Preterition of the Baltic Sea in the Culture of Lithuanian National Liberation: from Valiunas to Baranauskas

The purpose of this text is to reflect on an immense role in the forge of the Lithuanian identity played by the contouring of the Lithuanian space. According to Anthony Smith, the western type of a nation is „a predominantly spatial or territorial conception“[1]. Therefore, the rise of a modern concept of a Lithuanian nation was impossible without an obvious spatial definition of Lithuania. It took the whole 19thcentury to find this definition. The features of self-awareness formed back then affect to a large degree the modern thinking of Lithuanians as to where Lithuania begins and ends. Certainly, there was an intuitive search for such a territorial description of the nation, which would have been sufficiently emotional. The rhetorical details of a national spatial Lithuania’s definition “model” are best reflected in poetry. Indeed, nothing else but poetical texts are the most important texts for the Lithuanian nationalism.

In the beginning of 19th century, the spatial boundaries of the historic Lithuania were not clear even to the Polish-speaking nobility. In 14th century, the western part of Lithuania, Samogitia, more than once was surrendered to the German Order and passed from hand to hand following negotiations between Great Dukes of Lithuania and the Order. The Eastern border of the state which due to the conquering victories reached far away to the Black Sea was in the process of continuous change. Consequently, the nationalism at its birth found it difficult to draw a clear “spiritual map” based on historic evidence. The deeper layers of the self-awareness harboured a question as to which lands were the „true“ lands of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. Or, more precisely, which of its parts – the eastern or the western ones – were „more important“ for the state, i.e. for a symbolic perception of the state.

During the early phase of the Lithuanian nationalism movement, in 1820’s, a poetical text was written indicating a first coordinate of the Lithuanian space. The text was written by poet Silvestras Valiūnas, who died a young man during the 1831 rebellion against the Tsar’s rule. Valiūnas in a poetical way narrated a story of a marriage of the Duke Kęstutis and Birutė which was well known from the 15th century Chronicles of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. The Duke fell in love with a girl Birutė who had vowed to remain virgin and serve as a maiden of the pagan altar. The Duke took her to the then capital Trakai and married her. Birutė gave birth to Vytautas – the most celebrated Lithuanian duke, who led the Tanenberg battle with the German Order which was won by the joint Lithuanian – Polish army. Coming back to our topic, most important is the fact that the altar protected by Birutė was in Palanga, on the coast of the Baltic Sea. The historic song by Valiūnas about Birutė was known and sung by almost every Lithuanian woman since the middle of 19th to the middle of 20th century. Myself I have heard this song for the first time from my grandmother. This song opens with the following words – „On the sea coast, in Palanga town“. This was how Palanga together with the Baltic Sea became a symbolic and universal denotation of the Lithuanian space. The reference to the sea was also made in amber decoration worn by Birutė which were not referred to in folk songs or fairy tales and only owing to the Valiūnas’ work became a national distinctive feature of Lithuanian women.

The importance of the Valiūnas’ song was extremely vital for the national self-awareness development. Pride in Vytautas, Kęstutis, Birutė became a key to building a modern national self-awareness. The said reference to Palanga and the sea, however, for many decades remained the single mentioning of the Lithuania’s western border  in national texts. The cultural national perception of the Lithuanian space took another direction. One of the presumptions for such change in direction is explained in the underlying particularity of the already mentioned Samogitia bordering the Baltic Sea. Samogitia is both an ethnographic and historic region of Lithuania. At one time Samogitia was an individual duchy and kept its autonomy for a long time. For the evolution of the Lithuania’s integrity concept and the establishment of a clear ethnonym defining a modern nation, it was highly important to limit provincial sentiments.

Although regional patriotism provided a significant primary stimulus in nearly all cases of nationalism[2], it hindered the unification of the nation and thus had to be rejected, sooner or later. An internal perception of Lithuania as covering only Upper Lithuania, different perception of Samogitia’s social and cultural status as well as neutralising of this difference is a close twin brother to the history of the Czech – Moravian relationship[3]. Poet Simonas Stanevičius in his fable from the beginning of 19th century stated in a persuasive and visual way that: Upper Lithuanians and Samogitians „have had the same fortune“. Another writer of this period, Dionizas Poška, declared: „the Baltic coast is not divided, / same blood runs in Lithuanians and Samogitians“. However, it took almost a hundred years to overcome individual „Samogitian Lithuanianness“. This was not only a category defining ethno-politic and ethno-cultural relationship, but also an instrument of spatial perception.

Evidence to a difficult disappearance of the „Samogitian Lithuanianness“ is born by yet another poetical variant of a story about Birutė the Duchess, in addition to the Valiūnas’ text, or to be more precise, a translation of the first variant from Polish into Lithuanian. The Polish version of the story about Birutė was versed by poet Józef Ignac Kraszewski, whose work was translated into Lithuanian at the end of 19th century by the cultural activist Tomas Žičkus-Linkis. He took liberty to insert into the monologue of Kęstutis a verse about the unity between Upper Lithuanians and Samogitians which did not feature in the original[4]:

Lithuania, Samogitians live like true sisters;

Sharing the same language and a kindred country;

With wonderful meadows and confluent rivers,

Nobody dares to destroy their luck.

Finally, as a denomination of the nation and the state, by national tradition “Lithuania” was established as the name of the country. In this context, too, the features of Samogitia were avoided. Perhaps this explains no reference to the Baltic Sea, which, anyway, was „Samogitians’ sea“. Just like the Swedes’ sea. Neither was the Baltic Sea mentioned by authors originating from Samogitia, from the Baltic Sea coast. For instance, Simonas Daukantas, the first historian to write in Lithuanian, in his works intertwines the geographical description of the Lithuanian state with travels of Lithuanian ancestors around the world. Consequently, it was rather difficult to understand the spatial description as such. In his works, Daukantas always mentions trackless woods as a distinctive feature of Lithuania, which is one of most indefinite landmarks of space compared to seas, rivers, mountains or other natural phenomena which were used by European nations as “national” objects to define their territorial boundaries.[5]

The beginning of a later period of Lithuania’s poetic demarcation may be said to be the last work on history by Daukantas– „A Narrative about Works in the Old Times of Lithuania“. Although the first section of the work was published and became available only in 1880’s, the symbolic forms used in the work spread already in the 40’s of the same century. In Daukantas’ „Narrative“ the Lithuanian land is described by way of enumeration of „rivers lining the large woods“. It was this minor „hydrography“ which developed then as a basis for Lithuania’s spatial perception. The largest rivers of Neris, called Vilija by Poles, Dubysa, Šešupė, and Nevėžis (all being the feeder rivers of the River Nemunas) were being regularly referred to as symbols of Lithuania. Even though the Nemunas flows into the Baltic Sea, no reference was made to the Baltic Sea in those verses. It is a kind of irony that one of the rivers in the western Lithuania is named Jūra, which is a common name for „sea“ in Lithuanian. This rather unremarkable river as a denomination of the Lithuania’s space was mentioned by one of the poets of 19th century Juozapas Miliauskas-Miglovara. Nevertheless, he too does not mention the Baltic Sea in his poetry.

Lithuanian authors were creating elements of Lithuania and its demarcation as well as the type of the national lyrics according to examples of the Polish Romanticism. And they were doing so by describing everything in a more concrete and folklore manner. Of significance are not only poetry works written in Polish, but also works on regional studies. Quite a substantial number of these are descriptions of travels on river or by the riverside. The following works may be mentioned: Konstantin Tiszkiewicz’ „The Vilija and its banks“, Ludwik Kondratovicz’ „The Nemunas from its headwaters to the Estuary“, Zigmunt Gloger’s „Along the River Bottoms“. However, there were no ethnographical descriptions of the seashore. Or to tell the truth, the only existing studies of the Baltic coust and the Curonian Spit were being conducted and published by Germans in the German language in Gothic print and hardly ever reached lithuanian nationalists. It is true to say that the most famous work of belles-lettres constructed according to the tradition of explorative literature of travels practically radically turned its back on the sea. The work I am referring to is called „Palangos Juzė“ by Motiejus Valančius – a narrative about a travelling tailor and description of the places he had seen. Although the tailor originated from Palanga, i.e. on the seashore and was telling his stories already back home, Palanga and the Baltic Sea did not feature de facto in the work. As if the back was turned on the sea and the focus was fixed on the continent. Rather often in the Lithuanian literature of 19th century there is the so-called central mobile character bringing separate plots together – it may be a travelling craftsman, a pilgrim, or a preacher. Whatever his occupation, he cannot swim, does not know any ships and travels only by a cart or on foot. Such an image of a person is closely related to the spatial conception common to the public at large. Again, in this image there is no room for the sea.

The consolidation of the national identity approximately during the middle of 19th century encouraged to abandon any reflections about the western coast of Lithuania altogether. Attempts were made to demarcate the more obscure corner of the homeland – its south-eastern part. At first, the historic criteria was applied, with the focus going to the former castles and fortresses of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. Poet Silvestras Gimžauskas wrote a poetical history of Lyda castle. Lyda and its environs were also described by the prose writer Petras Arminas in the „Auszra almanac“ publication distributed among peasants. One of the celebrated national poets of the end of 19th century, Maironis, mentions Lyda, Geranainys, Krėva and Sluckas in the closing verses of the poem „Lithuania“. All these were territories which were part of the Great Duchy of Lithuania and which ceased to belong to Lithuania after the establishment of an independent republic of Lithuania at the beginning of 20th century. Today they are part of Belarus.

The other criteria of territorial eastern boundaries of Lithuania and non-Lithuania that were finally acknowledged by the Lithuanian nationalism movement had been demarcated in 1850’s by Antanas Baranauskas – author of the prime work of Lithuanian Romanticism – the poem „The forest of Anykščiai“ – and a future bishop. He travelled from Lithuania to Saint Petersburg and described his impressions from the journey in a cycle of poetic letters to his parents called „A journey to Saint Petersburg“. Ostrov, Pskov „once were under the Lithuanian rule“, wrote Baranauskas, but nonetheless, this land is foreign. The landscape, the language of the people and their lifestyles rather than the previous belonging to one or other state determined an obvious gap which we can find in the poem: „Here it could be always overcast and gloomy: / There is no country in the whole world to compare to Lithuania.“

Exactly within the context of the eastern demarcation of Lithuania’s boundaries did the Baltic Sea re-appeared. This happened in a rather paradoxical way. Antanas Baranauskas was a second person after Valiūnas to write a song that was widely known and sung. The piece has a very simple title: „I am singing a song“. The song briefly lists the key moments in Lithuania’ history. In addition to these, the territorial space of the homeland is described in poetic formulae. According to the Baranauskas’ hyperbole, the ancient Lithuania stretched far away „from the Danube, where the sun illuminates a man without giving him a shadow“. The song was distributed in handwritten copies, was passed on as a verbal tradition, but what is important for us is the fact how this song was published. This work by Baranauskas was published without his knowledge in a first Lithuanian newspaper targeted to Lithuanians under the Tsar’s rule. The editors of the „Aušra“ monthly that was being published in Prussia and smuggled into Lithuania, slightly edited the quoted part of the poetical text. They must have been striving for the grandeur and exactness. In the adapted version of the „I am singing a song“, for the first time after Valiūnas’ reference to Palanga, the Baltic Sea was once again mentioned in a national text. The text reads that in times of dukes „the northern Baltic seas and southern Black seas were bordering Lithuania“. Hence, the Baltic Sea was juxtaposed to the Black Sea. It should be noted that the sea was referred to not as a western but as a northern boundary of Lithuania, contrary to the modern perception. This was due to the fact that the Great Duchy of Lithuania in 15th century was indeed far more stretched to the South rather than East, unlike the present Lithuania.

This reference to the Baltic Sea was again followed by a decade’s silence. Only in 1895 Maironis described the Baltic Sea from the same point as Valiūnas – from Palanga. However, in his poem „From Birutės’ hill“ the Baltic Sea was not concrete in cultural and geographical terms, nor was it a significant historical space. It was rather a sea of individual romantic poetry – as an element echoing the intense feelings of the poem’s character. Meanwhile, the poems in which Maironis expressed himself as a poet declaring national ideals the Baltic Sea was not mentioned. What other explanations can we suggest to such an obvious reticence of the sea? The key to this lies in the location of the capital city which, unlike in most of the neighbouring countries, is not situated at sea.

In the second half of 19th century, Lithuanians themselves introduced more ethnographical rather than historic descriptions of the country. That is, much more important for the perception of the Lithuanian space became not the landmarks, but what „drew“ the space around itself, what was its „core“. The problem of the national centre was an issue, because towns were populated by non-Lithuanians. The interpretation of the ancient capital cities – Kernavė, Trakai and Vilnius – as the core of the national space was a resolute but hard attempt. This may be seen, for instance, in the translation, or rather a conversion by Dionizas Poška of the „Contemplation at the ancient Vilnius castle“ poem by the Polish poet Franciszek Szahin Sokół. „Here a Samogitian and Lithuanian lived in friendship, / Singing jubilantly songs of victory together“, - these lines about Vilnius as the centre of Lithuanian warriors were added by the Lithuanian poet. An image of Vilnius as the centre of the lithuanianness was instilled in the national self-awareness by the first legal newspaper „Vilnius News“ only in the beginning of 20th century. Also significant were several mass political conferences, particularly the so-called Great Seimas of Vilnius in 1905. It follows that it was even more difficult to include in the circulation of the Lithuanian ethnographical national identity the largest port city of Klaipėda. Back then it belonged to Prussia and did not invoke any historic or national sentiments in Lithuanians. In light of absence of the image of a port, a possibility of a sea image as a national cultural symbol was diminished even further.

Indeed, we would look in vain for the Baltic Sea in the list of key symbols of the Lithuanian national identity. But the seashore and Palanga glimpsed in several key texts of nationalism. Therefore, I would like to conclude my speech with a question – could it not be a simple reticence, but rather some sort of a literary device – preterition. Could it be paraleipsis – a rhetorical figure of the subsequent Lithuanian culture? Could it be that the spiritual significance of the Baltic Sea was implied, anticipated, and yet could not be or would not be conveyed in a direct way?


Lecture given at the Visby conference on "The Baltic in Literature and Art" in November 2002

[1] Smith A. D. National Identity. – Penguin books, 1991. – P. 9.

[2] Cf. Hroch M. K problematice farmováni buržoazního národa v Evrope // Čekoslovenský časopis historický. – 1961. – Nr. 3. – S. 96.

[3] Cf. Myl’nikov A. S. Kul’tura češskogo vozroždenija. – Leningrad: Nauka, 1982. – S. 7-15; idem. „Češskoe“ i „moravskoe“ obščestvennoe soznanie v XVIII v.: k voprosu o vyzrevanii nacional’nogo samosoznanija i roli istoričeskoj al’ternativy v procese formirovanija nacij // Kul’tura i obščestvo v epochu stanovlenija nacij: (Central’naja i Jugo-Vostočnaja Evropa v konce XVIII – 70-ch godach XIX v.). – Moskva: Nauka, 1974. – S. 41-52.

[4] Cf. Kraszewski J. I. Poezye. – Warszawa: S. Orgelbrand, 1843. – T. 1. – S. 127‑130.

[5] Cf. Nipperdey T. Auf der Suche nach der Identität: Romantischer Nationalismus // Idem. Nachdenken über die deutsche Geschichte: Essays. – München: Beck, 1986. –  S. 112.