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J(osef) J(ulius) Wecksell (1838 - 1907)

 

The most talented postromantic Swedish speaking writer in Finland, whose best-known work is the tragedy Daniel Hjort. Wecksell broke down at the age of 24, and lived the rest of his life, 45 years, at a mental institution in Lapinlahti. He published only one collection of poems before his illness.

"Att våga eller icke är det första,
Att lyckas eller inte är det andra,
Och deremellan ligger handlingen.
"
(from 'Almqvist')

Josef Julius Wecksell was born in Turku, the son of Johan Wecksell, a hat maker, and Sofia Ulrika Björkelund. Wecksell's father had no formal education, but both of his parents were culturally active – they spoke French, had a piano, and were interested in theatre. Sofia Ulrika had a lifetime interest in Swedenborg's teachings. There was no permanent theatre in Turku, but touring groups vivited the city. The family lived first at 10 Brunnsgatan, and then moved to 5 Nylandsgatan.

At the age of 12 Wecksell had made his own theatre of paper dolls. A litte later, he began to try his hand at writing poems, some of which were religious or had anecdotal or erotic character, and collected them in booklets. "Vita häften" (White booklet), dated from 1853, was titled Julles Pojkar verser af J.J. Vecksell. He also had black, green and other booklets. When he was sixteen, his play Tre friare (Three suitors), was performed in Turku and then in Helsinki, and later in Stockholm. A hundred years later it was adapted into a radio play.

In his youth, Wecksell contributed to Åbo Underrättelser and Åbo Tidningar. He had his own period of Wertherism before concentrating on the history and fate of his own country. His artist friends included August Fredrik Ahlstedt, Berndt Lindholm, and Walter Runeberg. Wecksell knew many German poems by heart and recited them for  Runeberg, who sculpted a portrait of him.

Wecksell's early patriotic poems followed the models set by J.L. Runeberg. During his 'Sturm-und-Drang' period he read Heine and Schiller, and also wrote a poem to his memory. Wecksell's first love was his 12-year old cousin, Ida Fock, who died in 1855. Wecksell devoted to her the poem 'Barnet bland grafvarna.' Inspired by Byron, he wrote 'Don Juans avsked från lived', in which the hero bids his farewell to the world. His love poems composed for "Helmi" (The pearl) were inspired by the beautiful Constance Wilhelmina Lundström, who married in 1863 Robert Montgomery.

After graduating from Åbo gynmnasium, Wecksell entered the University of Helsinki in 1858. Aleksis Kivi studied there, too, but Wecksell joined the circle around Walfrid Alftan, and associated more with artists than writers. His first major play was Två studenter på runosamling (1859). Before writing Daniel Hjort, he had finished a tragedy entitled Skuggornas hämnd in 1861, but he was not satisfied with it. At the suggestion of his teacher Fredrik Cygnaeus, he translated a part of Goethe's play Torquato Tasso.

Although the Russian officials had forbidden student organizations – they were considered potentially subversive – Wecksell participated in underground meetings. He admired the Italian freedom fighter Garibaldi, whom he saw as a symbol of constitutional ideals. Wecksell's poem 'Italienaren' was dedicated to Garibaldi, whose portrait decorated students' assembly room. Another hero was the explorer G.A. Wallin, for whom Wecksell wrote a poem starting with the words: "På öknens slätter i natten / en beduin framfar, / kamelen vaggar sakta / och himmeln tindrar klar." Shakespeare's works influenced deeply Wecksell's writing – he read them in Swedish translation, published in 1847-1851.

Wecksell's first collection of verse, Valda ungdomsdikter (1860, Selected youthful poems), was unfortunately published in the same year as the second part of J.L. Runeberg's highly popular Fänrik Ståls sägner (1848-1860). However, later the composer Jean Sibelius used Wecksell's lyrics in several of his songs, among them 'Demanten på marssnön' (The diamond on the snow in March). When Wecksell had earlier composed his verses freely, enjoying rhyming, his attitude toward writing became more serious and professional.  From this period came Wecksell's poem 'Svenskan och Finskan' (Swedish and Finnish), one of the first texts dealing with language question: the educated elite was Swedish speaking, whereas the majority of the population spoke Finnish as their native tongue.

After being treated for a veneral disease, Wecksell was declared to be cured, but his mental strength was fading fast. He worked feverishly with his most famous drama Daniel Hjort, about good intentions and dreams crushed by reality. It was first time performed in November 1862 at the New Theatre in Helsinki and published next year with an introduction by Uno Cygnaeus. In 1864 it was performed in Sweden. Since then the play had maintained its status as a living classic and the most significant Finnish drama written in Swedish before Aleksis Kivi's works paved way for the Finnish-language theatre.

"Mikään terveysnäytelmä tämä ei ole. Henkilöiden housuissa on kamala olla. Voidakseen toimia he tarvitsevat velvoituksen, tiedostetun taustan, aikaisemmin kärsityn häpeän tai yleensä edesmenneen nöyrytyksen, nykyisten mittapuiden mukaan melko abstraktin velvotteen, joka antaa heille sysäyksen toimia. Ja toimintana voi olla yleensä vain kosto tai pako." (the director Jouko Turkka on Danel Hjort, 1981)

The story is set in the Turku Castle in 1599, after the period when the peasant rebellion in Ostrobothnia, known as the War of the Maces, was mercilessly stopped by Klaus Fleming. The main characters are Sigismund, King of Poland, his opponent and nephew Charles, who became King Charles IX, Admiral Klaus Fleming, supporter of Sigismund, and the young Daniel Hjort, who must choose his side in the battle of power. Hjort is a tormented character like Hamlet, his father was beheaded on Fleming's order but he was brought up in Fleming's family. And like Hamlet he has spent much of his life in study, but he is a man of action too. Wecksell depicted him as a representantive of the people – against historical knowledge. For love and idealistic reasons, Hjort becomes the traitor of the sieged castle of Turku. He concludes that the real moral challenge is to resist oppression, not in slavish following of power. And as in Shakespeare's plays, most of the central characters are killed at the end.

"Have you the courage to venture your heart-strings and blood,
Your joy and your welfare on earth,
For truth and for right? Then, laddie good,
Step into our circle, with mirth.
"
(from Daniel Hjort)

After having finished Daniel Hjort, Wecksell was completely exhausted; he saw hallucinations and he realized how fragile his mental balance was. However, he was present at the first performance of his tragedy, where he supposedly said: "It sounds so familiar, but I don't recall where I read it." For a period he spent in the Endenich asylum near Cologne. The treatments were unsuccessful. On September 28, 1865, he entered Lapinlahti mental hospital, on the seashore of Helsinki, without never returning. One of his fellow patients in 1872 was Aleksis Kivi. Mental instability ran in Wecksell's family: his two brothers went insane, one descended into alcoholism, and one was considered as "extremely peculiar."

Wecksell's other noteworthy writings include poems, which were composed during the early stage of his illness. In 'Jag midnattens barn' (1862), included in the collected poems from 1868, the poet calls himself as the child of the midnight. Some of the fragmentary texts reflect his agony and fears, when he is facing the approaching mental collapse. In a poem, probably written in Bonn, he confessed: "On a cloud you are standing!" But the euphoria of thoughts reaching the height of God soon disappears and the poet realizes that the cloud has vanished. Wecksell struggle with schizophrenia took over 40 years. He died on August 9, 1907, in Helsinki. His work inspired Arvid Mörne, who published his biography in 1909 and his poetry and other material in Nya Wecksell-studier (1920).

For further reading: Josef Julius Wecksell by Arvid Mörne (1909); Nya Wecksellstudier by Arvid Mörne (1920); 'Josef Julius Wecksell och hans diktning' by Karin Allardt Ekelund, in Samlade dikter JJ.J Wecksell (1962); Över stumhetens gräns by Mikael Enckell (1972); A History of Finnish Literature by Jaakko Ahokas (1973); Suomen kirjallisuus runonlaulajista 1800-luvun loppuun. II osa by Eino Karhu (1979); Finlands svenska litteraturhistoria I, ed. by Johan Wrede (1999); Turkulainen näytelmä by Emma Puikkonen (2001) - Note 1: Daniel Hjort was basis for Selim Palmgren's opera Daniel Hjort. It was performed first time on April 21, 1910.

Selected works:

  • Två studenter på runosamling, 1859
  • Daniel Hjort: sorgspel i fem ackter med fyra tablåer, 1863
    - Daniel Hjort: murhenäytelmä viidessä näytöksessä ja neljässä kuvaelmassa (suom. Paavo Cajander, 1877) / Daniel Hjort: viisinäytöksinen murhenäytelmä suom. Mikko Kilpi, 1957) / Daniel Hjort (suom. Matti Rossi, jälkisanat Jouko Turkka, 1981)
  • Valda ungdomsdikter, 1860
  • Samlade dikter, 1868 (5. uppl. med en inledning av Gunnar Castén, 1919)
  • Viisi runoa, 1894 (suom. Irene Mendelin)
  • Samlade dikter 1-2, 1891 (3. tillökade uppl.)
  • Valikoima runoelmia, 1908 (suom. Aukusti Simelius)
  • Daniel Hjort: opera i tre akter av Selim Palmgren, 1910
    - Daniel Hjort: 6-kuvaelmainen ooppera Josef Julius Wecksellin murhenäytelmän mukaan (libretto suom. Matti Rossi; säveltänyt Selim Palmgren, 1994)
  • Samlade dikter, 1919 (introduction by Gunnar Castrén)
  • Lyrik YRIK, 1921 (edited by Magnus Hagelstam and Arvid Mörne)
  • Giftermålsspekulanten: komedi i en akt med sång, 1931
  • Tre friare: skämt i en akt med sång, 1931
  • Sydänyön lapsen lauluja: kokoelma runoja, 1941 (suom. Reino Hirviseppä)
  • Dikter i urval, 1960 (edited by Karin Allardt Ekelund)
  • Samlade dikter, 1962 (edited by Karin Allardt Ekelund)
  • Ensimmäinen pastis plataanien alla: panosvyö runoja sekä herrojen että työläisten käyttöön eli ottakaa taas kerran mittaa toisistanne jos mitat muka ovat päässeet unohtumaan, 2007 (suom. Jarkko Laine)


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