Uku Masing: Stretching the Borders

by Külliki Kuusk

Uku Masing: Stretching the Borders

Külliki Kuusk


The one hundredth anniversary of poet and theologian Uku Masing’s (1909-1985) birth will be celebrated on 11 August this year. He is one of the most unique authors in Estonian literature. His exceptional intellect and the body of his work make it possible to also call him a linguist, folklorist and Orientalist. Masing was a part of the ‘academicians’ generation’ of Estonian literature of the 1930s. He completed his Master’s degree at age 21 on the science of the Old Testament and Semitic philology – Das Verhältnis der Elihureden zu den übrigen Reden des Buches Hiob (1930), probably one of the youngest MA degree holders at Tartu University at that time. Simultaneously with his PhD in 1935, he published his first collection of poetry.


The volume of his work and Masing’s extensive range of topics make him quite a phenomenal figure in Estonian culture. Various texts of world culture were translated into Estonian by Uku Masing: from Akkadian, 41 verses from Gilgamesh; from Arabic, stories from One Thousand and One Nights; from Sumerian, the Lugalbanda Epic, from Persian, Umar-i-Khajjām’s rubais (in manuscript); Louise Labé’s Elegies and Sonnets; and from Sanskrit, he translated verses in Twenty Five Vetâla Stories. Masing also translated, from Coptic, The Gospel according to St Thomas. It should be mentioned that Masing talked about the existence of this early Christian work well before 1945, when the manuscript was found in Upper Egypt.
Masing translated from Hebrew, Ethiopian, Syrian, Arabic, Coptic, Persian, Japanese, Hawaiian, Greek, Latin, Italian, Catalan, French, German, English, Yiddish and Sanskrit, altogether from 20 languages.

Uku Masing’s religious poetry is a unique phenomenon in Estonian literature, both in its style and form. His poetry is so multi-layered that we could truthfully call him a mystic, shaman, soothsayer or visionary. This explains the difficulty that different generations have had in understanding him. Masing’s poetry might seem too voluminous and too obscure for a thorough reading. Ivar Ivask, the long-time editor of the magazine World Literature Today and enthusiastic reviewer and translator of Masing, explained the difficulty of his poems as being a result of readers’ inexperience, although “the poems are never hermetic, in the fashion of Mallarmé, on purpose and will soon open up to a patient reader.”
Today, all Masing’s manuscript collections of poetry have been published, although to interpret his whole output will take a good deal more time. The reason is both the scarcity of researchers and the first circle of research. In the Estonian cultural space, Masing is mostly known for his first collection of poetry, Headlands in the Gulf of Rains. This was the source from which Ants Oras selected poems for the collection titled Arbujad (Soothsayers) in 1938. From that time onwards, Masing has been called a soothsayer, arbuja. Speaking of Masing as an anthological ‘soothsayer’, however, is superficial in discussing Masing’s poetry. Masing lived and wrote as a soothsayer all his life in the original sense of the word, ecstatically and in a ‘love-state.’ The word ‘soothsayer’ in many Finno-Ugric languages comes from the word arp, meaning ‘drum’; ‘soothsayers’ have been fortune-tellers, witches, sages and healers.

Uku Masing’s poetry as a diary of prayer

When Masing’s first collection of poetry, Headlands in the Gulf of Rains, appeared in 1935, he was already a mature poet. This carefully composed collection was preceded by A Book of Green Paths (1926-1934), although only in manuscript. Because of the continuous and intense religious impressions, Headlands has been called the poet’s diary of prayers. Masing’s poetry as a whole can actually be called a diary. At the same time, it should be mentioned that Masing’s essays, too, are characterised by a confessional manner. His poetry was always focused on sensuous perception and intuition. These qualities depend on the intensity of perception, and a poet would inevitably want to put it into words. This is what makes Masing’s poetry resemble a diary.
Headlands was, by no means, a single work; its organic environment was a set of texts that could be called the original manuscript. What constitutes Masing’s original manuscript? It is a manuscript of poetry which consists of clusters of texts, sorted by dates, like entries in a diary. The original manuscript contains poems from March 1930 – April 1945, thus presenting Masing’s poetry of fifteen years. One of the most frequent questions regarding Uku Masing as a poet was whether he ever kept a diary. In principal, we could answer in the affirmative, if we regard this bulky original manuscript as a diary.
Besides Headlands, the manuscript has given us Fog from the River Styx (Udu Toonela jõelt, 1930, 1933-1943), 1343 (1933), Liturgies of St Michael (Miikaeli liturgiad, 1934-1936), Rosary Prayers (Roosikrantsi palved, 1936), Shadow of the Dragon (Lohe vari, 1935-1941); Rowing with the Shedmaker (Aerutades hurtsikumeistriga, 1934-1941), Jungle Chants (Džunglilaulud, 1934-1945), and Land of the Evening Breeze (Ehatuule maa, 1937-1941). These collections, typical of Masing in the 1930s, were published in six volumes of Masing’s Poetry, on a thematic basis, and they appeared between 2000 and 2005 as a joint effort of the Uku Masing Trustees and Ilmamaa Publishers.
Masing’s poetry has been compared with prayers. The poet’s addresses to God, his dialogues with God, range from devout and pastel tones to ecstatic prophetic speeches. Masing’s state of ecstasy never faltered, throughout his work. The special ‘love-list’ state, which turns the incantations into sing-song spells, is most frequent in the collection Fog from the River Styx, and in his earlier poetry, in the collection titled Book of Green Paths (Roheliste radade raamat).


Masing’s symbolism and allegory acquired sharp features approaching satire and the grotesque in his collection Shadow of the Dragon. One visionary poem there is the curse of Masing, as a mystic, against Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Masing’s irony reflects the eternal pain over the issues of morality and ethics, a pain also caused by the environment in which he wrote. The historical background of the poem is Stalinism in Estonia and the political persecutions committed at that time, from the deportations to Siberian prison camps in the 1940s to the political fight of the Soviet authorities against the nationally-minded intelligentsia, which culminated in 1950.
For Masing, poetry was part of his religious principles and creative life. Together with Headlands, he wrote a total of 19 collections of poetry or, as he himself called them, songs. There were an additional six planned collections, which however were never properly compiled by the author. The despair and frustration of the mid-1960s in his personal life led to deep depression, which is recorded in his collection Lamenting the Falling Bank of Taevaskoda (1968-1972) as a diary.
The primeval valley of Taevaskoda and its surroundings formed a significant location for Masing. This is where he rented a small cottage, a place where he worked and meditated for fifteen years, up to his death.
The purpose of Masing’s life and aspirations was communio, mutual understanding. He called that perceptive connection communicatio, the aim and result of which is communion between people, the fluidity of the two worlds, with the border becoming vaguer. Masing might have felt this rich empathy-relation while creating the texts of Messenger from the Magellanic Cloud (Saadik Magellani pilvelt), the masterpiece of his creative work. The three cycles of the collection constitute the essential memorials of his time at Taevaskoda. In the course of writing this book, he crashed from the height of his creative power to despair and self-destruction, leaving him in a state of hopelessness, solitude and tragedy. “This particular work of literature clearly constitutes an effort to surpass himself, to rise above circumstances, something that only the greatest creative people manage to do,” said the poet and troubadour Lauri Sommer, who based his MA thesis on this collection. Without a doubt, this book can be regarded as Masing’s gospel.

Cognitive landscapes

Taevaskoda, like the plants in the Eino farm in Lipa village, the surrounding meadows and forests in Raikküla and southern Estonia, the tree in front of the house he lived in Tartu (hence the title of a poetry collection – Under the Shade of the Cherry-tree), and the medieval town of Tallinn, gathered the perceptual experiences and states of mind that are present in Masing’s poetry.
(Allegorical) comparisons, presented one after another, grow into an ecstatic visionary picture in Masing’s text. “Relating to his dear landscapes, his home garden and plants in his flat also contained something intuitive,” says Lauri Sommer. On that level of perception, he notes Masing’s connections with Conrad Aiken, one of Masing’s favourite authors.
Visionary pictures turn into metaphysical landscapes, where the real and the unreal cannot be distinguished. The ecstatic perceptive experiences in Masing’s poetry are, at the same time, generalisations of his home place. Thanks to religiosity, in both the geographical and linguistic senses, Masing was a part of existence, of flowing, a part of the environment, which also denotes a union with God. Masing called this ‘Estonian-style Christianity’ in an article of the same title in 1938.
A fascinating approach to Masing’s religious visions was offered by Professor Vincent B. Leitch (University of Oklahoma) in his Religious Vision on Modern Poetry: Uku Masing Compared with Hopkins and Eliot (1974), published in a shortened form in the Estonian Literary Magazine (Autumn 1999). He remarks that "man’s basic relationship with God in Masing’s vision changes significantly from one religious experience to the next."

The initial impulses of Masing’s ecstatic-visionary style can be located in his schooldays in Tallinn. Together with his friends there, he was thrilled by the Dadaists, Futurists, Surrealists and Expressionists. From translating the latter, the young Masing reached Chinese and Japanese material, the history of the Old Orient. In 1923, at the age of 13, Masing published his first poem, Notturno. The motif of this Bengal-related poem was from Calderon, although the influence of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore was no less important. Tagore was a kindred spirit to Masing; his work helped to develop Masing’s personal poetic language and religiosity. The later fascination with the Orient, e.g. translating Chinese and Japanese haikus in the 1940s, was also encouraged by Masing’s need for intellectual contact.
The impact of the Orient in Masing’s poetry can indeed be traced back to the year 1923, when the young man began translating Tagore’s poetry via English translations. Looking back now, it seems strange that these translations were considered worthy of publication only 13 years later, in the series The Nobel Laureates. Paradoxically, the best known among his translations are exactly these texts of Tagore’s, translated when Masing was thirteen. Without exaggeration, we can say that they have shaped a whole paradigm of understanding Tagore in Estonia.

His religious poetry is directly connected with his language philosophy, which developed from his interest in Semitic languages during his student years. Between 1926 and 1930, Masing studied theology at Tartu University, where, in addition to Semitic languages, he also learned Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Syrian and Ethiopian. After his Semitic studies, he turned his attention to the religions and world-views of Estonians and Finno-Ugric peoples. The foundation of Masing’s treatment of language is the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. Focusing on cognition, Masing stressed the subjective perception of language of each speaker. He also mentioned that in 1919-1921, while still at school, he was greatly influenced by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Planck’s constant. Masing’s language-philosophical attitudes were shaped in 1928-1929, at the same time as those of Edward Sapir and Benjamin L. Worf, although independently of them. It is remarkable that Masing reached the essential cognitive-theoretical discoveries in his first two years at university. This is no mean task.
He explains his views in a monograph written in the 1970s, Language and Mind (Keelest ja meelest, 2005). Against the background of Masing’s language philosophy, his poetry can be seen as a cognitive journey to the borders of his own perception.

Soothsayer and visionary

As a country boy, Masing lived and worked in the living traditional environment of Estonian village culture. He came from a Herrnhut family; his father organised the Brethrens’ evenings of singing at home. The folk songs and fairytales read in his childhood, his knowledge and fondness of plants inherited from his father, the rustic closeness to nature in his thinking in general, and his faith in God – these factors helped to shape a relationship with the world that crossed borders. They also provided him with a compact perception acquired from ecstatic divinatory experience, which banished the boundaries between wakefulness and dreams: a revelation experienced in the Christmas season in 1931-1932 caused shifts in space and time. It transformed objective reality into motion, processes and events. Cognitively, Masing had similarities with Bergson’s philosophy of elan vital.
All these experiences increased his alienation from everything around him. Perceiving himself as being different came naturally. It was more painful in his younger years, when he tried to hide it either with quirkiness or arrogance. The antithetical approach later developed into doubt as a general principle. As a religious mentality, this was expressed in pessimism, best perceived in language.

The cognitive landscapes in Masing’s poetry are essentially the places of his visionary journeys. Or we could say mental places where the connection of the beholder (traveller) with his real location disappears. Instead, an unreal connection appears.
Mental landscape or space is not necessarily natural; it could be any surrounding, a room, a village, a town etc. In his dreamlike poem Dreamer in Tesseract (1951-1956), Masing flashes around in time and in the past, present and future spaces. However, Masing’s visions in time, both forewords and backwards, are not always associated with innovation and hope, as might be assumed. More often than not, they are full of mysterious and unfulfilled dreams, full of pessimism.
Visionary journeys are mostly associated with mental companions from ancient times. Masing’s lover in his visions, for example, is constantly changing and has many faces, thus always offering different impressions. She could appear as a mythological goddess on earth or in heaven: Ninanna, Mael, Digitta Manaia, Cathleen Burke, the Indian dancer La Jana, the Polynesian girl Reri, or Hõbehyys. The myth-name of Masing’s wife Eha was Eha Tuulemaa (Ultima Thule). As a title of a collection of poems dedicated to her, it then expanded into a mythical place name: the land of Ultima Thule.


Visions might also be realised in a piece of music or a drawing. Masing once admitted that while listening to music he often perceived it as surging and swelling pictures. Photography, too, was a form of mental journey. This is evident in a bulky photo collection, which, together with some manuscripts, is preserved in his home archive in Tartu. Masing’s efforts in painting and his fascination with the Paul Gauguin are rather less known. The means were different, but the aim was the same as in his poetry. In terms of his mysticism, Masing’s work resembles that of the English Romantic poet William Blake; his closeness to him is expressed in an essay written by Masing about Blake (1957).


Masing’s mental journeys into four-dimensional space, the tesseract, or a voyage as the seafarer Hanno from Carthage, a participant in the historical events in 14th and 16th century Estonia, can be compared with a shaman’s travels.  This could also mean following his imaginary pictures as a soothsayer-fortune teller, a medium between the world of souls and the living. The same visionary perception is evident in Masing’s only prose work, set in Polynesia, Liberating Rapanui or Seagulls in the Cemetery of Gods (Rapanui vabastamine ehk kajakad jumalate kalmistul, 1938-1939; published in 1989). Masing’s several treatments of history were written with equal empathy; for professional historians, these continue to generate fierce arguments on the theme of veracity.

The wealth of word and imagery in Masing’s poetry reveals his perceptive powers, also seen in the form of his poetry. In his lyrical poems, this is easily observed, for example in his many sensuous and intimate addresses to his beloved, expressed in ecstatic utterances. The addresses rely on repetition and alternating rhythm; they play a cognitive role in Masing’s poetry. In his ecstatic poetic language, Masing’s work primarily resembles that of the poets J. Masefield and E. A. Poe.


On the basis of the poetry collection Fog from the River Styx, I discovered in my MA thesis that Masing used repetition in the same way as it is used in Hebrew poetry (Bible poetry) and in Estonian folk songs. It is expressed in semantic parallelism, repeating an idea by varying it. The background of the variations is also Masing’s position as a mystic, which caused his dissatisfaction with the linguistic boundaries of the means of expression. Masing aspired towards the precision of expression via variation. His friend, the poet Karl Ristikivi, remarked that “the special charm of Masing’s poetry lies in repetitions, variations, aligning one simile next to another,” and Ristikivi regards other poets of Masing’s time as being too laconic.


Masing was occupied with the poetic language of Bible texts when he edited the new translation into Estonian (published in 1940). In the end, the Old Testament was practically translated by Uku Masing. He claimed that it is precisely the semantic parallelism that reveals the sacral layering of a language. The visionary nature of Masing’s poetry contains shamanistic qualities.

The visionary nature of his viewpoint, and thus an ability to move between different eras, certainly helped Masing to cope better in the oppressive situation of the Soviet regime. It also gave him a kind of freedom to ignore the Soviet demonstrations of power. Masing’s work in the Soviet period was actually more soothsayer-like (i.e. understood as original) than we might otherwise assume. There was plenty of intellectual satisfaction. Like old sages, he was able to convey his knowledge: he taught at the Institute of Theology in Tallinn, translated, lectured, and wrote articles for academic publications. Together with Artur Alliksaar, he became the unofficial trend-setter of 1960s poetry. At that time, Masing took on the role of mentor, both for young theologians and the new generation of poets.


In the early years of the Soviet occupation, it was virtually impossible for Uku Masing to get published anywhere. In addition, he was forbidden to use the Tartu University library. His later poetry, of the 1950s-1960s, was written while he was persona non grata in Soviet society (the collections Striving towards the Borders, 1945-1950; Useless Verses, 1945-1951; The Shed Would Demolish Itself 1947 and Rowing…, supplemented version 1947-1950; and Under the Shade of the Cherry-tree, 1948-1949). Besides Headlands, Masing composed all his collections of poetry without considering the possibility of publishing them. Not that he was very keen on publishing, not even during the ‘political thaw’ of the 1960s. Any activity based on religion needs no self-justification.


Masing’s bibliography and reception form a telling example of the censorship and lack of freedom of expression in the Soviet Union. In the midst of political ill winds, any research on Masing’s work from the point of view of literary criticism ceased. After a few reviews of the first collection in 1935, the entire interpretation of Masing’s poetry fell to exile Estonians, including publishing his works. The reception of Masing’s poetry at home showed signs of awakening after the change in the political situation in 1987. However, ten more years passed before the first research into Masing’s work and world-view appeared.


The current situation of research is quite promising. The Uku Masingu Trustees, as the preserver and publisher of Masing’s intellectual legacy, has already published the majority of his works; there are a remarkable number of monographs on Masing’s activities. The phenomenon of Masing in Estonian culture – a poet, scholar and mystic rolled into one – is the topic of Vallo Kepp’s three-part poetic-philosophical documentary Landscapes of Uku Masing (Faama Film 2000; Estinfilm 2004, 2007). The Uku Masing Trustees is currently preparing the digital publication of Masing’s most significant work on the Old Testament, Handbook of the Old Testament, in 16 volumes.