The incomparable Juhan Liiv (2)
Kultuur 03 May 2016 Hilary BirdEWR
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Bird Droppings from Estonia

Juhan Liiv was born the son of a poor farmer in Alatskivi, Tartumaa County. He attended the parish school then, briefly, Hugo Treffner's Gymnasium in Tartu. From 1885- 1892 Liiv worked as a journalist in Tallinn, Viljandi and Tartu. Poverty and overwork, however, undermined his mental health and Liiv was admitted to the Psychiatric Hospital in Tartu in 1894. He returned home to his family after treatment and spent the rest of his life in Alatskivi writing during intermittent lucid spells. His elder brother was the schoolteacher Jakob Liiv (1859-1938) whose sharp satires on corrupt officialdom failed to pass the censor but circulated in manuscript.

Juhan’s first works, published in the early 1890s, were prose stories and a novel The shadow, Vari (1894) that shows the influence of Realist writers E. Wilde and A. Kitzberg. Villu, the main protagonist in The shadow is an autobiographical figure, a gifted peasant boy whose hopes of improving his lot are frustrated by social injustice and whose excessive sensitivity inhibits personal relationships with women.

Liiv is remembered most as a poet. His evocation of the natural beauty of his home on the shores of Lake Peipsi, a desperate love for his downtrodden native land and a love of art and beauty were major topics throughout his life. His work remains perennially popular and he is known as “the last poet of the Awakening.”

Liiv’s work lies outside of any literary trends. The conscious use of style and meter meant nothing to him, though his unconscious use of Symbolism presages much in 20th century Estonian literature. His poetry is laconic and sparse, conveying feeling with sensitivity, economy and force. Liiv called his poetry, composed when vacillating between schizophrenic moods of hope and despair, “fluttering rags.” Often only fragments remain.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia –see introduction) group discovered that Liiv was alive but living in obscurity. Friedebert Tuglas was of the view that Liiv’s poetry was the best in the Estonian language and published collections of his work in 1909. They were popular and were re-printed in 1910. Noor Eesti also supported Liiv financially.

Juhan Liiv’s death was as poignant as his life. He was expelled from a train because he had not bought a ticket, leaving his coat behind. It was winter and very cold and the poet, who was already suffering from TB, caught pneumonia. He died at his family home in the village of Koosa. Juhan Liiv died in 1913 and is buried in Alatskivi.

(Selected poems, translated by Hilary Bird.)

Snowflake, Lumehelbeke (1891)

Tiny flakes of snow
Softly, softly
hover on the window
Softly … softly

And as I tarry
Softly, softly.
Thoughts, they carry
Softly, softly!

Why beats my heart so?
Softly, softly!
Be still and slow-
Softly, softly …

I Saw Estonia Yesterday, Eile nägin ma Eestimaad (10 January 1904)

I saw Estonia yesterday.
I saw hovels, huts and shacks,
I saw luggage, bags and sacks,
In the fields, limestone stacks -
I saw Estonia yesterday!

I saw Estonia yesterday!
Farmhouses fallen into decay!
Oh, what an exhausted, blocked-up way!
All around juniper, alder splay!
I saw Estonia yesterday!

I saw Estonia yesterday!
All is shrubbery, thickets, ill,
Places of ugliness and weakened will,
Spirits and thoughts so dusty, still -
I saw Estonia yesterday!

The bees fly to the hive, Ta lendab mesipuu poole (1905)

The little bees fly from flower to flower,
the hive getting closer every hour;
clouds and thunder, they threaten and glower,
but home gets closer every hour.
Though thousands fall along the way,
thousands will live and will not stray.
The bees forget all care and worry,
as towards their hive they hurry.

Soul, my soul, the times are so bad --
Oh, how I feel for my homeland;
whether at home, or abroad and sad,
how I feel so for my homeland!
Terrible winds, how they buffet and thrash,
and throw deadly missiles upon the track:
but the bees forget both death and pain,
like eagles they rise to come home again !

Ringing, Helin (1910)

When I was young and a little man
a ringing within my heart began

And when I grew to man’s estate,
the ringing grew stronger and very great

Now the ringing has risen above my head
and my heart is buried under rubble and lead

My spirit and life are the ringing sounds,
grown too small for earthly bounds!

Cold, Külm

A pine tree cracks in the cold,
a fir crackles, quivering, in sleep ...
the wind sprinkles chrystals,
the dawn in the east is blood red...
a flutter from the north – smoke !
In the dawn light an animal cry!
Wolf, elk and deer, they sigh
awaiting the sun in the morning sky.
From time to time the cold cracks.
deathly silence, the woods in rime …
the dawn in the east is blood red...
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