Ellen Niit is a classic of Estonian children’s literature. Her children’s poetry is a joy to read for all ages, and her elegantly-written works for adults also encompass just as much depth, beauty, goodness, and rigid form.
Ellen Niit (born Ellen Hiob; Ellen Kross since 1958) – the daughter of a copper smith and grandchild of a stonecutter – was born in 1928 in Tallinn, then the capital of the first Republic of Estonia. She attended school in Tapa and in Tallinn, then graduated from the University of Tartu in the field of Estonian philology in 1952 – by which time Estonia was already occupied by the Soviet Union. Niit’s biography is similarly the story of a researcher and artist, whose principles the regime found unsuitable: her post-graduate studies were left unfinished because the choice of topic was found to be ideologically unacceptable. After working as a poetry consultant at the Writers’ Union of the ESSR from 1956–1961, she was likewise forced to resign for ideological reasons (because she cultivated free-verse poetry, for instance). Afterward, Niit worked as an editor of children’s television programmes, and in 1963 became a freelance translator and writer.
Having made her debut in journalism in 1945, Niit published her first book in 1954 – a children’s story in rhyme. She became a member of the Writers’ Union that same year. Niit’s children’s literature encompasses over 40 works of poetry, prose, and theatre. Estonian children grew up knowing her characters well – the little girl Pille-Riin and the mischievous character Krõll – as well as The Train Ride (1957), which Niit assembled according to Korney Chukovsky’s rules of children’s poetry. An admirer of the world of youths, Niit was an unparalleled developer of Estonian children’s poetry with her inventive form, creative formulaic variations, and her natural and memorable stories. She has remarked that authors can write much more complexly for children than they usually do, because a child may grasp the meaning of a text retrospectively. The majority of Niit’s works are in rhyme, and the construction of her imagery is not simple in the very least: the poetess believed that neither children nor adults necessarily have to understand every word in a poem; a mysteriousness and unique inexplicability should be maintained. Ellen Niit was added to the IBBY Honour List in 1996.
Niit’s first collection for adult readers The World is Full of Discovery was published in 1960, and ultimately made possible by the Khrushchev Thaw. She was one of Estonia’s authors who worked to return liberty and aesthetics (banned under Stalinism) to poetry by way of free-verse poems, and who significantly altered the course of Estonian literature by doing so. The collection Song of the Limestone (1998) brings together Niit’s works for adults. Radiating from her poems are the themes of “woman” and “mother”, as well as later “grandmother”. Lying at their core are love and the world’s perseverance by way of it, and as a whole, her works are fresh, chilly, deeply touching, pensive, and appreciative of the present moment. Everyday routine blossoms into global universality: Niit had strong roots, a connection that spans generations, and a love for her place in her homeland.
Ellen Niit and the Estonian classic Jaan Kross wed in 1958. The love they shared also reflects in both partner’s poems. One that she dedicated to her husband, “…now, we stand here in twilight”, is listed among the 101 most important works of Estonian literature. The couple also wrote in tandem a travel book about Egypt and Turkey.
Niit accomplished remarkable translations of poetry and prose from the Hungarian (Sándor Petőfi), Finnish, and Russian. She also published many opinion pieces.
Ellen Niit died in May 2016 in Tallinn.