Elisaveta (also Bagrjana; Pseudonym of Elisaveta Belcheva) Bagryana

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Edward MożEjko

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2026


In general, when reading Bagryana's poetry, one cannot withstand the impression that whatever she has written or accomplished bears the features of a well-prepared, systematic and well-disciplined esthetic activity….

Bagryana's first collection of poems, entitled Večnata i svjatata (The Eternal and the Sacred), appeared in 1927 and became a literary événement. Without going into detail, one could say that the novelty of this volume consisted in a clear rejection of the hitherto dominating streams in Bulgarian literature and an acceptance of the exceptionally rich traditions of national oral folklore as a source of artistic inspiration. What Bagryana inherited from this tradition was simplicity and directness of expression. The poetic world of Bagryana is built up of objects and phenomena which surround us. By its concrete character, the early poetry of Bagryana was a reaction against symbolism; by its personal tone, it contrasted with the revolutionary rhetoric of Khristo Botev … and the old-fashioned patriotism of Ivan Vazov…. If anything, Bulgarian poetry moved more easily in the world of politics, in the world of heroic actions, in the world of war and revolution than in the inward world of intimate confessions. The turnabout accomplished by Bagryana was twofold in its consequences: the intimate tone of her poetry has manifested itself not only in a turn toward the internal feelings of man, toward his spiritual "I"; this tone also dominates where the theme seems to befit a more pathetic and objective presentation. Irrespective, however, of whether Bagryana speaks of her fatherland (as is the case in her latest poems) or talks to God, she never exceeds the limits of her own personal experience and does not relate these themes to a "cause of higher order."

It is possible to delineate four major motifs in Bagryana's poetry: woman, love, traveling-space and life as a biological phenomenon. The degree of intensity with which these motifs appear in her poetry varies from one collection of poems to another, but it is impossible to discuss them in separation because they are constantly intertwined and constitute a homogeneous and typically Bagryanian whole. (p. 216)

Bagryana enters the scene of Bulgarian poetry as an advocate of women's emancipation. The word "emancipation," however, is far too faint to render the depth and perspicacity with which the whole problem is approached in her poetry. To say that woman revolts against existing social and moral conventions would be nothing but a shallow statement. The question does not concern woman historically conditioned by a definite cultural and social epoch. The title of the first volume does not leave any doubt: the words večnata i svjatata mean "the eternal and holy woman." To present woman in such dimensions, Bagryana refers to various archetypal images of women known from ancient, Christian and pagan mythology. (pp. 216-17)

The Bagryanian woman possesses two principal characteristics: revolt and love. All other desires and dreams are offshoots of these two passions. When we say "revolt," the question is: against what or whom? It is the revolt against women's submissiveness, humility and surrender. This revolt does not arise from social considerations or a growing awareness of women's position in society; it grows organically out of unfathomable layers of the past. The poet feels very close blood ties with her ethnic past, that is, with the heritage of her Thracian, Slavic and Turkish ancestors…. [We] can interpret her "revolt" as the call of the blood, as a constant recurrence of some atavistic necessity….

What Bagryana values most are the primitive and primordial elements in human nature. The return to the primary origins of our existence is combined...

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with the biological joy of life, enabling woman to break prejudices about her situation, to free herself from seclusion and humiliation. In other words, these rebellious qualities reside within woman herself and burst the ossified crust of prejudice from inside…. In its impetuous revolt Bagryana's lyrical "I" does not hesitate to question such sacred institutions as marriage.

From the time Bagryana first began to write, to the latest poems in the sixties, her poetry resounds with a cry for love (note some typical titles of her poems: "Vik," or "Cry"; "Zov," or "Call"). Without this feeling our world would be poor, sad and gray. Moreover, the degree of woman's liberation, her real equality with man, can be measured in terms of love and by the relation of both sexes to love, which the poet calls "the conscience of earth" ("Kato slunce," or "Like the Sunshine"). Again, mythological analogy can be drawn upon: Bagryana's treatment of this motif reminds us of the love tale "Amor and Psyche" by Apuleius. (p. 217)

["Intérieur"] is typical of Bagryana's poetry for two reasons. Firstly, there is a clear reversal of roles: it is not man but woman who seeks gratification of her passions in additional adventures. On the contrary, man appears as the guardian of ideal love, and he is utterly faithful; for woman, seclusion within the four walls of the home is unbearable. Secondly, we can perceive here a leitmotiv which underlies many of Bagryana's love poems: the lust for love is so great that one love cannot fulfill our desires. The heroine of Bagryana's poetry wants to experience love in its complete fullness. She wants to love many and to be loved by many….

In poems devoted to women's emancipation we come across the word skitnica, the feminine form of "wanderer"; and in those where love reaches its climax, the lovers dream about an unknown and fantastic land, as in "Unes" (Exaltation). Both motifs usher in the myth of the Great Odyssey. At the bottom of this motif lies the lust for life. As in love we cannot confine ourselves to one person, so in life we should not be limited to one place alone. Movement by various mechanical means (train, airplane, ship) disenthralls dreams and is associated with a sense of freedom. Travel is a kind of challenge which both verifies and enriches mankind…. The myth of the Odyssey is probably the most all-embracing motif in Bagryana's poetry. At any rate, it constitutes a permanent component of all her poetry devoted to women and love….

Beginning with the second collection of poems, Zvezda na morjaka, we can observe … a gradual retreat from a somewhat naïve enthusiasm and a voluptuous spontaneity in favor of a more subdued poetry which reveals a more tangible disposition for intellectual discipline and reflection. The latter is not based on abstract speculations but grows out of everyday observations; it is entrenched in the fullness of life so much admired by the poet. Bagryana's third volume of poetry, Surce čoveško (The Heart of Man; 1936), includes a cycle of poems entitled "Kolelo" (Circle). Whether the symbol of the circle appears in primitive sunworship or modern religion, in myth or dreams, in the mandalas drawn by Tibetan monks, in the ground plans of cities or in the spherical concepts of early astronomers, it always points to the single and most vital aspect of life—its ultimate wholeness. If we read Bagryana's poetry from this vantage point, we see how much she is preoccupied with this theme. In "Kolelo" Bagryana wants to embrace life in all its manifestations and to follow it in all directions…. (p. 218)

In general, from the beginning of the thirties Bagryana shows an acute interest in man's position vis-à-vis modern civilization. This subject is treated with an amazing originality and sagacity in "S.O.S." Bagryana perceives the threat of civilization to her countrymen in their lack of preparation to cope with it. There is a dangerous gulf between the still unspoiled primitiveness and sentimentality of her people on the one hand, and the civilization of skyscrapers on the other. The whole poem is a chain of basic oppositions: East-West, past-present, contemporaneity-poetry.

It is not difficult to note that whenever Bagryana speaks of the present, distrust or irony slip into her poetry, and both express a sense of forboding. The menace of civilization consists in the fact that man is lost in it, that he is someone "without a face." In "Klounut govori" (The Clown Speaks), from the cycle "The Big Circus," she employs a synecdoche which indicates in a forceful manner the tragedy of our age. The circus ring gradually extends its boundaries and finally covers the whole earth, where clowns appear as hypnotists who hypnotize the masses and lead them to self-destruction. If earth is a circus, then the city is a hell where innocent people suffer and die. Is there a way out of this cul-de-sac? Bagryana does not belong to the spectrum of poets who tend to formulate political or social programs of salvation, but some of her poems seem to suggest a moral solution in that they call for a return to nature, to the primitive, to the source of all life—earth itself. In her recent poems this motif has found its most vehement manifestation in "Kladenec" (The Well). (pp. 218-19)

Her poems written immediately after the war, that is, in an atmosphere of increasing Stalinism and under the imposition of socialist realism, are typified by a withdrawal from the hitherto familiar tone of reflection in favor of a more bombastic and politically motivated style of poetry. Fortunately, Bagryana realized soon that this road of artistic endeavor was foreign to her nature and esthetic beliefs. Consequently, we observe in her last two volumes of poetry a return to the original interests and preoccupations, though perhaps with more attention now being paid to the motif of her fatherland and its nature. The style of her poetry becomes even more simple and direct….

It is interesting to note that it was in the sixties that she wrote her poem "Poèzijata" (Poetry), in which she clearly spelled out her esthetic program and recapitulated, as it were, her poetic experience. The question "What is the goal of poetry?" was posed as early as 1931, in the poem "Poèt," and reoccurred in the poems devoted to modern civilization. The role of the poet is seen here as being very modest and limited. In the humdrum and turmoil of contemporary civilization the task of a poet is to reveal his heart. A few years later, in the cycle "Seizmograf na surceto" (Seismograph of the Heart), Bagryana broadens this definition of poetry by saying that it should discover the inner experience of the "man in the street," who is lost in the modern "inferno" of civilization. This subjective attitude becomes even more evident and intensified in "Poèzijata." Here it is dealt with on the level of a highly subjective relationship: the "I" versus poetry. To Bagryana, poetry means the joy of an unusual perception of the world, the source of joy and richness of her personal life and the source of personal strength. All three stanzas of "Poèzijata" speak of nothing else but this: poetry is a very personal and subjective experience.

In the course of more than fifty years Bagryana has enriched the treasury of Bulgarian and world poetry without drawing much attention outside her own country. If she were to be placed in a certain line of literary development in twentieth-century poetry, she would definitely not fall into the category of the so-called "intellectual" poets. Bagryana represents the other wing of the twentieth-century avant-garde, that is, poets who draw their inspiration from the abundance of folklore and primitive art. It is here, perhaps, that we must look for an explanation of the epic and narrative framework of her lyrics (note her preference for writing cycles of poetry, a device developed to such an extent that some poems can be understood only in the context of other poems). Bagryana's spontaneous and lively temperament has been subordinated to a strong creative discipline. She has achieved such a degree of assertiveness and classical lucidity of expression that when we read her verse, the form itself appears unobtrusive or "invisible." What remains visible, however, is the unusual wisdom, warmth and perspicacity of her poetry. (p. 219)

Edward Możejko, "The Private World of Elisaveta Bagryana," in World Literature Today (copyright 1977 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 51, No. 2, Spring, 1977, pp. 216-20.


Erika Knudsen