Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 591

“With Oars at Rest” is best interpreted as an organic part of the collection My Sister, Life. Pasternak wrote it after the February Revolution of 1917, when the czar was overthrown and democracy instituted for the first time in Russian history. It was short-lived, however. The second revolution, in October of 1917, brought about even more fundamental changes in Russia. Even though My Sister, Life was finished before October, drastic changes were already in the air during the summer, which did not leave any one in Russia indiferent. As it turned out, the interval between the two revolutions transformed everything and energized everybody, especially the intellectuals, even those who were not engaged in politics, such as Pasternak.

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Pasternak himself commented on those fateful days and on My Sister, Life in a letter to a fellow poet, Valery Bryusov. He had defended himself against Leon Trotsky’s criticism of his aloofness from social themes by saying that My Sister, Life was revolutionary in the best sense of the word. That the phase of revolution closest to the heart and to poetry—the morning of the revolution, and its outburst, when it returns man to the nature of man and looks at the state with the eyes of natural rightare expressed by this book in its very spirit.

On another occasion, he elucidated further and more directly, “I saw a summer on the earth which seemed not to recognize itself—natural and prehistoric, as in a revelation. I left a book about it. In it I expressed all the most unprecedented and elusive things to be known about revolution.” This attitude is similar to poet Aleksandr Blok’s likening of revolution to music. Neither Blok nor Pasternak were sympathizers of the Bolshevik Revolution, yet they felt its elemental force and used it as an inspiration for some of their best lyrics.

Pasternak’s linkage of revolution (not in political sense) to nature is worth noting. “With Oars at Rest” has no direct references to revolution, but the intensity of emotions expressed in the natural setting of the poem is akin to that of a revolution. The beating of a boat against the breast of a lake is, metonymically, the breast of a human being. The intensity of agitation results in “the lilac ashes” and “crushed daisies” reaching up to the firmament held by Hercules, which is another reference to the strength of a revolutionary turmoil.

A further linkage of revolution to love is a unifying theme that runs throughout the collection. Although the poem is not a narrative in the true sense of the word, a love story can be discerned. It concerns a love affair of the poet with an unknown woman. References to her are made directly but without naming her, or obliquely, through allusions and metonymies. The references are not as direct in “With Oars at Rest” as they are in other poems of My Sister, Life. Here, by way of metonymy, the beloved is seen through the effects she has on the poet. He uses this setting to tie his feelings to nature, as he has done thrughout his poetic career. References to nature not only are plentiful but also indicate that the connection between humanity and nature is nearly unbreakable, even when the most intimate feelings of love are concerned. “With Oars at Rest,” as a building block of the edifice of Pasternak’s understanding and acceptance of nature, love, and revolution, can be seen as the epitome of his general worldview as well as of his powerful poetic craft.

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Analysis