Although Boris Pasternak would refuse to equate music with poetry, his verse is inseparable from the music it embodies. D. L. Plank has studied the music of Pasternak in great detail and speaks of his “sound symbolism” and “phonetic metaphors.” With its unusual rhythms and internal rhymes, alliteration, and evocative word patterns, Pasternak’s poetry has a resonance that most translators have despaired of capturing. At all times he uses classical patterns and regular meters, never attempting the free verse of the Futurists, whose daring use of vocabulary, however, he does share. Perhaps one of the best examples of Pasternak’s sound patterns is “Oars at Rest,” brilliantly analyzed by Plank and Nils Nilsson.
It is not surprising that Pasternak’s last work should be called Zhivago, which means “life,” for his entire literary creation is a celebration of life. In My Sister, Life, he wrote, “In all my ways let me pierce through into the very essence. . . .” Although his sensitive nature suffered greatly during the personal and national upheavals in which he participated, he was basically positive and optimistic, a poet of hope and exultation. He frequently wrote of birth; one of his volumes of verse is titled Second Birth; the sight of the Urals for the first time is the vision of the great mountains in the pangs of childbirth and joy of new life. He frequently wrote of the change of seasons, implying life and death, growth and change. The religious poems of the Zhivago cycle lead to the Resurrection, the ultimate symbol of life and hope.
Nature is the subject of the majority of Pasternak’s poems. Poet Marina Tsvetayeva said: “We have written about nature, but Pasternak has written nature.” Nature is the actor in his poems, the doer, the hero. Traditional roles are reversed: the garden comes into the house to meet the mirror (“Mirror”); “Dust gulps down the rain in pellets” (“Sultry Night”); young woods climb uphill to the summit (“Vision of Tiflis”). Pasternak became the river or the mountain or the snow. He captured nature on the move. For him, says Payne, “All that happened was eternally instantaneous.”
Pasternak lived in a world of linden trees and grasses, lilacs and violets, herbs and nettles. They were personified and became the poet and time and life. “Today’s day looks about with the eyes of anemones” (“You in the Wind . . .”); “The storm, like a priest, sets fire to the lilacs” (“Our Thunderstorm”). Lilacs and linden trees seemed to have a mysterious but definite significance for him. Most of nature entered his works through rain or snow. Poet Tsvetayeva said that the entire book My Sister, Life swims. The mere titles of the poems reveal this love of rain: “Rain,” “Spring Rain,” “The Weeping Garden.” The same theme is evident in When the Skies Clear, but here snow dominates. There are blizzards, blinding snow, like the passing of the years, but also “Flowers covered with surprise;/ Corners where the crossroads rise,” for Pasternak was essentially a poet of hope, and for him drenching rains and snowy winters were signs of life and growth.
Life for Pasternak was inseparable from love. My Sister, Life evokes a tumultuous love affair. Second Birth is the story of his love for Zinaïda Nikolaevna, with regrets and admiration for Evgenia Vladimirovna. The poems of the Zhivago cycle probably refer to Ivinskaya in the person of Lara. Pasternak seldom wrote of love in explicit terms but used rhythm and metonomy: the sleepy breast, elbows, willows (“Oars at Rest”); crossed arms and legs (“Winter Night”). Like Stéphane Mallarmé, Pasternak frequently combined love and artistic creation, especially in his earlier works.
Pasternak’s early method is associative and linear. Many brief themes follow in rapid succession, with only a tenuous link, if any. Lezhnev observes that Pasternak, like an Impressionist painter, was a better colorist than draftsman. In the early works, images cascade and overwhelm one another and the reader. “Definition of Poetry” moves from the crescendo of a whistle to a ringing icicle to a duel between nightingales. Andrei Sinyavsky notes that for Pasternak, the poet does not compose or write images; he gathers them from nature. The young Pasternak was overwhelmed by all that he saw in nature, and his early works are saturated with such imagery.
The religious theme is barely present in Pasternak’s earlier works, which seem like a pantheistic celebration of nature. Even in When the Skies Clear, humanity’s creative power is seen in the might of the elements (“Wind”). In the Zhivago cycle, however, the spiritual element dominates, corresponding to a maturing and broadening of Pasternak’s talent as well as to an inner conversion. This development has been interpreted as a poetic conversion to another set of images, but it is evident that Pasternak’s values have moved to another sphere. He reaches a metaphysical and spiritual plane that uplifts the reader and draws him into an atmosphere of hope and immortality.
My Sister, Life
My Sister, Life (or Sister My Life, as Phillip Flayderman prefers in his translation) consists of fifty short lyrics written by Pasternak in a single burst of creative energy in the summer of 1917. It was his third volume of verse, and his first really great poetic achievement, immediately establishing his reputation. In it, Pasternak writes of life, love, and nature in a cosmic yet a very personal sense. The book is dedicated to Mikhail Lermontov, the great nineteenth century Russian poet whom Pasternak greatly admired, and the first poem recalls Lermontov’s magnificent Demon (1841; The Demon, 1875). Pasternak himself states that in the summer of 1917, Lermontov was to him “the personification of creative adventure and discovery, the principle of everyday free poetical statement.” The book is broken up by twelve subtitles, such as “Isn’t It Time for the Birds to Sing,” “Occupations of Philosophy,” “An Attempt to Separate the Soul,” and “Epilogue,” which give only a slight indication of the contents of the respective sections.
The summer of 1917 was unlike any other in Pasternak’s lifetime or in Russian history. It was the summer between the February and October revolutions, when Pasternak returned to Moscow, near which, at the family dacha at Molodi, he composed the poems of this cycle. There is scarcely an echo of revolutionary events in the whole volume, yet Pasternak calls it “A Book of the Revolution.” Tsvetayeva discerned “a few incontrovertible signs of 1917” in “The Sample,” “Break-up,” “The Militiaman’s Whistle,” “A Sultry Night,” and the poem to Aleksandr Kerensky, “Spring Rain.” Robert Payne sees the entire volume as poems “filled with...
(The entire section is 2890 words.)