Maurice Baring.

An Outline of Russian Literature

It is objected that his characters are abnormal; that he deals with the diseased, with epileptics, neurasthenics, criminals, sensualists, madmen; but it is just this very fact which gives so much strength and value to the blessing he gave to life; it is owing to this fact that he causes others to bless life; because he was cast in the nethermost circle of lifes inferno; he was thrown together with the refuse of humanity, with the worst of men and with the most unfortunate; he saw the human soul on the rack, and he saw the vilest diseases that afflict the human soul; he faced the evil without fear or blinkers; and there, in the inferno, in the dust and ashes, he recognized the print of divine footsteps and the fragrance of goodness; he cried from the abyss: Hosanna to the Lord, for He is just! and he blessed life. It is true that his characters are taken almost entirely from the Despised and Rejected, as one of his books was called, and often from the ranks of the abnormal; but when a great writer wishes to reveal the greatest adventures and the deepest experiences which the soul of man can undergo, it is in vain for him to take the normal type; it has no adventures. The adventures of the soul of Fortinbras would be of no help to mankind; but the adventures of Hamlet are of help to mankind, and the adventures of Don Quixote; and neither Don Quixote nor Hamlet are normal types.

Dostoyevsky wrote the tragedy of life and of the soul, and to do this he chose circumstances as terrific as those which unhinged the reason of King Lear, shook that of Hamlet, and made ?dipus blind himself. His books resemble Greek tragedies by the magnitude of the spiritual adventures they set forth; they are unlike Greek Tragedies in the Christian charity and the faith and the hope which goes out of them; they inspire the reader with courage, never with despair, although Dostoyevsky, face to face with the last extremities of evil, never seeks to hide it or to shun it, but merely to search for the soul of goodness in it. He did not search in vain, and just as, when he was on his way to Siberia, a conversation he had with a fellow-prisoner inspired that fellow-prisoner with the feeling that he could go on living and even face penal servitude, so do Dostoyevskys books come to mankind as a message of hope from a radiant country. That is what constitutes his peculiar greatness.


The fifties, the sixties, and the seventies were, all over Europe, the epoch of Parnassian poetry. In England, Tennyson was pouring out his fervent and faultless melodies, Matthew Arnold was playing his plaintive harp, and the Pre-Raphaelites were weaving their tapestried dreams; in France, Gautier was carving his cameos, Banvilles Harlequins and Columbines were dancing on a Watteau-like stage in the silver twilight of Corot, Baudelaire was at work on his sombre bronze, Sully-Prudhomme twanged his ivory lyre, and Leconte de Lisle was issuing his golden coinage.

It was, in poetry, the epoch of art for arts sake.

Russian poetry did not escape the universal tendency; but in Russia everything was conspiring to put poetry, and especially that kind of poetry, in the shade. In the first place, events of great magnitude were happening the wide reforms, the emancipation of the serfs, the growth of Nihilism, which was the product of the disillusion at the result of the reforms: in the second place, criticism under the influence of Chernyshevsky, Pisarev, and Dobrolyubov was entirely realistic and positivist, preaching not art for lifes sake only, but the absolute futility of poetry; and, in the third place, work of the supremest kind was being done in narrative fiction; in the fourth place, no prophet-poet was forthcoming whose genius was great enough to voice national aspirations. All this tended to put poetry in the shade, especially as such poets as did exist were, with one notable exception, Parnassians, whose talent dwelt aloof from the turbid stream of life, and who sought to express the adventures of their souls, which were emotional and artistic, either in dreamy music or in exquisite shapes and colours. This neglect of verse lasted right up until the end of the seventies. When, however, in the eighties, the wave of political crisis reached its climax and, after the assassination of Alexander II, rolled back into a sea of stagnant reaction, the poets, who had been hitherto neglected, and quietly singing all the while, were discovered once more, and the shares in poetry continued to rise as time went on; thus the poets of the sixties reaped their due meed of appreciation.

A proof of how widespread and deep this neglect was is that Tyutchev, whose work attracted no attention whatever until 1854, and met with no wide appreciation until a great deal later, was four years younger than Pushkin, and a man of thirty when Goethe died. He went on living until 1873, and can be called the first of the Parnassians. Politically, he was a Slavophile, and sang the resignation and long-suffering of the Russian people, which he preferred to the stiff-neckedness of the West. But the value of his work lies less in his Slavophile aspirations than in its depth of thought and lyrical feeling, in the contrast between the gloomy forebodings of his imagination and the sunlike images he gives of nature. His verse is like a spring day, dark with ominous thunderclouds, out of which a rainbow and a shaft of sunlight fall on a dewy orchard and light it with a silvery smile. His verse is, on the one hand, full of foreboding and terror at the fate of man and the shadow of nothingness, and, on the other hand, it twitters like a bird over the freshness and sunshine of spring. He sings the spring again and again, and no Russian poet has ever sung the glory, the mystery, the wonder, and the terror of night as he has done; his whole work is compounded of glowing pictures of nature and a world of longing and of unutterable dreams.

The dreamy dominion of the Parnassian age, on whose threshold Tyutchev stood, was to be disturbed by the notes of a harsher and stronger music.

Nekrasov (1821-77), Russias sternest painter, and certainly one of her best, drew his inspiration direct from life, and sang the sufferings, the joys, and the life of the people. He is a Russian Crabbe; nature and man are his subjects, but nature as the friend and foe of man, as a factor, the most important factor in mans life, and not as an ideal storehouse from which a Shelley can draw forms more real than living man, nurslings of immortality, or a Wordsworth reap harvests of the inward eye. He called his muse the Muse of Vengeance and of Grief. He is an uncompromising realist, like Crabbe, and idealizes nothing in his pictures of the peasants life. Like Crabbe, he has a deep note of pathos, and a keen but not so minute an eye for landscape.

On the other hand, he at times attains to imaginative sublimity in his descriptions, as, for instance, in his poem called The Red-nosed Frost, where King Frost approaches a peasant widow who is at work in the winter forest, and freezes her to death. As Daria is gradually freezing to death, the frost comes to her like a warrior; and his semblance and attributes are drawn in a series of splendid stanzas. He sings to her of his riches that no profusion can decrease, and of his kingdom of silver and diamonds and pearls: then, as she freezes, she dreams of a hot summers day, and of the rye harvest and of the familiar songs

Away with the song she is soaring,
She surrenders herself to its stream,
In the world there is no such sweet singing
As that which we hear in a dream.

His longest and most ambitious work was a kind of popular epic, Who is Happy in Russia? written in short lines which have the popular ring and accent. Some peasants start on a pilgrimage to find out who is happy in Russia. They fly on a magic carpet, and interview representatives of the different classes of society, the pope, the landowner, the peasant woman, each new interview producing a whole series of stories, sometimes idyllic and sometimes tragic, and all showing their genius as intimate pictures of various phases of Russian life. Here, again, the analogy with Crabbe suggests itself, for Nekrasovs tales, taking into consideration the difference between the two countries, have a marked affinity, both in their subject matter, their variety, their stern realism, their pathos, their bitterness, and their observation of nature, with Crabbes stories in verse.

Two of Nekrasovs long poems tell the story in the form of reminiscence, and here again the naturalness and appropriateness of the diction is perfect, of the Russian women, Princess Volkonsky and Princess Trubetzkoy, who followed their husbands, condemned to penal servitude for taking part in the Decembrist rising, to Siberia. Here, again, Nekrasov strikes a note of deep and poignant pathos, all the more poignant from the absolute simplicity with which the tales are told. Nekrasov towers among the Parnassians of the time and has only one rival, whom we shall describe presently.

The Parnassians are represented by three poets, Maikov (1821-97), Fet (1820-98), and Polonsky (1820-98), all three of whom began to write about the same time, in 1840; none of these three poets was didactic, and all three remained aloof from political or social questions.

Maikov is attracted by classical themes, by Italy and also by old ballads, but his strength lies in his plastic form, his colour, and his pictures of Russian landscape; he writes, for instance, an exquisite reminiscence of a days fishing when he was a boy.

The quality of Fets muse, in contrast to Maikovs concrete plasticity, is illusiveness; his lyrics express intangible dreams and impressions; delicate tints and shadows tremble and flit across his verse, which is soft as the orient of a pearl; and his fancy is as delicate as a thread of gossamer: he lives in the borderland between words and music, and catches the vague echoes of that limbo.

The world in shadow slipped away
And, like a silent dream took flight,
Like Adam, I in Eden lay
Alone, and face to face with night.

He sings about the southern night amidst the hay; or again about the dawn

A whisper, a breath, a shiver,
The trills of the nightingale,
A silver light and a quiver
And a sunlit trail.
The glimmer of night and the shadows of night
In an endless race,
Enchanted changes, flight after flight,
On the loved ones face.
The blood of the roses tingling
In the clouds, and a gleam in the grey,
And tears and kisses commingling
The Dawn, the Dawn, the Day!

Polonskys verse, in contrast to Fets gentle epicurean temperament, his delicate half-tones and illusive whispers, is made of sterner stuff; and, in contrast to Maikovs sculptural lines, it is pre-eminently musical, and reflects a fine and charming personality. His area of subjects is wide; he can write a childs poem as transparent and simple as Hans Andersen as in his conversation between the sun and the moon or call up the glory that was Greece, as in the poem when his Aspasia listens to the crowds acclaiming Pericles, and waits in rapturous suspense for his return an evocation that Browning would have envied for its life and Swinburne for its sound.

But neither Maikov, Fet, nor Polonsky, exquisite as much of their writing is, produced anything of the calibre of Nekrasov, even in their own province; that is to say, they were none of them as great in the artistic field as he was in his didactic field. Compared with him, they are minor poets. There is one poet of this epoch who does rival Nekrasov in another field, and that is Count Alexis Tolstoy (1817-75), who was also a Parnassian and remained aloof from didactic literature; yet, under the pseudonym of Kuzma Prutkov, he wrote a satire, a collection of platitudes, that are household words in Russia; also a short history of Russia in consummately neat and witty satirical verse. As well as his satires, he wrote an historical novel, Prince Serebryany, and more important still, a trilogy of plays, dealing with the most dramatic epoch of Russian history, that of Ivan the Terrible. The trilogy, written in verse, consists of the Death of Ivan the Terrible, The Tsar Feodor Ivanovitch and Tsar Boris. They are all of them acting plays, form part of the current classical repertory, and are effective, impressive and arresting when played on the stage.

But it is as a poet and as a lyrical poet that Alexis Tolstoy is most widely known. Versatile with a versatility that recalls Pushkin, he writes epical ballads on Russian, Northern, and even Scottish themes, and dramatic poems on Don Juan, St. John Damascene, and Mary Magdalene; and, besides these, a whole series of personal lyrics, which are full of charm, tenderness, music and colour, harmonious in form and transparent. No Russian poet since Pushkin has written such tender love lyrics, and nobody has sung the Russian spring, the Russian summer, and the Russian autumn with such tender lyricism. His poem on the early spring, when the fern is still tightly curled, the shepherds note still but half heard in the morning, and the birch trees just green, is one of the most tender, fresh, and perfect expressions of first love, morning, spring, dew, and dawn in the worlds literature. His songs have inspired Tchaikovsky and other composers. The strongest and highest chord he struck is in his St. John Damascene; this contains a magnificent dirge for the dead which can bear comparison even with the Dies Ir? for majesty, solemn pathos, and plangent rhythm.

His pictures of landscapes have a peculiar charm. The following is an attempt at a translation

Through the slush and the ruts of the highway,
By the side of the dam of the stream,
Where the fishermans nets are drying,
The carriage jogs on, and I dream.

I dream, and I look at the highway,
At the sky that is sullen and grey,
At the lake with its shelving reaches,
And the curling smoke far away.

By the dam, with a cheerless visage
Walks a Jew, who is ragged and sere.
With a thunder of foam and of splashing,
The waters race over the weir.

A boy over there is whistling
On a hemlock flute of his make;
And the wild ducks get up in a panic
And call as they sweep from the lake.

And near the old mill some workmen
Are sitting upon the green ground,
With a wagon of sacks, a cart horse
Plods past with a lazy sound.

It all seems to me so familiar,
Although I have never been here,
The roof of that house out yonder,
And the boy, and the wood, and the weir.

And the voice of the grumbling mill-wheel,
And that rickety barn, I know,
I have been here and seen this already,
And forgotten it all long ago.

The very same horse here was dragging
Those sacks with the very same sound,
And those very same workmen were sitting
By the rickety mill on the ground.

And that Jew, with his beard, walked past me,
And those waters raced through the weir;
Yes, all this has happened already,
But I cannot tell when or where.

The people also produced a poet during this epoch and gave Koltsov a successor, in the person of Nikitin; his themes are taken straight from life, and he became known through his patriotic songs written during the Crimean War; but he is most successful in his descriptions of nature, of sunset on the fields, and dawn, and the swallows nest in the grumbling mill. Two other poets, whose work became well known later, but passed absolutely unnoticed in the sixties, were Sluchevsky, a philosophical poet, whose verse, excellent in description, suffers from clumsiness in form, and Apukhtin, whose collected poems and ballads, although he began to write in 1859, were not published until 1886. Apukhtin is a Parnassian. The bulk of his work, though perfect in form, is uninteresting; but he wrote one or two lyrics which have a place in any Russian Golden Treasury, and his poems are largely read now.

In the eighties, a reaction against the anti-poetical tendency set in, and poets began to spring up like mushrooms. Of these, the most popular and the most remarkable is Nadson (1862-87); he died when he was twenty-four, of consumption. Since then his verse has gone through twenty-one editions, and 110,000 copies have been sold; ten editions were published in his own lifetime. And there are innumerable musical settings by various composers to his lyrics. His verse inaugurates a new epoch in Russian poetry, the distinguishing features of which are a great attention to form and technique, a Parnassian love of colour and shape, and a deep melancholy.

Nadson sings the melancholy of youth, the dreams and disillusions of adolescence, and the hopelessness of the stagnant atmosphere of reaction to which he belonged. This last fact accounted in some measure for his extraordinary popularity. But it was by no means its sole cause; his verse is not only exquisite but magically musical, to an extent which makes the verse of other poets seem a stuff of coarser clay, and his pictures of nature, of spring, of night, and especially of night in the Riviera (with a note of passionate home-sickness), have the aromatic, intoxicating sweetness of syringa. Verse such as this, sensitive, ultra-delicate, morbid, nervous, and pessimistic, is bound to have the defects of its qualities, in a marked degree; one is soon inclined to have enough of its sultry, oppressive atmosphere, its delicate perfume, its unrelieved gloom and its music, which is nearly always not only in a minor key but in the same key. Nobody was more keenly aware of this than Nadson himself, and one of his most beautiful poems begins thus

Dear friend, I know, I know, I only know too well
That my verse is barren of all strength, and pale, and delicate,
And often just because of its debility I suffer
And often weep in secret in the silence of the night.

And in another poem he writes his apology. He has never used verse as a toy to chase tedium; the blessed gift of the singer has often been to him an unbearable cross, and he has often vowed to keep silent; but, if the wind blows, the ?olian harp must needs respond, and streams of the hills cannot help rushing to the valley if the sun melts the snow on the mountain tops. This apologia more than all criticism defines his gift. His temperament is an ?olian harp, which, whether it will or no, is sensitive to the breeze; its strings are few, and tuned to one key; nevertheless some of the strains it has sobbed have the stamp of permanence as well as that of ethereal magic.

The poets that come after Nadson belong to the present day; there are many, and they increase in number every year. The so-called decadent school were influenced by Shelley, Verlaine, and the French symbolists; but there is nothing which is decadent in the ordinary sense of the word in their verse. Their influence may not be lasting, but they are factors in Russian literature, and some of them, Sologub, Brusov, Balmont, and Ivanov, have produced work which any school would be glad to claim. This is also true of Alexander Bloch, one of the most original as well as one of the most exquisite of living Russian poets.


With the death of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky, the great epoch of Russian literature came to an end. A period of literary as well as of political stagnation began, which lasted until the Russo-Japanese War. This was followed by the revolutionary movement, which, in its turn, produced a literary as well as a political chaos, the effect of which and of the manifold reactions it brought about are still being felt. It was only natural, if one considers the extent and the quality of the productions of the preceding epoch, that the soil of literary Russia should require a rest.

As it is, one can count the writers of prominence which the epoch of stagnation produced on ones fingers Chekhov, Garshin, Korolenko, and at the end of the period Maxime Gorky, and apart from them, in a by-path of his own, Merezhkovsky. Of these Chekhov and Gorky tower above the others. Chekhov enlarged the range of Russian literature by painting the middle-class and the Intelligentsia, and brought back to Russian literature the note of humour; and Gorky broke altogether fresh ground by painting the vagabond, the artisan, the tramp, the thief, the flotsam and jetsam of the big town and the highway, and by painting in a new manner.

Gorkys work came like that of Mr. Rudyard Kipling to England, as a revelation. Not only did his subject matter open the doors on dominions undreamed of, but his attitude towards life and that of his heroes towards life seemed to be different from that of all Russian novelists before his advent; and yet the difference between him and his forerunners is not so great as it appears at first sight. It is true that his rough and rebellious heroes, instead of playing the Hamlet, or of finding the solution of life in charity and humility or submission, are partisans of the survival of the fittest with a vengeance, the survival of the strongest fist and the sharpest knife; yet are these new heroes really so different from the uncompromising type that we have already seen sharing one half of the Russian stage, right through the story of Russian literature, from Bazarov back to Peter the Great, and on whose existence was founded the remark that Peter the Great was one of the ingredients in the Russian character? Put Bazarov on the road, or Lermontov, or even Peter the Great, and you get Gorkys barefooted hero.

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