A Science Not for the Earth
by Yevgeny Baratynsky
Translated by Rawley Grau
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016
In 1842 a Moscow bookseller published Dusk, a slim book, twenty-six short poems, by Yevgeny Baratynsky. The poet’s career seemed years behind him. He had teased the spotlight in his twenties, been acclaimed one of Russia’s finest poets. He counted among his friends the poet and ascending deity of Russian letters, Aleksandr Pushkin. The latter had championed Baratynsky’s work, and the two had shared space in a volume called Two Tales in Verse that contained two narrative poems, one by each. Baratynsky had been mythologized from the outset: a childhood prank, or minor heist, had cost him his place in both state and society, and, with this story accenting his existential poetry coming from outside society, he became an icon of Romanticism. But by 1842 things had changed. Pushkin was dead, Baratynsky’s style had evolved away from popular and critical tastes, and his career was in shambles.
The publication of Dusk would not revive him. Even after his death a few years later, he was treated as an inconsistent poet, not in his command of language or meter, but in the philosophical ideas his poems surveyed. As much, critics decried his cerebral poetry. Pushkin had said of him: “He is original because he thinks […] while at the same time he feels strongly and deeply.” It was no help. This was the Romantic age of poetry, and Baratynsky professed the Romantic position, albeit with an unorthodox methodology. Indeed, as Pushkin wrote, Baratynsky was a thinker, but a thinker who had followed a trail similar to that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, finding that the empirical razor was suicide for the soul, and Baratynsky never quite made the next step from this revelation to inhabit Romantic ideals purely.
Thought, always thought! Unfortunate word artist!
Thought’s priest! For you there’s no oblivion.
Rawley Grau, editor and translator of A Science Not for the Earth: Selected Poems and Letters, has it that Baratynsky never made up his mind, though I am not sure that is exactly correct. Baratynsky, himself, is never explicit, neither in the poems nor the letters that divide this volume.
Dusk is described by Grau as the first work in Russian to have a “coherent lyrical identity,” and another poet, Aleksandr Kushner, called it Russia’s first “book of verse.” Grau tells us in his introduction that the pervading sentiment was that the age of poetry was finished, and this goes hand in hand with the fact that Dusk, coming in at the end of Russia’s Golden Age of poetry, with lyrics Russia would never embrace, cohered the crises of thought and feeling, as a sequence of elegies for the unreflective fool.
A Science Not for the Earth acknowledges the importance of Dusk as a singular “coherent” statement of poetry, and places it between a selection of poems written or published prior to those that would appear in Dusk, and a selection of verse written after 1839 and not intended for inclusion. (This third section includes some poetry intended for Dusk but not included in the final publication.) These three bodies of poetry, while excluding longer narrative verse projects (which we hope Grau is at work on), create a story that complements the poet’s verse, a tale of a poet thinking, discerning, and perhaps never deciding. Though it is preceded by an excellent introduction that covers the themes at work, a basic biography, Baratynsky’s literary reputation, and notes on the translations, the three sections of verse stand more or less for themselves, if given the favor of some contextual information.
Preceding Dusk in this volume is the section “Poems 1820-1834.” The difference between the elegiac mode of Baratynsky’s earlier work and the lyrical mode of Dusk is not apparently translatable, coming down to a rhyme and meter that the translator only carries the suggestion of in his renderings into English. Throughout his career, though he is able to majestically attend to landscape (as in his poem “Finland,” which I will return to), there is a remarkable weight given to the interior landscape. If this was the more standard poetry of Romanticism, that would be speaking of the poet’s emotions, but Baratynsky’s recurrent subject is thought, and Baratynsky only seems happy explicitly when thoughts have been stifled. In the short poem “To A. A. V.” he writes, “you do not rouse us, like the sun / to stormy activity […] in your presence the soul is filled / with holy quietness.” And he finishes an untitled poem with “Why ask! Happy the man who drinks / the oblivion of thought, / who’s carried far away from it / by this miraculous feast!” Such examples are passim, but that is not to say the poet does not touch on anything else. In fact, there is a very curious dystopian poem titled “The Last Death,” where the poet has a vision of mankind wiping itself out, and the sun returning to shine on a world without humans or animals. Much later, at the end of Baratynsky’s life, and this volume of poetry, he also penned a narrative historical poem drawn from a face from his childhood.
Italy’s refugee, Giacinto, my old tutor,
you left her amber grape, her golden lemon behind you
in great anxiety, and stung with lust for gain,
arrived in an austere land, a snow-enveloped land,
with an array of paintings that were so enigmatic
no one but you could say, could see, what they depicted!
The final poem in the selection of verse begins as above, and is very different in style from anything else in the book. The poem, “To My Tutor, the Italian,” plays out almost like the life-story we find replayed for us at the end of our lives, or so goes popular imagination. In this case, the life-story is not Baratynsky’s own life-story, but the story of Baratynsky’s childhood tutor. It may have been Baratynsky’s last poem; he would die a few weeks later, and it is fitting that the poet with the wandering mind would drift in the moments leading up to his death to write a curious historical narrative written from the eyes of his childhood friend. Baratynsky’s mind wandered deep and far.
It is an interesting and engaging volume of poetry, but reaching the end of the verse takes you to the midpoint of the book. It is as if, reaching the end of the poet’s life in verse, you are thrown back to the beginning to watch it again, this time in letters he wrote to his friends, family, and those he admired. Here, the life behind the poetry is cast behind another window.
As someone who found such insight in the poetry, and out of which built up a mental portrait of Baratynsky, I was not surprised Grau chose to complement the verse with a selection of letters—perhaps as a corrective. The verse, in its meandering, internalized discourse, traces an incomplete picture, so the inclusion of letters should be compelling. Indeed, the letters are excellent in terms of their historical and contextual illumination—what they add to our picture of Baratynsky and his era of Russian society. More so, they are at times hilarious not for their content but for the experiences we’re delivered of Baratynsky, such as a private reading by Gogol from his new book Dead Souls in 1839, a few years before it was published. Then there are the quotidian details of the life he lived as a Russian landowner, calculating the grain needed to be set aside for his serfs during famine.
What the letters lack is much of an exposition of Baratynsky the proto-Romantic philosopher, or even the great wandering mind we see in his poems. Grau’s introduction paints a portrait of a thinker who was never satisfied with conclusions coming from within or without, and as much as that is compatible with the picture we derive from reading his poetry, this aspect of himself Baratynsky did not put into his correspondence. This may be because Baratynsky did not feel it politically safe to expound on Enlightenment-derived ideas—even to reject them. In more than one letter he asks his recipient to note whether his letter has come unsealed, referring apparently to other interested parties who may have intercepted the letter in transit.
Baratynsky’s letters cast a personal light on some intriguing aspects of 19th-century Russia, one of the most tumultuous of which was the Decembrist uprising of 1825, which cost several of Baratynsky’s friends their freedom. Many of the publications Baratynsky was involved in were suppressed after the failed uprising. But for all the tumult these events caused in the lives of Baratynsky and his circle, the letters only bear traces, tersely expressed emotion for his jailed friends, annoyance at the suppression of friends’ literary journals.
Within this selection of letters the richest correspondence may be with poet, philosopher, and publisher Ivan Kireyevsky, one of the editors whose journals is suppressed. In the letters to Kireyevsky we see the most of the philosophical ruminations that occupied Baratynsky in his poems. Of great interest to our portrait as well is the end of their association, though the details remain a mystery. Kireyevsky came to be associated with the philosophical movement known as Slavophilism, Russia’s homegrown reaction to Enlightenment-thinking and a product of Romanticism. That Baratynsky may have broken with Kireyevsky over this is speculated upon by Grau, but without any certainty, and there is some evidence of it being of a more personal nature. Their philosophical quarrel never comes up in the letters, if it was ever iterated between them at all. It is only after the break between the two that we see a perhaps paranoiac Baratynsky venting about “rumors” spread by his now-enemy and his circle in Moscow. There is, however, Baratynsky’s poem “To a Coterie,” from 1842:
So have your brotherhood! For you were born to
defend each other’s insignificance.
But true Talent is no brother to your warren,
you talentless pack of busy scriveners!
Friends worthy not of that which once was uttered
to those allied for good—but the inverse:
“Amen, amen, where three of you are gathered,”
he tells you, “I will not be in your midst.”
The letters here are wanting of more of the story, as the useful details are, as above, in the poetry, as well as in Grau’s introduction and appendix. The letters are not mirrors I am able to hold up to the poems to better understand them. As in the above case, the poetry occasionally provides the light source to make sense of the biography underlying his correspondence.
These letters are, nevertheless, invaluable, and there is one in the selection, early on, that has enough heft to serve as an introduction, were this collection a slimmer volume. This is the story of “the heist,” as related in a letter to Vassily Zhukovsky, during the poet’s “exile” to Finland (and Saint Petersburg). Zhukovsky himself was the star of Russian poetry at this time, before the appearance of Pushkin. This chapter of Baratynsky’s life is a Bildungsroman on its own. At the Corps des Pages, the military academy where Baratynsky trained to take his role in Russian nobility, a small band of bored aristocrats had formed a “Society of Avengers” that performed petty larceny and minor vandalism against their masters. The Tsarist complement to Truffaut’s Les Quatre Cents Coups (and as verbally cinematographic) culminates in Baratynsky and a friend attempting grand theft from one of their society-member’s parents. They are caught, expelled from the Corps, and under order of the Emperor, Baratynsky is stripped of rank; he must re-enlist as a common private—devoid of his nobility—if he is ever to hope to return to his aristocratic stature.
This story had purchase among Baratynsky’s early readers, but it was this time in Baratynsky’s life when the poet emerged as well, as the inspiration to form the “Society of Avengers” had come from reading juvenile tales of robber barons, a special importance laid upon Schiller’s Die Räuber, which inspired deviancy in the young Baratynsky. Shortly thereafter, as his literary tastes matured in military barracks in Finland and Saint Petersburg, Baratynsky would be inspired to become a man of letters. It was at this time, as his garrison was stationed in Finland but regularly quartering in Saint Petersburg, that Baratynsky would meet Pushkin and the other members of what would become known as the “Pushkin Pleiad.” Apparently, as Baratynsky began disseminating his poetry, the story of his “exile” traveled along. In reality, Baratynsky had time to discover the literary salons of Saint Petersburg (some exile!), but the story matched well with the Hölderlinian landscape of his poem “Finland.” The poem is a supplication to skaldic Vikings and their gods, but turns to a more profound oblivion in the penultimate stanza, as here rendered by Grau:
What, then, is our inconstant race?
Oh, all in turn will vanish in the abyss of years!
For everyone, one law: the law of annihilation.
In everything I hear a cryptic salutation:
the promise of oblivion.
The poem lifts from here in its final stanza. A curious shift of emotion underscores the uncertainty that will come to be identified as the noteworthy characteristic, for better or for worse, of Baratynsky’s verse: “Not eternal for time, I am eternal for myself.” Baratynsky positions his own time as independent of the landscape of his exile, and philosophically remaining under the umbrella of Romanticism but hardly using Romanticism’s toolbox. “Finland” is an extraordinary poem that catapulted Baratynsky into the literary limelight, if for a limited duration. As is often the case with poetry and poets, it took a marriage of the poetry to the myth of the poet to give his readers access to the verse. Nonetheless the great poem has persisted through waning readership, and changing critical attitudes.
The poetry of Yevgeny Baratynsky is not only unique to its era, but unique to its idiom. The picture A Science Not for the Earth gives of its author is one with some inconsistencies, though they derive from the poet’s character, a fact that will leave any interested reader wanting more pictures of the puzzle. However, we cannot reconstruct the mind of a great thinker. We can only do what Baratynsky has assigned us, which is to move through the sequences of emotion demanded by his machines made of words, and if the poet was successful in constructing them, we will feel something, something new but also true.
James Yeary is a bookseller in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of numerous chapbooks of poetry, many of which were written in collaboration with other artists and writers. His review work has elsewhere appeared in Rain Taxi and Galatea Resurrects. He has taught poetry in the classroom, the museum, and on the street.