Betti Alver's works of poetry are demanding and masterful in form: they are based in the classical European poetry tradition, although they contain quintessential Estonian-ness both in terms of language and a folk-poetic background. Her poetry has been called very vital – it is said to contain a passionate joy of life and soulful strength, and finds the point of living.
Betti (Elisabet) Alver, one of the most outstanding 20th-century Estonian poetesses and a very interesting prosaist, was born in 1906 as the sixth child of a railway master in Jõgeva, near Tartu. She attended the gymnasium for girls in Tartu, and studied Estonian language and literature at the University of Tartu Department of Philosophy for a brief time.
Alver made her debut with the short story Vaene väike (Poor Little Thing, 1927). Her first novel, Tuulearmuke (The Wind´s Paramour), which she wrote during gymnasium, received second place in the publisher Loodus' novel competition in 1927. After her novel's success, Alver dedicated herself to works of literature. She turned from experimenting with prose to poetry, publishing the poem Lugu valgest varesest (The Story of a White Crow) in 1931. In 1934, Alver was accepted into the Estonian Writers' Union. Her first poetry compilation, Tolm ja tuli (Dust and Fire, 1936), which comprised five years of works, demonstrated the author's independence and artistic maturity, and made her a renowned poetess.
One year later, she married poet Heiti Talvik, who had also influenced her decision to take the path of poetry-writing. They both belonged to the poetry group Arbujad(Soothsayers), which cultivated symbolism in that era.
During WWII, Alver's second collection – Elupuu (Tree of Life) – was put together. The publishing of this work stalled, however, and the poems it contained have appeared dispersed throughout later collections. Heiti Talvik was arrested by the Soviet authorities in 1945, and he perished in Siberia. Alver, the publishing of whose works was banned during the Stalinist era, chose to keep silent, only translating. She returned to writing her own works in the 1960s. In 1965, the poetess married literary historian Mart Lepik.
Alver was an unsurpassable translator of poetry. Her translations of Pushkin, especially Eugene Onegin (1956–63, published in 1964), are top achievements of Estonian translated literature. Being somehow Pushkin-like herself (she has named Baudelaire, Heine, and Théophile Gautier as her ideals in addition to the great Russian poet), Alver has similarly translated Gorki, Goethe (Götz von Berlichingen), and Heine.
Alver's earlier poetry is world-travel, while her later works are a return to more everyday topics – this done with equal sensitivity: she had a very sharp sense of the tension in the world and the fate of her homeland. She was an humorous, sharp-minded, and intense author who was masterful with her language, and as a poetess has doubtless been the greatest influence on Estonian poets since World War II. Hers is poetry with a deep philosophical slant: tragic, conceptual poems that can, in their intensiveness, suddenly break into humor, freshness, and playfulness; while elsewhere, they can flare into fine irony. Unique in their defense of life that is valued in terms of its meaning and always its spirit, Alver's works have been called a linguistic force of nature, which is, however, undoubtedly dominated by the one, who releases it – gentle and mighty, all at once.
Alver's collection of selected works titled Tähetund (The Stellar Hour, 1966) became a classic from the moment it was published. The print of 12,000 copies was sold out in a few hours. Lendav linn (Flying City, 1980) and Korallid Emajões (Coral in the Emajõgi, 1986) both earned the most important literary award of the time.
Betti Alver died in Tartu in 1989.