Although not widely known outside his native land, Afanasy Fet enjoys a considerable reputation within it as one of the finest Russian lyric poets of the nineteenth century.
Fet’s reputation has fluctuated over the decades which have passed since his first collection of verse was published in the early 1840’s. His talent was early recognized by such men as Vissarion Belinsky, Russia’s greatest nineteenth-century critic, who wrote: «Of all the Moscow poets, Fet is the most gifted.» And another of Russia’s finest critical minds, Apollon Grigorev, himself a poet and personal friend of Fet’s, said of his work that «there is much of us, much of the perturbation of our own hearts in this poetry.» Such acclaim, however, did not prove constant: in the 1860’s Belinsky’s critical followers banished Fet from the ranks of true poets, mocking him as the perfect example of what a writer should not be and do at a time when social problems were deemed of overriding importance. Fet then suffered an eclipse which lasted several decades: not until the turn of the century did he begin to come into his own once more. Then he became a principal influence upon the course of Russian poetry, and his place has remained firm and steady through most of the Soviet period.
In this study Lydia Lotman deals in detail with the history of Fet’s poetic development. She analyzes his first collection, in which he showed by his relatively imitative style that he had not yet discerned his true literary path. She emphasizes the Russian quality of his poetic vision and reminds us that he spent much of his life far from the country’s cosmopolitan literary capital, St. Petersburg. She investigates his faith in nature and its reflection in his poetry. She discusses the explicit formulation of his esthetics in critical articles which he felt compelled to write in the late 1850’s and early 1860’s under the challenge of radical literary doctrine. She also takes up the implicit philosophy of his art as expressed in his poems: his thoughts on the possibility of verbal communication through poetry even while he insisted on divorcing poetry from philosophy as a matter of principle; his poems on poetry; his poems on music. And when she comes to the last decade or so of Fet’s life, she analyzes for us the ruminations on life, death, and the meaning of existence which became so prominent in his work then.
Fet was deeply interested in philosophy, especially that of Schopenhauer, whom he translated into Russian. He was not by any means what is ordinarily termed a «philosophical» poet. Yet philosophy and poetry were intertwined at a less explicit level in his work, and that connection is one which Lydia Lotman elucidates in this study.
The «Conclusion» summarizes Fet’s influence upon his poetic descendants and his role in the history of Russian poetry after his death.
This book is not the first on Fet to appear in English, but it has much to offer both by way of utilizing previous scholarship on Fet and by way of original interpretation. It makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of the course of nineteenth-century Russian literature.
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The author, Lydia Lotman, is a Soviet research scholar in philology at the Leningrad Institute of Russian Literature, a branch of the USSR Academy of Sciences. She is the author of a book on the leading nineteenth-century Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky. Among her other publications are contributions to multi-volume Soviet histories of Russian literature, of Russian criticism, of the Russian novel, and of Russian poetry. These contributions include the articles «Novels of Folk Life and Ethnographical Novels,» «Pisemsky as Novelist,» «The Democratic Tendency in Russian Poetry of the 1850’s, 1860’s, and 1870’s,» and «Lyrical and Historical Poetry of the 1850’s, 1860’s, and 1870’s.» She compiled the collection of Ostrovsky’s verse dramas for the «Poet’s Library» edition and helped to edit and supply commentary for collections of works by Nikolay Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Vissarion Belinsky, and Ivan Turgenev.
 V. G. Belinskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1956), XII, 124. Cited below as: Belinsky.
 A. Grigor’ev, Sochineniia (St. Petersburg, 1876), I, 85. Cited below as: Grigorev.