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“The Riddle of Nekrasov”

March 10, 2015

In 1938 the poet Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945) published “The Riddle of Nekrasov” (Загадка Некрасова) in the short-lived émigré journal Russian Notes (Русские записки, 1937-39). In 2009 I finished a dissertation on “Nekrasov and Russian Modernism” without ever finding Gippius’s piece. Now it just popped up when I was searching for something else on the internet, thanks to the website, which started in late 2011, and volume 13 of Gippius’s collected works (2001-), which came out in 2012. If those sources didn’t exist, there’s now also the site, which has scanned reproductions of tons of émigré journals, including Russian Notes (which looks worth browsing; issue 3 has Tsvetaeva, Merezhkovskii, Shestov, and others, besides Gippius on Nekrasov). I’m still kicking myself for not finding “The Riddle of Nekrasov” before, but every year the internet makes life easier.


Nekrasov, for people of my generation, is childhood, the earliest childhood, almost infancy. Nekrasov — not by name, of course — is in songs: grandfather playing whist and half-humming, half-singing something pleasant and incomprehensible: “my attachments have all been broken” or an aunt at the piano: “look longingly at the road…” “you ruined your youth… two or three flowers…” [I think “two or three flowers” is a child misunderstanding А ты цветка весеннего свежей as Два-три цветка… – EM] And how much more singing too! It is true that the principal quality of Nekrasov’s poetry is its “songfulness [песенность].” Not its musicality [напевность], o no!, but precisely its songfulness (his best pieces, of course): critics were right to point this out. In songs he remained alive even then, as he probably also did in various “winged” words and lines that we heard from “grown-ups” and committed so thoroughly to memory (a child’s memory!) that even thirty years later we come upon them like old acquaintances. But that was all. At the time of my — our — childhood, Nekrasov had, it seems, nearly run his course. After we learned to read, we read him in anthologies, and even read his books, but we read them (people my age and I) not as poetry but as stories. “Vlas,” “The Pedlars,” “Sasha” — aren’t these stories, and fairly interesting ones? Poetry was something else. Poetry was Lermontov, but also any random garbage in any random volume, which felt to us at the time to be closer to Lermontov than to Nekrasov. His satires entirely failed to interest even me, with my early inclination toward satirical verse and the epigram. (222)

This fits with my basic picture of how Gippius’s generation saw Nekrasov, but I’m struck by the contrast with Valerii Briusov (1873-1924), who in a draft of an article on Nekrasov was enthusiastic about his satires and called him “our only satirist in verse.” On the other hand, the fact that Gippius suddenly mentions Nekrasov’s satires as a subset of his poetry says something, just as the fact that she writes a ten-page article about him in 1938 is in tension with the limited importance she says he had in her generation’s formative years and afterward.

Briusov also remembered young admirers of poetry in his late–nineteenth century youth as breaking into two camps, roughly a “pure art” Pushkin camp and a “civic poetry” Nekrasov/Nadson camp. Gippius has a similar division: long after the 1860s, the civic line continued in literature and culture, but had no use for Nekrasov with his poems to his muses (“and such despondent ones!”; 225); and when at the end of the nineteenth century “literature began its tortuous rebirth” from decades of civic concerns, Nekrasov was quite forgotten on that side too (223). The difference may only be one of emphasis: Briusov speaks of young readers admiring Nekrasov “through Nadson,” and Gippius says that among students of the time, “Nekrasov’s influence, his direct influence at any rate, could not be discerned” (222, emphasis added).

Much of Gippius’s article is a direct response to what Kornei Chukovskii wrote about Nekrasov in the 1920s. Chukovskii makes much of Nekrasov’s “duality” — he is both a poet and a citizen, both a gentleman and a plebeian, both a “man of the 1840s,” in the tradition of the liberal, Europe-oriented gentry like Gertsen or Turgenev, and a “man of the 1860s,” a raznochinets like Chernyshevskii or Dobroliubov. Gippius essentially says he’s neither; he was always his own thing, different in essence from and misunderstood by his early friends and his later allies, and destined to fall out with the Turgenev set even if circumstances (Chernyshevskii coming to The Contemporary, Gertsen accusing Nekrasov of stealing Ogarev’s money) had been different (224-26).

Gippius doesn’t like what Chukovskii does with the contradiction between Nekrasov’s supposedly Homeric love of life and his constant despondency and spleen. A rank-and-file critic following the 1860s tradition (“some Skabichevskii or other”) would have been content to say Nekrasov was unhappy because the misery he saw on all sides was so far from the ideal society he wanted (226). Chukovskii was close to blaming Nekrasov’s despondency on physical ailments, but that wouldn’t fly, because his writing showed the same tendency when he was a healthy nineteen-year-old (226-27). Gippius has her own answer: Nekrasov had a conscience (227-29).

A conscience is a strange gift. To what degree is one given to whom? Nekrasov’s conscience lived in him from his childhood and kept growing, even though he didn’t think about it. This made it the more terrible: like a blind serpent in his heart. He did not know how to protect himself from his passions; they easily took control of him; the more easily, as he sought an occasional “breather”: a way to forget the stings. And he did forget them… But how the serpent made him pay afterward! (228)

Gippius disagrees with an unnamed “modern critic, a person with taste,” who, however, “suffered from an inclination toward paradoxes,” and therefore decided to call Nekrasov “a true Christian poet” (230). I suspect she means her husband Merezhkovskii (1865-1941), who wrote in Two Mysteries of Russian Poetry (Две тайны русской поэзии, 1915) that “no Russian writer has so prayed or at least so thirsted for prayer” as Nekrasov did. (She might conceivably have meant Sergei Solov’ev or someone else, but why not name the critic unless it was her husband?) Gippius’s idea of Nekrasov’s conscience recreates the “thirsted for prayer” argument, but as an atheist blindly groping toward Christ’s forgiveness (230-31).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    March 10, 2015 8:45 am

    Looking at the contents list (in French!) of some of those journals, I really, really wish I could read Russian!

  2. March 11, 2015 8:52 am

    Wow, I can’t thank you enough for that journal site. For many years I’ve been unhappy (verging on infuriated that no one had put «Современные записки» online (when I was living in New York I used to spend happy afternoons in the NYPL Slavic Reading Room — no longer extant — poring over those beautiful cream-colored issues), and now I discover someone has! I’m a happy Russianist today.

    • March 11, 2015 8:53 am

      (Bah, insert a close paren after “infuriated” — I read that comment over twice before posting it!)

  3. March 15, 2015 9:06 am

    I did not realize how hugely popular Nekrasov must have been, as a song lyricist at least, across class lines. This post is a true gem to me. I’ll try and explain why – it has to do with personal memories – just not right now.

    BTW, did you notice that Nekrasov’s original poem got reworked for one of the songs above? Not that much though, compared with other poets’ work mangled in мещанские романсы, like a stanza from The Demon in “Когда б имел златые горы.”

    • March 20, 2015 2:03 pm

      I’d be curious to hear the story behind your interest sometime. I had noticed some changes from poem to song, but as you say there could have been more.

      Do you remember this, from Tsvetaeva?

      Помню, меньше чем год спустя (март 1917 года), в том же Александрове, денщик – мне:

      – Читал я вашу книжку, барыня. Все про аллеи да про любовь, а вы бы про нашу жизнь написали. Солдатскую. Крестьянскую.

      – Но я не солдат и не крестьянин. Я пишу про что знаю, и вы пишите – про что знаете. Сами живете, сами и пишите.

      Денщик Павел – из молодых, да ранний. («Про аллеи да про любовь» – не весь ли социальный упрек Советов?)

      А я тогда сказала глупость – не мужик был Некрасов, а Коробушку по сей день поют.

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