Study Guide

Boris Pasternak

Boris Pasternak Essay - Pasternak, Boris (Vol. 18)

Pasternak, Boris (Vol. 18)

J. W. Dyck

Pasternak's claim for art is that of simplicity and clarity. The right choice of rhyme, rhythm, and meter, the right poetic techniques in general: all this he recognizes as of great importance. But of even greater consequences are the powers of language. (p. 56)

The forces which control the artist cannot always be explained, and Pasternak's protagonist, Yury Zhivago, had experienced, in Varykino, that during the creative moment "the ascendancy is no longer with the artist or the state of mind which he is trying to express, but with language, his instrument of expression."… Both the state of mind which is longing for form and the instrument of expression play an important role in Pasternak's poetic process; and in his art, in his poetry, in real art, content and form flow into one. (p. 57)

Pasternak's poetic history can be divided into four major periods. Between his first book, [The Twin in the Clouds (Bliznets v Tuchakh)] (1914), and the fourth, [Themes and Variations (Temyi Variatsii)] (1923), Pasternak travelled a long and difficult road on which many personal and social obstacles had to be overcome. It was a period in search of independent creativity, a quest for self-determination. (p. 59)

The title, The Twin in the Clouds, Pasternak recalls, was chosen "in imitation of the cosmological obscurities of the booktitles of the Symbolists …"….

Sadness and tears are the poet's steady companions, and in nature he finds comfort, because in nature's arbitrariness he recognizes an equal, a twin to his genius, that creates aimlessly…. (p. 60)

The early poems betray an especially outspoken anthropomorphic tendency. In the third poem of this early cycle, the poet refers to sadness and to himself as partners in one and the same campaign. But not only are abstractions animated, objects and things also are alive and conversant. Courtyards think, houses grow higher, and life itself is the backbone of Pasternak's early crusade. (pp. 60-1)

By writing the poems of The Twin in the Clouds, Pasternak tried to free himself from the torments which time and experience had placed upon him….

The torments of personal passion are also the major theme of the book [Above the Barriers (Poverkh barierov)]. In Safe Conduct, Pasternak tells us which forces had been active in shaping this, his second book. Time and influences, Pasternak reminisces, bound him to Mayakovsky, and although he realized that they had much in common, he could not adopt Mayakovsky's heroic style. (p. 61)

Most poems of this cycle that precede "Marburg" deal with the agonies of a tormented mind or, on an allegorical scale, depict the heart and soul of Russia's prerevolutionary years. Thus, the grand theme of Above the Barriers is that of mental and spiritual strife. The main hero, a mental traveller, through contemplation, willpower, and art, frees his mind and finally, at least in his imagination, rises above all barriers. This is the message of Pasternak's poetry between 1914 and 1917. (p. 62)

The poem "Marburg" stands at the end of a long mental and spiritual journey, at the end of a search for an individual view of life in which the poetic "I" has to learn to overcome, above all, his own ego. Once freed of himself and from the tentacles of external torments, man's mind and soul shall forever stand above all barriers. Pasternak's time of poetic experimentation had come to an end. With the publication of Above the Barriers, he was firmly on his way to carve his own niche in the literary movements of his time. With his next book, in 1922, Pasternak took his place within the ranks of the best recognized lyric poets of the twentieth century. Whereas the years between 1912 and 1916 can be considered Lehrjahre, richly sprinkled with Symbolist and Futurist chatter and dark aspects of speech, the two cycles [My Sister, Life (Sestra Moyazhizn)] and Themes and Variations established his poetics. (p. 64)

[Social] and political themes are not central in these early cycles, and yet, Pasternak calls My Sister, Life a book of the Revolution. Not a single poem of My Sister, Life deals directly with political events. Neither can we find described in it the individual episodes of which there are so many in Doctor Zhivago or even in his earlier prose. But in most of Pasternak's poems of My Sister, Life and Themes and Variations the pulsation of the Revolutionary epoch can be felt very strongly. (p. 66)

Most poems of My Sister, Life and of Themes and Variations are filled with [a] mood of spiritual emptiness and unfulfillment. (p. 68)

For Pasternak, the experience of life's everyday details had become history, and he reproduced best the fusion of time and history in the above two cycles both by expressing his own feelings and emotions and through description of unnoticeable motions in nature. Life's details are for Pasternak the essence of life, and by unifying essence, the realities of the immediate with the eternal in his poetry, even Pasternak's early poetry transcends his "many and highly unorthodox attempts to define poetry and the creative process." The many inexplicable images in Pasternak's early poetry become more accessible if it is realized that his entire early poetry is guided by the organizing principle of metonymy in which the poet is inclined to ignore distinct dividing lines between characteristics of accepted concepts and conventional descriptions of things. (pp. 69-70)

[The High Malady (Vysokaya bolesn)], the first of Pasternak's four epics, essentially relates how a poet observes and reflects the action of people, events, and the changing realities which took place immediately after the Revolution of 1917, even though Pasternak wrote the poem several years afterward. A true epic poem in imitation of the classical epics on Troy (we read in the beginning of The High Malady) can be written only after "years pass away—and all is in shadow." However, the poet speaks with tongue-in-cheek when he laments his own music which is still with him "in an age that casts such shadows." Perhaps he too should have become a man of action, but instead he and his fellow poets had conceived the passion for free story telling during the years of the Revolution. Pasternak deplores the fact that the limitations on the freedom of creativity have become too apparent. The official point of view is decreed, and all trespasses will be forgiven to him who adjusts and paves his verse accordingly. (p. 70)

The High Malady is ambiguous not only in title, but also in content. (p. 71)

[The Year 1905 (Devyatsot Pyaty God)] is an epic reflection of events which influenced Pasternak for the rest of his life…. The poem, however, goes beyond a mere account of historical events or particular incidents which remain especially engraved in the memory of the poet…. Now he is very much concerned with capturing the spirit of the time…. (pp. 72-3)

As was the case in The High Malady, here too the author begins the poem with an introduction in which he defines more precisely than ever before his subject, which is the Revolution, and with its allusions to the Joan of Arc of the Siberian convicts, he suggests—without inflicting on the reader a restricted point of view—the mood and spirit of the poem. The pluralistic titles of individual chapters in the poem, such as "The Fathers," "Students," "Peasants and People in Factories," or the "Mutiny on the Sea," and "Moscow in December," are an attempt to obliterate the distinct contours of the individual, and place time itself as the central hero of the poem. (p. 73)

Lieutenant Schmidt is the second ideological poem which deals with the Revolution of 1905. Contrary to The Year 1905, it is concerned with only one episode, the mutiny on the battleship "Potyomkin," and is generally less lyrical in style than his previous work. Nevertheless, the poem makes possible two stylistic approaches: narrative and dialogue alternate throughout the poem, and the narrations of the poem have not lost the lyric power of the early Pasternak. (p. 74)

[As] simple as the plot of [the poem] may seem, the problems posed by Schmidt's willingness for self-sacrifice are more complex than any expressed thought in the poem The Year 1905. The problem of self-sacrifice also foreshadows Pasternak's greatest concern in his later poems and in Doctor Zhivago. Schmidt's final defense is a masterpiece and, linked with the author's ideology and expressed in poetic form, it is at the same time a statement of faith and prophecy….

Spectorsky is the last of the four epic poems….

The poem's beginning reminds us of Goethe's "Zueignung" in Faust. The author of Spectorsky, too, begins to write his poem at a moment when leisure had returned, and, as he reminisces he begins to write blindly. At the same time, he cultivates friendship with an unforgettable girl from Moscow. (p. 75)

Pasternak's main concern is not so much the relationship of two people overcome by passionate love, but the power of love itself. (p. 76)

[The three incidents in the poem] make neither a good story nor trace fully the spiritual life of either Spectorsky or, as it may be, of his creator. But it is the poet's attempt to fuse personal experience with the labyrinth of happenings and events. Experienced history reflected through the prism of a poet's life is Pasternak's major concern in this autobiographical novel in verse. The separate incidents, as chosen by the poet, exemplify that under whichever circumstances life may seem to end, in reality it only changes directions and in doing so assures itself of eternal renewal….

Spectorsky is, as we see it, a very modern character. Through him Pasternak posed the ever-growing problem of how an individual, initially in sympathy with a given ideology, is in danger of gradually being conditioned for spiritual submission to a reality which no longer reflects the truth as originally understood. Total spiritual submission, for Pasternak, was synonymous with total nakedness. Spectorsky had to remain unfinished because its creator was not ready for this nakedness.

The epic poems constitute a crossroad in Pasternak's poetic development…. Pasternak's later poetry, as we will see, displays greater simplicity and is more transparent in style and theme. (p. 77)

Eternal femininity and passion rival each other in the poetry of [Second Birth (Vtoroe rozhdenie)]. The poet's everpresent feeling of guilt sets the mood in the very first poem of this cycle. (p. 79)

Although the group of poems under the collective title "Waves" is concerned with each of the three major themes—love, Socialism, and nature—love, with its longings and passions as opposed to reasoning, is the strongest poetic energy and dominates almost each poem of the entire cycle. (p. 80)

In the poems of Second Birth, the author's views on society are often interwoven with personal concerns, and nature is always the teacher. Forest, mountains, the sea, and the sky are major, recurring images in this cycle. In Poem V of "Volny," the forest in spring is the great example from which man and society can learn. Each year a forest renews itself without external help, without taking from others….

Self-renewal is the key to continuity, and simplicity is the basic prerequisite in the process of renewal. The second to last poem of "Volny" speaks of an unheard simplicity which alone can procure the future. With this call for simplicity in expression and style, Second Birth becomes a crossroad in Pasternak's development as an artist, as the background of this poetry had been a crossroad in Pasternak's personal life. The two ballads of the cycle are symbolic of the two women [his first and second wives] who, the poet realizes, release energies within him which are opposed to each other. (p. 81)

Toward the end of the cycle, the poet's love, his poetry, and nature merge into one single "Thou" and thus they make true communication possible and meaningful….

Faith in the future is the final phase of a hopeful melody of Second Birth. (p. 82)

[The poems in On Early Trains (Na Rannikh Poezdakh)] were written either in the year 1936 or 1941…. [In] spite of his withdrawal from the literary scene, the poet was deeply concerned with the fate of Soviet art, with his immediate surroundings in Peredelkino and in Moscow, and with the war. (pp. 84-5)

Pasternak's poems are now dominated by the immediate and the concrete. He tells us about the people with whom he makes his short train hikes from Peredelkino to Moscow and back. (p. 85)

Pasternak's poems of the war months breathe patriotism and are full of awe before the greatness of history and its heroes. The enemy, in his reckless despotism, is likened to Herod in Jerusalem, men and women of besieged cities are proclaimed as heroes, and the nation's will, not that of the state, is transformed into an ever-growing force and final victory. (p. 86)

[The] poems of [Spacious Earth (Zemnoy Prostor)] were written in the years 1943 and 1944. They are...

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Marina Tsvetaeva

Whom does Pasternak address? Pasternak speaks to himself. One even wishes to say, in his own presence, as in the presence of a tree or a dog, that is in the presence of one who does not betray. The reader of Pasternak is prying, he is peeping. This is felt by everyone. The reader is peeping not into Pasternak's room (what is he doing there?) but under his very skin, under his ribs (what is being done to him there?). Try as he might (as Pasternak already did for many years) to come out of himself, to address himself to these or those people (or even all of them), try as he might to say it, whatever he says is invariably not it. What is even more important he speaks to nobody. For what he speaks are his thoughts aloud,...

(The entire section is 1475 words.)

Rosette C. Lamont

Although the Zhivago poems of the American edition of Pasternak's novel are not numbered, it is interesting to note that "Fairy Tale" ("Skazka" in the original), central as it is to both the Appendix and the events of the novel, is the thirteenth of twenty-five poems left by the hero, Yuri Zhivago, as his testament. It is in fact at Lara's urging that the poet decides to record some of the work she has heard him recite. This takes place on the second and third night of the couple's stay at Varykino, a period of thirteen days stolen out of time, out of History. "Fairy Tale" is a deeply personal message to Lara, yet it is so devoid of "romantic morbidity" as to yield "to a broad and serene vision that [lifts] the...

(The entire section is 1742 words.)

Irene Masing-Delic

The last chapter of Boris Pasternak's novel Doctor Zhivago consists of a cycle of twenty-five poems…. These poems express the quintessence of Zhivago's life experience and the insights he has reached in the course of events described in the prose part of the novel. Whereas in the prose Zhivago's life is narrated and forms a part of a larger context, in the poetry it is he himself who, in his capacity of poet, is the sole "central intelligence." This does not mean that Zhivago's existential attitudes are immediately and directly revealed in the last lyrical chapter, in spite of the formal simplicity of the poems. Their meaning is hidden in certain key images and concepts, and in the very structure of separate...

(The entire section is 2042 words.)