The Poems

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 952

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.

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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, Lara, and Marina—and the different appeals that they hold for him. As love is awakened, the light tone of the poem corresponds to the awakened sensuality in life and nature.

The summer cycle is short (only three poems), as is the Russian summer. “Summer in Town,” “Wind,” and “Hopbines” all picture the ripening stillness of the summer, sometimes interrupted by storms, while the two lovers, Zhivago and Lara, blissfully share their love amid the intoxicating fragrance of the summer idyll.

That idyllic atmosphere carries over into the autumn cycle, which consists of five poems. Many of these poems are connected in some way with Lara. The first, “False [Indian] Summer,” exudes the contentment of family life amid the homey winter preparations from the bountiful harvest. This time, the woman in the poem is Tonya, Zhivago’s wife. “Wedding” expresses earthy joys and affirmation of life in the fullest sense, but it also represents symbolically the spiritual wedding of Lara and Zhivago. In a highly lyrical fashion, “Autumn” depicts their happiness under the cloud of impending disaster, which makes their love even more fateful and passionate. At the same time, Yuri laments the departure of his wife, whom he still professes to love. “Fairy Tales” is the linchpin of the entire collection. It portrays a fearless knight who slays a dragon and saves a maiden—a reference to Yuri and Lara. The final poem in the autumn cycle, “August,” bemoans their final parting at “this predestined hour,” ending “years of timelessness.”

The winter cycle also has five poems. The opening poem, “Winter Night,” refers to the moment when Zhivago saw in a window a candle which had been lit by Lara. He had not met her yet, and the moment exemplifies the theme of predestined coincidence that runs through the novel. The next two poems, “Parting” and “Encounter,” deal with Lara’s departure from Zhivago and his pining for her, as he is unable to “draw a line” between her and him.

The remaining poems in the collection deal with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as they influence Zhivago’s life. “Star of the Nativity” celebrates the birth of the Child (Lara and Zhivago’s?) in all its splendor, renewing Yuri’s hopes after Lara’s departure. The atmosphere of gloom that threatens to return in the city poem “Dawn” is relieved by the poet’s rediscovered faith in God and by his identification with every human being and creature in nature. The poem seems to refer to the last years of Zhivago’s life.

In the last six poems, Zhivago returns once again to spring. The second spring cycle points to life’s new beginnings, as if to underscore the certainty that there is no end, only renewal. References to Christ continue. Through an episode in Christ’s life, “Miracle” broaches a problem of artistic sterility and the need for God’s patience and faith in the talented. “Earth” is related to “Dawn,” except it takes place in the spring and shows the poet communing with friends, which is reminiscent of the early days of Christ and his disciples. The final four poems deal with the last days of Christ. “Evil Days” depicts Christ’s thoughts and reminiscences as he was being betrayed and condemned. The two poems of “Magdalene” and “Garden of Gethsemane” are self-explanatory. In all these references to Christ, Zhivago sees parallels with his own destiny in his final days.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 791

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 perennial change of seasons that symbolizes the endless passage of life to death and death to life. There are numerous images reinforcing the seasonal changes of humanity and nature and their constant rejuvenation. Spring is “that corn-fed, husky milkmaid,” and the pile of manure—the source of fertility—“is pungent with ozone” (“March”). During the summer, linden trees “have a glum look about them/ Because they haven’t slept themselves out” (“Summer in Town”). In the autumn, Yuri’s woman sheds her garments as a grove sheds its leaves (“Autumn”).

“Fairy Tales” is a metaphor containing the central theme of the novel, that of the knight saving a maiden from a dragon. Although the knight is anonymous, it is not hard to see in him the legendary Saint George slaying the dragon. A variation of the name “George” in Russian is “Yuri.” From the plot of the novel, one can easily see Yuri saving Lara from her demon Komarovsky, thus affirming his love for her and the sense of duty and sacrifice proclaimed in “Hamlet.”

Lara is also referred to metaphorically. She is the symbol of beauty and freedom, standing for Russia itself. Zhivago dreams about her as if “she had been cast up from the depths/ By a high wave of destiny.” In the Orthodox mythology, Larisa (Lara) stands for a seabird or a sea gull. Lara is thus a force in nature, rather than merely a woman.

Many metaphors are connected directly with Christ. One depicts Christ’s encounter with a fig tree full of leaves but barren of fruit which is destroyed by God for its uselessness. The poet likens this situation to artistic sterility and pleads with God for patience (“Miracle”). Another metaphor relates to Mary Magdalene, in a clear reference to Lara. Both women are sinful, yet they play consoling roles: Magdalene washes Christ’s feet on the eve of his death, and Lara offers Yuri the true love that he craves. Finally, in “Garden of Gethsemane” Zhivago sees similarities between his troubles with his “Judas” and “Pharisees” with those of Christ. Yet, as Christ did, Zhivago will live again (the meaning of the name “Zhivago”).

One of the strongest devices of Pasternak’s artistry is imagery. His image of the nightingale that enthralls with its singing but also heralds approaching danger with its frantic song (“Bad Roads in Spring”) is a beautiful one. Another striking image is that of a candle burning in a window, which seems to fascinate Yuri even though he knows nothing of its origin (“Winter Night”). A flickering light in the dark winter night adds an aura of mysticism. It also points to predestination at work because Lara, the woman who had lit the candle, will become the woman of his life.

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Themes