Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2890
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 electric excitement of those days.” The rhythm begins softly, as in “The Weeping Garden,” and ends in stifling heat and thunderstorms, as in “Summer,” “A Momentary Thunderstorm Forever,” and “At Home.”
Many of the poems refer directly to a love affair: stormy, tumultuous, and at times tender. Pasternak does not reveal the person or the circumstances but simply portrays the emotional impact. He does this mostly through images of nature and sonorous evocations that defy translation. The significance of the images is intensely personal, and although the sensitive reader can feel the emotion and identify with it, he cannot interpret it. There are playful and sensual images (“Your lips were violets”) as well as serious ones: “You handed me life from the shelf,/ And blew the dust away” (“Out of Superstition”). The love affair seems to end on a note of farewell, like a song that has been sung and a moment immortalized in poetry.
As is usual in Pasternak’s early poetry, images of nature saturate each poem. Gardens (especially drenched in rain), lilac branches, summer storms, and starry skies run through most of the poems. Pasternak does not create them; he gathers them up from the universe in a net as a fisherman gathers his fish. He does not evoke them; he becomes the river or the storm or the rain. There is a cosmic quality about his nature imagery which excites and exalts. At the same time, Pasternak uses simple conversational language. He writes of mosquitoes and cafés and trolleys along with more exotic themes. The short prose work “The Childhood of Liuvers” has been considered to be a companion piece to My Sister, Lifea nd thus helps to clarify some of the more enigmatic images that many critics, including Pasternak’s sister Lydia, see as “too complicated, too cryptic, with too many escapes into the brilliance of sound and word.”
If there is a philosophical message in these early works, it is the absolute value of freedom. Pasternak remains above political involvement and above conventional images. Like Lermontov, he seeks sensual freedom as well. He expresses freedom in language as he creates new melodies independent of ordinary vocabulary and syntax. Although Pasternak had not yet achieved the realism of Pushkin’s imagery, with its universal application, his subjective boldness stands out in My Sister, Life as a new and fresh voice in Russian poetry.
Pasternak’s greatest achievement is in lyric poetry, but in the 1920’s, he attempted four longer poems of epic scope dealing with the Revolution. They are High Malady, The Year 1905, Lieutenant Schmidt, and Spektorsky—the latter was left unfinished. Although all these poems have the narrative quality that Pasternak was to develop in his prose works, they are colored predominantly by his lyricism and emotional response.
High Malady is the only epic directly connected with the Revolution. It is a debate about the nature of poetry, “the high malady that is still called song,” and Moscow under Bolshevik rule. Under the shadow of the siege of Troy, Pasternak speaks of the suffering in Moscow during the early 1920’s: the cold winter, the lack of food, the imminence of death. Into this somber atmosphere, he introduces Vladimir Lenin (Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov), whose “living voice pierced [us] with encircling flames like jagged lightning.” He grows taller, his words are like the thrust of a sword, as alone “he ruled the tides of thought.” Lenin is one with history and brings hope to the suffering people.
The Year 1905
The Year 1905 is retrospective of twenty years, written by Pasternak in 1925 to 1926. As a young student, he had participated in some of the Moscow demonstrations in 1905, and the recollection remained with him all his life. The poem consists of six parts, of unequal lengths and varying meters. The first part, “Fathers,” goes back to the roots of the Revolution in the 1880’s, grouping together such diverse people as the anarchist Sergey Nechayev and the great novelist Fyodor Dostoevski. Part 2, “Childhood,” is partially autobiographical and contains reminiscences of Pasternak’s own student days, his father’s study, and the music of Aleksandr Scriabin. Against a background of snow, Pasternak fuses and confuses events in both St. Petersburg (or Petrograd) and Moscow, as he is spiritually present in both. The third part, “Peasants and Factory Workers,” short and perhaps the least successful, describes the Polish insurrection at Lodz.
Part 4 describes the mutiny at sea aboard the Prince Potemkin. With classical overtones recalling Homer, Pasternak salutes the sea. With classical reticence, he avoids the direct description of violence. The hero, Afanasy Matushenko, is described in larger-than-life proportions, and as the section ends, the ship sails away “like an orange-colored speck.” Part 5, “The Students,” tells of the funeral procession of Nikolai Baumann, killed by an agent of the secret police. In the tone of a lament, Pasternak writes: “The heavens slept plunged in a silver forest of chrysanthemums.” The last part, “Moscow in December,” speaks of the famous strike of the railwaymen. Pasternak himself was very moved by this event and, perhaps in memory of it, frequently used the image of railways in his poetry. The entire poem is powerful in its lyricism, but, as J. W. Dyck observes, it is too diffuse and lacks a central focus.
Lieutenant Schmidt remedies this problem by evoking a single subject. Lieutenant Schmidt was a historical personage who led a mutiny among the sailors at Sebastopol and almost single-handedly seized one battleship. Ten other ships had already joined him when he was captured and condemned. His famous “Testament,” in which he speaks about cherishing his country’s destiny and sees himself as “happy to have been chosen,” is one of the most sublime parts of the entire poem.
Spektorsky was never completed, but Pasternak planned it as a novel in verse. It is highly autobiographical and tells of the unsuccessful love affair of Olga and Spektorsky and his later meeting with her while she was a revolutionary. A second love affair, with the poetess Maria Ilyna, is equally disappointing. The poem is also symbolic of the spiritual submission of the poet, not yet characteristic of Pasternak. It reflects independence in the face of any given ideology. The handling of plot in Spektorsky is unsure, but the poem does present a very modern character and shows the development of Pasternak’s lyric gifts.
The Poems of Doctor Zhivago
Although the epic poems do not constitute the highest form of Pasternak’s literary expression, they pleased the general public because of their accessibility. They also show the fusion of Pasternak’s lyric and narrative skills, anticipating the achievement of Doctor Zhivago. In his I Remember, Pasternak describes Doctor Zhivago as “my chief and most important work, the only one I am not ashamed of and for which I can answer with the utmost confidence, a novel in prose with a supplement in verse.” The essential connection between the poetry and prose is evident to the sensitive reader, for Pasternak intended the poems to constitute the seventeenth and final chapter of his work. Donald Davie, Dmitri Obolensky, and George Katkov, among others, have provided valuable commentaries in English that help to interpret the poems and show their link with the novel.
The Poems of Doctor Zhivago represents the most mature phase of Pasternak’s poetry. The musical quality is important here, as in all his works. The poems are inherently religious, a fact recognized by the editors of Novy Mir, who refused to print them. They speak of life and death, love and immortality, within a framework of the four seasons. The year begins in March, with a promise of spring, and ends with Holy Thursday and the hope of resurrection. The cycle begins and ends with Gethsemane and emphasizes the mission of Christ, of Hamlet, and of the poet “to do the will of him who sent me.”
Obolensky divides the poems into three basic categories or themes: nature, love, and the author’s views on the meaning and purpose of life. Although each of the twenty-five poems fits one of these categories better than the others, they overlap and the division is not absolute. The nature poems speak of all the seasons, but spring predominates: “March,” “Spring Floods,” “In Holy Week,” “The Earth,” and the religious poems that conclude the cycle. The nightingale, so frequent in Pasternak’s poetry, is present here, and appears as the Robber-Nightingale of Russian folklore in “Spring Floods.” The poems of spring point to the Resurrection, where “death finds its only vanquishing power.”
The love poems are among the most intense in modern literature, yet they are remarkable for their restraint. The many women whom Pasternak knew and loved in his lifetime inspired the poems, yet there is a universality that applies to all human love, sublimated in the divine. The erotic “Intoxication,” the tender “Meeting,” and the mysterious “White Night” speak variously of the poet’s passion. Perhaps the most successful is “Winter Night,” which, by delicate repetitions of words and sounds (especially the letter e), by metonymic suggestions, and by the central image of the candle burning in a window, suggests the fateful passion and the consuming possession of love.
The love poems move imperceptibly into the religious cycle and form a part of it, underlining the deeply spiritual aspect of love and the ultimate meaning of life for Pasternak. “Christmas Star” introduces the series and recalls a medieval Russian icon and a Russian version of the Dutch Adoration of the Magi alluded to in Safe Conduct, Pasternak’s first autobiography. “Daybreak” is addressed to Christ and emphasizes the importance of the New Testament to Pasternak, like a dawn in his own life. The other religious poems refer to the liturgical texts used in the Holy Week services in the Orthodox Church. They end with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane and complete the cycle of death and resurrection, destruction and creation, sin and redemption—for Zhivago is a sinful man, yet one who has faith in life.
The Poems of Doctor Zhivago is a work of extraordinary simplicity. The use of religious imagery raises the poems above the purely personal symbols of My Sister, Life. Although Pasternak makes no effort to repeat the verbal brilliance and intricate sound patterns of his early years, the rhythm is clear and resonant. Each poem has a central focus around which the images converge. The cycle itself centers on the person of Hamlet, whom Pasternak considers to be a heroic figure, symbolizing Christ and, ultimately, resurrection. Pasternak’s basic optimism, his celebration of life and exaltation of love, have their finest expression in this cycle of poems.
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