Literature Review: Poems (Eduards Veidenbaums)

Līga Horgana is back with a literature review of Poems, a collection of poetry written by Eduards Veidenbaums translated into English by Ieva Lešinska and compiled by Raimonds Ķirķis.

A few weeks ago, my mum gave me Arno Jundze’s novel Es nemiršu nekad (I Will Never Die, published in 2022 by Dienas Grāmata). What struck me was the soulful story of the close yet complicated relationship between two brothers – Kārlis, the eldest, puts all his effort in maintaining and developing the family home after the premature death of their father, while Eduards devotes his life to law studies in Tartu. They both are short of money, as there is a wide gap at the end of the 19 century between the rich and those who are just barely able to get by, and the possibilities to get good education and change this situation are limited. The young and passionate intellectual Eduards is not ready to accept this inequality. 

Indeed, the title of the aforementioned novel I Will Never Die is ironic because one of the most well known facts about Veidenbaums is that he lived a very brief life — the title comes from a phrase he said to his mother shortly before dying from tuberculosis at the age of 24 (1867-1892) prior to his final university exams, leaving very little behind. Not even one of his poems was published during his lifetime, and the young author chose to burn much of his work.

In 2022, the publishing house "Neputns" came out with a bilingual collection of 52 of Veidenbaums’s poems translated from Latvian into English by Ieva Lešinska. In the introduction of this work, compiler Raimonds Ķirķis (also a young poet and translator) claims that “Veidembaums’s writings are so few that, instead of a multifaceted literary legacy, they should be seen as a whole, where the contours of various socio-political developments, transformations of style and poetics, and variations of themes can be outlined.” (21.)

However, Eduards Veidembaums is known as a classic of 19th century Latvian poetry whose satirical work points directly at the social issues of his time, criticizing the wealthy and powerful for their exploitative behavior as well as the peasants themselves for their destructive narrow-mindedness – blind religiosity and lack of critical thinking skills. This can be seen in this and many other of his works.

So many smart people live around here,
They’re busy as bees and carerful to save;
They blast against schnapps and blast against beer,
They work and they save right into the grave.

So many good people live around here,
They’re keen to profit from the toil of others;
White cuffs and stiff collars up to their ears,
Like kings they live with nary a bother.

Yet most abundant are the credulous fools,
Who bow their heads and are piously awed,
Who lick the hands that beat them cruelly,
And even when cheated give thanks to their God.

The fourth variety is those that are mad,
Who are much too few and far between, -
They find that this play is so tragic and sad

And call on the fools: find the light and be free. (35.)

Veidenbaums paints a world full of injustice where “only fists are of use” (43.) — full of darkness, waste, suffering, and pain. “Goddamn fate a human to be!” (47.) he has written. However, the opposite of this hopeless reality is revealed in romantic dreams about the better place the poet longs for.

When clouds are floating white as swans,
Along with them I’d like to run
To lands devoid of winter, far away
Where roses bloom and ne’er decay.
Why ache for happiness vainly, my heart?
Chuck your hope into the dark of the grave:
We’ll never stroll in those sunny parts,
In a tear-drenched swamp we live and slave,
Where hammers and axes keep rumbling,
“More food! More bread!” many voices are grumbling,
Where strong tramples meek until they break
And blood and sweat flow enough for a lake. (139.)

I might not be wrong in saying that these are Veidenbaums’s best known words, although choir singers will definitely recognize his poem "Flowers are back on the meadows" as the lyrics to a well-known Imants Kalniņš choral composition.

But Veidenbaums is more than just a significant figure in our culture and literature. His memorial museum, the family home "Kalāči", is not only a place where to discover the poet, his work and life, but also has become a place for youth to learn about mental health through various educational activities  and strengthen their social-emotional skills.  Already in Veidenbaums's school years, his teacher Kristians Bēms had prophesized that, “Veidenbaums will one day became a brilliant man of science or lose his mind.” (22.) Veidenbaums is easy to identify with by youth of any generation due to his stormy personality – a very talented and hardworking university student, though often presumptuous and reckless, getting into arguments and fights, hanging around pubs, and having a complicated family situation. 

For those interested in delving into the work of Veidenbaums, this collection is a great place to start.

Make sure to press "subscribe" at the top of the page to know when every new literature review and other great articles about Latvia will be released, and like us on Facebook for important stories of the day each evening!