Afanasy Fet – the poet who straddled two centuries of verse

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“I’ll go to meet them on the old

familiar road…I’ll gladly…wait for them till morning

watching the standing corn sway in the breeze

and one day’s death becomes another’s dawning.

So past and future in my own life meet;

and now the sweetness of the hour, so calm

and free, acts on me like a potent charm,

stilling regret for what’s behind

and doubt of what’s in store.”

.    .    .

My introduction to Fet was brief and unremarkable. I met him in an anthology of Russian poetry¹, marked some lines in the margins of his verse; and (most likely), hurried past him to more favored poets who were chronologically clustered in the remote sections of the book.

A couple of years later, this past month, I came upon him again. Our second meeting happened in an essay titled ‘The Meaning of Love’, written by the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev². The essay was peppered with quotes from Fet’s poetry and his verse was arresting:

“And I know having gazed at the stars awhile;

That we looked at them as gods; you and I.”

Further down:

The sun’s afterglow is leaving the earth,

…. How imperceptibly the rays

Fade and die out at last!

With what languor do the trees bathe

Their luxurious crown in them!

And ever more mysterious and immeasurable

Does their shadow grow, grow like a dream;

How fine against the evening glow

Rises their light patter

As if sensing a double life

And doubly imbued with it,

They both feel their own earth

And reach for heaven”

I then learnt that he was greatly influenced by Schopenhauer and translated the philosopher copiously; that he and Tolstoy were close friends (Turgenev even) who bonded, amongst other things, over their admiration for Schopenhauer; that he was revered as a demi-God (in Pasternak’s words) by the Russian literati; that he was Mandelstam’s favorite poet and that Tchaikovsky, a close friend and great admirer, set many of his poems to song and thought of him as a ‘musical poet’, akin to Beethoven in temperament and genius.

All this came in the form of revelation. Popular anthologies of translated Russian verse do not talk of these intimacies of his life. They neither describe the unique space that Fet single-handedly created for Russian poetry at a time when it fell out of public favor; nor reveal that he became the masthead for twentieth century verse. Despite an anthology’s limitations, it is truly extraordinary that a man so feted and celebrated, by the greatest of Russian minds, should be so unknown outside his land. Obscure to the English-speaking world; Fet, with the double A’s in front of his name, is one of Russia’s great lyric poets. The history behind his name was the fuel for his creative urge. It shaped his destiny and became the spur of his ambitions.

Intrigued by my new learning, I scoured the library catalogs for books of his verse. Those too were hard to find. The search threw up just two titles; one of which — a critical review — was in the possession of a distant outpost of the local library. It took some days to transit the system; but at last, its arrival was announced in the ‘holds’ and that is where I met him for the third time — in a solemn hardcover bound in dark grey cloth, its spine printed with the words ‘The Imagination of Spring’ in etched, italicized gold.

Chagall resized

On the cover: ‘The Flute Player’ ~ Marc Chagall

This is not a book authored by Fet (to the best of my knowledge, none of his books have been translated into English). But it amply compensates by generously referencing his verse. Almost every page has ladder lines of his poetry in both the original Russian and in English translation.

 

‘The Imagination of Spring’ is an academic reading of Fet by the Russian scholar and critic, Richard Gustafson. Its prolegomenon immediately discloses reasons for his anonymity outside Russia — that his lyrical verse (extreme even by Russian standards) posed a great challenge with translation. While Fet’s verse might be especially unique for its rich lyrical quality, almost all Russian poetry, even through the twentieth century, continued to conform to traditional forms of metre and rhythm resulting in few and inadequate translations. This is unfortunate since the corpus of Russian poetry is immense and unexplored. The reasons for the Russian resoluteness with lyricism, in the face of the wholehearted embrace of verse libre by the rest of the world, is deeply rooted in history.

.    .    .

The history of Russian poetry in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:

Pushkin and the Golden age

[I have written on the subject of the evolution of Russian poetry elsewhere and will merely draw a gist here to unaddressed details.]

Following the Reformation and the Renaissance, England and Germany became the forerunners of literary movements which then quickly spread to France and post-Petrine Russia. Despite their secondary nature; the French and Russian experience with a violent dismantling of monarchy against the backdrop of tumultuous revolutions gave form to their literary movements as a response to sociopolitical change. This was more acute with Russia, where the upheaval wrought by the Bolshevik Revolution extended through most of the twentieth century and determined the character of its literary outpouring.

The Great Schism ensured Russia’s isolation from Europe through most of the second millennium. This barrier was breached by Peter the Great and the post-Petrine period of the eighteenth century witnessed the novelty of artistic and intellectual collaboration between Russia and Europe for the first time. The Western intellectual march through Romanticism, Realism, Symbolism, Futurism and Modernism all found and met their equivalents, mutatis mutandis, in Russia. Romanticism, the torchbearer of the tectonic change in poetics, found expression in Russia through Pushkin and his Pleiad. He established Russian literature’s universal credentials, flagged her as a tour de force and set the tone for the explosion of talent that was to come.

Pushkin on the Crimea by Aivazovsky

‘Pushkin on the Crimea’ ~ Ivan Aivazovsky, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

One of my beloved father’s good friends is a chronicler of Russian literature who has been much feted in Russia, through both the Soviet and the post-perestroika periods, for her scholarly work on Pushkin. For Russians, the grand-seigneur of their literature is Alexander Pushkin³. He reigns supreme there, towering above the elsewhere more well-read giants of Russian literature — Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Akhmatova, Sholokhov and many others more. The closest approximation we have to him, in India, is Tagore.

It is widely acknowledged that his literary endurance stems from his efforts with making the Russian language accessible to both readers and writers. He disassembled its formal constraints, colloquialized verse and facilitated its widespread adoption. At the same time, in the tradition of the Romantics, he liberated the subject matter of poetry. He expanded its scope — to all things, material and immaterial — and, in so doing, unlocked its potential as a medium for the expression of human sentiment and experience.

Pushkin’s benchmark status derives both from his prodigious and unparalleled talent with verse and from these innovations with prosody. But, alas! He died young (he was merely thirty-seven when he died in a duel that he instigated) and, after him, Russian history underwent a great many upheavals.

Post-Pushkin

Poetry and literature were both subject to severe repressions in the Post-Pushkin era; first under the monarchy in the nineteenth century and then under Communism through the span of the twentieth century until Perestroika. The nature of the repressions under both regimes was differently experienced. The golden ages of both poetry and prose are located in the nineteenth century when Russia was ruled by the Romanovs. The restrictions on literary expression under the monarchy was a pale shadow of the horrors that writers and artists were subject to under Communist rule. A great many defected; many others were deported en masse and still many others were hauled away to the Gulag where they died or disappeared. The history of twentieth century literature is largely as response to this violent repression. All its forms — the compromised literature of the regime, the subversive response that providentially escaped or the reactionary émigré literature — emerged from under the cloud of Communism with little opportunity for escape into the realm of non-utilitarian art.

But this period stands out for the renascence of poetry after its decline in the golden age of prose that was the second half of the nineteenth century. Further, the revival was marked by a modernist movement which disavowed free verse and reverted to lyricism to keep traditional rhyme and metre intact. This reversal (the reinstatement of prosody and the oral tradition) was a conscious ‘subversive’ act of poets to escape the scrutiny of the commissars and to keep creative independence alive⁴.

Golden age poets

Krylov, Pushkin, Zhukovsky and Gnedich in “Summer Garden” ~ Grigory Chernetsov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The poetry-prose carousel

Eighteenth and nineteenth century Europe witnessed a steady dismantling of the political order; alongside which, multiple avenues of literary expression opened that accelerated the shift from the centuries-old tradition of poetry to prose. Likewise, in the post-Pushkin period of the nineteenth century, Russia too experienced a shift to prose.

The nineteenth century landscape of literary Russia neatly bisects into the periods of Romanticism and Realism. In the first, the ‘extraordinary individual’ and mystical power of nature and the landscape were celebrated. In the second, the focus shifted onto the ‘ordinary individual’; to the daily tribulations of an ordinary human existence and its metaphysical conundrums. Utilitarian concerns give themselves more easily to exploration in prose and it is thus that this period (1840–1890) came to be the golden age of Russian literature. It showcased the masterpieces of the great Russian writers — Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov and many others. Russia’s combined literary output in this period was unmatched by the rest of the world and, to this day, these classics occupy the acme of world literature. The shift to literature paralleled a succession in philosophical thought. The opening of the century showcased a post-Kantian shift towards biology (best expressed in the pantheistic naturophilosophe of Schelling and the poetry of Pushkin and Goethe) and in its closing years it ceded ground to the pessimism of Schopenhauer.

Unlike in Europe; the shift to literature in Russia was not permanent. The radicalism of the new literature was blamed for the civil unrest and anarchy that followed the Tsar’s assassination in 1881. Public mood switched to a longing for the sentimental comforts of poetry in the fin de siècle which then held sway as the dominant mode of literary expression through the twentieth century. The initial turn-of-the-century reversal of the Symbolists was nostalgic in intent. In the decades that followed the 1920s — through the periods of Modernism, the Soviet era and the Khrushchev Thaw — a second upsurge in poetic output was driven by necessity and was akin to an act of resistance.

.    .    .

Afanasy Afanasovich Fet

Historical Context

Russian epochs chart

Infographic ~ Author’s own

Although the age of Realism (also called ‘the marvelous age’) is celebrated for its contributions to the Russian novel and world literature, it also managed to give the world the genius of the Russian poet, Afanasy Fet. Writing in a time when poetry was in decline, he battled twin challenges of keeping critical interest in his art alive and resisting the dominance of ‘civic verse’.

Afanasy Fet was one of Russia’s greatest lyric poets and a colossus of late nineteenth century poetry. He is considered a master of the “lyrical miniature” — short poems of simple themes, with a sentimental context but an objective philosophy, whose words have a high degree of musicality due the meticulous attention to metre, form and rhythm. Lyrical verse is perhaps best described by the eighteenth-century German philosopher-poet, Friedrich Holderlin: “A lyrical poem is the continuous metaphor of feeling”. Fet straddled the period between Realism and Symbolism; the period book-ended by the philosophies of Schelling and Schopenhauer whose contradictory influences he blended into the voice of his own poetry. His poetry doesn’t fit neatly into any of the well described epochs of literary history and hews to a Frostian road.

The extreme musicality of his poems attracted the great Russian composers of the period — Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Scriabin and Rimsky Korsakov⁵— who set many of his rhymes to music. In English culture, verse with a demonstrable proximity to music is not critically celebrated. Whereas, in Russia, as in many other ancient world cultures, musicality enhances the intellectual caliber of a verse. Fet was particularly close to Tchaikovsky who called him “a poet-musician writing on subjects that are difficult to dovetail into words and language; but that find a more felicitous expression in music”⁶.

Unfortunately for him, despite the cognoscenti’s acknowledgment of his poetic genius, the mood of the moment tilted to prose and civic verse. The decade of the 1840s, when Fet burst on the literary scene, is called ‘The Extraordinary Decade’. In the eponymously titled chronicle of the period, the memoirist and flaneur, Pavel Annenkov opens with his acquaintance of Vissarion Belinksy whose persona then goes on to hold sway over the bulk of the book⁷. Belinsky was an extremely influential literary critic who had the power to make or break literary fortunes⁸. He spearheaded the avocation for radical socio-political change in Russia and decreed that literature must be written for a purpose — what he called a ‘civic’ purpose — a precondition that was amenable to the prose form.

Poetry, in turn, responded with a genre called ‘civic verse’. It bound itself to an agenda, to the purpose of sociopolitical realism and change. But, pre-determined conditions, direction and purpose are all antithetical to the very essence of poetic imagination and, consequently, poetry sank to its lowest ebb during this time. In this effort to gamely go along with the diktats of critics, Russian poets were out of step with Europe; which, at the same time, was experiencing the decadent revolt against Realism by the Parnassians⁹.

Few poets rebelled against Belinsky’s teleological imperative. Afanasy Fet was almost the sole mutineer. He rejected the new utilitarianism and, in the spirit of the Parnassians, continued to write poetry for the sake of art alone. This approach of art-for-art’s-sake, when civic verse was on the ascendant, sealed his fate. He languished in relative oblivion from the public eye for the greater part of his writing years.

It was only when disillusionment with Realism set in, that his fortunes turned with the post-1890 reversal to Idealism and the dawn of the silver age of poetry in the fin de siècle. This brief aesthetic age lasted a little more than a decade, and had two men as its prime influencers — the poet, Afanasy Fet and the philosopher, Vladimir Soloviev. Fet experienced a second coming and produced some of his best verse in this time. Soloviev’s impact, though profound, waned early; but Fet’s influence on Russian poetics continued well into the twentieth century. His remembered legacy is that he was the homegrown masthead of the great poets that followed him through the fin de siècle up until and through the Soviet era.

.    .    .

Biography

Afanasy Afanasevich Fet was born to German parents but was brought up in Russia from infancy after the marriage of his mother to a wealthy Russian nobleman, Afanasy Shenshin. This seemingly innocuous detail came to underscore his entire life. When he was still young, the Church decreed his birth illegitimate and stripped him of his inheritance and the right to his adopted father’s name. The humiliation of this public ejection from the nobility into the lowest ranks of Russian society and the forced reversal to his German birth name (Foeth) marked him for life. From thereon, the restitution of his status became a lifelong driver.

In those days, a commoner could enter the nobility by joining the army and attaining the rank of Major. With his goal clearly laid out, Fet set about enrolling in the army. Just when he achieved the requisite military stripes, he was thwarted once again by a change in the rules. And, if this disappointment was not crushing enough, he battled a more grave personal crisis; one from which he never quite recovered. He fell in love with the daughter of a learned man who was well revered but lacked natal nobility. In a momentary display of dishonorable character, Fet called off the relationship. Tragically, the young lady committed suicide¹⁰. This incident profoundly affected Fet who left the army and took to being a poet and landowner. He did marry a few years later but never had children and the major bulk of his poetry was written to the memory of, his once-betrothed, Maria Lazich.

.    .    .

Poesy and Poetics

Lyrical verse was Fet’s oeuvre. Deeply influenced by Schopenhauer’s theory of art as redemption; his was a poetry of escape from terrestrial suffering to a more perfect world. Poetry was not just the medium of escape; it was the escape itself. His philosophical belief did not let him rail against human fate or exhort to betterment. Rather, he stayed rooted in reconciliation with the malefic side of life. Instead of amelioration; he sought relief in escape, through the imagination of an unattainable but perfect, beauteous, blissful and eternal world. In his art, he found “the healing of the torment”.

“To one angered and callous of heart

Why then do you strum the lyre with a childish hand

As though it were the trumpet of revolt?

Why oppose Nature and fate?

These sounds bring down to earth

Not a passionate storm, not calls to battle

But the healing of torment.”

His ideological approach to art has two facets: One, it reflects the classic Schopenhauer pessimism. It also embodies his philosophy of art as escape. In what reads like an almost direct translation of the Upanishadic concept of ‘Sat-chit-ananda’, Schopenhauer says “art and the beautiful lead us out of the tedious world of endless desire into the will-less world of pure contemplation.” The second point of note is that this disengagement, with a lived reality, was in the fashion of the French Parnassians; even though there is no record of any connection between them and Fet and by all accounts Fet’s views appear to have formed sui generis.

The philosophy of ‘art-for-art’s sake’ separated the artist from the audience and elevated art (in all its forms — whether as literature, poetry or as painting) out of the realm of the public and general into a rarefied pedestal of the individual and particular. He expounds his belief in the unbridgeable divide between life and art in a poem titled, ‘Among the Stars’ in which he describes the stars of art as “caliphs” and “hieroglyphs of immovable dreams” and bids them speak thus:

“We are eternity, you are the moment….

That is why, when it is so difficult to breath,

It is joyful for you to raise your brow

From the face of the earth, where all is dark and bare,

To us, to our depths, where all is luxury and brightness”

Fet’s poetry is commonly described as ‘art-for-art’s-sake’ or as ‘pure poetry’. What is meant by pure is that it is disentangled from purpose or agenda. Its cause rests in, and of, itself alone. In Fet’s own words: “Pure art is free art; first of all, from any worldly aims, interest, desires, practical concerns or use, — free further from any pre-intentioned tendencies, from any previous preconceived or rational idea”.

The twentieth century dominance of confessional poetry has roots in the Romanticism of the nineteenth. When the Romantics expanded the scope and subject matter of poetry, they broke with the time-honored tradition of objectivity and encouraged the expression of personal experience. The solipsistic and lyrical ‘I’ entered verse and literature across Europe and Russia for the first time¹¹. True to the intensely personal nature of the word ‘I’, its usage in poetry varies from poet to poet. For some like Byron and Lermontov, its use is intensely personal and subjective. For Pushkin, its use is to separate the personal from the general and to adopt a detached position from both.

Fet’s use of the lyrical ‘I’ evolved through his verse. In his initial years, he used it descriptively — almost as self-discovery to merely convey the imagery of his experience but not elaborate on it; elaboration was the reader’s prerogative. In later years, he shifted his style by expanding on narration with thought-elaboration. For example, an idyllic landscape was no longer just described in an imaginative turn of word or phrase; what it made him feel and think was also detailed.

Fire and gardens are recurring motifs in his verse. He was haunted by the first as a constant reminder of his personal loss and returns to it again and again in his early phase of descriptive poetry. On the other hand, his use of gardens as metaphor alludes to the elusive and ethereal perfection he believed existed elsewhere. In a clutch of poems grouped under ‘poetry of the garden’ he uses the familiar themes of birds and flowers in the setting of a garden to elucidate the perfection of unrequited love — his conviction that its unsullied state, untainted by experience, elevates it to the promise of eternity¹². A point that he expands to great effect in a poem titled, ‘Alter ego’

“As the lily is reflected in the mountain stream,

You stood over my first song,

Was there a victory in that, and whose –

The stream over the flower, or the flower over the stream?”

…..

We are together, we cannot be separated.

The grass which is on your grave in the distance,

Here in my heart becomes fresher the older it gets,

And I know, looking at times at the stars

That you and I looked at them like gods.

Loves its words, these words will not die.

There awaits us a particular judgment;

It will puck us out of the crowd immediately.

And we shall go together, we cannot be separated!”

In Christian Russia, Fet remained ambivalent about religion. While he publicly professed belief in the faith, his philosophical approach to beauty and nature suggests a Schelling-inspired pantheistic approach. This is better appreciated in his earlier poetry which has sometimes been called idyllic for its almost singular focus on landscape to make its case.

“The wave is bright — and scarcely breathing

It lies at the feet of the overhanging rock;

And, immersed in the moonlight

The earth is reflected in it

And the whole heavenly chorus begins to tremble.”

In his second coming (post the decade of the 70s), Fet distanced himself from ‘Pure’ poetry; turning instead to philosophical verse of abstract truths and what is called, the ‘verse of wit’. These poems reveal his shifting approach to perception in poetry — from description, he moves to elaboration and then to the expression of his own desire to understand his emotions. From the body of work he produced in this period; two poems stand out as strong representations of this shift — ‘Lying on my armchair’ and ‘On a Swing’. Both were written in 1890. Fet passed away in 1892 after a violent attempt to end his own life.

.    .    .

Aleksey Savrasov The rooks have come back

‘The Rooks have come back’ ~ Aleksey Savrasov, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

“Lying on my armchair, I look at the ceiling,

Where, in a challenge to my imagination,

The circle suspended above the steady burning lamp

Resolves its transparent shadow.

There is a trace of autumnal glow in that flickering:

It seems as though above the roof and the garden,

Unable to fly off and not having decided to perch,

Rooks are circling in a dark flock …

No, that’s not the sound of wings, that’s horses at the porch!

I hear trembling hands …

How cold is the pallor of a beautiful face!

How sad the whisper of parting!

I am silent, lost, looking from the darkening garden

Onto the distant road,-

And finding no haven, there is circling still

The disturbed flock of rooks.”

.    .    .

 

Sergey Vinogradov The Swing

‘The Swing’ ~ Serge Vinogradov; Russian Impressionist, 1910, private collection

 “And again in the half light of night

Between the tautly stretched ropes,

Together on that unsteady board

We stand and push each other,

And the more closely [we rise] to the tree tops,

And the more frightening it is to stand and hold on,

The more joyful it is to fly above the earth

And, alone, to draw near to the heavens,

True, it’s a game, and besides

It may turn out to be a lethal game,

But even to play with life together –

That is happiness, my beloved!”

.    .    .

Why does any of this matter? Poetry, literature or their histories — why do they matter? The equal parts agony and exhilaration that goes into writing a poem is followed by the excruciating struggle of finding someone to read, comprehend and publish it. Yet, this doesn’t seem to be a deterrent at all. Poetry thrives and by many reports, poetry submissions are at an all-time high.

Many writers have grappled with this question and countless essays and books are dedicated to its explication. One of the best known and most cited is, Shelley’s essay: ‘Defense of poetry’ which was written as a rebuttal to a pointedly satiric piece by Thomas Love Peacock. Calling poets as ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, he weaves a myriad motivations for the existence of verse — beauty, reason, the limits of human imagination, the advance of civilization and more. It was well received and remains a classic to this day.

But while his argumentation won the battle; characteristic of the restless independence of poetry, it did not win the war. Countless such debates on the value and need for poetry have continued to rage in the centuries since. In ‘Poetry, Language, Thought’, Heidegger quotes from Friedrich Holderlin’s elegy, ‘Bread and Wine’ — “What are poets for in a destitute time” and then answers: “To be a poet in a destitute time means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods”. Further down, he delves deep into a poem by Rilke from ‘Songs to Orpheus’ and interprets the lines as: “the ones who dare to venture into language — the province of Being — they are the sayers; they are the poets who are more venturesome who venture Being itself”. Although poetic, his response unwittingly elucidates the original question’s dilemma — that despite sincere attempt, it fails to bring forth a direct and uncomplicated answer.

I recently read the poet and critic David Orr’s humorous and thoughtful book on Poetry — ‘Beautiful and Pointless’ — which he closes with a chapter titled, ‘Why Bother?’. Orr concludes that poetry ties us to our language, our selves and society. But, a great number of people seem to get by without paying much heed to poems and the business of living is, as always, imperiously detached from these concerns. Poets do seem to be a miniscule group with a niche audience.

While this is true; it is only true if we try to fit poetry into a frame. If, on the other hand, what we understand by the term liberates to include everything from lullaby, to song, to ditty, limerick, rhymed verse, free verse, etc., almost everyone is a participant in its creation and transmission. And this, is why poetry matters.

In every culture, the origins of poetry are in song. In both, poem and song, rhyme and metre are the very backbone. And so; poetry, whether in private or in public gatherings (‘readings’), is often read out or sung aloud. In ancient times and civilizations, to be a singer of verse was an occupational tag — Rhapsode (Greece), Sūtaha (India), Rakugoka (Japan) — that committed these keepers of song to the memorization, public recitation and transmission of the words. Unfortunately, from the middle of the last century, and with the consuming advance of free verse, poetry readings in the English tradition have allowed the fine art of declaiming verse to wither into ‘self-deflation’. Mercifully, this trend has not taken root elsewhere. Poetry in other languages and cultures still holds on to the tradition of podium performance as either recitation in a raised and expressive voice or, as musical song. Bardic minstrels are to be found, in every town and city in India, to our present day.

The impact of rhyme and metre goes beyond a poem’s structural support. By rendering poetry easy to memorize, the rhythm of the words entrenches poetry within culture. Metrical prosody facilitates learning by rote. When such learning is transmitted orally across generations and people, it transforms poetry into culture. Poetry becomes a semiotic unit; it is both culture and a medium of culture. Through transmission, the methods of presentation of poetry also evolve with innovations of prosody and language which then become a marker of literary genius.

Apart from these aerial comprehensions; when experienced on a more personal level, and like for Fet, poetry is a metaphor of escape. When assailed by grief, loss and breakdown and in the absence of other crutches, it is the words — the words — that rescue us. In the few minutes it takes to read a few lines on a page; black and white characters manage to transform into the comfort of a spoken word, find their way into our associative memories, create new imagination, fill the spaces of the heart and engender a feeling of continuity. Somehow the words seem to know how to get under broken wings and coax them to fly again. It was Fet who prompted my deep engagement with Russian poetry. As I slowly sifted through his words, he once again connected me with a world more perfect than my own, with the possibilities of the human imagination, and with the comfort of hope.

.    .    .

 “I dreamed of a rocky shore,

The sea slept under the moon,

As an innocent child slumbers –

And, along it, gliding with you,

Into the transparent and wavy smoke

We walked along a path of diamonds.”

.    .    .

Bibliography and footnotes:

  1. The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry; edited by Robert Chandler. Penguin Classics Edition; 2015
  2. The Heart of Reality: Essays on beauty, love and ethics, Vladimir Sergeyevich Soloviev. Edited and translated by Vladimir Vozniuk. University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana; 2003
  3. This is how Maurice Baring, an authority on Russian literature, describes Pushkin: “he was fundamentally a classicist — a classicist as much in the common sense, realism and solidity of his conceptions and ideas as in the perspicuity and finish of his impeccable form. He strove with none, for none was worth his strife.” From, ‘An outline of Russian Literature, Maurice Baring. Read Books, 2009
  4. “Hands, matches, ashtrays”— In fear of being caught writing literature that could be termed incendiary by the government; poets used to write in small notes, exchange them by hand, memorize the lines and burn them. This poignant ritual was termed ‘hands, matches, ashtrays’ by the writer Chukosvskaya. Mendelstam would recite his poems to his wife when she visited him in the Gulag (from where he never returned) and it is her memorizing of them line by line, word for word that preserved them for posterity. Nina Gagen-Torn, a writer who was also imprisoned in the Gulag, would recite Mandelstam, Pushkin, Nekrasov to her cell-mates to keep spirits alive through the ancient tradition of recitation.
  5. This site has a collection of brief auditory introductions to some of these compositions: https://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=C5039
  6. Tchaikovsky on Fet: “Fet reminds me of Beethoven, but never of Pushkin, Goethe, or Byron, or Musset. Like Beethoven he has been given the power to affect those strings of our soul which are inaccessible to artists, no matter how talented, who are limited to words. He is not simply a poet, but more of a poet-musician, since he avoids those themes which lend themselves easily to verbal expression.”
  7. ‘The Extraordinary Decade’ by Pavel Vasilevich Annenkov. Edited by AP Mendel and Translated by Irwin Titunik. Univ of Michigan Press, 1968
  8. DS Mirsky expressed the judgment of both Belinsky’s contemporaries and of later-day scholars when he described him as “the true father of the intelligentsia, the embodiment of what remained of its spirit for more than two generations — of social idealism, of the passion for improving the world, of the disrespect for all tradition and of highly strung, disinterested enthusiasm.”
  9. The Parnassians were a group of poets who rejected the emotional outpourings of Romanticism. They instead pursued objectivity with an insistence on aesthetic intellectualism. Theirs was an elitist movement that believed in art as the highest value; a value it held in and of itself. In pursuing this ideal — art for art’s sake — art disconnected from and withdrew from the public. Beauty was no longer the focus; objectivity and creativity took its place. The leading lights of the Parnassians were the French poets Mallarmé, Leconte de Lisle and Gautier. Their Russian equivalents were the poets Fet, Tyutchev and Blok.
  10. Most accounts claim she died by setting herself alight with a match on the bed while reading his letters. There is an alternate claim that it was an accident. Fet later recounted to a friend that her dying words were “It is not his fault; save the letters”
  11. ‘The Imagination of Spring’ Richard F Gustafson; Yale University Press, 1966
  12. This concept is a running motif in Indian religious and mythological philosophy. Love is split into Kama and Prema. Kama is terrestrial, requited and sated; while Prema is ethereal, not consummated and is unsullied by human ordinariness. Marriage is Kama while unconsummated love is Prema
  13. Art for this essay is sourced from: The Athenaeum. Wikimedia Commons and the Tretyakov Gallery

 

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