Afanasy Fet in the 1860’s

I Esthetic Disputes of the Late 1850’s and Early 1869’s

Fet’s collection of 1856 was a great and lasting success. «All our journals received Fet’s book with praise and good will,» wrote Vasily Botkin, noting, however, that the praise was limited to the literary élite and was incomprehensible to the average reader. «In a word, his success may be said to be only literary, and we attribute this to the very nature of his talent,»[1] the critic went on. Considering Botkin’s immediate observation of the public’s as well as the critics’ response to the volume, it is difficult to suppose that he could have erred, and yet quite the opposite opinion was expressed a few years later by the prose writer Saltykov-Shchedrin:

A good half of his poems exude the most sincere freshness and almost the whole of Russia is singing songs set to his words.... If, despite all this sincerity and all this lightness of touch that instantly captivates his readers’ hearts, he must still content himself with the modest lot of a second-rate poet, the reason for this, it seems to us, lies in the narrowness, the monotony, the tightness of the world which Fet portrays in his poetry.[2]

We see, then, that in contrast to Botkin, Saltykov-Shchedrin bore witness to Fet’s popularity with the general public, the ordinary reader, at the same time doubting that his works would stand the test of serious esthetic criticism and denying him the right to be included among the best writers of his day.

There was nothing exceptional in this clash of opinion. Such diametrically opposed positions were taken with respect to the work of many writers at the end of the 1850’s and the beginning of the 1860’s, among them the plays of Alexander Ostrovsky and the novels of Ivan Turgenev.

Critical dissension reflected the sharpness of the esthetic disputes raging at the time. Fet was a fully established member of the St. Petersburg literary coterie at a time when it was deeply agitated by various movements. It was a period of new trends in art, new theoretical conceptions, bitter conflicts between proponents of opposite schools, and of pusillanimous attempts to hold to the middle road.

The upheaval in literary circles was closely connected with historical events within the country. The end of the despotic reign of Nikolay I, the dissatisfaction with serfdom felt by all classes of society, beginning with the peasants and ending with liberal-minded members of the nobility and bourgeoisie, preparations for peasant reforms, the sudden growth in influence of the class of untitled intellectuals (the raznochintsy), the rapid development of the natural and social sciences—all these factors served to stimulate thought, intellectual discussion, and criticism of beliefs and convictions.

Esthetic theories were a part of the ideological sphere in which began heated arguments that then spread to every branch of intellectual pursuit and soon assumed a political character.

In the statements quoted above, we see the efforts of Botkin, on the one hand, and of Saltykov-Shchedrin, on the other, to confirm their ideas of the beautiful and draw the poet to their respective sides. Botkin saw Fet as a poet «for the few,» one who would not join forces with the rising writers whose platform demanded that an author serve the people and consciously subordinate his interests to theirs. Saltykov-Shchedrin reminds this poet, whose verse was so widely popular, that true artistic achievement depends on the artist’s treatment of social and political problems of importance in the development of his native land. Nikolay Chernyshevsky, in his brilliant dissertation of 1855 entitled The Esthetic Relations of Art to Reality, opposed the idealistic conception of art; and Nikolay Dobrolyubov, who became the leader of revolutionary democratic criticism in the late 1850’s, caused a split in The Contemporary. At the beginning of the 1860’s Druzhinin, Botkin, Annenkov, Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Grigorovich, and other liberal-minded writers from the nobility ceased contributing to the journal.

Gradually Fet was drawn into these discussions of esthetics. For a while, his lyrical verse appeared in The Contemporary along with radical articles by such men as Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. Fet was rather more attracted than repelled by literary arguments. In his early youth he had been the sort of student who sought ideological conflict instead of avoiding it. In 1856, during a vacation granted him for the purpose of taking a cure, he met Turgenev abroad and the two engaged in such violent discussions of matters esthetic and political that members of the family with whom Turgenev was staying feared they would injure each other.

Fet sought to discover his own answer to esthetic questions, to reach an independent decision on the place of the writer in society. In 1856, Nekrasov, too, published a collection of verse, an event he anticipated by sending Fet his poem «Poet and Citizen,» containing the declaration: «Poet you may not be, citizen you must!»—words that instantly flew from one end of the country to the other. In this poem Nekrasov defined contemporary aims, basing his conclusions on an analysis of the experiences of contemporary poets who had lived through the period of crushing political reaction after 1848. The revival of Russian society and the renewed interest in political affairs after 1855 shocked many writers. In Nekrasov’s critical article on Tyutchev’s poetry, written in 1850, the author hinted at his concern for his own fate and that of his contemporaries, men relegated by political oppression to the position of «second-rate poets,» men deprived of the opportunity freely and harmoniously to develop their talent.

In order to state his own views on the poet’s calling, Fet chose means similar to those of Nekrasov. Fet’s collection of verse, like Nekrasov’s, appeared in 1856. He also wrote a critical essay on Tyutchev, which contained a declaration of his esthetic principles and which appeared in the journal Russkoe slovo (Russian Word) in February of 1859. In the second half of the 1850’s he began writing poems «with a message,» in which he expressed his opinion on the place of poetry among other human activities.

Fet’s solutions of esthetic problems, however, were often directly opposed to Nekrasov’s. In «Poet and Citizen,» Nekrasov addresses his colleagues, asserting that the change in the political situation within the country demands that they devote themselves to social themes in their writings and that they repudiate «pure lyrics» for the sake of propagandizing ideas of social progress.

For Nekrasov, as for other radicals of the 1860’s, the idea that a writer’s creed should be based on an acknowledgment of his duty to serve the cause of the people was linked with a deep faith in historical progress and a belief in the effectiveness of political activities in advancing this progress. Fet, on the other hand, did not believe in progress. Although in no sense an admirer of the existing system, he felt that not only was a struggle against it useless, but that even criticism of it was equally hopeless.

For him, the purpose of poetry lay not in the solution of social problems, nor in the analysis of contemporary life, but in the creation and preservation, through a sensual and psychic perception of reality, of a special sphere in which life, purified of vanity, discord, and chance, became a source of delight and of the flowering of the individual.

In his practical and social activities man is guided by reason, but this does not enable him to escape evil, the struggle for existence, and bitter disillusionment. He is constantly conscious of his dependence upon circumstances and upon the limitations imposed upon him by his position in society as well as by the state of society at any given moment. This awareness, according to Fet, shackled and humiliated the individual and deprived him of freedom. There was, he believed, no escape, for the moment one frees oneself from one form of dependence one falls into another. Art is the only realm in which one can know absolute freedom. «Certainly nobody assumes that... we alone remain unaware ... of those periodic incongruities that would fill the heart of any man with ... grief for his country. But such grief cannot possibly be a source of inspiration,» he wrote at a later date.[3]

According to the democratic writers and readers of the 1860’s, the poet could gain public trust only by expressing grief for his country. «The most damning accusation of our times,» wrote Herzen, «“is grief ‘in general.”»[4] — water, in this instance, being poetry. In Fet’s mind this simile was full of deep and heartrending meaning, for the death of Mariya Lazich was caused by her clothes catching fire. Art, according to Fet, frees humanity from the perpetual struggle for existence, from cruel and unreasonable circumstances and inevitable rapacity. It makes man noble, independent, and all-powerful. Beauty is the great healer. For Fet, this was an emotion inimical in its very essence to free, creative activity. In poetry he sought, according to his own declaration, «an escape from all the griefs of daily life, including civic grief.» At the same time, he suffered so severely from the contradictions and wrongs of the society in which he lived that he said he was like one whose clothes have caught fire and who throws himself into the water to extinguish the flames

Fet’s views on art were akin to those of Kant and his followers in that he attributed extraordinary significance to creative activities, placing them above practical activities and a capacity for logical thinking.

At the same time, he followed in Gogol’s steps by asserting that art is essentially affirmative, that beauty undergirds it, and that the principal emotion expressed by lyric poetry is a love of life and a love of nature springing from a recognition of its beauty. In his «Uchebnaia kniga slovesnosti» («Textbook of Literature»), published posthumously in 1896, Gogol wrote:

Beauty is the wellspring of poetry. On beholding the beautiful, man is inspired to praise it, to compose a song to it, to sing. To praise it in words that will enable others to sense the beauty of the object of praise. A poet is he who is more capable than others of perceiving the beauty of creation.[5]

This attitude toward the source of lyricism, which, in Fet’s case was combined with social pessimism and a lack of faith in the ethics of «practical» action undertaken by individuals, or by humanity as a whole, was at the root of his action in offering the timeless themes of his poetry in opposition to the socially pressing topics of his contemporaneous world.

Unlike the radical and liberal intellectuals of the 1860’s, who categorically demanded that literature deal with political and social topics of contemporary importance, Fet would have none of this. He was so determined and consistent in this regard that, when speaking of his fierce love of life, he excluded from his conception of life all political and social phenomena as well as whatever pertained to the sphere of logical thinking. «All of life is dear to me,» he wrote to Leo Tolstoy on May 16, 1863. «How wonderful it is—with its mosquitos, cuckoos, mushrooms, flowers! Sheer joy! ... As for science... it is but the observation of life.»[6] He went on to draw a contrast between the eternal and absolute beauty of nature and the instability of human relations with their inevitable conflicts which, even against people’s will, split them into opposing camps.

Fet’s conception of beauty as the fullness of life; his conviction that everything in nature is beautiful and capable of purifying man’s soul; his love of living representations of living reality and his striving to preserve them in art—all these approaches were shared by other Realistic writers of the day. Turgenev and Tolstoy inveighed vehemently and persistently against those who propagated «democratic esthetics,» seeing in them advocates of the didactic school. Nekrasov held other views, yet in a criticism of Ostrovsky’s play You Can’t Live As You Like, in which Nekrasov detected Slavophile tendencies, he urged the playwright to create more freely, to rid himself of tendentiousness as fatal to art. Neither Tolstoy nor Turgenev, to say nothing of Nekrasov, accepted Fet’s favorite belief (reflecting Schelling’s esthetics) that only in creative activity and esthetic perception may the individual achieve inner harmony; that art alone can elevate him above the life of society; and that the enjoyment of beauty creates for him special ethical criteria, different from those held by the crowd absorbed in the «low» affairs of practical existence.

Despite their friendship and the similarity of their philosophical, literary, and other interests, Tolstoy and Fet differed throughout the 1860’s and 1870’s in their attitude toward the beautiful and its place in life.

In contemplating nature, Fet never perceived any links between its power and beauty and the human conflicts of daily life. He discovered and revealed to others the way in which the simplest sensations can reveal the beautiful to man (sensations of sound, light, color; the contrast between heat and cold; even deceptive sights and sounds). Such sensations not only released in Fet mighty lyrical outpourings, but also turned his thoughts to profound reflections upon the principal problems of human existence—problems of love, life, and death. At all times he confined himself to the sensations and lyrical emotions of a single individual; he reflected on man and the world within the limits of a single human life apart from society.

Fet’s friends Turgenev and Tolstoy adopted a different attitude toward nature. Boris Bukhshtab has pointed out the striking resemblance of the nature descriptions in Fet’s «Kak zdes’ svezho pod lipoiu gustoi» («How Cool Beneath This Spreading Lime») and a passage from Turgenev’s Nakanune (On the Eve). Rejecting the possibility of Turgenev’s having borrowed from Fet, Bukhshtab accepts the similarity of images, responses, and metaphors as an indication of the close affinity between the two writers.[7]

It seems to us that this resemblance, so subtly noted, may be attributed to the borrowing of certain details by one skillful landscape painter from another whom he implicitly trusted as a keen and exact observer. But the resemblance, though patent, must not blind us to equally obvious differences.

Fet’s poem leads us to a perception of summer heat by means of contrasting the coolness in the shade of the lime tree with the blazing fields beyond, all this modulating into a wonderful sense of serenity evoked by nature’s splendor at the height of summer.

The episode from the novel On the Eve, in which Turgenev presents a similar portrayal of nature, describes the searchings of two young people for a meaningful life and confirms through their sufferings and experiences the concept of struggle, self-sacrifice, and service to others as a source of human happiness. One of the novel’s most important messages is that the idea of escape into the realm of pure art or science is narrow and inadequate.

In his story Semeinoe schast’e (Family Happiness), Tolstoy also has a passage describing the contrast between the cool shade of the trees and the enervating heat of the open fields, and if he does not consciously challenge Fet’s ideas, he at least gives frank expression to an esthetic attitude diametrically opposed to his: while Tolstoy’s young heroine is enjoying the silence, the beauty, and the refreshing coolness offered by the canopy of the trees, she is suddenly struck with a sense of the injustice of her enjoying these privileges while the peasants are forced to work unprotected in the fierce heat of the sun.

In a letter of 1865 to Fet, in which he speaks of the beauty and prosperity in which his family lives, Tolstoy also contrasts their fate with that of the peasants. He is unable to shut himself up in the world of beauty and feel secure in it, even for a moment.

On our table we have red radishes, yellow butter, fresh, crisp-crusted bread on a pure white cloth, the garden is green, our young ladies are decked out in fine muslin, rejoicing in the heat and the shade, while that devil drought is having his way, sowing the fields with weeds, causing the parched earth to split open, lacerating the calloused heels of the peasants and their women, cracking the cattle’s hooves, and it will give them all such a shaking up that we in our muslin frocks in the shade of our lime trees ... will surely be made to feel it.[8]

Fet reminded him again and again of art and kept trying to lure him into the sphere of pure creative activity, above and beyond all distracting thoughts. «Ah, Lev Nikolaevich, try, if you can, to open the window into the world of art. That is where paradise is to be found, that is where objects can be the ideal.»[9]

One must not, however, conclude that the ideal objects of which Fet wrote Tolstoy were abstract objects, mere philosophical conceptions. In his opinion, the world of art is an ideal world where every object achieves a state of perfection and expresses its essence and its harmonious relationship with all other phenomena without sacrificing its living objectivity, reality, form.

Art is to reality as a copy is to the object copied; the copy lives its own life, similar to the life of the original, but different from it and independent of it. Fet’s concept was the following, although he would not, of course, have expressed it in such terms: «Poetry, and indeed all art, is the representation not of an object but of the ideal of an object; the representation of the object itself would be not only undesirable but even impossible.» Only one aspect of an object is of importance to the artist, Fet asserted—its beauty. Beauty is an attribute of all things, of all objects, of everything that exists, not only in the world, but in the universe. The subjective aspect of art Fet found in the artist’s penetration, his ability to perceive the beautiful. «Since the world is equally beautiful in all its manifestations, it makes no difference what external things the poet chooses for representation. Everything depends on the other, the inner element—the sharpness of the poet’s insight, the strength of his clairvoyance.»[10]

On the basis of these principles it has been justly assumed that Fet’s system of esthetics has much in common with Impressionism.[11] It is true that for him the impression, the emotional response, was of more importance than the objective attributes of the thing contemplated. Yet it is the objective world that furnishes the poet with impressions and emotional responses, and it is this world that he perceives and to which he accords lyrical significance in his verse. Fet found the richest, most objective poetic perception to be that which was most logical and most capable of uniting human beings, of creating ties binding them together. Art is capable of transmitting the impressions of one individual to other individuals, of «infecting» one person with the emotions of another, of merging the individual contemplating the world with the world as he perceives it. Art converts man into an optical instrument reflecting nature, and nature into a source of poetry for man. Fet believed that poetry revealed the «secret kinship of nature and the soul, perhaps even their identity.»

Without denying the significance of thought in poetry, Fet strictly limited reason’s «rights.» He distinguished between logical thought and poetic thought, the difference between them being intrinsic to the nature of each:

Philosophical ideas gain in quality from the precision of their expression, the limitations of the sphere to which they appertain, the resemblance they bear to incontrovertible axioms. Poetic ideas, on the contrary, however vivid and powerful, become the more poetic the more general they are, the wider, more delicate and elusive the rings radiating from their impact. Unlike philosophical ideas, they are not intended to add to the vast edifice of human thought and form the basis for building further deductions; they are designed to illuminate the architectonic spaces of a work of art or to glow faintly, almost imperceptibly, in its depths.[12]

In short, Fet divorced poetry from philosophy and staunchly opposed the practice, which had taken deep root in the 1830’s, of making lyrical verse the medium for conveying philosophical ideas.

That does not mean that Fet took no interest in philosophy. On the contrary, like all the members of the intelligentsia in his generation, he took great interest in it, especially in his youth before entering the literary arena, when he numbered among his best friends such philosophically inclined young men as Grigorev and Vvedensky. His poetry of the 1840’s and 1850’s, however, reflects this interest only indirectly, as the basis on which to apprehend nature and interpret her laws.

Participation in the heated discussions of esthetic problems, of which Tolstoy and Turgenev soon grew tired and abandoned, had important consequences for Fet. They revived his interest in philosophy and led him to plunge into a deep study of it, as a result of which he became engrossed in Schopenhauer’s thought and began translating his works into Russian. Both Fet and his friend Tolstoy found themselves in sympathy with Schopenhauer’s pessimistic views of the world and with Schopenhauer himself, who, of all the German idealistic philosophers, was the most poetic. The changes that occurred in Fet’s private life at the end of the 1850’s and the beginning of the 1860’s also stimulated his interest in philosophy.

The success of the collection of 1856 induced Fet to devote himself primarily to literature. He worked in various genres, made translations from a number of languages, and was widely published. The military career he had chosen as a means of regaining his place among the hereditary nobility disappointed him: a new decree was issued, stipulating that only the rank of colonel could confer a hereditary title on an officer. Fet realized that he would never attain that rank. In 1857 he married Mariya Vasilevna Botkina, and in 1858 resigned from military service.

Fet’s strong defense of «pure art» in discussions of esthetics and especially his articles «Notes on Free Labor» and «Village Life» (1862), in which, as the owner now of a country estate, he wrote as a conservative landlord defending his interests against the claims of the peasants, spoiled his reputation with readers and critics alike. A collection of his poems published in 1863 was received coolly by some critics, with hostility by others. His verse was looked upon as the realization of his esthetic views; the criticism of it was more or less damning, depending upon the extent of the critic’s objection to these views. Even such a reserved critic as Saltykov-Shchedrin, who sought to remain objective in his appraisal of Fet’s poetry, declared in no uncertain terms that the themes of his poems were too slight and insignificant to win for him any but the most humble place in literature.

The poet became the butt of satire on the pages of the democratic journal Iskra (The Spark). Humorists of the 1860’s delighted in lampooning him. Endless comic effects were suggested by the situation of this refined, lyric poet who, while urging others to take refuge from the low pursuits of daily life in pure art, was at the same time a shrewd landowner, jealously guarding his own interests and seeking his own profit.

Realizing that his literary career was over, Fet threw himself into the management of his estate and refused to publish any more poetry. The study of Schopenhauer’s philosophy reconciled him to the ambiguity of his life. He found himself in complete sympathy with Schopenhauer’s pessimism, his lack of faith in historical progress, and his reverence for art as a sphere safe from the devastating intrusions of the will and the instinct of self-preservation. Schopenhauer’s theories confirmed Fet’s views on art and society and strengthened his conviction that he was in the right.[13]

Fet’s acceptance of Schopenhauer’s philosophy is not surprising when we recall that his philosophical leanings had been determined by earlier readings of Kant and Schelling, thinkers who in many respects anticipated Schopenhauer. For many years Fet worked over the translation of Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea, which was published in 1881. One of Fet’s favorite tenets borrowed from the great German thinker and emphatically reiterated by the poet was that deliberate logical thought is inimical to a work of art; yet it was with the final elaboration of his antirational esthetic system that Fet began to express logical philosophical ideas in his poetry. His first philosophical poems, anticipating and preparing the way for his later lyrics, dealt with the nature of art; they were polemical poems directed against rationalism and in support of «the bard’s mad whims.»

II Poems about Poetry

As early as 1854, Fet wrote his «Muza» («To My Muse»), which was included in the collection of 1856. While gazing into the heart of his own muse, Fet could not resist a backward glance at Pushkin’s celebrated poem of the same title. The difference between the two stands out clearly against the background of a severe anthological style. Pushkin’s muse is bright and clear, one that would most appeal to the heart and mind of the childlike poet, whereas Fet’s lacks such harmony. His muse is secret, and bears in her heart the sorrow and unfulfilled dreams that foreshadow his future break with the world:

Her head divine was all encircled by a braid
Most intricately woven of scented golden strands;
The year’s last blooms were quivering in her hands;
Impulsive her speech, and laden with a weight of sorrow,
And woman’s whims and wiles, and silver-tinted dreams,
Sufferings indescribable, and unaccountable tears.
Under the heavy spell of languor
I listened till I heard, mingling with the words,
A kiss. When she was gone my soul was sick for long
And I was haunted by a yearning undefined. (266-67)

Fet’s irrational muse with her inexplicable fancies and her inability to explain her sufferings and tears symbolizes a world outlook opposite to that held by Pushkin, who cried: «Hail to the Muse! Hail to Reason!»[14]

Fet’s muse of 1854 is even more decidedly in conflict with Nekrasov’s. The latter’s poem of the same name exactly resembles Fet’s in formal composition, but while Nekrasov devotes the first half to drawing a contrast between his muse of «wrath and sorrow» and the serenely beautiful muses of anthological poetry, and the second half to a declaration of the social and humanitarian nature of the songs his muse inspires in him, Fet devotes the first half of his poem to a denunciation of social heroics in poetry, and the second half to presenting as the ideal the psychological lyric depicting the most subtle movements of the human heart.

In propounding his poetic system and defending his muse, Fet goes no further than to defend his artistic identity, define its peculiarities, distinguish his manner from that of other poets who have won recognition, and assert his right to originality. He does not denounce other systems or declare them beyond the pale of art. Although he contends that the social muse, who is sure to bring her protégé public laurels, is vainglorious, she is none the less a muse and one capable of inspiring high poetry. She is, however, alien in spirit to all of Fet’s poetic aspirations, and he writes of her: «My ear is not caressed by her effective tongue, / Simple and adroit, uttering chords without accord» (266).

This poem, while unambiguous, is thus innocent of the spirit of exclusivity. It is not a philosophical tract dedicated to a theoretical analysis of problems of esthetics. It is simply a presentation in imagery and metaphor of the poet’s individual artistic method.

It should be noted that Fet describes his muse as breathing the air of simplicity—human, «domestic» simplicity. This first conception of his muse, which appeared in the Lyrical Pantheon, was preserved throughout the years, later to merge oddly with an image of her as an all-powerful goddess reigning over the world. In the version of «To My Muse» written in 1857 and published in Nekrasov’s Contemporary in 1858, the intimate picture of her as friend and sister to the poet still prevails:

And have you come to sit with me for long,
And force me to love and agonize again?
And whose, I pray, the image you have this time borrowed?
And whose the gentle phrases your cunning has acquired?
Well, your hand. Sit down. Now light the torch of inspiration
And sing, my kindly visitor! ... (275)

Although later in the poem he speaks of leaving this world of art and even introduces into his text a phrase from Pushkin’s «The Mob» which often served as a weapon in the hands of champions of pure art in the discussions of the 1850’s (Pushkin: «Not for the welter of daily living ... were we born ...»; Fet: «Putting behind us the welter of daily living / We feed the flame of life with purest dreams ...»), still this poem cannot be considered a declaration of the poet’s platform.

Quite different is the message Fet dispatched to Turgenev in 1865, a «Horatian» message sent by a poet-recluse who has sought solitude in the lap of nature. Here we can see Fet’s intolerance undisguised, his determined rejection of all liberal, «rebellious» literature, his insistence on seeing in Turgenev’s fate corroboration of his conviction that those who would serve the muse must necessarily eschew interest in contemporary affairs, and his effort to enlist Pushkin as a supporter of his stand:

Of mast and sail (how honestly they served
The skillful swimmer in the wind and storm!)
You fashioned for yourself an aerial dwellingplace
Beneath a cliff enchanted.

The radiance of an alien dawn did bid you welcome,
And in your words we hear a note of resignation. (483)

The image of the bard cast upon the shore and finding shelter under a cliff can undoubtedly be traced to Pushkin’s «Arion,» but Pushkin’s poet sings «hymns of a former day» while Fet’s, in lonely solitude, seeks «his soul’s renascence.» The ideas behind the similar images are not only dissimilar, they are antithetical. Fet distorts Pushkin’s images to suit his needs again, further on, when he makes allusions to Pushkin’s «The Village» (Pushkin: «Your joyful voice is better heard in this majestic solitude»; Fet: «The muse’s tender notes here sound more clearly»). But if Pushkin concludes his poetic description of village and countryside by having the «friend of mankind» appeal to the social conscience and sense of civic responsibility, Fet ends with «It is done! My door is shut against the evil weather!» and demonstratively refuses to participate in any form of social action. Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons, who at that time was preparing to write Smoke, did not look favorably upon this message. He was living abroad for purely personal reasons, and he did not wish this to be interpreted as an «escape» from anything at all. He was not filled with the spirit of resignation; nor, apparently, was Fet, who angrily wrote of the «filthy debauchery» of «ignoramuses.» In this message, he made no secret of the dreary thoughts prompted by his withdrawal to a life of seclusion in the country, but his confession elicited only irony from Turgenev, who told him he had better return to the city if country life filled him with thoughts of death. In spirit and tone, Fet’s message to Turgenev was a foretaste of the splenetic outbursts in defense of his esthetic views that turned into political attacks and, especially in the epigrams, assumed the form of vicious insinuations—«Psevdo-poetu» («To a Pseudo-Poet»); «Poniaten zov tvoi serdobol’nyi» («Your Compassionate Appeal»); «Ne tolkui ob obez’iane» («Consider Not the Monkey»); and others.

Happily, the number of instances in which Fet resorted to this means of defending his views—which invariably shocked and repelled his contemporaries—was inconsequential in comparison with the stream of philosophical verse, so different in tone, which he produced at the same time.

The philosophical lyrics of the 1860’s to the 1880’s violated the principle to which he had adhered so staunchly in the first twenty years of his writing, namely, that it was through images rather than ideas that poetry is to be expressed. His new verse was full of philosophical reflections, and enlisted metaphor and simile in the service of the abstract idea. Many of the works of these years were presented as soliloquies revealing the emergence of the idea and offering it, not in finished form, but as thought-emotion, thought controlling the consciousness but not appearing in strict logical sequence.

His celebrated «Kak beden nash iazyk» («How Poor Is Human Speech!») belongs to this group of reflective poems. There can be no question as to what the poet wished to say: language is inadequate for the expression of feeling, and knowledge cannot come to its assistance (first stanza); only inspired art can do this (second stanza). In other words, the thought of the poem is clear and rational. Little does it resemble the «unconscious murmurings of sleep» (a metaphor which Turgenev attributed to Fet): the poet proves capable of lucidly conveying his idea to the reader. Where does the irrationalism of this particular poem lie—the irrationalism that Fet considered basic to his poetry and that was recognized by his contemporaries as well as by students of his work down to our own day? First of all, it lies in the manner in which the idea is expressed. Fet’s emphasis is placed not on the idea itself, but on the workings of the human mind that give birth to the idea. This poem represents a soliloquy, a chain of reflections, only a few of which are carried to a logical conclusion and given finished form; the rest fade away in the depths of consciousness, are hidden, as it were, in a forest of associations. Let us consider the first stanza:

How poor is human speech! — I would and yet I cannot —
No, not to friend or foe can I impart
Knowledge of this clear wave that surges in my heart.
In vain this anguished striving:
   Before the fatal falsehood
  A very Solomon must bow his head. (308-309)

«How poor is human speech!»—this opening exclamation lends itself to many interpretations and suggests a number of questions, the first of which is: why should a poet speak of the poverty of human speech? The innumerable answers to this brief and noncommittal exclamation offer rich fields of exploration. The second half of the line assists the reader in orienting himself. The poet speaks of the poverty of language because he is frustrated—but in what way? The second sentence is as obscure as the first. The first was at least colored by emotion; the second, fenced in by dashes and consisting of two subjects and two incomplete predicates, is clearly a tattered thought. Its fragmentary character and its «hardening» (the dashes suggest the rupture of logical development) indicate the speaker’s inarticulateness and his refusal to try to find means of communicating his thought. Then comes another outburst of emotion: «Not to friend or foe can I impart / Knowledge of this clear wave that surges in my heart.» In this extended sentence we find a semblance of logic. The poet tells us he has lost faith in the possibility of imparting his feelings to others. Yet we do not yet know what direction his further reflections will take: will we be told what feelings are surging in his breast? Will we learn who his friends and foes are and be informed of his efforts to discover sounds in the language corresponding to his feelings? He omits all this and leaps directly from a brief and turbulent statement of his mood to a pessimistic conclusion: «In vain this anguished striving.» The comprehensiveness of this summation allows us to supply not one but many logical links with the thoughts preceding it and to postulate many ways of developing the idea. Fet, however chooses an unexpected course. Despairing of finding adequate words to express himself in language and convinced of the accumulation of century-old and inescapable misunderstandings («fatal falsehood»), he declares: «Before the fatal falsehood / A very Solomon must bow his head.»

The second stanza, the antiphony, asserts it is given to poetry to express that which confounds ordinary language and knowledge:

For you alone, oh poet, the wingèd word
Seizes in flight and suddenly affixes
The dark delirium of the soul, the herb’s elusive scent;
So Jupiter’s eagle, scorning the narrow valley,
Rises to the sky’s unfenced immensity,
Clutching in its claws a sheaf of streakèd lightning.(309)

Here we have no fragmentary sentences whose logic collapses and whose parts are linked only by association. What the poet says is couched in the free language of poetry rather than in the brittle forms of ordinary speech. In one long, flowing period it embraces three couplets and is crowned by a mighty metaphor. Its composition is governed not by «the bard’s mad whims» but by a strict and consistent organization of material shaped to the fullest expression of the idea. The «inexpressible» content suggested in the first stanza is given expression in the second, where the poet seems to regain his powers of articulation. The content is «The dark delirium of the soul, the herb’s elusive scent,»—in other words, the unconscious workings of the mind and the beauty of nature, accessible to man only through sensual perception. The metaphor at the end of the poem, typical of Fet’s thinking, violates the literary cliché: instead of Jupiter’s eagle bringing the lightning of artistic inspiration down to earth, it rises from earth into the heaven of poetry, carrying in its claws the lightning of earthly impressions. The poem «Lastochki» («Swallows») has a similar ending. In this poem, likening the poet’s daring to the bird’s, Fet writes:

Up it soars, a streak upon the blue,
And one trembles lest the sky
Close upon the bold intruder
And tear to shreds its wings of lightning....

And do not I, a humble vessel,
Thrust into forbidden wells,
Hoping to scoop if but one drop
Of freshness from their depths? (108)

The forbidden depths, accessible only to the poet, are to be found, according to Fet, not beyond reality as the Romantics assumed, but in the innermost recesses of life. Those blessed with creative powers can discover the treasures in these depths and elevate them to the sphere of art.

Even in verse dealing with abstract concepts, Fet’s principal purpose remained the contemplation of psychological processes, while his imagery was derived from his observation of ever-changing, ever-moving, natural phenomena. It is this characteristic that distinguishes his meditative poems from the philosophical lyrics of Baratynsky and Tyutchev.

III Poems about Music

In Fet’s poems about music we find a combination of psychological analysis and esthetic reflection. Because art does not impose laws of human logic upon life and does not destroy the living image of an object, Fet placed art above learning; and of all the forms of art he ranked music the highest, as the art most independent of logic.

As early as the 1840’s, Fet declared his dissatisfaction with language as a medium for expressing emotion. He longed to supplement the language of words with some other language, and of all these he found the musical idiom the richest and most direct. It was his dream to «speak without words,» to speak «with the soul»; he did, in fact, reinforce the semantic aspect of words with associative and carefully selected tone values. The significance of individual sounds and of combinations of sounds was as important to him as the stress and melody of a line, and every one of his verses is a complex tonal composition accompanying, and often supplementing, the meaning of the words.[15] This facet of Fet’s work was reflected in his theoretical esthetic views, and he himself attached great importance to it.

The attempt to supplement the word with sound, with music, and constantly to invent new forms of auditory expressiveness by varying rhythm, measure, orchestration, and the intonational construction of a sentence, resulted in his attempting to convey music in words, in verbal imagery. One of his finest poems of this kind is «Pevitse» («The Singer»; 1857), in which, in addition to the musical pattern of the verse, the curious interweaving of fragments of scenery with emotions reproduces the flow of images that pass through the mind while one is listening to music.

Oh, sweep my heart up into singing spaces
Where sorrow is poised like the moon o’er the wood; In those heavenly sounds love is smiling shyly
To solace your burning tears.

How easily, child, ’mid invisible waves,
I give myself up to your song, To be carried aloft along silvery paths,
A pale ghost in the wake of a wing.

In the distance your voice is expiring, agleam
Like the sea as the sun goes down, And I hear, though I know not whence it comes,
A sudden strewing of pearls.

Oh, sweep my heart up into singing spaces
Where sorrow smiles shyly as love. Ever higher I mount the silvery path,
A pale ghost in the wake of a wing. (182)

The images and emotions are born of the music and the fantastic picture that results is the music’s visual image.[16] — «singing spaces»—with the sky above, earth and sea beneath. It exists, as it were, beyond time, since it lasts only as long as the music, but there is a logical succession of events, for the sunset fades and the moon rises and illumines the waters of the bay. In the poet’s mind, the world of music is juxtaposed to the real world about him, thereby forming a new reality in which objects and feelings exist on an equal plane and intermingle freely. This world, created by sounds and dependent exclusively upon sounds, has its own spaces

Music frees man from earthly ties—first of all, from the tie of gravity. He lives a double life. While listening to music he shares the life of the music, becomes part of its world. Submitting to its laws, he leaves the earth and soars into the heaven of poetry, «a pale ghost in the wake of a wing,» through spaces belonging to song alone. The sky lighted by the rising moon, the earth rimmed by woods, the sea with the sunset fading on the horizon—this is the vision evoked by the music. The very spaces of the world of music arise from a sense of flight engendered by the peace and freedom the music brings, and the moonlit landscape is created by sounds associated with silver and moonlight (silvery tone, rings of silver, silver bells—things related to the color of silver, which in its turn suggests silvery light, moonlight—this is the order of association common to the Russian language, its folklore, and its poetry).

The scenery of the world of music is constructed of objects and phenomena familiar to the poet in the real world: the limitless spaces above—the sky; the limitless spaces below—the sea; as well as the vast earth, bounded on the horizon by the forest, which Fet, true to his love of the intimate and concrete, diminishes to «woods.» Yet all these «real» elements furnishing the musical spaces are but images representing emotions: resigned, meek sorrow; hot tears; lofty love; mutual trust; and the joy of communion.

The joy and sorrow of both poet and singer, whose souls merge in the moment of ecstasy, become identified with the moon above the woods, rays of moonlight, and the sun sinking into the sea.

All the feelings and images of this poem are about music. The conjunction of sorrow and a smile—the minor key «illuminated» by the major—the sunset on the sea, the voice fading away, only to burst forth intoa coloratura run like the «strewing of pearls.» The evening scene is dictated by a sense of silence, since the ear is entirely absorbed by the music. Variations on the theme of flight, moonlight, tears and a smile, parallel the development of the musical phrase in a song.

The imagery of music is repeated in a later poem, «Shopenu» («To Chopin»; 1882). Although the poem is dedicated to the great Polish composer, it is neither about him nor about a performance of his music. It is instead a lyric celebrating the undying power of love, presented in images arising from Chopin’s music.

The musical structure of the poem is that of a mazurka, light and quick in tempo, with a precise yet shifting rhythmic pattern.

Curiously enough, the visual imagery evoked in Fet by Chopin’s music closely resembles that perceived by the eminent Russian choreographer Michel Fokine when he staged his ballet «The Sylphs,» based on Chopin’s music. This similarity would seem to indicate that such imagery is not a purely subjective phenomenon.

The poet’s dead love appears to him in gauzelike garments, dancing lightly. The magic of the music enables the poet easily and joyfully to escape the bonds of time and slip back to the hour when they were together. Time now obeys new laws, whereby the past becomes the present and the present the future; but this future never arrives, since the end of the music brings an end to time and the poet’s heart stops beating when the dance is over.

Swift you entered, lightly, blithely,
Set my heart to beating wildly;
’Neath the magic of the music
Rise old raptures, rise old tortures.
Now I feel your trembling fingers—
You are with me still!

Hour of triumph, hour of mourning!
Hour of ending, hour of parting!
There you stand, your lashes lowered,
Wearing still that gauzy garment.
Hope may die—shall I regret it
Once this hour is mine?

Now your hand my hand is touching,
Once again my heartbeats quicken;
Nevermore to wretched grieving
Shall I turn as I was wont to;
Now to all am I indifferent—
Dead my fire and cold.

All the world is held in bondage
By the music’s magic power;
Let my anguished heart be given
Wholly to this hour of parting;
When the music sounds no longer,
Beats no more this heart. (193)

Fet was not alone among his contemporaries in seeking a union of poetry and music. Leo Tolstoy, in whose life music played such an important part, made a similar effort to depict in literature the individual’s response to music—in particular, to singing—by means of a stream of thoughts and feelings which, in their turn, give rise to visual images («Albert,» War and Peace).

Musicians have noted Fet’s success in heightening the impact of words and phrases by supplementing their logical meaning by the emotional effect of sound. This explains why so many composers of Fet’s day chose his lyrics to set to music: the songs thus produced achieved a wide popularity that persisted even after Fet had lost his hold on the reading public.

In Tchaikovsky’s setting of «The Singer,» the composer gives his own interpretation of what the singer, a woman, sang to Fet. In a letter to Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich (who signed his own poems with the initials, K. R. [Konstantin Romanov]), Tchaikovsky wrote:

Fet is an exceptional phenomenon in literature; he is not to be compared with even the best poets, here or abroad.... In his finest moments he goes beyond the bounds of poetry and steps boldly into our sphere. At times, Fet reminds me of Beethoven, never of Pushkin, Goethe, Byron or Musset. Like Beethoven, he is capable of touching heart strings inaccessible to poets, great as they may be, who are limited to words. He is not just a poet, rather a poet-musician, who rejects themes that lend themselves too easily to verbal expression. For that reason he is often misunderstood; indeed, there are certain gentlemen who laugh at him and find poems such as «Oh, sweep my heart up into singing spaces» sheer nonsense—as no doubt it is for such uncultivated and unmusical gentlemen....[17]

Without taking Tchaikovsky’s words about Fet’s going «beyond the bounds of poetry» too literally, we must note that Fet provided great impetus to the further development of poetry by making the melodic and euphonic pattern more intricate and placing more emphasis on this aspect of a poem. Fet was well acquainted with Russian vocal music: in his youth, he had absorbed the musical intonations of Russian drawingroom and folk songs as well as gypsy songs. This circumstance is often reflected in his verse. One of Fet’s contributions to literature was the growth in relative importance of «song lyrics» in Russian poetry of the middle of the nineteenth century.[18]

At the same time, he and his contemporaries—for instance, Yakov Polonsky, Aleksey Tolstoy, and Lev Mey—aided the development of vocal music by enriching its themes and intona-tional structure.

[1] Botkin, II, 368.

[2] M. E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1937), V, 330.

[3] Fet, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (St. Petersburg 1901), II, 487, 489.

[4] Herzen, VI, 326.

[5] Gogol, VIII, 472.

[6] Literaturnoe nasledstvo, No. 37-38 (Moscow, 1939), p. 210.

[7] Bukhshtab, p. 55.

[8] L. N. Tolstoi, Perepiska s russkimi pisateliami (Moscow, 1962), p. 257.

[9] Ibid., p. 246.

[10] Russkoe slovo, No. 2 (1859), pp. 64, 65.

[11] See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, «Esteticheskie vzgliady Feta,» Literaturnaia ucheba, No. 12 (1936), p. 39; Bukhshtab, «Fet,» pp. 57-59; and Gustafson, pp. 25-26.

[12] Russkoe slovo, No. 2 (1859), pp. 68, 69.

[13] The question of Schopenhauer’s influence on Fet is discussed in the above mentioned works by Bukhshtab (Literaturnaia ucheba, pp. 39-41; «Fet,» pp. 19-22, 66-67); in P. P. Gromov’s «A. A. Fet,» in Fet, Stikhotvoreniia (3rd ed., 1963), pp. 68-72; and in Gustafson, pp. 14-28.

[14] Pushkin, II, 274.

[15] Analyses of numerous poems by Fet from the viewpoint of their melodic structure, as well as analyses of the melodic organization of Fet’s works as a whole may be found in Eikhenbaum’s Melodika, pp. 435-509. For an analysis of the sound structure of some poems which Eikhenbaum did not treat, see Bukhshtab, pp. 44-50.

[16] For an analysis of Fet’s verses on music, see Eikhenbaum’s Melodika, pp. 485-89 and 491-94; Bukhshtab, p. 71; and Gustafson, pp. 189-205.

[17] M. Chaikovskii, Zhizn Petra Il’icha Chaikovskogo (Moscow and Leipzig, 1902), III, 266-67.

[18] Eikhenbaum maintains that in Fet’s poetry the element of the song and romance predominates over the rhythmic and the plastic. See his Melodika, pp. 446-47.