The Great Prince Gediminas letter from the beginning of the 1300s is regarded as the oldest Lithuanian writing memorial. The letters were written in Latin to, among others, Pope John XXII and other European clergy, and had diplomatic and political content. The German cross and sword orders aimed to conquer and Christianize Lithuania, and Gediminas asked the world community for help and support, while promising to accept Christianity.
From the end of the 1300s to the mid-1500s, the annals of Lithuania were written in Slavic. Later chronicles from the 16th century belong to the Renaissance. The most important, Bychovco chronicle, tells of the origin of the Lithuanians and the Lithuanian state formation. The chronicle has both historical and literary value, with themes and motifs that appear in later Lithuanian literature. In 1569, the Lithuanian Principality was united with Poland, which led to increasingly widespread use of Polish; for example, Lithuania’s first printed history was written in Polish.
Literature in Lithuanian
At the same time, however, a written literature emerged in Lithuanian. The first printed book in Lithuanian was Catechism (1547) by Martynas Mažvydas. Of particular importance is the author’s preface, which is the first Lithuanian poem. The Lutheran priest Jonas Bretkūnas (1536-1602) published five books of religious content. At the end of the 16th century, the Catholic Church also understood the meaning of written Lithuanian texts. Mykalojus Daukša (1527? –1613) translated several religious works from Polish.
During the Baroque, interest increased not only for language, but also for literature theory and popular memory. The Catholic priest Constantinas Sirvydas (1579-1631) played an important role in cultural life; he created the first Lithuanian dictionary and published a sermon collection. The first Lithuanian books with worldly content came with the transition from Baroque to Enlightenment. Jonas Šulcas ‘translation of Æsops’ fables was published in 1706.
An actual fiction is introduced by Kristijonas Donelaitis (1714–80) with the poem Metai (printed 1818), a hexameteric poem about the life of Lithuanian peasants in Lithuania. The work has a central place in Lithuanian literature. In the 18th century, only the peasants spoke Lithuanian. The cities were very international with Polish as the main language, which hampered the development of a national culture. However, in the early 1800s, several Lithuanians began studying at the University of Vilnius. The most important of these were the poet and folk scientist Simonas Stanevičius (1799-1848) and historian and folk historian Simonas Daukantas (1,793 to 1,864). The poet and museum founder Dionizas Poška (1765-1830) was in close contact with the university environment. At the same time, Antanas Strazdas (1760-1833) wrote folkloric poems that came out in 1814. This was the first Lithuanian poetry collection in print. Liudvikas Rėza (1776-1840) of Lithuania published Donelaitis’ Metai in 1818 and wrote an introduction which is considered the most important work in literary theory in Lithuania in the 19th century.
Antanas Baranauskas (1835-1902) depicted, among other things, the beauty of the Lithuanian forests, which are plundered and destroyed by foreign powers. This romantic poetic tradition became even more strongly linked to the national revival of Maironi’s (1862–1932), which is called Lithuania’s national call. The foremost proponents and ideologues of the national movement at the turn of the century were Jonas Basanavičius (1851–1927) and Vincas Kudirka (1858–99). The latter’s poem Tautiška giesmė, with a melody composed by himself, became the national anthem of Lithuania.
The introduction of Lithuanian prose is linked to two names, Motiejus Valančius (1801–75), who laid the foundation for realism, and Žemaitė (1845–1921), who continued it. The first journals conveyed both the romantic and the realistic direction. Aušra, published in 1883–86, printed many romantic poems intended to awaken national consciousness, while Varpas, published in 1889–1905, aimed to conduct informational work and present prose works.
The 1864 ban on printing Lithuanian books with the Latin alphabet was lifted in 1904, and it was not until this time that the Lithuanians were allowed to develop a public cultural life. In literature, folk poetry became the basis for the emergence of a national style. Šatrijos Ragana (1877–1930), Jonas Biliūnas (1879–1907) and Antanas Vienuolis (1882–1957) contributed to the development of psychological realism. Vydūnas (1868–1953) gained a special place in Lithuanian literature through his philosophical meditations on the relationship between individual and nation as the foundation of morality and humanity. Modernism is associated with the impressionist Ignas Šeinius (1889–1959), who lived in Sweden from 1940 and also wrote in Swedish.
During independence 1918-40, the national culture gained other growth conditions. Central cultural institutions such as the university and higher schools, theaters, associations and publishers began to function normally, and Lithuanian literature came into close contact with the literature elsewhere in Europe. Various trends flourished, and the relationship between tradition and modernism stabilized. The poet Juozas Tumas-Vaižgantas (1869-1933) portrayed in several works the Lithuanians’ search for their culture. Vincas Krėvė (1882–1954) provided existential issues and a universal dimension to Lithuanian literature. Balys Sruoga (1896–1947) was a prominent symbolist. His memorial book on the concentration camp in Stutthof is one of the most distinctive works of 20th century Lithuanian literature. Vincas Mykolaitis-Putinas (1893-1967) published philosophical poems that were of great importance to the cultural life of the Soviet regime, and also the first psychological-intellectual novel in Lithuanian literature. The avant-garde is represented by futuristic poetry by Kazys Binkis (1893-1942) and expressionist poems by Kazys Boruta (1905-1965). Expressionism’s foremost prose writer Jurgis Savickis (1890–1952), who for many years was a diplomat in Scandinavia, reformed Lithuanian prose by renouncing some of its most characteristic features, such as melancholy, sadness, and beauty.
The second generation of poets during the period of independence were new romanticists, strongly influenced by the culture of the West. Among the lyrics are Jonas Aistis (1904–73), Salomėja Nėris (1904–45), Antanas Miškinis (1905–83), and Bernardas Brazdžionis. The prose writer Antanas Vaičiulaitis’ (1906–92) poetry has much in common with the neo-romanticists. Petras Cvirka (1909–47) and Ieva Simonaitytė (1897–1978) gave vivid depictions of differences in regional culture.
In 1940, Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, the following year by Nazi Germany, and in 1945 again by the Soviet Union. A number of artists and intellectuals were deported to Siberia. An extensive literature was written by resistance poets such as Bronius Krivickas, Mamertas Indriliūnas and Diana Glemžaitė, and the deportees described their tragic fates. Particularly poignant are the memories of Dalia Grinkevičiūtė. In a special position stands Vytautas Mačernis (1921–44) with his lyric, which is thematically related to the exile writers.
70% of the members of the Lithuanian Writers’ Association left the country at the end of the war; most of them settled in the United States. The most prominent of the older generation of exile writers are the lyricist Henrikas Radauskas (1910–70) and the proseist Antanas Škėma (1911–61). Marius Katiliškis (1914–80) further developed the prose tradition with themes from peasant life. Other significant exile poets include Juozas Kėkštas (1915–81), Henrikas Nagys (1920–96), Alfonsas Nyka-Nyliūnas and Kazys Bradūnas. The common denominator for these was the yearning for the land of the Fatherland and a search for meaning in life.
The younger generation of exile writers, represented by, among others, Algimantas Mackus (1932–64) and Liūnė Sutema, came in a difficult middle position: they were too young to live in the memories of their homeland, and too old to feel at home in the foreign country. This particular condition resulted in their poetry being characterized by hopelessness, unconsciousness and incompatibility.
In the beginning, official literary life under the Soviet regime was strictly regulated. The authors were controlled by the Communist Party and the Security Service. Stalin’s death caused some softening; the writers could take more chances in terms of boundaries that neither censorship could clearly define. It was time for a “humanization” of literature. Focus began on daily life, culture, morals and the individual. Juozas Baltušis (1909–91) in his novels depicted the peasant life in Lithuania before the war in a rich and popular language. Albinas Žukauskas (1912–87) distinguished himself with narrative poems that continued the tradition of Donelaitis. Playwright Juozas Grušas (1901–86) wrote classic historical tragedies and modern tragic comedies, often with disgusted regime criticism. The prose writers Jonas Mikelinskas, Mykolas Sluckis and Jonas Avyžius are associated with the creation of the subjective-psychological novel with inner monologues in Lithuanian Soviet prose.
Lyric has always been most central in Lithuanian literature. Eduardas Mieželaitis (1919–97), famous for his poem cycle Žmogus, among others, with his talent and ability to experiment exerted influence on the younger generation. Justinas Marcinkevičius has, among other things, written a world trilogy that has gained the status of a national post. Janina Degutytė (1928–90) wrote warm, romantic poems about love, nature and the fatherland. Vytautas Bložė is the most modern poet of his generation, and exerts great influence on young poets, including his polyphonic poem model (Polifonijos).
The poems born in the 1930s stood for a new wave in modernism. They rejected Marxist philosophy and did not recognize “the socialist progress”, especially in literature. For that reason, they were closely monitored and had to manage without benefits. But they created new literary qualities by immersing themselves in myths, folklore, their own culture and the modern art of the world. Leading names include Marcelijus Martinaitis and Jonas Strielkūnas.
Bronius Radzevičius (1940–80), one of the most important writers in Lithuanian prose poetry, portrayed his quest for freedom and truth with great intellectual power and psychological insight. Other prominent proseists are Juozas Aputis and Romualdas Granauskas.
Since Lithuania’s independence was restored in 1990, the prose has been characterized by strong realism, but it can also have a lyrical character. Among those who have made their mark since 1990 are Vanda Juknaitė, Jurgis Kunčinas. Contemporary poetry is characterized by postmodern young poets with ironic touch, including Aidas Marčėnas and Sigitas Parulskis.