Boris Pasternak
Boris Pasternak; drawing by David Levine

Pasternak’s one-time brother in Futurism, Vladimir Mayakovsky, had projected a huge image of himself in his writing. His career was stormy, public, and short. When in 1930 he put a violent end to it, Pasternak wrote a farewell poem, “Death of a Poet,” setting the strength and courage of the poet who “with one bound” had taken his place in the “category of young legends” against the hypocrisy and cowardice of those who were left. The feeling for Mayakovsky which he shows here and in his autobiographical writings is echoed, I think, in the figure of Pasha Antipov (later Strelnikov) in Doctor Zhivago. Antipov is the “antipode” for Pasternak, he is the lost child who makes a violent myth of himself, bringing pain and destruction, ending in baffled suicide. For him, as for Mayakovsky—and indeed for many of the young actors in the early revolutionary drama—Pasternak seems to feel admiration and love. Their headlong daring, like the skater’s élan, was an inspiring sight, a public parallel to the verbal and emotional giving of self of the young poet of My Sister, Life.

But their way was not Pasternak’s. At about the same time as “Death of a Poet” he wrote his first autobiography, Safe Conduct, also much preoccupied with Mayakovsky; here he explains how he had chosen a different path, abandoning what he calls the “romantic manner” and the spectacular conception of the “poet who sets himself up as a measure for life.” This conception, he writes, is false because it demands a whole world of non-poets or philistines against whom the poet can stand out—as Mayakovsky had stood out with his yellow shirt and painted face in the prewar Futurist happenings. This led all too easily to the world of the ham actor, or the great public poetry reading in which the poet becomes for his audience a quasi-religious figure. In contrast to this, and perhaps increasingly in his later years as he felt himself condemned to being a public figure, Pasternak wanted the poet to efface himself. “To be famous is not a beautiful thing,” he wrote. “Leave gaps in your life-story, not your writings.” “It is shameful, being insignificant, to be a fable on everyone’s lips.”

This stress on ordinariness had implications too for his poetry; it meant speaking “the language of a provincial” aiming for the famous “unprecedented simplicity”which he praised in a poem of 1931. But “simplicity” was a provocative word for a writer whose early poems were (and still are) notoriously difficult, and whose great novel is far from straightforward. How are we to understand it?

Partly simplicity is an aggressive, negative concept. The stanza following the words “unprecedented simplicity” reads:

But we shall not be spared
If we do not hide it.
It is what people most need,
But they understand what is complex more easily.

“What is complex” is the accretion of dead language which hides the world from us, for instance the bureaucratic crust that forms over the lava of revolutionary speech. In Doctor Zhivago the hero stands in Yuryatin reading the wall-newspapers and his head swims “at the endlessness of these monotonous repetitions…. Once in his life he had been thrilled by this uncompromising language and directness of thought. Would he really have to pay all his life long for this incautious enthusiasm by seeing always the same unchanging crazy shouts and demands, ever more lifeless, incomprehensible, and impracticable?”

That is one form of complexity or falsehood. There are others. There is the literary artifice, which Pasternak often condemned under the name of romanticism, “that which is fabricated, not authentic, literature about literature and self-admiration on the part of the artist.” (This may strike one as being itself a very romantic position, and the modern reader will be tempted to object that it is not possible to escape the snares of literature and artifice.) It was in the name of simplicity that in later life Pasternak came to condemn the “trinkets” and “frills” of his own early poetry, a poetry written in the heyday of Futurism and Formalism, a great age of literary experiment. He dissociated himself from this experimentalism with the words: “I have never understood these pursuits. In my view the most astonishing discoveries have been made when the content so overfilled the artist that it left him no time for thought, and he hastened to speak his new words in the old language without examining whether it was old or new.”

In these words we see the positive side of “simplicity”; it is the belief, which nowadays may seem old-fashioned or magical, that the words of a poem or any literary work can “contain” an experience of the world. So Chopin’s Etudes were seen as containing Poland’s “groves and graves and parks”; this is the by now famous notion of poetry as a “sponge,” something like a reincarnation of Keats’s “negative capability.” The resulting simplicity can be disconcerting. As Andrei Sinyavsky says in his fine essay on Pasternak which is included in Victor Erlich’s anthology.


the simplest and most natural means of expression becomes thus unintelligible to the ears, grown accustomed to the fact that the poet does not talk the way we actually do.

It was for this reason, according to Pasternak in Safe Conduct, that Scriabin (who much influenced him) cited his most difficult works as examples of simplicity and the most hackneyed music as examples of culpable complexity. And so one might speak of the simplicity of Pasternak’s most obscure early poems, since they are the record of a new and direct perception of reality, albeit reality “displaced” by strong feeling. This was what the Formalist Tynyanov (whose essay is also given in Erlich’s volume) celebrated in Pasternak, the “desire to aim the word straight at the thing.”

In Pasternak’s poetry it often seems that the poet effaces himself to make way not only for particular things but for the life of the world, in which (to quote once again from Erlich’s casebook, this time the words of Isaiah Berlin) “men, things, relationships, emotions, ideas, sensations, situations are conceived within a kind of universal biological category.” The poems of his best collection, My Sister, Life, which is the basis of the small selection of poems translated under this title by Olga A. Carlisle, are poems where the “I” does not often appear directly, but amazingly fresh-seeming words and combinations of words make present a world of rain, gardens, steppes, people, and railways—and indirectly the prodigious summer of 1917—and through all of this the constantly renewed springing of life. In her preface Olga Carlisle says that rather than attempt to catch Pasternak’s voice in another language she has “tried to retain the flavor of his uniquely fresh, exhilarating images.” Thus in “The Mirror”:

Beyond the dark garden gate, shimmering
And mixing twigs and snails,
A path of hot quartz is flowing
Into the medicinal sweetness of the steppe.

To reinforce this stress on the image, the English and Russian texts are accompanied by the color photographs of Inge Morath, which often vie with the poems in depicting a storm, a city street, or a drop of water on a twig. It is always interesting to set visual images against writing, not least because of the gap between them. The photographs printed here illustrate the poems in certain ways—simply for instance by giving those who haven’t been there some idea of the specific look of Russian fields or dachas. At the same time they go off in their own direction, gleaming, static, and sometimes all too conventional. We are reminded again that a poem is no more a mere image of the world than a photograph a plain record of what is there. The “things” of Tynyanov, like the images in Olga Carlisle’s translations, are not the whole story by a long way.

In his insistence on “realism” Pasternak the aesthetic theorist can mislead his readers—among other things, he condemns much of his best work. Perhaps indeed he was theorizing against his own talent. In his later years he often praised the plain honesty of Chekhov, and in the circumstances of Soviet Russia one can see why. But Pasternak was different from Chekhov. Like Blok he had wanted to escape from “mere” lyricism, and like many writers of the early Soviet period he had felt the urge (mocked by Nadezhda Mandelstam) to move outward from lyric to epic, to do justice to the truth of the age—which in his case was of course a truth very different from that associated with socialist realism. Naturally then he was hurt by those who continued to see in him above all a lyric poet and who reacted to Doctor Zhivago by seeing it either as a failure (considered as a realist novel) or as a final product of his essentially lyrical, subjective inspiration.

Perhaps it is fruitless to argue about the extent of Pasternak’s objective realism. There will be those who hear Poland in Chopin’s music, those who do not. Similarly with My Sister, Life and Doctor Zhivago. But however we may feel about the “things” in his poetry and prose, his own presence is unmistakable. It is felt in the choice of subjects, in the striking associative leaps, and perhaps above all in the intonation, the wonderful speech rhythms, and the crackle of words which so impressed Mandelstam in 1922. This is the aspect which Olga Carlisle has decided not to try for in her versions, and no doubt Pasternak’s voice is difficult to render, but still it is vital for the quality of the poems, which are more than imagist representations of the world.


Pasternak’s poems act out a power and movement which are that of the life he observes but that of the poet too. It is as with the passage in the Prelude where Wordsworth writes of his nocturnal ascent of Snowdon; what are we reading here, an account of the workings of nature, or of the poet’s mind? Similarly in his crucial poem “Marburg”:

The paving-stones were incandes- cent and the street’s forehead
Was swarthy, and at the sky the cobbles scowled up
From under their brows, and the wind, like a boatman,
Was rowing through the lime-trees. And it was all likenesses.

Likenesses of what? As the epigraph to My Sister, Life Pasternak quotes the poet Lenau: “I paint your features in the weather.” The girl is in the weather, the poet too and his age. All things echo one another in a world full of correspondences. For all his concern for things in themselves, Pasternak often appears to be writing in the old symbolist tradition.

Or perhaps one should say, in spite of his disclaimers, the romantic tradition. His attack on romanticism was necessary among other things as a protest on behalf of “life,” in a generation when socialist realism combined romanticism and realism in a proclamation of the need to change life—the belief that so infuriates Yury Zhivago. But this should not blind us to all that links Pasternak with the great tradition of European romanticism—for an English reader Wordsworth is the obvious point of comparison. Pasternak’s stress on renewal (in images of birdsong, spring rain, storms, and in Dr. Zhivago) is that of the romantics; so too is the place given to imagination, the power that does not so much change life as render it more present in a transfigured form. At the end of one of his most beautiful poems, “August,” Dichtung and Wahrheit come together in a farewell to poetry:

Farewell, outstretched span of wings,
Free obstinacy of flight,
And image of the world, made present in words,
And creation, and miracle-working.

One of the places where the miracle-worker is most needed is in translation. Here too there is the meeting of the thing itself, a presence in the world (say, Hamlet), and of a poet-translator who will both represent and transfigure it. Pasternak was a great translator; partly indeed he found in translation an outlet for his creative impulse at a time when the writing of his own poetry was made difficult for him. His views on the subject are consonant with his views on poetry in general: the translator should render the essence of the original, not concerning himself or herself with surface fidelity, but preserving above all the living force of the work. His achievement as a translator of Shakepeare is carefully and judiciously studied in Anna Kay France’s new book.

It is perhaps no surprise that what Pasternak regards as truth to the spirit sometimes seems to others like a highly personal interpretation. Shakespeare emerges transformed; in translation as in his own poetry, Pasternak’s self is too powerful for him to be able to efface himself, and he pulls Shakespeare’s plays toward his own concerns, democratizing, simplifying, idealizing. His translation (like all translation, of course, but here more so) is a work of interpretation.

One of the most interesting interpretations discussed by Anna Kay France is that of Hamlet. In Pasternak’s view “Hamlet is the drama of an exalted fate, of a preordained heroic task, of a committed destiny.” This is a Hamlet for Stalin’s Russia, and it is echoed in Pasternak’s poem of the same name, the first of the Zhivago poems, and the one that has come to represent Pasternak for many people. In its sixteen lines several figures merge, Hamlet, the actor playing Hamlet, Christ at Gethsemane, Yury Zhivago, and Pasternak himself, all figures isolated in a hostile or indifferent world:

I am alone, everything drowns in Phariseeism.

Ironically, one is reminded here of Pasternak’s attack on the “romantic” conception of the poet’s role, where the poet stands out against the philistines. Now it is Pharisees who have taken over from the philistines, and the part to be played is not one that has been chosen by the actor, but in the end Pasternak, as if anticipating the Nobel Prize affair, is driven to a tragic acceptance of the poet’s sacrificial role, a role all too often seen in Russia.

This is Pasternak the public hero, who has taken his place, in spite of himself, in spite of all his earlier strictures, in the gallery of tragic Russian poets. Literally a gallery, for the photograph of the poet easily becomes an icon. Pasternak, like many of Russia’s great poets, was very photogenic and his handsome image has been admired on a million bookcovers in the bookshops of the Western world. And of course it is in this painful way, through the storms of the Nobel Prize affair, that Pasternak too came to an audience as great as Mayakovsky’s.

It would be wrong however to let this public glare distract one from his greatest achievement, which is in the realm of the private. One of the striking things about his writing is the way he finds the great in the small or apparently insigificant, poetry in the grass at our feet. Two much-quoted lines in My Sister, Life proclaim that the “omnipotent god of details” is the “omnipotent god of love.” Pasternak rejects the socalled “interesting people” and joins together the genius and the ordinary person, the modest and the sublime. Not an original position, no doubt, and one that can easily be given a reactionary twist (as in Pascal I think), but it has its force in the Soviet Union of today.

Anna Akhmatova, in a valedictory poem, described Boris Pasternak as one who “talked with the groves” (sobesednik roshch). Not only groves of course, but the emblem is well chosen. And the poet talked with the groves, talking and listening, not wholly obliterating himself to let the trees talk, nor using them as a vehicle to project his intrusive self, but open to the world, and constantly alive. In doing this Pasternak, like his doctor hero, spoke to his contemporaries and to posterity, not with Mayakovsky’s admirably headlong self-assertive dash, but in an indirect and quieter way which was just as powerful in the end.

This Issue

October 25, 1979