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An old man’s prayer

April 25, 2014

I apologize up front that the answer is obscure.

In 1859 this poem was published in Leipzig and attributed to Pushkin. I knew in advance it wasn’t actually Pushkin’s, but I’d like to think I could have figured that out from the text, especially the way there’s no twist of any kind at the end — no joke, no surprise, no change in tone, no especially effective last line, not even an unexpected decrescendo.

After 1859 people argued about whether it was really Pushkin’s, with “ecclesiasticals and reactionaries” insisting it clearly was, judging by its “style and artistic virtues.” Others said it was poorly written and there was no evidence Pushkin wrote it. The poem continued to be reprinted as his, even appearing in an 1887 edition of his collected works (143).

Later, in 1898, someone found a copy of the same poem, unsigned and written in an unknown hand, in the album of Pushkin’s woman friend A. N. Vul’f, and published it as a new discovery. In response, S. I. Ponomarev wrote that it had appeared as early as 1853, in a collection of religious verse (143). More than once after that the poem was rediscovered and treated as a new contribution to Pushkin studies, as late as the 1937 centennial (144).

V. V. Kallash, who had lamented the repeated discoveries and accurately predicted the same thing would happen again, himself attributed the poem to Fet. Fet had written a different poem putting the Lord’s Prayer into verse (145-46).

Bukhshtab had his doubts about Fet’s authorship and the evidence Kallash found in favor of it, but he included the poem in the commentary (not the main text) of an edition of Fet’s poetry in 1937. In 1959 he published another edition of Fet’s complete collected poetry and left this poem out altogether, because in the interim he’d happened upon the first publication of this poem, which was in The Muscovite in 1842, signed “P. Shrk…..” This abbreviated name isn’t in dictionaries of pseudonyms, but Bukhshtab deduced that it was probably Platon Aleksandrovich Shirinskii-Shikhmatov (1790-1853), the less famous writer of the Shirinskii-Shikhmatov brothers. It was Sergei Aleksandrovich Shirinskii-Shikhmatov (1783-1837) that Pushkin referred to as “the devout Shikhmatov,” Шихматов богомольный. Platon Aleksandrovich was known less for his poetry than for his stint as Nicholas I’s Minister of National Education during the repressive years of 1850-1853. Bukhshtab even has a guess for how copies of the poem began to circulate with the author identified incorrectly as Pushkin or Fet: Fet published a lot in The Muscovite in 1842, and Pushkin’s name shared most of the letters in “P. Shrk” (146-48).

See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Ob avtorstve stikhotvoreniia, pripisyvavshegosia Pushkinu i Fetu,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), pp. 142-49. First published in Iskusstvo slova (Moscow, 1973), pp. 247-53.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. April 28, 2014 7:19 am

    I thought Fet was a skeptic when it came to religion. Perhaps he had a different view as a young man? Bukhshtab claims Fet was an “atheist” as a student but B. wrote for a Soviet edition where everyone had better be an atheist.

    Sergey M. Soloviev had some seriously unkind words for Platon Shirinsky-Shikhmatov as minister of education.

  2. April 28, 2014 1:09 pm

    That’s something I’d like to know more about. The poet in Чем доле я живу, чем больше пережил seems to be describing a transition toward greater religious faith with age, and Fet was apparently in his 50s or 60s when he wrote it. I could imagine him becoming less of a skeptic over time as a way of moving away from loud atheist contemporaries he found distasteful, but again, I don’t know.

    The Lord’s Prayer / Our Father is perhaps an ambiguous choice, since it could work as a statement of / call for religious faith (as I imagine the writer of Я слышал — в келии простой meant it) or as a minimalistic attempt to strip away all but the fundamental aspects of religion (I believe it functions this way in Matthew 6:5-13). So Fet’s Чем доле я живу sounds different depending if you imagine it’s addressed to atheists or to those believers who want complexity and elaborate ritual in their Christianity.

    • April 30, 2014 4:18 am

      It sounds like an acceptance of the wisdom and power of the Lord’s prayer – not yet a transition towards faith. It is perhaps akin to Brahms’ love of Luther’s Bible.

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