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Juhani Siljo (1888-1918) - original surname Sjögren


Finnish poet, ascetic, Nietzschean moralist and idealist, who did not publish much – Siljo produced all his writings in the 1910s – but his influence continued from the 1920s over World War II generation, and also left traces in popular song lyrics. Siljo emphasized honest self-scrutiny, purity, and uprightness. "I have only one passion: a straight line," he wrote. Siljo died of his injuries during the Civil War in 1918.

Vastavirtaan kulkee lohen suku.
Aallon urho, terässuomupuku,
meren kehdon keinunnasta läksi
vihreilt' ulapoilta Pohjaa kohti,
oma luonto, lohen luonto johti
ylemmäksi, yhä ylemmäksi,
missä vedet hopein hohtelee,
päiväksi miss' yökin vaalenee,
kevään puhaltaissa yli maan,
valon palatessa pohjolaan.

(from 'Vastavirtaan', in Selvään veteen, 1919)

Juhani (Johan Alarik) Siljo was born in Oulu into a sailor family. He was the youngest of five children. Originally Siljo's surname was Sjögren; Siljo changed his name in 1906. His father, Aleksander Sjögren, drowned in the Atlantic Ocean in 1897. Siljo's mother, Maria Josefina (Harjapää) Sjögren, a deeply religious woman, took her son early to Pietistic prayer meetings. Although Siljo later utilized Christian symbols and imagery in his poetry, it also had a strong pantheistic element. Siljo once said, that "if believers think that you are a pagan and pagans that you are a believer, think yourself: all right!"

Siljo entered the University of Helsinki in 1907, but he never graduated. After a short period of studies, Siljo devoted himself entirely to writing. His first collection of poems, Runoja (1910, Poems), already showed some of his central ideas: a poet should have strict ethical principles, avoid compromises, and be faithful to one's individual striving. The opening of 'Excelsior' celebrates clean-hearted idealism and echoes Schopenhauerian concept of will: "Like a strung bow is this will of mine / from the sun I received my order and aim /." But in the posthumously published collection Selvään veteen  (1919, To clear waters) Siljo crystallized ironically his youthful, uncompromising view of life: "Rather half life fully than whole life half-hearted – the motto of every 20-year-old."

Siljo began his active career as a translator in 1908 with Max Halbe's story Frau Meseck, which had appeared in 1897. It was followed by translations from Novalis, Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, Baudelaire, and others. Siljo contributed to Helsingin Sanomat, travelling in 1911 with his writer's fee in Germany and France. Due to his shortage of money, he walked parts of the journey and slept in parks. However, he loved exercise and once he walked from Helsinki to Oulu.

None of Siljo's books sold well during his life time. Maan puoleen (1914, Toward the earth) sold 164 copies in three years, although it received good reviews. From 1915 to 1916 Siljo worked in Jyväskylä as a library assistant. During this period he also began an affair with the writer Ain' Elisabet Pennanen, who was married, and who later depicted their relationship in the novel Kaksi raukkaa (1968, ed. by Jarno Pennanen). Siljo's poems 'Kahden puolen aikaa' and 'Loitsu' in the collection Selvään veteen were his veiled confessions of his yearning for her. In Pennanen's novel Laisa Helmer falls in love with a young poet, Elias Herkko. Laisa is married to Åke Helmer, a Ph.D., who considers poetry rubbish. Elias doesn't want to marry her which is also her wish – she wants security, not free love. Laila gains success with her play. After the outbreak of the war, Elias joins the army. He dies from his wounds and Laisa's divorce from his husband comes into force.

During the last years of his life, Siljo was the subeditor of the magazine Valvoja. His life ended tragically. He was a corresponded on the side of White Guards at the Finnish Civil War (1917-18) and was wounded in the legs during a combat in Orivesi. He was captured by the Reds and died on May 6, 1918, in Tampere at a military hospital situated at Tammela's school. At that time the city had been conquered by his comrades after bloody battles. Siljo became a legend, although he did not write much about the war. He paralleled Socialism with leprosy, which comes from the east. "Tuli tauti Idästä – alhaiso vapaus. Moni uskoi; vaaraton tartuntatapaus /" (from 'Spitaali', 1917).

Ain' Elisabeth Pennanen met Siljo before his death and edited his last collection, Selvään veteen. It was praised by V.A. Koskenniemi in the magazine Valvoja. Koskenniemi stated that Siljo's poems are surrounded by "beautiful atmosphere of loneliness" and noted that Siljo personifies the sun like Franciscus of Assisi – it is his "father". In 'Vastavirtaan' Siljo declared that one must be ready to swim against the current, like a salmon, to fulfill one's calling. In the 1920s and 1930s, when a great ideological gulf divided artists and writers in their attitude to the Soviet Union, Siljo was an icon of the right-wing Finland. His influence was seen in the work of Uuno Kailas, Yrjö Jylhä, and Aaro Hellaakoski, all poets with a distinct and significant voice.

During his career as a journalist Siljo wrote nearly 200 literary reviews and essays. He published studies of Eino Leino (1912) and Teuvo Pakkala (1917), the play Seppelöity (1918), and a polemic article about literature Rajankäyntiä nykyisen kirjallisuutemme suunnista (1914) under the pseudonym Kimmo. It was written in the form of a debate in which Siljo attacked urbanism, modernism, and internationalism. Compared to Eino Leino (1878-1926) or Otto Manninen (1872-1950), Siljo was more straightforward. Poetry was for him a serious instrument of introspection. Aphorism became him a close and natural form of expressions, as is seen from his journal, Tilikirja (Book of reckoning). It is full of crystallized, sharp notes, which varied from dogmatic opinions to unorthodox insights: "If devout Christians consider you a heathen and heathens a devout Christian, think: all right!"

For further reading: Juhani Siljo oman minuutensa rakentajana by Kalle Sorainen (1936); Aleksis Kivestä Saima Harmajaan: suomalaisten kirjailijoiden elämäkertoja (1943); Juhani Siljo arvostelijana by Eino S. Repo (1947); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Juhani Siljon kirjallisuus- ja taidekäsitys by Marja-Liisa Kunnas (1974); A History of Finland's Literature, ed. by John Schoolfield (1998); 'Puoli elämää kokonaisesti' by Juhani Sipilä, in Runot by Juhani Siljo (1999): Ainokaiselleni: näkyvä ja näkymätön Ain'Elisabet Pennasen rakkaudessa Juhani Siljoon by Matti Itkonen (2002)  

Selected works:

  • translator: Max Halbe, Rouva Meseck: kyläkertomus, 1908 (original title: Frau Meseck: Eine Dorfgeschichte)
  • Runoja, 1910 [Poems]
  • translator: Siegbjörn Obstfelder, Risti: rakkaustarina, 1911 (original title: Korset)
  • Eino Leino lyyrikkona, 1912
  • translator: Matti Aikio, Eläinten nahoissa: tarina Ruijasta, 1912 (foreword by V. A. Koskenniemi)
  • translator: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Torquato Tasso, 1913
  • Maan puoleen: runoja, 1914 [Toward the earth]
  • Rajankäyntiä nykyisen kirjallisuutemme sunnista, 1914 (as Kimmo)
  • translator: Friedrich von Schiller, Rosvot: viisinäytöksinen näytelmä, 1915 (original title: Die Räuber)
  • translator: Heinrich von Kleist, Rikottu ruukku: huvinäytelmä, 1916 (original title: Der zerbrochene Krug)
  • Teuvo Pakkala: kirjailijakuva, 1917
  • Seppelöity: murheellinen komedia, 1918
  • translator: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Nathan viisas: viisinäytöksinen näytelmäruno, 1919 (original title: Nathan der Weise)
  • Selvään veteen: runoja ja tunnuslauseita, 1919 (collected by Ain'Elisabeth Pennanen) [To clear waters]
  • translator: Jonas Lie, Kolmimasto "Tulevaisuus" eli elämää Pohjolassa, 1920 (original title: Tremasteren "Fremtiden")
  • Runot ja aforismia, 1947 (foreword by Unto Kupiainen)
  • Valikoima runoja, 1958
  • Jännitetty jousi: valikoima runoja, 1987 (edited by Salme Saure)
  • Vapaat vedet, 1989
  • Rajankäyntejä, 1991 (edited by Tero Liukkonen)
  • Runot, 1999

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