Rainis – poet and dramatist

Rainis “Dienas Lapas” redakcijas laikā, 1893. g. Foto: J. Golvers, Rīgā. RTMM 735.

Rainis in 1893. Photo: J. Golvers, Riga. RTMM 735.

Jānis Rainis, Jānis Pliekšāns by real name, was born on September 11, 1865 in Varslavāni homestead of Dunava parish, in the family of tenants of several houses Krišjānis and Dārta Pliekšāni. Rainis’ childhood passed in semi-manor estates of Tadenava, Randene, Berķenele, Vasiļova, and Jasmuiža. His childhood observations and memories are collected in his autobiographical epic ‘Years of Sun’ (Saules gadi, 1925).  Aged eight or nine, as a boarding student, Rainis studied with parson Oskars Svensons from Vilkumiests, nicknamed Egypt, and from August 1875 till December 1879 – in Grīva German School. Sent to the boarding house of gamekeeper Freibergs, Rainis wrote his first poem ‘The Tiny Feather’. In January 1880, Rainis entered the Classics Department of Rīga City Gymnasium, which proved to be a period when he particularly intensely corresponded with his family (letters are assembled in Volume XIX of his Collected Writings, 1984), and, from August that year, he boarded, paired with Leons Daraškevičs, with the publisher of newspaper ‘Baltijas Vēstnesis’ Bernhards Dīriķis.

RTMM_60190(3)-RainisJānis Pliekšāns (Rainis) in 1880. Photo: Robert Borchardt, Riga. RTMM 60190(3).

During his school years, Rainis acquired Latin and ancient Greek and read world classical literature extensively as well as started collecting Latvian folklore, wrote several poems and assembled the first cycle of ‘Morning Songs’, his unpublished poetry collection. During his high school years, Rainis started to translate Pushkin’s works ‘The Miserly Knight’ and ‘Boris Godunov’; drafted creative ideas for future; and wrote a prose segment for his play ‘Imanta’.

In 1884, Rainis entered University of St. Petersburg, Department of Law, and turned his interests also to philology and history; attended the lectures of Dmitry Mendeleyev and Vladimir Behterev. In 1886, he began contributing the reporting material to progressive newspaper ‘Dienas Lapa’ (The Daily Sheet), specifically, starting his journalist writing career on November 20 by ‘A Letter from Peter’s town’. Rainis’ interest in folklore was propelled by the research and lectures of dr. E. Volters, reported by him in ‘The Daily Sheet’. Collaborating with Pēteris Stučka, Rainis produced collection of translated satirical poetry ‘Little Horseflies’ (Mazie dunduri, 1888), featuring several of Rainis’ own literary creations as well as anecdotes heard from his uncle named Apsāns. In May 1888, Rainis received the graduation certificate from his university.

RTMM_17545-RainisJānis Pliekšāns in St. Petersburg, 1884.-1888. RTMM 17545

Dedicated to event of the Third Nation-wide Song Festival in Latvia, a satirical collection ‘Ritual songs for the III Nation-wide Latvian Song Festival’ (published under the pen name of Jānis Plikšis of Jasēni, 1889) was assembled. Rainis imitated the expressivity and form of ritual songs and lightly satirised the progress and organization of the III Nation-wide Latvian Song Festival. In February 1889, Rainis accepted the post of a candidate Justice and secretary in Vilnius Regional Court, combining tis position with writing for ‘The Daily Sheet’ and retaining active interest in folklore, resulting in such feats as publishing of article in Russian titled ‘Wedding Customs of the Višķi rural district in Dinaburg (Daugavpils) region’ (St. Petersburg, 1890). From January till September of 1889, Rainis held the position of attorney assistant for Andrejs Stērste in Jelgava and composed entries on legal, political, and social themes for Sections One and Two of Latvian General Conversation Dictionary.

From September 1891, Rainis was member of the staff of ‘The Daily Sheet’, accepting the position of its editor on December 17. Rainis authored as many as 400 editorials published unsigned and, thus, only partly identified so far. In 1893, he visited Zurich and attended the Third congress of the Second international or Zurich Socialist and Labour Congress where he was able to study materials of socialist theoretical literature. These ideas came to the forefront of newspaper ‘The Daily Sheet’ publishing activity as expression of the strivings of Jaunā strāva or New Current movement. The New Current was perceived by Rainis as a wide progressive spirit movement, which encompassed sociology, natural science, literature and art, public life, women’s movement, philosophy, and search for a new world view. Early in November 1895, the first of Rainis’ poems ‘The Cold Soul, the Proud Soul’, signed under the pen name of Jānis Reinis, was published, followed by the poem ‘The Deepest Thoughts’, signed as authored by Jānis Rainis, in ‘The Daily Sheet’ supplement dating from 11./23.

In 1984, Rainis met his future spouse Aspasia (Aspazija). In December 1895, Rainis left his position as the chair of the editing board of ‘The Daily Sheet’ and moved to Jelgava to undertake employment in a notary bureau, during this period. Having spent the turn of the year period of 1896-1897 in Berlin, he reported his impressions of this visit in a series of articles written for the newspaper ‘Mājas Viesis’. In March 1897, Rainis started to work as an attorney in law in Panevezys. On May 31, he was arrested and sent to the Panevezys prison to be sent to Liepāja, on July 26, and to prison in Rīga, charged with participation in state-subversive, secret organization, as the New Current was identified. During his imprisonment, Rainis translated ‘Faust’ by J. W. Goethe (translation was started in 1896, published in the magazine ‘Mājas Viesis Monthly’ (Mājas Viesa mēnešraksts, 1897-88, and in book form – in 1898). By this achievement, Rainis enriched the lexical volume of Latvian language; had created new verbal forms. Late in December of 1897, Rainis and Aspasia were joined in marriage and, on December 22, Aspasia followed him to his place of temporary deportation in Pskov. In April 1899, Rainis received court sentence to be exiled to Slobodsk town in the Russian province of Vyatka where he arrived in June 17 that year (his life in Pskov and in exile is described in letters to Aspasia, CW, Volumes XIX-XX, 1984).  Rainis widely translates literature during this period, predominantly, from the body of world heritage of drama, including, plays like ‘Nathan the Wise’ by G. E. Lessing, ‘The Feast at Solhaug’ by Henrik Ibsen, ‘Caine’ by G. G. Byron, ‘William Ratcliff’ by Heinrich Heine, Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Boris Godunov’, ‘The Sunken Bell’ and ‘The Assumption of Hannele’ by G. Hauptmann, ‘Prometheus’ by J. W. Goethe, William Shakespeare’s ‘King Lear’, ‘Mary Stuart’, ‘Wilhelm Tell’, and, collaborating with Aspasia,  ‘The Robbers’ by F. Schiller. Rainis published legal advice in newspaper ‘Mājas Viesis’ (around 365 articles), wrote essays on great diversity of themes as well as poems (published in magazines ‘Mājas Viesis Monthly’ and ‘Burtnieks’, almanac ‘Jaunā raža’ etc.), and started to work on drama titled ‘Īls’. In 1901, he authored comedy ‘Semi-Idealist’ (Pusideālists, staged in New Rīga Theatre in 1903 and published in 1904). It is based on the conflict rooted in uncritical preservation of principles and traditions of the past, metamorphism of ethnicity into affectation and empty rhetoric.  ‘Semi-Idealist’ radically differs in style from later dramatic works created by Rainis. His Slobodsk period is fruitful in terms of poems forming the collection ‘Distant Inklings in a Blue Evening’ (Tālas noskaņas zilā vakarā, 1903). This issue of poetry is an organically unified whole, the cycles of poems evolve according to solid intrinsic dramaturgy; Rainis paints his imagery rich in metaphor and allegory, based on symbolism of the forces of nature. The poetry collection ‘Distant Inklings in a Blue Evening’ expresses pre-revolutionary atmosphere and the necessity of social transformation, finding the place also for a number satirical poems and love lyrics.

On May 1, 1903, Rainis was authorized to return to his homeland, and lived, upon his return, in Jelgava, Jūrmala, and Rīga, and, from 1904, in Jaundubulti, continuing to translate extensively, adding to his name translations of ‘Torquato Tasso’ and ‘Egmont’ by Goethe, ‘The Mayor of Zalamea’ by Calderon de la Barqa and others. Rainis participated in events of Revolution of 1905 – addressed the public in social gatherings; attended Latvia Teachers’ Conference. Rainis’ attitude towards revolution is expressed in the collection of poetry ‘The Strewing of the Storm’ (Vētras sēja), which is the most vibrant dedication to year 1905 Revolution in national literature. Rainis perceived this Revolution as part of Latvian struggle for liberation from Russian czarism and future arrival to establishment of an independent state. It is the idea expressed in the symbolic drama ‘Fire and Night’ (Uguns un nakts, published in magazine “Mājas Viesis  Monthly’ in 1905, in book form – in 1907, and staged for the first time in 1911), in which allegorical powers impersonating beauty, heroism, treachery, etc. interact as human figures, perceived in the process of personal development and change. Rainis has reflected the struggle of Latvian people in different historic periods, interweaving mythological past and earliest Latvian history, relating them associatively with the Revolution of 1905 and urging the central hero of the play Lāčplēsis to stand for Latvia as an independent state entity.

In December 1905, Rainis and Aspasia left Latvia for the Switzerland. Initially, they lived in Zurich there, to move later, in March of 1906, to the village of Castagnola (the present day Lugano) on the shore of Lake Lugano. In Switzerland, Rainis lived under the name of Arturs Nagliņš. He sympathized strongly with the struggles of his compatriots; assessed events philosophically, in wide cultural and social-political terms. Collaborating with New Rīga Theatre a range of his plays were produced and brought to be staged by this theatre, such as ‘The Golden Horse’ (1909), ‘Indulis and Ārija’ (1912), and ‘Blow, the Wind!’ (1914). Drawing on folklore and history and employing original ranges of symbols, Rainis reflected on the most poignant conflicts pertaining to life and survival of the nation. In Solstice fairy-tale ‘The Golden Horse’, the idea of irrevocability of national awakening is founded by playwright on perception of the dialectics of nature, while proposing the central hero’s ability for self-sacrifice, on one hand, and the idea of national unity, on the other hand, as prerequisites of this victory. The play is populated by fairy-tale characters – three brothers, as well as – allegorical figures of Father White and Mother Black. Tragedy ‘Indulis and Ārija’ is centred on love story of two young people evolving parallel to the problem of future state and its ethical foundation. One of the most prominent tragedies in the history of Latvian drama, the play is emphatically Latvian in spirit; its stylistic devices abundantly draw on images of nature. The ethical ideal is underlined in drama ‘Blow, the Wind!’ primarily, based on poetic form of Latvian folksongs and construed as polemical play addressing the problem of violence of history and social processes. Similarly, one act play ‘Ģirts Vilks’, based on novella by P. Mérimée (magazine Rīts, 1907), is dedicated to events of 1905 in line, also, with Rainis’ token to memory and valour of heroes – his poetry collection ‘The Quiet Volume’ (Klusā grāmata, 1909) organically perfected in form, where, aside traditionally shaped poems, diversity of genres, expressed in satire and epigrams, for example, can be observed.  In 1910, Rainis publishes poem ‘Ave sol!’ extolling the sun as the resource of life and the impetus of transformation; the symbolism of sun in the poem is expansive: it is a force of nature while also representing social and spiritual liberation.

RTMM_73979-RainisRainis in Switzerland, 1912. g. Photo: G. Brunel, Lugano, Chiasso. RTMM 73979

In the years leading to World War I, Rainis created his most deeply philosophical works: poetry collection ‘End and Beginning’ (Gals un sākums, 1912) and tragedy ‘Joseph and His Brothers’ (Jāzeps un viņa brāļi, 1919, staged – 1920). A philosophical contemplation on ordainment of man as well as wider ethical categories like love, loneliness in the world, human suffering and indelibility of spiritual riches, collection ‘End and Beginning’ is founded on the theme of development and incessant change. The engine of inner dynamics of this collection is the leitmotif ‘I am passing’. Conflicts of love, hatred, revenge, and forgiveness are in the centre of the tragedy ‘Joseph and His Brothers’. Rainis offers a freely written Biblical legend; it is a philosophical dispute on the highest ethical principles, a deeply experienced human drama. Like Indulis before him, Joseph is presented in the process of unrelenting search for truth. Rainis’ heroes reach it as his plays progress.

RTMM_66083-RainisRainis in Switzerland, 1913. Photo: C. Ruf, Zurich. RTMM 66083

Rainis dramatic art received a new turn as a result of WWI, serving as his vehicle of active service to his compatriots in their dark hour. In order to evoke associations with the military attack on Latvia, in his play ‘I Played and Danced’ (Spēlēju, dancoju, 1915, published in book form – 1919, staged – 1921), Rainis dramatizes resurrection of long since deceased ancient enslaver of Latvian people, the Master. The play brings to foreground the role of spiritual factor during the turning points of history, eulogizes the power of art; its central character Tots takes a quest of liberating Lelde – Latvia from the grip of death. In the same vein, the idea of indivisibility of Latvia is woven into the fabric of the song of panāksnieki (representatives of the bride in ancient Latvian wedding ritual) – play titled ‘The Little Raven’ (Krauklītis, 1920, staged – 1921), written in the metre of folk song forms; the play puts on the pedestal love brother’s and sister’s love for each other; the depiction of Magone being taken away as a captive alludes to Kurzeme region as part of the state taken by stealth by the military.

RTMM_79382-RainisAspazija and Rainis. RTMM 79382

Rainis took the position of the chairman of Latvian Committee in Switzerland and stressed the urgency of territorial division into independent states (1917), and the same idea had been already expressed in ‘The Protest Resolution against Envisaged Ascribing of Latvia to Germany’, published in foreign press in 1916. Rainis attitude towards the most significant problems of the fate of the nation found expression in the dramatic poem ‘Daugava’ (1919, staged – 1928). Having begun as a cycle of poems with several publications in media, Rainis crafts it as unmistakable response to the tragic events in life of his nation. In this poem, Rainis emphasizes force of the spirit as saviour of the nation in a predicament and proposes idea of independent country: in order for the nation to survive in the windstorms of war, a unifying factor – the state of Latvia – is required. Rainis uses the form of canto in the poem; dramatic figures or social groups are given the voice to express themselves as its protagonists.

In April of 1920, Rainis and Aspasia, greeted by thousands of their compatriots, returned to Latvia. On 12th of April, from the stage of National Opera, Rainis addressed the nation urging it to realize the widest range of its political freedoms. As a candidate from Social-democratic party, Rainis was elected a member of Constitutional Convention – Satversmes sapulce (1920) and, later, member of Parliament – Saeima (1922, 1925, 1926). Rainis was one of the founders of the Theatre of Art – Dailes teātris (1920) as well as its first director (till 1921); director of the National Theatre from 1921 till 1925, and the honorary chairman of the Board of Workers’ Theatre – Strādnieku teātris (from 1926). From December of 1926 till January of 1928, Rainis held the position of minister of education, visiting numerous schools all around Latvia as part of his ministerial itinerary. From 1920, Rainis held the title of honorary member of Latvia University and travelled abroad extensively, in this decade, to France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Poland, the SSR of Belorussia, Norway, Sweden, Egypt, and Palestine, and, feeling intensely connected to his beloved Castagnola, returned to his exile haven repeatedly, in 1921, 1926, and 1927.


Rainis and Aspazija in Summer 1925. Photo: Gustavs Vilciņš, Riga. RTMM 74274

In the period spanning from 1921 till 1925, Rainis published collections of poems ‘The Five Sketch-books of Dagda’ (Dagdas piecas skiču burtnīcas), defined, regarding the genre, as a novel in poem form. In 1920, first three issues of this cycle, ‘Addio, bella!’, ‘The Words of the Snake’, and ‘Going Home’, had been republished, later, also collected under single cover titled ‘Three Circles’ (Treji loki, 1921). Next, poetry collections ‘A Silvery Light’ (Sudrabota gaisma, 1921) and ‘Little Girl of the Moon’ (Mēnessmeitiņa, 1925) saw the light. Entire cycle of collections is construed as life story of exiled Dagda. Several dedication poems are included in collection ‘The Muse at Home’ (Part 1, 1923, and fully – in Volume 3 of Collected Writings, 1925).

Rainis authored a number of poetry books for children, now, ranked among greatest national children’s poetry classics: ‘Little Golden Sieve’ (1920), ‘A Window in Flowers’, ‘Little Princes and Princesses of Summer’, ‘Dolly Lollīte’ (all – 1924), ‘A Birdy on a Bough’ (1925) and ‘Little Sun Is in Hospital’ (1928). The poetry written for children is simple in form, peopled by animals, varying forces of nature, and children themselves, playfulness interlacing with seriousness. Without posing as a moralist, Rainis is forming foundation of ethical world of childhood. And children are the audience he addresses he plays ‘The Sovereign of Flies’ (Mušu ķēniņš, published and staged – 1923) and ‘The Dog and the She-cat’ (Suns un kaķe, published and staged – 1928).

In 1920ies, the summit of Rainis dramaturgy, embodied by the epic, expansively imagined tragedy ‘Ilya Muromets’ (Iļja Muromietis, 1923, staged – 1928) is achieved. Rainis has freely interpreted Russian heroic epic, calling it tragedy of old-age caused by its central character’s inability to renew himself as a man and understand the young generation. A popular theatrical production proved to be his Rainis’ tragedy ‘A Love Stronger than Death’ (published and staged – 1927) – a variation of the powerlessness of evil-motive, in the philosophical sense, affirming love as the poetic force charged with the symbolism of light. Tsar Peter the Great of Russia is presented as evil intruder in drama ‘The Witch of Rīga’ (Rīgas ragana, published and staged – 1928), which is seen as belonging to less successful works of Rainis, in artistic sense. Rainis is also author of several stories, published in collection titled ‘Novellas’ (Novelas, 1925) as well as of book of memories ‘Castagnola’ (Kastaņola, 1928) and collection of aphorisms, collected for extensive period of time and published posthumously. He is known to have figured under a range of pseudonyms in his lifetime, such as Jānis Jasēns Plikšis, Pēterpilietis, Petrapilietis, Bezdarbis, Jasietis, and Henricus Lettus.

Rainis passed away on September 12, 1929 in his summer house in Majori and was buried on September 15th in New cemetery of Rīga, later renamed after Rainis.

See Hausmanis V., Rainis Jānis. Latviešu rakstniecība biogrāfijāsRīga: LU Literatūras, folkloras un mākslas institūts, 2003, pp. 470-472

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