Juhan Liiv- A poet who wrote about slightly different topics in poetry

This blog post was written by our student ambassador Ana, a student of the semiotics programme at the University of Tartu.


Juhan Liiv (1864-1913) was one of the most famous and influential poets and prose writers in Estonian literature. This year, the last day of this month, to be precise, marks 160 years of his birth. To commemorate that anniversary, I have decided to write a special blog post in which I will interpret the work of Juhan Liiv and depict the interesting facts about his life and the inspiration for his poems. I really hope you will enjoy this blog and after reading it, you also might be interested in reading some of Juhan Liiv's famous works and experience the greatness of this writer/poet, who left a memorable trace in Estonia's written tradition.


Juhan Liiv


Juhan Liiv was born in Alatskivi, but grew in Rupsi village, on a farm owned by his family. Juhan was the second youngest of 8 children. Three of his siblings died as infants, including his only two sisters; Liisa and Miina. Juhan's brother Jakob was also a poet. His family was quite poor, but despite that, they still valued the importance of higher education and they sent Juhan to study at Hugo Treffner gymnasium in Dorpat. However, Juhan Liiv didn't fit in among his classmates and left the school after only 6 months. Liiv spent most of his childhood and even adulthood isolated from others due to his chronic childhood illness and later on, schizophrenia. He spent his last years in the psychiatric clinic, because, due to his mental illness, he thought he was a child of Alexander the Great and the poet, Lydia Koidula.

Regarding his creative work, Juhan Liiv first began by writing columns and poems in Olevik newspaper. His most famous short story Vari (Shadow), published in 1894, is an ominous and gloomy tale which best represents his perspective on life and it is also the reflection of his mental illness. 

Notes of gloom, darkness and motives of death were depicted in his poetry as well. For instance; in his poem Sina ja mina (You and me), he talks about death and passing of one's own life and how nothing actually matters, since life is a short journey anyways. Also, in his poem  Külm (Cold), he depicts elements of solitude and abandonment, also a reflection of his loneliness. In the poem Mine ära (Go away), he openly despises his youth, telling it to disappear and never come back. I've picked out one less depressing and gloomy poem from his collection; Sinuga ja Sinuta (With you and without you). Both in original Estonian and translated to english. I hope you will enjoy it and I do encourage you all to read Juhan Liiv's poems and short stories, which are a true treasure of Estonian national literature.


Sinuga ja sinuta

Sinuga olen lainetel lõhkuvail,
sinuga janunev palm ma kõrbemail,
laev, vaene, heitleb hukkuvais lainetes,
palm, vaene, norutab liiva sees,
olen hoone, raputud maru väel,
olen lille, muljutud tormi käel.

Sinuta hommik, kel pole koidukiirt,
sinuta öö, kel polegi piirt,
sinuta kevade olen, pole üht lillekest,
sinuta puu, kellel ainustki lehekest;
taevas siis olen, kel ei ainustki tähekest.
Sinuta olen ma udune ilm,
nägemata silm.
Sinuta olen ma uneta öö,
sinuta töö ei olegi töö.
Sinuta pisar olen, mida valu pole toond,
sinuta loom olen, mida keegi pole loond.
Sinuga olen õnnetu ma,
õnnetum ilma sinuta!


With you and without you

With you I'm crashing on the waves,

I'm a thirsty palm tree in the desert with you,

the ship, poor, tossing in the perishing waves,

palm tree, poor, squirms in the sand,

I am a building shaken by rage

I am a flower, crushed by a storm.

The morning without you, which has no dawn,

a night without you that has no limit,

without you I am spring, there is not a single flower,

a tree without you, with not a single leaf;

I am in the sky without a single star.

Without you I'm a foggy weather,

the unseeing eye.

Without you I'm a sleepless night,

work is not work without you.

Without you, I am a tear, which pain does not bring,

without you I am an animal that no one is a creature.


I'm unhappy with you,

unhappier without you!



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