The second half of the nineteenth century produced two outstanding Russian poets who were, however, almost direct opposites. Afanasi Shenshin, better known as Fet, represented the art for art’s sake school in his lucid, subjective lyrics. His antagonist was Nikolai Nekrasov, a remarkable, enterprising, and often contradictory man who wrote realistic “civic” poems.
At seventeen Nekrasov was disowned by his wealthy father. Alone in St. Petersburg, the youth was forced to take up hack-writing in order to sustain himself. During this time he wrote a great many rhymed feuilletons and acquired a facility for turning out mediocre verse which, unfortunately, he never lost, even in his later serious work. His first collection of poems, DREAMS AND SOUNDS, appeared in 1840. It was a complete failure and was ruthlessly criticized by Vissarion Belinsky, the foremost literary critic of nineteenth century Russia. Determined to be a success, Nekrasov entered the publishing field and in 1846 bought The Contemporary, which, under his editorship, became the outstanding literary journal in Russia.
Nekrasov has rightfully been called a genius as an editor and publisher. He had the ability to get the best writers as contributors and had himself a keen eye for good verse. The Contemporary published works by Dostoevski, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. Encouraged by his financial success, Nekrasov again began to write poetry. After many sentimental and prosaic excesses, he succeeded in creating original standards for his work. He deliberately aimed at realistic, rhetorical verse that did not follow traditional aesthetic paths or the Pushkin tradition of which Fet was an heir. Unfortunately, Nekrasov did not have the same skill in judging his own work as he had in judging that of others, and it is only when he abandoned traditional meters altogether and wrote in a folk-song style that his poems achieved a successful, vigorous, and highly original character.
In content, too, Nekrasov broke with the traditionalists. While Fet followed the Romantic school, Nekrasov strongly adhered to Naturalism as Belinsky had formulated it. Belinsky advocated a fidelity to life in literature, a representation of the “inner and outer truth” of Russian life as well as a devotion to positive social tendencies. In other words, literature should be both a protest against social injustices and a compassionate portrayal of the Russian masses. Nekrasov’s poems fitted this formula well. His favorite subject was the suffering and misery of the Russian peasantry. In 1856, Nekrasov published a long narrative poem, “Vlas,” which tells how a rich peasant suffered a vision of hell, repented his former sins, greed, and miserliness, and became an ascetic. This poem, obvious moral and all, closely resembles a sermon. Later, Nekrasov turned from this kind of moralizing to a more arresting description of the peasantry and at the same time gave his verses a tone of irony that saved them from sentimentality.
In 1866 publication of The Contemporary had been suspended. With the aid of Saltykov-Shchedrin and Mikhailovsky, Nekrasov then began to edit THE FATHERLAND’S ANNALS, which he had acquired. Under these three the periodical became the leading instrument of the “populist” trend of thought....
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