CHAPTER 6

  

Conclusion

To what literary trend does Fet belong? Scholars differ in their judgments. For a long time the opinion persisted in Russian literary studies that he was a poet of the Romantic school,[1] a poet forming a link between Zhukovsky’s Romantic lyrics of the beginning of the nineteenth century and the Symbolism of the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. In recent works of scholarship we find Fet’s name associated with Russian psychological Realism of the nineteenth century. [2] Between these two extremes lie more flexible opinions, such as Gustafson’s, who considers Fet a Realist in depicting nature and a Romantic in his views on art.[3]

These differences in opinion spring from a serious study of the processes determining the development of Russian poetry, including the poetry of Fet, and each has sound arguments behind it.

Russian literature developed with extraordinary intensity during the nineteenth century, vehemently rejecting the old and eagerly accepting the new. Fet, who lived long and wrote poetry almost to the day of his death, witnessed various literary periods. He was only twenty years younger than Pushkin; his first collection of verse was published during Zhukovsky’s lifetime; his last, when Anton Chekhov’s talent was mature and both Maksim Gorky and the Symbolists had appeared on the literary scene. He remembered with what breathless anxiety he had awaited Belinsky’s criticism of his first book; his later ones were reviewed by Strakhov and Solovev. His work was an integral part of the great literary periods—the 1840s, the 1860s and the 1880s—although he often found himself in bitter opposition to the prevailing style.

In the 1840s he appeared as a man nurtured upon the Romantic poetry of the 1820s and 1830s, yet he immediately found himself in the center of the literary and philosophical discussions agitating the best minds of the day. His response to these questions was original, and his poems of the 1840s were at once accepted as the voice of his generation. His poetry was loved by readers and praised by some critics, yet faulted by others for «morbidly» reflecting the conflict and confusion in the minds of the young people of that time.

In the 1860s, when the political struggle became most acute and a realignment of forces was occurring in society, Fet was told again and again that his poetry was out of date. His conflict with radical critics and democratically minded readers stimulated him to formulate his esthetic creed, which declared that art was and must be above passing considerations, especially problems of social progress.

Fet was, however, closely linked with the Realism of the middle of the century through his belief that the individual must always be at the center of the artists attention, that man is the source of all beauty, and that it is he and his attempt to know himself and his environment (objective reality) that are the basic material with which the artist must work. As a matter of principle he excluded social and political themes from poetry, relegating mans political life to the sphere of «low» and prosaic activities. At the same time, his hero was an individual in tragic disharmony with his times. The historical and social struggle that Fet drove out of the door in his theoretical discussions came back in through the window of mood and intimation in his lyrics. Fet—and his contemporaries as well—could present the ideal anthropological man—natural and harmonious— and at the same time depict the conflict within the modern consciousness, even make a psychological analysis of the definite, concrete individual who was a product of those times and of that society.

Unquestionably, the esthetics of German philosophers, notably Schelling and Schopenhauer, influenced Fet’s views on art, but, like other Russian Realistic writers, Fet saw their ideas through the prism of his own personality, and the original esthetic position he then assumed is best seen in his poetry rather than in his theoretical declarations.

For years Fet was in close contact with such outstanding representatives of Russian Realistic literature as Tolstoy and Turgenev. They were the first readers of his verse; he solicited their advice and was guided by it. In return, he gave them his opinion of their finished works and suggested ideas for new ones. His advice was highly regarded.

Fet’s influence upon the development of Russian Realistic literature is a fact, and not a mere supposition advanced by students of his work. Besides the spontaneity and keen powers of observation revealed in Fet’s poetry, we have also seen its philosophical profundity. In the 1880s and 1890s, the imagery of his verse became richer, the meaning deeper. Young writers who in their revolt against Realism were venturing into the new field of Symbolism, sought features in Fet’s philosophical poems that related them to Romantic poetry and lent the innovators assistance in working out their own style. Their reexamination of Fet was not limited to theoretical attempts to find a new interpretation of his poetry. Vladimir Solovev, one of the young poets close to the Symbolist movement, made Fet’s acquaintance, wrote poems obviously influenced by the aging poet,[4] and himself sought to influence Fet’s latest work by criticizing his poems and even proposing new versions of them.

It is, however, perfectly clear that the changes Fet’s poetry underwent at this time were not sufficiently radical to ally him with the new literary movement. In his very last poetry he preserved organic ties with the poetry of the 1840s and 1860s. Without advancing beyond pure lyricism, he analyzed the development of psychological processes and described nature in growth and movement.

In the poetry of the 1880s and 1890s, Fet depicted nature as an objective phenomenon and thought as the product of human consciousness, dependent on mans psychological and, in the final analysis, physical state. Consequently, the reflective verse of the last ten years of his life assumed the form of monologues emanating from his own psychological state of mind and associated with his own particular world of emotions. In their eagerness to proclaim Fet the forerunner of Symbolism, theoreticians and writers of this movement were constrained to offer new readings and interpretations of his poetry.

By the end of the nineteenth century Fet had become one of the most popular poets in Russia. The peculiarity of his popularity lay in the fact that on the one hand he was hailed by young professionals of exclusive tastes who saw his work in a new light, and, on the other, his poetry had become part of the literary heritage of the broad masses, who did not always know its source.

The form of Fet’s poetry, consisting exclusively of short, even very short, lyrics, made it not only easy to read but also easy to commit to memory. His longer poems, of which there are few and those second rate, never became popular, and the poet himself attached little significance to them. Toward the end of his life he declared he had no flair for the epic style.[5] The ease with which Fet’s poems are memorized is based not only on their brevity but also on their exquisite finish, the subtle precision of intonation characteristic of his «conversational» verse, and the happy combination of euphony with the natural melodiousness of the Russian phrase in his «songs.» Many of his lines have entered the Russian language as conversational clich?s, greeted always by a smile of recognition. That fact accounts for the success of the numerous parodies of Fet’s poetry. The story of its wide assimilation is inseparable from the history of Russian vocal music. On hearing familiar songs by Alexander Varlamov, Pyotr Bulakhov, Tchaikovsky, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov or Alexander Taneev played on the piano or the guitar, Fet’s words inevitably come to mind, even though one may be unaware of their author.

Such popularity makes it difficult to distinguish what the poets of the following generation absorbed from him unconsciously, and what amounted to deliberate imitation or elaboration of his method.

It is easy to discover examples of the unconscious absorption of Fet’s influence. Certainly, there was no conscious attempt to copy Fet when the peasant poet Ivan Surikov wrote «In the Shade of the Trees» in a manner reminiscent of Fet’s «Distance.» Surikov addresses his friend in the following words:

Where are you now,
My distant friend?
Sleeping in a flophouse?
Tramping the roads?
Pity your friend
So far away,
And in the silence of night
Remember me.[6]

The friend addressed is a peasant roaming the country in search of employment and living by begging. Not only is the structure of Surikov’s poem borrowed, but the content, too, echoes Fet’s verse (the memory of an absent friend, the idea of distance).

Another poet, a revolutionary, in writing about one of the populists who «went to the people» to bring them enlightenment, had so completely assimilated Fet’s famous miniature «Whispers,» that he instinctively used the form of the poem in describing the poverty and suffering in the regions through which he passed, a message as different as possible from that conveyed by Fet’s poem:

Fields, meadows, Bright and clear expanses ...
Deserted highroads ... Want in village huts ...
Gendarmes in settlements, Fines, taxes, tithes.[7]

These examples bear witness to the extent of the assimilation and unconscious imitation of Fet’s poetical forms, and also to the impossibility of separating this unconscious assimilation from the processes taking place in literature. In the volume of his autobiography entitled My Apprentice Days, Gorky tells of the artistic influences that aroused in him, a youth thrown into society’s «lower depths,» a conscious aversion to «life’s leaden horrors» and nurtured aspirations toward the good and the beautiful. In one episode from the book, Gorky relates how a quotation from Fet spoken by a middle-aged intellectual enabled him, a workman’s apprentice, to appreciate another’s suffering, and evoked in him admiration for the strangers intellectual world and appreciation of beauty: «Only the song has need of beauty; / Beauty has no need of song.»

«I was deeply impressed by these words and felt unaccountably sorry for the officer,» wrote Gorky.

The chance overhearing of such words through an open window would scarcely make a lasting impression on an ordinary youth, but on Gorky, a workingman’s apprentice, deprived as he was of the opportunity to pursue a systematic education and thirstily seizing upon every chance to «purify his soul» by «stripping it of impressions, as of fish scales, gathered from the bitter, poverty—stricken life» about him—for such a boy they were of enormous consequence. The young Gorky was ever in search of words that would assure him he was «not alone on this earth and would not become lost.»[8] Fet’s words were of that sort. That boy who heard them casually quoted by one of the poets admirers himself became a writer, and moreover a fierce champion of a new and humane code of morality opposed to the cruel practices of his day. He accepted Fet’s words in all their lyric spontaneity—not as a formal declaration, but as an outburst of exalted feeling inspired by the contemplation of the beautiful.

Vladimir Korolenko’s novel Mgnovenie (The Moment) perhaps traces back to one of Fet’s poems. It tells of the escape of a Spanish insurgent from imprisonment in a fort. He succeeds in filing through the bars of his window and crossing the bay in a boat. Fet recounts a similar story in his poem «Uznik» («The Prisoner»), with which Korolenko must have been familiar. As usual, Fet depicts the «significant moment»; in this case, the moment when the prisoner is between bondage and freedom, the bonds almost severed but the flight not yet accomplished. This awareness gives rise to a fleeting sense of exaltation equal to the greatness of the moment.

It is the idea rather than the subject matter that makes Korolenko’s story akin to Fet’s poem, for that idea, as Korolenko himself defined it, is: «one instant of vital living is worth years of mere existing.»[9]

Before the end of the nineteenth century Fet had no avowed followers among poets. To be sure, his kind of imagery, description, and observation is encountered now in one poet, now in another, but this fact does not demonstrate a conscious adoption of his artistic method by any of them. Indeed, his influence is felt more in prose than in poetry.

A great advance in the manner of describing nature was made by Russian prose writers in the second half of the nineteenth century. The great «landscape painters» in prose, Turgenev and Tolstoy, were unsurpassed. Like Fet, they revealed keen powers of observation and described nature in movement, and as seen through the prism of mans psychology. One can find much in common between the works of these two prose writers and Fet the poet, both in their general approach to nature and in the things they chose to depict. Obviously we are speaking here not of any «borrowing» from Fet, but of the similarity of their artistic approach.

When we come to Chekhov’s landscapes, however, Fet’s influence is patent. The writer Trigorin, from Chekhov’s The Seagull, believed he was a born nature writer. «I love that water, the trees, the sky, I have a feeling for nature; she stirs me deeply and rouses in me an irresistible desire to write,» he says. Another character from the play says of him, «Trigorin has worked out his devices.... On his canvas we see the glint of a broken bottle, the black shadow cast by a mill wheel and—there’s a moonlit night for you!»[10]

This laconic method, by means of which a whole scene is suggested by a few well-chosen details acting upon the readers sense of sight, sound, or smell, was introduced into Russian poetry by Fet. It was adapted to prose by Chekhov. Like Fet, Chekhov laid the greatest stress upon brevity, conciseness, economy of means. «I can speak shortly of long things,» he once boasted. A special technique was required for the writing of his stories, whose rich content was conveyed as much by implication as by direct expression.

Like Fet, who compressed an entire landscape into a few lines of poetry by choosing the most vivid and significant details, Chekhov stimulated his readers imagination and powers of observation, teaching them to draw their own conclusions. In The Seagull, Trigorin, a Realistic writer, is contrasted with Treplev, a seeker of new forms leading to Symbolism. Treplev selects his material from the sphere of abstract ideas and embodies them in symbols.

The artistic method of Fet as psychologist and Fet as landscape painter was congenial to Russian Realistic prose writers of the end of the nineteenth century. Chekhov was not alone in adopting Fet’s manner of describing scenery. Many of his contemporaries, especially Ivan Bunin, did the same.

However, Fet’s influence represents only one fine thread in the skein of literary traditions handed down to the twentieth century by the great Russian Realists of the nineteenth. The impulses generated by Fet’s poetry and felt by the writers of later generations were not the most important and determinative; yet, although accepted more slowly and with greater difficulty by poetry than by prose, their influence on the former was more significant.

In the second half of the nineteenth century the development of Russian poetry was influenced mostly by Nekrasov. Social themes, lamentations over the suffering of the common folk by such «peoples» poets as Pyotr Yakubovich, Surikov and Leonid Trefolev, lyrical «monologues of an intellectual killed by his ‘troubled’ times» by Simeon Nadson, stirred young people more deeply than Fet’s reserved and refined lyrics concerned with universal subjects and requiring the reader to make the effort of reading between the lines in order fully to appreciate them. Some of Fet’s poems were memorized, some were set to music and widely sung, yet when students gathered in the evening it was the poems of Nekrasov, Nadson, and Yakubovich that they recited and revolutionary songs by Pyotr Lavrov, Ivan Golts-Miller, Sergey Sinegub and Grigory Machtet that they sang. It was these poets, rather than Fet, who set the fashion in poetry in those days.

By the end of the century, Fet’s influence increased owing to changes in the character of his own poetry, now dominated by philosophical themes, and also owing to the evolution of certain poets away from civil themes to philosophical subjects.

The philosopher and poet Vladimir Solovev, who declared himself a pupil and follower of Fet, transformed certain of Fet’s esthetic pronouncements into universal canons. He looked upon all of the great poets work as the embodiment of the sharp statements Fet had made in the heat of philosophical discussions. The widespread misconception that Fet was a poet who eschewed contemporaneity and addressed himself exclusively and immediately to eternity, can be traced back to Solovev’s interpretation of him.

In 1890 Solovev wrote an article «On Lyric Poetry,» in which he outlined his conception of Fet’s verse. He based his conclusions on what he took to be a similar interpretation of spiritual processes by the mystics, on the one hand, and scientific materialists on the other. The revelation of the subconscious, the expression of an exalted love for woman having nothing in common with sexual attachment, sensitivity to the beauty of nature, and the creation of images conveying «a sense of the mysterious meaning both of human life and of the life of nature»[11]—these, according to Solovev, formed the basic content of Fet’s poetry. Such an interpretation tore the poets roots from the living soil, glossed over his gifts as a psychologist and observer of nature, turned his imagery into the symbolic reflection of «eternal verities,» and transformed the love he felt for a flesh-and-blood woman and the tragedy of losing her (to which no philosophy could reconcile him) into the poetic adoration of abstract Woman.

Such a conception of Fet’s poetry was also congenial to the Symbolists, who «progressed from immediate images, beautiful in themselves, to the abstract ideal concealed within them.»[12] They accepted Fet as one of the precursors of their artistic style, reading symbols into his philosophical and love lyrics to bring them into line with their theories.

Fet’s philosophical poems lent themselves more easily to such a reading than did his love and nature lyrics. The very abstract nature of Fet’s latest poems; the significant use therein of logical concepts often expressed in exalted terms; the abundance of hyperbolic, cosmic imagery as well as of imagery embodying abstract ideas; the recurrence of word-images emotionally and semantically constant in poetry (death, God, nothingness, heaven, stars, sunrise) —these elements established a kinship with the late nineteenth-century poets who, for the development of their own method, had only to renounce the lyrical concreteness of his verse and substitute symbolic matter for its psychological implications.

Even the title of Fet’s last books, Evening Lights, might be understood as symbolic of the withdrawal of his muse and of the eternal light of poetry. This title expressed the principal image; it resembled the imagery of the individual poems in the collections and united them biographically, thematically, and emotionally into what might be accepted as one great cycle.

Collections of poetry with symbolic titles suggesting the themes and the principle uniting the poems were popular at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Evening Lights reveals something about the author—that he is a man in the evening of life—and about the place of these poems in his life—that they are late works. Autobiographical considerations lay at the basis of collections published by Andrey Bely and Valery Bryusov, and their books, too, were given symbolic titles. In a note, «In Lieu of a Preface» introducing Urna (The Urn), Andrey Bely explains the relationship between the titles of his collections Zoloto v lazuri (Gold in the Azure), Pepel (Ashes), and Urna (The Urn)— and the philosophical stage of his development they reflect. Bryusov’s cycles of poetry similarly mirror the periods of intellectual development through which he passed.[13]

Fet’s influence can be sensed in Alexander Blok’s early cycle of poems «Stikhi o Prekrasnoi dame» («About the Lady Beautiful»). While noting this influence, critics point out the fundamental changes wrought in Fet’s themes and imagery by Blok’s «divesting them of their concrete associations and conferring upon them purely symbolic significance.» The poems of the young Blok, unlike Fet’s poems, are purely figurative. In his «Lady Beautiful» poems, Blok develops those enduring word-symbols used throughout his entire work and in every new poem.[14] These words, divorced from their original meaning, become bearers of a new significance.

Working along this line, Blok later reinterpreted Fet’s «Za gran’iu proshlykh let» («Over the Border of the Past»), using these words as the title of one of his late books. He acknowledges having borrowed them from Fet, asserting that they had become «his lodestar.»

Fet’s influence upon Blok is too deep and complex a question to be dismissed simply by citing instances of conscious borrowing or of unconscious duplication. Blok studied Fet carefully. The complete edition of Fet’s works owned by Blok is full of notes and comments in his hand. In this edition we find checks beside certain poems in the index; about a dozen code signs in the text denoting Blok’s response; the underscoring of what Blok felt to be particularly happy or unhappy expressions; and marginal comments on the work of Boris Nikolsky, the editor of this edition. For example, in the foreword to Volume I, Nikolsky writes: «The overwhelming majority of his poems are not only unconnected with social events or even with events in his own life; they might have been written in any country and at any time»—to which Blok exclaims in the margin, «Oh, no!»

Nikolsky’s arbitrary grouping of certain of Fet’s poems under the title of «The Heart» aroused Blok’s indignation, for no such cycle of poems had existed in Fet’s lifetime.

Blok organized his own poems into cycles and assigned great importance to the central image that gave unity to each cycle. In some cases, these images were strikingly like Fet’s, as for instance, his «The Snow Mask,» suggesting Fet’s «Snow,» and «Nightingale Garden,» suggesting Fet’s «The Nightingale and the Rose.» Blok adopted many of Fet’s images, giving them exalted, often mystical, significance. Images from Fet’s «Solovei i roza» («The Nightingale and the Rose») and the expression «the joy of suffering,» from «My Muse» (1887), were accorded symbolic meaning in Blok’s drama The Rose and the Cross. Blok underlined the expression «... sweet-scented sphere» from the poem «Zavtra—ia ne razlichaiu» («Tomorrow—I see No Difference,» ) and «... sweet-smelling sphere» from «Pochemu?» («Why?»). He was impressed by Fets recurrent use of the image of a ring, a circle, a sphere, and used it in his own poems in much the same way, namely, to indicate, a woman’s sphere of influence, her «magnetic field»:

She appeared. Now eclipsed were
All the fair ones, all her friends,
And my heart I knew had entered
The enchanted circle she defined.[15]

Blok, however, did not attach primary importance to the immediate significance of the image as a circle into which one is drawn by the power of another: for him, its chief meaning lay in the chain of associations evoked by the symbolic, even mystical, significance of a circle.

Despite the great difference between the poetic approaches of Blok and Fet[16] it should be noted that Blok, who was more «psychological» than any of the other Russian Symbolists, and who had thoroughly mastered the traditions of Russian Critical Realism of the nineteenth century, had assimilated Fet’s poetry more thoroughly than his contemporaries, and comprehended the older poets achievements more profoundly. He was interested not only in Fet’s philosophical lyrics. He shared with Fet the ability to perceive scarcely perceptible signs of the «flow» of life in nature and at the same time to capture the general tone of a particular landscape. To his successors, Fet revealed possibilities of expanding associations and of complicating psychological relationships by the use of implication. By following and elaborating upon this method, Blok vastly extended its potential and thus enriched the idiom of poetry.

Blok loved the concreteness and vitality of Fet’s poetic allusions and recognized their importance for the further development of poetry. He underlined the third and fourth lines of the first quatrain of «U kamina» («At the Fireplace»), and wrote in the margin: «Andrey Bely traces back to this.»

The firelight is dying. In twilight dusk
The flames translucent flutter,
As flutters the turquoise wing of a moth
Round the scarlet heart of a poppy. (274)

Blok was also keenly sensitive to the psychological portraits of the Russian Hamlet and Ophelia created by Fet. The Hamlet of his own making reflects the personas sense of his tragic ties with history. Blok appreciated Fet’s melancholy, revealing the deep tragedy of a stagnant life:

Stop your grumbling, my purrsome pussy,
As you motionless lie, half asleep.
It is dreary enough without your complaint—
Dreary and cold and dark.
With you not here the stove still stands as it stood,
The window still gapes as it gaped,
And the door and the candle and everything else—
And the same old despair.... (249-50)

If Fet depicts in this poem the dismal routine of one dull day following another (time which is no time), Blok was filled with the horror of one dull year following another, the troubled years:

Night, street, lamppost, drugstore,
Dim and meaningless light.
Given another twenty-five winters,
Nothing will change. No escape.
You die. The cycle begins all over,
Goes on in the same old groove:
Night. The rippling chill of the river,
Lamppost, drugstore, street.[17]

In Blok’s poem, as in Fet’s, the cataloguing of objects typical of the scene creates an image of the eternal, the world «beyond time» surrounding man. In painting such a picture, neither of the poets denied the existence of time, as Fet was sometimes said to do; rather, they expressed their morbid sense of the stoppage of time, and the nightmare this represented for them. Unlike Fet, Blok accepted time as a historical category. Immobility was for him not merely an image of death, but of a «freezing» of society similar to death, though it be but for a time. In his poem Vozmezdie (Vengeance) the period of reaction in the 1880s is seen as a period when the country was hypnotized into troubled, enforced sleep.

Blok’s world was not frozen in time and space. It was swept by the winds of history. Blok was always true to his own artistic method, his own poetic idiom, the course he himself had chosen in literature, and the many quotations from Fet we find in his verse are not the sum of Fet’s influence upon Blok. Fet was not Blok’s teacher, and his poetry was not the source from which the younger genius sprang, but Fet was still one of Blok’s favorite poets, and it with with Blok that the serious and detailed study of Fet’s contribution to Russian poetry began.

Blok appreciated the music of Fet’s poetry. He made use of the stanza structure Fet introduced and of his favorite meters. Konstantin Balmont, Blok’s contemporary, elaborated upon Fet’s use of sound in poetry, making sound one of the main devices for creating the image, but Balmont understood the use of sound as the invention of a series of sounds evoking associations (sound imitation) and the discovery of euphonious combinations, while for Blok, as for Fet, the use of sound was a more abstract and philosophical problem, serving the high purposes of art, and rendering a special service in putting an end to mans sense of isolation.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, the poet-orator, was in every respect the direct antithesis of Fet. An urban writer by conviction, he threw down the gauntlet to his brother poets:

While they are mixing, to the sawing of rhymes,
A brew of roses and nightingales,
The street is writhing without a tongue,
It cannot cry out, it cannot even talk.[18]

In asserting that «the god of the city is tramping over plowed fields, flaying the word,» he made it clear that the day for poetry describing quiet, rural scenes, fenced-in patriarchal homes, and the harmonious merging of man and nature, was over. He believed that the times demanded other imagery and other sounds than the wonderfully harmonious sounds of Fet’s poetry. The new poetry should be set to drums rather than the flute. He declared that Fet’s imagery was «pretty» and over-refined, and that the music of his verse was produced by an artificial selection of sounds. These charges came naturally from one whose world of poetry was so different from Fet’s. And yet Mayakovsky admitted that when he was alone in his study he sometimes immersed himself in the verse of Fet, Tyutchev, and Innokenty Annensky.[19] In other words, Fet was one of Mayakovskys antecedents, too, but one against whom he took up the cudgels. Yet, once when selecting five names representing Russian poetry, Mayakovsky chose Mikhail Lomonosov, Pushkin, Tyutchev, Fet and Nekrasov.[20]

What Mayakovsky found archaic and doomed to extinction in Fet’s poetry other poets of Mayakovsky’s generation found congenial, and they continued the trend notwithstanding the enormous popularity of Mayakovsky, who introduced a new epoch in poetry.

Sergey Esenin, a poet who sang of the village and countryside and was tragically unable to accept urban life, adapted himself in his own way to Fet’s tradition. Like Fet, he built up the image of his native land through scenes of his own home and village. There was, however, a sharp social difference between the picture presented by Esenin, a poet of peasant origin, and Fet the wealthy landowner. This difference is expressed lexically and intonationally, Esenin holding closer to the folklore tradition. The two poets are akin, nonetheless, in their love of the mellow beauty of their native land, their ability to see this beauty in the daily life about them, and their manner of expressing themselves simply and spontaneously. There are instances when Esenin borrows directly from Fet. His «Birch,» for instance, is only a variation on the theme of Fet’s «Sad Is the Birch Beside My Window.»

It is a curious coincidence that both Fet and Esenin make oriental verse the background of poems about the Russian village and countryside, and contrast the passions of the strong, undivided oriental character with the love of «sons of the North» (Fet’s «In Imitation of Oriental Poetry» and Esenin’s «Persian Themes»).

In some respects the poetry of Anna Akhmatova is reminiscent of Fet’s. Strangely enough, Fet often let a woman speak in the first person in his poems. Later, Blok used the same device. Fet’s remarkable understanding of a womans emotional nature must have appealed to female poets, who found in his verse an original interpretation of the feminine lyrical individuality.

Fet’s attitude to his literary calling anticipated Akhmatova’s in many ways. Both brought a high level of literary culture to their labor; both were completely immersed in the world of art; both demanded simplicity, truthfulness, and stern candor in the expression of their emotions, a meticulous selection of artistic means, and the achievement of the greatest possible conciseness. Fet’s description of his muse as «bathed in the air of simplicity» could be as aptly applied to Akhmatova’s. Both poets were imbued with a sense of the lofty and lasting significance of poetry. The affinity between them is made clear by comparing Fets «To My Muse» (1882) with Akhmatova’s «My Muse.» The imagery of the two poems is similar. For both Fet and Akhmatova, the muse was as simple and modest as a shepherdess, yet ruling over a world of stern majesty and demanding self-abnegation and self-sacrifice in her service. Both poems begin with a visit from the modest guest and end in a hymn to her greatness. Fet’s poem opens with the words:

You came and sat beside me. Happy and disturbed,
I murmured softly your caressing stanzas;
And though you may despise my gifts,
No quarrel can you pick with my devotion. ... (301)

Akhmatova’s:

When in the night I await her coming,
My very life seems hanging by a thread.
And what to me is honor, youth, or freedom,
When this sweet maid appears with pipe in hand?
Ah, she has come. Pulling off my blanket,
She looks at me with an attentive eye.
«Was it you,» I, ask, «who did dictate to Dante
His purgatory pages?» «It was I,» is her reply.[21]

Anna Akhmatova belonged to that group of poets at the beginning of the twentieth century who wished to reinstate the world of real objects and plastic forms after their rejection by the Symbolists in favor of abstractions, of the «essence,» rather than its objective image. She deliberately took up and further developed the traditions of classical verse. Her delicate miniatures describing the beauties of the lakes and oak woods of Tsarskoe Selo, or giving expression to moments of poetic meditation, or recounting the loveliness of antique statues, undoubtedly reflect Pushkin’s influence, but Akhmatova did not ignore Fet’s achievements in the anthological form. Her poem «Tsarskosel’skaia statuia» («A Statue in Tsarskoe Selo»), was written in response to Pushkin’s classical quatrain of the same name and was inspired by the same statue; indeed, Akhmatova addresses Pushkin in her poem. And yet the structure of the verse owes more to Fet’s «Diana» than to Pushkin’s poem. She draws a picture of the statue at the edge of a pool surrounded by trees, and voices the «vague fear» inspired in her by the contemplation of the maidens «eternal youth,» the deathlessness denied the living. The last lines of the poem: «Look, she rejoices in her sorrow, / So elegant in her nudity»[22] have little in common with Pushkin’s style, but might almost have been written by Fet, expressing as they do a penchant for paradox characteristic of him («rejoices in her sorrow»; «so elegant in her nudity»).

Akhmatova wrote two poems called «On Reading Hamlet,» in which she presents an Ophelia strong in character, as opposed to Hamlet, and one who appropriates his aphorisms. This Ophelia is a far cry from Fet’s, and we have no grounds for accusing Akhmatova of imitating the older poet, but the very fact of her having treated the same theme demonstrates the continuity of the tradition descending through Fet to Akhmatova.

The image of the willow tree, symbol of femininity and of Fet’s sad Northern homeland, as expressed in his poem «To Ophelia,» became one of Akhmatova’s favorite images. She juxtaposed the confusion and conflict of her inner world with the beauty and harmony of Pushkin’s ideal man, and this juxtaposition, counteracting the subjectivity and pain of her emotions, conferred upon them a stern, poetic loftiness.

Akhmatova’s mastery in expressing complicated emotions in simple and modest terms, as well as her command of slight forms whose themes are enriched by implication and association, made her a true follower of Fet. She was, however, much more than a follower: she was an original poet in her own right, who was able to cull what her talent required from the rich store left by this representative of nineteenth-century poetry.

Fet’s influence on contemporary Soviet literature can be seen in the work of such nature poets as Nikolay Zabolotsky and Boris Pasternak, and even in that of more youthful writers.

Fet continues to live in literature. His poems are read; he teaches others to see the world around them and to love it— to love it because it is life itself. The new poets commune with Fet and often argue with him fiercely as they formulate their own artistic credos.



[1] I. G. Iampol’skii, « Poeziia shestidesiatykh godov (obshchii obzor),» Istoriia russkoi literatury (Moscow-Leningrad, 1956), VIII, 17-22; L. Ginzburg, O lirike (Moscow-Leningrad, 1964), pp. 250-83.

[2] Bukhshtab, pp. 77-78; Gromov, «A. A. Fet,» pp. 45-49; L. M. Lotman, «Liricheskaia i istoricheskaia poeziia 50-70-kh godov,» Istoriia russkoi poezii (Leningrad, 1969), II, 136-37.

[3] Gustafson, p. 15.

[4] P. Gromov, Geroi i vremia (Leningrad, 1961), p. 404.

[5] Fet, Moi vospominaniia, I, 7.

[6] I. Z. Surikov i poety-surikovtsy (Moscow-Leningrad, 1966), p. 113.

[7] Vol’naia russkaia poeziia vtoroi poloviny XIX veka (Leningrad, 1959), p. 358.

[8] M. Gor’kii, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1951), XIII, 352, 357-58.

[9] Korolenko, II, 398.

[10] A. P. Chekhov, Sochineniia (Moscow, 1948), II, 167, 189.

[11] V. S. Solov’ev, Sobranie sochinenii (St. Petersburg, 1901), VI, 235.

[12] K. D. Bal’mont, Gornye vershiny (Moscow, 1904), I, 94.

[13] See L. Ginzburg, O lirike (Moscow-Leningrad, 1964), p. 272.

[14] Ibid., pp. 280-83.

[15] A. Blok, Sobranie sochinenii (Moscow-Leningrad, 1960), II, 254. Cited below as: Blok.

[16] See P. Gromov, Blok, ego predshestvenniki i sovremenniki (Leningrad, 1966), pp. 18-31.

[17] Blok, III, 37.

[18] V. Maiakovskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii (Moscow, 1955), I, 181.

[19] Ibid., 1, 112.

[20] Ibid., XII, 388.

[21] A. Akhmatova, Beg vremeni (Moscow-Leningrad, 1965), p. 254.

[22] Ibid., p. 124.