Baltic German literature and its impact

Chronicles and theatrical performances by the Baltic German nobility, plus the occasional poetry written for various anniversaries, formed the basis for local Baltic German literature which, despite the barriers of status and language, had its impact on Estonian literature. Baltic German literature, initially written in Low German, actually developed in relative isolation, both from the indigenous population and from the rest of the German-speaking world. In a later German-language cultural world, it also remained a phenomenon apart, quietly sinking into nostalgia. In a historical situation where borders and nationality coincided, the more prominent personages who have, in the course of the alternation between alien powers, left their impact in the cultural history on Estonian territory, include the Swedish poet Georg Stiernhielm, who lived in the Tartu county in the first half of the 17th century, plus one of the founders of Russian romanticism, Vassili Andreevich Zhukovsky, during the early 19th century. However, their contacts with local people, who were still tackling the problem of literacy, were far and few between.

The earliest example of Estonian-language poetry dates back to 1637. This nuptial poem was written by Reiner Brockmann (1609-1647), teacher of Greek at the Tallinn Gymnasium, and entitled Carmen Alexandrinum Esthonicum ad leges Opitij poeticas compositum. This poem, the very first in Estonia, is written in a lofty style and set an example for numerous poets to follow. Nevertheless, such poetical excursions remained social pastimes. On the other hand, the mistress of Viitina manor, Barbara Juliane von Krüdener (1764-1824), had closer contacts with the spiritual life of the peasantry, largely thanks to the Moravian Brethren religious movement. Her novel Valérie, written in French, even had an impact on no less a figure than Marcel Proust.

The role of Baltic Germans in Estonian literature can be characterised by the 1839 rallying cry phrased by the poet and folklorist Georg Julius Schultz-Bertram (1808-1875): “Give people an epic and some history, and the battle’s won!” Friedrich Robert Faehlmann (1798-1850) began compiling the epic, which was finished by Kreutzwald. Both compilers were doctors and of Estonian origin. The lengthy epic ballad, constructed on the stylistic basis of the Finnish national epic the Kalevala, and written in an original form imitating the runic verse, and was first published in instalments together with its German translation, between 1857 and 1861. The subsequent popular editions had a decisive effect on the rise of Estonian national self-awareness. The vitality and inspirational influence of the Kalevipoeg is witnessed by its numerous retellings and treatments, e.g. Enn Vetemaa’s (born 1936) travesty Memoirs of the Son of Kalev in 1971, Andrus Kivirähk’s (born 1970) collection of comic short prose, Kalevipoeg in 1997.

Since the impetus to produce an epic and - albeit unwittingly and indirectly - towards national awakening was largely provided by Estophiles of German origin, the Estonian nation was thus occasionally regarded as a Baltic German fantasy come true. For Baltic Germans, Estonian emancipation, including a struggle to attain sovereignty, was an unexpected surprise. This process has been tackled in Estonian literature in, for example, 19th century depictions of peasant unrest in the novels of Eduard Vilde (1865-1933), right up to Ene Mihkelson’s (born 1944) deeply psychological work today. Mihkelson's novels and poetry analyse the complex process undergone by Estonians who have developed from being a peasant nation to becoming masters of their own fate and land, shaping their own identity, and maintaining these in the face of hostile powers.

Up until the mid-19th century, occasional literature, sentimentally pious stories, and also such seminal works as Kreutzwald’s story Viina katk (The Plague of Vodka, 1840) and the poem Lembitu largely relied on German-language models and were adapted to Estonian circumstances. Lydia Koidula (1843-1886), initiator of a tradition of Estonian patriotic poetry and other women poets also imitated, directly or indirectly, the German Biedermeier poetry. Koidula's collection, Emajõe ööbik (The Nightingale of the Emajõgi River, 1867) does, however, express budding national sentiments. From Kreutzwald’s epic and Koidula’s poetry, stories and plays onwards, we can speak of a continuity of literature written by Estonians themselves. Early attempts, e.g. the lament of the parish clerk Käsu Hans, "Oh Tartu! Poor City of Mine…" (1708), dating to the Great Northern War, remained few and far between, unconscious expressions of the mission of Estonian-language literature.

One remarkable exception in the early 19th century was Kristjan Jaak Peterson (1801-1822) who called himself a poet of the people of the local nation, and managed to acquire a broad education during his short lifetime. His romantic verse, following the examples of classical literature, proved the vitality of the Estonian language, and presaged a great future for it. Peterson’s unpublished poetry, alas, remained forgotten for a long time and emerged to influence the process of literature as late as the beginning of the 20th century. Peterson’s birthday, 14th March, is today celebrated as the day of the Estonian language.

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