LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 10, No.1 - Spring 1964
Editor of this issue: Thomas Remeikis
Copyright © 1964 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
KRISTIJONAS DONELAITIS 1714-1780
Sometimes a language barrier or historical circumstances conspire to keep a worthy artist from being known by the world. In large measure, such has been the fate of the eighteenth-century classic Lithuanian poet Kristijonas Donelaitis. As early as 1886, Russian linguist A. Aleksandrov, who had studied Donelaitis from a philological point of view, quite correctly determined the reasons for Donelaitis' obscurity: "If Donelaitis had written his work in some great cultural language, he would be recognised among the noted poets as one of the first." It is only in recent years, as a result of the translation of Donelaitis' major work THE SEASONS into the principal Western languages, that he has received a more appropriate international evaluation and appreciation.
An equally important reason for Donelaitis' failure to produce a louder echo in eighteenth and nineteenth-century European literature is the incompatibility of his work with the spirit of the age. Donelaitis was realist in a sea of romanticism. The lyrical Lithuanian folk songs found a greater response among the literary and cultural leaders of the time, such as Goethe and Herder, than did Donelaitis' realistic poem and fables.
Donelaitis was born, lived, and died in Lithuania Minor, the Lithuanian-inhabited region of East Prussia, then part of the Prussian kingdom. Colonization of his land by foreigners, the conflicts that it produced, his pastoral calling among the disappearing Lithuanian peasantry, his pietistic dedication to his people, and his outlook on life are all reflected in his poem THE SEASONS, which was first published in 1818, almost jour decades after the poet's death. Donelaitis has also left six known fables and several non-literary writings. This is the extent of his literary heritage.
In many ways Donelaitis is a unique figure on the eighteenth-century European literary scene. His unique adoption of the classical hexameter to folk idiom, his realism in the midst of the romanitc era, his pietist and folk approach to life and his subjects are some oj the features that distinguish Donelaitis from his contemporaries. Ludwig Passarge, who has provided the most poetic translation of THE SEASONS, wondered in 1894: "It must be considered almost a miracle, that in the second half of the eighteenth century, when the names of Lessing, Schiller, Goethe, Kant were still unknown in the secluded Lithuania, i.e. before the appearance of their great works, at that time, when the idylls of Gesner were being appreciated and (when) only perhaps Holler and Hagedorn marked a beginning of a new age, could have appeared such a noted realistic creation as the FOUR SEASONS OF THE YEAR."
One of the most noted living Lithuanian critics and writers, V. Mykolaitis-Putinas, has appraised Donelaitis' place in European literature in the following words: "In the background of eighteenth-century European poetry Donelaitis has his own unique place. Donelaitis differs from the literature of this age in his realism and peasant-conception of the world. A sentimental conception of nature and men is foreign to Donelaitis. Foreign to him are also the norms and esthetics of classical literature. Simplicity is the essential feature of Done-laitian realism. The author of THE SEASONS presents nature and people, as far as we know, from a peasant's viewpoint; the peasant himself is the most important object of his attention and stands in the center of his creation."
The reader, and especially the literary specialist, must judge for himself whether Donelaitis deserves a special place in European literature. In many ways he was certainly a unique figure in the literary world of his age. However, no matter what place he deserves in European literary history. Donelaitis is certainly a giant of Lithuanian literature, the first poet of his people. At that time, when Lithuanian literature was making its first appearance and was primarily aimed at filling the practical pastoral needs of the church, the Writings of Donelaitis, when set against the literary attempts of the period, are of a high literary quality and originality. Not aspiring to the level of literary art and intended rather as didactic moralising, the work of Donelaitis, through its realistic portrayal of rustic existence and masterful use of language, transformed the practical ecclesiastical outlook of Lithuanian literature into one reaching for originality and esthetic worth.
In commemoration of the 250 years anniversary of his birth, this entire issue is devoted to introducing Donelaitis and his works to the English-speaking world. For the first time, longer excerpts of Donelaitis' poetry have been made available in English. It is hoped that the series of essays opt various facets of his life, work, and on his place in European literature, will provide a comprehensive background for a more searching appraisal of his art. Students of comparative literature should find this issue especially worth their attention, though everyone will enjoy the poet's words.