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Bukhmeier on Mei

June 29, 2010

Lev Aleksandrovich Mei has always interested me as someone at the fringe of the canon.  You see his poems all over mid-nineteenth century journals, but I doubt anyone alive today considers him their favorite poet, and few read him at all.  Minor poets at the beginning and end of the century are at least read by people who are passionate about (and/or professionally specialize in) the Golden Age or Modernism.  Mei – like Shcherbina, whose situation is similar – is cheated out of even this by the fractured condition of poetry in the Tiutchev-Nekrasov-Fet interregnum.

Still, Mei is a big enough deal that his work has been republished in print reasonably recently and is available online.  I was curious and read K. K. Bukhmeier’s essay that introduced a 1985 collection of Mei’s poetry.

In 1849, Bukhmeier writes, Mei began to publish in Москвитянин, where in that year his drama in verse Царская невеста appeared.  That play and another on historical themes, Псковитянка (1859), were among his most influential works.  Most of his poetry Bukhmeier divides into those that depict “objective” and “subjective” worlds.  The objective poems are elevated in tone and restricted to “poetic” themes, and the author’s individual voice nearly vanishes in them, as does the age he lives in.  In the subjective category, we see instead “the unadorned emotional world of a kind, not very successful, and very lonely, restless man […] This world is not broad, not bright, but sincere and humane.”

The poems about the objective world reflect Mei’s interest in “the national character and customs of various peoples.”  Not properly speaking a Slavophile, Mei was influenced by them and by the thought of the historian S. M. Solov’ev.  He was quite interested in the Russian folk song and details of быт from earlier eras.  His own literary “folk songs” were criticized as mere “talented stylizations,” but in Bukhmeier’s view often go beyond mastery of the formal elements of oral peasant poetry and grasp its spirit.  His interest in old-time Russia and the supposedly “immutable foundations” of the Russian national character could hardly have come from a narrow view of the world, as he knew Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, English, Italian, and Polish.  Examples of his “objective” poems on Russian themes include “Хозяин,” “Русалка,” “Вихорь,” “Песня про боярина Евпатия Коловрата,” “Александр Невский.”

Apart from poems on Russian themes, Mei’s “objective” poems include his treatments of classical antiquity and the Biblical age.  The classical poems include “typically Romantic poems about creative inspiration,” like “Галатея,” “Муза,” “Дафнэ,” and “Фрине.”  The poem “Цветы” was widely read and praised by Apollon Grigor’ev.  Among the Biblical poems mentioned by Bukhmeier are “Отойди от меня, сатана!” “Давиду — Иеремием,” and “Юдифь.”

In the late 1850s, Mei started writing more poems of the “subjective” type, for which he was criticized as overly removed from the social issues of the day.  Bukhmeier is impressed by the “deep humanity” felt even today by readers of poems like “Чуру,” “Знаешь ли, Юленька?” and “Зачем?”  (These poems, and others not linked in this post, can all be found on one page at lib.ru.)  The poet’s use of diminutives like Юленька was shocking at the time and was parodied.

Some poems do not neatly fit into Bukhmeier’s two categories.  In particular, Mei’s “lyric songs in folk spirit, often written from a woman’s point of view” resemble the poems about the objective world in their “folk” themes, and do not come from the perspective of the “very lonely, restless man” of the subjective-world poems.  On the other hand, in mood they are quite a bit like Mei’s “subjective” lyric poetry.  These include “Ты житье ль мое…” and “Как у всех-то людей светлый праздничек.”

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