Fet to be Tied
This week's reading has been Boris Bukhshtab's A.A. Fet: ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva (Leningrad 1974), a short survey of the life and works of Afanasii Fet, a mid-to-late nineteenth-century Russian poet whose name might be unfamiliar to American audiences but some of whose verse is nonetheless absolutely first-rate.

Bukhshtab is helping me understand the ins and outs of Fet’s career, especially his reception by his contemporaries.  He had the misfortune to publish his first collection of verse in 1842, only five years after Aleksandr Pushkin, the Russian Shakespeare, was mortally wounded in a duel.  Critics of the era held all aspiring poets up to Pushkin’s standard—and no one, except maybe Shakespeare himself, could come away from such a comparison smelling rose-sweet.  Fet became known as a minor songster and a belated romantic.  He spent most of the decade serving in an army regiment in the Crimea and publishing only a handful of lyrics each year.

In 1853, however, he secured a position that allowed him to spend part of each year in Petersburg, the imperial capital.  Moreover, around this time Russian literary culture underwent a shift toward realism, more specifically psychological realism.  Lyric poetry suddenly enjoyed a renewed period of prestige among intellectuals; when handled properly, critics argued, it could rival fiction, even fiction by the likes of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky, in its presentation of a rich, dynamic interior life.

Fet soon became part of a literary circle based around the journal Sovremennik ("The Contemporary") that included Nikolai Nekrasov, Lev Tolstoy, Ivan Goncharov, and Ivan Turgenev.  Turgenev became a particularly close friend; for years, he was Fet’s first, best reader and critic.  Having found interlocutors and a reliable publication outlet, the poet began to write some of the best verse of his career, and his reputation briefly soared.  Nekrasov labeled him, if not Pushkin’s equal, the greatest poet since Pushkin.

By 1859 things had changed.  Fet had begun praising "pure art" and "eternal beauty" in his literary essays, a position woefully out of step with the progressive political ferment of the early years of Tsar Aleksandr II's reign. His reputation plummeted back to earth.  Nikolai Chernyshevskii, a writer identified with Sovremennik's new, radical agenda, would eventually declare that Fet's poetry showed so little insight into human needs and desires that it could have been written by a horse.

In retrospect, it's clear that Fet benefited from the 1850s renewed popularity of verse without himself being fully representative of the moment.  Psychological acuity, while present in his poetry, is not really its defining or most memorable attribute.  Take, for example, his lyric "Kakaia noch'!  Kak vozdukh chist" (ca. 1857):

Какая ночь! Как воздух чист,
Как серебристый дремлет лист,
Как тень черна прибрежных ив,
Как безмятежно спит залив,
Как не вздохнет нигде волна,
Как тишиною  грудь полна!
Полночный  свет, ты тот же день:
Белей лишь блеск, чернее тень,
Лишь тоньше запах сочных трав,
Лишь ум светлен, мирнее нрав,
Да вместо страсти хочет грудь
Вот этим воздухом вздохнуть.

* * * * * * * *

Kakaia noch'!  Kak vozdukh chist,
Kak serebristyi dremlet list,
Kak ten' cherna pribrezhnykh iv,
Kak bezmiatezhno spit zaliv,
Kak ne bzdokhnet nigde volna,
Kak tishinoiu grud' polna!
Polnochnyi svet, ty tot zhe den':
Belei lish' blesk, chernee ten',
Lish' ton'she zapakh sochnykh trav,
Lish' um svetlen, mirnee nrav,
Da vmesto strasti khochet grud'
Vot etim vozdukhom vzdokhnut'.

* * * * * * *

What a night!  How pure the air,
How silvery the slumbering leaf,
How black the shadow of the bankside willows,
How serenely the bay sleeps,
How still it is--nowhere a wave's sigh--
How full the breast is with silence!
Midnight light, you're the same as day:
Except the gleam's whiter, the shadows blacker,
Except the scent of rich grasses is finer,
Except the mind's brighter, the mood quieter,
And the breast wants, in place of passion,
To breathe, here, this air.

The speaker is outside at midnight in a natural landscape empty of animals and humans.  Moonlight makes it possible to see, but in a heightened peculiar manner.  Some things stand out "silvery" and brilliant, while most others are left "blacker" than day-time shadows.  The relative sensory deprivation--no sounds, reduced sight--causes the speaker to pay more attention than customary to other senses, most notably smell ("scent of rich grasses [is] finer") but perhaps also taste, insofar as he or she seems to savor the "pure air" mentioned in the first and final lines.

One could say that this poem attends to psychology, since Fet shows how attributes of the external world (here "silence" and darkness) can impinge on or determine one's interior life ("mind brighter . . . mood quieter").  That's hardly news, however.  One could cite analogous passages in any number of earlier works, including, for example, William Wordsworth's 1805 Prelude.  

Wordsworth, though, provides so much more back-story.  We know that his speaker is closely identified with the poet himself, and we know that his anecdotes about life in the Lake District have an autobiographical basis.  We also know that the boy Wordsworth's experiences of sublime nature fit within a larger plot concerning the making of an adult poet.  Fet doesn't even give us the rudiments of such a scenario.  His speaker is completely anonymous.  No gender, no class, no race, no age, no nothing.  The depersonalization is so extreme that the speaker does not even use the word "I."  He or she prefers to use synecdoche, to refer to him- or herself as "the breast."  The poem's goal could almost be the rejection of personhood, the reduction of a fully-rounded sentient self with a history and identity to a mere thing-that-breathes.

Or a thing that sings.  "Kakaia noch'!  Kak vozdukh chist" is an extraordinary exercise in soundplay.  The end words of its iambic tetrameter couplets are all mono- or disyllabic, and the rhymes are all masculine (that is, they rhyme final, stressed syllables).  This is a bit like rhyming cat / hat, sit / pit, or lawn / upon:  it is showy and obvious, instantly audible.  The poem's first half, its first six lines, are built on an equally in-your-face device, an anaphoric pile-up of exclamations ("How . . . How . . . How").  The second half kicks off with more theater, an apostrophe to the moonlight ("Midnight light, you're the same as day"), and then we encounter another instance of anaphora ("Except . . . Except . . . Except").  The final two lines are a veritable carnival of consonance, a spray of t's, d's, kh's, and v's:  "Da vmesto strasti khochet' grud' / Vot etim vozdukhom vzdokhnut'."

When Chernyshevskii, Nikolai Dobroliubov, and other democratic-revolutionary literary critics of the 1860s bad-mouthed Fet, they typically distinguished between his talent, which they acknowledged, and his soderzhanie, the content of his work, which they believed to be lamentable or simply lacking.  For them, content meant sociopolitical stand-taking.  Fet was interested, though, not in history but in phenomenology, more specifically, the way that the inner and the outer world meet and mingle within, while also giving rise to, the spoken word.  How silence, for example, can produce, yet be preserved in, the sounds of song.  In other words, he restages the very origins of language--and just as in the philosophies of Edmund Hüsserl and Martin Heidegger that primal moment of breaking-into-speech is a precursor to, logically antecedent to, any possible emergence of a self as an individualized, historicized being.

Was Fet's poetics reactionary?  The reactionaries didn't think so.  After Sovremennik stopped publishing him, the right-wing journals, too, refused to give him a home.  His poetry was too untraditional, too difficult to understand, too wayward in syntax.  His pure art was nobody's art--except posterity's.

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