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Pisarev’s poets

May 3, 2013

Dmitrii Pisarev’s “Pisemskii, Turgenev, and Goncharov” (1861) reminded me that, despite their reputation for anti-aesthetic predictability, the radical critics of the 1850s and 1860s could be quite readable. Pisarev especially. The unexpected thesis: Goncharov is a brilliant technician who refuses to take a stand on anything, while Turgenev and Pisemskii are also talented and have taken a stand. The positive tone for Turgenev (before Fathers and Sons and Smoke) and Pisemskii (before Troubled Seas) is striking.

Before he gets to prose, though, Pisarev has an aside on poetry. Summaries of the radical critics as a group have them championing civic poetry (especially Nekrasov) and condemning poetry as pure art (Fet, Polonskii, Maikov). But that’s not exactly how it works here:

Unfortunately, the realm of poetry is in some respects far less broad than that of painting. You can, for example, paint a picture without expressing any idea or emotion at all; this coveted privilege is entirely denied you when you take the word as your tool; then one must absolutely say something; reading the most vivid description of some wicker fence or orchard, a reader will never be satisfied, but will keep asking, “and then what?” If you give him nothing more, he will think you were playing a joke on him and perhaps might even find your joke fell rather flat. On this basis every poet, no matter how much he treasures his artistic freedom and however hostile he might be to the element of thought, tries purely for form’s sake to put himself forward in his works as a thinking and feeling person.

At this point, think which poets these unsuccessful jokers might be, and which poets might be less hostile to thought, in Pisarev’s opinion.

No one, of course, will reproach Messrs. Fet, Mei, and Polonskii for being deep thinkers, and nevertheless in their lyric poems there are the likenesses of thoughts and emotions; it happens, it is true, that you read a short poem of three or four couplets and immediately forget it, as you forget a cigar once you finish smoking it; but on the other hand the poem has acted on your nervous system almost the same way as a cigar; the first two lines won you over with their harmonious sound, the first four rhymes lulled you with their even cadence, and you read to the end in a state of pleasant half-dozing, having lost all ability, and for that matter any wish, to react critically to the work you have read. Such reading is actually good from the hygienic point of view after dinner, and moreover such poems are very useful from the typographical point of view, for filling up white space, i.e. the pages between serious articles and artistic works in journals. But do you know what often happens? A gentleman [джентльмен], after using a hundred and fifty or so smooth trifles to fill white space, is taken into the ranks of Russian poets, becomes an authority, publishes his collected poems and begins to think about the gratitude of posterity, a monument aere perennius. I am perfectly willing to admit their right to a monument, but I will permit myself merely to give one piece of advice to the reader of such poets: try, sir, to paraphrase in prose two or three good poems by Fet, Polonskii, Shcherbina, or Benediktov and read them thus. Then two precious characteristics of these poems will, like olive oil, float to the top: firstly, the inimitable pettiness of the basic idea, and secondly, the colossal pomposity of form; you will think you accidentally opened a volume of Marlinskii’s works, you will think of the Manilov family [from Dead Souls] or even the inscriptions on candy wrappers, you will close the book and probably agree with my opinion.

So Fet, Polonskii, and a shifting company of others are “hostile to thought.” But compared to whom?

Our lyric poets, with the exception of Messrs. Maikov and Nekrasov, have no internal content; they are not advanced enough to stand on a level with the ideas of the age; they are not intelligent enough to snatch these ideas out of the air of the period with their own powers of common sense; they are not sensitive enough, when looking at the phenomena of everyday life surrounding them, to reflect in their works the visage of this life with its poverty and sadness. Only the small disturbances in their own narrow little psychological world are accessible to them; how their heart shuddered as they looked at some woman, how they became sad at some separation, how there was a stirring in their breast at the memory of some moment — all this is described faithfully, perhaps, all this comes out quite charming sometimes, only awfully petty; whose business is it, and who is interested in taking up patience and a microscope to follow, over the course of dozens of poems, in what manner Mr. Fet loves his beloved, or Mr. Mei, or Mr. Polonskii? Learn some more, Messrs. lyric poets, read a bit and think a bit! After all, if one calls oneself a Russian poet, one cannot fail to know that our time is occupied with interests, ideas, questions that are much broader, deeper, and more important than your amorous adventures and tender feelings. However, I say once again that you are free to do as you like, but I too, as a reader and a critic, am free to discuss what you do as I like. And I am probably not the only one to whom what you do looks awfully hollow and colorless.

It is not difficult, of course, to understand why I have excluded Maikov and Nekrasov from our lyric poets. I respect Nekrasov as a poet for his burning sympathy for ordinary people’s suffering, for the honest word he is always willing to speak on behalf of the pauper and the downtrodden man. […] I respect Maikov as an intelligent man and one advanced in the modern way, as a proponent of taking harmonious pleasure in life who has a definite, sober world view, as the creator of “Three Deaths,” “Savonarola,” “The Sentence,” etc. Anyone will agree that these two lyric poets, Maikov and Nekrasov, in intelligence, talent, in their advanced thinking and their attitude toward modern life, are immeasurably higher than the versifiers I spoke of on the previous page.

Maikov! To me Maikov exists mostly as a target of attacks on pure art, though he’s also the author of the Crimean War poema The Council of Clermont (1853) and a friend of Dostoevskii’s who loyally keeps the secret of just how revolutionary his past was, according to Joseph Frank. Here he’s not only not attacked, he’s up there with Nekrasov among the poets who are almost as relevant as the big novelists.

Iu. S. Sorokin’s 1955 footnote explains: “In his years of study at St. Petersburg University, Pisarev was close to the Maikovs’ literary circle. This positive evaluation of A. N. Maikov’s poetry is typical of Pisarev’s initial period at The Russian Word. The first polemical attack on Maikov as a manifestation of ‘pure art’ was carried out by Pisarev in the article ‘Flowers of Innocent Humor’ (1864).”

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