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“The Stillborn”

July 6, 2021

Evgenii Baratynskii’s “The Stillborn” (Недоносок, 1835) is a poem of around 56 or 64 lines that feels very mysterious compared to poems from around the same time:

This is not how a Golden Age poem is expected to behave. What Baratynsky is doing here is more akin to what many a Silver Age poem, whether by Innokentii Annensky, Osip Mandelstam, or Benedikt Livshits, tell their readers and researchers: unriddle me, find a hidden clue, puzzle out my meaning. (285)

That’s Daria Khitrova, who quickly goes on to say that reading poetry isn’t about puzzling out a single secret meaning (the “power of poetry lies, after all, in the multiplicity of meanings and diversity of relevant contexts,” 285), but she does go on to give us some contexts that help us read the poem in new ways.

First she points out that the word nedonosok (which “refers to a baby born prematurely” today, but “in nineteenth-century usage […] could also mean a miscarriage or, indeed, a stillborn,” 287) was a common metaphor for a bad literary work in Russian and French literary criticism during and before Baratynskii’s career. For example, Pushkin’s Ruslan and Liudmila (Руслан и Людмила, 1817–20) “reminded Ivan Dmitriev of ‘a nedonosok born of a handsome father and a beautiful mother (his Muse)’” (287–88).

These bad literary works weren’t gestated for long enough per the nedonosok metaphor, which was used by critics who believed poetry should be written to outlive the poet, that “fugitive poetry,” light poetry written for fun or for a circle of friends or to mark an occasion of only temporary importance, was of no value and should be discouraged (288–89). Baratynskii, despite his “twentieth-century reinvention as a stand-alone ‘poet-philosopher,’” belonged to a generation that revered Konstantin Batiushkov and the idea of light poetry in general (290). But the vogue for poésie légère passed quickly. “By the late 1820s, a new generation of literati with a newly developed appetite for the high and the serious had sprung up,” and Baratynskii’s belief in light poetry was out of step (291). One way to read “The Stillborn” is as a programmatic defense of fugitive poetry in a time when serious poetry had taken the upper hand (290–93).

The “I” in “The Stillborn” definitely doesn’t seem like it’s the poet Baratynskii:

Я из племени духов,
Но не житель Эмпирея,
И едва до облаков
Возлетев, паду слабея.
Как мне быть? я мал и плох;
Знаю: рай за их волнами,
И ношусь, крылатый вздох,
Меж землей и небесами.

I am of the spirit tribe
but dwell not in the Empyrean;
flying up, I barely touch
the clouds, then lose strength and plummet,
What to do? I’m small and frail;
paradise lies past their billows—
this I know, and so I flail,
a winged sigh, between earth and heaven.

(translation by Rawley Grau as quoted in Khitrova 285)

And this is a bit unusual. Khitrova sympathetically quotes Jonathan Culler critiquing the “longstanding critical and pedagogical tradition by which the lyric I is invariably treated as if it were a fictional character ‘whose situation and motives one must reconstruct’” (293). Khitrova and Culler see this tradition as coming out of English poetic practice, in particular the “dramatic monologue,” the genre of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” But in the Russian poetic tradition, Khitrova argues, dramatic monologue was rare and not treated as a separate genre; in Russian poetry

subject identity is most often a variable rather than a constant: a lyric poem that pivots on the I-author leaves an I-speaker identification as an option, and vice versa. There is always a loophole, a play between the two that makes the subject identity productively ambiguous. Whether the speaker in Pushkin’s “The Prophet” [Пророк, 1826] is the prophet or the poet is an irresolvable question, which is part of the poem’s power. Even though humanities students are cautioned, from the proverbial first day of school, against conflating lyric poems and biographical evidence, no tradition in Russian lyric studies expects a student to mentally (re)construct a separate fictional character hiding behind the lyric I. (293)

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “lyric poetry was invariably understood as constituting the expression of an author’s own feelings,” and when Baratynskii’s contemporaries would “delegate their voices to a speaker with a well-defined separate identity,” they would generally announce this up front, early in the poem if not in the title (293). What makes “The Stillborn” so strange for its time is that it seems to make it clear that the voice we’re hearing isn’t Baratynskii’s, but it doesn’t explain clearly who or what the speaker is (294).

What the “speech situation” of “The Stillborn” resembles is the appearance of a spirit in the middle of a play (294). This had been unpopular during “a period of classicist suppression,” but spirits like those in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream were becoming popular again, as in Byron’s Manfred (1816–17) or Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve, both of which were translated into Russian in 1828 (294–95). The fashion for “spirit monologues on stage and page” became especially intense with “the posthumous publication of Part Two of Goethe’s Faust in 1832” (296). Previous scholars have found possible sources for “The Stillborn” in Goethe (296).

Spirit monologues were so popular in 1830s Russia that Dostoevskii used one as the satirical example of Stepan Verkhovenskii’s past writing in Demons (Бесы, 1871-72) (296). Vil’gel’m Kiukhel’beker had written a “dramatic joke” called Shakespeare’s Spirits (Шекспировы духи) in 1825 (295). It’s even possible that “The Stillborn” was originally part of a now lost “drama” that Baratynskii sent to Ivan Kireevskii in 1832 (297). There’s no way to be sure, but the meter supports this hypothesis: “traditionally, monologues delivered by self-introducing elves and spirits were, like ‘Nedonosok,’ written in trochaic tetrameter” (297).

There is more on the development of the speaker, addressee, and speech situation over the course of the poem, as well as some verbal play on weight/lightness/gravity/gravidity/pregnancy, in the full article: see Daria Khitrova, “Things Untimely: Death, Birth, and Poetry in Evgenii Baratynsky’s ‘Nedonosok,’” Slavic and East European Journal 64.2 (2020): 284–304.

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