Around 1930, after some 20 years of regular poetic output, Boris Pasternak stopped writing. He produced virtually no poetry until 1940. The main reason was the political situation in Soviet Russia. Stalin had taken control of the USSR in 1928 and by the mid-thirties he was orchestrating an increasingly strong process of repression that affected Pasternak as a writer severely. The Soviet government moved to control writers, first by banning all literary associations and setting up The Union of Soviet Writers. Membership was required if Pasternak was to continue publishing. Pasternak spoke to the 1934 Congress of Soviet Writers, urging his fellow writers not to conform to Soviet dogma. Soon after he suffered a nervous breakdown. Stalin’s repression came to a climax in 1936 with the purges and show trials of The Great Terror. Between 1936 and 1939 an estimated 1,548,366 people were arrested and 681,692 people were executed—more than 1,000 a day. All areas of Soviet society were purged, including the artistic community. The story goes that Pasternak himself was on an arrest list, but Stalin crossed him off, saying, “Don’t touch this cloud dweller.”
Pasternak’s survival has intrigued historians. According to Ronald Hingley (A Biography: Pasternak), there is no doubt that the famous Russian poet barely survived The Great Terror: “He came within a hair’s breadth of arrest in the second half of 1939.” Hingley describes a significant contradiction in Pasternak’s behaviour: “To review Pasternak’s activities of the 1930s as a whole is to be amazed that he went so far in two diametrically opposite directions—that of defying and that of pacifying Stalin. Perhaps the poet succeeded in puzzling contemporary political authority as much as he puzzles many later students of his development, thus mesmerizing the very apparatus of terror into immobility.” (p. 136)
In the repressive atmosphere of the 1930s, Pasternak’s muse forsook him. Instead he made a living by writing prose and translating. His prose output was limited; translating was his main activity. He worked in many languages: Georgian lyrics—perhaps to appease Stalin whose native language was Georgian, although he claimed to genuinely love Georgian poetry; French (Verlaine); German (Kleist, Goethe); and English (Byron, Keats). But it was Shakespeare that took up most of his translating time; between 1940 and 1951, he translated eight plays.
A slight loosening of repressive measures in the late 1930s and the publication in 1940 of Akhmatova’s From Six Books might have been the catalyst for Pasternak to start writing poetry again. The first evidence of his return to poetry was the publication of two poems (“Summer Day” and “City”) in January 1941. In October 1943 he published 15 (17) poems under the title “On Early Trains.” The ten-poem first part, Peredelkino, written in 1940 and 1941, is the focus here.
The Poems of Peredelkino
These are not among Pasternak’s best, and they have been generally passed over by translators and critics. His attitude to poetry had been changing since the late 1920s when he started to feel the need to get away from his esoteric modernist style (far-out metaphors, verbal play, intentional difficulty, esoteric allusions). Pasternak was often saying that he wanted to be more accessible to the general public. He did eventually achieve this goal, but in his early attempts at a new style in Peredelkino he was clearly struggling to find his new voice. Although at times there is a greater simplicity, some of the poems lack clarity and still demand much of the reader.
Pasternak was aware that his early attempts at a new style were not always successful. He expressed difficulties writing poetry in a 1940 letter to his first wife: “After a break of many years during which I was busy on all sorts of rubbish, the sole exception being Hamlet (although that too is a translation), I had a try at turning my hand to something of my own. I was astonished at first to find how far I had lost the art of writing but then things tightened up and I quiver with my old excitement at each hour given up to work.” (Letter to Evgeniya Pasternak, 3 July 1940)
So the poems of Peredelkino illustrate the difficulties Pasternak had in changing his style to a clear and direct voice, to engage the average reader. There are passages of simple language and easily understandable images. But sometimes, as in “The Pine Trees” he lets his imagination take over and takes his reader into another very subjective world.
What is immediately striking, in the context of the severe Soviet repression, is the absence of overt political content. A search of these ten poems will find virtually nothing that can be termed political. “Oath” deals with the feelings of an army cadet, but the military aspects have no real political overtone. There is a mention of a poster in “Pine Trees” but it is not specifically described as a political one. And in “Hoar Frost” the mention of a “Tsarevna” could possibly be taken as political. Even “City” has no political overtones.
On the other hand there are indication that Pasternak now wants to acknowledge the ordinary Russian. His attempts are none too successful. His praise of fellow travellers in “On Early Trains” doesn’t ring true, not fitting organically into the physical description of his regular commute into Moscow. Also, the tone of this praise is forced. Hingley puts it well: “There is something more than a little unctuous and complacent in the tone with which Pasternak here expresses his reverence for common humanity.” (p. 140) Pasternak does a little better in “Spring Again” where he tries to capture the gossipy chatter of peasant women. But again the poem conveys condescension towards these villagers. There are two more references to ordinary people: “local maidens” get mentioned at the end of “Summer Day”; a nameless cadet is featured in “Oath.”
But mainly in these poems of 1941, Pasternak reinforces his image as a “cloud dweller” with a predominance of nature lyrics. In “Summer Day” he glories in working in his garden. In “Pine Trees, “Winter Coming,” “The Thrushes,” and “Hoar Frost” he experiences the beauties of the wilderness. He uses the natural world in “False Alarm” and “Spring Again” to explore life and death. Even “On Early Trains” starts off in a forest. Only two poems are distinctly urban: “City” and “ Oath.”
Here are my translations of the ten Peredelkino poems and some brief notes.
Every spring we have bonfires
Until dawn in the kitchen garden—
For a fertile feast.
By early morning
The burnt earth is still steaming,
And all the ground is scorching hot
Like a stove bench.
To work the soil,
I’ll take off my shirt,
And the heat will strike my back
And burn it like clay.
I’ll stand where it’s the hottest,
And there, screwing up my eyes,
I’ll be covered from head to foot
With a pottery glaze.
Now night will enter my attic,
And, intruding into the hall,
It will fill me, like a pitcher,
With water and lilac.
Night will wash off the outer layer
From the cooling walls
And will bestow it on one
Of the local maidens.
And the disentangled blossom
Will stretch to freedom,
Settled in its home
On a painted cabinet.
Notes: Pasternak celebrates the joy of his 1940 summer at Peredelkino. The poet is outdoors for the first four stanzas and then indoors for the last three. Clearly he wrote the poem in his attic, remembering the physical joys of gardening and then describing the lingering effects in the evening. The first part is loaded with words conveying heat; the second part brings coolness and water. The two parts are connected with a pottery image (pitcher) that harks back to the clay and the pottery glaze. The last stanza was added to the original poem. Neither of the endings of the two versions works too well.
In the grass, among the balsam trees,
Bathed in chamomile and woodland,
We lie with arms stretched backwards,
Craning our necks toward the sky.
The grass in the pine glade
Is thick and impassable.
We exchange glances
And again change position and perspective.
And here, immortal in time,
We are added to the assembly of pines
And are free from illness,
Epidemics and death.
With deliberate monotony
The thick blue lays the sunrays
Like ointment down on the ground
And stains our sleeves.
Under a swarm of insects,
We share the repose of the pine forest,
Breathing lemon with incense
In a soporific pine blend.
There’s a frenzy on the blue,
A rushing up of the fiery trunks,
And we keep our arms under twisted heads
For such a long time.
So much wider is the vision
And so submissive is everything from the outside,--
That somewhere beyond the trunks
The sea appears to me all the time.
The waves there are higher than the branches,
And falling from a boulder
They rain down a hail of shrimp
From the turbulent depths.
In the evening, the sunset,
Tinged with fish oil
And a misty amber haze, stretches out
On corks behind a tugboat.
It grows dark, and gradually
The moon buries all traces
Under the white magic of foam
And the black magic of water.
And all the waves grow even louder and higher,
And the public on the float
Gather round a pillar with a poster
That’s indistinct in the distance.
Notes: Again Pasternak composes a two-part poem. He starts with a description of pine trees looking up from a supine position. The change comes at the end of stanza 5, where Pasternak and his companion breathe in “a soporific pine blend.” From this point the poems moves into a vision where the trees become waves. The sea imagery broadens into a coastal scene in evening to reach a climax where the waves grow louder “under the white magic of foam / And the black magic of water.” Finally, this climax is undercut by a prosaic scene of people on a distant float. This is a difficult poem, and the purpose of the ending is unclear to me.
Bath-tubs and cattle troughs,
In the sighs of darkness,
And the call of a steam train
Sixteen versts away,
And early darkness
In the garden and yard,
And small breakages,
And all this typical September.
In the daytime’s autumn expanse,
Wailing of keening anguish
Intrudes from the churchyard
Across the river.
When the widow’s sobbing
Carries across the knoll,
I’m with her to my last drop of blood,
And I see death point-blank.
As I do every year,
I see from the hall window
The postponed arrival
Of my last season.
With its path cleared,
Winter stares from the hill
Through the yellow terror of leaves
At my life.
Notes: The poem begins with a catalogue of September images, all of which demand analysis. The last one “small breakages” is challenging. Some of these images, like tears and sighs, anticipate the central image of the poem that comes next: the sound of the widow’s sobbing. This leads to the poet’s confrontation with death and the powerful conclusion of the poem.
A door was opened, and air from the yard
Rolled into the kitchen like steam.
Everything suddenly became old,
Like those evenings in childhood.
Dry, peaceful weather.
On the street just five steps away,
Winter stands at the entrance ashamed
And can’t decide to enter.
Winter—everything is as if for the first time.
In the grey distances of November
The white willows depart,
Like blind men without cane or guide.
Among the frozen purple willows
Across the river on the bare ice,
Stands the black firmament,
Like a mirror on a pier-table.
In front of it at the crossroads,
Half covered with snow, stands a birch
With a star in its hair,
And it looks at itself in the glass.
It secretly suspects that
Winter in a remote dacha
Is full of wonders
Just like the birch has on high.
Notes: Another autumn poem, or a poem on the very end of autumn. The poet is indoors, looking out at changing nature. Personification abounds here: winter, the willows, a birch. Some fine images are used here, like the willows as blind men. The point here seems to be that winter indoors (in a remote dacha) is just as splendid as winter in nature—because the poet can see the winter wonderland.
The deaf season of leaf shedding.
The last flocks of geese.
There’s no need to be upset:
Fear has the largest eyes.
Let the wind in the rowan
Threaten it before sleep.
The order of creation is deceptive,
Like a tale with a happy ending.
Tomorrow you’ll wake from sleep,
Emerging onto the smooth winter surface,
Again, as if rooted, you’ll stand
Around the corner of the water tower.
Again those white flies,
And roofs, and an old man in costume*,
And chimneys and the lop-eared forest
Dressed in clown’s fancy dress.
Everything is swept over with frost;
In a fur coat up to its eyebrows,
A furtive wolverine
Peers from the undergrowth.
You proceed warily.
The path dives into a ravine.
Here the hoar frost is a vaulted chamber,
Latticework on doors.
Behind the thick snowy curtain
The wall of some kind of lodge,
A road, the edge of a copse
And a new conspicuous thicket.
A ceremonial calm,
Set in a wood carving,
Like a quatrain
On a sleeping tsarevna in a coffin.
I whisper quietly to the dead white realm
That makes my mind tremble,
You give more than is asked.”
*Literally “a sviatki grandfather.” Sviatki was a holy time of the year, almost as important as Pashka (Easter). It ran from January 7 (Orthodox Christmas) to January 19 (Epiphany). It was the custom to dress up in costumes and celebrate with songs. Tress ere decorated and feasts were held.
Notes: The setting is the same as in “Winter Coming.” The first two stanzas set up a quest into Pasternak’s winter wonderland. These stanzas comfort the reader and promise a “happy ending.” The journey, across the “smooth winter surface and into a ravine,” takes up the remaining seven stanzas. The ravine leads to a destination of “ceremonial calm.” There is more than a hint of religion here. And the reader has to consider the image of a tsarevna in a coffin. Pasternak is difficult in this poem.
Winter in the kitchen, Petya’s singing,
Storms, ice-cold huts.
Thinner than bitter radishes,
We can get fed up in the end.
The entrance from the thicket is not yet open;
Snowdrifts in a ring, death and sleep,
It seems to be not a season
But ruin and the end of time.
The ice on the steps has not been chipped,
And the well is frozen in rings.
In this cold, what a strong magnet
Draws us to the city and warmth!
Overall, it’s no exaggeration to say
That winter in the country is unlivable;
City existence is free from
The imperfections of life.
The city creates a thousand wonders
And need not fear hard frost;
Like a spectre, it’s the spirit
Of a whole multitude of past souls.
Especially for these logs
At the railway siding,
Afar in the burning night,
There seems to be such a vision.
I also honoured it in adolescence.
Its arrogance gratified me.
It has read its history as a sketch
Lying before it in rough.
It has copied the stars
With a twilight show of blessings,
And even took the place of heaven
In my childish dreams.
Notes: In this comparison, winter in the country is compared to winter in the city. This comparison, however, is flawed. The negatives of winter in the country are mainly to do with comfort and convenience; winter life there is “unlivable.” But when he moves in the second half to praise city life, he doesn’t continue on this livability theme except to say that we “need not fear hard frost.” Rather he describes a vision of “a thousand wonders.” The city has the spirit of “past souls.” And he goes on to tell of his early enchantment with his city. This is a rambling poem that uses different criteria to make a comparison.
On Early Trains
Living outside Moscow that winter,
I went to town,
When business required,
In the cold, the snow and the storms.
Back then, I left
When it was pitch black on the road;
I filled the dark of the forest
With my creaking footsteps.
White willows in the wasteland rose up
To meet me at the crossing.
Constellations towered above peacefully
In the cold depths of January.
By the time I reached the rail yard,
The mail train or the Number 40
Usually tried to overtake me,
But I was taking the 6:25.
Suddenly the subtle wrinkles of light
Gathered their tentacles into a circle;
A headlight was carrying a mammoth load
Across the deafened viaduct.
In the heated stuffiness of the carriage
I gave myself up completely
To an impulse of congenital weakness
Absorbed with breast milk.
During the upheavals of the past,
The years of war and hardship,
I quietly got to know Russia’s
I observed, idolizing.
Here were peasant women, suburbanites,
In them there were no traces of the servility
That hardship imposes.
They bore like gentlefolk
The changes and discomfort.
Seated in a group, as in a cabin,
In every kind of pose,
Children and adolescents were reading
Insatiably, as if unstoppable.
Moscow greeted us in a darkness
That turned into silver.
Leaving these two shades of light,
We moved out of the metro.
Posterity presses itself against the railing
Pervading the passageway
With fresh bird-cherry soap
And honeyed gingerbread.
Notes: This narrates his bi-weekly commute to Moscow from his home in Peredelkino. The poem is easy to follow until the description in the fifth stanza. Thereafter the poems slips into sentimentality as Pasternak idolizes the common Russian commuters and finds himself swept up into Moscow with the mass of commuters.
The train has left. The embankment is dark.
How will I find the road in the dark?
The surroundings are unrecognizable
Even though I’m only 24 hours from home.
The clanging on the rails has died out.
Suddenly—and how’s this for an oddity?—
There’s a Babel of prattling gossips.
What devil has got into them?
Where have I heard such speech
That today, again, really,
A new stream has flowed out of the forest.
That, as in former times,
Blocks of ice have swelled the millpond.
That it’s indeed a new miracle.
That, as before, spring has arrived.
That it’s her, that it’s her,
That it’s the one with magic and miracles.
That it’s the one who has a bodywarmer behind the willow,
Shoulders, shawl, torso and back.
That it’s the Snowmaiden on the cliff edge.
That it’s about her--from the depths of the ravine
The frenetic delirium of a half-crazy chatterbox
Pours out unceasingly.
That before her, flowing over the barriers,
The watery rapids sink into spray,
By the lamp of the suspended waterfall
Into the slope with a nailed hissing.
That, with teeth chattering from the chill,
The freezing current pours over the edge
Into a pond and out of a pond into another vessel.
The speech of the spring flood—the delirium of life.
Notes: Pasternak goes into the country to experience spring. He uses the babble of “prattling gossips” to capture the frenzy of activity that occurs when a Russian winter breaks into spring. His language echoes this “frenetic delirium” as he goes on to describe a spring flood.
The railings are surrounded by a crowd,
From morning the gloomy marching is in motion,
The propellers of the parade whirr,
The megaphone bawls loudly.
Three days pass, as in exhilaration,
With visitors, the theatre, shop windows.
At the exhibition, on the pavement,
Three days merge into one.
Everything falls silent on the fourth,
No one dares say a word.
In the locale of the airport
There’s fatigue, rest, deafness.
Next morning the cadet on leave
Is hidden indoors.
In a shirt with a May-Day bow
He is hanging out of the window.
All life is in the power
Of approaching novelty;
All his feelings are improved
By a short dream of fire and happiness,
He removes the eyeshade from his sleepy soul.
Overnight he has grown twofold.
Holiday is added to him in years.
He will defend his rights.
In the depths of the yard well,
The layer of snow is thawing out.
Immediately he will return to his room,
To her for whom he will devote his life.
He looks down on these snowdrifts.
It is getting light. The lamps are extinguished.
Like him, everything is wrapped up in languor,
Shining from within.
Notes: Pasternak captures the experience of a graduating cadet—the excitement of the three days of ceremony and celebration, the contemplations of a new life.
There is a lunch-break calm
At the remote railway halt.
Yellowhammers sing listlessly
In the roadside bushes.
This stretch of the straight country road
Is as boundless and hot as desire.
There’s a lilac forest in the background,
A forelock of a grey cloud.
On the forest road the trees
Begin to play with a trace horse.
Along the ditches in the rough ground
There are violets, snow and humus.
Certainly, out of these hollows
The thrushes drink, but as well,
With fire and ice in their knees,
They trumpet the rumour of day.
There’s a long syllable and a short.
There’s a warm shower and a cold.
There’s what comes from the throat
Tinplated by the gloss of the puddles.
In their own colonies among the tussocks,
There’s spying from behind the curtains,
Gossiping in the corners upstairs
And chattering all day.
And through their open-air chambers
Mysteries scurry into openness.
They have a clock with strong beats;
The branches sing the quarter hour to them.
This is the thrushes’ shady bower.
They inhabit the untidy forest,
As do proper artists.
I also follow their example.
Notes: After three stanzas that set the scene on a country road, the poem explores the habits and songs of thrushes. The last two lines abruptly introduce a new idea, proposing thrushes as a model for artists.