Juhan Liiv, one of Estonia’s greatest poets, was an exceptional literary artist for his time – he is seen as having been a lyrical genius; the contemporary of 20th-century greats Garcia Lorca, F. Pessoa, and T. S. Eliot. Common strands can also be found between his philosophical view of the world and that of Miguel de Unamuno. Liiv was a lyricist of nature and a bard of his homeland. In his patriotic/existentialist poetry with elements of romanticism and symbolism, Liiv perceived himself as carrying this fatherland; comparing himself and his poetry to a bird with a broken wing, achieving an exceptionally emotionally deep force of generalisation. Liiv was a very diverse writer: he authored both incredible love songs and sharp, humorous, social-critical maxims; he wrote short stories and children’s stories with influences of realism; and he likewise penned the short novel Vari (The Shadow) as well as philosophical ponderings.
Born on the shore of Lake Peipus in 1864 to a poor peasant family, Liiv’s education was erratic. The natural environment of his birthplace, with Peipus always glimmering on the horizon, is one of the most soulfully and intimately conveyed topics in Liiv’s poetry.
Juhan Liiv worked firstly as a schoolteacher, then as an editor at various Estonian-language newspapers in Tallinn, Tartu, and Viljandi, where in addition to writing he translated into Estonian (through German) both poetry (Goethe, Schiller, Petőfi, Lermontov) and prose (Walter Scott, J. F. Cooper, Wilkie Collins).
Liiv’s first published poem was printed in 1885, and his first story in 1888. The young writer fell ill with what was likely schizophrenia soon after Vari was published in Tartu in 1894, and spent almost ten years firstly in a hospital and then an elderly care home; the public thought him dead. Liiv’s relationship with his muse and fiancée Liisa Golding broke off together with his illness; his letters to her have likewise been published in book form.
Returning to Tartu for treatment, Liiv met with the leaders of the young poets’ “Noor-Eesti” (Young-Estonia) movement, who began to publish and support him anew. Liiv’s mental condition would sometimes worsen, only to once again allow him to attend to his writing.
Liiv lived to see the publishing of a collection of his earlier works (1904) and his first collections of poetry and miniatures (both 1909). He died of tuberculosis at his relatives’ farmstead. The disease had worsened after the poet – who, in a fit of illness, regarded himself to be the heir to the Polish throne – was removed from a train for traveling without a ticket and nearly froze while crossing the forests and bogs on foot.
Liiv’s collected works were published over the years 1921–1935. His both direct and indirect influence on the development of Estonian poetry is no doubt immeasurable and continues to this very day. Liiv himself was influenced by his favourite poet Heinrich Heine, although the visionariness, genuineness, and immediacy of his own poems are one-of-a-kind. The rare suggestive power and musical rhythm of his works is dedicated to describing in poetic word one land – the poet’s homeland. In his poetry, Liiv prophetically predicted the birth of Estonia’s freedom.
Juhan Liiv’s older brother Jakob also became a writer.
The first translations of Liiv’s prose were done in German, Russian, and Latvian shortly after the publishing of Vari, which was also published in Dutch in 2013. Vari depicts the thirst for education felt by Villu, a young man born to very meagre conditions, as well as the crossing of his intentions with a manor lord who does not regard serfs as people. Villu is similarly unable to save from the latter’s clutches a young manor maiden, who shares the young man’s passionate ideas of humanism. Villu descends into insanity after a flogging, and in his more lucid moments dreams of a world that nothing can conceal from him anymore. The metaphor for this world is once again the expanse of Lake Peipus’ waters, which he cannot see because of the forest.
Poet and literary scholar Jüri Talvet has written a voluminous monograph about Juhan Liiv, and has translated his poetry into English with the assistance of fellow poet Harvey L. Hix.