A very large part of Estonian literature, until almost the middle of the last century, is written in German: since, for several centuries, the nobility, the upper middle class and the clergy were German by origin and language. If we consider the historical events of Estonia, we understand how it was only very late that a national literature began to be formed. Estonian-language documents have been found since the 10th century. XIII, but they have a linguistic interest, not a literary one, except for the rich and relatively ancient production of popular poetry. The liveliest fantasy and the greatest richness of Finnish mythology compared to Estonian results from the fact that the magical poetry of the Estonians is almost entirely of Finnish import, while for the epic-lyric poetry it is above all Estonia that has produced and exported, by oral exchange, in Finland; exchange facilitated not only by the geographical position, but also by the great similarity between language and language (the relationship is roughly that of Spanish with Portuguese, or of Swedish with Danish) and by the identity of the national meter, the alliterating trochaic octagonary. Popular poetry is the most beautiful flower in the Estonian poetic garden, but there are also plenty of stories, proverbs, riddles, in fruitful competition with the sister nation.
The most ancient monuments of which we have news, sometimes indirect, must go back to the end of the pagan age and to the beginning of the Christian age, when the two beliefs came to collide and react on each other. But the historical and literary memories of the 13th-16th centuries are all in Latin: by chance they have preserved some ancient Estonian names, words and phrases. Such, in the century. XIII, the chronicle of Henry the Latvian, Origines Livoniae: the Liber census Daniae, with Danish text (contains about 500 Estonian place names). Only in 1535 there is news of a booklet printed – probably in Germany – in Estonian language (the Catechism by Johannes Kievel), but this first document was never found, like two other religious writings by the Jesuits Ambrosius Weltherus (1591) and Guilielmus Buccius (1622).
The adoption of the Protestant reform (1522), for a long time limited to the bourgeois classes, also had little influence on the spread of Estonian culture. To carry out their propaganda among the peasants, they spread in manuscripts, and sometimes in prints, catechisms, sermons, hymns and edifying books, in Estonian, generally translated or imitated from German, and therefore without a national spirit. Henricus Stahl has the merit of having collected these materials in four volumes (1632-1638) which represent the first work in Estonian language that has really come down to us; and we also owe him the first Estonian grammar (Anführung zu der Ehstnischen Sprache). Note that Stahl used the Tallinn dialect, while Joachim Rossihnius’s contemporary translations (Gospels, Epistles) are in the Tartu dialect; thus began that harmful dualism that had to cease in the century. XIX, with the decisive prevalence of the dialect of Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. In all of this first period, there are only few attempts in number and value of art poetry.
The political upheavals and the prevailing rationalism at the end of the century. XVIII and the beginning of the XIX had some repercussions also in Estonia, with the suppression (1819), at first only theoretical, of the humiliating and oppressive serfdom and with the rise of an ever more lively interest in the language and traditions of the ” non-Germans “, as Estonians used to call them by their lords and masters. JH Rosenplänter (1782-1846), editor of the magazine Beiträge zur genaueren Kenntnis der ehsmischen Sprache, stood out among the group of extrophiles ; OW Masing (1763-1832), for whose example the language of the people asserted itself as a literary language; Count Peter Manteuffel (1786-1842), author of poems and stories drawn from the life of the people. First and only national poet of this time, KJ Peterson (1801-1822). Following a reactionary movement, this activity was restricted to scholarly research; to which the Gelehrte Estnische Gesellschaft, founded in 1839, “to promote knowledge of the antiquities and current life of the Estonian people, of its language and literature, as well as of the country inhabited by it, gave considerable impetus “. Traditional songs and tales were collected zealously, preparing the materials for the composition of the national poem Kalevipoeg (v.), with which the period of material and spiritual regeneration of Estonia begins. German-speaking scholars still continue to publish collections of popular songs (H. Neus, 1795-1876), to lay the grammatical and spelling foundation of literary Estonian (E. Ahrens, 1803-1863), to compile its lexicon (JF Wiedemann, 1805-1887). But the use of the national language for literary purposes became more and more popular: in 1857 the first Estonian newspaper was published; with the poems of Lydia Koidula (1843-1886, pseudonym of L. Jannsen), also author of short stories and dramas, the Estonian Muse is heard beyond the borders of her homeland. Eesti kirjameeste Selts was founded in 1872(Estonian literary society) and an Estonian high school, both thanks to the learned and industrious parish priest Jacob Hurt (1839-1906): who later, in the raging of a new reaction and under the impact of invasive Russification, concentrates the his noble activity in the collection of folkloristic material, managing, with the enthusiastic cooperation of masters, peasants and other humble commoners, to bring together the incredible number of about 45 thousand songs, 10 thousand legends and stories, 52 thousand proverbs, 40 thousand riddles, 60 thousand news of uses and customs and superstitions: wealth that has no comparison except in that of Finland. Another parish priest, MJ Eisen, made himself deserving as a collector of short stories and short stories, as well as a fruitful writer of literary works. Many others, less talented and lacking in originality, they descended into the literary approach, but without producing anything organic, lasting, truly national. In the novel English (Walter Scott) and French (Chateaubriand, Sue, Dumas) imitation dominated, in the theater the mediocrity of Kotzebue and Iffland: as a whole, modern literature gives the impression of a superficial amateurism, from which they barely save themselves. the two best of lyric poets, Anna Haawa and KE Sööt.
With the waning and then with the cessation of the forces opposed to national regeneration, and finally, after the world war, with the proclamation of the independence of Estonia constituted as an autonomous republic, literature too took a notable and fruitful development, although efforts of its main representatives tend rather “to lift it from the barriers of exclusive nationalism in the universal sphere of European culture” (G. Suits), with a distinctly realistic and naturalistic tendency. The social novels of Estonia Wilde, the satirical novels of Estonia Peterson, the works of other prose writers inspired by Russian literature and those of the youth and radical group of Noor Eesti (Young Estonia) are, at the beginning of the century. XX, remarkable and promising claims.