LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 48, No.3 - Fall 2002
Editors of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2002 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
MAIRONIS: THE POET WHO NEVER DIED
Boris Pasternak once said that there are two kinds of poets: those who die while still living and those who never die. For Lithuanians all over the world Maironis is not a dead poet, but a living symbol of hope, of national resilience, of undying faith that suffering leads to glory. For Lithuanians Maironis is not just a poet, he is the poet. Every Lithuanian worth his or her salt can quote at least a few lines from one of his poems.
Those of us who were introduced to Lithuanian literature at Saturday school may have forgotten much of what we learned, but Maironis is unforgettable. Most Lithuanian children growing up in the USA have been called upon at one time or another to recite a poem by Maironis in public. For me, Maironis is inevitably associated with sweaty palms and a thumping heart.
Even those who have not had the opportunity to learn Lithuanian well, probably know the hymns Apsaugok, Aukščiausias and Marija, Marijatwo of Maironis' religious poems set to music and loved by generations of Lithuanians. Lietuva brangiin many ways similar to "America the Beautiful"is regarded as a second national anthem by many Lithuanians, for it celebrates the beauty of their homeland and their love for it.
"Maironis" was the poet's pen name, first used in 1891; his real name was Jonas Mačiulis or Maculevičius. He lived and died in Lithuania from 1862 to 1932; his lifetime of 70 years spanning two centuries. This year, there will be many celebrations of the seventieth anniversary of his death in Kaunas, where he studied and later lived and worked for many years.
Maironis was a multitalented man of many professions: priest, professor, poet and mathematician. His was an interesting, if paradoxical, character: a sensitive, romantic introvert with a rather strict and stern official persona.
Born into a fairly prosperous farming family in northern Lithuania, Jonas and his three sisters grew up with Lithuanian customs and language. This was a dark period in Lithuanian history, when the country was under the oppressive rule of the Russian Tsars. After the rebellion of 1863, the oppression became even worse. A highlight of Jonas's childhood was receiving Confirmation from the hands of Bishop Valančius, a hero to all Lithuanians who valued their religious and cultural roots. Jonas's fathera stern, taciturn and domineering manwent to great pains to have his only son educated. Jonas was sent to school in Kaunas and later attended the University of Kiev for a year, but then decided to enter the Kaunas Seminary to become a priest. This was his way of dedicating his life to the service of God and his country. Despite some unjust criticism and vilification, Maironis remained true to his priestly vocation throughout his life. At times he keenly felt the conflict between his religious duties and his literary career, but this seemed to be his fate.
As a young seminarian, Jonas was already writing verses and passing them around among his friends. He was deeply influenced by his professor, Bishop Antanas Baranauskas, who had written poetry in Lithuanian and taught the language and its literature at the seminary. As a talented and promising seminarian, Jonas Mačiulis was sent to the Theological Academy in St. Petersburg for further studies. This cultured city was to expand his spiritual and literary horizons. There was a sizable group of Lithuanians living here, and the young seminarian soon got to meet them. He read widely, already deeply in love with literature German, Russian, Polish. At the same time, he wrote poems in Lithuanian and worked on a short history of his country, romanticizing its glorious past. Such activity was considered subversive at the time, since the Russian authorities had forbidden the use and publication of the Lithuanian language.
At St. Petersburg, Jonas was ordained a priest and earned his Master's degree in theology. In 1895 he published his first collection of poems called Pavasario balsai or Voices of Spring. This was to become his signature work, reprinted in ever-expanding editionssix during his lifetime and many more afterwards (e.g.., the one published in Rome in 1952 is labeled the XVIII edition.)
Maironis wrote lyric, narrative and dramatic poetry, but his lyric poems captured the hearts and minds of the people, making him the most loved Lithuanian poet of all time. Antanas Vaičiulaitis, a well-known writer of the Lithuanian diaspora, has remarked that in his nature and personal poems Maironis is incomparable in his ability to evoke emotion and mood. His verse flows naturallyit is light, musical, vivid in its imagery, easily grasped and emotionally powerful. The Wordsworthian quality of Maironis's poetry is, in fact, the result of consummate artistry. Breaking free from the stilted and stylized rhythms and rhymes of the past, Maironis writes in the natural cadences of the Lithuanian language. This makes him very difficult to translate.
Maironis's constant and consistent poetic theme was love for his native land. He spoke lyrically of its beauty, its glorious past, its sufferings and struggles and its enduring hope to become a free nation once more, trusting in the power of Providence. Maironis thus became the prophet of rebirth, who inspired generations of young people to hope and work for freedom.
Maironis's poems celebrating nature and love of homeland would now be classed as romantic. He was convinced that once Lithuania awakened to its national identity and energized to fight for freedom, nothing could stop it. Like an ice-bound river breaking free in the spring flood, the rising tide of patriotism carried on the waves of youthful enthusiasm would achieve the goal of independence, overcoming all obstacles barring the way.
In 1909, Maironis returned to Lithuania from St. Petersburg, where he had been teaching theology, and was given the position of rector of the Kaunas Seminary, a post he held until his death. In 1918, Lithuania regained its independence and renewed life as a free nation. At this time the poet-priest, now raised to the rank of monsignor, was 56 years old middle-aged and not happy with the national scene. It seemed to him that the Lithuanian people had lost their former idealism and sunk into petty political squabbles.
As rector and professor of moral theology at the Seminary and later at the University of Kaunas, and in literary matters an acknowledged authority, Maironis was a prominent and respected figure. However, many of the younger generation looked upon him as an old fossil, a relic of the past. One of his students, the seminarian Stasys Yla, who later became a writer of note himself, related his impressions of his former professor on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Maironis's death in 1962. He painted a colorful word portrait of the enigmatic poet: "Maironis would quietly glide into the classroom. Sitting down unobtrusively in the professor's chair, he would begin his lecture without pretension. His rather large head, wide face and short neck with massive shoulders and general imposing appearance in slow motion made him seem like a kindly old uncle, a white-haired old man described in his poem, to us who were just greenhorns at the time... But there was something majestic about him, despite his outward modesty. His erect bearing, his self-confidence, his unstudied dignity filled the room and dominated the lecture."
Younger men and women were now taking over the literary scene. Some of them criticized Maironis for being out of step with the times. Faustas Kirša, a young poet at that time, voiced the impatience of the new generation: "Our chaotic and tumultuous times needed new forms of expression, not the old sentimental melancholy, for we were now living in a free Lithuania. Maironis's style and use of language were no longer attractive. His classical pathos clashed with our exuberance." For his part, Maironis disliked criticism. He felt himself to be misunderstood and unappreciated by his countrymen and gradually withdrew to his own circle of friends and loyal followers. Sometimes, when he vacationed at the seaside town of Palanga, his former student and longtime friend, Rev. Mykolas Vaitkus would coax him to walk along the pier to hear the young people singing his verses. This pleased him immensely.
When Maironis died in 1932 at the age of seventy, Lithuania mourned its national poet. He was entombed in the wall of Kaunas Cathedral with this inscription below his bas-relief portrait: 'The great poet of Lithuania's rebirth."
When the Soviets occupied Lithuania, this inscription was erased. At first, the Stalinists aggressively attempted to obliterate Maironis from the people's memory. His works were banned because of his "bourgeois nationalism" and "decadent clericalism." During the Stalin era, several members of Maironis's family were exiled to Siberia. The Khrushchev thaw brought a change in policy, and Maironis was reinstated. His reputation would fluctuate with every trend in Soviet attitudes: from being politically incorrect, he became tolerated and eventually acceptable and printable with some reservations, of course. In 1956, two slim volumes of Maironis's poems were published in Vilnius. In independent Lithuania his works had been printed in five large volumes. Pavasario balsai, the perennial favorite, was reprinted in 1958. Ten years later, Vanda Zaborskaitė, a literary critic, published an in-depth study of Maironis's life and work.
Meanwhile, the Lithuanian diaspora carried Maironis's poems with them to all parts of the globe. Collections of his verse were reprinted in Germany, Rome, England and later the USA. Lithuanians in the Free World clung to Maironis as to a life preserver in a stormy sea. As he had once given voice to the sorrows and hopes of an oppressed people, so once again he was cherished as the prophet of rebirth for an enslaved nation.
In 1982 the Lithuanian diaspora celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of Maironis's death by publishing various articles about his significance for the Lithuanian people and their literature. Tomas Venclova, a writer who had fled the Soviet regime wrote in Aidai, a Lithuanian literary journal published in Brooklyn: "Maironis is the central figure in our literature, the blaze that draws into itself and refracts all other beams." According to Maironis's viewpoint, stated Venclova, "the writer is a charismatic being, herald and citizen, he is a full and harmonious personality." Tomas Venclova's lavish praise is especially interesting, since his father, Antanas Venclova, a writer in Lithuania who had accommodated himself to the Soviet line, had been lavish in his derogatory criticism of Maironis.
When the winds of change began to blow in Lithuania in 1987, the first sparks of rebirth were kindled by Maironis. 1987 marked the 125th anniversary of his birth. Lithuania commemorated Maironis's jubilee with the publication of his works in three sizable volumes and the reprinting of Vanda Zaborskaitė's monograph. She is now considered to be the foremost Maironis scholar.
In Kaunas a crowd of some 7,000 people gathered at Maironis's tomb on his birthday, October 21st, and sang Lietuva brangi. This was the beginning of the freedom movement that would accelerate into the dash for independence in 1991.
In 1992, Maironis's house with all eight rooms used by him during his lifetime, was completely restored with its original furnishings, paintings and memorabilia. They had been saved by his sister Marcelė, who had been his housekeeper for many years. The museum is now called the Maironis Literary Museum and is the largest of its kind in Lithuania. It houses not only Maironis's manuscripts, but also exhibits the work and portraits of many other Lithuanian writers, including those of the diaspora. Maironis's legacy has thus been preserved as he wished and instructed in his 1930 will: "After the death of my sister Marcelė Mačiulytė all my furniture, books and paintings and also anything else of historical interest I wish to be preserved in a museum bearing my name."
Maironis's closest living relative is his niece Danutė Lipčiūtė-Augienė, his sister Katherine's youngest child, who now resides in the USA, in Putnam, Connecticut. As a young girl going to school in Kaunas and living in her uncle's house, Danutė was not aware of his greatness then. She felt safe under his roof and knew that she must be grateful to him for the opportunity to study. "As a person he seemed distantquiet and reserved. During our evening meal together he was usually silent. He was not overtly affectionate, nor did he spend much time with me. I was not afraid of him, but I knew that I had to be good in return for all that he was giving me."
The poet's great-great niece who was born in Siberia, but now lives in Kaunas, Lithuania, Virginija Paplauskienė, is one of the curators of the Maironis Museum. She also guides people through it, commenting on the exhibits.
In front of the museum stands a statue of Maironis carved in black granite by the sculptor Gediminas Jakubonis. Maironis sits in a meditative posea once and future poet.
Kirša, Faustas. "Maironis mano kartos akimis" (Maironis Through the Eyes of My Generation). Brooklyn: 1962, Aidai, nr. 7.
Mažukelienė, R. Jonas Mačiulis-Maironis. Kaunas, 1992.
Natkevičius, Vincas. "Skausmas ir kančia Maironio gyvenime ir patriotinėje lyrikoje" (Suffering and Sorrow in Maironis's Life and Patriotic Poems). Brooklyn: 1982, Aidai, nr. 5.
Nyka-Niliūnas, Alfonsas. "Maironio likimo paraštė" (A Note on Maironis's Fate.) Brooklyn: Aidai, 1962, nr. 7.
Vaičiulaitis, Antanas. "Maironis tautos istorijoje" (Maironis in Our Nation's History.) Brooklyn: 1982, Aidai, nr. 5.
Vaitkus, Mykolas. Nepriklausomybės saulėj, Atsiminimų VII t. (Memoirs, vol. VII) London: Nida. 1969.
Venclova, Tomas. "Laimei, Maironis" (Happily, Maironis.) Brooklyn: 1982, Aidai, nr. 5.
Yla, Stasys. "Maironisrektorius ir mokytojas" (MaironisRector and Teacher.) Brooklyn: Aidai, 1962, nr. 7.
Zaborskaitė, Vanda. Maironis. Vilnius: Vaga. 1968 and 1987.
Zubkienė-Tautvydaitė, Vida. (MaironisLithuania's National Poet.) Brooklyn: Lituanus, 1956, nr. 3.