The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.