Marie Under was for long years more like a holy myth – almost a mythical saint, far away in exile. Under was the one who embodied the community spirit of a little nation, becoming a natural symbol of it, homely and uniting, and, as the literary critics have said, connecting the people as Goethe did for the Germans, Cervantes for the Spanish and Moliere and Voltaire for the French. She is generally considered among the greatest and most beloved poets of the 20th century in the Estonian language. Being one of the most translated Estonian poets – into at least 26 languages, – she herself translated poetry from 16 languages into Estonian, among others of Schiller, Goethe, Pär Lagerkvist, and Boris Pasternak. Under was many times a nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Her poems have all become classics of Estonian poetry.
Under was born in 1883 in Tallinn into the religious family of a schoolteacher. She attended a private German-language school, and started writing poetry in German as well. Working in a radical newspaper, she was close to the famous Estonian writer Eduard Vilde. In 1902 Under married an accountant, Carl Hacker, and moved to Moscow, where her two daughters were born. Returning to Estonia in 1906, she became involved in literary circles, had a salon at her home and her first poems began appearing in newspapers. Her debut as a writer was with a collection of sonnets (Sonnets, 1917). She began as an admirer of Schiller and Goethe, but the models did not hamper her for long, developing a very original style, first fitting strictly with classical forms of poetry, later violating and crossing them. In her youthful lyrics she was shocking about the open happiness of love. It has been said that her early poetry vibrated with the joy of telling of light, colours, motion, sounds, smell, and touch of things felt, starting from concrete sensations and things, given as a gift and coming straight from the heart. Her sensual celebration of erotic love made her the best-known Estonian neoromantic poet.
In 1913 Under met Artur Adson, a young poet, whose encouragement and support were crucial for her literary development. After the divorce, she married Adson, who later wrote her biography. Under belonged to the famous poetry group Siuru, stressing the freedom of the human spirit and creative work, joyful and challenging impressionist love poetry on the background of the War of Independence, changing the previous paradigm of patriotism and nationalism. There she got the nickname of Princess, and Adson was called Page. These roles seemed to accompany them throughout their long lives together to the death of Adson. In 1937 Under became an honorary member of International PEN.
Under changed poetic tradition radically several times. The first turn in her poetry was in 1920, when death began to dominate over the beautiful growth of life, and the author cried for justice, help and pity, creating the most realistic and sharply drawn city scenes in Estonian poetry. After the First World War, expressionist German poetry had a great impact on her with its intensity, strength of image and liveliness. Hääl varjust (A Voice From the Shadows, 1927) is among her best in its entirety, where realism, symbolism, expressionism, and also personal experience and vision are united. A new kind of optimism came with the collection in simpler form, Rõõm ühest ilusast päevast (Delight in a Beautiful Day, 1928), whose pantheistic tenderness was compared to William Blake and, philosophically, Lao Ze. Among her central works is the collection Õnnevarjutus (Eclipse of Happiness, 1929) contains interesting ballads, most of them based on folk tradition and in trochaic rhythm. Intimate tragic tenderness is combined with grotesque and sinister humour, dark visions are varied with short moments of all-embracing love, and the form of these lyrics gives them a dimension of eternity.
Under´s long life of never ending creative power was divided into two parts: in autumn 1944 she had to flee from Estonia to exile in Sweden, where she spent the rest of her life, working many years in the Theatre Museum of Sweden in Drottningholm. Her name and poetry were both banned for a long period in Soviet Estonia, as she had written about the suffering and the resistance of her people in the war. In exile, longing for her homeland appeared in her poetry, and, in the course of history, her poetry was always politicized. Under's poetry in exile in collections Sädemed tuhas (Sparkles in Ash, 1954) and Ääremail (On the Borderlands, 1963) were new breakthroughs, philosophical observations of life and nature with suggestively powerful metaphysical and visionary introspections. It has been said that in this humane patriotism Under's work exceeded national and political boundaries. She died in 1980 in Stockholm. In Tallinn the Under and Tuglas Literature Centre for literary research has been founded in the house where Under lived in the nineteen-thirties.