Childhood and education
Liiv was born into an extremely poor family in the village of Alatskivi, Estonia. Despite their poverty, Liiv's parents sent him to Tartu to study journalism. Physical illness forced Liiv to leave school and return home, where he wrote poetry and occasional columns for the Olevik newspaper. His poetry starkly contrasted that of his contemporaries, and was therefore largely ignored.
Liiv finally achieved success in 1894 when his first short story, Vari (The Shadow), was published. It was dark and gloomy, foreshadowing his future works of both prose and poetry. Many readers draw a comparison between Liiv and the main character of the story, Villu, who is physically weak but strong in mind.
Liiv continued to write several more short stories, but none are as famous as Vari.
Shortly after Vari was released, Liiv became a patient in a psychiatric clinic in Tartu. Liiv was diagnosed with Schizophrenia. He variably thought he was the son of Czar Alexander II, the king of Poland etc. His struggles with mental illness continued until his death.
In 1909, Friedebert Tuglas met with Liiv. A book containing 495 poems by Liiv was published late that year.
Many of Liiv's poems are dominated by a sense of gloom, probably brought on by his mental illnesses, poverty and lack of human friendships. The few poems with a less ominous tone describe nature and Liiv's adoration for his country.
His poems include:
- The Axe and the Forest
- Who Does Not Remember the Past (is Living Without the Future)
- To The Poets
- I Saw Estonia Yesterday
- Come Now, Night Darkness
On 1 December 1913, Liiv was found aboard a train without a ticket because he could not afford one. He was thrown off into a deserted area and walked home. By the time he arrived, however, he had been in freezing temperatures for two weeks and had contracted a fatal case of pneumonia.
The Juhan Liiv Prize for Poetry
The Juhan Liiv Prize for Poetry was founded in 1965. It is awarded by the parish of Alatskivi on 30 April every year. The prize is a leather shepherd's bag hand-made by a local artist.