Written when she was just 29, Tsvetaeva’s poem describes her attempt to move away from love (Aphrodite) towards a more rational world of “community.” Thus she blesses those who have “gone away” to war or sport competition rather than indulging in “bliss.” Using many of the symbols attached to Aphrodite, like foam and doves, she describes the change she is attempting (“different river”). She has “outgrown [her] youth,” which she sees as a discarded “skin.” As well she throws off her “voluptuous belt” and her “beloved myrtle”—more symbols of Aphrodite. She claims that Eros has shot her with a “blunt arrow” so that her eroticism will now vanish. But the battle to eradicate love from her life, she admits in the fourth part, will be difficult. At the end she addresses the famous armless statue of Aphrodite of Milos (better known as Venus de Milo), asking resignedly, “For how long do we obey you?”
Vladimir Nabokov was a football goalkeeper in his youth, playing in his native Russia and at Cambridge, England. He described his football (soccer) experiences in his 1947 autobiography Speak Memory and also wrote a poem in Russian about his goalkeeping at Cambridge. Interestingly, he used the English word “Football” as the title for this poem. Presumably he chose the English title to emphasize the English origin of the game. Several critics have discussed Nabokov’s goalkeeping, notably Brian Boyd (Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years), Thomas Karshan (Nabokov and Play, an Oxford Ph. D. thesis) and afthstewart [sic] (“The Wandering Attention of Vladimir Nabokov,” putnielsingoal.com). The latter two critics quote short passages in English translation of “Football,” but I can’t find a complete translation of the poem.
Vladimir Nabokov grew up hoping to be an artist—rather like fellow Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who initially had ambitions as a pianist and composer. Both these writers eventually realised that they lacked fundamental skills. Pasternak lacked perfect pitch and Nabokov was his teacher’s “most hopeless pupil.” (Nabokov, Speak Memory, p. 94) This teacher, the famous Russian artist Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, was not Nabokov’s first drawing teacher. When he was nine, an English émigré, Mr. Cummings, was hired as drawing master. Soon a well-known Russian painter, Yaremich, replaced the Englishman. An impressionist, Yaremich advocated a “bold” approach that used “blotches of dull colour, smears of sepia and olive brown.” (Nabokov, p. 92). When the 13-year-old Nabokov rebelled, Yaremich was replaced by an even more famous Russian artist, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky. Nabokov’s third drawing master was a member of the prestigious Mir Iskusstva group of artists. His great contribution to Russian art was his series of paintings of St. Petersburg.
BackgroundAround 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.”
Innokenty Annensky (1855-1909) is not regarded as one of Russia’s greatest poets, but he has been repeatedly praised by those great poets of the generation that followed him. Mandelshtam, Gumilyov and Akhmatova all looked up to him. He published little poetry in his lifetime, focusing rather on his passion for Greek literature and translating 23 plays by Euripedes. As well, like Matthew Arnold, he had a distinguished career in education. Annensky was appreciated especially for his prosody. His subject matter was based on nature, which he used to convey human emotions and sensibilities. D.S. Mirsky, in A History of Russian Literature, has called Annensky’s poetry “not metaphysical, but purely emotional—or rather, perhaps, nervous.” Annensky was influenced by the French symbolists, especially Baudelaire. His extremely lyrical poems require a lot from the reader. Often he juxtaposes very different ideas that are not connected clearly but merely separated by an ellipsis.
It happens thus: some kind of indolence; The clock strike never ceases in the ears;From afar comes a waning thunderclap. I sense the complaining and groaning Of anonymous captive voices. A kind of clandestine circle narrows. In this abyss of whispers and ringing A single all-conquering sound emanates. There’s such a complete silence around it That you could hear the grass grow in the woodsEvil traveling the earth with a knapsack…1 Words are already becoming audible And now the signaling chimes of light rhymes,--
Afanasy Fet (1820-1892) is reputed to be Russia’s greatest lyric poet. Indeed, Osip Mandelshtam has acclaimed him as Russia’s greatest poet. His short lyrics dealt with nature and emotions. Social issues never entered his poems. This was significant because he began writing at a time in Russia when poetry was expected to be engagé. Fet went against the grain from the start and was criticised for his art-for-art’s-sake attitude. Nevertheless, he never deviated from his lyrical style. His books of verse did not sell well, but some important contemporaries like Tolstoy and Berlinsky showed their appreciation.
AUTUMN An orange-red sky…A gusty wind shakesThe bloody cluster of rowan berries.I chase the fleeing horsePast the glass hothouse, 5Past the trellises of the old park,And past the swan pond.Alongside me runsMy shaggy, red-haired dog,Who is dearer to me 10Than even a brotherAnd who will be remembered