I The Collection of 1850 and Its Structure
In November of 1841 three translations from Heine and two original poems, signed «A. F.,» were published in The Muscovite. Later Fet became a permanent contributor to the journal. His poems immediately attracted attention. Fet was invited to contribute to other journals, and by the middle of 1842 was being published by the radical Notes of the Fatherland, as «well as by the conservative Muscovite. The literary coterie of that period attracted him primarily as the sphere of professional writers. He made the acquaintance of men of letters representing various political views and trends, and enjoyed the opportunity of calling on such different figures as Professor Shevyrov of the conservative Slavophiles, and Avdotya Glinka, a woman whose name became symbolic of antagonism toward all that was contemporary in literature, especially as represented by Belinsky’s radical group. Fet attended the salon of Mikhail Pavlov, where he met such men as Timofey Granovsky and Alexander Herzen, dedicated to the westernization of Russian culture. He embraced literature as a fascinating field of activity, whose main interest for him lay in the professional problems it presented.
At the same time he was not beyond taking political sides. Indeed, he was so incensed by a reactionary poem written by a certain Dmitriev against Belinsky that, in collaboration with Grigorev—in Bukhshtab’s opinion—he wrote a scathing poem in reply. Belinsky was highly pleased with this demonstration of the students’ sympathy with his ideas. In Fet’s poem the diehard older generation, which, convinced of the sacredness of class and serfdom, rejected the humanitarian tendencies of contemporary art as embodied in the poetry of Pushkin, is con-30 fronted with the «common sense» of the younger generation. The portrait of these reactionary fathers presented in the poem shows a striking resemblance to Fet’s stepfather, Afanasy Shenshin, as he was later described in Fet’s memoirs.
When Fet graduated from Moscow University in 1844, he was faced with the necessity of choosing an occupation. In that same year he journeyed to Darmstadt, Germany, to make the acquaintance of his German relatives and bring his sister to Russia. During this trip an incident of no small importance occurred. Once while he was taking a boat trip from Stettin to Swinemünde, the orchestra, as a favor to the Russian passengers, played Alexander Varlamov’s song «Awake Her Not at Break of Day.» This song was a setting to music of Fet’s poem, although everyone in Russia as well as in Germany took it for a Russian folk song. This curious fact was noted by Apollon Grigorev in 1850. Fet’s contemporaries sought and found his poems on the pages of magazines, and yet the poet felt that he was poor, unknown, and facing a frightening future. His family had decided he was to enter the army, since at that time this career offered the quickest means of becoming a member of the nobility. But during his visit to Darmstadt he was informed of the death of his stepfather’s brother, Pyotr Shenshin, who had promised to use his influence in securing him a regimental post. By his death Fet was deprived not only of his uncle’s influence, but also of the fortune Pyotr Shenshin had promised to leave his «unrecognized» nephew: the money turned out to have been embezzled. Despite these disappointments, Fet entered the army. He became an officer in a regiment of cuirassiers stationed deep in the Ukraine; as a result he was separated for many years from Moscow and the literary circle of which he had become a member. Of course it is true that even in the backwoods to which he was consigned Fet found individuals with whom he could conduct intellectual discourse. They were the Brzhevsky family, a young and cultivated landowner with poetic leanings and his gifted and attractive wife. Both ardent admirers of Fet’s poetry, they appreciated his loneliness among the officers of his regiment and the provincial gentry, shared his literary interests, and—most important of all for Fet—listened to, and gave him their opinion of, his new poems. A thirst for friendship with people who understood art, literature, and music led Fet and the Brzhevskies eagerly to seek each other’s company. It also led to Fet’s introduction to, and love affair with, Mariya Lazich, the daughter of an impecunious landowner of that area. Yet Fet sacrificed this exceptional young girl for the sake of his career. Soon after he parted with her she died, a suspected suicide. Despite the tragedy of their relations, Fet never forgot Mariya and to the end of his life wrote poems inspired by her memory. His friendship for the Brzhevsky family was also a feeling he retained for many long years: the image of the landowner’s wife appears in a number of his later poems. Undoubtedly, Fet’s limited opportunities for forming friendships at that time, combined with a great burgeoning of his poetic talent, resulted in an intensification and deepening of his feeling for the few people he found congenial.
Fet added the poems written in the middle of the 1840’s to those printed in journals of preceding years to form a new collection. It was approved by the censor in 1847, but lack of funds and the poet’s absence from Moscow delayed its publication until 1850. This little book, with the modest title of Stikhotvoreniia A. Feta (Poems by A. Fet), was remarkable not only for the splendid new poems it added to those that had already won wide favor, but also, and perhaps chiefly, for presenting Fet for the first time as a poet of striking individuality.
The division of the book into sections and cycles, however, is not always convincing. Some poems, which in mood, imagery, and theme clearly belong to a definite cycle, are scattered throughout various sections. Notwithstanding its loose organization, the volume as a whole has inherent unity and distinction. Russia, with its patriarchal village life, its bleak, snow-covered plains, its troikas galloping recklessly into the distance with their young passengers laughing into the face of the snowstorm, its mystical Christmas season, its wooden towns aching with loneliness, its strange ballads reflecting so accurately the dramas of ordinary life—it is this Russia that emerges from the pages of Fet’s poetry, whose originality is only emphasized by the imperishable beauty of the classical verse form. It is as if the poet were living in two worlds. He is captivated by the harmony of classical beauty on the one hand, and by foreign poetry, be it the ironic Romanticism of the young Heine or the intricate ornamentation of oriental forms, on the other. But above all he loves his native land, as mysterious as it is familiar to him, and finds inspiration in its vast and desolate wintry spaces, its pale Northern landscape. It was perhaps these contradictory emotions that led the poet, without his realizing it, to reject the traditional conception of beauty as an ideal lying outside of man’s ordinary experience, an ideal developed during the golden age of classical art. Fet was keenly sensitive to the beauty of the world about him and looked upon beauty as an integral part of real life.
During the first twenty years of Fet’s creative activity, his yearning toward the ideal, and at the same time his inner sense of dedication to, and identification with, the world about him, lent ambivalence to his poetry. In fact this ambivalence was its very essence. When the collection of 1850 appeared, Apollon Grigorev wrote: «Two aspects of Fet’s poetry are clearly to be seen: ... we find brilliance and lucidity of expression in Fet’s poems wrought in classical forms... . But Fet is also a subjective poet, and one who gives voice to the most poignant heartache of modern man.»
These two aspects coexisted in the poet’s work, now one side dominating, now the other.
During a visit to Italy, Fet wrote:
How have you lied to me, oh Italy!
For long I cherished visions in my heart,
But found the substance how unlike the dream!
No kinship know I with your air.
Upon your plains other and dearer scenes
Arise and dwell in my imagination.
Son of the North, I love the soughing wood,
The dampy green of moss and foliation.... (90)
In this poem Fet declares he had held Italy to be the promised land, whose beauty was beyond anything hitherto conceived; but now, as he looks upon reality and not a dream, he realizes that beauty is one, whether it be the beauty of Italy or of his native land. The poem raised some eyebrows among those for whom the art of classical antiquity remained the standard for measuring all beauty and who therefore placed the highest value on the anthological poems in the collection. «Italy» was, accordingly, a poem of great significance insofar as it indicated the course that Fet’s development as a poet was to take during the second half of the 1850’s. But at the time the collection appeared, the poet was far from anticipating his reevaluation of the classical ideal of the beautiful, even though the new poems of this «son of the North,» who «gave voice to the most poignant heartache of modern man,» patently triumphed over the translations from Greek and Latin included in the volume, as well as over his own poems in the classical manner. The lack of harmony and the tragic conflict that racked the soul of Fet’s hero of those days, and the gloomy landscape of his descriptions, stand in eloquent contrast to the classical ideal of harmony and the traditional conception of beauty.
The very division of the collection of 1850 into sections and cycles reflects the relationship of the two tendencies and their significance for Fet at this stage in his development.
II The Poet’s Vision of His Native Land
The beginning of the 1850 collection makes clear its connection with the «homeland» tendency. The title of the first cycle, «Snega» («Snow»), takes the reader directly into the Russian landscape, whose characteristics make it the antithesis of the Graeco-Roman landscape, succulent and noonday, sung in classical verse.
The first poem of the first cycle speaks of Fet’s appreciation of the melancholy beauty of the Northern scene, of his preference for it, and his awareness that it is an inextricable part of his love for his native land.
I am a Russian, I love the silence of vast spaces
Blanketed in snow, monotonous as death; the firs
In tapering caps or silver-grey with hoarfrost;
The river purling underneath blue panes of ice.
With what delight my wandering gaze discovers
Snow down-swept in gulleys, up-swept on hills;
Somnolent blades of grass; naked fields
Where midnight hours have raised a sculptured mound,
Like marble sepulchre, with far winds swirling
Above the solemn shine to sounds funereal. (691)
The depth of the poet’s feeling and the full significance of the emphasis on the first words of this first poem in the collection become clear when we recall that his declaration «I am a Russian ...» contradicts the facts. (In the application he submitted for admission to the university he had written, «I am the son of foreigners,» and above his signature, «To this document the foreigner Fet appends his signature.») This biographical detail gives the poem a double meaning: it reveals the esthetic response of this «son of the North» to the somber land of his birth, and at the same time it demonstrates that he was indeed its true and devoted son and no foreigner in spirit. Both meanings were of deep and vital importance to him. The poem introduces his major theme and is closely linked with the remainder of the poems in the collection. The poet’s paradoxical vision of the world, nowhere more evident than in this poem, was obvious to his readers. Undoubtedly it was this that made Ivan Turgenev insist on Fet’s revising the poem, straightening out its logic and thereby changing its entire poetic structure.
Contemporary students of Fet’s work point out the contradictions in the poems of the «Snow» cycle and identify them with basic qualities peculiar to all of his poetry. According to Boris Bukhshtab, «Fet is concerned with registering the most subtle shades of feeling—vague, undefined emotions.» Using «Pechal’naia berioza» («The Sorrowing Birch») from the «Snow» cycle as his example, Bukhshtab shows how the poet combines joy and sorrow, assertion and denial, love of life and love of death.
The American critic Gustafson, disagreeing with Bukhshtab, offer’s his own interpretation of the paradoxical juxtaposition of joy and death in the «Snow» cycle. Seeing in these poems Fet’s realization of esthetic principles later formulated in his article on Tyutchev, Gustafson maintains that the poet is interested in only one aspect of a phenomenon—the esthetic. According to this scholar, the world of beauty (the only world of importance to Fet) lies beyond the objective categories of life and death; this approach enables him to combine things which would appear to be incompatible—joy and death. Such an interpretation leaves unanswered the question of why the death motif should be woven into this particular cycle, dedicated to representations of the Russian landscape. It must also be said that Fet’s conception of beauty was much broader than might be concluded from the formulations set forth in his article on Tyutchev and in assertions made in the heat of argument, when his opinions were coarsened and sharpened by his ardor.
The «Snow» cycle and others included in the collection of 1850 create an image of the poet’s native land and of the inner world of one who is part of this land. At the same time they are a revelation of the conception of beauty held by Fet during that period.
It is true that themes of death and sorrow are interwoven with those of life and joy in the «Snow» cycle, but they are only one aspect of the poetic depiction of reality, with its manifold values and attributes.
The laconic quality of Fet’s poetry and its wealth of associations at even so early a period of his writing can best be understood against the rich background of his literary heritage. Images, such as Pushkin’s «inscrutable steppe» and Tyutchev’s «eternal polar reaches,» symbolizing the puissant northland that offers no answer to impassioned inquiries as to man’s destiny-such images were familiar to readers of Pushkin and Gogol, Lermontov and Tyutchev.
Tyutchev introduces the image of «eternal polar reaches» as the antithesis to the fiery and, in his opinion, illusory dreams of the revolutionary Decembrists. Herzen follows this poetic tradition by writing, at the end of the 1850’s, his «Growth of Revolutionary Ideas in Russia,» a modern «Lives of the Saints» depicting Russian poets and thinkers who were unable to adapt themselves to «this frozen hell» and incapable of enduring «the piercing, unrelenting wind.» He cites the passage from Petrarch which Pushkin used as an epigraph to the sixth chapter of Eugene Onegin, in which Pushkin speaks of the incongruity of Lensky’s death, a youth born for glory and perhaps even the benefit of mankind:
La, sotto i giorni nubilosi e brevi
Nasce una gente a cuil’ morir non dole.
(There where the days are short and cloudy
Is born a tribe to whom death brings no grief.)
Similar associations underlie Fet’s picture of the silent, deserted plain contemplated by a courageous youth deeply attached to his native land but fated to meet a tragic end there.
This poetic concept, which, as Fet later expressed it, «shines» through his pictures of the winter landscape—with nature in mourning, snowdrifts suggesting sepulchers, and the silence of night all around—does not yet supply the key to the paradox of the «Snow» poems, in which motifs of joy and death are closely linked. The reason for this commingling is that the hero of these poems—and, as naturally follows, the poet himself—is enchanted with the melancholy expanses of frozen wilderness and finds in them not only his ideal of beauty, but moral support as well. He is not the prisoner of this grim world, but the child of it, and one who is passionately devoted to it.
In this respect, the poems of the «Snow» cycle and especially the first of them, which introduces the 1850 collection as well, may be compared with Lermontov’s famous «Rodina» («Native Land») written not so much earlier:
I love my native land, but with a curious love
That mind and logic have no power to quell.
Not glory bought at price of blood,
Nor peace impregnate with a proud complacency,
Nor customs handed down from the dark past-
No, none of these stir pleasurable dreams.
And yet I love—just what, I cannot say:
Perhaps the frozen silence of her steppe,
The ceaseless surging of her boundless forests,
Rivers in spate that vie with shoreless seas...
I love to fly in peasant cart on country roads,
And, as my eyes explore the deepening shadows,
Descry the lights of one of her sad villages
Where I would find a harbor for the night.
The blending of calculated coldness and majesty in the descriptions, the preference given to night and evening scenes, the reference to the impoverished lives of the peasants—all these elements of Lermontov’s poem are found in Fet’s «winter» cycles in the 1850 collection. The chief bond uniting the two poets is their love for their very real and austere native land. A structural likeness also exists between Fet’s «I Am a Russian» and Lermontov’s «Native Land.» In both poems, scenes of their homeland are linked by the words «I love.» In both, the scenes themselves show the movement of the author’s thoughts: at first, the image of the country is conveyed by a broad panorama showing nature in its most typical aspect and mood; then the poet speaks of what his eye falls directly upon.
But while Lermontov discovers the distinguishing quality of his «curious love» by contrasting it with traditional forms of national pride—pride in the nation’s glory bought with blood, pride in the country’s past—Fet assesses the immediate scene by contrasting it with the classical definition of beauty as harmony.
It is of interest that the poignant love of native land and the ambivalence of this love experienced by both Fet and Lermontov at the beginning of the 1840’s are expressed in the first volume of Gogol’s Dead Souk, completed in 1842. Like Fet and Lermontov, Gogol expresses his love through descriptions of typical scenery: as he surveys the vast prospect unrolling before his eyes, «the immense fields,» «the pine tips wrapped in mist,» «ravens like clouds of flies, and any amount of horizon,» he compares them with the luxurious scenery of «far lands and fair,» and exclaims, addressing himself to Russia: «Everything about you is open, empty, even; nothing captivates and charms the eye. What is it, then, that so mysteriously and irresistibly draws one to you?.. . What promise is to be read in these limitless spaces?»
The difference between Fet’s portrayal of his native land and that of Lermontov and Gogol lies in Fet’s more restricted view. Gogol took a bird’s-eye view, as it were, of the vast Russian plain, and Lermontov saw it as a traveler riding over its endless roads and fields, but Fet observed it all from a fixed point, his own home. His vision is bounded by the horizon. He notices changes in the inanimate winter scene because they occur in objects he knows intimately from daily observation. «With what delight my wandering gaze discovers / Snow down-swept in gullies, up-swept on hills; ... naked fields / Where midnight hours have raised a sculptured mound, / Like marble sepulchre, with far winds swirling» writes the poet, knowing well that the hills were bare and the gullies empty the day before, and no mound adorned the fields.
Fet is keenly aware of the world about him, and this world, with its peculiar moral atmosphere, represents for him his entire native land. The theme of melancholy love for his surroundings and his spiritual kinship with them runs through cycle after cycle of the 1850 collection.
As mentioned above, the conception and structure of the first poem in the «Snow» cycle is determined by the phrase «I love.» In the third poem we again find: «Dear God! How I love to see a troika come flying into view, as suddenly to vanish!» In the fifth poem of the cycle, «The Sorrowing Birch,» the poet notes changes wrought in a single night to a tree he has observed from day to day. Here, too, we find the theme of love for, and kinship with, the world about him. («I love the play of dawnlight on its boughs ...»). The seventh poem begins directly with: «Oh lovely scene, how very dear!» Here, as in the third poem, a sleigh passes: «A distant sleigh on its lonely run, ...» Such images emphasize the static viewpoint of the writer, the limited space within which he makes his observations and through which the traveler passes.
The poet’s house is the vantage point from which he observes the landscape. Often this is done through the window, as noted in these passages from the «Snow» cycle:
A northern morning, sleepy, scrimpy,
Casts a languid glance within.
(third poem of the cycle) A sorrowing birch Stands by my window... (fifth poem) Frost has made a pattern On the double panes… (ninth poem)
«Snow» is the only poem in which the troika is not a vision passing through the poet’s limited world, but three horses and a sleigh waiting to take him on a journey. His own house is the point of departure:
The night is bright, the frost is sharp,
Come out into the creaking snow.
It is not a long journey that is anticipated, but a drive through familiar places. Despite the austerity of the scenery described in the «Snow» cycle, the poet finds it natural and essential that he should love it and feel that he is part of it.
The fourth poem of the cycle, presenting a winter scene with a troika dashing through the blizzard, has something of the mystery of a ballad. The rhythm of the poem was chosen to make it sound like a folk song.
A mad wind, a bad wind, over the fields is
Galloping, Drifts of snow upon the steppe are
Quivering The moonlit plain for miles around is
Glistening With little bells the wind rings news of
Humankind. It shrieks beneath an oaken cross and
Vanishes. The steppeland hare is roving far and
Here, as in «I Am a Russian,» we have a picture of the Northern winter with its snowdrifts ruffled by the wind and its fields swept by the blizzard.
Pushkin and Gogol saw the verst-posts (milestones) along the highway with the eyes of a traveler in a troika behind three galloping horses.
Like palings the versts flash by,
Distracting the idle eye.
(Pushkin, Eugene Onegin)
And before you know it, there you are counting the verst posts till your head goes round (Gogol, Dead Souls).
Fet sees such a post during a nocturnal ramble over the fields. It suddenly rises up in front of him, sparkling with frost. A troika dashes past, the wind carries back to his ears the jingle of its bells, informing him that the unknown traveler through this hinterland that is the poet’s home has gone on his way past the endless series of verst posts, leaving the poet behind, standing beside the grave of one who, as a criminal or a suicide, has been deprived of decent burial in a graveyard.
The poem has a curious ending. The hare is not afraid of storm, or solitude, or this strange grave beside the road. Nor is it afraid of the poet standing there, nor of the «lifeless expanses.» Both of them, the hare and the poet, are natives of this country—this is their own steppe. Such an analogy may seem preposterous to the rational minded, accustomed to drawing a sharp line between the human and animal worlds. But for Fet, who attributed the greatest importance to man’s «natural» life and who devoted almost more space in his memoirs to recollections of dogs and horses than of human beings, this line of demarcation is very faint. Animals included in the «sphere» of the individual are an indivisible part of the individual’s life. One senses this in his poem «Derevnia» («The Village»), included among the «Miscellany» of the 1850 collection.
In composition it resembles «Snow»:
I love the warmth and the sadness
Of your home in that village remote;
The chimes floating over the greenwood,
Golden cupolas crowned by a cross;
I love the untrodden meadow,
The mist creeping up to the door,
The intimate circle that gathers
At dusk round the samovar;
I love the bespectacled granny
In her lacy, beribboned cap,
The golden glow of the kernels
Of oats on plates on the sill;
And on an occasional table,
A basket spilling a sock;
The frisky tabby cat leaping
At a ball of wool on the floor;
The granddaughter, quiet and wistful,
In the prettiest possible frock,
Pale hands with beautiful motions,
Modestly lowered lids....
Tales of my own invention,
Cool air out of evening skies,
And of all rewards, the highest—
A glance from her wondering eyes. (255)
Again we have anaphora, the phrase «I love» serving as a connecting link, but here the reason for the poet’s love is quite different from that in «Snow»: here he loves life in the village because it is the sphere in which the girl he loves moves. His vision first sweeps to the horizon, then narrows to take in the village house, narrows still more to focus upon the group around the tea table. The poet is enamored of the people and scenery surrounding his beloved, the sounds she hears, the light that plays upon her, the woods and meadows she visits, the house she lives in. He loves the cat that gambols at her feet and the knitting she holds in her hands.
All of this represents her. The list of things filling her «life sphere,» the furnishings of the house, the attributes of the landscape, should not be regarded as haphazard, unrelated objects. They form a vital and organic whole. The girl herself is the soul of this little world, an inseparable part of her family, home, and village. Within this circle there is no hierarchy of things—all are equally dear and important to him. The gold cross crowning the cupola at the edge of this world and the plate of golden oats on the windowsill inside the house are equated, despite the great disparity in their functions.
The rising moon, pale phantom,
The farewells of bedding birds,
The shimmer of china teacups,
The dying down of our talk.
One’s attention is invariably drawn to the parallelism of imagery: the hushing of the birds, the subsiding of the conversation; the rising of the moon, the shimmer of the teacups. All are intimately related, equally loved and equally significant. By entering this «life sphere,» the poet himself becomes part of it and in this new environment assumes a new attitude toward himself. He loves himself as part of this circle, loves the stories he invents and which become identified with the atmosphere surrounding the «quiet» and «bashful» granddaughter and bring him into contact with the center of this circle: her eyes and her inner world. A sense of the closeness, the exclusiveness of this world is conveyed by his perceiving mostly round objects in the house—the table, the samovar, the cups, the plates of oats, the old lady’s spectacles, the ball of wool on the floor.
The poem «The Village» has a compositional distinction of the greatest importance for the poet’s future development. It is written in the first person, and this person is highly lyrical. He reiterates the phrase «I love.» His love, however, is itself an expression of his relationship to the world about him, in this case a village world, and so it might be reduced to a single adjectival qualification: his «beloved» world. He portrays it as a space filled with objects bathed in his love. In other words, one detects a tendency to transform the lyric into one of those verbless word pictures with which Fet was destined to astonish and delight his readers (even the most exacting lovers of poetry) in later years. One such lyric («A whisper, a faintest breath. ..») found its way into the 1850 collection; another, written in the 1880’s, resembles «The Village» in that the enumeration of objects, feelings, changes in nature, expresses in its sum a single idea: Spring. In «The Village,» the concluding chord struck is: She.
Another characteristic that establishes an affinity between «The Village» and Fet’s «verbless» lyrics is that of movement within the poem. We have already noted that Fet’s gaze travels from the wider to the more intimate scene, seeing all things in their relationship to the center. The poem concentrates upon a definite «life sphere»; this remains the principal poetic image. But the poet presents this sphere in time. It is not merely «the village,» but the village in the evening, from the ringing of vespers to the rising of the moon, an interval of time sufficient for the ceremony of tea drinking, the telling of tales of the poet’s own invention, the exhausting of most topics of conversation, and the final achievement of the poet’s purpose, which is to make the lovely granddaughter lift her shy gaze to his face. Here, the parallelism of imagery—the subsiding of the birds’ chatter and the waning of conversation, the light of the moon, and the shimmer of the teacups in this light—has the dual purpose of showing that these phenomena, «side by side» in space (appertaining to her «sphere»), are also side by side in time.
In its artistic conception as well as in its manner of portraying the beauty of secluded village life, Fet’s poem has much in common with those chapters from Pushkin’s Eugene One gin depicting the rural scene.
As an epigraph to the second chapter, Pushkin uses Horace’s exclamation «O rus!...» and adds to it his own «O Rus!» Superficially, this would seem to be a translation, whereas Horace’s «O rus!» means «O country life!» and Pushkin’s «Rus» is the ancient name of Russia. The combination of the two is, then, a play on words, suggesting that the Russia of Pushkin’s time was to be identified with country or village life, with its customs and traditions, its scenery, its rustic inhabitants.
The elder daughter, Tatyana, heroine of Pushkin’s poem, was the very soul of the countryside where the Larins’ manor house was situated. When, in later years, Onegin recalled his visit to them, he always envisioned «the manor house with her at the window... always alone.» Pushkin asserts that the very name «Tatyana» evokes «the memory of ancient times or serving maids’ quarters.» Tatyana’s true nature, so akin to that of the simple folk, fostered as it was by the patriarchal mores of country life, is revealed during the Yuletide festivities: «Tatyana believed in the lore of simple folk handed down from time immemorial: in dreams, cartomancy, prognostications by the moon.» Lensky, another character from the poem, had good reason to compare her with Svetlana as fortune-teller from Zhukovsky’s well-known ballad of the same name.
Fet’s treatment of the Russian village was similar to Pushkin’s; for both poets, it was a major theme.
Folklore, an integral part of the old patriarchal way of life, finds its place in the two cycles «Snow» and «Fortune-telling.» The women in these cycles are of the world of snow and storm.
Not only in his narrative poem Eugene Onegin but in many of his lyrics, Pushkin paints portraits of Russian girls whose lives are lived close to nature and who are raised in the traditions of the ancient village. In «Winter. What Is There to Do in the Village?» he describes a nocturnal rendezvous:
A maid at twilight comes out on the porch,
Bared her throat, her breast, the wind full in her face.
But the northern blast cannot blight the Russian rose,
Like a passionate kiss does she flame in the frost.
How fresh the Russian maid in the snow!
In Fet’s «I know, my pretty one, you fear not the moonlit night...» (from the «Snow» cycle) this theme is repeated, but with greater mystery: the poet does not tell us whether it is love or the contemplation of the winter night that impels the girl to leave her bed. Rut the closing lines, using an idea borrowed from folk songs, intimate that it is love. Russian folk songs often speak of the snowstorm that separates lovers by burying all the roads and paths. This is how Fet employs the theme:
But ah, my pretty! I do fear
The evil spirit of the night
Will raise a storm and cover up
The path your feet have worn. (155)
On Twelfth night eve it was customary for young girls to appeal to this fearful «spirit of the night» to tell them their fate. To this tradition Fet’s «Fortune-telling» cycle is devoted. If in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Zhukovsky’s ballads this custom is treated with the light irony of detachment—though with full appreciation of the charm of this quaint superstition—Fet speaks as one participating in the fortune-telling. The fear and awe expressed in the verse are enhanced by the girl’s longing for happiness. In the fifth and last poem of the cycle, the poet becomes the «oracle» in this «testing of fate.» He hears the girl asking a passing stranger his name in the hope it will be the same as the name mentioned when her fortune was told. Pushkin portrays a similar scene with gay humor:
Hark! Crunching snow. A wayfarer! The maid
On tiptoe to him flies, And sweeter than the shepherd’s pipe
The voice that greets his ear: «What is your name?» He scans her face
Before replying, «Agafon.»
This night scene becomes more mysterious and folk-like in Fet’s treatment. Out of the darkness comes a sleigh bearing a stranger who speaks his name, and this name is the same as that cited by the fortune-teller.
Someone glides through the shadows,
A sleigh is flying past; A voice rings out in the darkness:
Tell me, sir, your name!» ... Like the voice of Fate the answer,
Taking her unawares; Her quilted jacket rises
With a sudden catching of breath. (166 and 693)
The first poem of the next cycle, «Melodies,» announces like an arresting chord the transition to a new key. Not only is the key changed, the whole system of visual images is changed as well.
Pearls of the orient—her teeth;
Shemakhansky silk—her hair;
As soft and bright as a morning in spring
Is the shine of her almond eyes. (408)
Here we have oriental splendor, Southern languor, fierce and passionate love—a world of exotic beauty, a far cry from the sad and pensive beauty of the Russian village buried in snow or gently awakening in the spring.
The beloved in these poems is compared to a diamond sparkling in the moonlight (second poem of the cycle), her eyes to the stars. She herself appears to the poet, «a tambourine in her hands, rapture in her eyes» (eleventh poem); again he sees her as an Italian signora (fifteenth poem), or as one whom he comes upon in an arbor hung with grapes and dappled by the Southern sun (sixteenth poem).
The mysteriousness of this love differs from that of the preceding two cycles. It belongs wholly to the world of poetry: it is fashioned of only the beautiful and the harmonious, and it is traditional in its associations and images. The very music of the verse is that of the medieval romance and reminds us of minstrels’ lays:
I will know you at once, in your snow-white veil,
Where the sweet-smelling almond tree scatters its blooms,
Glimpsed from the saddle, or over garden wall,
In the light of the moon or the blaze of the sun;
And from far away I hear your guitar,
Above ripple of fountain and nightingale’s song.... (410)
A break occurs in the «Melodies» after the fifteenth poem: the numbering begins over again and proceeds from one to twenty. This break is not noted in the index, which numbers the poems in succession up to thirty-five. But a definite change in the style of the cycle can be remarked after the fifteenth poem. In the sixteenth (No. 1 of the second series) the poet once more speaks as a thoughtful, ironic man of the 1840’s, torn by inner contradictions. Thus Dr. Faustus cruelly interrupts the avowals of the woman who loves him by declaring with bitter cynicism:
How much trust in those eyes! I do earnestly say
No lovelier friend could I find.
But why this deceit? Let us say what we wish;
Have we need of these cautious conceits?
A yawning gulf, my dear, divides
Your joy everlasting from mine. (434)
The poem «Polunochnye obrazy» («Midnight Visions») is written in a similar vein and reminds us, in theme, of Goethe’s dedication to Faust, which Fet translated and included in the 1850 collection.
Midnight visions are howling
Like spirits that frighten the dog;
I dread to hear them inform me,
It was I who summoned them here.
Tragic as Goethe’s dedication is, we find a sad resignation in its mood that is lacking in «Midnight Visions,» whose tone is more in accord with the first scenes of Faust. Apollon Grigorev used the imagery of Fet’s poem to illustrate the qualities peculiar to the heroes of «morbid poetry» in general.
«We must not forget,» he wrote, «that these phantoms, summoned by a sickly, supersensitive ego, punish him who summons them, pursuing him relentlessly as they pursued Manfred, giving him not a moment’s peace.» In the same article, Grigorev compares the persona of such poems to Hamlet.
Fet’s translation of Goethe’s dedication to Faust is, in its turn, dedicated to A. G, i.e., to Apollon Grigorev. His Faust poems, like his Hamlet ones (the cycles «To Ophelia» and «Melancholy»), were written at the time when he was living with Apollon Grigorev in Moscow and shared his moods and spiritual searchings with him. In the article cited above, written in 1853, Grigorev asserts that the cycles «Melodies,» «To Ophelia,» and «Melancholy» belong to the «morbid tendency» in Fet’s poetry.
In the cycle «To Ophelia» Fet voices the sentiments of a morose, disappointed man of his day, a man «sick» with the moral ailments of his epoch and in love with a delicate, impulsive creature imbued with sorrow and doomed to destruction. The heroine of this cycle has nothing in common with the poet’s beloved in the first half of «Melodies,» but much in common with the woman who emerges in the second half. She is a shy and selfless creature who suffers the humiliation of hearing her Hamlet address such words to her as:
How becoming is that pallor,
Eloquent that silent grief,
And that poverty of spirit—
Ah, I pity you indeed! (444)
At other times, he worships at her feet and confesses that his proud spirit and poetic genius are utterly dependent upon her who, however humble and innocent, is possessed of a nature rich in its very simplicity.
As fair are you, my beloved,
As a blue-eyed Zephyr of May,
And as sensitive my spirit
As a golden Aeolian harp.
Under the touch of live feelings
Its strings, though they be but few,
Find harmonies new to capture
Every new breath of your soul. (403)
The sorrowful and ephemeral Ophelia presents a stark contrast to the heroines of the cycle «In Imitation of Oriental Poetry,» the last poem of which, «Wonder Not That I Am Dark,» derives its inspiration from «The Song of Songs.»
Wonder not that I am dark,
Scorched to darkness by the sun,
But admire my grace of form
As I move among my sisters....
Call me now your mountain rose,
By my beauty you are pricked,
I’m a love-flower born to bloom
In the chamber where you lie. (126)
Ophelia is frail and incorporeal. She is a fusion of joy and sorrow, so much «the ideal» that she might be but «an airy vision» conjured up by the poet’s incantation. The second poem of the cycle «Ne zdes’ li ty legkoiu ten’iu» («Was It Not Here Your Pale Shadow...») sounds like an echo of the dedication to Faust. Even Ophelia’s death is but a beautiful, if melancholy, diversion for the poet and is not Ophelia herself but a figment of the poet’s (Hamlet’s) imagination?
Ophelia sang as she perished
And wove a wreath as she sang;
With flowers and wreath and with singing,
To the bed of the river she sank.
And much with her singing descended
To the darkest bed of my soul,
For much have I of singing,
And feeling and dreaming and tears. (133)
The closing lines clearly identify Hamlet’s beloved with the poet. Ophelia sinks to the dark depths of his soul along with his dreams. Thus, the river in which the drowned Ophelia floats, and Ophelia herself, represent in metaphor the hopes and sufferings of the poet. This subjective perception of the world about him presents an objective image of the suffering egoist, Hamlet, the hero of the cycle. Yet there is another facet to Ophelia’s character, as expressed in these poems. Despite her frailty and vulnerability, she is capable of offering moral support to others. In unburdening his heart to her, Hamlet reveals an awareness of the kinship of their suffering. The imagery of her songs strikes an answering note in his heart. She sings of a lonely grave; this image has associations with Fet’s memories of friends for whom it «was not hard to perish» beneath «this gloomy sky» (the fourth poem of the «Snow» cycle, which mentions the lonely grave beside the road); she sings of the willow, which symbolized for the poet his melancholy, Northern homeland and his lonely, grieving spirit. The song of the willow is the song of Desdemona, the strong and loving wife of a great man who ruined himself as well as the woman he loved. Ophelia, who repeats this song, may be said to be a worthy sister of Desdemona. This is Desdemona’s song:
I am ill, Ophelia, my sweetest friend,
My heart and my eye are grown feeble;
Oh, sing me a song of the wind that blows
O’er the mound where my love lies lonely.
The suffering soul and the sickly breast
Understand my sighing and moaning.
Oh, sing me a song of the willow green,
A song for your own Desdemona! (132)
In the next poem, Ophelia is not so much the victim of the suffering egoist as his friend and support. It is to her alone that he turns for help; it is only in her and in her love that he believes:
Pray with all your tender heart
For yourself, and yet for me.
Exorcize with words of love
The doubts assailing me.
Let my troubled soul find peace
Beneath the quiet wings of prayer. (133)
Among his «doubts» was the poet’s atheism, which, as we know, soon grew into a firm conviction. In asking her to «Pray ... for yourself and yet for me,» the poet indicates his own inability to believe in the power of prayer. But while he does not believe in Divine help, neither does he believe in the saving power of reason. All these qualities of mind are expressed through the image of Hamlet—a figure of world literature congenial to the Russian mind and adopted by Russian literature.
The cycle «To Ophelia» owes its distinction to the original interpretation by the poet of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Ophelia, and the intensity with which the younger poet relives his predecessor’s masterpiece, becoming, as it were, co-author, with his own conception of characters and situations, his own psychological attributes conferred upon the hero.
Fet’s own atheism is fundamental to Hamlet’s request that Ophelia pray for him, and Hamlet’s pessimistic social and historical outlook becomes the pessimism of the disillusioned thinkers of the 1840’s.
IV Philosophical Bases of the Collection of 1850
In the 1850 collection we find a reflection of Fet’s philosophical inquiries, his thoughts on the meaning of life, his skepticism, his dissatisfaction with theoretical solutions of the problems confronting the individual. For Fet, the individual represented the point of departure of any philosophical system. The individual, the significance of his existence, his longing for the infinite and his physical finiteness, his reason and his instincts— these were matters of primary importance to Fet. He pursued their study throughout his life, and his first views are intimated in the poems of the 1840’s. The final link in the chain of his philosophical reflections appears in the works of the 1870’s and 1880’s; the poems of these years are the poetic embodiment of his conclusions.
No such answers to philosophical problems are offered in the 1840’s and 1850’s, because at that time he gave preference to an instinctive penetration of the secret of life’s essence through poetic perception.
Fet’s antirationalism and rejection of hard, logical answers to the basic problems of philosophy, as well as his social pessimism, find expression in this collection (and indeed in all of his creative work of the 1840’s) in his choice of subject matter, which utterly excludes anything of a social or political nature. It is clear that even so early he looked upon art as a refuge from the evils of social reality, as an intellectual atmosphere devoted solely to the contemplation of the highest and most generalized questions of human existence. Among these he did not include problems of social progress, for he appears not to have believed in such progress. His skeptical attitude seems to have been formed in his student days when, in the midst of a sudden outburst of enthusiasm for Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy, he stood apart from his friends and worked out his own answers to basic problems. There is reason to believe that at this time he first read Schelling. He assigned great importance to his having made the acquaintance, at the beginning of the 1840’s, of Professor Shevyrov of Moscow University, and to the discussions he had with him. Shevyrov was an ardent admirer of Friedrich Schelling’s philosophy, which, as it denied the idea of progress in the direct historico-social aspect of Hegel’s treatment, might very well have played an important role in the formation of Fet’s views.
The end of the 1840’s was a time of political reaction following the revolution of 1848 in France. The chief blows stemming from this reaction were aimed at the Russian intelligentsia, especially writers, and consequently the rejection of political and social themes in poetry might be seen as a means of self-protection. Nikolay Nekrasov, who from the very beginning of his career as a poet made social problems the main theme of his creative work and identified himself with the radical wing of the Russian intelligentsia, noted the sharp decrease in interest in poetry at the end of the 1840’s and the beginning of the 1850’s.
In 1849, Nekrasov began his article «Russkie vtorostepennye poety» («Russian Minor Poets») with the words: «There is no poetry.» The disappearance of poetry from the pages of literary journals and the few collections of poetry published were noted by many critics of that day. On more than one occasion, Nekrasov remarked that in times of political reaction poetry was silent. (See his poems «Strashnyi god» [«The Dreadful Year»] and «Poetu» [«To the Poet»].)
In the 1860’s Fet’s skepticism grew into open and even aggressive antagonism toward groups struggling for social progress, into hatred for «theoreticians» who asserted that reason was the principal force making for the happiness of mankind in general and the individual in particular.
While a direct portrayal of all civic feeling is excluded from the collection of 1850, through a complicated series of associations some of the cycles and many of the poems indirectly express feelings and ideas born of the times, and reflect the attitude of people of the 1840’s who recognized that they were children of their epoch. Apollon Grigorev was therefore fully justified in placing Fet’s poetry alongside that of Heine and the revolutionary Russian poet Nikolay Ogarev; for the same reason, themes akin to those of Lermontov’s lyrics (the native land theme, for instance) are found in Fet’s poems of the 1840’s. The lyrical tone of «Melancholy,» reflecting the state of dissatisfaction, depression, creative and spiritual crisis characteristic of Fet’s poetry of the 1840’s, was equally typical of Nekrasov’s poetry. In the latter’s long poem «Poet i grazhdanin» («Poet and Citizen»), he shows that in a period of political reaction a poet cannot be other than melancholy.
In contrast to Lermontov and Ogarev, to say nothing of Nekrasov, in those years Fet permitted only the vaguest suggestion of an idea to glimmer behind the portrait he drew of any individual. In the poems of 1850, his disbelief in the logic of feelings and his skepticism as to the possibility of direct and complete self-expression were perhaps his sole convictions as a poet, and ones that he openly declared. Yet Fet did not share the dire and tragic sense of inability to communicate expressed by Tyutchev in his «Silentium»:
Silence. Hide and disguise
Your feelings and your dreams.
Enough that in the soul’s depths
They rise and noiseless move
Like stars in the night sky.
Commune with them—in silence.
Fet’s sense of «insufficiency» of verbal expression and logical speech sprang from his profound need for complete spiritual communion with others. Accordingly, he sought and found other means of conveying thoughts and feelings, and delighted in these other means. The most powerful of these «tongues» was sound, especially the sound of music, which Fet felt could say so much, and with unmatched force and directness. In the collection of 1850, music is a theme encountered again and again. In one of his poems Fet contrasts the richness of the musical idiom with the limitations of logical speech:
Heavy is my heart with the secret
Communed by the dying violins.
’Mid the noise of this alien crowd
Their message is doubly clear.
With magic power they remind me
Of all that I hold most dear. (176)
In another one, called «Melody,» he says:
Like a cloud of tiny insects The winged sounds are fluttering....
Oh, that the soul could speak Without the intercession of words! (177)
This same longing for communication and understanding and this same sense of the insufficiency of speech are found in his famous quatrain:
Share your living dreams,
Speak to this listening heart;
Pour into my soul in sound
What cannot be said in words. (447)
But music is not the only «idiom» Fet adds to the media of human communication. We have already mentioned that he attributes to every individual a moral and material sphere uniquely his own. The objects surrounding the individual bear witness to that individual’s nature. While awaiting his love in a garden, the poet is informed of her approach by the fragrance of the flowers. In the section devoted to imitations of eastern verse, Fet has a poem called «Iazyk tsvetov» («The Language of Flowers»):
How long have I been eager
To commune in fragrant rhymes.
Every blossom exhales a hint-
Informs you of my confession;
Perhaps the whole bouquet
Will show the way to a tryst. (444)
It is well known that oriental poets attribute meaning to the odors of various flowers and have created symbols for these meanings. Fet was captivated by the notion that the fragrance of flowers could be reduced to a language. He also wrote the poem «Khot’ nel’zia govorit’« («Though I Dare Not Speak»), in which he expresses the thought that, unspeaking and unseeing, lovers can communicate their thoughts through the fragrance of flowers.
Together with poems about the language of music, objects, and odors, Fet has written about the language of glances, which are also deeply eloquent:
Soon our span of years runs out,
But within the given circle,
Our eyes forever can commune,
Dwell forever on each other. (422)
According to the poet, no words are needed to supplement the message of a glance or the response to this message in the other’s gaze.
Fet’s eagerness to supplement verbal language with other forms of expression reveals, on the one hand, his lack of confidence in reason and rationalism, and, on the other, his attachment to natural, physical life in all its manifestations. In the end it was his antirational tendencies that led him to assert the irrational, intuitive nature of art, making art the most profound and all-embracing means by which man perceives and comprehends the world. This was the seed from which grew the theory of «pure art» in the form which Fet accepted.
Turgenev, who rejected Fet’s principles, wrote him a letter obviously referring to a discussion they had already held: «You condemn the mind to ostracism and see in a work of art only the unconscious murmurings of one asleep.» He accompanied this with a humorous drawing.
The concept of sleep as a state in which the mind is absolutely tranquil and outside the realm of reason, a state in which it thoroughly and unconsciously unites with nature and culls new strength from this merging, is found as an original theme in Fet’s poetry. In the 1850 edition, it appeared as new wine poured into the old bottle of the serenade form. Rejecting the usual theme of a morning serenade, which was the calling of the beloved to awaken, Fet, on the contrary, warns others not to wake her. His famous «Na zare ty ee ne budi» («Do Not Wake Her at Dawn»), which in form and certain other respects reminds us of Pushkin’s «Zimnee utro» («Winter Morning»), might have been written as a deliberate answer to Pushkin, and reveals Fet’s attitude toward sleep.
It’s time, my lovely one, awake!
Open those eyes with languor heavy
To meet our northland’s bright Aurora!
Arise, a splendid Northern star!
Last night a snowstorm raged, remember?
Dark veils were drawn upon a darker sky;
The moon, a sickly yellow disc,
Shone wanly through the scudding clouds,
And you disconsolately sat....
This is followed by a description of the glorious winter morning.
Fet’s version is:
Do not wake her at dawn, I pray,
So sweetly she slumbers at dawn,
With the breath of the morn on her breast,
And the flush of the sun on her cheek....
Last evening for long did she sit
At the window and endlessly gaze
At the frolicsome clouds in the sky
That caught at the moon as they passed;
And the brighter the light of the moon,
And the louder the nightingale’s song,
The whiter the face at the pane,
And the sharper the ache of her heart. (135)
As we see, Pushkin’s prescription for overcoming the gloom of the evening is to meet the buoyant life of the new day, whereas Fet’s is to lose oneself in unconsciousness, in the deep peace of sleep.
In the following verse, Fet subtly depicts sleep as the blending of man with nature:
Sleep. The summer dawn
Is yet too young and chill;
The stars above the hill
Shimmer through rising mists,
And but a moment past
The cocks gave third salute.
From yonder belfry float
Soft matutinal chimes;
The summits of the limes
Are bathed in languor sweet,
The corners of your pillow
Are damp with cooling dews. (177)
The unity of man and nature during sleep is suggested by noting the poetic affinity of the sounds with which they both herald the coming of the new day (the crowing of the cocks, the chiming of the bells). The woman in the poem appears to be sleeping outdoors, an element adding solemnity and significance to the moment of her awakening. The tips of the lime trees and the sleeper’s pillow seem to exchange functions: it is not the pillow, warmed by the human body, that breathes an air of languor, but the tips of the limes; and it is not the limes that give off the cooling moisture of early morning, but the corners of the pillow.
Even when the poet seems to betray his usual principle, by beginning with: «Come, awake!...» his voice fails him and he ends his morning serenade, awed to silence by the sanctity of sleep.
It is a curious fact that in a later collection of Fet’s poetry, edited by Turgenev, Fet changed the ending of his poem, eliminating—evidently at the insistence of the editor—the lines showing his irrational reverence for sleep, amounting almost to deification.
Fet did not, however, relinquish his conception of sleep as a moment of fullest living, of acquiring physical and spiritual strength. Among his poems based on classical models and mythical subjects, he has one dedicated to «Sleep and Death,» children of the Sun (Helios) and of Night. Of Sleep he says:
Swarthy like his mother, born to create
like his all-seeing father, Sleep, though encompassed by darkness, is
mindful of daylight splendor. (239)
He sees sleep as a source of creative energy to be expended in the daytime, this being sleep’s high purpose:
Perhaps the dreamer Will rouse from golden sleep;
Or perhaps sweet verse Will flow from his parted lips. (435)
That is why his «la prishol k tebe s privetom» («I Come to You with a Greeting») may best be called a «morning serenade.» In it, he expresses with particular forcefulness the idea that the hour of waking is the hour when man and nature are surcharged with creative energy.
This work, among the most popular of Fet’s poems, is accepted by most readers as a «love» or «nature» poem (it is classified as the latter in children’s readers). But many, including Turgenev and the eminent satirist and political writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, regarded it as a poem about the artist and his work. Some see in it a declaration of the unconsciousness and unpurposefulness of creative effort (the poet sings as does a bird); others think it an exposition of the psychological state of the artist at the moment of inspiration.
V Nature Poetry
Man, nature and their mutual interaction—this is the main theme of Fet’s poetry. It provides noble situations, worthy, according to Fet, of being the source of poetic inspiration. Later he would declare it was the only subject worthy of a true poet. He maintained that the poetic gift manifests itself in heightened powers of observation, in the ability to see and reveal in the moods of both man and nature things hitherto unseen or, at least, unrecognized. By seeing things in a new way and presenting them in fresh imagery, poetry discovers anew the eternal attributes of nature.
In a poem dedicated to Fet, Tyutchev wrote:
There are happy ones endowed by nature
With instinct prophetic and blind.
With this they hear, they see, the waters
In the darkest depths of earth.
Favorite child of the great mother,
Oh, more than enviable your lot!
For you have glimpsed her secret face
Beneath the world’s coarse carapace.
Fet held the chief attribute of nature, one reflecting its very essence, to be its endless extension in time and space. The immortality of nature lay in its ceaseless change and uninterrupted flow. He compared the constant movement within the external world to the constant flow of impressions received and appraised by the human mind. It was the relationship of these two unceasing tides that formed the basis of his nature portrayal. But movement in nature, if ceaseless, is also pulsating. The flow of time is divided into moments, each of which is fleeting but not at all equal in content, and hence in value, to all others.
In «I Come to You with a Greeting,» Fet’s description of the morning is based upon two interrelated processes. He describes the break of day by enumerating some of the concomitant changes in nature; the recollection of the objective impressions he received while walking through the awakening forest evokes in him the same feelings they evoked at the time. It is these feelings that are captured in the poem:
I come to you with a greeting,
To tell you the sun has arisen,
And has set the leaves aflutter
With the warmth of its golden streaming;
To tell you the woods have awakened,
Awakened entire, every branch,
And the birds have shaken their feathers
And are filled with the spring’s desire.
I’ve come as I came last evening,
To tell you with words as impassioned,
I am ready and eager to serve you,
And happiness serve forever....
Though I cannot yet say what the song
Will be, I feel it within me growing. (254)
The coming of morning is described in a series of events succeeding one another and depending on one another (the rising of the sun, the stirring of the forest, the awakening of the birds). The poet, too, passes through a series of moods. Fresh and buoyant after his night’s rest, he moves from a contemplation of the agitated life about him to a sharing of its agitation and a feeling of oneness with his surroundings. In this ebullience of morning life he finds love and the creative impulse, two states of mind that lead, according to the poet, to the full unfolding of individuality. At the same time, the break of day is presented as an impulse to achieve something, a release of energy but not its realization. It is the moment of genesis, the beginning, the crossing of the threshold. But the processes taking place in nature and in man are not carried to fulfillment; the poet’s voice breaks off before he can say what the song germinating within him is to be.
That this poem is in the nature of an improvisation has been noted by Gustafson, who has stressed the spontaneousness of the feelings captured at their inception and carried through their early stage of development. Boris Eikhenbaum, the Soviet critic, has made a thorough rhythmic and structural analysis of the poem and draws our attention particularly to the emotional significance of the enjambment, «Though I know not what the song / Will be....» This has been done by others who have translated the poem into various languages.
We shall see that in later years the portrayal of a «beginning» became a favorite subject with Fet. In this connection, let us analyze the use of this motif in a nature lyric—a poem in which his peculiar approach to natural phenomena is evident:
«Vesennii dozhd’« («Spring Rain,» 1859), despite its title, does not describe the shower itself but only its approach and the moment when it begins, as observed from a window.
The sun still shines through rifts of cloud
And all is bright beyond the window;
A sparrow bathing in the sand
Pecks at its breast with wings aflutter. (139)
Suddenly the observer sees sheets of rain in the distance and watches their movement:
But now from dome of heaven to earth
Soft undulating veils are moving,
And seen through them the distant wood
Seems all in golden dust enveloped. (139-40)
The «range of vision» is distinctly defined—it is bound by the woods at the horizon; the rain moves between woods and garden, bearing down on the house.
Two drops come splashing on the pane,
The limes give off a smell of honey,
And into the garden something strides
And drums on leaves of trees and bushes. (140)
The observer’s powers of recognition lag behind his sensual impressions. He is aware of the sharpening of odors, he sees the drops and hears their impact, but as yet refers to the rain as merely «something.» The next moment he can ,say it is rain that has struck the house, but the poem ends before the action is complete and before its full meaning has been grasped.
In «Shopot» («Whispers») Fet reveals his remarkable sense of movement in nature:
Whispers, timid breathing,
The trilling of a nightingale,
The silver and the heaving
Of a brook in the vale.
Nocturnal light, nocturnal shadows,
Shadows in shadowy space,
A play of wondrous changes
On the beloved face.
In smoky clouds the red of roses
Where the day is born,
And healing tears and kisses—
And the dawn, the dawn! (211)
The first thing one notices (something instantly remarked by the poem’s first readers) is the absence of verbs—a device which was adopted by the poet to emphasize movement in this picture of the nocturnal landscape and human emotions. He presents night as one significant moment after another, a stream of events. The poem tells us that night is followed by dawn, and that the lovers’ quarrel is followed by the coming of the light. The movement in nature and the movement of human emotions parallel each other. This parallelism in the portrayal of man and nature as a distinctive feature of Fet’s poetry has been noted by a number of scholars, among them Eikhenbaum, Bukhshtab and Pavel Gromov. In the case under consideration parallelism is basic to the structure of the poem. The precision and sheer nakedness of the composition, as well as the descriptive method of «spotting» the most significant details, have enabled the poet to press a world of content into an incredibly small space. Since, in poems not written in the classical style, Fet assigned greater importance to the kinesthetic and dynamic aspect of an object than to its form, he selected a few striking details as the means of conjuring up the entire picture rather than creating it by extensive description. He stimulates the reader’s imagination by leaving much unsaid, and by enveloping what is said in veils of mystery. What is omitted has little importance for him. Action develops in «pulsations,» and the poet merely marks those meaningful moments when changes occur in man and nature.
Here, then, is the «stream of events» of first importance in portraying the love scene suggested by this poem:
1. «Whispers. Timid breathing.»—persuasion, explanation, and the response: vacillation, fear, timidity.
2. «A play of wondrous changes / On the beloved face.»— night shadows playing over her face, but also changes of expression attending her change of mood.
3. «And healing tears and kisses / And the dawn, the dawn!»— exchanges end in the triumph of love; the two begin a new life.
Here is the «stream of events» in nature, a secondary succession:
1. «The trilling of a nightingale, / The silver and the heaving / Of a brook in the vale. / Nocturnal light, nocturnal shadows, / Shadows in shadowy space,»—this presents the night scene.
2. «In smoky clouds the red of roses / Where the day is born»— the «red of roses» suggests the first rays of sun. 3. «And the dawn, the dawn!»—the night is over.
In the final line of the poem the two streams merge. This ending on «a new intake of breath,» so to speak, is more like the beginning than the ending of a poem, but this treatment was also characteristic of Fet, who saw in any mood, in any scene, a fragment of an endless process. And so this poem, presenting the events of a single summer’s night, is but a prelude to a new and joyful life.
The economy of detail and the brevity of the poem are a means of conveying the impression made upon the lovers of the rapid passage of the summer night, which they perceived through a few highlighted details, and which turned to morning before they knew it.
Few Russian poets have equalled Fet’s mastery in the writing of short lyrics. He made a notable contribution to this genre, a favorite with Russian poets of the 1820’s and 1830’s. He wrote: «In my work on verse... the main thing is not to exceed three quatrains; four is usually too many, for I am convinced that if I fail to strike the desired string I must wait for another moment of inspiration.»
After the changes wrought in the Pushkinian tradition of the lyric by Lermontov and Tyutchev, Fet introduced still further innovations. In order to understand them, let us analyze one of his most characteristic lyrics, «Distance.» The poet’s ability to pack meaning into every word is seen even in his choice of a title, the full significance of which becomes clear only on reading the entire poem. Even at first glance, the title suggests the poet’s complex conception, since the word «distance» means at least two things: the measurable space between one object and another, and a point far removed, as «in the distance.» In its essence, this poem, like the brief lyrics of Goethe, Pushkin, Lermontov and Tyutchev, is about man and nature. The original treatment of the theme in «Distance» justified a title that the ordinary reader, with his preconceptions of what a lyric ought to be, found unexpected:
There in the distance —
Little puffs of dust;
Hoofbeats or footsteps?
I cannot yet see.
Ah, ’tis a rider
On a galloping steed!
My friend, dear and distant,
Do not forget me!
This is more a film strip than a picture. If in «Whispers» the poet presented the flow of time, here he presents the flow of space through the observation of swift movement. The line «On a galloping steed» only confirms the impression the reader has already formed of the person’s swift approach. The rhythm of the verse is that of hoofbeats. Only the second and fourth, sixth and eighth lines rhyme, so that the poem might have been arranged in four long lines, each interrupted by a caesura. But the poet needed the clipped rhythm of broken lines.
The first and second lines form a single sentence describing clouds of dust rising in the distance.
The third and fourth lines indicate that something is moving that the observer is as yet unable to identify.
In the fifth and sixth lines he sees that it is a horseman. At the end of the sixth, there is a sudden halt in the hoofbeat rhythm; there is a pause, a deliberate break, as the speaker, who until then has been merely an observer, suddenly is caught up by painful memories. The gay mood turns melancholy; the hoofbeat rhythm changes to a pensive one. The «lacuna» is so deep that there seems to be no connection at all between the first six lines and the last two. But the connection exists, and the reader divines it. The long pause invites a train of thought similar to the one that Pushkin develops in:
Whoever has lived in dreary solitude
Must know, and all too well, my friend,
How oft a sleighbell’s cheery chiming
Doth raise a tumult in the heart.
Perhaps it is a friend belated,
A classmate of one’s distant youth.
And if it’s she?—Oh heaven!
Closer... closer... the heart must burst!
But no, the sound is passing, is receding,
Is dying—has died beyond the hill.
Pushkin’s poem, with a man speaking in the first person, offers only an approximate analogy to Fet’s, in which the speaker is a woman. But undoubtedly the transition in thought implied by the pause is the one we have mentioned, and the reader finds it clearly expressed.
The writer Vladimir Korolenko, one of Fet’s younger contemporaries, missed the implication that the speaker is a woman, but he gave the following interpretation, suggested by the pause: «Fet is undoubtedly a great artist. He enables us to feel the excitement of... the highway with clouds of dust rising above it; a guest is coming to the manor house!—perhaps the owner’s beloved, bringing untold joy with her.»
Fet’s innovation was the introduction of meaningful pauses into brief lyrics and the intensification of the implied rather than the direct message.
Only by deeply sensing the swiftness of the horseman’s approach, and thereby estimating the dimensions of the distance out of which he comes; only by understanding the chain of associations arising in the poet’s consciousness and evoking memories of a distant friend can we grasp the meaning of the poem and the full significance of its title.
There is reason to suppose that Fet’s «Distance» was inspired by Goethe’s «Nähe des Geliebten,» the second stanza of which begins: «Ich sehe dich, wenn auf dem fernen Wege / Der Staub sich hebt.» Goethe’s poem, like Fet’s, is about a woman’s longing for her beloved. Both pieces are a woman’s monologue, but they differ greatly in form. Goethe introduces one image after another; every couplet of his four-stanza poem offers a new scene. The poetic conception of the poem consists in the contrast between this ever-changing picture of nature and the constancy of the woman ever thinking of, ever waiting for, the man she loves. Fet, however, finds one picture sufficient, although this one picture is a dynamic, changing one. The poetic implications of the last two lines of Fet’s poem enable the reader to feel the weariness of the woman’s waiting as she stands gazing into the distance, and to share the wide range of sensations she experiences in a fleeting moment.
The woman’s anxious watching for the approaching horseman in «Distance» bore for Fet the same lyrical message he had found in Pushkin’s «The Burning Letter»:
The logical precision of his skillful description of the burning process, more effective than exclamatory writing could be, speaks of an excruciating concentration of attention.... With every new phase of the burning, one cannot believe further destruction of the priceless letter possible. The description is charged with the most intense feeling. It ends in a cry of reconciliation—again «emotion.»
Fet’s «Distance» also ends in a cry—the cry of a woman racked with longing for her absent lover. The restrained feeling underlying his description of swift motion ends in an unexpected burst of undisguised feeling.
We have already remarked that the poet’s attention was concentrated on the problem of man’s confinement within the narrow sphere of space and time allotted him by nature. This problem, to which he devoted much thought, cost him intense suffering. In the collection of 1850, however, he saw man and nature in a harmonious relationship. His sense of being bound to the earth and even to a definite spot on the earth did not yet oppress him; in fact, it lent warmth to his feeling for the universe, reality and concreteness to his sense of oneness with nature.
I well understand the babe’s soft prattle,
Which speaks of the soul’s acceptance of life;
Deep in the heart sounds the unceasing babble
Of a fount that springs with unspeakable joy.
And I say to that star now gleaming so brightly:
It’s long since I’ve noticed your light in this world,
Yet I verily grasp all the deep intimations
Flashed from the sky by your all-seeing eye.
The poet does not regard being bound to the earth as a tragic limitation cutting him off from Heaven (compare Tyut-chev’s words «I, lord of the earth, am bound to the earth»). Nor is the thought of the limited time allotted to the individual on earth associated with the thought of death’s bringing individual existence to an end. Fet’s acute sense of the significance of the moment and the «expansion» of the moment under pressure of extraordinary content lead him to a poetic conception of life’s flowering as a wonder so rich in meaning that it transcends all concepts of time and space.
There are moments when the stars descend to earth and when flowers unfold that blossom only once in a hundred years. The force of the marvelous is sufficient to suspend the laws of mundane existence.
Such moments are not only the fruit of subjective sensations; they also exist in nature, and it is given to some, if not to all, to identify themselves with nature and to enjoy a season of blossoming along with nature.
We are alone; the moon shines in the garden,
Gleams on the pane.... Dimly burn our candles.
Your scented, your resplendent hair
Falls in rippling locks upon your shoulders.
Why are we silent? Is it the magic spell
Of this May night, so luminous, so quiet?
Or yet the brilliant singing of the nightingale,
Pouring out his passion to the rose?
Or the twittering of birds awakened by the shaking
Of their nests in the wind beyond the alder bushes?
Or the slow, slow descent of the stars,
Coming down to us, their jealous rays atremble?
Upon the coils of a fantastic bough the firebird,
Denizen of fairytales and gaudy fantasies,
Swings above the enchanted stream,
His body cased in flame, aglow with emerald light.
The seashells’ patterned convolutions flash
In myriad hues against the golden starlight,
And every little whirlpool flings to the moon
A foam of pearls, a spray of diamonds.
Marvelous insects crowd on every leaf;
All things expand, bursting their fetters.
Many the familiar dreams that are awakened,
Many the beliefs close cherished in the heart.
Too soon the rainbow hues that teased the eye
With their false promise fade away.
Another instant and the tale is told;
Again the possible alone holds sway.
We are alone; the moon shines in the garden,
Gleams on the pane. Dimly burn our candles.
Your scented, your resplendent hair
Falls in rippling locks upon your shoulders.... (174-75)
Fet’s contemporaries praised this poem highly, but as a mere fantasy. In the collection of 1856 it is even called «Fantasia.» To make it more compact and severe in composition, the third quatrain was deleted:
Does it mean that the flowers, most precious of gifts,
Have opened their petals with wilful languor?
That the cactus, hoary with centuries, has come to a flowering
And the banana, and the sacred lotus?
The omission of this stanza emphasizing the reality of the miracle taking place in nature did not alter the poem’s general meaning, but it did add to its fantastic quality. The reference to the blossoming of rare flowers links this poem to Fet’s later story «The Cactus,» in which he makes a forthright declaration of the importance of unordinary moments in the life of nature, especially the moment of flowering.
Faith in the eternal life of nature and in man’s ability to merge harmoniously with nature pervades many of the poems of 1850. This philosophical approach confers upon them an air of peace and resignation.
 See the article by B. Ia. Bukhshtab in A. Fet, Polnoe sobranie stichotvorenii (Leningrad, 1959), pp. 8-9. Cited below as: Bukhshtab.
 Fet, Rannie gody moei zhizni, p. 258.
 Otechestvennye zapiski, No.1, 1850, p. 71.
 Grigorev, I, 85.
 Bukhshtab, p. 62.
 Gustafson, pp. 140-42.
 A. I. Herzen, Sobranie sochinenii v 30-kh tomakh (Moscow, 1956), VII, 208, 222-23. Cited below as: Herzen.
 M. Iu. Lermontov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow-Leningrad, 1948), I, 72.
 N. V. Gogol’, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Leningrad, 1951), VI, 220. Cited below as: Gogol.
 Iu. M. Lotman, «Problema khudozhestvennogo prostranstva v proze Gogolia,» Trudy po russkoi i slavianskoi filologii, XI, vyp. 209. Tartuskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, Tartu, 1968, p. 49.
 The characterization of isolated country life as existence with a «ringlike topography» was used by Gogol in his famous story «Starosvetskie pomeshchiki.» See Iu. M. Lotman, op. cit., pp. 22-23. This correspondence in descriptive method between Gogol and Fet would seem significant. For Fet, like Gogol, describes the patriarchal village in an idealized and poetic way, while simultaneously remarking that this magnificent «refuge» is quite melancholy.
 Pushkin, III, 126.
 Ibid., V, 103.
 This poem, like many others from the 1850 collection, underwent reworking by Fet for the 1856 edition at the request of the editor, Turgenev. The final quatrain was deleted.
 Fet, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii, pp. 170, 694. In both the first (1937) and second editions of Fet’s collected verse is printed the latest version of the ending of this poem, with the initial version given in the «Early Redactions» section.
 Grigorev, I, 95, 82.
 Ibid., pp. 96, 99.
 F. I. Tiutchev, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (Moscow-Leningrad, 1939), pp. 49-50. Cited below as: Tyutchev.
 Bukhshtab has provided a subtle and convincing reading of this poem. He has demonstrated the complex structure of a poem which is calculated to initiate the reader into a series of branch associations on the author’s part. Without an understanding of them, the work seems «mysterious and incomprehensible.» Bukhshtab, pp. 38-39.
 I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem (Moscow-Leningrad, 1962), Pis’ma, IV, 330. Cited below as: Turgenev.
 Pushkin, III, 127.
 Tyutchev, p. 125.
 Gustafson, pp. 171-73; B. Eikhenbaum, Melodika russkogo liricheskogo stikha (Petrograd, 1922), pp. 156-57. Cf. K. I. Chukovskii, Iskusstvo perevoda (Moscow-Leningrad, 1936), pp. 62-63; and Oleksandr Finkel’, Teoriia i praktika perekladu (Kharkov, 1929), pp. 150-51.
 Letter of December 27, 1886, to K. R. See the collection Russkie pisateli o literature, Vol. I (Leningrad, 1939), 447.
 Pushkin, IV, 239.
 V. G. Korolenko, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1956), X, 219. Cited below as: Korolenko.
 It is noteworthy that V. M. Zhirmunsky has detected a linkage between another poem of Fet’s, «Ia polon dum, kogda zakryvshi vezhdy,» with this same poem of Goethe’s. Boris Eikhenbaum, in agreement with this thesis, has done an interesting comparison of the compositions of these two poems of Goethe and Fet: B. M. Eikhenbaum, Melodika russkogo liricheskogo stikha, pp. 148-49. See also Eikhenbaum’s O poezii (Leningrad, 1969), p. 464. The 1969 edition is cited below as: Eikhenbaum, Melodika.
 Russkoe slovo, February 1859, section «Kritika,» p. 72.
 Russkii vestnik, No. 11 (1881), pp. 233-38.