Uuno Kailas was a Finnish poet, one of the most popular ones in the period between the two World Wars. Considered to be the archetypal tragic poet, he lived a short and sad life, never enjoying the popularity he deserved during his lifetime, and died in poverty, struggling with mental sickness and disease. Yet within the span of his tragically short life—he died days short of his 32nd birthday—he wrote such poignant poetry that he became immortal in the annals of the history of literature. Topics such as death, darkness, burden, and illness were recurring motifs in his poetry, a stark reminder of the era he lived in, which was marked by escalating political unrest, wars, mass destruction and loss of faith in humanity. The tragedies of his own sad life were also reflected in his poems. His childhood difficulties began when his mother died in childbirth when he was hardly two. His bohemian father was largely absent from his life and he was raised by his strict grandmother. He also suffered from mental illnesses and never enjoyed robust physical health. Always in a state of mental turmoil, writing poetry was the only respite in his lonely life. He was a prolific poet and several collections of his poetry were published both during his lifetime and posthumously.
He participated in a Finnish guerilla raid into the Soviet territory, known as the Aunus expedition, in 1919. During that time he wrote patriotic poetry calling for national unity while facing the enemy. His close friend Bruno Schildt died during this raid and this affected the young poet tremendously.
In 1920, he enrolled at the University of Helsinki to study aesthetics and history of literature and continued his studies till 1926. During his time at the university he also wrote a lot, devoting much of his time to literary pursuits.
Along with writing poetry he also translated the works of others and wrote criticisms of others’ works. Many of his writings were published in the newspaper ‘Helsingin Sanomat’ and the literary magazine ‘Nuori Voima’.
He was exposed to expressionism through some of the works he translated and was influenced by the ideals of this movement.
His first collection of poetry, ‘Tuuli ja tähkä’ (The wind and the corn's ear) was published in 1922. This collection was not a huge success, but Kailas was not disappointed. He continued writing.
He served in the army from 1923 to 1925, and published his second collection of poetry, ‘Purjehtijat’ (Sailors) in 1925. The poems in this collection were heavily influenced by elements of German Expressionism. He also made liberal use of Christian and mythological symbols.
He became involved with the literary association ‘Nuoren Voiman Liitto’ and met many like-minded writers including Katri Vala. However, he was always plagued by thoughts of gloom, guilt and melancholy even in the midst of the more optimistic and enthusiastic poets.
In 1926, he published another collection of poems, ‘Silmästä silmään’ (From eye to eye). This work was based on the themes of eroticism and sensual pleasures and thus was not received positively by the conservatives in the society.
He began to suffer from poor health in the late 1920s and was plagued by both physical and mental illnesses. He experienced hallucinations and was consumed by suicidal thoughts. Because of his ill health he became preoccupied with the images of death.
Another collection of his poetry, ‘Paljain jaloin’ (On bare feet) was released in 1928, and a few years later his final collection, ‘Uni ja kuolema’ (Sleep and death), was published in 1931. He wrote about dreams and death in his final works, leading his friends to believe that he knew of his impending death.
He was born as Frans Uno Salonen on 29 March 1901 in Heinola, Finland, into a family of farmers to Eevert Kailanen and Olga (Honkapää) Salonen. His mother died while giving birth to twins when Uuno was two. The twins too did not survive.
His father lived a bohemian life and did not care much about the boy. As a kid Uuno grew up in the homes of his grandmother, uncles, and aunts. His grandmother, Maria Fredrika Juhontytär, was a very religious Christian, and her values would influence the works of the poet in future.
He received his early education from the schools in Heinola.
He was deeply in love with Lyyli Pajunen with whom he shared a home in 1926. However, their relationship came to an end when Lyyli had an abortion. Also his increasing mental instability made it difficult for Lyyli to continue her relationship with him. In addition Kailas also suffered from sexual problems.
He suffered from depression and was never of sound physical health. In 1929, he was hospitalized due to schizophrenia and shortly afterwards he became ill with tuberculosis. He died in Nice, France, on 22 March, 1933. His ashes were brought to Finland and buried in Helsinki.
A memorial by the sculptor Yrjö Liipola was erected in his memory in 1939.