Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Russian Lyric Poetry
Critical Introduction by Prince Serge Wolkonsky (1860–1937)
NO other branch of literature is better fitted than lyric poetry to affirm the two principles which seem to constitute the chief acquisition of our modern culture: individualism and cosmopolitism. In no other kind of poetry do the great variety of individuals and the great equality of mankind find more concise nor more simultaneous expression. The two apparently contradictory elements are combined: the endless variety of feeling and expression is covered by the unchangeable eternity of the subject, of that “old story which is always new,”—the story of man’s inner life. The poets of the world are, as it were, the irradiation of the universal human soul; the poetry of every one of them is the irradiation of the poet’s individuality; yet every single poem, though itself the result of individualism, is a focus which gathers all other individualities and makes them meet on the common ground of their identity and similitude. Passing over all barriers erected by national distinctions, a Frenchman, for instance, and an Englishman will recognize in a German poem their identity and similitude with the author, hence with each other, consequently with all mankind. The cosmopolitan importance of the most individual of all arts appears clearly enough, and the circumference of its humanitarian influence stands in exact proportion with the depth of the poet’s individualism. If measured by this standard, Russian lyricism will count among the most precious contributors to universal poetry: the human soul in our lyric songs, like a harp with palpitating chords, vibrates and responds to every touch of life.  1
  The blossoming of Russian lyric poetry was sudden, and developed with a wonderful rapidity, if we consider that its beginning and its finest bloom are contained in the first eighty years of the nineteenth century. The eighteenth century, or, as it is more specifically called in the history of Russian literature, the “century of Catherine the Great,” struck in fact no lyrical chords; and this is comprehensible. Lyricism is not possible without genuine feeling nor without genuine ways of expressing it: Russian literature of the eighteenth century was, per contra, all imitative. Under the impulse of Peter the Great’s reform, the Russian intellect awakens to literary interests; at the touch of French literature and philosophy of the time, a number of poets and writers arise and bring forth that imitative literature which is known as “Russian pseudo-classicism”: Russian subjects, draped in the mantle of Greek and Roman antiquity, seen through French spectacles, and sung in Russian verses. The latter, we must acknowledge, attain a wonderful sonority; and however artificial the whole gait of that pompous and often ridiculous poetry, the beauty of the language it had worked out constitutes its everlasting merit for Russian poetry. But with the exception of the language there was scarcely anything genuine; for even genuine subjects seemed to lose their reality through being forced into unsuitable foreign forms. Poets did not compose because they felt a psychological necessity of doing so: their productiveness was stimulated not by inner inspiration, but by the simple desire of living up to patterns created by foreign writers, consecrated by public opinion. Our poetry of the eighteenth century is not so much the result of feeling, as the result of a deliberate decision on the part of writers to possess a Russian literature because other nations possessed theirs: it is imbued rather with a spirit of international competition than with that of national expression. It is easy to conceive that such conditions could offer no propitious ground for the blossoming of lyricism. In the first years of the nineteenth century the Russian intellect emancipates itself from its passive acceptance of European influences. The seeds of foreign culture had germinated in the national soil; writers apply themselves to the study of national questions, they give up their attitude of confiding pupils, and consciously and deliberately join the great stream of universal literature. Russian poetry gives up its spirit of competition; poets begin to sing because they want to sing, and not because they want to sing as well as others.  2
  This was just at the time when the romantic flood which inundated Europe stood at its highest. The romantic stream makes irruption into our country, and fructifies the virgin soil which had been slumbering for so many centuries. Among the brilliant pleiad of poets who brought about the vigorous offspring of Russian poetry in the twenties and thirties of the nineteenth century, three figures arise, though with different literary importance, yet each with strong individual coloring. These are Zhukovsky, the poet of romantic melancholy; Pushkin, the poet of romantic epicurism; and Lermontov, the poet of romantic pessimism. Zhukovsky (1783–1852) was the first among Russian poets who made the human soul the object of poetry, not without a certain exaggeration and one-sidedness. After the cold stiffness of the French pseudo-classical style, the new romantic breeze which came from Germany and England entirely took hold of the young poet, who seemed by nature the most fitted man to navigate on the waves of sentimental and fantastic romanticism. His ballads, either original, or translated from German and English, became the funnel through which romanticism inundated Russian poetry. The main tonality of his lyre is elegy. Simplicity, genuineness, a quiet melancholy, a serene resignation to the troubles of real life, belief and hope in the future, a constant thought of death and compensation in eternity, are, with the extreme charm of their musical fascination, the chief characteristics of Zhukovsky’s poems. In his verses did for the first time those gentle chords resound which Christianity made to vibrate in the human soul. “His romantic lyre,” says a critic, “gave soul and heart to Russian poetry: it taught the mystery of suffering, of loss, of mystic relations, and of anxious strivings towards the mysterious world which has no name, no place, and yet in which a young soul feels its sacred native land.” This “striving” towards unknown, unreachable regions is what communicates to Zhukovsky’s poetry its exaggeratedly idealistic character: earth and real life to him are but a starting-point; reality seems to present no interest by itself, to possess no other capacity but that of provoking sorrow, no other value but that of contrasting with the happiness which exists somewhere—which cannot be attained in this life, and undoubtedly will be reached some day.  3
  The absolute intrinsic value of Zhukovsky’s poems is not of an everlasting character, yet his merits toward national poetry are great: for those qualities of his lyre we mentioned above, he is the founder of Russian lyricism; for the beauty of his language and the simplicity of means by which he obtained it, he is the precursor of Pushkin. His influence was great on the generation, in the first decades of our century, when Byronism pervaded our literary life: the serene tranquillity of Zhukovsky’s elegy was enforced by the storm and gloom of the British poet, and this combined influence produced that kind of poetry which we characterized as romantic pessimism, and which found its final intensified expression in Lermontov. In the minor harmony of these poetical lamentations, the powerful lyre of Pushkin strikes the chords of the major triton in all its plenitude.  4
  Pushkin (1799–1837) is among our poets the most difficult figure to be retraced; for the sublime excellency of his poetry comes just from the fact that he has no predominating coloring. Every poet has his favorite element, his beloved subjects, his own particular moods: this makes it easy for the critic,—as a matter of fact, the more one-sided a poet the easier it is to retrace his portrait. Pushkin has no predominating element: his chief particularity is that he has none. The most many-chorded responsiveness, the greatest variety of moods and expressions, are fused in a general harmony; if we may say so, of a “spherical” equilibrium. In another place we characterized Pushkin’s lyricism as “pouring rain with brilliant sunshine.” We find no other words for expressing its completeness: the whole scale of feelings has been touched by the poet, from the abysses of sorrow to the summits of joy; and yet none of his lyrical poems can be classified into one of these extremes, for in his artistic contemplation of life, human happiness and human misery are to him so equal, that even in the given moment when he depicts one of them, the other is present to his mind. Thus never does a feeling appear single in his verses: joy never goes without regret, sorrow without a ray of hope; a vague idea of death floats in the background of those poems which give way to the most boundless gayety, and a smile is shining from behind the bitterest of his tears. The striking difference from Zhukovsky’s poetry is the absence of sterile strivings in unreal regions, and a vigorous healthy love of real life: our greatest romanticist was at the same time our first realist. This combination is the very quality which assigns to Pushkin’s poetry its individual place in the concert of the poets of the world. Prosper Mérimée could not conceive how it was possible to make such beautiful poetry with everyday-life subjects, nor to write such beautiful verses with words taken from the very heart of everyday-life speech; and the French writer envies the language which can raise its “spoken speech” to such a degree of beauty as to introduce it into the highest regions of poetry. Zhukovsky had proclaimed that “poetry and life are one”: yet in his verses he did not live up to this principle; his romantic aspirations drew him away from life into a world of dreams. Pushkin proves and realizes that which Zhukovsky proclaimed: his is the real “poetry of life.” “It is not a poetical lie which inflames the imagination,” says the critic Belinsky, “not one of those lies which make man hostile at his first encounter with reality, and exhaust his forces in early useless struggle.” Life and dream, real and ideal, are combined and fused into each other in that poetry which the same critic characterizes as “earth imbued with heaven.” Pushkin’s place in Russian literature is unique. He marks the culminating point in the ascending curve of our poetical evolution, and at the same time he is the literary contemporary of all those writers who came after him: for not only are all kinds of our poetry contained in his, but all branches of prose, all shadowings of style. He marks the central point of our literature: the preceding writers converge towards Pushkin, those who come after radiate from Pushkin. Of no less importance than his literary influence was Pushkin’s personal prestige: he had become a sort of literary ferment amidst his generation. A pleiad of talented poets group themselves round their young leader, and cast over the first four decades of the nineteenth century a quite peculiar charm of romantic youthfulness.  5
  Among these poets, who are all more or less a reflection of Pushkin, only one is powerful enough to stand as an independent individuality: this is the already mentioned Lermontov (1814–1841). It is hard for a critic to speak of Lermontov’s poetry without mentioning the poet’s age; it is almost impossible for a Russian to consider as an accomplished cycle the work of a man who died at the age of twenty-seven. And yet it is certainly not as an extenuating circumstance we mention the fact: no one can guess what might have become of the poet had he lived longer, but that which he left is as excellent as the productions of a genius in its full maturity. We are far from Pushkin’s harmony and many-sidedness in Lermontov’s lyricism. Pushkin’s serenity, his inner equilibrium, appear almost as if they belonged to some distant world,—so painfully do the chords of Lermontov’s lyre resound at the contact of life. His is the poetry of longing, of hopeless expectations; disenchantment, indignation, accesses of moral fatigue, revolt and resignation, alternate in his beautiful verses with a painful intensity of feeling. How far the bitterness of this romantic pessimism from Zhukovsky’s sentimental melancholy! The world of dreams is left behind: with Pushkin and Lermontov, poetry abandons phantoms, visions, sterile strivings into unreachable regions; it confines itself to the human soul, and finds the greatest beauty in expressing reality of feeling. In this respect Lermontov’s merit towards Russian lyricism can stand the comparison with Pushkin: though his individuality was not as vast, not as comprehensive, yet the circumference in which he moved was a different one from Pushkin’s, and his poetry therefore is an independent and important contribution; his lyre was not as many-chorded, but if added to Pushkin’s, his chords would not be out of tune,—they would only introduce into the limpid harmony of his major triton, the melancholy of minor tones and the hopeless bitterness of dissonances longing for resolution. Thus the works of the two great poets complete each other, and establish the whole scale of Russian lyricism. After Pushkin and Lermontov, Russian poetry is but a working out: no new chords will be added; the individuality of poets will express itself in diversity of styles, of coloring, of moods, of intensity; there will be different kinds of poetry, matter of poetry will be one.  6
  After the forties of the nineteenth century we enter into the second period of Russian modern literature. The representatives of the first pleiad of poets, like their leaders, all die very young: the last writer who belonged to the Pushkin circle, the novelist Gogol, dies in 1852; under his influence romanticism expires, naturalism definitely takes root in the soil, and the Russian naturalistic novel brings its powerful contribution to the stream of universal literature. The names of Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, rise as embodiers of Russia’s intellectual activity, as representatives of the country’s inner life. Yet behind these names there is a series of others, which until recently remain screened from the eyes of the reader of universal literature. It is one of the most remarkable features of Russia’s literary development, that just in the fifties and sixties, at the very time when the naturalistic novel was debating the most burning problems of practical life, a chorus of poets raised their voices to give as it were a lyrical echo to the demands of reality. Their participation with the intellectual, social, and political movement of their time was very different, and influenced their lyricism in a very different way; yet the general spirit of their poetry was more contemplative than active. Only two poets did in a considerable part of their productions enter the way of deliberate didacticism, and impressed upon their literary activity a character of belligerency.  7
  These are Nekrasov (1821–1877) and Count Aleksey Tolstoy (1817–1875). The former was the poet of “civic sorrows”; bureaucratic indifference, epicurism of the rich, are the objects of his venomous sarcasm. His poetical gifts were great; unfortunately they were stimulated not so much with love for the lower people as with hatred for the upper classes,—and hatred has never been a creative element in art (nor in anything). His lyricism, when it appears pure, without any alloy of sarcastic didacticism, attains a great intensity of bitterness and grief. Count Aleksey Tolstoy’s didacticism was directed against the materialistic tendencies of his time, especially against the habit of measuring works of art by the standard of practical usefulness. For his criticism he selected the form of old Russian ballads: this gives a very peculiar character to his satires where the novelty of the subject is combined with an archaism of folk-lore. When expressing pure feeling, Count Tolstoy’s lyre is serene, ethereal, seraphic: he is the only poet after Pushkin who is entirely major; the minor tones in his harmony are transitory, and never leave any bitterness behind them. Strange as it may appear, in spite of the above-mentioned belligerent character of his poetry, peace is the predominating element of his lyricism; peaceful are his joys, peaceful his sorrows: no extremes; he dives into no abysses; he takes the æsthetical surface, rather the expression than the substance of feeling; his love is dreamy, his anger indulgent; there is much light in his poetry,—its rays vibrate and sparkle in multiple combinations of coloring and shadowing,—but they are not burning, their heat is mild, and they remind one of the long caressing beams of the sunset, whose glow is all color.  8
  Two poets have communicated to their poetry a strong coloring of the political and scientific parties to which they belonged: these are the two poets-Slavophiles, Khomyakov (1804–1860) and Tyutchev (1803–1873). The characteristic feature of the Slavophiles’ doctrine—the ardent belief in the sacred mission of their fatherland, in its being predestined by Providence to be the instrument for the fulfillment of its plans—finds more or less decisive expression in Khomyakov’s and Tyutchev’s verses. The high qualities of their personal character preserved them from entering the direction of bombastic spread-eagleism, and communicate to their poetry a sort of religious gravity, which commands respect even to those who do not share their ideas: we may contest opinions, we always bow before faith. Khomyakov’s lyricism moves in the field of religious thought. Tyutchev has a refined sense of nature; and his lyricism—differently from others who treat the same subject—is not so much a reflection of nature in the poet’s personality as a participation with the phenomena, an infusion of the poet into nature. These are the poets in whose works the intellectual, political, and social currents of their time find active responsiveness; others give but a few occasional echoes to the problems of their time, and are all more or less contemplative.  9
  Maykov (1821–1897), the Alma-Tadema of Russian poetry, resuscitates pictures of Greek and Roman antiquity; a lofty spirit emanates from his philosophical juxtapositions. His lyricism is cold: his lyric poems do not seem an immediate expression of feeling; the process of incarnation seems to remove the work from the artist; perhaps an exaggerated propensity towards antiquity has dried up the source of genuine feeling, which cannot gush but out of the soil of reality. Polonsky (1819–1898) is the poet of “psychological landscape”: the outside world is either reflected by the poet’s personality, or participates with his feelings in a peaceful harmony of mood; nature seems to have no proper life nor any sense by itself,—it exists simply as man’s perception. Quite different is the landscape of Count Golenishchev-Kutuzov (1848–1913): he is an observer, a spectator, not a participant of nature, and the latter has a complex and multiple life of its own, independently from man; she pursues her own way, with her own direction, and leaves man the choice of joining her after his death in a nirvanic fusion with impersonal cosmos. The most lyric of lyric poets is Fet (1820–1892): pure feeling, impalpable, immaterial, like effect without cause; imagine a picture without canvas, a sound without the chord which produces it, the perfume of a flower without the flower itself,—so free of matter is his poetry. He is the poet of indefinite emotions, unseizable shadowings; where others enter into silence, there he begins to talk; with a wonderful subtlety, and at the same time a great audacity of expression, he becomes the singer of lyrical twilight, of fugitive impressions, fading memories, vanishing sounds. For the usual chords of a poet’s lyre lie substituted the palpitating rays of the moonlight and the rainbow.  10
  Such is in brief lines the evolution of Russian lyricism to the end of the nineteenth century, and such is in concise formulas the character of its chief representatives.  11

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.