Meistrist epigooniks, epigoonist ikooniks: Jakob Liivi luule retseptsioonist. From Master to Epigone, from Epigone to Ikon: On the Reception of Jakob Liiv’s Poetry


  • Pille-Riin Larm Tartu Ülikool



Jakob Liiv (1859-1930) is an Estonian writer whom most academic literary histories and encyclopedias classify in the late-romantic, so-called epigonic literary movement of the end of the 19th century. In actuality, however, Liiv’s oeuvre took shape over a significantly longer period of time, and was quite heterogeneous with respect to genre. This article sets out to approach a single, albeit the largest segment of Liiv’s oeuvre-- the reception of his poetry, which is also the aspect most fraught with prejudice. An overview is given of the criticism of the author’s poetry, both in the latter part of the era of national awakening and thereafter. On the basis of the criticism of Liiv’s poetry in his own time, one can make the general observation that the key words in the critical literature of the 1880s and 1890s were the author, the concept of plagiarism, thematic choice, the social dimension of representation, the nationalist quality of literature, the criterion of the beauty of language, and questions of form. The question of the aesthetic value of literature is simply not raised at all. In the context of the era of russification, the primary task of literature was to preserve Estonian national consciousness. Thus it is to be expected that – particularly in poetry – epigones continued reproducing the moods of the era of national awakening. In this context Liiv is a beloved author, whose poems correspond to the image of the right kind of literature, and who by means of his allegorical songs also dares to broach contemporary public issues. During the social unrest that struck the Russian czarist empire in 1905, political censorship was relaxed and the old ideals of the readership were shattered. In the context of the revolution and the renewal of language and art fostered by the Young Estonia movement, Liiv was more and more often criticized for his emotional tepidity, outworn vocabulary, and played-out themes, but this was nevertheless not the attitude of the majority. It seems that at the beginning of the 20th century Estonian literary thought diverged into many ambiguously delineated directions. At any rate, Liiv soon disappeared from view in the literary public for many years, returning to the purview of readers only on specific occasions. As time went on, Liiv increasingly became a kind of icon of the post-national awakening period. During the years of the Estonian republic, in the volume of selected poems published in honor of the writer’s 70th birthday (1929), Liiv is raised once again to a position of honor as a patriotic poet, and voices unite to praise his achievements in advancing the language and literary form. With the publication of his memoirs (1936 and posthumously in 1938), the writer is strongly tied to his own generation. Liiv’s oeuvre becomes a sign. However, once Liiv’s iconic position is securely established, his newer poetic works are finally rediscovered. Distance in time favoured new and original discussions of Liiv’s poetry: if up till then Liiv had been regarded first and foremost as a poet of the fatherland and the time, as a poet of thought and feeling, now his nature poetry is discovered, in all its suggestiveness, emotionality, and tension. This study of the reception history of Liiv’s poetry has shown how, in the course of changes in the times and the literary taste of the readership, a master becomes an epigone, and an epigone is turned into an icon. The reception of Liiv’s poetry reflects the contradictions underlying the understanding of Estonian literature, and the development of its interpretation over time.


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