was born on January 1st, 1714, in the village of Lazdyneliai, district of Gumbine (Gumbinnen in German) , in East Prussia. Lazdyneliai (Lazdinehlen in German) was a small village about 5 km. east from Gumbine. Donelaitis was born, grew up, and worked in a region inhabited by Lithuanians from early times.
The country in which Kristijonas Donelaitis was born is known in Lithuanian as Mazoji Lietuva, i.e. Lithuania Minor; in German - Ostpreussen, i.e. East Prussia. The name "Prussians" refers to the Western branch of the Baltic peoples, who since prehistoric times have inhabited the area between the lower Vistula river, the Baltic Sea, and the Nemunas (Memel) rivers. Thus, the original Prussians, as relatives of the Lithuanians and Latvians, must be distinguished ethnically and historically from the Germanic Prussians, the descendants of the Teutonic Knights, conquerors of the autochtonic inhabitants of East Prussia. It is one of the ironies of history that the conquerors (Teutonic Knights) accepted the name of the conquered (Baltic Prussians)...
In the thirteenth century the Prussians were conquered by the expansionist order of Teutonic Knights. After the suppression - of the great Prussian revolt (1260-1274) against the Teutonic Knights, the Prussian lands were systematically colonized and germanized. The territory became in the 16th century part of the Duchy of Prussia, and in 1701 was proclaimed the Kingdom of Prussia. By the eighteenth century the original Prussians were extinct. After the devastating plague of 1708-1711, a scant third of the original Lithuanian inhabitants remained in Lithuania Minor; the others were replaced by German colonists in massive numbers. Because of plague and of colonization, the nationality of people in Prussia had become mixed. When Donelaitis was born, the village consisted of Lithuanians and Germans in approximately equal proportion. Nevertheless, East Prussian territory was still heavily populated with Lithuanians, and the Lithuanian language was dominant in many districts East of Königsberg (Karaliaucius in Lithuanian), especially along the line of Gumbinnen-Tilsit. Both historically and ethnically, therefore, the designation of Lithuania Minor is appropriate for this region.
There are very few facts available about Donelaitis' parents. Documents of the period indicate that his parents were free peasants, i.e. had a title to the land they cultivated, were free from feudal obligation, but had to pay certain taxes. At that time, such socio-economic status was considered to be somewhat superior to that of the serfs. Members of the Donelaitis family were the original inhabitants of the area - Lithuanians. Kristijonas was the youngest of the seven children in the Donelaitis family.
In 1720, Donelaitis' father died and all upkeep and education of the family fell on the mother's shoulders. What happened to Kristijonas immediately after the father's death is not known. Twelve years later (1732), however, Kristijonas was attending a middle school of Kneiphof - a section of Königsberg founded by and named for the Magister of the Teutonic Knights W. von Kniprode. Until he entered the university, Kristijonas evidently lived in an orphanage. For his room and board he had to perform certain religious functions: sing in the cathedral choir, participate in burial services, etc. According to the testimony of his niece, Kristijonas' life in the middle school was hard and poor; once he even fainted from hunger. Nevertheless, as his record testifies, he was devoted to his studies. Besides Lithuanian and German, two languages that he knew from childhood, he learned Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and French. Kristijonas finished the middle school at the age of 22 and entered the University of Königsberg in 1736 as a Lutheran theology student, but also attending, probably on scholarship, the Lithuanian Seminar, founded by Duke Albrecht in the 16th century.
It is difficult to say why Donelaitis chose theology. The Faculty of Theology received government and church support and its students could hope to receive aid, an especially important condition for poor students. Lacking in means, Donelaitis could hardly consider some other subject of study. Those that graduated from the Faculty of Theology and were Lithuanians usually were appointed to teaching or to pastoral positions in Lithuanian parishes. Kristijonas Donelaitis grew up in Lithuanian surroundings and appears to have been of Lithuanian disposition - his national background, thus, could have influenced the choice of profession.
While at the university Donelaitis lived in the so-called Collegium Albertinum. Meanwhile in the Theology Department heated disputes started between two groups of students and professors, the Pietists and the Orthodox. The questions discussed were mostly ethical and moral, and often came to writing pamphlets, sarcastic verse, and other devices often employed in similar ideological quarrels. It is not known whether Donelaitis actively took part in these discussions and even fights. Nevertheless, it is known that several noted Pietists, including Professor Heinrich Lysius, the King's appointee for the matters of Lithuanian Evangelical Church in Eastern Prussia, and Rector of the Cathedral School Daniel Salthenius were among his teachers. This fact has been stressed a great deal by noted Donelaitis' literary historians and critics, who placed a specific emphasis upon the influence of the Pietist movement on the philosophy of The Seasons. Pietism, teaching industriousness, piety, abstention from vain entertainment, and asceticism, deeply affected the future poet's character.
During the years of Donelaitis' studies (1736-1740), the University of Königsberg, under the influence of the spreading Western tendencies of enlightenment, gradually was reorienting itself toward a new direction and its scientific level was rising. Nevertheless, the old scholastic tradition was still dominant - literature and oratory were still taught as one subject in the Faculty of Theology. He became well-acquainted with ancient classical authors (Homer, Hesiod, Horace, and Vergil). Classical literature was the basis of literary studies, with special emphasis on Horatius De Arte Poetica. Poetry, a subject related to the wider literary life and esthetics, was taught in the Faculty of Philosophy. This subject was not required for theology students, but anyone could attend the lectures. J. Pietsch and J. Boch, professors of philosophy, were known writers of "occasional" poetry. J. Boch justified deviations from the norms of classical poetry; it is possible that Boch had some influence on Donelaitis, who also did not attempt to evade digressions from the requirements of classical verse. Some of the other professors that could have participated in the development of Donelaitis' poetic talents were: J. W. Quandt, a professor of theology, known as very articulate preacher, a participant in the organization of Lithuanian religious literature - G. Pisanski and D.Arnold - famous literary historians; F. Schultz - head of the Lithuanian language seminar.
The Lithuanian language seminar was mandatory to all theology students from Lithuanian-speaking areas of East Prussia and, therefore, to Donelaitis. It was traditional for a student- with better knowledge of Lithuanian to direct the practical exercises of the seminar; it is likely that Donelaitis also had to perform in this capacity. In the seminar he was acquainted with the principles and rules of grammar of the Lithuanian language. Available facts, however, indicate that the level of the seminar was very elemental. Even Donelaitis himself later regretted: "I often wrote poorly orthographically in Lithuanian, for I was not concerned with the matter; nevertheless, I spoke well." Lithuanian was his native tongue and he probably had few problems with the spoken word, but grammar was another matter. The Lithuanian language seminar helped Donelaitis to acquire only the basic rules of grammar, but Lithuanian studies strengthened his grasp of his native language, and nourished in Donelaitis a mature enthusiasm for the language and the people who spoke it.
Donelaitis enjoyed music and attempted some composition himself. Music undoubtedly contributed to the formation of his esthetic views; music was a requirement for all students. Musical life in Königsberg during Donelaitis' studies was quite lively, the city and the faculty and students were interested and participated in musical activities. University musical circles performed publicly in the city and organized music festivals. It is quite possible that Donelaitis participated in this musical life, for he had a musical talent - he could play the piano and the harpsichord, wrote music for his poems, and made musical instruments.
In 1740 Donelaitis completed his university studies. After graduation from the university, Kristijonas Donelaitis was appointed cantor to Stalupenai. Later, he became rector of the school in the same town. Donelaitis' life as teacher in Stalupenai was uneventful. When the rector of the school died, Donelaitis took over. As a teacher, he seems to have been devoted to the students. At that time reading and analyzing of fables was a widely accepted pedagogic method, for the children easily understood such materials. It was probably here and with the pedagogic aim in mind that Donelaitis wrote the six known fables.
Three years later, after a brief period of teaching in Stalupenai, Donelaitis was offered the position of Pastor in Tolminkiemis. Having passed the required examinations, Donelaitis was ordained a priest and appointed the pastor of Tolminkiemis, where he stayed to the end of his life. In 1744, in Tolminkiemis, Donelaitis married the widow of his predecessor. The parish was scarcely 20 km from his native Lazdyneliai and as far from the administrative center of Gumbine. In 1743, when Donelaitis arrived to take over the parish of Tolminkiemis, the parish was ethnically mixed. Pestilence and famine had reduced the Lithuanians to a minority. Massive German colonization had already significantly changed the ethnic composition of those areas. In the parish of Tolminkiemis Lithuanians remained only a third of the 3000 inhabitants the rest - Germans and colonists. Donelaitis would preach in German at morning services and in Lithuanian during the afternoon.
In Tolminkiemis, as in the rest of Prussia, feudal economic structure was very much in evidence. Within the parish borders there were four royal estates, one of which in Tolminkiemis itself, two free farmers, and 32 feudal villages. As the pastor of the parish, Donelaitis had charge of a farm that was approximately 37.5 hectares in size. As the spiritual leader of an ethnically heterogeneous feudal community, Donelaitis was forced to take an active part in the national and economic struggles of his people. Donelaitis sided with the serfs and resisted the landlords, who tried to take over not only peasant lands, but also part of the parish property. His influence upon the peasants was very great. In one of the court documents there are inscriptions to this effect: the peasants, it is said, always agree with the pastor, and whenever the pastor changes his opinion, they stubbornly follow him.
Donelaitis spent the rest of his life in Tolminkiemis. He performed his pastoral duties with great devotion and dedication. The available acts and documents testify that Donelaitis was a good parish administrator, an astute organizer of parish construction. In the time left over from his pastoral work he built a new church, renovated parish buildings, built a home for the widows of parish pastors at his own expense and donated it to the parish, and rebuilt a burned-out school. From the existing records it is evident that at first he was enthusiastic about running the parish farm. He made detailed plans of fields and compiled instructions for his successor. He himself cleared fields of stones, dug ditches, planted trees.
Besides construction and farming Donelaitis was quite successful in making various mechanical things. He was very well known for the precision instruments he made. His optical glasses, barometers, thermometers, clavichords, even pianos, were famous. It is reported that Donelaitis also made and was highly praised for watches, hydraulic and aerometric apparatuses, tools and appliances of various sorb.
There is convincing evidence that Donelaitis was concerned with and involved in the preparation and publication of Lithuanian religious literature. He undoubtedly used this literature in his pastoral work with Lithuanians and commented on its merits or demerits. He was also known to the Lithuanian pastors as an artist and was invited to participate in the preparation of hymnals and other religious publications.
Kristijonas Donelaitis had Latinized his name, calling himself Christian Donalitius. This Renaissance custom seems to be truly appropriate in his case, since he was not only a great poet, but also an individual of wide and complex interests, manifold talents and abilities. In fact, Kristijonas Donelaitis as a person seems to be the farthest echo of the European Renaissance which began in the 14th century Florence and reached this remotest outpost of Western Culture only in the 18th century. There, in fact, it was arrested, though a few influences of Italian architecture and the plastic arts are evident. These were brought into South Lithuania and Poland by Queen Bonna Sforza and her son Zygimantas Augustas, the last king of the Jogaila dynasty. The Russian culture, though widely influenced by Italian, French, and German culture, at the time of Catherine the Great, because of its unbroken contact with the Eastern Roman Empire and the Greek world, generally speaking, did not experience the period of the European Renaissance. Like a true "l'uomo universale" Donelaitis was a master of many trades and disciplines. Donelaitis was an accomplished musician. He liked to play the piano, liked to sing, and he composed music to his own verses. That was one of his hobbies; another avocation was poetry.
In his spare time Donelaitis would compose verse in Lithuanian and German and read it to visiting friends. When he began to write is not known, but it is assumed that it was just after his studies at Königsberg. Of his German works only the titles of 3 poems are known. His Lithuanian works consist of 6 fables and the poem Metai (The Seasons). This title was given to the poem not by the author but by the original publisher, Ludwig Rhesa (Reza), professor at the University of Königsberg. The fables are considered to be the earliest of the poet's works, for the versification is strained in places and the sentences cumbersome. Some elements in the fables, taken from the animal or plant world, are known in world literature from the days of Aesop; Donelaitis, however, expanded the contents of the fables and developed the action and characters in great detail. Moreover, Donelaitis linked his allegories to the social conditions of his time, which are especially brought out in his poem, The Seasons.
During the Seven Years War, when the Russians invaded Prussia (1757), Donelaitis with most of his parishioners retreated to the forests of Rominta and there held services and performed other religious functions. This retreat lasted close to a month. Back in Tolminkiemis, in the parish records Donelaitis expressed joy at his return home and at the same time lamented the great harm brought to the country by the invasion.
With the end of the Seven Yearsí War (1763), life in Tolminkiemis took on a peaceful course again. The war affected Tolminkiemis very superficially and we find no reflection of it in Donelaitisí poetry. The period 1765-1775 is the most peaceful and creative period in Donelaitisí life. The writing of The Seasons, a poem on the life of the boors during the four seasons of the year, is definitely ascribable to this period.
The poem Metai (The Seasons) consists of 4 parts: "Joys of Spring," "Summer Toils," "Autumn Wealth," and "Winter Cares." In these 4 idylls, totaling 2997 hexameters, are depicted the natural setting of Lithuania Minor, its people, their work, and their customs. The poem forms a realistic portrayal of Lithuanian peasant life in the 18th century, as it was affected by colonization. Germans and Austrians, Swiss and French, brought in and given special consideration by the government, became the upper class of landlords and officials, while the indigenous population became the lower class of serfs. In The Seasons the village life of the latter is depicted as patriarchal in structure. The natural virtues idealized by the Pietist movement, diligence, piety, honesty, and submission to authority, flourish. The social consciousness of the people is largely dormant. There appear only a few characters through whose lips the poet accuses the gentry and the government of exploiting the people. However, such characters are not portrayed sympathetically; they are considered degenerates by the villagers in the poem and by its author. The poet contents himself with telling his readers that all men were created equal in the beginning and that only later did some become lords and others serfs. Donelaitis calls the latter burai (boors), and shows deep sympathy for them. He reprimands their evil exploiters, but he does not raise any protest against the system of serfdom.
The social contrast coincided with a national and even a moral division. The villagers, who cultivated the aforementioned virtues, were Lithuanian. The immigrant colonists tended to weaken these virtues with their drunkenness and their backsliding from the church. The poet condemns the imported vices and urges his brother Lithuanians (the Lietuvninkai) not to succumb to the novelties but to preserve their traditions, including their language, customs, and dress. In a word he preaches passive resistance, though with some exceptions. The author recognizes certain desirable traits in the newcomers. For instance, he urges Lithuanian women to learn industriousness and other useful virtues from the German women. In the general picture portrayed by the poem it is evident that with the aging and passing of the exponents of the old patriarchal culture the Lithuanian village with its traditions is sinking in the maelstrom of immigrant culture.
This poem of Donelaitis did not differ in literary form from the fables, poems, and idylls then in vogue in Germany and in Europe generally, nor did it depart from the fashion of writing in imitation of the ancient Greek and Roman poets. The Seasons, moreover, followed the literary tendency of the day to portray not cities and aristocrats but rather the natural setting of the village and its inhabitants (for example J. Thompson, A. Haller, E. Kleist, B. Brockes). In the poem the reader finds a good deal of the didactic element so popular at the time. Donelaitis, however, stands out among other writers firstly in that he employed the classical hexameter before any European writer of the age. (F. Klopstock, for example, used it only in 1848). Secondly, for this Lithuanian poet nature was not conceived in the spirit of the Age of Enlightenment; the peasants he portrayed were not sentimentalized stereotypes. People in The Seasons are drawn realistically, with their labors, experiences, cares, and primitive mentality, abounding with mythology. Thirdly, Donelaitis is characterized by his clear stand in the social, ethnic, and moral clash between the immigrant colonists and the old Lithuanian inhabitants. This was his original contribution.
The Seasons does not have any single, simple plot, with characters described in detail. The narrative of the poem is often interrupted by asides, didactic passages, and lyrical reflections. The characters are sketchy; they are simply good or simply bad, with few nuances. Donelaitis is not given to detailed description of objects or persons. He shows them in the dynamic of life, acting and speaking, even larger than life. The poet, moreover, knows the psychology of peasant and serf, and in a stroke he could create an unforgettable, original image. To this end the poet makes ingenious use of synecdoche. He also employs hyperbole, exaggerating tempo of action, distances, and results to the point of demolishing the bounds of reality and creating a new artistic world. He has nature operating in terms which only a villagerís associations could attribute to it. The picturesque vocabulary of Donelaitis is akin to folklore. In his lyrical treatment of nature and people (at times with sublime reflections, at others, with light irony), he comes close to Jonas Basanavicius, Vincas Pietaris and other Lithuanian writers, who lived a century and a half later but belonged to the same geographical and linguistic area.
There is no doubt that Donelaitis fulfills the condition of excellence. He is able to use words in a very distinguished way, peculiar and original. Since his subject matter is neither sublime nor extraordinary, but touches upon practical life in an agricultural society, his expressions could have become dull, gray, or trite, if the solid, indicative, and illustrative spirit of the society had not been captured in the language. Donelaitis never waters down a phrase, nor does he euphemize, but is able to recreate in words the substantiality of the world and the speech of the rustics he portrays. His diction is crisp and fresh, and because of its authenticity simple and dignified. On the other hand, the language is full of unique metaphors, personifications, analogies, and hyperbolas which make it highly poetical.
The poet put all his heart into his work. He felt that it is his privilege and duty to teach his rustics the true way of life and wisdom based upon the principles of moderation, cheerful humble acceptance of reality, and satisfaction with life. These precepts grow partly out of the influence of the Pietist philosophy, partly out of his vocation as a priest, partly out of his varied experience of life.
The peaceful and creative period in Donelaitis life ended in 1775, when the Autman, i.e. administrator of the royal estate in Tolminkiemis, Ruhig, started the separation proceedings for the common pasturelands of the royal estate and the village. Donelaitis was not against the idea of a just separation of royal estate and village pasturelands, but vigorously opposed Ruhigís attempts to appropriate the best land for the king at the expense of the parish and the village. He wrote letters to judicial organs in Gumbinnen, and complained about the injustices of Autman Ruhig to authorities in Königsberg and even in Berlin. He was especially outraged at the decision of the separation commission, which was bribed by Ruhig. Donelaitis refused to accept the decision and was taken to court as obstructionist to separation. He wrote to his successor: "I withstood pain with great patience, and where it was possible I fought for the church and its land". This conflict with the royal estate lasted for a long time and was resolved by a court in favor of the parish only five years after Donelaitisí death
Donelaitis died on February 18, 1780, at age of 67. He was buried under the church of Tolminkiemis.
The town where Donelaitis lived longest, and where he died, Tolminkiemis, is only 15 km from the present border of southwestern Lithuania. Under extended German rule the Lithuanian name of the village was preserved in the German transcription Tolminkemen. After World War II the Russians changed it to Chystye Prudy and colonized it with their own people. The church and other buildings erected by Donelaitis were destroyed. From under the ruins of the church, in the crypt of which the pastors of the parish were customarily buried, the presumed remains of Donelaitis were recovered. Based on skull structure, the appearance of the poet has been reconstructed. Before that artists had depicted him according to his traits of character, as they imagined them
During the lifetime of the poet, not a single work of his was published. His manuscripts remained in the possession of his widow. They were copied by a neighbor, J. F. Hohlfeld, thanks to whom they survived; only fragments of the originals remain. The first edition of The Seasons was prepared by Ludwig Rhesa with a German translation, the poet's biography, and a description of his works The publication was called Das Jahr in vier Gesangen (The Year in Four Cantos), published in Königsberg, 1818. The fables were published in 1824. These published works were for several decades the only means by which the writer was known to his fellow countrymen and others. Rhesa made alterations and deleted the harsher realistic expressions (468 lines). A new and fuller Lithuanian text was prepared by the philologist August Schleicher under the title, Christian Donaleitis Litauische Dichtungen (The Lithuanian Poetry of Christian Donaleitis), published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in St.Petersburg, 1865. The third edition, the best and most authentic, was prepared by George H. F. Nesselmann, with a German translation, under the title Christian Donalitius Litauische Dichtungen, Königsberg, 1869. Later a few Lithuanian editions appeared; one of them was published in the United States in 1897. On the initiative of the Lithuanian Ministry of Education and under its funding, the definitive and ornate edition of The Seasons, edited by Juozas Ambrazevicius directly from manuscripts in the archives of Königsberg and illustrated with the wood-cuts of Vytautas K. Jonynas, was published in Kaunas in 1940. Under Soviet occupation, among other editions, one was published with illustrations by the artist Vytautas Jurkunas (Vilnius, 1956).
Among Lithuanian authors the works of Donelaitis have been translated most frequently. Adam Mickiewicz and Goethe, who is often called the last man of the Renaissance, knew and liked well The Seasons. The poem has now been translated into six foreign languages. The English translation makes it seven. It provide for the English-speaking audience the insight into the culture, the soul, and the destiny of a nation which even in the time of oppression made itself heard through the voice of its creative son Kristijonas Donelaitis (Christian Donalitius) whose literary classic The Seasons has become a part of the common Western cultural heritage.
Encyclopedia Lituanica, Boston, 1972, p.p.94-99