Estonia's greatest poet, Marie Under will soon have her work and biography translated into English thanks to the dedication of Estonian literary scientist Sirje Kiin. For over tweenty years Sirje has studied Marie Under's life and poetry and has published several books about her in both the Estonian and Russian languages. She now feels the time has come for the English speaking world to discover the genius of Marie Under and to learn more about her eventful life.
Marie Under, the daughter of a teacher, was born in Tallinn on the 27th March 1883. She attended a private German girls' school and showed a talent for writing from a young age. Marie began writing poetry when she was fourteen and had her first poem published in the Estonian newspaper Postimees in 1904 when she was twenty-one. Marie wrote most of her poetry in German and was later encouraged to translate them into Estonian for her fellow countrymen to enjoy. In 1944 Marie and her family fled the Soviet occupation to Sweden where she remained until her death in 1980.
Considered the Goethe of Estonian poetry, Marie Under is one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. She was nominated for the Nobel prize for literature thirty times after WWII but sadly never won it. It has been speculated that she never received this honour possibly due to being a political refugee in Sweden or the fact that her works were not translated into many languages.
Here are four of Marie Under's poems translated into English. Her works reveal her deep love of nature, romantic heart and, after her exile, her deep longing for her homeland.
Over the garden the moon's tide tumbles;
Shrubs are shaken by gusts and tremblings;
Pathways ribbon with sudden dissemblings
Towards the threshold where false foot stumbles.
Out of the soil of midnight, tender,
Lift my arms' white tendrils and, weaving,
Motion to someone shadowy and absent,
Someone who tarries somewhere, perhaps may not be existent.
Oh, do I fear the days of torrid splendour,
Nights full of flowers? Oh, do I fear when I see that
These would not yield to the ultimate depths of my choosing?
My heart is breaking little by little
As a ripe pomegranate, skin parched brittle,
Breaks: full loving is prelude to losing.
Cords are unknotted, the covers have parted,
And I rise winged from where I have smarted.
Oh, do I fear now what heart discloses,
All these desires in fevered legions?
And shall I gather the pure cold roses,
Open and waiting in those white regions,
Towards which the days have died and the nights have faded,
And my blue sail wafts a burning soul that has loved as they
We saw those berries, over-ripe and glowing,
in weak and tepid light of the October sun
persisting red as blood, in right full-growing,
without much inkling of the winter clouds to come.
And then a wind-gust brushed those heavy bunches:
and some of them burst, falling to the ground
on wilted grass, soon after, under branches
gold leaves with purple berries lay around.
And hand in hand we walked uphill together
and pushed by the capricious wind's bad weather,
eye to eye, as in anxiety, we asked:
our love's moist, joyful red in present flowering,
will life's wind carry it away, devouring,
or will it fall to the grave's soil, and last?
Christmas Greetings 1941
I walk the silent, Christmas-snowy path,
that goes across the homeland in its suffering.
At each doorstep I would like to bend my knee:
there is no house without mourning.
The spark of anger flickers in sorrow's ashes,
the mind is hard with anger, with pain tender:
there is no way of being pure as Christmas
on this white, pure-as-Christmas path.
Alas, to have to live such stony instants,
to carry on one's heart a coffin lid!
Not even tears will come any more -
that gift of mercy has run out as well.
I'm like someone rowing backwards:
eyes permanently set on past -
backwards, yes - yet reaching home at last…
my kinsmen, though, are left without a home…
I always think of those who were torn from here…
The heavens echo with the cries of their distress.
I think that we are all to blame
for what they lack - for we have food and bed!
Shyly, almost as in figurative language,
I ask without believing it can come to pass:
Can we, I wonder, ever use our minds again
for sake of joy and happiness?
Now light and darkness join each other,
towards the stars the parting day ascends.
The sunset holds the first sign of the daybreak -
It is as if, abruptly, night expands.
All things are ardent, serious and sacred,
snow's silver leaf melts on my lashes' flame,
I feel as though I'm rising ever further:
that star there, is it calling me by name?
And then I sense that on this day they also
are raising eyes to stars, from where I hear
a greeting from my kinsfolk, sisters, brothers,
in pain and yearning from their prison's fear.
This is our talk and dialogue, this only,
a shining signal - oh, read, and read! -
with thousand mouths - as if within their glitter
the stars still held some warmth of breath inside.
The field of snow dividing us grows smaller:
of stars our common language is composed….
It is as if we d started out for one another,
were walking, and would soon meet on the road.
For an instant it will die away, that 'When? When?'
forever pulsing in you in your penal plight,
and we shall meet there on that bridge in heaven,
face to face we'll meet, this Christmas night.