Kalevalameter in the 16th and 17th century literate poems

Kati Kallio

Suomen Kirjallisuuden Seura


The earliest Finnish poems were written by learned clergymen at the time of the Reformation. Both the first Finnish sources of the old kalevalameter and the new rhymed, stanzaic songs derive from the 16th and 17th centuries, often in various hybrid forms.

The first liturgical songs in Finnish language (1530–) mostly avoided kalevalametric features. The editor of the first Finnish hymnal (1583), Jacobus Finno, emphasised the importance of writing the hymns with rhymes, as they were in other Christian regions. Yet, at about the same time, in the Finnish Church of Stockholm, someone translated two traditional Pentecostal hymns in a strange mixture of kalevalameter and iambic, rhymed pattern. These songs mark a poetic turn. In the new hymns for the second edition of the Finnish hymnal (1605) by Hemmingius de Masco and others, alliteration and kalevalametric verse structures are mixed with iambic, stanzaic and rhymed patterns. Yet, it was only in 1690 that the first Lutheran poem in a purely oral-like kalevalameter, a long Passion Ilo-Laulu Jesuxesta by Mathias Salamnius, was published.

The first secular poems in Finnish language appear around the middle of the 17th century. The first printed poem was published in the first translation of the entire Bible in 1642 as a dedication to the Queen Christina of Sweden, written with clear pattern of rhyme (ABAB), alliteration and an ambiguous syllabic pattern of four beats. In the following decades, various different forms appeared. For most part, these poems were made with trochaic verses of four feet and a rhyme pattern uniting the verses into couplets. Kalevalametric structures were common, even ones nearly identical to the oral traditions, although, in many cases, the rules of syllabic length were not followed.

All in all, these texts show a very complex process of creating different poetic registers in Finnish language. The poetic choices seem to depend on individual poets, on poetic genres and on the larger historical contexts. The texts situate in various ways between oral and literate, folk and elite traditions: we have both iambic hymn translations by learned clergymen intended for oral folk use and a decoratively printed kalevalametric poem for literate use. The history of the first two centuries of Finnish poetry is a history of both the development of rhymed songs and the creation of literary versions of kalevalameter.