Poetry Collection "My Paradise", 1932, and Heroic Epos "Touched by Eternity", 1937–1939, by Poet Aleksandrs Čaks (1901–1950)
Born and raised in Rīga, Aleksandrs Čaks was the very embodiment of an urban man. In his poetry collection “My Paradise” (Mana paradīze, 1932), he gave a voice and a soul to the seemingly ordinary people and mundane objects of city life, while in his heroic epos “Touched by Eternity” (Mūžības skartie, 1937–1939) he immortalized the Latvian Riflemen of the First World War.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, industrialization and mass migration to cities radically transformed Latvian culture from a rural milieu to a modern urban setting. Čaks was the first Latvian poet to fully immerse himself in the city, and “My Paradise” soulfully expressed his love for the trams, notice boards and drainpipes of Rīga, around which bustled workers, market sellers and drunks, evoked with deep sensitivity for these people and their individuality. Many of Čaks’ verses have been put to music by composers such as Imants Kalniņš (1941), Arturs Maskats (1957), while his classic poem about lost love “The Confession” (Atzīšanās) and its melody by an unknown 1930s composer are dear to the hearts of most Latvians.
This deep concern for the individual also runs through “Touched by Eternity”. The Latvian Riflemen helped defend their homeland from German invasion in the First World War and played a vital role in the subsequent Russian Civil War and Latvia’s War of Independence. Čaks himself served in the latter part of the conflict, then in the 1930s, he interviewed veterans and turned their stories into poetry. The first volume of “Touched by Eternity” appeared in 1937 and had eight poems, including the famous “Sermon in Piņķi Church” (Sprediķis Piņķu baznīcā), a dramatization of an address by the Riflemen’s commander Colonel Jukums Vācietis (1873–1938) to soldiers about to go into battle. Volume 2 with 14 poems was published in late 1939. Two further parts were planned, but the Soviet and Nazi invasions of Latvia meant these were never realized.
A theatre production of “Touched by Eternity” at the Daile Theatre in 1987, with a legendary performance by actor Uldis Pūcītis (1937–2000), was a cathartic break from Soviet censorship about Latvia’s history during and after the First World War.
In 1997, the Aleksandrs Čaks Memorial Museum was opened on Lāčplēša iela 48–8 in Rīga. Since 2001, the Aleksandrs Čaks Prize has been awarded biannually for innovative interpretations of Rīga in literature, music, film, theatre or visual arts. In 2016 an English translation of “Touched by Eternity” was released, and in 2018 a selection of Čaks’ poems will be published in the UK to mark Latvia’s centenary.
Guntis Berelis on Aleksandrs Čaks in Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Maģiskie vieninieki: A. Čakam 111. (2012). Rīga: Aleksandra Čaka memoriālā dzīvokļa muzeja izdevums. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Aleksandrs Čaks. Rīga: Aleksandra Čaka memoriālā dzīvokļa muzeja izdevums. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Guntis Berelis on Aleksandrs Čaks in Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.