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16 December 2018


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We Once Had a Poet Named Tyutchev

Portrait of Fyodor Tyutchev, by Stepan Aleksandrovsky (1876)

 

Friday, November 23, 2018

We Once Had a Poet Named Tyutchev

by Anatoly Liberman

Fyodor Tyutchev (whose 115th birthday is today) was endowed with genius and good luck: a great Russian poet, he was not killed in a duel or in the Caucasus (under the mountaineers’ bullets, as they said in those days).  Nor did he rot in Siberia, but instead lived until he was 70 and died in his own bed. Since that happened in 1873, people seldom think of him as belonging to Pushkin’s epoch, though the two are near contemporaries: Tyutchev was born in 1803, only four years after Pushkin.  Today a mention of the Golden Age of Russian poetry brings to mind the names of Pushkin, Lermontov, Tyutchev, Fet, and Baratynsky.  Only the first two have, to a certain extent, overcome the language barrier.  Tyutchev would, undoubtedly, have been surprised to learn that his lyrics are considered by many to be the best ever written in Russian, that a few of his lines have become proverbial (in fact, quoted to death), and that hundreds of articles and numerous books have been written about the slim volume of his nature, love, and political poems.

Of all Tyutchev’s aphoristic statements, the one about the unfathomability of Russia is especially well known.  It runs so (all the translations are mine):

 

            You will not grasp her with your mind

            Or cover with a common label,

            For Russia is one of a kind—

            Believe in her, if you are able…

 

There is nothing like the hypnosis exercised by this “epigram” in its native Russian.  It uses the vocabulary traditionally applied to the resurrection of Christ.  It expresses the quintessence of people’s irrational love of their inhospitable and unpredictable land, elevates their patriotism to the level of a religious feeling, and turns Russia, with its Messianic role, into an object of blind faith equal only to God.  Another familiar quotation is from the poem “Silentium!”  That lyric begins with the words: “Speak not, lie deep do not reveal/ Things that you wish or things you feel,” and contains the line: “A thought expressed becomes a lie.”  It has been repeated times out of number.  Likewise the poem:

 

            We cannot see the hidden trace

            Of every word that we have spoken,

            And we are granted friendship’s token,

            As we are granted Heaven’s grace.

 

It would be wrong to say that in his lifetime Tyutchev was not known, and anyone would be happy to have the admirers he had. Tolstoy said that, in his opinion, the greatest Russian poets had been Tyutchev, Lermontov, and Pushkin, in that order!  Fet addressed him as “My adorable poet.”  Nekrasov happened to reread the lyrics published earlier in the journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary)and signed only by the initials F.T. and, knowing nothing about the author’s identity, wondered why the Russian public neglected its “less significant poets.”  Also Goncharov, the author of Oblomov, had only praise for Tyutchev.  But those were connoisseurs, themselves men of genius. The average reader, however, loved long romantic narrative poems (and Tyutchev wrote only short lyrics) and later lost all interest in poetry except when it dealt with social issues.  A few of Tyutchev’s nature lyrics were popular; yet the second of the two books he brought out (1868) remained unsold.  “We once had a poet called Tyutchev…,” wrote Dostoevsky.  Turgenev, another admirer, correctly predicted Tyutchev’s relative obscurity, though he could not imagine that with the rise of Russian symbolist poetry at the end of the 19thcentury Tyutchev would be seen as a forerunner of this trend and become the source of inspiration for the authors who sometimes shared nothing except their love of him.  

Some time after the revolution, Tyutchev fell out of grace because of his Slavophile sympathies (he pleaded for a pan-Slavic empire from Moscow to Constantinople, naturally, with Russia as its mainstay) and his profession of the Christian faith.  Besides this, he was a convinced monarchist (and thus “a reactionary”) and spent many years abroad.  Children were exposed to three of his lyrics about spring and winter (none of which appealed to them), but school curricula passed him by.  Fortunately, the second revival of Tyutchev did not have to wait for the collapse of the Soviets, and, beginning with the sixties, literary journals were flooded with works on him and editions of his poetry and letters became widely available.

I will quote the last stanzas of Tyutchev’s lyric “Spring Thunderstorm” because it is one of the poems every Russian learns by heart at an early age:

 

            The torrent runs of spring enamored,

            Birds in the forest call and sing…

            The torrent’s roar, the forest’s clamor—

            All meet the thunderclaps of spring…

 

            You’ll say: “Young Hebe, in the palace,

            While feeding Zeus’s bird divine, 

            Upset the thunder-boiling chalice

            And, laughing, spilled to earth its wine.”

 

Rachmaninoff’s song to the words of “Spring Freshets”, another all-time favorite, made that twelve-line lyric even more famous in Russia.

Tyutchev was born on November 23 (Old Style), 1803 in Ovstug, a village in central Russia. Contrary to some other Russian authors of aristocratic descent, he did not glorify his “nest of gentry.”  “My native land that never drew or bound me,”he wrote in 1849, “a stranger’s wraith for which I cannot mourn, / A brother dead soon after he was born…” Like most offspring of the nobility, he was educated at home.  At the age of fifteen, he entered Moscow University and finished its course in three years.  In 1822, he was posted to the Russian Legation in Bavaria and left for Munich. Until 1844 he lived mainly abroad.   Both his wives were German aristocrats.  However, at home he spoke French, and it seems that he was more fluent in French than in Russian.  At the age of twenty-three, he married a young widow Eleanor Peterson and had three daughters by her.  Tyutchev was an excellent expert in world affairs, and his articles on political themes betray a sharp mind, but his neglect of his duties ruined his career. In 1833 he met Baroness Ernestine Doernberg and fell in love with her.  This romance shattered the Tyutchevs’ household and at the request of his colleague Tyutchev was transferred to Turin.  Change of place did not cure him of his infatuation.  He was a man of tempestuous passions and weak will, and judging by his future romances, one can predict what fate had in store for him, but in 1838, after a nervous breakdown, Eleanor died. The relationship with Ernestine left its imprint on several of Tyutchev’s best erotic lyrics. The lovers were deeply aware of the sinfulness of their union.  In a poem called “Italian Villa,” we read about a secluded house, slumbering in age-long peace.  “But in we came…,” and suddenly “the cypress went a-flutter” and “the fountain stopped...” 

 

            What was it, friend?  Did a malign observer

            (Alas! I now know that we were malign)—

            Did that rebellious life, that singeing fervor

            Attempt to cross the threshold’s sacred line?

 

Less than a year after Eleanor’s death, Tyutchev married Ernestine.

The first visible publication of Tyutchev’s lyrics took place in 1837, and it is these lyrics that Nekrasov reread many years later.  In 1844 Tyutchev returned to Russia and was appointed senior censor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.    Later he became president of the Committee of Foreign Censorship.  This does not seem to be a worthy post for a poet; in any case, Tyutchev was an enlightened censor.  His permanent home was now in St. Petersburg.   By his second wife he also had three children.  In 1850 Tyutchev met Elena Denisieva, who was twenty-four years old at that time.  The new romance ran its by now familiar tragic course (total abandon, quick burning out, and lifelong repentance), except that now his wife remained alive.  Denisieva paid dearly for her relationship with Tyutchev: after fourteen years of constant strain she died of tuberculosis; of their three children only one son reached adulthood.

Few events in the lives of Russian writers have attracted more attention than Tyutchev’s “last love.”  He glorified it in his lyrics and told its story--a mortal duel of two wills.  “My farewell light, shine to me, shine--/ My blinding sunset, my love belated. […] O you, my love, my very last!/ You are both ecstasy and sad surrender.”  And hardly any other Russian poet has written more touching, more heart wringing lines than those in which Tyutchev commemorated the first anniversary of Denisieva’s death:

 

            Here I plod along a road unending

            In the twilight of a dying day,

            I am very tired, my legs are bending…

            O my darling, can you see my way?

 

            Light on earth is slowly being vanquished,

            Shades of night have wrapped the sheen of day…

            Here’s the world in which we lived and languished;

            O my angel, can you see my way?

 

            Dawn will come—I’ll turn my gaze to Heaven,

            Dawn will come as on that fateful day…

            Angel mine, from your eternal haven,

            O my angel, can you see my way?

 

On January 1, 1873, Tyutchev had a stroke. Two more strokes followed in June. On July 15, 1873, he died.  His favorite verb was obveiat’‘to enwrap’, and while reading his lyrics, one is indeed enwrapped in their irresistible charm:

 

            In the transparency of autumn eves,

            There’s a mysterious and pathetic languor:

            The plaintive rustle of the ruddy leaves,

            The trees’ flamboyant, many-colored anger…

 

Or

            In early autumn sweetly wistful,

            There is a short but wondrous interim,

            When days seem made as though of crystal,

            With evenings luminously dim…

 

Or

            One can hear the wary motions

            Of a moth through ether’s wall…

            Sad, ineffable emotions!

            All--in me, and I—in all…

 

Tolstoy confessed that he choked, with tears rising in his eyes, when he was reading “all—in me, and I—in all.”  Tyutchev apostrophized Russia in these unforgettable words:

 

            Land of hopeless desolation,

            Nature motionless and arid—

            Land of changeless Russian patience,

            Where our forefathers are buried!

 

Two centuries have passed since Tyutchev’s birth. Every day his star is shining brighter and brighter.  Even in imperfect translations (and there are many), the beauty of his lyrics can sometimes be discerned. Russian is worth learning, if for nothing else, for the joy of reading him in the original. 

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