Modern Russian Poetry/Introduction


Modern Russian literature took its rise in the early nineteenth century. This was, more or less, the Russian counterpart of the Elizabethan Age. Energizing liberal influences were in the air; men's pulses were stirred by the Napoleonic drama; a national self-consciousness came into being; the winds of a new world were blowing from widened horizons. And there was the same coincidence of favorable environment with the accident of genius. Yet if the English Renaissance found its expression in drama, it is notable that nascent Russian literature blossomed in lyricism. England had her Shakespeare, and Russia had her Pushkin,—with a difference.

He is placed in the company of Dante, Shakespeare and Goethe by his compatriots, yet even they admit that he lacks the universal significance of his elder peers. He remains, however, the national poet acknowledged as the first and perhaps the greatest literary artist of his country, a figure upon whom more admiration and scholarship have been lavished than upon any one else. Had he been accessible to the outside world, its current conceptions of the mood and manner of Russian literature would be different. The Byronism with which he began, early gave place to a reconciliation with reality and to a classic sobriety which made Mérimée declare him "An Athenian captive among the Scythians." The intensity of his passionate nature was governed by a sense of measure and harmony. His poetry has that quality of normalcy and health which render it educative, and to the foreigner—uninteresting. The latter may agree with Flaubert that the Russian master is "flat," and to suspect that his is the unexciting art whose motto is propria communia dicere.

Pushkin was surrounded by a Pleiad of lyricists, whose work was of a minor order, but was yet distinguished by a measure of originality. Of these the sombre Baratynsky is now perhaps best remembered. In a sense Tyutchev too belonged to this group. A contemporary of Pushkin, he was under his influence. Yet he survived the master by many years, and the more significant part of his unique contribution to Russian poetry was written much later. Of all the classicists, Tyutchev is most likely to find a way to the understanding and sympathy of the outside world. His is a deep and authentic voice. Through his poetry blows the wind of his thought, as a breeze bellies a sail to a certain shape. It is a pantheistic philosophy, instinct with the profound cosmic sympathies of a Chinese sage on his lonely mountain. His universe was the battleground of light and darkness. Both were native to him. He did not dismiss the "ancient chaos" with the facile gesture of tender-minded idealism, but rather saw in it the dark face of God.

The mantle of Pushkin fell, not upon Tyutchev, who wrote for posterity, but rather upon Lermontov. He was an ego-centric creature, with a romantic nostalgia for the supersensuous. His lyricism is informed with a graceful demonism and a proud pessimism which naturally endear him to a youthful audience.

Lermontov revolted not against the Czar of all the Russias, but against the God of heaven and earth. Yet the growing civic bias made it possible to put a social interpretation upon the disquietude which pervades his work. Thus the forensic Nekrasov, who in the next generation voiced the civic conscience of an epoch of reform, is considered to have issued from Lermontov. Nekrasov's troubled and uneven verse dwelt with the miseries of the peasant and the proletarian. It celebrated the cause of the masses, and made itself the vehicle for the peccavi of the gentry, aware of its outstanding debt to the people. The age was also glad to give laurels to the folk-poets, such as Koltzov and Nikitin.

The sixties and seventies—the period in which Nekrasov flourished—harnessed the literary Niagara to political action. The age felt that life is real, life is earnest, and that art is not its goal. The permanent abolition of serfdom was coincident with the temporary abolition of æsthetics. The very existence of a socially indifferent poetry was called into question. In this unfriendly atmosphere a group of poets nevertheless carried on the Pushkin tradition of self-sufficient lyricism. Maikov, Foeth, Alexey Tolstoy and, to a certain extent, Polonsky, all deriving from the idealism of the forties, stand out unrelated to the period in which they wrote. These shared with the French Parnassians an allegiance to the dogma of art for art's sake, and Maikov approached their plasticity and impassivity. Æsthetes are inimical to revolution, not because they love justice less, but because they love beauty more. What defined the isolation of these poets was the fact that they belonged to the conservative camp.

Foeth developed a great lyrical activity toward the close of his life, in the eighties. Those were years of social stagnation and prolific, pale poetry. It was only in the next decade, when the Yellow Book was blooming on London bookstalls and the sunflowers on London lapels, that the first signs of a literary, and primarily lyric revival showed themselves in Russia. It was preceded by proclamations, somewhat like a king who is not too sure of his welcome. The vanguard of theorists included Volynsky, Minsky and Merezhkovsky. Here, reversing the natural order, poetics came before poetry. The champions of modernism revolted against the traditional subservience of literature to social progress. They asserted the autonomy and primacy of art, and offered the milk of mysticism to the soul starved on positivist fare. Above all they preached an individualism, whose watchword was Fais ce que tu voldras, and which took to its heart Stirner's anarchy and Nietzsche's a-moralism.

Balmont, Brusov and Sologub were the leading poets who initiated the practice of what Minsky and Merezhkovsky had been preaching, and who founded a school, in the loose sense of the term. This was the symbolist, or as some prefer to call it, neo-romantic school. They were clearly inspired by foreign models, and many declared the whole new poetry a warmed-over French dish. Yet the spontaneous and indigenous character of the movement is now beyond question, its studied eccentricity notwithstanding. It was only for a short time that it showed the earmarks of western décadence, although its detractors persisted in the term. Anti-social prejudice, a toying with satanism, and concentration on sex were but a temporary phase. The decadent aspect of Russian modernism is best exemplified by Sologub, an exasperated solipsist, living in a sick, fantasmal world.

The heterogeneity and complexity of the movement can hardly be exaggerated. Each writer is a law unto himself. Yet all share a fevered intensity and the literary method of symbolism. To the true symbolist the measure of a verse echoes the song the morning stars sing together. He posits a correspondence between sensuous and mystic realities, using imagery as the sign of a remote and transcendent significance. It remained for the following generation thus to develop the religious implications of the theory. As for Balmont, with his fluent spontaneity, and Brusov, in his more slow and solid achievement, they are chiefly concerned with problems of form and with the cult of a beauty founded upon a flight from reality. This holds good for the sinister magic of Sologub in his early work. All three, especially Brusov, are conscious craftsmen, with an authentic musical gift. They have greatly enriched the medium which they employ.

While the symbolist school united the best talents, there were of course poets who remained extra muros. The most important of them is Bunin, a lyricist of rare economy and sensitiveness to color. He carries on the classic tradition, remote from the violences and vagaries of his fellows.

A curious incident in the history of Russian symbolism is the career of Alexander Dobrolubov. One of the earliest disciples of the French décadents, he ended as a sectarian prophet. He lived in a coffin-shaped room, papered in black, where he sought Baudelaire's "paradis artificiels" by consuming opium and smoking hashish, and whence he issued, clad in black even to his eternal gloves, to preach suicide to his fellow-students. He became in the end a holy vagabond, wearing the coarse clothes of the Volga peasant, and leading a large mystic sect. Dobrolubov's evolution is to a certain extent typical of the development of the symbolist movement. This, beginning with a revolt against the tyranny of utilitarian morality, ended with the reassertion of the ineluctable ethos and a deepened mysticism.

Synchronously with the revolution of 1905 a group of younger men within the fold began to transvalue the symbolists' transvaluations, aided and abetted by the older symbolists themselves. Chief among the newcomers were Ivanov, Bely, Blok and Voloshin. They were impatient of the cult of beauty and looked askance at the gambols of the free individual. Their poetry is passionate metaphysics, groping toward religious ultimates. Spiritually deriving from Solovyov and Dostoyevsky, they are engaged with religion and, to a large extent, with the messianic rôle of the Russian people. In Ivanov and professedly in Chulkov, mysticism is wedded to a curious collectivism. Ivanov declares his verse to be the carven crystal cup for the sacred wine of communal religious consciousness. While in France symbolism contented itself with the part of a literary method, in Russia it tended to become a philosophy and even an ethics.

Problems of technique as such are no longer in the foreground. Symbolism is now considered the characteristic of all poetry. Substance is what these sophisticated lyricists are seeking. And so we find them turning to the imperishable gods of Hellas, wandering down exotic vistas, exploring with Gorodetzky the native folklore, embracing with Kuzmin the delights of stylization. A doctrinaire fury rides all these poets. They are inveterate preface-writers, and, what is worse, do not leave their prefaces entirely out of their art, forgetting that philosophy, in Symons' words, is the dung which lies at the roots of poetry.

Shortly before the war the symbolist impetus was felt to have spent itself. There was a general dissatisfaction with the spirit which informed it. The poets, says a Russian critic, were tired of plumbing the ultimate depths of the soul, and of daily ascending the Golgotha of mysticism. After the ecstasies came the desire for the ice-water of simplicity. No longer expressing mystery in music, the poets sought the limited, precise, concrete image. This movement manifested itself in the Acmeist secession. Grouped around a publishing firm, known as the Guild of Poets, which has this year been revived, the Acmeists or Adamists, led by Gumilev, Akhmatova and Gorodetzky, attacked symbolism, to celebrate raw reality. Proclaiming the primitive vision of a Gauguin, they insisted on immediate contact with the tangible, visible, audible world. The coterie did not write much more than its manifesto, though its method may be discovered in the work of the later "imazhinist" (imagist) group, of which Yesenin and Marienhof are representative members. These build their poetics upon the concept of the autonomous image, regarded as the end of all poetry. One of their number has recently declared that a poem must be not an organized entity, but rather a succession of such self-sufficient images, moving as in dreams.

A sensational career awaited the other post-symbolist development, futurism. It originated with the cubo-futurists in Moscow in 1911 and a year later the Petrograd ego-futurists issued their manifesto. The difference between them was rather like that between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the one hitting everything it could see—when it got really excited, the other hitting everything within reach, whether it could see it or not. They hit out less to épater le bourgeois than professedly to discard all the canons of art and to destroy toothless Ratio. Their proclaimed desire was to raze the past and build the present on nothing. Their poetics provide for a language consisting of elements having an audible and a visual, but no intellectual value. This is merely an ideal which, luckily for the rest of us, their poetry does not always achieve.

"Let us gorge ourselves with the void," says one of them. The poetic gift can thrive even on this futile diet. Through their cacophony is sometimes heard the shrill and raucous voice of a machine-made age, their distorted language occasionally mirrors a time which is out of joint, and their violently eccentric imagery wrests new meanings from old commonplaces, as in Mayakovsky's line: "A bald lantern voluptuously takes off the blue stocking from the street." Naturally, they resist translation, except in the case of Severyanin, the early leader of the Petrograd group, whose work is, however, not typical.

Futurism showed no great vitality, and would probably have shared the fate of a fashion, were it not for the revolution. Its unabashed iconoclasm, its plebeian exuberance, may account for its recent vogue. Its mannerisms are noticeable in the work of men who do not strictly adhere to the coterie, such as Oreshin and Marienhof.

It is worth noting that the literature of the revolution is chiefly verse. The surviving representatives of classicism and symbolism, with the possible exception of Andrey Bely, continue their work without developing it. In addition to them and to the irruption of the futurists, there are the peasant poets, headed by Kluyev, and a large body of workman poets. The revolution has extended the class principle to æsthetics and takes special pains to promote the literary expression of the masses. Yet proletarian verse is by no means a new phenomenon in Russia. From 1908 to 1915 fifty volumes of such verse found their way to publication. The crudity and naïveté of the workmen's poetry produced since the revolution is redeemed by a hard-handed grasp on reality. The return to realism is the promise of a new development in Russian poetry. Like all living things, poetry endures only through change.