My Lithuanian Year continues as I delve into more of the Baltic nation’s literary history. For National Poetry Month, I’ve decided to research five of Lithuania’s best-known poets, from the nineteenth century to the present. From the age of the Tsars, through Soviet occupation, to Independence, Lithuanian poetry has evolved through a variety of literary and socio-political movements — classical, Romantic, lyric, expressionist, futurist, postmodern, religious, secular, mythological, realistic, overtly political, more subtle and Symbolic, etc.
The very first Lithuanian poem was published in 1818 — Metai (The Seasons), by Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714 – 1780), a Lutheran pastor who grew up in the Prussian territory of Lithuania Minor. Donelaitis studied classical literature and Lutheran
theology at the University of Königsberg. He wrote several poems in German, as well as six Lithuanian fables, but Metai is considered his major work, written and rewritten over many years.
Metai is organized into four sections: The Joys of Spring, The Toils of Summer, Autumn’s Riches, and The Cares of Winter. The poem deals with daily village life and the interaction between peasants and their wealthier neighbors. At the time that Donelaitis was writing, Lithuania was a feudal society, with serfs living under wealthy landlords. Donelaitis speaks of the two classes as equals, both with their virtues and flaws, and he encourages his readers to live more in tune with the natural world, criticizing the fancier, “foolish” fashions of the day.
Here is an excerpt from The Toils of Summer, translated into English by Clark Mills:
So, too, with our cheerful birds — it was the same.
Calls of cuckoo, warblings of the nightingale,
What the skylarks, paired in flight, played and invented,
All are ending, or have now completely ended.
Living creatures, many, who began as nestlings,
Fathers lost, and mothers, now must feed themselves,
In their warblings echoing the parents’ voices.
So at once the world’s almost as if renewed.
I, an old man, see these marvels and exclaim,
Sighing with a woeful wonderment and sorrow:
Oh, how empty are the labors of our age!
As Saint David tells us, we are fragile beings;
Like the flowers in the fields, we grow and blossom.
Each man at his birth is like a simple bud —
First his blossom will unfold and open out,
Then, his flowering over and himself divested,
He brings forth his fruits that end his time alloted.
This, exactly this, happens to all us wretches.
We, peasant and landlord, in the cradle whining,
Show so faintly in the bud our life to come!
Later, with the time already here to blossom,
One, foppishly skipping like a gentleman,
And another, scurrying like a peasant boor,
Waste their days of youth away in foolish frolic.
Yet, already, as the beard begins to grow,
And as each must turn his hand to earnest labor,
Ah, how soon our foolish childlike fancies fade!