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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

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The death by suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky in 1930, partly a result of that poet’s deep disillusionment with the changes in Soviet society and literature at the rise of Joseph Stalin, precipitated a “second birth” in the artistic activity of Boris Pasternak. Begun before Maykovsky’s death, Safe Conduct is the poet’s first autobiography, written when he was under forty. This prose work is an assessment of formative influences on his work as he attempts a new approach to his poetry.

Pasternak said he conceived of the work as “something midway between an article and artistic prose, dealing with the way in which life was transformed into art, and why.” The work appeared first serially, in two parts in different journals, before it appeared as a separate volume in 1931.

Safe Conduct is by no means a detailed chronology of the poet’s first forty years, but accounts of a series of encounters with key people, together with meditations on these episodes. The work begins with a childhood memory and ends with the death of Mayakovsky. It is in three parts, each made up of short sections. These accounts include straight narrative, sensitive representations of landscape, conversations with the key figures in the poet’s coming to define and accept his role, other random details of his life at each period, and his thoughts about the experiences represented.

Safe Conduct is dedicated to the contemporary German lyric poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who is shown to be essential to Pasternak’s views. The extent to which Rilke influenced Pasternak is clear in Pasternak’s words, “I am not presenting my reminiscences to Rilke. On the contrary, I myself received them from him as a gift.” The poet first met Rilke on a train when he was ten; in a later discussion, he describes finding Rilke’s poems among his father’s books and drawing sustenance from them throughout his life.

The next section skips three years to a time when the Pasternak family became acquainted with the Scriabin family. The boy’s first idol was Aleksandr Scriabin, the composer. With his mother being a pianist and his father a painter, Pasternak at first saw himself as a musician and composer: “More than anything in the world I loved music, and, in music, more than anyone else, Scriabin.” Pasternak was, however, aware that he did not have perfect pitch, and when as a teenager he played his compositions with great success for Scriabin, the older man’s failure to acknowledge the same defect in himself showed his feet of clay. When Pasternak’s idol’s hold on him broke, the boy’s commitment to music broke as well, though in retrospect he sees that he was using Scriabin’s reaction only as a pretext; he had already intuited that he would not be a composer.

Pasternak turned then to the study of philosophy, first in Moscow and then in Marburg, with the famous professor Hermann Cohen. A statue of the thirteenth century Elizabeth of Hungary, patron saint of Marburg, made a deep impression on him; he was moved by her compassion for suffering people. He met the intellectual challenge of philosophy at the university with ease, but a visit to Marburg of the young woman whom he loved brought to a definitive end his potential career as academic philosopher. Pasternak proposed to the girl, but she rejected him; the cataclysm of his emotional reaction taught him more about himself than all of his philosophical investigations. “I was surrounded by changed things. Something never before experienced had crept into the essence of reality.” The encounter led to Pasternak’s sustained thinking about the nature of art and to his career as a poet. A commitment to reality in art, and his definition of that reality, emerged from the new life afforded to him by the young woman’s rejection.

One other important event occurred in Marburg. The night before he was to meet Cohen to announce his new commitment to poetry, he had a prescient dream of war, a forecast of the coming world war. He distinguishes the “because” mind of his professor from the intuitive artistic understanding that knows what it knows without a reason.

A short visit with his family in Italy intervened; he offers brilliant images of Venice and Venetian architecture and painting. “I, too, had the fortune of discovering that day after day one could go to meet a piece of built-up space as though it were a living personality.” Venetian painting helped him to understand more about the way art mirrors reality and about the continuity of Western culture. He realized that Russia too participates in that stream.

Part 3 finds the poet back in Russia. Briefly joining a group called Centrifuga, he entered the world of the “innovatory” art emerging in the years before the Revolution. The leading light of the dominant new group, the Futurists, was Vladimir Mayakovsky, and this giant of a poet was the next hero for the young Pasternak to worship, though Mayakovsky was about his age. Pasternak provides a vivid sketch of the enormously talented Mayakovsky, whose poem Vladimir Mayakovsky (1913; English translation, 1968) made a tremendous impression: “Actually I carried the whole of him with me that day from the boulevard into my life.” Yet he could not get accustomed to Mayakovsky’s work, so novel was the poetry. When, after the Revolution, Mayakovsky began to propagandize in his poetry, however, Pasternak’s interest in him waned. Despite the close, deeply respectful relationship of these two poets, their reactions to the demand for poetry to serve politics finally drove them apart. Mayakovsky’s sympathetic understanding of Pasternak’s very different poetry, and the innovations in technique and content that Mayakovsky’s best poetry provided, had moved Pasternak along in his definition of poetry and his understanding of his own role as a poet.

The autobiography ends with an account of Mayakovsky’s suicide. The importance to the poet of facing death was mentioned early in the work; the close of the work praises Mayakovsky as the only poet truly of the new epoch, representing the Revolution and all the change, the only one so far to have mastered the future. Clearly Pasternak here turns to his own future.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 40

Davie, Donald, and Angela Livingstone, eds. Pasternak, 1969.

Erlich, Victor, ed. Pasternak: A Collection of Critical Essays, 1978.

Gifford, Henry. Pasternak: A Critical Study, 1977.

Hughes, Olga Raevsky. The Poetic World of Boris Pasternak, 1974.

Mallac, Guy de. Boris Pasternak: His Life and Art, 1981.


Critical Essays