Seeking the contours of a ‘truly’ Estonian literature

In the late-19th-century atmosphere of Russification, one poet emerged whose tragic life and feverish creativity, alternating with mental instability, has had a marked impact on Estonian poetry as a whole - Juhan Liiv (1864-1913). His prophetic talent is evident primarily in his poems predicting the birth of Estonian state. The explicitness of imagery in Liiv’s nature poetry, the tenderness and originality of his love poems, plus an finely tuned perception of social relations and excellent sense of form, all these were quite unprecedented, both against the background of epigonic poetry of the time, as well as a century later.

Liiv’s influence on the whole of subsequent Estonian literature is vividly illustrated by the following legend: the sick poet had donated to the building of the "Estonia", the first Estonian theatre, the only thing he possessed - his jacket. Ivar Grünthal (1924-1996), poet and brilliant essayist, drew from that story a comparison with Estonian poetry in its entirety, which to this day gleans material and themes from Juhan Liiv’s work. Liiv’s influence is also demonstrated by the poetry prize named after him, and awarded, since 1965, at his birthplace, Alatskivi Manor on the shores of Lake Peipsi, to the author of the most remarkable poem published during the preceding year.

During the last decade of the 19th century, another writer, Eduard Vilde, who led an adventurous life in Germany and Denmark, introduced a realistic direction into Estonian prose. Having learnt the fashionable trends in Berlin, the social democrat Vilde was the first professional Estonian writer whose socially critical historical novels depicted life in 19th century Estonia, corvée and the Peasant Revolt of 1858, large-scale religious conversions, together with the mass exodus of the peasants to Russia, plus the waiting for the mythical White Ship which, according to a symbolism derived from the Bible, was supposed to take the Estonian people to the Promised Land. Against a background of the 20th-century intelligentsia’s aspirations towards Europe, Vilde ridiculed the cultural and economic upstarts and the cult of mammon in his plays.

Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) was established in 1905 and led by the poet Gustav Suits (1883-1956) and the short-story writer Friedebert Tuglas (1886-1971). It brought a new intellectual sparkle into Estonian literature. Together with linguist and poet Grünthal-Ridala and the reformer of the Estonian language Johannes Aavik (1880-1973), the members of the group deliberately cultivated their aesthetic programme, by following French, German, Scandinavian and Italian fashionable trends, and Finnish literature, and tried to raise Estonian criticism and aesthetic thinking to a corresponding level. The rallying cry of Suits serves well to express their general aspirations: “Let us remain Estonians, but also become Europeans!”

The 1905 Russian Revolution scattered the members of Young Estonia and their social-democratically minded contemporaries, some fleeing into exile. Opportunities to publish their work at home, however, still remained. For Tuglas, those years of travelling round Europe and North Africa, a period lasting till 1917, i.e. almost until the establishment of the first Republic of Estonia, formed a highly instructive period that is clearly reflected in his work. Although Tuglas started out as a Realist writer, his short-stories, written largely in exile, display neo-Romantic trends - Impressionism, Symbolism, and later, carried by the mood of war, Expressionism. The form of both the short-stories of Tuglas and the poems of Suits is extremely refined, revealing intense thought, as well as impulses gained from Modernist currents. Both writers remained in the limelight of Estonian literature for decades: for his leading role and critical doctrine, Tuglas was even called ‘the Pope of Estonian literature’; Suits excelled as a poet and an academic, teaching literature for many years at the University of Helsinki.

In his historical novel Maapagu (Exile, 1988), which exhibits characteristics of an essay in cultural history, Estonian writer and anthropologist Ilmar Talve (born 1919) who lives in Finland, describes the Young Estonians in exile as shepherd boys in Europe, eager to learn. This comparison entails a typical shift in the literature of Estonia in relation to the rest of the world, now wishing to be present there, to have arrived, and to be contemporary. And yet it still seems to lag one step behind developments elsewhere. A good example of such shift of feeling was the magazine Tarapita, and the movement attached to it, that first appeared in the 1920s. Tarapita poetry quite definitely imitated the motifs of German expressionism that began in 1910, and the programme of the Clarté group, of later vintage.

Early 20th-century literature did not only consist of various movements and groups. The most prominent prose writer of the time, and who is still widely read today, was Oskar Luts (1887-1953), especially his popular lyrical school novel Kevade (Spring). Another significant author was Jaan Oks (1884-1918), an impulsive talent who wrote naturalistic short stories and fragmentary poetry. The poetry of Ernst Enno (1875-1934), unjustly neglected in his lifetime, rose in popularity much later. Inspired by Buddhism and Taoism and their western popularisers, Enno introduced oriental meditativeness into Estonian poetry.

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