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Kaarlo Sarkia (1902-1945)


Finnish poet and translator, a master of metre and rhyme, one of the most popular poets in Finland before and after World War II. Sarkia published only four collections of poetry. Most of Sarkia's poems were about unhappy love, longing, loneliness, beauty, and death.

Sauna, thou silent, smoke-blackened, dark,
Thy birch-bark roof and stove-embers!
Back to thy image my soul does hark,
The child in me still remembers
Thy decaying walls that did hide
Near by the field or fallow,
Hard by the sleeping lilac's side
Shaded by the grey sallow.

(from 'Sauna', translated by Cid Erik Tallqvist, in Voices from Finland, 1947)

Kaarlo Sarkia was born Kaarlo Teodor Sulin in Tyrvää. He was an illegitimate child. Sarkia's mother was Aleksandra Sulin, a poor maid, who was employed by Adolf Mäkelä, a farmer. In the summer of 1906 Aleksandra fell in love Malakias Korkki, a carpenter; he left her in the autumn of the same year. Aleksadra nearly died while giving birth to her only child, Kaarlo. Korkki, who later changed his name to Laaksonen, was probably Sarkia's father. He died in Turku in 1937.

At school Sarkia was a good student, but he was not active in sports and did not have skills in handicrafts. Reclusive and shy by nature, Sarkia spent his time reading books, which borrowed from the small public library. Sarkia's mother died of lung tuberculosis in 1916; her death was a deep emotional shock to him. Sarkia was first tended by his grandparents, and then by Hilda Runni, a weaver. With the help of his local mentors, he was able to study at the coeducational school of Tyrvää. During these years, he became fully aware of his homosexual tendencies. He also became seriously interested in poetry, especially the work of V.A. Koskenniemi. Of the other Finnish poets he set most value on Uuno Kailas, Yrjö Jylhä, Lauri Viljanen, and Elina Vaara.

Sarkia graduated in 1923. He served in the army where he contracted tuberculosis in the Spring of 1924. Before entering the University of Helsinki, Sarkia worked for a year as a private tutor in Rantasalmi. While studying at the University of Turku, he joined the literary circle of V.A. Koskenniemi, professor of literature at the university.

Already in Helsinki, Sarkia had moved restlessly from place to place. Later in a poem he compared the Helsinki of his youth to Sodoma. Sarkia never settled down, he lived in cheap rooms, suffered from poverty and loneliness, was hospitalized several times for tuberculosis, but he also had close, faithful friends. Among them was the critic Kaarlo Marjanen, who wrote a foreword to a general collection of his work, Runot (1945), which Sarkia himself edited. Moreover, the sisters Aune and Kyllikki Heinonen-Hiisku helped the poet financially. Sarkia was never able to keep a regular job to pay the bills or make money with his writing.

Sarkia'a first collection of poems, Kahlittu (1929, Chained), received good reviews but sold poorly. The book, published by Werner Söderström Osakeyhtiö, came out only one week before Christmas. Several of its poems dealt with loneliness, the feeling of being rejected. In 'Kyttyräselkä puhuu' (The humpback is speaking), Sarkia portrayed himself as a outcast, longing for love. Aarne Anttila praised Sarkia's maturity, manly honesty, and control of the form in his review in the journal Valvoja-Aika.

Velka elämälle (1931), Sarkia's second collection, included a poem, 'Antinous', which dealt with homoerotic love. Antinous was the passion of the Roman Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD). The moving title work, 'Velka elämälle' (The debt to life), about love and desertion, was partly based on the fate of Sarkia's mother. Also this book went unnoticed by reviewers. However, since the 1950s, the 'Velka elämälle' has been readers' favorite poems in Finland.

In December 1933 Sarkia moved from Helsinki to Turku, where he began to work at the library of the university. Its chief librarian was the writer Volter Kilpi. It turned out that Sarkia was unfit for regular work. In January 1934 Sarkia tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of Veronal. Just before the desperate attempt, he had written the poem 'Älä elämää pelkää' (Dont be afraid of life). "Älä elämää pelkää / älä sen kauneutta kiellä. / Suo sen tupaasi tulla / tai jos liettä ei sulla, / sitä vastaan käy tiellä, / älä käännä sille selkää." 

Sarkia's third collection, Unen kaivo (1936, The well of dreams), was a commercial and critical successes. Several of its poems dealt with death and loneliness, but these subjects never dominated his production, as was the case with Uuno Kailas, the Finnish prototype of a tragic poet, whose fate is to die young of tuberculosis. In the often quoted title poem, 'Unen kaivo', which ends the book, Sarkia finds his refuge in a melancholic dream; the poet lies liecefully at the bottom of a well or a lake, on the golden sand, while listening the flutes of the reeds and songs of the waves.

During his career, Sarkia achieved fame as a translator, too, particularly with his Finnish version of Rimbaud's Le Bateau ivre (Humaltunut venhe), in which he tried to keep the rhythm and rhyme of the original verse. This famous poem has also been translated by Tuomas Anhava (Juopunut pursi, 1958) and Einari Aaltonen, under the title Känninen paatti (2000). Sarkia began to translate French poetry in 1932 for the anthology Ranskan kirjallisuuden kultainen kirja (1934), edited by Anna-Maria Tallgren. Sarkia admired especially Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) and Baudelaire he also owned Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal. Sarkia's fellow student at the university of Turku, the poet and translator Yrjö Kaijärvi (1896-1971), published his translation of  Les Fleurs du Mal in 1962 under the title Pahan kukkia. A master of rhyme, he has been compared with Sarkia. And like Sarkia, he had to hide his homosexuality as it was illegal in Finland until 1971.

In 1937 Sarkia went abroad for over a year. He spent first some months in Switzerland, and then traveld to Italy. In Rome, he made a speech against Hitler. Carabiniers arrested him immediately and took him to a doctor. During the journey, Sarkia composed only a few poems, but these pieces belong to his happiest achievements, full of joy of life. After returning to Finland, he was tired and could not write. Also the outbreak of the Winter War in 1939 depressed him. Eventyually an alleged love affair released his creative muse.

Sarkia's fourth book, Kohtalon vaaka (1943, The scale of fate), came out in the middle of the Continuation War between Finland and the Soviet Union. Against the spirit of the time, it included several pacifist poems Sarkia conspicuously did not join the writers, who produced patriotic propaganda. Sarkia compared war to an "unnatural monster without a human heart," which "drives nations with the whip of hate to be slaughtered like cattle." Lauri Viljanen criticized the collection in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, accusing Sarkia of being alienated from the struggle of the nation.

After the war, Sarkia went to Sweden, where he spent a period in a hospital, and came back in worse condition than before he weighted only 50 kilos. "I really do not have any other advise," said a doctor, "that you make your will and go to the grave." Sarkia died in Sysmä of tuberculosis, on 16 November, 1945. He was buried at state expense in Helsinki. Sarkia was the last virtuoso of rhymed poetry in Finland. The poet and translator Tuomas Anhava said in 1958 in the literary magazine Parnasso, that "In the history of our poetry, Sarkia occupies more or less the same position that Keats has in English poetry and Musset in French."

For further reading: 'Kaarlo Sarkian runouden kehitysviivoja' by Kaarlo Marjanen, in Runot by Kaarlo Sarkia (1945); Uuno Kailaasta Aila Meriluotoon, ed. by Toivo Pekkanen & Reino Rauanheimo (1947); Voices from Finland, ed. by Elli Tompuri (1947); Kaarlo Sarkia by Magnus Björkenheim (1952); Suomalainen lyriikka Juhani Siljosta Kaarlo Sarkiaan by Unto Kupiainen (1965); Kaarlo Sarkia, uneksija ja kilvoittelija by Aune Hiisku (1972); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Suomalaisen runon struktuurianalyysiä by Hannu Launonen (1985); Kaltaisuuden kahleesta erilaisuuden elämykseen: käsialantutkimusta runoilijoista by Kauko Kämäräinen (2000); Merkkejä ja symboleja: esseitä kirjallisuudesta ja sen tutkimuksesta, ed. by Markku Lehtimäki (2002)

Selected works:

  • Kahlittu: runoja, 1929 [Chained]
  • Velka elämälle: runoja, 1931 [The debt to life]
  • Unen kaivo: runoja, 1936 [The well of dreams]
  • Kohtalon vaaka: runoja, 1943 [The scale of fate]
  • Runot: Kahlittu, Velka elämälle, Unen kaivo, Kohtalon vaaka, runoja kokoelmien ulkopuolelta, suomennoksia, 1944 (edited by Kaarlo Marjanen)
  • Valikoima runoja, 1958
  • Kaarlo Sarkian runoja, 1966 (edited by Maunu Niinistö)
  • Sarkian maisemia, 1985 (edited by Martti Hangaslahti, illustrated by Olli-Pekka Hannu)

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