Innokenty Annensky Critical Essays


(World Poets and Poetry)

Innokenty Annensky’s lyrics reflect an intimate knowledge of French poetry, particularly the verse of the Parnassians and the French Symbolists. Like many of these French poets, Annensky heeded Stéphane Mallarmé’s dictum that to name was to destroy, while to suggest was to create. Like the French, Annensky concentrated a lyrical theme in one symbolically treated subject or in a complex of interconnected subjects. Although he made use of symbol and suggestion, the fact that the lyrical theme was related to a single subject or a complex of related subjects lent greater impact to his poems.

Annensky’s link with the French Symbolists was paralleled by his close ties with the Parnassians. The latter, particularly their principal poet, Théophile Gautier, advocated art for art’s sake and the composition of a carefully constructed poetry equally removed from subjective emotions and contemporary events. The Parnassians also expressed a renewed interest in the classical world; indeed, the Parnassians had a greater impact on Annensky than did the Symbolists, for he shared with the former a cult of poetic form and a love of the word as such, as well as subscribing to their notion that there was no affinity between aesthetics and ethics.

Annensky’s relationship with the Russian Symbolists is somewhat ambiguous for there was an absence of any kind of organizational tie or even any close relationship between him and representatives of the “new poetry.” Unlike his contemporaries, he considered Symbolism to be an aesthetic system rather than a literary school. He neither rebelled against civic poetry, for example, as the Symbolists generally did, nor rejected his poetic heritage. Unlike the later Symbolists, he did not regard art as a means of mystical escape, maintaining that Symbolism was intended to be literature rather than a new form of universal religion.

The approximately five hundred lyrics that Annensky wrote are the center of his creative work and can be divided into six major themes: death, life, dream, nature, artistic creation, and time. The themes of death, life, dream, and nature are actually subordinate to that of time, which binds all of them together. In this very emphasis on temporality, Annensky transcended Symbolism and anticipated later poetic movements. His exemption of artistic creation from the strictures of time illustrates the enormous emphasis he placed on aesthetics.

Death played an important role in Annensky’s verse, for he considered it as an ever-intruding end to a life without hope. He devoted a number of lyrics to this theme, one of the most important of which was “Siren’ na kamne” (“Lilac on the Gravestone”). Here Annensky touches on the transitory nature of human life, on the contrast between life and death, and on the awareness that the seemingly infinite possibilities of the intellect are thwarted by the intrusion of an awareness of physical death. Annensky’s realization that death is a physical, inescapable end demonstrates his acceptance of the limitations of the material world and stresses thereby one of the most significant differences between him and the Symbolists.

“Depression” and “The Double”

One of Annensky’s major themes is life. This category is dominated by lyrics about toska (depression, melancholy, or yearning personified), as exemplified by the poem “Toska” (“Depression”). The persona in “Depression” is an invalid, suspended, as it were, between life and death. The setting for the poem is a sickroom decorated with flowered wallpaper, around which flies hover. The unnaturalness of the surroundings, coupled with Annensky’s frequent use of participles rather than finite verbs, separates both persona and reader from the normal, lively world of action and imprisons them in a static, banal realm. Like his poems on death, Annensky’s lyrics about life are characterized by pessimism derived from his constant awareness of the limitations and frustrations of life.

In The Influence of French Symbolism on Russian Poetry, Georgette Donchin suggests that because the dream symbolizes an escape from reality, it was a common poetic theme for Russian Symbolists. The dream also occupies a special place in Annensky’s poetry. Simon Karlinsky, in his 1966 essay “The Materiality of Annensky,” argues that the dream represents a world divorced from the strictures of time, an alternative existence for the poet. Annensky’s dream verses can be subdivided into three categories according to theme: disorientation, oblivion, and nightmare. In “Dvoinik” (“The Double”), the persona experiences a loss of orientation, with the primary differentiation of identity, that between the I and the non-I, blurred. Annensky’s deliberate grammatical confusion of the first, second, and third persons destroys the normal distinctions between conversation and narration, even of existence. When the distinct separateness of the individual consciousness is eradicated, nothing is certain. Annensky has, in fact, placed the rest of the poem outside reality by erasing the conceptions of definite time and space, with all existence transformed into a dream.

Ephemerality and death

In “Kogda b ne smert’, a zabyt’e” (“If There Were Not Death, but Oblivion”), oblivion represents the cessation of time. It is a state divorced from temporality, which is seen in the poem as the creator and destroyer of beauty. The poet’s awareness of the ephemerality of artistic as well as natural beauty is a source of torment for him; he is trapped by time and is doomed...

(The entire section is 2305 words.)