Gustav Suits – Estonian Poet: Identity and Independence. by Ian Fairey
Gustav Suits was an Estonian poet born in 1883. He is considered to be one of the greatest poets of the country.
First I think I should explain the place he came from. Estonia is a country that lies south across the Baltic Sea from Finland. Finland is also considered to be one of the closest neighbours in consideration to the language. On the Eastern border of Estonia is Russia and on the south border is Latvia another Baltic state.
The Estonian landscape is very flat with the highest peak (Egg Hill) being around 318m, which is smaller then the size of Rivington Pike, Lancashire. The area of Estonia is about 45,000 Km2 which is bigger then the size of Wales, however its population is about 1.3 million people. This means there is a lot of room for nature and nature reserves including forests with wolves, bears , places to pick blueberries and hundreds of species of birds. As well as a lot of nature there is a room for a lot of little towns.
Gustav Suits was born to a village teacher in one of these tiny towns called Võnnu in the late 19th century. During this time Estonia was part of the Russian Empire, having in the past been ruled by countries such as Germany and Sweden. Twelve years later Suits moved to Tartu. Tartu is the second largest city in Estonia, smaller in population then Preston, Lancashire.
Suits had his first poem published when at the age of 16 and a couple of years later he was involved in a literature circle of school children. They were called The friends of Literature and included A.H. Tammsaare who would become, as some would see, Estonia’s greatest novelist.
Suits was then involved in with a group called Noor Eesti (which translated is Young Estonia). Young Estonia followed on from the national movement in the late 19th century in literature. (In the late 19th century Kalevipoeg the national epic was written, which was composed of various folktales of Estonia. This epic along with other poets and writers could be seen as a pre-cursor to Young Estonia.
Suits wrote the phrase in one of their publications saying “ Let us be Estonians, but also become Europeans”. Which may give an indication of the viewpoint of Estonians at the time.
Historians have varied views on Young Estonia group. Some say that is started a new Era in Estonian Literature, however others say that it just continued on what was started in the 19th Century. Anyway Young Estonia tried to extend literature influences to France and Nordic Countries. Although some people criticised the group for being alien, that they imitated other nations and other criticisms the group was essential in Estonian literature development.
After spending some time in Finland Suits was offered the position of Professor at the university in Tartu. This was in 1921 and just a few years into independence for Estonia. At the university there was some development in the fact that he was the first professor of literature to teach in Estonian, and his work as a scholar and professor as groundbreaking. He wrote papers on older Estonian work and made contacts and lectures through Europe.
However independence did not last long, only lasting 22 years from 1918. Estonia only seeing independance again in 1991. In 1941 Suits house was burnt down and his many scholarly papers were lost. He fled to Stockholm via Finland , along with many other Estonians. He did manage to continue his scholarly work and produce more poetry before he died in Stockholm, where he is now buried.
He is an important figure in Estonia and one of his poems is quoted on a monument for independance in Tallinn.
I have found two poems of Suits to try and show some of the themes I tried to pick out in my talk. His poetry had various themes including militant and romantic.
He had a collection of poems called Land of Winds. Some people suggest that this was his name for Estonia, others that it was about himself. The two poems I chose were "My Island" and "Under Quivering Aspens". Both of these can be found here to read along with two other poems.
I know I have said nothing new here but I hope this has inspired you to find out more!
There are plenty of resources out there on the background to the Russian Empire, Baltic Singing Revolutions, Estonia itself etc etc.
However you may struggle to find some information on Estonian Poetry. So here are some resources that I used for my talk:
Estonian Literary Magazine and Article on Gustav Suits
Wikipedia entry for Gustav
and of course my adventures in Estonia... which can be found on this Estonian/English Poetry and Creativity Blog