Poetry Collection "End and Beginning", 1912, and the Play "Fire and Night", 1905, by Poet and Writer Rainis (1865–1929)
Rainis would probably be the pick of most Latvians if they were asked to choose their national writer. The two works by Rainis included in the Latvian Culture Canon are the poetry collection “End and Beginning” (Gals un sākums) and the play “Fire and Night” (Uguns un nakts).
Born Jānis Pliekšāns in the Courland governorate of the Russian Empire in 1865, the son of a farmer, Rainis died in 1929 in the independent Republic of Latvia he had helped to bring into being. His passing met by widespread mourning. These were turbulent and event-filled decades for Latvia, and Rainis’ own life was equally turbulent and event-filled, marked by repeated imprisonment, exile and illegal activity – and, towards the end of his life, a stint as Minister for Education and two runs for president. His political activities did not stop him from making an even greater contribution to literature – Rainis managed to leave a body of work that delved deep into Latvian folklore and used its motifs to express the struggles of his people in the modern day.
Rainis came to poetry relatively late; he was 38, when his collection “Far-Off Moods on a Blue Evening” (Tālas noskaņas zilā vakarā) was published in 1903. By this time he was already known as a political activist and public figure – between 1891 and 1895 he had edited newspaper “Dienas Lapa”, a left-wing and pro-autonomy publication. It was while working there that he met his wife Aspazija (1865–1943), already a well-known poet herself. In 1897 he was imprisoned for his membership of the illegal and anti-government New Current group (Jaunā Strāva). While in prison, he begun the first translation into Latvian of Goethe’s “Faust”, finally published in 1897 with Aspazija’s help, a work which greatly enriched the Latvian language by coining new words and finding new forms for existing terms.
“Fire and Night”, written in 1905, is the most significant work of symbolism in Latvian literature. It shows Rainis’ deep concern with politics and with the Latvian nation. Rainis called it “an old song in new tones”, since, as is the case with a number of his plays, the work takes the framework of an existing story, fitting it to the concerns of the present day. In this case, the framework used is the Latvian national epic “Lāčplēsis” (that roughly translates as “Bearslayer”) by Andrejs Pumpurs (1841–1902), published twenty years earlier. Loosely based on local legends, “Lāčplēsis” was set in the 13th century, at the time when the pagan proto-Latvian tribes were struggling against mostly German crusaders who wanted to Christianise the region. Its characters remain well-known to most Latvians – the extraordinarily strong hero Lāčplēsis and his wife Laimdota, the sinister figure of the Black Knight, and the traitor Kangars.
But Rainis supplements Pumpurs’ text with additional episodes and a complex system of symbolism, urging readers to draw lines between the bygone world of “Lāčplēsis” and Latvia as it was in the early years of the 20th century – a country that remained under the control of non-Latvians: ruled by Russians, and economically and culturally dominated by the Baltic Germans. Rainis began writing “Fire and Night” in 1903, and it was first serialised two years later, during the throes of the 1905 revolution – an uprising which was arguably more intense in Latvia than anywhere else in the empire.
Key to “Fire and Night” is Rainis’ portrayal of the witch Spīdola – who in Pumpurs’ text is under the control of the devil and initially tries to kill Lāčplēsis, before he sets her free. She is a figure who combines good and evil qualities, and exemplifies Rainis’ views about the multivalency of symbols. It is she who urges Lāčplēsis at moments of crisis “change upwards, you will overcome your destiny” (mainies uz augšu, tu likteni pārspēsi) – an imprecation that is at the core of many of his other works.
If “Fire and Night” displays Rainis’ political concerns, his other work to be included in the Culture Canon, “End and Beginning” reflects his metaphysical side. It was published in 1912, but includes poems from as early as 1901, and finds Rainis in his most philosophical mood. Literary critic Guntis Berelis (1961) has described it as an attempt to “grasp the ungraspable”. The collection is divided into ten sections, each one marked with an epigraph; all are variations on a single phrase that recurs throughout the poems – “I go on, I go on” – standing as a symbol of eternal movement, eternal change. A highly schematised work, it is divided into three parts, “coming to one’s senses”, “searching” and “finding”, and the second part is further divided into seven “circles” – symbolising the past, nature, love, work, pain, death and loneliness. Rainis’ searcher is alone, and experiences disappointment during his search, but after passing through the seven circles, finally finds “the soul – the driving force of life” and “the cosmos – the great world”. Rainis regarded “End and Beginning” as his most personal and philosophical work, referring to it as a “song of winter”.
The failure of the 1905 revolution was accompanied by harsh repressions in Latvia, and Rainis and Aspazija were forced into exile. The couple lived for most of the next decade and a half in Switzerland, but continued trying to influence politics and debates in their homeland. His 1916 poem “Daugava” was among the first to include an explicit demand for a Latvian state – “Land, land, what is that land demanded in our song? Land, that is a state.”
The Republic of Latvia was finally declared in November 1918 in Rīga, and the couple finally returned to Latvia in 1920. They were met in Rīga by crowds and members of the provisional government, and at the National Theatre director Aleksis Mierlauks (1866–1943) read him a letter on behalf of the actors, beginning “we greet you as the dearest visitor to this place”. After his return, Rainis quickly became active in the Latvian Social Democratic Workers’ Party, the largest faction in parliament until democracy was suspended in 1934. Rainis briefly served as Minister for Education, and was also the party’s candidate for president in 1920 and 1925, although he was unsuccessful on both occasions. Rainis died in 1929.
Rainis’ plays are still regularly performed – with “Fire and Night” revived most recently by Viesturs Kairišs (1971) in 2015. His work affects popular consciousness in other ways too – in 1988, lines from his poem “Daugava” were adapted by Mārtiņš Brauns (1951) for the stirring choral piece “Sun, Thunder, Daugava” (Saule. Pērkons. Daugava), which has become among the most popular selections at Latvia’s enormous Song and Dance Celebration. Poetry Days, which first took place in 1965 in order to commemorate a hundred years since Rainis’ birth, has since become an annual tradition in Latvia – several days of celebration in which poetry is read and discussed at events held throughout the country.
Kalnačs, Benedikts. (2015). Rainis' works: global questions, Eastern and Western perspectives. Reading in English for the conference "Between Truth and Power: The Role of Authors in Building and Changing Europe" on 1-2 May 2015 at the National Library of Latvia. Video collection of the National Library of Latvia.
Vilks, Andris. (2015). Speech by the director of the National Library of Latvia Andris Vilks at the conference "Rainis – 150. And the Morning Shall Be Accepted as It Comes" (Rainim 150. Un rīts būs jāpieņem, lai kāds tas nāks) on 6 October 2015 at the National Library of Latvia. Video collection of the National Library of Latvia.
Vīķe-Freiberga, Vaira. (2015). Reading by Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga at the conference "Rainis – 150. And the Morning Shall Be Accepted as It Comes" (Rainim 150. Un rīts būs jāpieņem, lai kāds tas nāks) on 6 October 2015 at the National Library of Latvia. Video collection of the National Library of Latvia.
Matīsa, Vita. (2015). Reading by Vita Matīsa at the conference "Rainis – 150. And the Morning Shall Be Accepted as It Comes" (Rainim 150. Un rīts būs jāpieņem, lai kāds tas nāks) on 6 October 2015 at the National Library of Latvia. Video collection of the National Library of Latvia.
Guntis Berelis on Rainis in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008. (in Latvian)
Rainis, Jānis. (1908). Uguns un nakts. Sena dziesma – jaunās skaņās (Fire and Night. An Old Song in New Sound). Rīga: Domas. (in Latvian)
Rainis, Jānis. (1912). Gals un sākums: viena rituma ziemasdziesma. Pēterburga: A. Gulbja apgādība. (in Latvian)
Poet Rainis visiting Rūjiena. Programme. 20 May 1922. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
In memory of the Great Latvian poet Jānis Rainis in 1929. National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Uguns un nakts. (1947). Programme for the performance "Fire and Night. Old Song in New Sounds" (Uguns un nakts. Sena dziesma jaunās skaņās) at the LSSR State Daile Theatre. Directed by Eduards Smiļģis. Lilita Bērziņa as Spīdola. Rīga: Tipogrāfija "Cīņa". National Library of Latvia, Collection of Small Prints. (in Latvian)
Guntis Berelis on Rainis in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2008.
Līga Buševica on Rainis in the Latvian Culture Canon, 2017. (in Latvian)
Andersone, Emma. (1968). Raiņa dzeja: [arī par „Gals un sākums”] (282.-345. lpp.). Rīga: Zinātne.
Hausmanis, Viktors. (1971). Raiņa daiļrades process. Rīga: Zinātne.
Hausmanis, Viktors. (1973). Raiņa dramaturģija (42.-77. lpp.). Rīga: Zinātne.
Hausmanis, Viktors. (1999). Gētes traģēdija „Fausts” un Raiņa „Uguns un nakts”. No: Rainis un Gēte: „Fausta” tulkojuma simtgade (247.-255. lpp.). Rīga: Nordik.
Kalniņš, Jānis. (1977). Rainis: biogrāfisks romāns (228.-252., 385.-409. lpp.). Rīga: Liesma.
Ķikāns, Valdis. (2003). Raiņa Uguns un nakts un J. V. Gētes Fausta satura un simbolikas analoģija. No: Valdis Ķikāns. Eiropas literārie virzieni Latvijā: monogrāfija (110.-129. lpp.). Rīga: RaKa.
Kursīte, Janīna. (1996). Laiks un telpa Raiņa dzejā: [arī par „Gals un sākums”]. No: Janīna Kursīte. Raiņa dzejas poētika (166.-179. lpp.). Rīga: Zinātne.
Rainim 150. „Un rīts būs jāpieņem, lai kāds tas nāks”: rakstu krājums. (2015). Rīga: LU Literatūras, folkloras un mākslas institūts.
Ziedonis, Imants. (2015). „Gals un sākums”: eseja. No: Imants Ziedonis. Mūžības temperaments: studijas par Raini (5.-19. lpp.). Rīga: Mansards.