Estonian literature - born on the margins of Europe

From the first written records in the 17th century onwards, Estonian literature can be characterised by its tendency to borrow, and by its emphatically European orientation. This Western orientation was shaped by the Latin alphabet, fixed by Christian culture and later by the Reformation. The Latin alphabet formed the foundation upon which a common Estonian literary language had developed by the end of the 19th century. At the same time, however, the Estonians’ sense of belonging to Europe was largely thwarted by the fact that their territory formed part of the Russian Empire from 1710 until 1918, and suffered further occupation by the Soviet Union between 1940 and 1991.

Those introducing cultural, including literary, loans to Estonia were initially immigrant clergymen and other educated people or intellectuals. Later on, Estonians entertained aspirations towards the West for various reasons - there were economic migrants, political refugees and intellectuals travelling abroad, and these have on many occasions ended up being immensely beneficial to Estonian culture. The history of literature, for instance, offers an illuminating example. In 1905, the poet Gustav Suits (1883-1956) expressed a programmatic desire to move in the direction of Europe, and this urge manifested itself in the formation of the Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia) literary movement. And recently, one of the most successful Estonian novels of the 1990s, Piiririik (Border State) by Emil Tode (1962), has been seen by critics as the realisation of that ideal. In other words - the arrival has taken place.

On the other hand, Estonian literature has, from the very start, belonged to a European sphere of culture - the first literary efforts that reached the printing presses were pieces written as an exotic pastime by Baltic Germans.

Compared with classical and other larger-scale literatures, Estonian literature is relatively young. Its first records date back to a time when the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Europe had already passed, and a fascination with folklore and peoples of nature was germinating in the hidden folds of the Enlightenment and of Romanticism. Estonian literature thus contains both an orientation towards Europe, and is part of it at one and the same time. However, literary life in Estonia has been more greatly influenced by an alternation of alien powers over the course of centuries more than other European cultures, also by the dominating language of the invaders which roughly coincided with the borders mapped out by the language itself. Incidentally, the history of censorship in Estonia may well have started with the destruction, soon after its publication, of the first Estonian-language book known to have existed, the Wanradt-Koell Lutheran catechism (1535).

As opposed to the relatively recent emergence of written literature, the abundant collections of Estonian folklore tell of the cultural wealth of pre-Christian times. The first fragmentary records of Estonian folk poetry can be found in the Latin chronicle Heinrici Chronicon Livoniae dating from the 13th century; in the late 18th century, Johann Gottfried von Herder published examples of Estonian folk songs in his anthology Volkslieder (1807). Jakob Hurt (1839-1906), clergyman and nationalist polymath, was the first to start systematically collecting and collating Estonian folklore in the second half of the 19th century. Hurt’s collections, currently preserved in the Estonian Literary Museum in Tartu, contain about one million pages of folklore.

The cultural stratum of Finno-Ugric languages, including Estonian, was originally characterised by a largely lyrical form of folk poetry based on syllabic quantity and mostly performed by women. Apart from a few albeit remarkable exceptions, this archaic form has not been much employed in later times. The most outstanding achievements in this field are the national epic Kalevipoeg (Son of Kalev), written by Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald (1803-1882); Gustav Suits’s ballad Lapse sünd (Birth of a Child); Villem Grünthal-Ridala’s (1885-1942) long poem Toomas ja Mai (Toomas and Mai) and three lengthy poems by August Annist (1899-1972). Characteristically, the last three authors were highly educated philologists and literary scholars. At a professional level, traditional folk song reached its new heyday during the last quarter of the 20th century, primarily thanks to the work of composer Veljo Tormis.

Under the influence of the translations of hymns, of German-language poetry, and of the works by Estophiles, who occasionally wrote poetry in the language of the native population, emergent Estonian literature began using an accented verse system, with iambs and trochees, plus European-style verse forms. Up until the 19th century, basic reading material, which enhanced literacy amongst Estonians, consisted mainly of translations which displayed a tendency to moralise, and had a religious mission. A suitable motto for the little secular literature there was, is Otto Reinhold von Holtz’s saying, “The story is the crust, the teachings are the filling.”

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