Literature and an independent Estonia

The rationality of the Young Estonians was to be counterbalanced by the group of writers gathered in the Siuru movement, established in 1917. This movement, tired of the mood instilled by the First World War, brought emotions and an erotic sincerity into poetry. The central poets of Siuru were Henrik Visnapuu (1890-1951) and Marie Under (1883-1980). The latter, known in society as the ‘Princess’, was later in life nominated for the Nobel Prize of Literature on several occasions. The tradition of well-received Estonian women poets, as mentioned in connection with Koidula, is clearly evident in Under’s work. Her poems were at first dominated by sensuality and eroticism, quite scandalous for their time, for which the poet was censured by conventional critics, though her works were read, secretly but avidly, by schoolgirls at the time. Later, her serene poetry tackled both the popular subject matter of ballads, and universal metaphysical motifs. Visnapuu’s poetry varied greatly, from an earlier provocative manner, which challenged the gods and was inspired by Futurism, to elegies and nature poetry, with special emphasis on the musicality of the verse. The turmoil of the Second World War carried both poets into exile. Their last books expressed the prevailing mood of living in a foreign country, with contact with their homeland severed. The expression was direct in the case of Visnapuu, more indirect by way of philosophical mediation in the case of Under.

Soon after the establishment of the Republic of Estonia, such professionalism and diversity was followed up in the emergence of various literary institutions. These, however, did not emerge entirely in a vacuum. The magazine Eesti Kirjandus (Estonian Literature) had been founded back in 1906, and Eesti Kirjanduse Selts (Estonian Literary Society), furthering cultural educational activity, in 1907. The latter was re-established in 1992, after being shut down for the entire Soviet era, and functions in Tartu to this day. Independent statehood offered fresh opportunities for the support of national literature. The Estonian Writers’ Union was set up in 1922; the literary monthly Looming (Creation) first appeared in 1923 and is still, at the beginning of the 21st century, the main periodical of its sort in Estonia. The Cultural Endowment Fund started work in 1925, and is again the major provider of subsidies and bursaries in the arts in the present Republic of Estonia.

If one would wish to find a literary work created in the interwar Republic of Estonia, which equally confirms an Estonian identity, at the same time enjoying popularity as did the Kalevipoeg in the mid- and late 19th century, then there can be no doubt that this is Anton Hansen Tammsaare’s (1878-1940) 5-volume epic novel Tõde ja Õigus (Truth and Justice; 1926-1933). This psychological Realist masterpiece depicts the development of Estonian society from the last quarter of 19th century until the 1920s. Each volume offers an in-depth analysis of one aspect of relations: with the land, God, society, the people. The last part of the series describes resignation and a return to rural values. In Tammsaare’s last novel, Põrgupõhja uus Vanapagan (The New Devil of Põrgupõhja, 1939), an allegorical story based on folkloristic material, ordinary relationships are turned upside down. The farmhand who has acquired the rules of society founded on the power of money, deceives his master: Old Nick himself.

The prevailing tendency in prose writing between the two World Wars was Realism. Another prominent prose writer, also the one much appreciated by the state, was August Mälk 1900-1987) who described the life of coastal people. However, it was Karl Ristikivi (1912-1977) who became Tammsaare’s literary heir. His first published novel Tuli ja raud (Fire and Iron, 1938) was followed by the other works of his so-called Tallinn trilogy, Õige mehe koda (The Abode of a Just Man) in 1940 and Rohtaed (The Garden) in 1942. Ristikivi’s trilogy, a family saga, pursues the fate of his main characters who belong to different spheres of life (the worker, the tradesman, the intellectual) with overwhelming scepticism. The third outstanding prose writer, appearing in the literary world together with the Siuru group, was the incurable romantic August Gailit (1891-1960). The initial grotesque fantasies and serialised stories developed later into vagabond novels and, later still, during his period of exile after the Second World War, into the depiction of the tragedy of abandoning one’s homeland.

In intellectual battles during the interwar period of independence, intellectual demands alternated with those preferring closeness to life. The epic tendency that had prevailed in the late 1920s was replaced, on the eve of the Second World War, with a flourishing of poetry. Literary scholar Ants Oras, greatly influenced by T.S. Eliot’s criticism, brought together a number of poets in his anthology Arbujad (Soothsayers, 1938). “Our duty is to force the blind fury of elements into a slender stanza” - this image of poetry, written by the legendary Heiti Talvik (1904-1947) who was later arrested and died in Siberia, splendidly characterises the aspirations of form and content of all the six poets belonging to the anthology mentioned above. The Arbujad group, however, was not uniform and lacked a specific programme. Nevertheless, it consisted of poets with excellent education in the humanities, born between 1904 and 1914. To this day, Betti Alver’s (1906-1989) oeuvre has remained a paragon of ethical firmness and the widening of cognitive borders. The spell-casting mystical search for God of the polymath theologian Uku Masing (1909-1985) continues to offer material for new discoveries and interpretations. The first attempts at sonnets by literary scholar Bernard Kangro (1910-1994) started off a long odyssey of poetry in exile.

On the eve of the Second World War, one theme arose in the poetry of the Arbujad group, one which turned out to be prophetic: a generalised vision of the decline of humanism. Or, in the words of Uku Masing, ‘retreat from the ghosts’.

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