Elisaveta (also Bagrjana; Pseudonym of Elisaveta Belcheva) Bagryana

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Erika Knudsen

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For many years Elisaveta Bagrjana was identified with the concepts of her first collection, Vechnata i svjatata (1927)—taken as categories of woman's love—but her later works have changed fundamentally the view of this great Bulgarian poet. Bagrjana was considered, and by some still is, the exponent of the emancipated woman, primarily because of her concept of love, and her poetry has, therefore, usually been interpreted simply as love lyrics. For this reason the main core of the poetic confessions of Bagrjana has been overlooked, the extreme tension between opposite attitudes and emotions, between the dreams and expectations of life on one hand, and, on the other, their accomplishment, or even more often, their non-accomplishment. (p. 353)

There is a definite trend from optimism to pessimism in Bagrjana's poetry … although her faith in the future and her enchantment with life are never completely crushed, and in her poems of recent years this faith appears to be reborn. Her new confidence is an acknowledgement of the human values compiled throughout life, as well as by the simple joys of everyday life; its opposite pole is the now constant presence of her own death.

In the early poetry of Bagrjana, the lyric self indulges in bold and ambitious dreams of her future, a passionate, dramatic surrender to man's love. Everything seems possible and attainable. Her strength and her will can cope with any demand, and can overcome any obstacle. (pp. 353-54)

The opposite extreme in Bagrjana's first book [Vechnata i svjatata] is represented by the complete despair of the "Requiem" (1927).

The up and down movements of Bagrjana's frame of mind are marked clearly by the choice of words and the structure of the sentences…. Uncertainty and doubt are revealed by the many questions, often initiated by "dali" (I wonder) or "nima" (could it be?). Dreams and yearning are emphasized by the use of the future tense,… and the optative clause with "da."

This means of expression, always pointing forward, gradually yields to terms which indicate a growing assurance and an immediate mental and physical activity….

Bagrjana meets the challenges of life with a defiant "neka" (let it be so). But then comes a sharp break from cheerfulness to despondency. The future perspective and the present satisfaction vanish and give way to the backward glance, to the return to memories. (p. 354)

The incongruity between her expectations of life and life as it actually unfolds … can be called the fundamental theme in almost all of Bagrjana's poetry. It determines the underlying tone of her verse, irrespective of its main themes which are love and individual freedom, the lust for life and for the whole world, the devotion to Mother Earth and above all to her own country…. Most, containing poems from the years 1937–44, indicates the establishment of a relation between opposite points, and could be interpreted as the comprehension and acceptance of the contradictions of human existence, a theme repeated once more in the latest book Kontrapunkti (1972).

Bagrjana's tribute to time and history, Pet zvezdi (1953), famous for the cycle "Suvetski khora," does not quite fit into the pattern of her total work. These poems, on a broad scale, reflect the struggle of man for a rich life full of meaning, that is, an interest which matches a fundamental stirring in the progressive mind of the poet, but the work seems inferior compared to the major part of Bagrjana's production. The reason may be a lack of real personal engagement, without which art remains sterile. Still, part of Pet zvezdi , especially the cycle "Sluntse nad...

(This entire section contains 2239 words.)

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poleto," has much in common with the later Bojana cycle, fascinating the reader by its ease and lyricism.

The tension between unreconcilable extremities, so significant in Elisaveta Bagrjana's poetry, is recognizable in all of the individual themes.

The love theme in Bagrjana's poetry is very complex, reflecting the never ending struggle for individual freedom and, at the same time, an unrestrained enjoyment of everything life can offer. (pp. 354-55)

Love as a spell, as a natural and inescapable instinct, harmonizes neither with the ethics nor with the free will of Bagrjana, the defender of free love and independence. (p. 355)

In poems like "Poslushnitsa" and "Ljubov" the involvements of the suffering Jesus and of the seductive Mephistopheles suggest that the loving woman is in conflict with her Christian belief….

These discrepancies exclude, it would seem, the interpretation of Bagrjana as a pioneer of free love and believer in the total emancipation of women. Her confessions are entirely personal, and the presentiment of the price she will have to pay for her unprecedented courage, in "Kukuvitsa" and "Potomka," for example, preclude the slightest note of propaganda. (p. 356)

The very consequence of her struggle for personal freedom, her full devotion to human love, excludes this very freedom…. These are the extremes of her love and her life: the necessity of being independent, and the dependency of the relations created by herself.

In Elisaveta Bagrjana's lyrics, love is a fascinating unity of purity and passion. (pp. 356-57)

Though dominant, love is only one of the spheres where Bagrjana's general craving for personal freedom and self-realization are reflected. Her conception of life as a whole bears the impress of this personal combat. Intoxicated with her own power and possibilities, her mind starts on high-levelled flights, borne by the dashing horse of the "Amazonka" (1922) or by the sea and the wind ("Stikhii," 1925)…. The conflict between individual revolution and established order is intimated in the designation of herself as "nepokornata." Only too well does she anticipate the difficulties she may encounter in life, but she will not or cannot curb the fatal instinct of nature within herself. (p. 359)

Again it should be pointed out that there is a very personal and individual element in the attitude of the lyric self which does not match the conception of Bagrjana as a pioneer of women's liberation. In the poem which is often referred to in this connection, "Zovut na moreto" (1931), it is true that she says that if she were not a woman, she would abandon everything and go out as a sailor. But she does not really reveal any actual desire to take over man's work, but rather the urge to flee from the complications of her own life, to seek new friends and new surroundings, that is, to travel like a mariner, not as one…. What was characteristic of her experience of love, applies to her total existence, spent in conflict between the expectations and dreams of the lyric self and reality. "I laugh and I cry when I think of what I expected, and what I obtained," she confesses ("Zhivotut …"). This conflict, which ranges from the last poems of Vechnata i svjatata to her latest works, displays all the shades of despair and hopefulness, and encompasses the surrender to sorrowful memories and new manifestations of life and activity. (p. 360)

A turning point is signalled by the poem "Vurni me" from "Parashut" (1938). Here the attention of Bagrjana embraces the whole wide world, not as the focal point of journeys, but as a continent of people who are worth her concern….

The inner drama of Bagrjana's verse is created mainly by the movement from one extreme to the other, by the tension between revolt and acceptance, victory and defeat, youth and old age, life and death. Both poles, the positive and the negative, may function as starting points. (p. 361)

The call of foreign places and the fondness of the intimate and familiar are equal in intensity, and evoke the unique atmosphere of Bagrjana's poems of travel which originate from the tension between the opposite movements, departure and return…. It is a kind of physical necessity, similar to that of the tide, that draws the lyric self of Bagrjana out into the world by a magnetic power and casts her back again on to her shore, though not to stay! (p. 362)

The origin to which she will always return encompasses her personal relations as seen in ["Ptitsata s motornoto surtse"], in "Korab ot Ispanja" and "Slovenski vecheri," the latter even underlining the sadness of her life at home, haunted by memories and the monotony of everyday life. And it may be seen in her ethnic rooting in Bulgaria, in its history and in its soil. (p. 363)

Bagrjana's travelling urge is linked organically with her personality as a whole, with her philosophy and her practice of life, in the sense of recklessness of prejudices and consequences….

In most of Bagrjana's travel poems it is obvious that the focus of attention is not directed from the visual experience to the observer's mind, but vice versa; the lyric self picks out the impressions, things, and colours which best reflect her mood….

In more than one sense the Venetian cycle (1930) is an exception. Here the consciousness of the poet has yielded to an extraordinary perception of visual impressions. The result is a symphony of colours, ranging from the faintest pastel to brilliant and saturated shades, and of an artistic level which places it among the best of its kind in world poetry. Usually Bagrjana is economical in her use of colours. She often prefers the contrast of black and white, arranged in winter landscapes or in starry nights, expressing a thought or a mood which reflects the contrarieties of life…. Green shades symbolize a sense of quiet harmony, and all the red and golden colours, which are without doubt the most characteristic ones in Bagrjana's poetry, are the signs of the climax of love and life. (p. 364)

Though one could not call the nature in Bagrjana's poetry descriptive, yet it is to a high degree illustrative. The philosophic contemplations of the poet generally originate with concrete observations and experiences, from actual situations which evoke thoughts and emotions. They are always put forward in simple, understandable words and contexts. The external occasion may be a natural phenomenon—a landscape in its entity or represented by a detail, the weather, a season as in the poems of the cycle "Kushta v poleto" (1936). Thus the picture of the sea always induces feelings of restlessness and longing for freedom and independence.

Technology also evokes the philosophical contemplations of Bagrjana…. It becomes … more important for Bagrjana to emphasize the eternal human element as being superior to technology. "Which seismograph," she asks, "could possibly measure the disastrous bore of despair, threatening to suffocate a poor human heart?" ("Seismograf na surtseto," 1936). One of the most suggestive poems within this problematic field is "Industrija" (1963), in which the horrified poet proposes the idea that art is submitted to mass fabrication, that is, put into the piston engine of unification.

The theme of technical progress influences Bagrjana's vocabulary. A quick glance at the titles of her later poems reveals this fact ("Radio," "Seismograf," "Industrija," "Letishta," "Grumootvodite," "Budilnikut," "Radar"), and a thorough study of the idioms used confirms it. Some times the dead material is connected with life in a very poetical way such as the "bird with the motor-heart," or the "parachute" which symbolizes the rescue of a human heart. At other times the technical device is used to underline the unpoetical reality of life and the inability of technology to relieve the mental sufferings of man ("Radio," "Seismograf"). Mostly, the technical idioms form parts of metaphors and comparisons in order to give a more explicit formulation to thoughts and moods…. It is indeed, a matter of taste whether or not one appreciates this technical concretion of abstract ideas and mental conditions. Its aesthetic value is, in some cases, doubtful, but the sober-mindedness and cogency of this technique accentuate, in return, the ethic scope of this kind of verse. (pp. 364-66)

Another reflection of modern times, in the sense of technical revolution and growing disharmony in the world, can be seen in the increased use of free verse and the use of a diction which approximates prose. This trend is notable in Bagrjana's poetry from the end of the twenties and throughout the thirties; it later yielded to a more frequent use of syllabic-accentual verse.

Though the poetry of Elisaveta Bagrjana is rich in contradictory elements, it would be wrong to say that it lacks harmony. Her special harmony which holds the extremes of all her urges and frustrations, her hopes and disappointments, her joy and grief, lies in the recognition of the eternal cycle in Nature, the only secure basis which gives gravity to life. She is aware of this continuity, one might say, from the beginning of her existence as a poet, and her conception of it extends to the change of generations as well as to the regular shift of the seasons. (p. 366)

Bagrjana's latest poems show a still substantial tension between the irreconcilable sides of nature such as life and death, but this tension is governed by the acceptance of their equal future possibilities.

The discrepancy between the high-set expectations and the harsh reality of life has shrunk to an unsentimental survey of "black and white days," viewed without regret, as the necessity of "the paths she chose, or the path which chose her" ("Parola" in Kontrapunkti 1972).

The most fascinating part of this supreme wisdom of Bagrjana's is that it does not tend towards resignation. Her love and her sorrow are as deep as ever, and she carries her memories not as a disturbing ballast, but as the beauty and synthesis of her life. (p. 369)

Erika Knudsen, "The Counter-Points of Elisaveta Bagrjana," in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Autumn, 1974, pp. 353-69.

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Edward MożEjko