Meremotiiv üleva pildikeeles: paari näitega eesti luulest


  • Janika Päll University of Tartu



Romantic sublime, grandeur, sea, Estonian art, translation


The article begins by explaining the background of sea motifs, which can be understood as sublime in the classical theory of arts, beginning with Pseudo-Longinus and continuing with Boileau and Burke, and the re-visitation of Aristotelian theory by the latter. This part of the article focuses on the observations of grandeur, dramatic change and danger in nature, which were defined as sublime in antiquity (based on examples from Homer and Genesis in Longinus or the Gigantomachy motifs in ancient art), as well as on the role of emotion (pathos) in the Sublime. The Renaissance and Early Modern Sublime reveal the continuation of these trends in Burke’s theories and the landscape descriptions of Radcliffe in the Mysteries of Udolpho. In the latter, we also see a quotation from Beattie’s Minstrel, whose motif of a sea-wrecked mariner represents the same type of sublime as Wordsworth’s Peele Castle (which, in its turn, was inspired by a painting by Sir George Beaumont). This sublimity is felt by human beings before mortal danger and nature’s untamed and excessive forces. In German poetry and art such sublimity can be seen in the works of Hölderlin or Caspar David Friedrich. However, 16th and 17th century poetry and painting rarely focused on such sublimity and preferred the more classical harmonia discors, in which ruins or the sea were just a slight accent underlining general harmony.

The article continues, focusing on the sea motifs in Estonian art and poetry. In Estonian art (initially created by Baltic Germans), the reflections of the magnificent Sublime in the paintings by August Matthias Hagen can be seen as the influence of Caspar David. In poetry, we see sublime grandeur in the ode called Singer by the first Estonian poet, Kristjan Jaak Peterson, who compared the might of the words of future Estonian poets to stormy torrents during a thunderstorm, in contrast to the Estonian poetry of his day, which he compared to a quiet stream under the moonlight. The grandeur, might and yearning for sublimity is reflected in the prose poem Sea (1905) by Friedebert Tuglas, who belonged to the Young Estonia movement. This movement was more interested in modernity and city life than in romantically dangerous or idyllic landscapes. However, the main trends of Estonian poetry seem to dwell on idyllic landscapes and quietly sparkling seas, as for example, in a poem by Villem Ridala or sea landscape by Konrad Mägi. We also see this type of sublimity at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries in the soundscapes of the sea by Ester Mägi or paintings by Aili Vint.

After World War II, the influence of the romantic ode genre and sublime can be seen in a translation of Byron’s Stanzas for Music (1815) by Minni Nurme (1950). In Byron’s gentle, sweet and serene picture of a lulled and charmed ocean, the underlying dimension of the divine, and the grandeur and power of the music is not expressed explicitly. Nurme tries to bring the translation into accord with the ode genre, thereby causing a shift from the serene to the grand sublime, by focusing on the depth of water and feelings, the greatness of the ocean, and most of all, the rupture of the soul, which has been the most important factor in the sublime theory of Pseudo-Longinus. Her translation also seems influenced by her era of post-war Soviet Estonia (so that Byron’s allusions to the divine word have been replaced by the might of nature). In the same period, Estonia’s most vivid description of the romantic sublime appears in the choral poem Northern Coast (1958) composed by Gustav Ernesaks, with lyrics by another Estonian poet, Kersti Merilaas.

Coastline in a leap,

on the spur of attacking;

each other tightly the sea

and the land here are holding

The rocky banks,

breast open to winds,

are hurling downwards

the pebbles and chunks.

Its adversary’s waves

now grasp for its feet,

gnawing and biting

into the shores.

Stop now! No further from here,

neither of you can proceed any more!

Full of might is the sea,

more powerful is the land.


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Author Biography

Janika Päll, University of Tartu

Janika Päll (b. 1965) has studied music and acquired a PhD in classical philology, as well as taught and studied the Ancient Greek and Latin languages and literature at the University of Tartu. She is presently working as a researcher at the University of Tartu Library focusing on Greek studies from the Renaissance and Humanist periods.