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Valentin Fatuschenko "Boris Pasternak in the World Lyrical Tradition"

Valentin Fatuschenko –

Doctor of Philology, Professor

Faculty of Foreign Languages and Area Studies

Lomonosov Moscow State University

Email: president@ffl.msu.ru

Boris Pasternak in the World Lyrical Tradition

This paper offers an interpretation of B. Pasternak’s poem “August”, which can be viewed as the quintessence of the poet’s lyrical credo. Its main concern is to show how this work is related to the world’s lyrical poetry in terms of motifs, meaning and emotional content, and how it reflects Pasternak’s personal experience. The analysis focuses on the central motifs of death, farewell and love that effectively communicate the poet’s unique vision of life shaped by the idea of transfiguration. The article concludes with some observations on the poet’s creative method characterized by immense life-giving and meaning-generating power.

Key words: lyrical poetry, Boris Pasternak, Russian literature

As is well-known, Boris Pasternak started as a lyrical poet. Stressing Pasternak's lyrical element and lyrical power, M. Tsvetaeva called him "the pure lyric," "the purest lyric," etc. Tsvetaeva believed that Pasternak had discovered something very important at the very beginning of his entry into literature, and then, in his later work, only improved the verbal shape of the main discovery. This is a highly controversial assertion. Pasternak developed his artistic gift throughout his long life as a man and as a poet. However, Tsvetaeva's idea of the poet's invariable nature deserves consideration.

Pasternak, as a poet and theorist of art, presents us with a considerable opportunity to understand the peculiarities of lyrics in general and to appreciate the originality of the 20th c. Russian lyrics.

Like every great poet, Pasternak reproduces the universal features, which are typical of all of the world’s lyrics, the particular features, which are characteristic of the Russian national tradition, and something that is only his own and inimitable, his unique destiny.

The poem "August" was written in August of 1953. It included much of what had happened in the country and to Pasternak himself that year, and much of what Pasternak as a poet had been long striving for. Sending an autograph of the poem to his friend Marina Kasimirovna Baranovich, Pasternak, as if apologizing, wrote that the poem turned out "a bit too long" and "verbose." Actually, "August", in its condensed lyrical form, is the most important, essential expression of the poet's life and the destiny of "Doctor Zhivago's" hero.

There are 12 four-line stanzas in the poem. Let us recall the situation depicted. In the first two stanzas there is the morning sun and tears on the pillow after a heavy slumber. The next seven stanzas are the description of the dream. The description is strict, reserved and precise. The dream of being buried by his relations. The day of the funeral was unusual - "August 6th (Old Style), which coincided with Christ's Transfiguration Day". Suddenly all participating in the grievous ceremony heard a voice:  "Serene, sombre-toned words rose, prophesying - (that voice was mine, and unmarred by the grave)...". We hear this clear, distinct voice in the last three stanzas:

"Farewell, blue iridescent sky gone golden! Farewell the Judgement Day that is to be! Ease me beyond this bitter fatal moment as though a woman's touch transported me.

Farewell, cruel stagnant years, unchanged and endless! Come, grant undaunted woman her reprieve. She was defied such hells, such crashing torments – the grounds for all her strife shift now to me!

Farewell, sweet figure of speech that came to life on soaring and indomitable wings of will to reach all of creation, give thought flight, and fill the world with mind - wrought miracle!"

 Thus, we find the motif of the very last farewell - a situation that is unlimitedly precious for a lyrical utterance and one that is constantly recurring in poetry. A man is faced with eternity, God and the people he is leaving, as well as his own fate, his "ego". Here is the evident presence of two "egos". The first "ego" is still here, alive, and the second one is there, high in the air or heavens, from where the voice of the judge is coming, the voice of conscience and truth. The farewell motifs constitute the most important moral and value centres in the world’s lyrical poetry.

These motifs have developed along different emotional lines and meanings.  The sources of the motifs can be entirely different. They are not obligatorily connected with the idea of death. They may appear at every stage of creative work, though, naturally, they take on a special tragic force and a fatal significance at the end of a poet's life. Blok called such types of writings   "poems about the last". "When everything around is either wretched or ghastly - the only thing to live for is the last"[1], he wrote in one of the letters to his mother. Destiny gave poets various opportunities to realize and express their destinations in the bitter moments of leaving. Petrarca was ill for quite a long time and wrote his last poems in the hope of meeting his Laura. Ronsard, in his later verses, complained of a grievous, exhausting disease, but there was also the hope in them that he would remain in the memory of mankind as a creative artist. A great many examples of this can be cited. It is pertinent to recall the poets whose verses were reproduced by  Pasternak  in  Russian  -  Goethe's  last  poems, e.g.  "Vermächtniß", the  last  poems  by   Rilke,  including an elegy to  Marina Tsvetaeva-Efron.

In Russian classical poetry we find poets such as Nekrasov, Tyutchev, Fet, Sologub, Annensky, Akhmatova, each of whom described the coming of the grievous hour in their own way. "The last Songs" by Nekrasov is a bright example of a poetic expression of a man's heroic struggle against disease.

Tragic power fills the last poems by Tyutchev and Sologub. Akhmatova's "Midnight Verses", her last series, are full of undiscovered mystery. The meaning of this kind of poetry is rather often enigmatic.  But the reason for their emergence is clear enough and well-motivated.

Yet, sometimes inexplicable things happen to lyrical poets. All of sudden, mysterious, non-motivated, grave poems “about the last” come into being. This is the case of some poems by M. Lermontov, A. Grigoriev, A. Blok, S. Esenin, V. Mayakovsky, and O. Mandelshtam.

In the early 1930s, Pasternak got a feeling of how “the last year” might suddenly arise in a poet's life. Prophetically, he wrote in the "Safe Conduct": "The last year- ... is a kind of superhuman youth, splitting the continuity of the previous life with such sharp joy, that it looks more like death due to the indefiniteness of age and the necessity of comparing ... But can it be so sad, when it is so joyous? Isn't it the second birth? Is it death?"[2] Thus, Pasternak ranks the feeling of the end with the second birth, the Transfiguration. It is surprising, that while still being young, he realized that when a man, in his mature years, comes closer to God, he is not afraid of death, but is imbued with a particular responsibility for life.

But let us come back to the poem "August”. What was the source of Pasternak's premonition of the end? Where did the farewell motif, so unusual for the poet's art, come from? In fact, he was against prognostication and in the "Safe Conduct" remarked that one should not predict their end. In this respect, "August" is a unique poem in Pasternak's work.

There were several reasons for writing it.

In October 1952, Pasternak fell seriously ill; in November 1953, he left the hospital. He wrote about his illness in his letter to M. Tsvetaeva's daughter A. Efron dated January 12, 1953: "Oh, how mother-like, quite our way it was in the hospital the first nights, while it was dangerous, on the threshold of death! How enormous and solemn it was near God! How exulted I was, thanking Him, praying. Lord, I whispered, I only have the words of gratitude now, but if You carry me away, my whole self, from top to toe, with all my life, will become a grateful sacrifice and will mingle with other similar gifts of Yours and will dissolve in the everlasting echo of Your cause."[3]

In March 1953, Stalin died. The premonition of changes, the expectation of the new coincided with post-infarction euphoria of the recovered man. The whole year of 1953 passed in feverish activity, especially the summer. "I am eager to do everything at once". In July, it seemed to him, that the novel was about to be finished. The fate of the novel's hero is clear now - he will die of a heart attack in August. The motifs of the novel are interspersed with the text of the poem; more than any other one, it looks like it was written by Yury Zhivago, who had a presentiment of death. In order to survive, Pasternak, like Goethe, foretells the grievous end of his hero. Goethe has the following lines about Werther:

Your lot is to go, and mine is to stay alive

Having left the world, you've lost so little,[4]

The farewell situation echoed in "August" appears twice in "Doctor Zhivago". The first scene is Lara's sudden leave with Komarovsky, when Yury Zhivago, devastated and shocked, remains completely isolated. He feels that she has left forever: "... Farewell, my only beloved, my forever lost one! Farewell, Lara, see you in the other world, farewell, my beauty, farewell, my darling, inexhaustible, my everlasting."[5]

The second farewell scene is Lara's last goodbye to the deceased Yury: "Farewell, my big and my dear, farewell, my pride, farewell, my darling, my deep, rapid river."[6]

However, the words of the novel and the plot itself were not sufficient to raise the motif of the farewell to the higher level of generalization. Verses were needed to create the lyrical vertical line, the heavenward aspiration, the enlightenment of the hearts longed for by the heroes of the novel and the author himself. Three poems of the series are united by their position at the height of human spirit: "Hamlet", "August" and "Garden of Gethsemane". This is how Pasternak became aware of the end, of the last year. It not only stemmed from Pasternak's personal condition, but also from the fact that he shared the feelings and suffering of his heroes. Pasternak managed to live 7 years more. But long before the sad end, being an artist extraordinarily sensitive to death, he realized what "the last year" was like.

What is the meaning of August in the poem, as a traditional juxtaposition of season and human life? It united different motifs and lines, originating both from various poetic traditions and the poet's biography, from the Christian principles of his outlook and, finally, from the historical situation. Life in August is illuminated by the Transfiguration light; it is the time when lucidity and wisdom come. Transfiguration is Pasternak's pet subject, his favourite Christian feast. The poet's biographies mention that in 1903 he fell down from a horse and was saved by a miracle, and from that time on he perceived life as the Gift of God's Providence. Inwardly, Pasternak was a believer. While scheming the novel (1946), he remarked: "In it I settle a score... with all the nuances of anti-Christianity and its assumptions ...". In his later letters he wrote a lot about the concealed and secret life of Orthodoxy. There is still much to be clarified about Pasternak’s relation to Christianity, but there is no doubt that he took from Orthodoxy the transfiguration light, the complete inner freedom, the perception of life as God's creativity gift, overcoming the tragic darkness of the Gethsemane night, in which West European saints and believers stayed. There is no feeling of being abandoned by God in Pasternak's world, and the nearer it is to the grievous end, the more lucid it is, being closer to God. Pasternak is one of the few poets who experienced the bitterness of the grievous hour as true transfiguration. He rejected the night and the chasms, the dark and ashes of pantheism, the gloomy underground of the antique world.

Love as a great sacred gift, equal to the gift of creation, is of great importance in Pasternak's world. But love in "August" is very special. It is the last love, and in this motif of the last love Pasternak is close to Tyutchev - "Oh, you, oh you, oh my last love! You are my bliss and my despair" - and to the stunning lines from "Trilogy of Passion" by his favourite Goethe.

In August of 1959 Pasternak wrote: "I am thinking about my unique life. The list of its characters includes: God, woman, nature, vocation, death... They are truly close to me, my friends, partners and my interlocutors. Everything essential is reduced to them."[7] At that very time Pasternak expressed his attitude to Christianity.

Worrying about the events connected with "Doctor Zhivago", Pasternak wrote how greatly he appreciated the novel, whereas the publication of "all those "Safe Conducts", the earlier prose and verses served only to depreciate "Doctor Zhivago".

Answering the question about conversion to Christianity, Pasternak wrote that due to the specific situation in which he had lived since his childhood, religion "was always half-mysterious, the subject of a rare and exceptional inspiration, but by no means a placid practice. This is, I believe, is the source of my originality. The religious way of thinking seized me in 1910-1912, when the principles of my specific views on things, the world and life were laid". And further - a very important confession, intimately connected with art: "Everybody around asks me about my beliefs and opinions, about nearly everything in the world, and they are reluctant to believe I have none. Such a mode of thought means nothing to me. For "the opinion" about the Holy Spirit is nothing compared with His presence in a work of art; this is where the great and the miraculous starts".[8]

Pasternak's lyrical world is permeated with the process of life-creation. It is a whiff, an inspiration, ablution, love, fertilization, birth, incarnation (or unfinished, under-incarnation), the acquiring of speech ("of a voice", not only by living creatures, but also by things and natural phenomena), emergence and the emanation of meaning, energy and love into the world. It is not an exaggeration to say that Pasternak is the poet of the Holy Spirit as an active, life-giving, meaning-creating source. Wholesome vitality flows into the poet's lyrical world, creating the mystery of transfiguration, quenching thirst with the water of life.

The hey-day of the heart, revealing all personal abilities, high spiritual mood - and the bitter feeling of the grievous hour - that is the meaning proclaimed by the voice untouched by decay in the poem "August".

A poet who was able to finish his path of creation so lightly and easily as Pasternak did can hardly be found in the history of the world lyrics. It probably  happened  because  he  had  lived  through  his  "last  year"  much earlier,  in  1953.  And  the  last  lines  from  the  poem  "The  Only  Days", crowning Pasternak's poetry, tell us of love and eternity:

The day is longer than the age,

And the embrace is everlasting.



  1. Block A. Collected works in 8 volumes. 1960-1963. Vol.8.
  2. Boris Pasternak. About art. Moscow, 1990.
  3. Boris Pasternak. Collected works in 5 volumes. Vol. 3. P. 445.
  4. Boris Pasternak. Letters of Boris Pasternak. Moscow, 1990.
  5. Boris Pasternak. Letters to Jacqueline de Proyart// Novii mir. 1992. №1.
  6. Goethe J.W. Collected works in 10 volumes. Vol. 1. Moscow, 1975.

[1] А. Блок. Собрание сочинений в 8 томах. 1960-1963. Т.8 С. 396-397. (A.Block. Collected works in 8 volumes. 1960-1963. Vol.8 P. 396-397.)

[2] Борис Пастернак. Об искусстве. М., 1990. С. 114, 115. (Boris Pasternak. About art. Moscow, 1990. P. 114, 115.)

[3] Б.Пастернак. Переписка Бориса Пастернака. М., 1990. С. 521. (Boris Pasternak. Letters of Boris Pasternak. Moscow, 1990. P. 521.)

[4] И. Гете. Собрание сочинений в 10-ти томах. Т.1. М., 1975. С. 443. (J.W.Goethe. Collected works in 10 volumes. Vol. 1. Moscow, 1975. P. 443.)

[5] Б. Пастернак. Собрание сочинений в 5-ти томах. Т.3. С. 445. (Boris Pasternak. Collected works in 5 volumes. Vol. 3. P. 445.)

[6] Там же, с. 495. (Ibid, p. 495.)

[7] Б.Пастернак. Письма к Жаклин де Пруайер.//Новый мир. 1992. №1. С. 174. (Boris Pasternak. Letters to Jacqueline de Proyart// Novii mir. 1992. №1. P. 174.)

[8] Там же, с. 167. (Ibid. p. 167.)

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