The Poetry of Pasternak

by Boris Pasternak
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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 934

Translation is the sea change for poetry, often giving it a different coloring and new or odd dimensions during its passage from one language to another. For the linguistic artifact which is the poem, by reason of its structure achieved in and its meaning expressed through language, cannot speak in another tongue with the same sonance, precision, or authority that it possesses in the original. The best that the translator can hope to accomplish is to keep as intact as possible those elements of the poem which resist the violence of change: the larger meaning, the revealing image or metaphor, and sometimes, with luck, an echo of cadence. Without these effects the translation falls into toneless literal statement at one extreme or paraphrase, too frequently distorted and irresponsible, at the other.

In the case of Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, a poet of intensely personal vision and idiosyncratic style, the task of translation must appear insurmountable at times. The problem of adequate rendition involves more than the barrier of language and the difficulties arising from the writer’s passionate fusion of image and meaning. It is also one of distance, the gap between two parts of a world divided by temperament, culture, and ideology in this century. Pasternak is a Russian as well as a contemporary, and reading him with understanding requires adjustment to a different picture of the world and a different evaluation of the human condition.

In his poems Pasternak’s figurative tendency found expression in a joining of symbolist techniques and pantheistic feeling. Historically, he was the heir of Russian symbolism, a tradition he shared with Mayakovsky and Esenin in the post-revolutionary period. Symbolism in Russian literature is not to be confused, however, with the similar movement in France, where it was directed chiefly toward experiment with new modes of poetic expression. The Russian symbolists, although concerned with the re-creation of language, were also interested in a new consciousness of the universe and a new concept of man. Thus Mayakovsky was able to find his themes in the mythology of the revolution; Esenin voiced a lament for archaic peasant Russia, and Pasternak tried to make his poetry an expression and configuration of the essence and uniqueness of being.

In the beginning his images were abrupt, often disparate and startling, always vigorous and imaginative. His images function on both a literal and a symbolic level. A good example showing the poet’s vivid imagery is present in his poem entitled “The Racing Stars.”

The lines provide an illustration of T. S. Eliot’s theory that a poem may be appreciated, its meaning sensed, before it is really understood. In “The Racing Stars” the appeal is almost wholly to the imagination and the senses. The subject proper is Pushkin’s composition of a poem, The Prophet, worked at with creative energy during a night when the world—humanity—sleeps through the cold darkness. By illustration the poet is trying to express the miracle of artistic creation. A similar idea is expressed in “Definition of Poetry.”

Pasternak’s images are guideposts pointing to the true subject of his verse. It is the Russian land—not Holy Russia, nor revolutionary Russia, but vast, bleak, irrational, beautiful Russia—that he celebrated in his poems. His pictures are of the land itself: the rain falling in village streets, the dusty roads in summer, the steppes swept by blizzards, silent snows, thunderstorms, railway stations, dandelions, lilacs, birch trees, mushrooms, the smell of plowed earth. He found these things the true feelings guarded in man’s heart. He did mention the Sahara, the Ganges, and European cities in his poems, but the place names about which associations cluster are the Moscow suburbs, the Caucasus, the Urals, Kiev, the Gulf of Finland, and the Siberian wastes. The same is true of the people in his poems. He invoked the names of Shakespeare and Beethoven, but his special reverence was for Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. Apparently Pasternak thought of these four as the Russians of Russians, writers in whose works the land and its people found expression.

To Western readers, Pasternak’s intense Russian feeling makes all the more incomprehensible his isolation and the name-calling to which he was subjected. One answer is that he held aloof from the stratagems of totalitarian dictatorship. Never an opportunist, in literature or in politics, he wrote no poems in celebration of collective farms, factory production, or the dictates of the Party line. Instead, he insisted upon the artist’s right to privacy, freedom, and process of thought described as song. The closing lines of “Thrushes” may be interpreted as a statement of his position.

But it should not be supposed, as many readers of Doctor Zhivago mistakenly assumed, that Pasternak was the enemy of the revolution. He had accepted it, just as he accepted the feelings of happiness and sturdiness, as a part of the oneness and wholeness of living reality. Many of his images of turbulence relate to the great storm of the revolution in which he had been a spectator, if not a participant, of its violence. In Lieutenant Schmidt, the story of a mutinous officer executed for his part in the sailors’ uprising at Sebastopol in 1905, he wrote that he stood between the past and the present in conflict, a position he himself had chosen. Here, perhaps, is the clue to his refusal of commitment. He looked from past to present and into the future.

His larger vision of man sub specie aeternitatis is the sustaining force of Pasternak’s poetry, a vision directed toward the unknown and unexplored future of mankind.

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