty to Prussia?

      The Kalevala was the product of this time. It originated from a Romantic desire for a national identity, and the movement it sparked gave birth to a nation because in the 19th and 20th centuries, being a culture meant nothing without nationhood. The differences you observe in the effects of the other epics are only differences in historical circumstances that do not detract from the central and foundational role that each epic played.

      As for the Poem of the Cid and the Song of Roland, those did not define nations as much as cultures, in the same way the Homeric epics defined a culture rather than a single nation. Those epics must be considered through the lens of their time. The nation-state is a fairly recent development, a product of the Renaissance. Before that, a “nation” was a feudal possession, with language and culture being incidental. Charlemagne, Roland’s liege lord, was the founding figure of both the French and German nations, so reading the story in terms of a national identity makes no sense. What really mattered in the medieval age was whether its people lay within Christendom or not. El Cid and Roland were Christian heroes battling Muslim invaders, and their epics inspired the medieval world of chivalrous Christian knights, not the world of the nation-states that followed.

      I wrote this essay because I believe that poetry has the power to change paradigms and build nations. Surely, given current circumstances, this is something the poets that contribute to this page should all want.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Sigh. Where to begin?

    If I once more hear that tired old complaint abut how the CIA and MI6 bankrolled the Congress of Cultural Freedom and thereby guaranteed the triumph of modernism in the arts, I think I’ll vomit. Modernism and the entire modernist revolution in all the arts began and took on momentum DECADES before the CIA and MI6 even existed! Do we really need to put up a time-chart here, like they do in grade school? No one seriously thinks that Allen Dulles was the motivating force in the modernist movement! If the CIA tried to promote modernism as a temporary tactical move in the Cold War, so what? In a war you do whatever helps you to win.

    Stonor Saunders wrote out of a radical commitment to leftist ideology, and a desire to discredit Western opposition to the Soviet Union. The book was part of a larger academic movement to belittle Western resistance to Communism.

    Yes, culture and civilization include many more things than swords and spears. But without swords and spears you won’t have ANYTHING AT ALL. They come first, in terms of existential requirements. Once you have protected borders and lots of dead enemies, you can start to write your villanelles. Failure to understand this is why the West is in deep trouble today.

    Of course literature and the fine arts are important. But Greek culture existed and flowered long before the Iliad was written. The Romans had a culture long before Vergil was born. Literacy itself is not a requirement for being part of a cultural unit — in the past the vast majority of persons were completely illiterate. In fact, a good case can be made that the spread of literacy among the masses was unfortunate, since it allowed them to become prey to the destructive radical ideologies of intellectual crackpots.

    An identity of a people is not “forged by art” (this is an absurd metaphor). A people’s identity is created by being alive, by breathing, by having babies, by working, by killing enemies, by carrying out business, and by shaping the raw natural world into things that it wants to have. Once all that is guaranteed, then you can have the leisure to create an artistic and literary tradition.

    For Adam Sedia: My only argument with your essay was with its introductory four paragraphs. All that you said about Finnish history, culture, and the Kalevala was interesting and informative, and I have no reason to doubt its validity as an account of how Finnish nationalism was fired up. But those introductory paragraphs made what I consider vague and unsupportable general statements. Your sentence “National epics give birth to nations” is, in my view, egregiously incorrect.

    You ask why Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King. Well, people write poems for all sorts of reasons. It could be for aggrandizement of fame or wealth, or as a personal challenge, or whatever. Milton also planned to write an Arthurian epic, but changed his mind and produced Paradise Lost, probably because of his religious convictions. In any case, the Idylls of the King were hardly connected in any manner with the burgeoning British Empire of the 19th century, since they dealt with legendary matters from a time before a single Angle, Saxon, or Jute set foot on Roman Britannia.

    German nationalism may have been fired by Romantic poetry, but would there have been a unified Germany at all without the real “blood and iron” of Bismarck, without the victory over the French at Sedan, and German soldiers proclaiming the Reich’s foundation at the Versailles Hall of Mirrors? Let’s put first things first, please!

    Yes, nation-states are new. The medieval world is a tribal world, of Burgundians and Franks and Lombards and Visigoths and Ostrogoths and Normans and all the rest. Their only unifying factor is being white, European, and Christian. That is what Christendom is. It is what is in the process of being destroyed today but both internal and external enemies. I have dedicated my life to the world of letters. But I know this: works of literature will not save us.

    • David B. Gosselin

      I would caution against something like dismissing the Frances Stonor Saunders book, The Cultural Cold War. Everyone who cares about classical poetry, classical art, and classical culture, or wishes to understand how cultural and psychological warfare work should read it.

      The modern wars that have led to the decline of the West have not been fought with swords.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Oh please — the wars that have led to the decline of the West were World War I and World War II. They paved the path to the cultural cesspools that now surround us. The last I heard, they were fought with weaponry.

        The Stonor Saunders book fairly drips with suppressed rage and resentment over the mere fact that the CIA funded some artists and painters and magazines. What the hell were we supposed to do? The Communists were lavishly funding their own in-house artists and toady intellectuals, as all socialist states (like China) still do. And Stonor Saunders objects that we did the same for some of our artists and writers, just to put their work in front of the world’s public? Really? What exactly was her problem with that?

        You better ask yourself what the woman’s real motivations were.

  5. BDW

    First, and foremost, “Beowulf” is an epic. It may not be the greatest of epics, but it is an epic. Though it pales in artistry to Homer’s tailoring of the “Iliad”, and Vergil’s brilliant, “incomplete” classic “Aeneid”, its raw power has been important in language building in many ways. Take just one instance from recent English literature, the translation of it by Irish PostModernist poet Seamus Heaney (1939-2013). [In the last two centuries, it is striking how many writers from the small country of Ireland have contributed to English drama, poetry, and prose.]

    When I taught British Literature for a third of a century at our small Finnish-inspired high school, we always began with reading hundreds of translated lines of “Beowulf” at the beginning of the school year, and at the end of the class in Spring, concluded with lines from Heaney’s translation, amidst the vast panorama of Modernist and PostModernist British literature. It may not be as fine a work as Dante’s egocentric masterpiece “Divine Comedy”, but the anonymous likely-Christian scholar’s handling of Anglo-Saxon poetic material had enormous force and focus. In many ways, it is superior to the “Kalevala”.

    As for John Milton’s extraordinary epic “Paradise Lost”, which we also read parts of, as we progressed through the 17th century in our British literary survey, it is such an important work on so many levels, I am frankly surprised at Mr. Sedia’s cursory dismissal of it as “an apology by a failed revolutionary…very much written ‘from the outside’, and with heroes not particularly English”. [Here we could have a lengthy conversation on Milton’s style and so much else, including the influence of “Paradise Lost” on English and World literature.] Anyway, suffice it to say Tennyson’s “Idylls of the King” neither approaches its grandeur nor its massive achievement. It is hardly needless to say, that the Neoclassicists, the Romantics, the Victorians, the Modernists, the PostModernists, and the NewMillennials have yet to produce, or create, such a remarkable work in the realms of epic. In compelling ways, it has been an overriding concern of mine, and others, for over forty years.


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