The Poems

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Poems of Doctor Zhivago is a collection of twenty-five poems that Boris Pasternak appended to his novel Doctor Zhivago (1958). Some were published individually in various publications; others appeared for the first time when the novel was published in Italian in 1957, in many other languages (including English) in 1958, and in the first Russian edition in Paris in 1959. The significance of the title lies in Pasternak’s insistence on the authorship of Yuri Zhivago, the protagonist of the novel. The poems are not simply appended to the novel without being connected to it. Their most important characteristic is the fact that they correspond to the novel closely and therefore must be considered an organic part of it. In fact, in the original volume, the poems are designated as the final, seventeenth, chapter of the novel.

One-half of the poems are told in the first person, that of Yuri Zhivago. One-fourth are in the form of a third person, often Christ, and an equal number are descriptions by an omniscient observer.

The opening poem of the collection, “Hamlet,” is perhaps Pasternak’s best-known poem. It can also serve as an introduction or prologue to the rest of the collection. The main reason for invoking Hamlet is his famous soliloquy in which he muses about his dilemmas and his indecision in solving them. Pasternak’s Hamlet finds himself in a similar situation except that he is addressing Pasternak’s own predicaments, time, and place. In this sense, “Hamlet” is the most autobiographical of the poems.

The collection follows a pattern of seasons, not chronologically within the novel but harmonically, starting with spring, the most natural symbol of a beginning. The first of the five poems of the spring cycle, “March,” depicts the hustle and bustle of annual renewal, ending with the metaphor of a pile of manure, a source of the nutrients that are necessary for new life. “Holy Week” moves from renewal to resurrection, the foundation of Christianity. As it wakes up and rejuvenates everything, spring also awakens love feelings in the young man (“White Night”). “Bad Roads in Spring” recalls Zhivago’s abduction by the partisans on his way home. The last poem in this cycle, “Explanation,” refers to the three women of Zhivago’s life—Tonya,...

(The entire section is 952 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Poems of Doctor Zhivago are of different forms and length. They are almost equally divided among trochaic and iambic meters, while only one is in anapest. The stanzas are mostly rhymed quatrains, but some show varying lines.

Metaphors and images are the most important and powerful devices that Pasternak uses in these poems. Furthermore, metaphors are often used together with images, which tends to strengthen the impact of the metaphors. With the metaphor of Hamlet in the introductory poem, as Zhivago seems to reflect Pasternak’s views and sentiments and Hamlet’s thoughts parallel those of Zhivago, it can be assumed that Hamlet speaks for the author as well. While translating William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c. 1600-1601), Pasternak noted that the play is not a drama of weakness but of duty and self-denial. Accordingly, “Hamlet” emphasizes those two traits of Zhivago’s character. Hamlet’s lament “I stand alone” implies that Zhivago is weak. Yet, Zhivago often shows a surprising strength of character. Thus, just as Hamlet is a victim of his sense of duty and sacrifice, often too weak to defy fate and at times unable or unwilling to act toward the solution of his dilemma, so is Zhivago a victim of the events and forces that he cannot control. The depth of Zhivago’s precarious position is seen in the image of thousands of binoculars staring at him in the murky night. He is ready to admit defeat because someone else has set the order of the acts and “nothing can avert the final curtain’s fall.” The only thing left for him to do is to beg the Father to remove the cup from him. Herein lies the answer to his prayers. For, by frequently using the metaphor of Jesus Christ as the only salvation, Zhivago steels himself enough to strengthen his sense of duty and sacrifice, thus transforming himself from a weakling into a strong man.

Another set of metaphors is connected with the...

(The entire section is 791 words.)