Why Donelaitis’ Metai is on par with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

Darius Kuolys
DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

This year, Lithuania will commemorate the 300-year anniversary of Donelaitis’ birth. Darius Kuolys, a prominent Lithuanian public figure and researcher of Lithuanian cultural history talked to the Lithuania Tribune about the beloved Lithuanian poet and the significance of his legacy.

Why should a writer born 300 years ago matter to anyone other than a handful of literature scholars?

Let me ask you this: why should anyone care about Homer, Virgil, Dante, or Goethe? Classic texts go through phases of popularity and relative obscurity. They can be forgotten for a bit and then resurface.

Present society, tired from what I call “continuous information static,” sometimes overlooks significant cultural works. This is where Donelaitis texts come in— they speak of a human’s coexistence with a surrounding community, nature, and God. They talk about that community’s fate and survival. In short, they are about universal things, told in a rich, lively language of a farmer.

I believe Donelaitis remains very important to Lithuanians as a scholar of national literature. For some, he is a monument in the distance, a traditionally respected symbol. For others, he is simply a compelling narrator. However, if we look deeper, at the literary significance of Metai and the imagery in that work, there is a 200-year-old Lithuanian literary code buried within it. The gist of it is a strong affirmation of life and existence. Russian scholars researching Metai at Kaliningrad University are finding what they call “a grammar of life” embedded within the poem’s verses and stanzas.

What does Donelaitis’ work mean to you personally? You’ve put out quite a number of articles about him and his work.

To me, first of all, Donelaitis’ moral stance is significant— an Enlightenment intellectual’s pledge to a doomed, perennially-oppressed national community, the deliberate vow to share its fate. The poem itself is eloquent and mysteriously metaphysic— canonical Lithuanian literature handed down from one generation to the next.

Can you explain your observation that Donelaitis comes from the age during which the signposts of the modern Western world were hammered in?

The Age of Enlightenment created present European society. A significant portion of the moral and narrative fabric of today’s society can be traced back to the 18th century. Many of our achievements and ideals, such as the very idea of progress, the concept of relying on the human mind, the trust that people are capable of improving society, even the concept of the European Union, are all rooted in the Enlightenment.

Interestingly, the same intellectual environment in then-Königsberg fostered both Donelaitis and Immanuel Kant, one of the most brilliant philosophers of the age. Both men taught in the Lithuanian-populated Prussian villages for some time.

The serf from Donelaitis’ Metai raises the same questions and ideas as a Parisian intellectual in the 18th century. Both raise ideas of political nature, affirmations of people’s inherent equality, the farmer’s significance to society, and the obligation of those in power to serve truth and justice.

On the other hand, Donelaitis also got involved in the discussion of the myth of progress, a characteristic feature to the Enlightenment thinkers. He argued that every human’s life purpose was not to change the world, but rather to coexist with it- to rediscover it as a paradise and Garden of Eden, to able to enjoy it and be satisfied with what it offers.

Can you bring the reader into the political and cultural environment of the 18th century, when Metai was written?

Remember, Donelaitis lived and wrote in what was the Kingdom of Prussia back then. Prussians viewed the Lithuanians in two contradictory ways at that time. They were viewed as the native inhabitants of the land. The state supported publishing Lithuanian religious books. The Königsberg University even trained Lithuanian-speaking priests for Lithuanian parishes.

On the other hand, Lithuanians were also seen as primitive and backward. The local authorities responsible for Lithuanian churches and schools would argue that the Lithuanian language was about to go extinct and that it would be more efficient to teach Lithuanians German and use German books and texts instead.

A lot of Lithuanians died in a plague epidemic that ravaged Prussia at the turn of the 18th century. With so much of the Lithuanian population gone, the Prussian kings were able to push the colonists from as far away as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland into the Lithuanian villages left behind.

Many Lithuanian priests resisted colonization and engaged in campaigns to protect the Lithuanian language and rights of Lithuanians. Kristijonas Donelaitis was among those who stood up for the cause. Incidentally, Kant also argued in favor of protecting Lithuanian rights.

Do you think Donelaitis’ work could inspire ultra-nationalists? There may be some radical nationalists scheming to get Lithuania’s former territories back…

Frankly, I have yet to met any neo-nationalists with those kinds of aspirations.

Nobel Prize winning poet Czesław Miłosz argued passionately that present Kaliningrad should be handed over to Lithuania and Poland after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the idea did not really pick up much momentum in either Lithuania or Poland. The Kaliningrad Region, which is the former Eastern Prussia, today remains very significant symbolically to Lithuanians, Poles, Germans, and Russians, who now control it. Interestingly, the local Russian population has become more open to the region’s local history in recent years. I think it could be a space for intercultural dialogue.

Do you see a political manifesto in the Metai?

The epic is a rebellious, politically-charged work. Donelaitis depicts Prussia’s Lithuanian peasants feeling a moral superiority against local German functionaries and fighting for the survival of their national community.

To Donelaitis, the germanization and colonization of Prussian Lithuania was an evil that destroyed the God-given order and should be resisted. It is not surprising, therefore, that the author even exhorts the Prussian king’s subordinates to disobey the new laws and wear traditional Lithuanian footwear, bast-shoes made from twigs, in protest. The shoes became a symbol of Lithuanian identity in Donelaitis’ writing. He identified Lithuanians with the old Prussians and intertwined Prussian history with that of Lithuania.

Even the first publisher of Metai, Liudvikas Rėza, noticed that Donelaitis attempted to instill in his Lithuanian peasants an imperative of nobility and an element of the sublime, characteristic of noble Roman characters.

How did Donelaitis succeed in such a hostile environment, where Prussian authorities campaigned for “more civilized Lithuanians”?

Donelaitis was not a lone wolf in his pursuits, he followed a long tradition, tracing back to the 16th century, of Lithuanian priests writing and speaking positively about the primeval residents of the land, the Balts and the Prussians.

Before Donelaitis’ time, people had nurtured and preserved the Lithuanian language at the grassroots level for 300 years. Scholars really began to document and research Lithuanian folklore at the start of the 18th century and Donelaitis obviously benefitted from this new surge of interest.

As a Lithuanian poet, he appears to have been valued and supported by his contemporaries. On the other hand, the epic author was certainly an intellectual of the Enlightenment and a very independent individual who deliberately chose to devote his life to documenting Lithuanian culture and the oppressed peasant class.

Like Homer and Virgil, Donelaitis used hexameter in his writing. How else was he inspired by Homer and Virgil’s epic poems exalting Greek and Roman heroes? What do you say to the argument that Metai’s serfs are no match for the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey?

Both didactic and heroic Antic epics impacted Donelaitis’ Metai. Donelaitis borrowed plenty of poetic measures from both Iliad and Aeineid. Like the Iliad, Metai is a nation’s epic, a canonical treasure trove of a people’s language, customs, imagery, and morals.

As for the comparison of Metai’s more humble characters to Iliad’s heroes, Donelaitis’ peasants were fighting for their fate and their survival, while trying to uphold human decency, dignity, and morals and withstand the slights often endured by their class. It is worth noting, also, that Metai’s characters spoke differently. They are always arguing, discussing, and expanding on each other’s thoughts. They are portrayed as a polilogical community of free and independent people. Their intellectual discourse is the dialogue of heroes.

What remains of Donelaitis’ literary heritage today?

There are six Lithuanian-language fables remaining, as well as the four-part epic Metai, two fragments of an early draft of Metai, and three German verses.

Donelaitis also wrote songs and religious canticles. Maybe someday Russian and German archives will turn up new Donelaitis works.

When was the last time that you visited Tolminkiemis? How was it? Is Donelaitis honored there?

In fact, I was there quite recently, in late July. And yes, the remembrance of him is very much alive there. It is very important that, with joint Russian and Lithuanian effort, we’ve succeeded in maintaining the Tolminkiemis church. It was destroyed during the Soviet era and was almost turned into an Orthodox church.

It’s remained in our possession, but the church and the rectory are both badly in need of repairs and renovations. We also need to hire a gardener to maintain the freshly replanted Donelaitis garden. There’s been a positive trend lately, people in Kaliningrad are rediscovering Donelaitis and Tolminkiemis. They are traveling to visit Tolminkiemis in quite big numbers now.

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