Boris Pasternak World Literature Analysis
Pasternak’s creative work is traditionally divided into two periods, with the break coming around 1932-1934. In the earlier period, he was a full-fledged member of a school of writing that demanded innovation in poetic form above all. Innovation could come at the price of obscure or difficult work. In the later period, Pasternak openly repudiated much of his earlier work, claiming that it had been unnecessarily obscure, and that simplicity and clarity were indispensable characteristics of all meaningful writing.
In the years before World War I, Pasternak took part in the heated arguments among Russia’s poets about the future of art. Like mathematicians of the late nineteenth century, who had started to examine shapes that exist not in three but in four or more dimensions, or atomic physicists who claimed that matter is made up of many essentially empty submicroscopic particles, poets and other artists no longer felt that merely reproducing the outward appearances of things, the goal of realism, was an ambitious enough task. Pasternak for a time was drawn to the Futurists, a group of poets who believed that the so-called great writers of the past should be discarded along with their way of writing poetry. In Russia, this would mean the end of well-wrought lyrical sentiments or philosophical statements expressed in elegantly rhymed and measured verses. Pasternak was especially drawn to one of the leaders of the Futurists, Vladimir Mayakovsky, who by 1913 was already known in Russia for his flamboyant personal behavior and extravagantly egocentric poetry filled with stunning metaphors and exaggerated emotion. Pasternak soon decided to follow his own path, yet with the Futurists he learned to regard poetry as the free manipulation of the material of language, undertaken to explore truths beyond the logical definitions of words.
There were personal as well as historical reasons for the daunting complexity of Pasternak’s early writing. His early interest in philosophy had led him to some unconventional ideas about what are normally accepted as givens, such as the relationship between cause and effect. This extended to artistic creation as well. Very early in his career, Pasternak became convinced that poems found their author and not the other way around. For him and his contemporaries as for the Romantic writers in the nineteenth century, the world was teeming with symbols, not merely lofty, conventionally poetic ones, but emphatically mundane ones that pressed themselves on the receptive mind of the poet and served to uncover the secret connection of all things in the world. When he wrote in one poem that poetry is “a night that covers leaves in hoarfrost,” he meant that such nights are true poetry in themselves as well as signs showing the inner workings of poetry. Both were things of fragile beauty wrought in the cold and dark where they must remain or else melt away and disappear.
At the same time he believed that the poetic mind itself reverses the usual causal order and brings about changes in reality by mere perception. He wrote in his first autobiography, Safe Conduct, that in art there is “a record of a shift in reality brought on by emotion.” Emotions cause the connections between a word and its logical meanings to weaken. Suddenly the similarities in the sound of two words shows them closer together than previously realized. In his rhymes and other sound repetitions (assonances and alliterations), Pasternak is a master at revealing these striking, multilayered similarities. In one poem he explores in a single line the suggestive sound patterning and logical connections in the Russian words for “tear,” “blind,” “dry,” and “salt”: slyezy, slyepa, vysyxli, and sol, though the line itself seems a puzzle, the solution of which is just out of reach: “Salt went blind. And tears dried.”
Many passages of Pasternak’s earlier writing will show the reader this kind of splintered world, the parts of which seem to have nothing in common. Often the reader must put the poet-perceiver back into the middle of this maelstrom of perceptions to glean sense. In Pasternak’s prose, for example, the word “however” is used to join two notions that have no other discernable connection than that they have occurred to the same person. For this reason the great Russian language theorist Roman Jakobson said that Pasternak’s work depends more than most writing on metonymy, that is, the relationship of things by their physical contiguity. A character in a story may, for example, think of two disparate events or objects otherwise unrelated to one another. There is great humanizing power to this approach in that, in this way, Pasternak continually underscores the uniqueness of the experience of every sentient being. This uniqueness of perception (and therefore experience) is crucial for people caught up in the mass destruction of war, civil strife, and Soviet collectivization of everything from farms to poetry cafés.
It was the abject ugliness of Soviet life that set Pasternak, in the second half of his life, to consider the link between a sense of beauty and moral behavior. He evolved the notion, set forth in living detail in Doctor Zhivago, that poetry, in seeking to show the contiguities that link objects and ideas, is a moral act. It is an expression of faith in the worthiness of this world and a belief that unifying love is stronger than forces that demand murder of one’s enemies or, failing that, suicide.
“Definition of Poetry”
First published: “Opredelenie poezii,” 1922 (collected in My Sister, Life, 1964)
Type of work: Poem
In a list of oblique but revealing intuitions, a word painting of poetry’s nature takes shape.
This poem appears in Pasternak’s My Sister, Life, a collection of poems that is among his most popular with Russian readers. It is placed at the beginning of a section of the book called “An Exercise in Philosophy,” but it has little in common with abstract thinking about art.
The outer form of “Definition of Poetry” is conventional: four four-line stanzas. Each line is made up of three...
(The entire section is 2557 words.)