The Poem

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 308

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Boris Pasternak’s “With Oars at Rest” is a part of a collection with a unifying theme, Sestra moia zhizn’: Leto 1917 goda (My Sister, Life). The entire book was written in the summer of 1917, as the Russian subtitle implies, but it was not published in Moscow until 1922. It was received well by critics and readers, and it established Pasternak’s reputation as a leading Russian poet. Many critics consider My Sister, Life Pasternak’s best poetic work.

“With Oars at Rest” opens with the metaphor of a boat beating against the breast of an unnamed person, who is describing the scene. The beating of a boat against the part of a body where heart is located suggests an emotional agitation. The spirits of the agitated person are low, hinted at by the willow branches hanging low and kissing his collarbones and the oarlocks. The persona then tries to alleviate the sad situation by advising that it “can happen to anyone.”

The soothing attempt is carried over into the second stanza by a suggestion that since everybody partakes “in this song” sooner or later, they may as well rejoice in it, despite the resulting “lilac ashes” and “crushed daisies.” The kisses, seen here as “lips,” can be exchanged for the stars, thus making the sad situation almost joyous.

In the final stanza, the strength of emotion acquired through such optimism is enough to embrace the firmament held by Hercules, even though it may mean squandering centuries of nightingales’ song that way. The most important thing is to experience love, no matter how difficult, painful, and transient it may be. Also, by placing oars at rest, as the title implies, the speaker is suggesting that even genuine feelings of love cannot be experienced with full intensity all the time and that they may need a rest every now and then.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

The poem “With Oars at Rest” consists of three four-line stanzas. They are rhymed somewhat irregularly in the Russian, with only the first and third lines in each stanza being rhymed. The main figure of speech is metonymy, the use of an object to represent an idea. A boat, a lake, willows, lilac, daisies, stars, heavens, nightingales—they all serve the poet to reflect human actions and feelings. Thus, the beating of a boat against the breast indicates the turbulence of love emotions, which “can happen to anyone.” As it happens so often, the turbulence in love feelings can bring heartache—“lilac ashes” and “crushed daisies”—as well as bliss. Love is so universal that centuries have been “squandered” on the song of nightingales, that is, on love songs.

The use of metaphors is also prominent. They include a boat signifying a man’s journey through life; the fragrant lilac that can turn to ashes; daisies that, even when crushed by unhappy love, remain splendorous; lips standing for kisses, which in turn shine like stars; Hercules denoting the strength of the love experience; and nightingales, whose song equals the beauty of love. Pasternak’s syntax is elaborate, and his vocabulary startlingly rich. Although the complex syntax can be, and often is, approximated in translation, the rich vocabulary can be transferred with greater difficulty.

“With Oars at Rest” reveals clearly Pasternak’s style and his approach to poetry in general: It is complex, intricate, unique, impressionistic, cryptic, and at times obscure to the uninitiated. Throughout his poetic career, his poetry was so advanced that he was sometimes criticized for its “hermetic” quality. Pasternak was little concerned about it, as he explained in his autobiography, Okhrannaya gramota (1931; A Safe Conduct, 1945): “When My Sister, Life appeared, expressing completely uncontemporary sides of poetry, I did not care at all what the power was called to which I owed this book, because it was immesurably greater than me and the poetic theories surrounding me.” The following statement by the poet underscores again the elemental force of revolution that inspired him: “In 1917 and 1918 I wrote down only what by character of language or turn of phrase appeared to break from me entirely of its own accord, spontaneous and indivisible, surprisingly beyond dispute.” This is a perfect example of Pasternak’s ability to sublimate the external stimuli into a unique poetic expression, as in “With Oars at Rest” and in other poems.