Aspazija in 1894. Photo: Emanuep Eggert, Riga. RTMM 55141
Nee Elza Rozenberga, Elza Pliekšāne by married name, Aspazija was born on March 16, 1865 in ‘Daukšas’ homestead of Zaļenieki civil parish, a daughter of an owner of farmland. From 1874 till 1884, she attended Zaļāmuiža (Green Manor) parish school, Dorothea School for Girls in Jelgava and Trinity Gymnasium for Girls, which she left shortly before graduating.
She acted in Jelgava group of amateurs’ performance of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’ on August 30, 1884 and, under the pseudonym of Elza of the Hills (Kalnu Elza) published her first article in the newspaper ‘Baltijas Vēstnesis’, the issue of August 13./25., 1884, reporting on this event. Pressured by her parents, Aspasia married Max Wilhelm Walter (Maksis Vilhelms Valters) on June 15, 1886, who squandered the farming estate of Daukšas in the status of its new owner and fled to America afterwards (their marriage was annulled in February 1897). Aspazija and her family moved to Jelgava where she started to work early, taking various jobs. On December 24, 1887, her first poem ‘For the New Year’ (Jaunā gadā) was published in Nr. 296 Supplement issue of ‘The Daily Sheet’, under the pseudonym Aspazija. In 1988, the young poetess participated and was announced the laureate of the playwriting competition held by Rīga Latvian Society with her play ‘The Avenger’ (Atriebēja), but it was outlawed by the censorship. The basis of this drama is conflict between Latvian peasants and their historic oppressors. Artistically, the play was unpolished, but forcefully extolled freedom and denounced despotism.
From 1891 till 1893, Aspazija worked as a governess in the ‘Ķiploki’ homestead in Kaukuļi of the Pociems civil parish, and, from 1892 till 1893, educated the daughters of intendant Rikveilis of Dreiliņi manor place (in the present day Pāle parish). Her plays ‘The Vestal Virgin’ (Vaidelote) and ‘The Lost Rights’ (Zaudētās tiesības), as well as dramatic poem ‘The Daughter of Sun’ (Saules meita) were written in this period. In October 1893, she took a position in Rīga Latvian Theatre where she earned a particular recognition as author of prologue written in honour of the 25th anniversary of Rīga Latvian Society.
In January 1894, Rīga Latvian Theatre presented Aspazija’s play ‘The Vestal Virgin’ depicting a woman’s revolt against prejudice and dogmas and her struggle for rights to shape her life according to dictate of her feelings, in mythically determined environment. April 1895 saw the premiere of Aspazija’s play ‘The Lost Rights,’ centred on a woman who loses her life because of duplicitous dominant moral. It was a problem, which challenged her compatriot public in Latvia, enflaming polemic and bringing forth irreconcilable social opinions about emancipation and rights of women. This dispute created breach between conservatives and the progressive circles, represented by New Current and newspaper ‘The Daily Sheet’. Aspazija met its editor Jānis Rainis (Jānis Pliekšāns), an event to significantly influence development of her social perceptions, resulting in her transgressing to the side of New Current.
In 1895, Aspazija left Rīga Latvian Theatre and took part in the public activities of New Current movement. Their opinion regarding the primary mission of literature – having sway on development of society – was expressed by Aspazija in poetic form, as a polemic with playwright and critic Rūdolfs Blaumanis (in Dienas Lapa, 1985). In the same year, Aspazija’s plays ‘An Aim Unattained’ (Neaizsniegts mērķis) and ‘The Witch’ (Ragana) were staged presenting a defence of woman’s striving for independence and maximally underpinning the protest against oppression. Her poems mainly written during the heyday of New Current are collected in collection ‘The Red Flowers’, authorized by censorship to be published only in 1895, resulting in year 1897 publication. Passionate surge of feelings and exaltation are expressed in its treatment of themes of liberation from the shackles of the past, and of the greatness of future and personal freedom. Poetically expressed programmatic appeals they contained were resonant with new strivings of the society of 1890ies. In the plays and poetry of this period, influenced by drives of her era, Aspazija underlined the woman’s sovereign personal value.
In the end of 1896, Aspazija and Rainis left Latvia for Germany and took lodgings in Charlottenburg in Berlin only to return to Jelgava early in 1897 in the wake of death of Rainis’ elder sister. In March, that year, as Rainis received an attorney’s position in Panevezys, Aspazija joined her fiancée there. Soon, the arrests of New Current figures were to follow, one of their rounds including Rainis as well. On December 22, 1897, Aspazija and Rainis were wed and Aspazija shared his exile, intermittently, in Pskov and Slobodsk in 1893-1903, as well as lived independently in Rīga holding position within editorial staff of newspaper ‘The Daily Sheet’. Her next drama, ‘The Goldie’ (Zeltīte) was published in a periodical in 1901.
In 1904, Aspazija published her poetry collection ‘The Twilight of Soul’ (Dvēseles krēsla), abounding in feelings of resignation and melancholy. Around the time of Revolution of 1905, a new upsurge in Aspazija’s creativity proved to focus around her play ‘The Silvery Shroud’ (Sidraba šķidrauts, 1905) and its production by the New Latvian Theatre. While set in the romantic past and centred on the individual fate of its heroine, the treatment of the conflict in this play and its ethical appeals coincided with the revolutionary strivings of the society.
In December 1905, Aspazija and Rainis emigrated to Switzerland and found their home in Castagnola, near Lugano.
The trilogy of Aspazija’s lyrical autobiography finds its beginnings in her collections of poetry ‘A Sunny Corner’ (Saulainais stūrītis, 1910) and ‘Armful of Flowers’ (Ziedu klēpis, 1911) reflecting her feelings encompassing childhood and early youth. In 1913, Aspazija engaged in a polemic with writer Andrejs Upītis evolving around the role of the report ‘Some Thoughts on Contemporary Literature’ (Domas par jaunlaiku literatūru, 1893) by Janis Jansons-Brauns in the development of Latvian writing. Aspazija (while, essentially, Rainis) opposed incommensurate reverence paid to this paper.
In April 1920, Aspazija and Rainis repatriated and actively engaged in the current social-political activities at home. The same year, Aspazija was elected a member of the Constitutional Convention. Her speeches in this position underlined the significance of democracy and culture for very existence of state, and her creative life flourished as well.
Aspazija stands at J. Siliņš painting “Rainis”. In her birthday on March 17, 1928. Photo: Eduards Rihards Kraucs. RTMM 138433
The poetry collection ‘The Wings Spread Wide’ (Izplesti spārni, 1920) assembles her works written earlier. Its essential mood is set by retrospection of the struggles of past without losing a sense of apprehension and naked nerve. In 1923, the poetess offered her collection of poems ‘A Night for Witches’ (Raganu nakts) to the reader, which is part three of her autobiographical trilogy, followed by the poetry collections ‘Tri-Colour Sun’ (Trejkrāsaina saule) in 1926, ‘When Asters Arrive’ (Asteru laikā) in 1928, and ‘The Journey of Soul’ (Dvēseles ceļojums) in 1933. Aspazija dedicated the first part of her collection ‘The Scattered Flowers’, ‘The Calling of Genius’, to Kārlis Ulmanis. This chapter includes patriotic, hymnal poems praising unity of the nation, freedom, and affirmations of belief in eternity. Aspazija’s poetry books ‘Under the Evening Star’ (Zem vakara zvaigznes, 1942), and selection of poems titled ‘A Moon Garden’ (Mēnessdārzs, 1943) conclude the list of her poetical publications.
Aspazija was a prolific playwright; apart from her earliest forays into dramatic art, the list of her works in this genre extends to plays ‘Aspasia’ (Aspazija, 1923), which is set in the period of power of the legendary Greek statesman Pericles and focuses on the fate of ancient Hellenic heroine bearing the title name. Next to follow is ‘Boaz and Ruth’ (Boass un Rute, 1925) – a play based on Biblical stories and eulogising love. Aspazija uses an ecclesiastical legend for her play ‘The Builder of Tower’ (Torņa cēlējs, 1927), in which the price of raising the tower is closing of a virgin alive behind its layers of stones. The play ‘The Bride of the Grass-snake’ (Zalša līgava, 1928) is based on a Latvian tale about Grass-snake who takes his bride to his under-water realm forever. Published in one of the periodicals in 1931, drama ‘Jānis Ziemelis’ is dedicated to the tragically short life and times of poet Jānis Ziemelis; ‘The Ulenspiegel’ (Pūcesspieģelis, published in a periodical and staged – 1932) reimagines the motives of Charles de Coster’s literary classic; ‘The Devil’s Money’ (Velna nauda, 1933) is a comedy treating the dominance of money as the chief value governing human life in spiritually fallen society. The power of talent of Aspazija’s drama found expression in employment of material of legend and history and perfected poetical language.
Aspazija had her forays into prose already early in her writing career. Novel ‘Autumn Nightingale’ (Rudens lakstīgala, published in magazine Atpūta – 1933) reflects the period of New Current and draws on its historic figures as the prototypes for its characters. Aspazija’s autobiographical works in prose comprise such literary feats as ‘From the Tree of Knowledge’ (No atzīšanas koka, 1919), ‘A Blue Sky’ (Zila debess, 1924), ‘Golden Clouds’ (Zelta mākoņi, 1928) as well as personal reflections collected under the title ‘My Life’ (Mana dzīve, introductions to Collected Writings ‘Mana dzīve un darbi’, Volumes 1-6, 1931-1940). Aspazija has also translated novel ‘Quo Vadis?’ by Henryk Sienkiewicz (Kurp eji?, 1899), novel ‘Aspasia’ by Robert Hamerling (in a periodical, 1900) and J. W. Goethe’s works in tandem with Rainis (Collected Writings, Volumes 1-7, 1903-1940).
Aspazija received national Order of the Three Stars and the Homeland Award (Tēvzemes balva) in 1939.
Aspazija continued to write till the last days of her life. She dies on November 5, 1943, and was interred in Rīga, in Rainis’ Cemetery.
See Knope E., Aspazija. Latviešu rakstniecība biogrāfijās. Rīga: LU Literatūras, folkloras un mākslas institūts, 2003, pp. 41-42
Photography from Literature and Music Museum (RMM) collection.