Afanasy Fet – the poet who straddled two centuries of verse


“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.


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.

.    .    .


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:
  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


.    .    .    .    .    .    .

Russian Literary Epochs


Baptism of Jesus’ ~ Andrei Rublev; Annunciation Cathedral, Moscow

[This essay was translated into Tamil by the magazine Padhaakai and published by them in the January-February issue ]

Russian literature, as we know it, marked its dawn in the eighteenth century under the astral influence of two great men — Derzhavin and Karamazin. Derzhavin was Russia’s first national poet and Karamazin, was the country’s first historian, whose twelve-volume exposition of Russian history is, to this day, a resource of exacting scholarly erudition.

Prior to this, two epic poems dated to the twelfth century remain extant: The Chronicle of Kiev and, The Story of the Raid of Prince Igor. The last, especially, is a much-loved cultural influence and like most such world epics, it too has the strange mystique of being lost and re-discovered. Not once, but twice¹!

Why it took until the eighteenth century for Russian literature to take root and blossom has been a matter of intense scholarly engagement. Despite its geographical continuity with Europe, Russia was unaffected by the changes that swept through intellectual and literary Europe in the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries; changes that came on the heels of the Reformation and the Renaissance. Historians attribute this to the barrier erected by the Great Schism which was to become the forerunner of the Iron Curtain.

But, for a few centuries, a grand cultural and intellectual integration of Europe and Russia did take place; one that has revived in recent times (albeit haltingly), with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Instituted by Peter the Great, these collaborative exchanges were dutifully continued by his successors: The Empresses, Elizabeth and Catherine (Catherine the Great). During this heady period, many of the ideas of the Enlightenment were entertained by the Russian Court² with a monarchy that was attentive to the need for devolution of power and the dismantling of serfdom.

History has many a record of progressive propositions that were abruptly disrupted by the dispositions of circumstance. This time, it was the explosion of the French Revolution that slammed the brakes on what might have been a very different history of Russia. Instead, in the aftermath of the Revolutions, the monarchy sought to stabilize affairs by reverting to its entrenched and familiar practice of autocracy.

Catherine’s grandson, Tsar Alexander I, believed in a limited liberalism and was open to reform but a series of wars, assassination attempts and social unrest caused him to reverse his stance. It was under his grandson, Alexander III — called the ‘Tsar-Liberator’ — that serfs were finally emancipated, serfdom abolished, and the period (in the second half of the nineteenth century) when Russian literature blossomed to its full potential. He secured for literary expression its freedom and allowed it to flourish, unfettered, in his reign.

.    .    .

0 T

‘The Horsewoman’ ~ Karl Bryullov; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

From its radiant start in poetry with Derzhavin and Pushkin, Russian literature blazed an extraordinary trail, unparalleled elsewhere in the world, for the five decades that spanned the period from 1840 to 1890. World literature has no equal to the literary outpouring of this period that birthed the greatest works of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Larmontov, Afanasy Fet, Blok and a great many others. But for Russian poetry, this was a period of a lull. It stepped back from the limelight and played second fiddle to prose. Happily, it didn’t take long for this interlude to give way to poetry’s glorious second coming in the twentieth century with an avalanche of verse from iconic poets, women and men, who found new ways of expression. Their words have become immortal classics and are translated into many languages around the world.

This extraordinary synchronic response of poetry and literature to the sociopolitical change over two centuries has been mapped into literary epochs based on the primary philosophical sentiment, in each time period, which found literary expression in verse.

  1. The Golden Age — 1800- 1835): This was the time of Pushkin and his Pleiad. It was an age influenced by the Enlightenment and combined the thought of Neoclassicism and Romanticism³.
  2. Age of Romanticism — (1835- 1845): The poetLermontov, whose approach to poetry is commonly called Byronic, was one of Russia’s greatest Romantic poets. His influence was great in this time.
  3. Age of Realism — (1840- 1890): This period marked the rise of the Russian novel. It was the age of Turgenev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
Ninth Wave Aivazovsky

‘Ninth Wave’ ~ Ivan Aivazovsky; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

The poet of this age of poetry’s decline was Afanasy Fet. He disavowed the popular belief that art existed for a purpose and espoused, instead, the sentiment that art existed for the sake of art alone. All writers who were not Realists (who did not address social and political causes through their poetry) were condemned by powerful critics⁴ who decried poetry as a medium unfit for the expression of contemporary issues. Consequently, by 1860, there was a camp of ‘civic poets’ who wrote poetry with a purpose; an aim — an aim that was the cultivation of a social conscience. And so, while England, in the sixties and seventies of the nineteenth century, had great poets like Tennyson and Browning and France had Baudelaire and Verlaine; Russia, in her turn, had none⁵.


  1. The Silver Age and Symbolism — (1890- 1912) A series of reactionary movements and political assassinations caused by anarchists forced both royal and public engagement with progressive reform to thaw. The constant unrest shifted the general mood once again to nostalgia for a seemingly more-peaceful past and ‘art-for-art’s sake’ poetry regained its lost favor. Poets of this age resurrected Fet and Tyutchev and followed the metaphysical motivations of their poetics. The latter half of this period is usually referred to as the period of Symbolism. Ivan Bunin and Alexander Blok were the dominant voices of this time.

Both groups rejected civic verse and reverted to earlier role models for inspiration. Even if French poets Baudelaire and Verlaine remained a potent external influence, this new crop of poets equally relied on homespun experience. This proximal, inward and internal search determined the shape of Russian poetry for the rest of the century. Symbolists diverged from fin de siècle poets by showcasing a distinct theurgic element in their poetics and philosophical outlook. Their belief shifted from the Schellingian⁶ naturophilosophie adopted by Fet to a more directly religious God.

Symbolism was the forerunner of the twentieth century Russian verse that the world grew to venerate and love. It had, at its masthead, the guiding light of two men — one, a poet and the other, a philosopher: Afanasy Fet and Vladimir Soloviev. Their combined influence helped create a new form of verse that had its aesthetics shaped by Fet with the theological overlay of Soloviev.

Despite its reversal to an earlier form of poetry, Symbolism continued to uphold concerns with civic causes and played an integral role in the intellectual ferment of its time. But its structure and form were high-brow — elitist almost — and it soon collapsed into disfavor in the shadow of the Russian Revolution. The centuries old monarchy was dramatically dismantled and overthrown; the Tsar, Nicolas II — the last of the Romanovs — was compelled to abdicate and he, along with his family, was executed. No member of the monarchy survived and the dynasty met its end forever. This cataclysmic series of events set the stage for yet another reactionary literary response.

The Poet Reclining 1915 by Marc Chagall 1887-1985

‘The Poet Reclining’ ~ Marc Chagall; Tate Museum, London

  1. The Era of Modernism — (1912- 1925): Symbolism was now repudiated. Its rejection accreted under two groups who each mounted a separate intellectual response to the tumult of the time. A moderate group called the Acmeists held on to the poetics of Symbolism but distanced themselves from theurgic sentiment. Alongside them formed a more revolutionary group – the Futurists. Together, they are referred to as, Modernists⁷.

The genius that is modernist Russian poetry has four great poets at its pinnacle — somewhat too neatly slotted as two women and two men; two Acmeists and two Futurists. The Acmeists — Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam and the Futurists — Maria Tsvetaeva and Boris Pasternak. Two other poets — Mayakovsky and Gumilov were equally significant poets from this period; in fact, Mayakovsky is widely regarded as the poet of the Revolution.

The literary ventures of this group of poets were informed by varied ideological and philosophical approaches. Acmeists rejected the mystical facets of Symbolism alone. The Futurists were more radical. They rejected, in toto, its philosophical underpinnings, language and its ‘disconnect’ from the real world. For them, poetry was a medium that allowed both self-expression and a ventriloquizing voice for societal disaffections. An interesting side-note is that many painters (Cubists) who shared common beliefs on creativity and its purpose banded together with this group of poets and together came to be known as the Cubo-Futurists. Using words and drawing, they sought to express reality as experience — even distort language and formal shape — to provoke opinion and ideation through their art. The painters, Chagall, Kandinsky and Kamensky and the poets, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak, were prominent members of this group.

In the aftermath of the Revolution, the long existing ‘Union of Artists’ was sidelined as a Tsarist Institution. Most of the artists and writers in the Union were strongly opposed to the Revolution and its excesses. Cubo-Futurists were part of the avant-garde group of artists who supported the Bolsheviks and joined the government. They were given control of the Department of Fine Arts and, as the new commissars of art, they adopted the grand task of “constructing and organizing all art schools and the entire art life of the country”⁸. Despite their not insubstantial ideological divide, both Cubo-Futurists and Acmeists credited the inspirational influence of Afanasy Fet for the evolved sound of modern Russian prosody. For his steadfast stance against civic poetry and his insistence that poetry must be written for the sake of art alone — a stand that caused him great isolation and distress — Fet found a posthumous ratification in their veneration.


‘Stalin and Voroshilov at the Kremlin’ ~ Alexander Gerasimov; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

  1. The Soviet Period— (1925- 1955) The blossom of the Russian novel was like a centennial cactus flower — spectacular but short-lived — and literature began its decline under the authoritarian repressions of the new regime. The end of the civil war in Russia and the entrenching of Bolshevism in the 1920s caused a mass exodus of artists and writers to Europe. Some chose voluntarily to leave while others were actively deported by the government. Expectedly, it had its repercussions on literature and the outcome had contradictory responses within and without Russia’s geographical boundaries.

Poetry, the short story, novellas and drama took its place. Many prose writers took to becoming translators. In 1932, the Communist State decreed that Socialist Realism was to be the sole prescription for poetry. A second and third wave of emigration commenced and built up around the World War and Russian poets and litterateurs now split into ‘Soviet’ and ‘Émigré’ camps. The émigrés were mostly based in Paris and Berlin. With their numbers swelling with each wave of migration they grew to be a sizable number and established two critical reviews one in Paris and the other in Prague⁹.

The divide between the two groups was based on the support of the government. Emigres prided themselves in having stood up to the government; whilst Soviets saw themselves as patriotic and battling authoritarianism from within. The conflict is best capped in the words of one of the prominent Émigré writers, Aldanov: “Emigration is a great sin but enslavement is a much greater one”.

Prominent Émigré writers were Ivan Bunin (Nobel Laureate in 1933), Nabokov, Aldanov and the poetess Marina Tsvetaeva. The Soviets were led by Mayakovsky — the poet of the Revolution¹⁰ and by Sergey Yesenin. Both of them were individualists at heart yet believed in the Revolution in its early years. Yesenin was disillusioned quickly and revolted. His struggle with reconciling his beliefs with those of the revolution led to a dramatic end when he took his own life at the age of thirty. Mayakovsky who was critical of this act of fatalism; followed him a mere five years later.

Émigré literature despite its impoverished beginnings had the opportunity and the rigor to uphold its artistic and intellectual freedom. Soviet literature on the other hand, struggled with upholding the decree of Socialist Realism and was considered to have capitulated. Yet, despite its many faceted shackling, it had a clutch of famous writers in its stable too. Vera Panova, author of ‘Svidanie — The Meeting’ was amongst them, as was the most famous of them all — Mikhail Sholokhov, 1965 Nobel laureate and author of ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’.

  1. The Post-Stalin era or the Khrushchev Thaw — (1955- )Post-Stalin, the Khrushchev era saw a relative relaxation of control over literary expression in a new politics of de-Stalinization. A new and young generation of poets came to signify this Thaw (a word coined by Akhmatova) Younger poets have tried to bridge the gap between the Soviets and the Emigres who were futurists and Acmeists. The most prominent of them were Yevgeny Yevtushenkov, Voznesensky, Akhmadulina and Joseph Brodsky (1987 Nobel Laureate). Thaw poets took poetry back to the masses by public outreach — returning lyricism to verse, organizing public readings, self-publication and distribution of their work (samizdat) along with audio recordings of readings. Their unusual but successful methods earned them the moniker ‘Estrada poets’ — podium poets.

The poets of this group are loosely grouped as Official poets and Unofficial poets; the former had ties to the official culture and the government; whilst the latter were a more independent minded bunch composed of both Russian and émigré poets. Except for the famous names associated with this period; little is known of the rest of the poets from this period (sometimes referred to as the Bronze Age of Russian poetry). The stigma of affiliation with the Communist regime and the lack of a clear distinction between the two groups are commonly cited as reasons for this gap in knowledge. It was one of their own— Joseph Brodsky — who ensured that their contribution was unforgotten when he acknowledged them in his Nobel speech. Since then and post-perestroika, scholarly interest in this period has renewed.


‘The Bolshevik’ ~ Boris Kustodiev; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

This neat categorization of literary epochs are merely ex post facto lenses through which we attempt to understand the dramatic shifts in literary thought that happened through the East and West halves of Europe. Neither the movements nor the poets slotted under them, subscribed to these strict definitions. In reality, literary movements evolved, regressed into and borrowed a lot from one another. As did their poets. Despite that, the wide-angle view that facilitates such groupings is critical to our understanding of the extraordinary response of literary endeavor through each passing tumult of history, to reconcile the conflicting challenges of art and purpose, of realism and idealism and of objectivity and creativity.

.    .    .

My love of poetry was given to me by my father. When we were children, he would recite his favorite poems to us and hold us spellbound with his declamation and his patient and measured explanation of word and phrase. This practice continued as we grew older and we often joined in; but his deeply passionate reading rendered in a rich baritone with nuanced modulations of voice was mesmerizing and our voices fell away to listen; rapt and entranced. My earliest recollections of his recitations were poems that he had first learnt from his father — Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ and Arnold’s ‘The Forsaken Merman’. It mattered little that it would take us many years to read, assimilate and memorize these poems. These were the poems he first learnt from his own father and were therefore the ones that he imparted as first and beloved tradition. The tradition of declamation succeeded in seeding his own love for words and language in our hearts and, having seeded it, he then assiduously helped us cultivate it; first as teacher, then as a beloved friend and comrade-in-arms. Literature and poetry became a refuge; a retreat into a space which abounded with the eternal companionship of his generous heart and his wide, unfettered mind.

This love for poetry, that he nurtured with foresight, helped keep me aloft through the harrowing experience of relentless loss that was the past decade. This past year, in an especially low moment, I chanced upon an old anthology of Russian poetry¹¹, and fell in love with Russia and its literature again. The book had a potted biography of each author with embedded snippets of their lives; of romance and political intrigue.

These small stories that seemed to hide grand tales were an invitation for a deep dive into the evolution of Russian poetry and literature. It is not common to find, in our collective civilizational stories, a record that so neatly maps political change with literary response, as is found in the Russia of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. The incentive and the impetus for this response, therefore, merits some attention.

From being a primordial method of communication, sound transits through many avatars, from the simple to the complex — from resonance, note, tune and rhythm; from a word, phrase, clause and sentence to the complexity of music and language — and from there, to the many layered facets of meaning. To an understanding that enfolds the higher cognitions of a word — its interpretation, deconstruction, distortion and meta-explication.

Of the literary arts, poetry alone melds the beauty of music to language by weaving rhyme and metre into and with the word strings. Poetry has the ability to describe human sentiment in tight constructions of language and metaphor. A phrase so structured can hold within it the vastness of human experience. This ability gives Poetry the power of alchemy — it causes ordinary and commonplace words to morph, like magic, into a new and profound awareness. Either as recited verse or as song, the seamless union of music and language endears it to the human heart. It is also the reason for its endurance as an art form — the ease of its oral transmission by memorization as poem or as song.

It is unsurprising therefore, that poetry makes the best case for the human spirit through every tumultuous life-change whether experienced personally or through the indirect impact of sociopolitical disruptions in society and nations. In this same fashion and as response to authoritarian excess, poetry became the lodestar of written and verbal expression in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Russia.

While there was a largely synchronous experience of these literary movements across Russia and Europe; their elaboration, mutatis mutandis, is unique to geographical and cultural circumstance. An extraordinary feature of twentieth century Russian verse is its resistance to the free-verse movement that overtook the rest of the world. Here too, the reasons remain political. The harsh intimidations and repressions felt by poets and writers after the revolution were of a degree experienced nowhere else in the world. Any written word that was not in concordance with the diktat of the regime would ensure for its author, an invitation to the Gulag. Many poets took their own lives or simply disappeared into oblivion in the Gulag to be never heard of again. To avoid this fate and as a method of keeping their artistic freedom alive, poets took the ‘subversive’ route of reciting and memorizing verse; not transcribing it. To facilitate the memorization of verse; they held on to traditional rhyme and metre and eschewed the free verse movement. “Hands, matches, ashtrays” was the name given to the ritual of writing in small notes, surreptitiously exchanging them by hand, then memorizing the words and burning the paper to ashes, by the writer Chukosvskaya. It is how this terrible period of history is remembered to this day.

Poets best mirror the vast disconnect between the reality of the ground and the accessible, yet seemingly unattainable, aspirations of people. By articulating the particularities of human experience in universal terms; Russian poetry allowed the word to transcend barriers of culture, geography and language. The genius of its expression is such that, even in translation, it has effortlessly found its place in the acme of world poetry in our time.

.    .    . 

Bibliography and footnotes:

  1. Recovery stories aid the cultural entrenchment of epics. The first time ‘The Raid of Prince Igor’ was lost and re-discovered was in the seventeenth century by Count Musin-Pushkin. A namesake of the famous author; Count Musin Pushkin was a renowned librarian, epistemologist and botanist. He chanced upon the manuscript in the collection of a fading noble family, procured it from them and oversaw its reprint. Unfortunately, it was burned down, along with all the other contents of the library, in the great fire of Moscow in 1812. Mercifully, another copy was discovered in the papers of Catherine I in 1864 and it is this version that exists today
  2. Voltaire and Diderot had an especially close relationship with Catherine the Great. Not much came of these exchanges due to the long shadow cast of the French Revolution. The Empress stressed in her letter exchanges with both philosophers, that while she was sympathetic to the need for reform of the serfdom, Russia’s realities entailed their introduction in a slow and contained fashion. Diderot’s visit to Russia and his efforts with the Empress and her Court is the subject of a book ‘Catherine and Diderot’, Robert Zaretsky, Harvard University Press.
  3. Neoclassicism is the movement in the arts and in philosophy that reverted to classical antiquity for inspiration and as ideal. It was followed by Romanticism which also harked back to the past but to a more recent one. The Romantics were inspired by the medieval ages. Their primary drivers were the mystique of the universe, nature and human emotion; in all of which, they saw a more perfect authenticity and one that was worthy of emulation
  4. The critic Vissarion Belinsky wielded an extraordinary authority over literary affairs in the Russia of the 1840s. His influence and its impact on Russian literature is chronicled in Pavel Annenkov’s biography, ‘The Extraordinary Decade’; University of Michigan Press Reprint, 2015
  5. ‘A History of Russian Poetry’ by Evelyn Bristol; Oxford University Press, 1991
  1. Schelling — one of the trio of philosophers who came to define post-Kantian German Idealism. The other two were Hegel and Fichte
  2. ‘The Silver Age’ by Sibelan Forrester and Martha Kelly; Academic Studies Press, 2015
  3. ‘Russian Cubo-futurism 1910–1930, a study in avant-gardism’ by Vahan D. Barooshian; De Gruyter Mouton, 1975
  4. ‘Contemporary Annals’ was published out of Paris and ‘The Will of Russia’ out of Prague
  5. “Enough of the petty truths/ Erase the past from your hearts/ The streets are our paint-brushes/ The squares are our palettes” ~ Vladimir Mayakovsky. Ibid 8. p.119. He later said that, in order to sing the Revolution, he had to stamp on the throat of his own song.
  6. ‘The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry’ edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk et al; Penguin, 2015
  7. Art in this essay is sourced mostly from the Tretyakov Gallery, Wikimedia Commons and Wikiart. I have tried to include art from great artists contemporaneous to each period in an effort to not only showcase their genius but to also cast light on the artistic perception and its visual representation in each epoch

*   *    *