Eduards Veidenbaums

As part of my collaboration with the Cēsis district municipality in Latvia, I can now publish a text about the poet Eduarts Veidenbaums. The following is an excerpt from the book Eduards Veidenbaums, Life and Oeuvre: Contexts and Reception (Riga 2020).

Had Veidenbaums been an Estonian

We can engage in lengthy discussions and imagine how our lives would have progressed, if something else had happened in the world. If my parents hadn’t met, would I have been born in the family of my father or mother? Or somewhere else? Or in both families in two original copies? Had I been born as a spider or an elephant or had I been tuberculosis in Veidenbaums’s lungs…

Would the world have been much different without Veidenbaums’s poetry? What would it be, if none of Veidenbaums’s friends had saved his poems? Would the revolution not have happened without his revolutionary poems?

If Veidenbaums were a butterfly, could he dramatically change Latvia and the world by flapping his wings? Perhaps then in the Song Festival his song about spring would not be heard, but instead – another poet’s poem about the wonderfully multi-coloured wings of Veidenbaums.

My life has been considerably changed by Veidenbaums. Before I chose to render in verse his poetry, I aimlessly wandered, discussing clever issues on television and newspapers and making general public laugh. Yes, there was fame and piles of money, but I doubt that I enjoyed life, as I should have.

There have been many choices in Veidenbaums’s life. What if he went to study in Moscow, where there were better living conditions? It’s hardly believable that he would have walked from there to Koknese… Or he would have walked, because in the universe our planet looks like a piece of dust under the rays of the sun.

How could his life be improved or saved by a woman? What would have happened, if Eduards Veidenbaums had survived until the revolution? And what would have happened, had he been an Estonian, like other Eduards living in Dorpat on Techelfersche Straße or Tähtvere Street – writers Eduard Vilde and Karl Eduard Sööt. By the way, the literature award has been given on behalf of all three writers.

If and whether. There are more question marks than in the USA anthem. Had Eduards Veidenbaums been an Estonian, he would have had a different name. He could have been both Eduard Veidenbaum or Eedu Paju, or Pai Eedi. By the way, seventeen years after Eduards’s death, in Estonia, Rakvere Erika Veidenbaum was born. She graduated from the Tartu University in 1934 and became the first female radio announcer in Estonia. And Erika Veidenbaum’s

studies were supported by her brother Harald Veidenbaum both mentally and materially, who similarly to Eduards Veidenbaums studied law.

When thinking about Estonian poets that could be likened to Veidenbaums, I realised that Juhan Liiv would be a very good comparison. Juhan Liiv was born in 1864 – three years before Veidenbaums. Both had rather cursed fate, both swam against the stream in poetry and life. Both were born before their time, not in their era. Both wrote poetry in a harsher way, than it was accepted in their times. And during their lifetimes, no one could even imagine that once they would become classic in their homelands. Nor could it be known that there would be such a homeland.

The poetry of Veidenbaums and Liiv differs greatly due to the fact that the Estonian Juhan had an intense longing for his country. It is interesting to read Liiv’s love poems, where it is impossible to understand whether the object of love is “my fatherland” or “my girlfriend”. Perhaps love towards fatherland has its own sexual undertones. For example, to kiss one’s land or to walk barefoot around its body.

Veidenbaums nearly never wrote about free Latvia; his struggle was a class struggle. Against the masters. Perhaps Veidenbaums as a cosmopolite could become an Estonian, because he studied in Dorpat and learnt Estonian. If, for example, there was a “case” with a sweet Estonian woman…

It seems to me that the alleged love of Veidenbaums – Olga Loss – could have been an Estonian, because she has got a very Estonian-like name and surname. And ‘Loss’ in Estonian means a ‘castle’. And there is no feminine ending.

It is unknown whether Veidenbaums wrote to his Olga about love, because all the letters have been lost. I think, or to be more precise, I would like to think that Veidenbaums definitely wrote poems to Olga. But Olga was the only witness, since all the poems are gone along with Veidenbaums’s letters.

Or he never gave them to Olga; he felt ashamed of gentle verse. It is known that Veidenbaums was ashamed of his poetry and did not consider himself a poet. Luckily, there were friends who were of a different opinion.

Liiv definitely had more poems about women. But, perhaps, he had a problem, because he only wanted one woman; he had no other goal. There is an entire series Letters to Liz, but love remained unanswered.

Whereas Veidenbaums, it seems, was unlucky in love because he was unable to choose. Perhaps, there were two women, whom he loved, because in 1891 his friend Miķelsons from Rūjiena wrote that Veidenbaums must definitely visit. “Come visit the guys and girls from Rūjiena. Especially the girls are very fond of you. For example, Miss Loss and Miss Kalniņa speak about you, whenever I meet them.” As regards the two mentioned ladies, Veidenbaums’s poem comes to my mind, where the storm of love is felt in the chest. There are two beautiful mermaids in this poem, who are crazy for kissing.

Perhaps he was too shy to share a moment with a woman and he felt more comfortable when there was a company of more people. In Veidenbaums’s poems young women are presented as a source of fun. And often in the plural.

This is what I know and what I can: To love young women, to kiss them, And I’m happy to visit those,
Who are knowledgeable in love. Today I’m hugging a beauty, Tomorrow I let somebody else do it



Yet, finally:

The barley is still growing in the fields,
There is no shortage of beautiful young women, Who prefers it, can suffer,
I’d rather lie down in the flowers,

Where in a quiet night the nightingale sings, I’m keen to go there and listen to it:
To kiss beautiful girls there.
And to get away from the trouble of life.

Then you can have some fun, Treat yourself well;
Take an obedient wife, Plump, silly, dutiful;

To have some virtuous fun,
To create children legitimately.

Though Veidenbaums experienced a moment of happiness, it was very short. It is interesting that Veidenbaums’s happiness ends in the morning along with the first rays of sunshine, whereas Liiv associates happiness with the sun and it disappears in the darkness of night.

Snow is disappearing from the fields,
Meadows are turning green, rivers are flowing. Who is still keen to carry on working,
When the winter ice is melting?

Now it’s time to go to the valleys of flowers
To pick pink roses in bouquets,
It’s time from the beautiful faces of young women To suck the sweet honey of heaven.

In the branches of the bird-cherry nightingales Sing magnificently in moonlight;
See, at the quiet bank of the river
A young woman is listening and walking.

Hold me close, the prettiest girl,
The dawn will come in our kisses;
In the house of heaven covered by stars The vivid moment of love takes hold.

See, we are sitting and hugging each other, Hot heartbeat beating against our chests, Immersed in sweet dreams –
The hard fate is forgotten.

A nightingale in the branches of the bird-cherry Sings, and its voice sounds sad.
The dawn is coming red in the rays of sunshine – The sweet dreams come to an end.

(Eduards Veidenbaums, English translation by Laine Kristberga)

You came like a little sun

You came like a little sun,
You came like a morning,
You came like a little sun, Everything surrounded by light.

You came like a little sun
To shine in my soul,
You got lost like a little sun
In the black bosom of the night.

(Juhan Liiv; rendered in verse in Latvian by Guntars Godiņš, English translation by Laine Kristberga)

We cannot know, whether Liiv and Veidenbaums have met and talked. Theoretically, it is possible, because from 1890 to 1891 Liiv lived and worked in Dorpat and had actively participated in the activities of literary circles.

In the age of Facebook there is a term “mutual friends”. Perhaps, the closest mutual friend of Veidenbaums and Liiv was Heinrich Heine – he did not live in Dorpat, but he was crucial through his books that both poets read and highly regarded.

Heine perhaps was a role model that led poets to think that poetry did not have to be so gentle and reverential – poetry can also be rough, angry and ironic like the life itself.

Heine, Veidenbaums and Liiv – all were the punks of their time. But punks can also be melancholic. Here are Veidenbaums’s and Liiv’s rather sad poems.

Winter loneliness of a bard
Snow is falling, and I am singing,
I am singing a sad song,
The snow is swirling from the wind, The pain is coming from the world.

Snow is falling, and I am singing,
I am singing a sad song,
The snow will rise to a distant edge, The heart will swell with pain.

Snow is falling, and I am singing, I am singing a sad song,
While the winds across my grave Are carrying ice and snow.

(Juhan Liiv; rendered in verse in Latvian by Guntars Godiņš, English translation by Laine Kristberga)

Rain pouring down the muddy streets, winds are hissing,
And it’s so dark and cold in the room, and the table is not set,
And, sitting here in loneliness, thoughts are wandering far away, Long-asleep characters start to pass by my eyes.
They show me my homeland, they show me the past,
And bright scenes of roses overthrow the soul in sadness;
Because the time of happiness and joy have long fallen in the grave And the burning heart is covered by the cold snow of winter.

(Eduards Veidenbaums, English translation by Laine Kristberga)

Had Veidenbaums been Estonian, he definitely would have learnt Latvian. He would have been inevitably related to Latvia. Just like me. I could gladly be the contemporary Veidenbaums, although I’m not as knowledgeable as him. His premature death does not scare me, because I’m too old to die young.

Perhaps, Veidenbaums would have a better life, had he been an Estonian. I have read somewhere that the direction of Veidenbaums’s education was considerably impacted by the poor harvest in Kalāči two years in a row. As the history of poor harvests in Estonia shows, the 1880s were rather productive years, and 1887 and 1889 were especially known for good harvest. Perhaps, over these years it would have been better if Veidenbaums lived in Estonia. Juhan Liiv was still alive 20 years after Veidenbaums’s death, until his play also came to an end. Juhan’s death was also suited to a poet – he was dropped off the train, because he was travelling without a ticket. Afterwards he caught serious cold, became ill with tuberculosis and died soon. Again, very much like Veidenbaums.

However, had Juhan been a Latvian and Eduards – an Estonian, perhaps they could be happier, but without their suffering and pain we would not have their poetry.

Translated by Laine Kristberga

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