A pupil of the Symbolists who soon freed himself from their poetics if not their perceptions, a contemporary of Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova, Tsvetayeva, and Osip Mandelstam but resembling none of them, Vladislav Khodasevich is a poet not easily classified. He is often described as a classicist because of his loyalty to Pushkin and Russian verse tradition, yet his always ironic and sometimes bleak vision of the world is no less a product of the twentieth century. His poetic output was small and his demands on himself severe, but his mature verse, with its paradoxical combination of domesticity and exile, banality and beauty, harmony and grotesquerie, places him among the finest Russian poets of the twentieth century.
Khodasevich made his poetic debut in the heyday of Russian Symbolism. For the Symbolists, passion was the quickest way to reach the limits of experience necessary for artistic creation, and so all the motifs that accompany the Symbolist/Decadent notion of love—pain, intoxication, hopelessness—are explored by Khodasevich, diligent student of Decadence, in his first collection.
In Molodost’ (youth), Khodasevich treats the transcendent themes of death, love, art, and eternity (so dear to the Symbolist canon) to both facile versifying and facile dramatization. His lyric voice is that of the seer, the magus, the seeker—a pale youth with burning eyes, a self-conscious poet risking all for revelation and encounters with mystic dread. Molodost’ is the work of a talented beginner, but no more.
The poems are infused with vague mystery and vague premonitions, full of hints of midnight trysts at crypts, of confounding of realities, of fashionable madness and jaded melancholy. Khodasevich’s problem is the problem of Symbolism in general: Its claim to universality of experience was undercut by the lack of any universal, or even coherent, symbolic system. In seeking to create a language of those “Chosen by Art,” they plumbed for the emblematic, “creative” meaning of words, but the choosing and the chosen—hence the meaning—might vary from salon to salon. No word or deed was safe from symbolic interpretation, but the poet’s own self-absorbed consciousness was the sole arbiter of meaning. Indeed, at times it seemed that literature itself was secondary to the attempt to divine hidden meaning in everyday events, thereby creating a life that itself was art enough.
Khodasevich’s poetics would begin to change with the advent of his next book, but his apprenticeship among the Symbolists would affect him for the rest of his life. From them, he learned to perceive human existence as the tragic incompatibility of two separate realities, and all his poetic life would be an attempt to reconcile them.
His second volume of verse, Shchastlivy domik (the happy little house), shows Khodasevich replacing his early mentors—Bely, Blok, Bryusov, Innokenty Annensky—with eighteenth and nineteenth century classics such as Pushkin, Evgeny Baratynsky, and Derzhavin. His new persona is both more accessible and more distant than the pale pre-Raphaelite youth of the first book: He is more personal and biographical, surrounded by more concrete visual imagery and fewer abstractions, although the stylization, the deliberate archaisms, and the traditional meter in which those details are given serve to keep the poet’s mask a generalized one—one poet among many, the latest heir to an elegiac tradition. Shchastlivy domik is still a diary of the emotions, kept by a self-absorbed “I,” but here the spheres of emotion and art begin to separate. This poet belongs to a guild of craftsmen, not a hieratic brotherhood intent on perceiving life as a work in progress. A sense of history and linear time replaces the boundless “I” of the Symbolist/Decadent, defining both past and present and imposing different sorts of limits on the power of language to conjure, transform, or even affect reality. In this context, death becomes an even rather than a sensuous state of mind, and art becomes a means of overcoming death by very virtue of its formality and conventionality. These characteristics, not sibylline utterances, will carry the work beyond its creator’s physical end.
Gone, then, are sadness and frustration at the utter futility of words, replaced by a less literal quietism—elegiac contemplation, meditation, and pride not in one’s own oracular powers but in a tradition. Dignified humility replaces bombast, domesticity replaces exotica, and Pushkin is the chief guide. Although Khodasevich never lost his sense of the split between the world of appearance and the higher reality, in this collection he discovered inspiration in everydayness, in ordinary, prosaic, humble moments. In his next collection, his first book of truly mature work, he worked out the poetics appropriate to that discovery.
Most of the major poems in Putem zerna (the way of grain) were finished by 1918, but the book itself did not see print until 1920. In lexicon, choice of themes, and lyric voice, it is a testament to a sober but still joyful everyday life; the poet is an ordinary human, subject to the laws of time and space, vulnerable to cold, hunger, illness, and death, no more and no less significant than any other man on the street. Like his fellow Muscovites in times of war and revolution, he observes history, participates in it “like a salamander in flame,” but possesses no Symbolist second sight and no power to guess, let alone prophesy, the future. Although the poet, unlike his fellows, does have occasion to transcend his human limits, his small epiphanies, too, depend on the physical world. Their source is earthly. They derive from moments in which the poet experiences an acute awareness of things heard, felt, seen, smelled, and tasted....
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