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Marie Under (1883 - 1980)


Estonian poet, generally considered among the greatest poets of the 20th-century in her language. Marie Under escaped with her family in 1944 the Soviet occupation of Estonia to Sweden, where she spent in exile the rest of her life. Under's works have been translated into some ten languages. The final two of her 13 collections of poems appeared while she lived in exile. The Estonian PEN club nominated Under several times as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for literature.

Ei rannal lesi
nüüd enam keegi,
ei ükski hing.
Ja parem seegi.
Vaid kivid ja vesi
ning ainsad jäljed veab minu king.

(from 'Üksi merega')

Marie Under was born in Tallinn, the daughter of Fredrich Under, a schoolteacher, and Leena (Kerner) Under. She learned to read at the age of four and began to writing verse at the age of thirteen. From 1891 to 1900 she attended a private German-language school, studying German, French, and Russian. Later Under translated new German poetry, Schiller, Goethe in Estonian, and also such writers as Pär Lagerkvist and Boris Pasternak. Under worked briefly as a salesclerk in a bookstore, but after meeting the writer Eduard Vilde, she joined for a short time the radical newspaper Teataja.

In 1902 Under married Carl Hacker, an accountant, and moved with him near Moskow. From 1902 to 1906 she lived in Russia; her two daughter were born there. In 1913 Under met in the Estonia Theater Artur Adson (1889–1977), a young poet, whose encouragement and support was crucial for her literary development. After divorcing Hacker, she married Adson, who later wrote her biography (pub. 1974).

Under's first poem appeared in the newspaper Postimees when she was 21. In the 1910s Under contributed to various anthologies and made in 1917 her debut as a writer with a collection of sonnets, Sonetid. With this work, a declaration of youthful love, longing for beauty, and joy of life. Her second collection, Eelõitseng (1918), consisted of poems written between 1904 and 1912.

Under was the central member of the Siuru group, which advocated on the eve of Estonian independence new literary movements, such as expressionism and futurism. The name "Siuru" came from the Estonian national epos Kalevipoeg; it is a a mythical blue bird. Under's early work were more or less impressionistic pieces, but she soon found her voice in emotional, dynamic way of expression that had much bold freshness. Her most sensual collection of poems, Sinine puri (1920), with its celebration of erotic love, defied boldly bourgeois conventionality and made her the best-known representative of the Estonian neoromantic poetry.

After World War I Under's poems became more pessimistic. Especially German expressionism influenced her deeply. Under employed religious images to convey her feelings of pain, delirium, and suffering - a dark angel of death comes to the door as a gate-crasher, prophets stumble over words, Noah's arch sails into the flood and rain.

'Unetuma laul,' about insomnia, from which Under suffered sporadically throughout her life, is one her most anthologized works. "Even an executioner can have a peace," the "I" of the poem realizes tormented, and wanders restlessly in clogs with a ghost dog. The whole world has fallen asleep, the poet, like a guard, is the only one awake, seeking release. Under paralles sleep with death and beds with coffins. The poems ends with a resignation: sleep comes only after giving up everything, in the calm rest under the ground.

Kuhugille, kuhugille ma ei mahu!
Olen ma ehk ... peni, vend ...
Kumb meist, kumb meis somnambuul?

(from 'Unetuma laul' in Hääl varjust, 1927)

Õnnevarjutus (1929), in which Under returned to ballad lyrics, is considered among her central works. Under used traditional themes from folk poetry, mostly tragic love, but brought into them solemn timelessness, seeing human yearning for happiness always shadowed by unavoidable doom, generation after generation. Dark visions of frozen waters and chained wind, contrasted to short moments of happiness, being alive, were central also in her tenth collection, Kivi südamelt (1935).

Under's financial problems were greatly relieved after the National Fund for Culture decided to give her permanent support. In 1937 Under became an honorary member of International PEN. During the early years of World War, when Estonia was taken over by the USSR and then occupied by the Germany, Under wrote about the suffering and the resistance of her people in Jõulutervitus (1941) and Mureliku suuga (1942). Like many established writers of the older and middle generation, such as Johannes Aavik (1880-1973), Gustav Suits (1883-1956), Karl Rumor (1886-1971), Karl Ristikivi (1912-1977), Under chose emigration over life under Soviet rule. From 1945 to 1957 she worked as an archivist in the Stockhom's Theatre Museum. Her first collection of poetry in exile, Sädemed tuhas, appeared in 1954, and was followed by Ääremail (1963). Under's later poetry was marked with philosophical observations of life and nature, and her metaphysical, visionary introspection. In several poems Under dealt with feelings of rootlessness and homesickness, without mentioning the name of her home country. In this humane patriotism Under's work exceeded nationalistic or political boundaries.

Because of heavy arthritis, Under spent her last years at a Convalescent Care Hospital. She died on September 25, 1980, in Stockholm. Under was mistakenly cremated against her wish. As an emigrant writer, she did not enjoy in Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic official favor, although she was removed in the 1950s from the list of banned authors, and her eightieth birthday was noted also in the former Soviet Estonia. Under's literary fame survived the political upheavals of the Cold War and as a sign of this, the Under and Tuglas Center for Literary Research has been founded in the house where Under worked in the 1930s.

Kord veel tagasi tahaksin
leida kodutee,
kodumullas siis magaksin
välja kõik silmavee.

(from 'Põgenik' in Sädemed tuhas)
For further reading: Marie Underin runous by Elsa Haavio (1939); Anthology of Modern Estonian Poetry, ed. by W.K. Matthews (1953); 'Introduction' to Child of Man by W.K. Matthews (1955); Estonian Poetry and Language, ed. by V. Koressaar and A. Rannit (1965); Marie Under and Estonian Poetry by Ants Oras (1975); Marie Under eluraamst, ed. by A. Adson (1974, 2 vols.); The Poetry of Estonia, ed. by V.B. Leitch (1983); Marie Under inimesena by Helmi Rajamaa (1983); Eesti kirjandus by Ender Nirk (1983); World Authors 1975-1980, ed. by Wineta Colby, 1985; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 4, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); Under by Katrin Saukas (2007) - Suomeksi Underilta on julkaistu valikomat Puutarhan syksy: valikoima Marie Underin runoja 1909-1962 (1978), toim. Irmeli Pääkkönen et al., ja Avaran taivaan alla (1983), suom. Aimo Rönkä. Runoja on myös kokoelmassa Eestin runotar, toim. Elsa Haavio (1940) ja Tuhat laulujen vuotta, toim. Aale Tynni (1957).

Selected works:

  • Sonetid, 1917
  • Eelõitseng, 1918
  • Sinine puri, 1918
  • Verivalla, 1920
  • Pärisosa, 1923
  • Hääl varjust, 1927 (illustrated by Nikolai Triik)
  • Rõõm Ühest ilusast päevast, 1928
  • Õnnevarjutus, 1929
  • Lageda taeva all, 1930
  • Kivi südamelt: kümnes kogu luuletusi, 1935 (illustrated by H. Hakker)
  • Meriballaadid, 1939
  • Kogutud teosed, 1940 (3 vols.)
  • Õnnevarjutus; Lageda taeva all; Kivi südamelt, 1940 (edited by Ants Oras)
  • Kolm ballaadi, 1940 
  • Jõulutervitus, 1941
  • Mureliku suuga, 1942 (illustrated by Günther Reindorff)
  • Sõnasild: luulevalimik, 1945
  • Modern Estonian Poetry, 1953 (with others, edited by W.K. Matthews)
  • Sädemed tuhas: kaheteistkümnes kogu luuletusi, 1954
  • The PEN in Exile I, 1954 (with others)
  • Child of Man, 1955
  • Valitud luuletused, 1958 (edited by P. Rummo) 
  • Ääremail, 1963 (illustrated by Herman Talvik)
  • Kolmteist ballaadi, 1963
  • Taevaminek: legend, 1963 (illustrated by S. Leitu)
  • Vigilia: dikter, 1963 (selected and translated by Ivar Grünthal och Ilmar Laaban, foreword by Johannes Edfelt)
  • The PEN in Exile II, 1966 (with others)
  • Uneretk, 1968
  • La Pierre ōtée du coeur, 1970
  • Sjutton dikter, 1970 (translated by I. Laaban)
  • Rändav järv: ballaad, 1974
  • Mu süda laulab, 1981
  • Marie Under, 1987 (edited by Ellen Niit)
  • Mureliku suuga; Sädemed tuhas; Ääremail, 1998 (edited by Georg Grünberg)
  • Õnnevarjutus: kogu ballaade, 2000 (edited by Arne Merilai)
  • Under armastusest, 2002 (edited by Sirje Olesk)
  • Lauluga ristitud, 2006 (edited by Karl Muru)
  • Luule, 2007 (edited by Piret Pääsuke et al.)
  • Under ja Tuglas: Marie Underi ja Friedebert Tuglase kirjavahetus, 2006 (edited by Rutt Hinrikus)
  • Laternaks mu enda süda: valik luulet, 2006 (edited by Viiu Härm)
  • Marie Underi luule. Villu Tootsi graafika: las siiski kõnelen ma sinuga ..., 2010 (edited by Sirje Olesk)
  • Kevad: valikkogu, 2012 (edited by Sirje Kiin) 
  • Talv: valikkogu, 2012 (edited by Sirje Kiin) 

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