Last Years

I From the Collection of 1856 to Evening Lights

Fet’s two-volume collection of 1863 was more like a summation of the life work of a poet about to conclude his creative activities than the latest offering of a poet regularly contributing to current journals and providing his readers with his most recent writing. In the preface to the collection of 1856, his publishers justified the inclusion of poems from the 1850 edition by asserting they had been heavily revised, intimating that the preceding edition had been carelessly prepared. In the preface to the 1863 edition, Fet himself stated that «only one item appertaining to my old work ... is included,»[1] and that the texts of poems from the 1856 edition had not been revised. To these former poems were added those written after 1856.

The second half of the edition consisted of translations of foreign poets, including Horace, Ovid, Catullus, Hafiz, Goethe, Schiller, Mickiewicz, André Chénier, and Heine. This section of the edition reveals Fet as a serious scholar interested in the poetry of various times and peoples, beginning with antiquity and ending with contemporary Germany, France, and Poland. Not only did he investigate the work of individual poets (making a particularly thorough study of Horace), but he also discovered for himself the distinguishing characteristics of the poetry of various countries. There is good reason to assume that he pondered upon the lives of his predecessors, comparing their fate with his own and drawing conclusions from those comparisons. In his introduction to his translations of Horace he remarks: «Horace’s relations with his patron Maecenas and at one time with Augustus were as delicate as they were brief,... as witnessed by the fact that despite offers of wealth and fame, our poet satisfied himself with a minimum of comfort all his life and, as a Stoic, took pride in this.»[2] We are reminded that in Fet’s relations with the Czar’s family, to whom he later became closely attached, he too sought to preserve a «delicate» independence, but did not always succeed[3] (nor did Horace, for that matter).

Fet also speaks of Horace’s devotion to Cinara, who died young (a devotion contrasting with the superficial attitude toward love that Horace assumed in his writing); and of the enormous influence exerted upon his personality and esthetic ideals by the scenery of the province in which he was born; and by his living in the country, when his creative activities were at their height. «As an ardent admirer of nature endowed with the artistic gift of perceiving her most secret beauties, he [Horace] was ever one who yearned for a life of peace and rural quietude,»[4] wrote Fet, paraphrasing Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin («Born was I for a life of peace and rural quietude»). Surely, in writing these words, Fet also had himself in mind, and his own attitude toward nature and country life.

In his introduction to his translations of Hafiz, Fet presents the Persian poet as one who in old age renounced mysticism and the ascetic life to become the singer of love and the joys of this world. His knowledge of Hafiz, gleaned from an article by the German poet Georg Friedrich Daumer,[5] may very well have exerted a strong influence upon him when, in his own old age, he wrote erotic poetry and verse testifying to his insatiable love of life.

In the first volume of the 1863 edition, the poetry is grouped according to the same cycles as in 1856, with the addition of two new ones: «The Sea» and «Spring.» These two were placed just before the final section, «Miscellany,» and in no way changed the basic structure of the book. The poems for the new cycles were taken largely from the old «Miscellany,» augmented by new verse. All the other cycles were likewise augmented.

Fet declared that he had brought out the edition of 1863 because the 1856 collection was out of print. This would seem to indicate that he enjoyed the approval of at least part of the reading public—that, as he put it, «his Muse was not without kind friends.» The 1863 collection failed to corroborate this, for it did not sell out in his lifetime. Nor did it receive favorable reviews in The Contemporary, The Russian Word, Notes of the Fatherland or Library for Reading. Most of the journals received it not just coldly, but with hostility.

In the 1860’s and 1870’s, Fet lived on his estate, «Stepanovka,» in the Mtsensk district, on rare occasions making trips to Moscow. He wrote little verse, and what he did write he sent first to Leo Tolstoy, according to his old custom of seeking the opinion of his literary friends. In 1874 the friendship between Fet and Turgenev ended in a bitter quarrel arising from their different viewpoints. There is every reason to believe that Turgenev’s persistent denunciation of all of Fet’s later poetry, his advice to Fet to stop writing verse, his jokes and sarcasms in letters to friends about the sour fermenting of the poet’s «wounded and bottled-up literary vanity,»[6] had the effect of further injuring Fet and intensifying the wrath with which he inveighed against the political liberalism and radicalism upon which Turgenev staked his hopes.

In contrast to Turgenev, who felt little sympathy for his friend at a time when he was undergoing a crisis in his creative life, Tolstoy encouraged Fet, praised his poems and tried to convince him that his powers were not exhausted (see Tolstoy’s letter to Fet of June 28, 1867). He himself sought the poet’s support for his writings, asked him for his opinions, and valued them highly.

Fet was one of the first of Tolstoy’s acquaintances to appreciate the depth and significance of Anna Karenina and to support and inspire the writer during his work on that novel.

Turgenev saw in the Fet of those years a «finished» poet, one who had «written himself out.» This impression was based on the belief that that particular historical period had no use for poetry, not even to the extent of battling «pure» poetry by lampooning poets who wrote of love and nature or indulged in lyrical philosophizing.[7]

Even at the time when Turgenev still admired Fet’s poetry, he had no sympathy with the poet’s use of it as a medium for expressing his Romantic philosophy. This view he expressed clearly while preparing the 1856 collection. On the margin of «Stay. How Fair This Spot!» he wrote: «Marvelous! This poem can be made into a jewel if we begin with a description of the quiet night and end with the line «I will not go there»; but all this pious star-gazing—the devil with it!»[8]

Turgenev failed to note Fet’s tendency to deepen the philosophical trend of his lyrics. Tolstoy, on the other hand, who considered Fet one of the most able thinkers among his acquaintances[9] and who first suggested to Fet that he translate Schopenhauer, instantly saw and approved of this. Although Tolstoy was deeply moved by Fet’s poems in the old manner,» he was convinced that the poet’s aspirations for the future should be concentrated on the development of his philosophical lyrics.

When Fet sent Tolstoy his poem «Sredi zviozd» («Among the Stars»; 1876), Tolstoy replied: «Not only is this poem worthy of you, it is particularly, yes, particularly good because of its. poetical-philosophical nature, which is only what I expected of you.»

Tolstoy went on to elaborate on his high opinion of the poem, adding to his own opinion that of Nikolay Strakhov, a critic, philosopher and Slavophile who was to become Fet’s friend and adviser. «Strakhov paid us a visit during the holidays and ... we often recalled you, your words and thoughts and verse. I read to him the poem you sent me in your last letter—Among the Stars’—and he was as delighted as I was ... It is one of the finest poems I know.»[10]

The mood, the philosophical problems touched upon, even the imagery of some of Fet’s poems remind us of Tolstoy, and this is only natural, for they reflect the same philosophical searchings which occupied Tolstoy at the time.

In the works of both Fet and Tolstoy, the sky, which in War and Peace Tolstoy uses to suggest the idea of eternity, becomes the symbol of the universal, the eternal and unchanging, all that is above and beyond human life.

As early as 1857, Fet expressed his sense of the opposition of man and the universe, and the ecstatic experience of being freed of earthly bonds and merging with the universe, if but for a brief moment. For Fet this experience was associated with special and concrete circumstances:

One Southern night I lonely lay
On a stack of hay, my face upturned
To where the glowing constellations
Sang and circled in the sky.

The poet, as we see from the verse, was lying on an elevation and gazing into the Southern night sky, particularly dark and with particularly bright stars—usual in the South, but very striking for a Northerner, accustomed to less brilliant night skies. In such a situation, the poet was overwhelmed by a sense of his closeness to, and helplessness in the face of, the universe:

The earth, a vague and silent dream,
Anonymously whirled away,
And I, like Adam in the garden,
First looked upon the face of night.
Was it I who plunged into those spaces,
Or did the stars come seeking me?
With beating heart, with bated breath,
I measured with my eye those depths
In which, with every passing moment,
I more irrevocably sank.

Our contemporaries, who have seen the birth of space flight, might recognize in this poem Fet’s foretaste of what man experiences when he overcomes the force of gravity and enters the cosmos. Fet naturally had no such thought in mind. He was awed and at the same time enraptured by his sense of the infinity of space. With precision and inspiration he conveyed his feelings and the significance of these feelings without revealing the root of the significance or the source of the feeling.

The precision with which Fet conveyed his feelings indicates that the poet—«nature’s spokesman,» as he termed himself—had achieved, by the power of his imagination, a feeling of weightlessness and of the absence of «top and bottom» in outer space. What began as a flight into the sky ended as a plunge into the void.

The poem Tolstoy so admired, «Among the Stars,» written nineteen years later, is quite different in character. It represents a philosophical meditation on the beauty of the eternal, starry skies. In this verse the poet is not engaged either in self-contemplation or contemplation of nature. Here, the sky is not a real, if mysterious, part of nature, but a wellspring of ideas, forever evoking in man thoughts and feelings of a specific kind. The poet rejects all but one influence of the night skies: their influence on his thinking, his attitude toward his earthly existence. The poet knows that the stars move according’ to laws, and in that respect they are no more free than man. But he dismisses this thought. He is not interested in the knowledge of the stars gleaned by science. For him, they are the eternal symbol of poetry, the ever-present, visual incarnation of man’s dream of immortality, infinity, and undying day.

Whirl on, bondsmen, like me, of the passing moment,
Slaves, like me, of the numbers governing our birth.
Yet when I leaf the pages of the burning book
It is no tale of numbers that I read.

Like caliphs decked in wreaths, in rays, in diamonds,
Incongruous among earth’s sordid needs,
You, dream undying of the hieroglyphics,
Affirm We are forever; you—but for a day.

We know no numbers. In vain with ravenous thinking
You stalk the shadow of eternal thought.
We shine here that in your deepest darkness
Our constant day will seek admittance at your door.

And that is why, when life is too oppressive,
You gladly lift your harassed face from earth,
Where all is dark and dreary, to gaze at us,
Into our depths, where all is light and splendor.» (97)

Here, too, the sky is space, but its relation to the earth (the sky above, the earth below) is definite and inviolable. It is beyond the poet’s reach. He is tragically doomed to a life on earth—a dull, petty life, whose needs make the splendor of the stars «incongruous.» According to the poem, their significance lies in their being the antithesis of worldly life, so that when man raises his eyes to them, his opposite in space and essence, they offer him moral support in overcoming his sufferings and a criterion for measuring the vanity of earthly life. The sky is not the vault of heaven that can be seen in the North or the South, in summer or winter, but Kant’s starry sky, the visual symbol of moral law.

In this poem we find the image of the starry sky presented in the traditional form used by many poets before Fet, including Lermontov and Heine. The freshness of Fet’s approach lies not in his merely making use of this tradition, but presenting it as the central theme of his poem. Accepting this «eternal» symbol of poetry and philosophy, he considers how it came to be such a symbol, and turns philosophical observations on the relationship of man to the cosmos into a lyrical interpretation of the laws of poetry.

In many of Fet’s poems of the 1870’s and 1880’s we find direct references to Schopenhauer’s philosophy. The fourth stanza of the poem «Nichtozhestvo» («Nothingness») is only a resetting of the idea from Part II, Chapter 41 of his The World as Will and Idea. Schopenhauer’s influence is to be found in other poems as well,[11] but it is the combination of the ideas borrowed from Fet’s favorite philosopher of those years with the themes that agitated him all his life, such as the theme of eternity and the passing moment, love and death, struggle and creative activity, that lend originality to the content of Fet’s verse of the 1870’s and 1880’s.

The merging of lyrical and philosophical themes, the use of corresponding imagery and the development of a new poetic style made it possible for Fet to bring out a new book in the 1870’s that was not simply another collection of verse, but a book of poetry whose unity was emphasized by the title. For the first time since youthful enthusiasm led him to call his first book the Lyrical Pantheon, he gave a name to his work. By titling this book, which contained poems written over a period of twenty years, Vechernie ogni (Evening Lights), Fet presented himself as an old man facing the eternal night ahead of him, lighting tapers of poetry to illumine, if but faintly, the gloom of his lonely and sorrowful existence.

The name not only set a lyrical tone of melancholy and introspection, not only intimated the lyrical and philosophical themes of the poems (Turgenev called the lyrical miniatures of his last years «Senilia»), it also served as a kind of musical key, so that the reader might attune himself to the verse.

As distinguished from all of Fet’s former collections, this book contained no poems that had appeared before. Since Fet was sixty-four years old when it appeared, he no doubt looked upon it as the last collection to be published in his lifetime. As a matter of fact, he selected and published three more collections, which he called the second, third, and fourth editions of Evening Lights, in 1885, 1888, and 1891 respectively. Although the editions of these books were very small and sold quite badly, and although the poet constantly complained of his loneliness, he achieved at the end of his life the practical aims he had set himself. He became a wealthy man and was accepted as a member of the titled nobility. He was flattered by the friendship of young poets, especially Vladimir Solovev and Konstantin Romanov, who were attracted by the new philosophical style which in some ways anticipated Symbolism. The desire for social distinction that goaded him all his life remained with him in old age and led him to obtain for himself, through influential friends, a position at the Czar’s court.

Yet the main thing’ in his life was, after all, literary activity. One after another his translations appeared: Schopenhauer’s The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1885), and The World as Will and Idea (1888); Parts I and II of Goethe’s Faust; Virgil’s Aeneid (1887-88); and others.

Only in work did the writer find the peace of mind and spiritual serenity that neither riches, nor the achievement of his vain ambitions, nor the favorable reviews of his Evening Lights could bring.

In 1890, the seventy-year-old poet published his memoirs in two volumes as Moi vospominaniia (My Recollections). Despite cruel attacks of asthma, he worked indefatigably. He wrote one more volume of memoirs, Rannie gody moei zhizni (The Early Years), published posthumously in 1893, and made plans for a new and complete edition of his works. On November 21, 1892, Fet died from an attack of asthma following an unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide.

One is struck by the unity and originality of style, the range and intensity of emotion, the profundity of the lyrical experiences expressed in Fet’s later poetry, and by the wonderful imagery he created until the very last months of his life. These poems testify to the meager satisfaction he derived from the prosperity he so determinedly sought from the first years of manhood to the last of old age. They show also how deeply he was affected by the conflicts, compromises and sufferings he underwent for their sake, and how he despised everything he achieved at such great sacrifice.

II Evening Lights

Most critics of Fet’s poetry (Eikhenbaum, Bukhshtab, Gromov, Gustafson) point out the parallelism of the poet’s descriptions of man and nature. We have already considered the intricate evolution of Fet’s conception of the relationship between man and nature, the main theme of his work. We know that in the 1840’s, the first period of Fet’s creative activity, throughout which the persona of his lyrics was an emotionally morbid young man, a Russian Hamlet, whose inner world harmonized with the grim Northern scenery, its stern beauty and mysterious spaces, the poet felt at one with his surroundings and was inspired by intense love of country. In the 1850’s his work is dominated by anthological poems, the calm, detached, poetic ideal. The harmonious and reconciliatory force of this type of art, which holds the soul’s turbulence in subjection and allies itself with ideas of eternal life and eternal movement in nature, brought classic clarity and artistic perfection to his poetry of those years. In drawing a contrast between the first and second periods of Fet’s career, we must speak only of dominating tendencies, always remembering that such a division is relative, that both tendencies—the tendency to depict conflict in man and nature, and the tendency to sing the harmony of the universe—exist throughout his work, and that each serves as a background for the other.

At the end of the 1850’s and in the 1860’s, the «harmony» of the parallelism of «man and nature» begins to collapse. If, as in the first period, Fet depicted nature as developing through conflict similar to that conflict which determined the development of man’s moral nature, and in the 1850’s found harmony in nature merging with the harmony of the human spirit, in the last period he was aware of the divergence of man and nature. The harmony in nature only emphasized the discord in human life, for man longs to be beautiful and immortal like nature but is doomed to a life of struggle ending in death.

This sense of conflict deepens in Fet during the 1870’s. More and more he gives himself up to thoughts of death, to the realization that the life process must come to an end. The consolation afforded him in the 1840’s and 1850’s by his theory of expanding man’s limited time allotment by cramming transitional moments with vital content, no longer comes to his aid. He is left to face the agonizing mystery of annihilation, without consolation or support.

With characteristic stoicism, pride, and spirit Fet accepted the doubt and sense of tragedy that now overwhelmed him. Just as in a former time he had broken with society, had denounced the idea of historical progress, and had withdrawn to a life in the country devoted to the service of «pure art,» so now he broke with nature, negated her right to rule over him, and declared the union of his mind with the universe.

Fet’s spiritual crisis, distinctly reflected in his later poems, was shared by most intellectuals of the 1880’s.

In Russia, the 1880’s were a period of political reaction, attended by cruel government reprisals on the one hand and disillusionment as to the effectiveness of popular resistance and of all revolutionary political activities on the other.

At the same time, these were years of intense philosophical inquiry and of serious research in the fields of natural science, economics, and politics, as a result of which some individuals turned to Marxism, others to neo-Kantian philosophy, and still others to various forms of idealism, even mysticism.

In contrast to Tolstoy, who, having in those years reconsidered his attitude toward all matters affecting human existence, renounced the society in which he lived with its morals, and declared for self-improvement for the sake of serving others, Fet, who also tried to discover the meaning of life and the place of man in nature and the universe, was interested only in the individual.

In their discussions of problems vital to both of them, Tolstoy was shocked by Fet’s pride and aggressive inflexibility. On January 20, 1873, Fet wrote to Tolstoy in connection with false rumors of Turgenev’s death:

The other day I read the rumors of Turgenev’s death. Can they be true? Never have I been able to understand his comparing death to a huge calf’s-foot jelly. A door into the void; in a word, nirvana — that I can understand. But a meat jelly?[12] I suppose my door is not far away. I am afraid of a life of misery, I am not afraid of nothingness. I remember it. Not bad. Peaceful. Attila chopped off heads and I didn’t mind. Diocletian burned Christians and I didn’t turn a hair. But you are angry with me.

In his letter Fet is obviously pursuing an argument he had begun with his friend. He knows Tolstoy will be annoyed by his enlisting «lamentable» incidents from the history of civilization to support his skepticism.

In his reply, Tolstoy advanced objections that were serious and a matter of principle with him:

There is no point in joking about nirvana, to say nothing of losing one’s temper. Nirvana is vastly more interesting (at least to me it is) than life, but I admit that, ponder this matter as I may, I can come to no other conclusion than that nirvana is—nothingness. I stand for only one thing—religious veneration—a horror of that nirvana. After all, there is nothing of more importance.[13]

Fet, however, refused to accord «religious veneration» to either death or nirvana. In a poem addressed to death, he defies it, fully aware of his right to do so since death is nothing, while he is a thinking creature armed with the irresistible logic of the human mind:

Though the moment come when on my head your hand shall fall,
And I be thus erased from off the list of living,
In my own court, so long as I have mind to judge,
We two are equals, and the triumph all is mine.

You still are subject to the workings of my will,
You are a shadow at my feet, a faceless phantom,
A thought my mind has conjured, nothing more,
The fragile plaything of my most uncheerful dreams. (104)

In a letter to Fet of January 23, 1873, Tolstoy, brushing aside Fet’s logical criticism of religion, advances it as man’s psychological defense against the ideas of death and annihilation. He wrote: «The marvelous thing about religion is that it has rendered this service [reconciliation to death] for so many centuries to so many millions of people.... With such a task, how can you demand that it be logical? It is an absurdity, but the only absurdity among millions that serves this purpose Oh yes, there’s something to be said for it!»[14]

Fet, who in the 1860’s had declared against rationalism in his opposition to the pragmatic course society was taking, who had announced the superiority of instinct over reason and had argued himself blue in the face in the attempt to prove to Turgenev that art and logical thinking are not fellow-travellers, now brought a whole arsenal of logical arguments to bear against the instinctive, the «natural» fear of death, fortifying his position by making Schopenhauer his ally.

Addressing nothingness — nirvana — he attempts to conquer the awe it inspires in him by subjecting it to logical analysis:

Who art thou? And why? Are thoughts and feelings silent
In him who once has looked into the awful depths?
Thou art myself. Thou art no more than the negation
Of all it has been given me to feel and know.

To know? High time to know that in this world
Where’er one turns one finds but questions—never answers.
I who live and breathe do understand that in not-knowing
There is cause for lamentation only, not for fear. (101)

The time has now come to combat despised reality and the struggle for existence with reason and knowledge instead of with art, or by identifying oneself with nature. It now seems to Fet that only the mind, thought, pure knowledge, can raise the individual above the crowd, give him power over the world and emancipate him completely:

Bend tirelessly at your fated task
And the universe will reveal its blessings;
But think you not to be a god,

Nor, even in hours of inspiration,
With lifted eye and beaded brow,
Fear to face the bitter contrast,
Nor fail to say: This evil is, this good.

And if, upon the wings of pride
You dare, like a god, to know the skies,
Take not into the sacred realm
The bondsman’s vain anxieties.

Circle aloft—all-powerful, all-seeing—
And from those vast unsullied heights
Evil and good, like cinerary ashes,
Will fall upon the crowd below. (104)

Characteristically, the poet turns to man for the answer to all questions; but this time it is not man’s ability to feel, sense, observe that he relies upon, but his ability to think.

In his earlier poems, Fet had reiterated one and the same idea: that he was part of nature, that he belonged to nature and that in his poems the voice of nature was heard. Now he feels that he speaks with the voice of the universe and quarrels with God, refusing to recognize His power to curb the individual’s freedom. God, for Fet, represented the force determining the laws of nature on a cosmic scale, the force ruling over the universe, innocent of all ethical considerations.

In the poem cited above, «Dobro i zlo» («Good and Evil»), Fet asserts that knowledge can elevate man to a realm that is holy and transform him into the likeness of a god, thereby releasing him from all ethical criteria. The following incident shows the difference between Fet’s and Tolstoy’s thinking: having received a letter containing Fet’s «Alter Ego,» Tolstoy and his wife objected to the simile in the couplet: «And I know that we were like gods when we gazed / At the stars in those other and happier days.»

Fet replied to their objection:

As for the simile «like gods,» ... I know why it goes against the grain—you find a mythological allusion out of place here. But you know how hard it is to change any idea once accepted, especially in art. How would you express what I wanted to say with the words «like gods»—words as arrogant as demons with dilated nostrils, gloating not only in their power but in the exclusiveness of their power? «As if in paradise»?—flat and one-sided.[15]

For him, God and demon, even when treated with levity, were interchangeable concepts, since God was but the personification of unlimited power and eternal life without any moral attributes.

Fet contends that life, that is to say, the ability to change and develop, sets man above inanimate nature and establishes his affinity with the gods. Observing the heavens, Fet is struck by the difference between himself and the sun and reproaches God for not having given a mind to the great luminary, which is fated to obey the laws of life and even act as its source. The poet speaks of the sun contemptuously, as «a corpse with flaming visage.» According to Fet, the existence and greatness of God is proven only by the inextinguishable flame, the inexhaustible energy, to be found in man. He addresses himself to God as if to prove the correctness of his view:

Thou art omnipotent; defying comprehension
Is the thought that I, a weak and fleeting creature,
Should carry in my breast, like holiest seraphim,
A light more fierce and bright than lights the universe;

In me, who am the lowly prey of vanity,
The plaything of her every whim and wile,
This light, like Thee, is ever-present and eternal,
Subjected not to tyrannies of time and space. (105)

The individual, an infinitesimal part of the universe, turns out to be equal to the whole of which he is a part—even greater than the whole. Thanks to the powers of mind, which can momentarily transfer the individual wherever he will, he is free while at the same time locked in space; he is mortal, yet partakes of immortality; and this union of incompatibles constitutes the miracle of the universe.

The longing to escape the confines of time and space is a constant theme of Fet’s later lyrics. It results in his «break» with nature, and it determines the antireligious, irreconcilable character of his latest work. He utterly rejects the Christian concept of emancipation through the separation of soul and body at death. Fet is tireless in asserting that only life, physical life, the life of the body, confers divinity upon man. While vehemently denying that he is at the mercy of time, he insists that complete inner freedom depends on the oneness of soul and body, and their consumption in the impassioned flames of thought, love, and creative activity.

All, all is mine, all that is and all that was;
The bonds of time are not for dreams and fancies,
Nor are divisions for the strivings of the soul,
As if to say: here dreams of age, there dreams of youth!

If only for a moment all is bright and joyous
Beyond the bounds of the most crushing daily round.
So long as in the body’s crucible the soul
Is captive, it can but follow where the wing doth lead;

Speak not of happiness, nor yet of freedom,
Where all is governed by the iron hand of fate.
But here—here man no more is slave of nature,
Nature herself is here a loyal slave. (115)

In the poems of this period, the philosophical dream of escaping the bonds of time and space is persistently expressed in the imagery of flight. The sense of man’s confinement in time and space, which, as we have noted, haunted Fet all his life (one of his first cycles, we recall, was entitled «The Passing Moment»), now becomes the tragic leitmotif of his philosophical lyrics.

The poet no longer finds «his native haunts» and «the home circle» a refuge. His affection for them has cooled. And this at a time when he has achieved the well-being he had so energetically sought, when he has made himself an ideal home, leaving one country house, which he had remodeled according to his taste, to build himself a much handsomer one.

Fet looked upon his sudden impulse to escape from the home circle experienced in the 1870’s as «a temporary aberration.» A poem of that time, the persona of which is a woman (Fet often resorted to this device), gives expression to a sudden irresistible desire for complete freedom, a desire to leave the hearth and home, the family, and dear, familiar places:

All night the near ravine was noisy
With rills and runnels coursing to the stream;
In a final gush the ‘wakened waters
Sang the early triumph of the spring.

You slept. I opened wide the casement.
Cranes were crying in the steppe,
And I was borne on wings of fancy
Far beyond familiar places.

Oh, to fly to trackless spaces,
Past the woods and past the fields!
And all the while the ground beneath me
Trembled with the turbulence of spring.... (141)

Here it is the lure of nature that makes the speaker long to fly away. At the call of spring, she is even ready to leave «her companion tried by troubles» to join the cranes in their flight. We detect a note often heard in Fet’s earlier poetry—the affinity between man and all other living creatures.

Later, in the 1880’s, it is not in order to merge with nature that the poet would leave the home circle, it is to soar proudly above nature in the realm of the spirit. He speaks of poetry, of poetry’s indifference to suffering, and he contrasts immediate suffering, which animals feel, with the uplifting power of human beings to transform their immediate and personal feelings into «feeling-ideas» transcending egotistical values. Man is seen as the antithesis of the beast:

Suffer! All things suffer. Even the dark beast suffers,
All unknowing, all unsung. For him forever closed the door that leads
To where suffering is tinged with joy.

It is easy to see that Fet’s absorption in the world of ideas at this time was not a rejection of self-analysis, but rather a peculiar form of it. Addressing God, nirvana, death, he was first of all addressing his own instinctive fear of death, and doing so by posing a question that brought an emotional outburst in response. Between the lines we discover that the psychological aim of his philosophical verse was to expose and thus destroy his instinctive feelings: in other words, his philosophical lyrics assumed the function of psychoanalysis. This interpretation provides another argument supporting Fet’s contention that poetry brings peace and resignation.

Now the poet sees his muse in cosmic space, withdrawn from the earth into the depths of the universe. She is:

On a cloud, invisible to earth,
In a crown of stars, an imperishable goddess
Wearing a pensive smile upon her lips. (301)

Again, let us not forget that the aspiration toward «worlds beyond the stars,» toward the eternal and away from the fetters of earth and its relationships expressed by the hero of Evening Lights is nothing more than a tendency, not an inviolable rule.

Fet never solved for himself the problem of the relationship between real life, which, though finite, is alone capable of giving birth to eternal ideas, and the inanimate but infinite cosmos upon which all natural life depends (even the sun observes natural laws). His mind was concentrated with the same intensity upon the problem of emancipating man from the bonds of time and space.

In the poem «Never,» the poet miraculously breaks through these barriers of time and space and, having done so, regrets it, for what he discovers is but the end of all life, the merging of earth and cosmos.

Returning to life after death, the poet finds himself in surroundings that are familiar but now leveled by snow, soundless and bereft of all life, human and animal. He sees the house he lived in, the park he strolled in; but without their accustomed setting in time and space they are no longer his house, his park, his village. They have lost meaning and function and have thereby ceased to be man’s home. The poet feels his oneness with nature and all the creatures that once inhabited the earth:

No winter birds, no gnats above the snow,
I see it all: long since the earth has cooled
And died: For whom is this hot breath
Within me? For whom have I come back
Is bound this consciousness? And to what end?
Where shall I go, with no one to embrace
In this vast wilderness where time is lost in space? (106)

Consciousness loses its meaning when life is gone. The transformation of time into eternity (into «Never») and the qualitative change in space make the earth uninhabitable for man. The first condition of life — that eternal life for which all the living so deeply yearn—is the continuation of the living environment, the existence in time and space of nature and human beings. On returning to life from oblivion the hero of the poem says to himself, «I must go home. How surprised they all will be.» As soon as he sees there is no one waiting for him, he chooses to return to oblivion.

While rejecting immortality purchased at the price of the living environment, Fet could not reconcile himself to the thought of death as the inevitable companion of life. He was possessed of a fierce love of life and its delights. In his reflective poems he advanced the idea that philosophy, wisdom, knowledge, and logic offer man a means of overcoming his fear of death and, accordingly, death itself. But he himself saw and admitted that this was only relatively satisfactory. What Strakhov called his «pagan» love, of life could not be subdued by rational argumentation. In his last years his most effective means of achieving fullness of life and happiness was in the writing of love lyrics.

A great many of the poems in Evening Lights are dedicated to Mariya Lazich. Fet shows in them that his deathless, changeless love for her and his quick sense of her presence despite the passing of the years reduce to nothing the barriers of time and death. In «Alter Ego,» the theme of the conquest of time and death is combined with the theme of the world of the spirit where the poet and his love are supreme and where there are no petty concerns of practical life or practical morality:

As the lily bends over the mountain stream,
So you did bend over the first of my songs;
And whose was the triumph, if triumph there be?—
The stream's or the lily's, the maid's or the song's?

In the innocence of youth you understood all
It was given me to say by mysterious powers;
And while bitter my sentence of life without you,
We are ever together; we cannot be parted.

The grass that is greening on yonder far grave
Grows greener with age in the crypt of my heart,
And I know that we were as gods as we gazed
At the stars in those other and happier days.

Love has its words and these words cannot die.
A particular judgment awaits you and me;
We’ll be quickly espied and plucked out of the crowd,
And together we’ll go; we cannot be parted. (96)

The `traditional use of green grass as a symbol of eternal life is used here to indicate the freshness of the poet’s memory of her whom he loved. As long as that memory persists, so long does his love, and with his love, his life.

In the last ten years of his life Fet wrote a new cycle of love poems so uncharacteristic of anything he had written earlier, so full of vitality, so erotically intense, presenting the image of a woman so different from any encountered in his other lyrics, that Bukhshtab justifiably reached the conclusion that they must have been inspired by a true life experience unknown to Fet’s biographers.[16]

In these late love lyrics Fet does not speak of the home, of the limited domestic circle presided over by women; rather, he speaks of love and harmony as a flight into space and union with the universe. These poems, replete with love’s ecstasy, are as much a revolt against nature’s ruthless power as the philosophical poems. It is not surprising that in the margin of Alexander Blok’s volume of Fet we see written again and again: «He was 72 when he wrote this,» «72 years old,» «over 70.» Fet seems to have written the poems to confound accepted opinions of what a man of his age represented. From all of them emanates the mood which found open declaration in the poem «Moego tot bezumstva zhelal» («He Wanted My Madness»):

Though age, the strumpet, would steal my last pleasure,
My soul, e’er its setting, will come as before
Direct to this spot like a bee to a blossom
To feast on this fragrance and drink of this air.

With happiness locked like a gem in my heart
I will be a live echo of life’s ebullition;
This sweet-smelling honey is mine, is for me,
For others the savorless wax of the comb. (197)

In the attempt to break through the barriers confining the individual and limiting the possibilities of communicating with others, Fet wrote the poem «Now,» as original in content as in title.

Addressing a young girl who will reach her maturity when Fet is no longer among the living, he foresees their future closeness achieved through his verse. He portrays himself speaking from out of the future to her as she will be in the future:

With a maiden’s thoughtful sensitivity
You will understand the madness of my dreams,
And all mean things on which I turned my back
In quivering stanzas—and you will turn yours too.

Put, then, your trust in greetings from the grave,
In deathless love, the heart’s elusive secrets,
For from us both the air of timeless life is wafted
And you and I will meet again—ah, now! (110)

[1] A. A. Fet, Stikhotvoreniia (Moscow, 1863), I, 1.

[2] Ibid., II, 6.

[3] Bukhshtab, pp. 25-26.

[4] Fet, op. cit., II, 66.

[5] His translations from Hafiz were made from the translations by G. Daumer, Hafis. Eine Sammlung persischer Gedichte (Hamburg, 1856). Fet borrowed a few phrases from Daumer’s foreword to this edition for his article on Hafiz. Since, like many of his contemporaries, Fet had a high opinion of the ability of German translators, he was convinced that Daumer’s translations were quite precise. In fact, however, Daumer’s «translations» from Hafiz were nothing more than poetic stylizations. See Fet, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (Moscow, 1959), pp. 826-27.

[6] Turgenev, Pis’ma, VIII, 285.

[7] I. S. Turgenev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem. Sochineniia (Moscow-Leningrad, 1967), XIV, 36.

[8] See the note in Fet, Polnoe sobranie stikhotvorenii (Moscow, 1959), p. 716.

[9] Turgenev, Pis’ma, VI, 99.

[10] L. N. Tolstoi, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1953), LXII, 294, 303.

[11] See Bukhshtab, pp. 66-68.

[12] The comparing of death with a «calf’s-foot jelly» is Fet’s ironic way of referring to the image from Turgenev’s short story «Prizraki» («Phantoms»), where death is portrayed as a living, moving and predatory cloud. The door to nothingness is an image found in Prince Andrey’s dying dream in Tolstoy’s novel War and Peace.

[13] Tolstoy, Perepiska s russkitni pisateliami, pp. 295-97.

[14] Ibid., p. 297.

[15] Ibid., pp. 354-55.

[16] Bukhshtab, p. 65.