Nightingales

John Bayley

  • Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution by Ronald Hingley
    Weidenfeld, 269 pp, £12.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 297 77902 8
  • Russian Writers and Soviet Society 1917-1978 by Ronald Hingley
    Methuen, 296 pp, £4.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 416 31390 6
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Russia and the Soviet Union edited by Archie Brown
    Cambridge, 492 pp, £18.50, February 1982, ISBN 0 521 23169 8
  • ‘Novy Mir’: A Case-Study in the Politics of Literature 1952-1958 by Edith Frankel
    Cambridge, 206 pp, £19.50, November 1981, ISBN 0 521 23438 7

Consciousness has to live, at least notionally, by extremes. It is by turns enthusiastic and cynical, believes and disbelieves. It wants to be snug and comfortable, but its peak moments, when it feels most alive, come out of crisis and extremes – illness, accident, bereavement, jealousy, longing. ‘I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,’ it will say to itself about a quarrel or a war, some episode of general misery.

English consciousness admits this general truth with a smile and a shrug, while not taking it too seriously. It can live beside it and around it. But the Russian intelligent – still more the Russian poet – flings himself into the arms of the paradox with joyful cries. Pasternak’s poem ‘Waves’ describes the process.

Curling, furling
At misery’s full tilt,
Towards me rush my own deeds –
Crests of past experience.

‘Misery’s full tilt’ is an apt description for the kind of frenetic euphoria to which Pasternak saw the poet of his age as condemned. Literature had always been a potentially risky business in Russia, but after the Revolution the poet could be seen as a figure divine yet doomed, his calling – if a true one – a form of protracted suicide.

Ah had I known the way of it
When launching my career –
That verse is deadly, murderous
Haemorrhage gushing from the throat!

The poet was the victim of a ‘lofty malady’ – the title of one of Pasternak’s longer poems. ‘There is no hope,’ proclaims a lyric of Mandelstam,

for a heart ever burning
With nightingale fever.

Dr Hingley takes the phrase to characterise his study of the four greatest poets of Russia’s post-Revolutionary age.

All four say, in this context, the same thing: Mandelstam with the most unemotional distinction.

Starling-like I might have chirped my days away ...
But I can’t. Obviously. No question of it.

Translation gives only a bit of the clipped and staccato effect. Akhmatova writes of ‘torture by happiness’, and of the need for ‘gaiety and fear at the heart’; Tsvetaeva, in any ordinary sense the most vulgar of the four, of

how much sombre dire anguish
My fair-haired head contains.

This sort of thing might look like posturing: indeed, in any of the four except Mandelstam one could find lines and exclamations which sound in translation like the most commonplace ‘anguished’ poet of the Nineties, Max Beerbohm’s Enoch Soames or Gilbert’s Bunthorne.

Such an incongruity reveals an important truth. As a result of the Revolution and its ideology, processed and imposed in public language and propaganda, anything that a poet could utter in his own private language suddenly acquired a special authenticity. The intimate feelings and mannerisms of a poet can become as precious and desirable as real coffee in a besieged economy. There is nothing absolute about the virtues of any poetry: the nerve, the authority of its creation must recruit themselves from the circumstances, public or private, that created them. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King drew inspiration from his sense of what the reading public of the time needed to hear. Now their art remains, but not that life which once gave it real meaning. In Russia, circumstances have not changed, and the uncompromisingly personal utterance of these four poets retains its almost mystic authority. In the West, it would be a question of the poet talking about himself, as poets do, while an open society remained largely indifferent and unmoved.

The Waste Land has achieved, in its still mysterious and resonant privacy, something of the sense of power of these Russian poets. But to get some sort of parallel for their continued authority of speech we must come closer to our own time – to the poetry of Robert Lowell or of Sylvia Plath. There the language of poetry has the same kind of mesmeric power and the same air of constant danger. But it is, of course, danger of a different kind – the danger that boils up from within and makes living for a poet a hazard which the poetry can express with a wonderful and frightening precision. In a sense, this internalised threat could be said to be a kind of substitute for the hazards the Russian poets faced, its reality equally a challenge to the poet and a kind of guarantee of his poethood. To cut your throat, to die by a self-inflicted Pasternakian haemorrhage, is not necessary if the state will do it for you.

The sense of solitude, the acute consciousness of self, is as marked in Lowell or Plath as in these Russians. But the powerful state inadvertently lends the poet its own kind of objective power. ‘Only in Russia is poetry respected,’ Mandelstam once remarked. ‘It gets people killed. Where else is poetry a common motive for murder?’ The radical difference between the Russian poets threatened from outside, and the poets of the West threatened by their own neuroses from within, is that the former are evangelists of a word that is sane because it is open but not public. Every good poet, however dotty, reaches through his work what Lamb called ‘the sanity of true genius’. But the conditions under which they wrote diffuse through the wildest words of these Russian poets an odour of sanity ‘as broad and general as the casing air’. Whatever their oddity as individuals (‘You were silly like us, your gift survived it all,’ as Auden wrote of Yeats), their poems, particularly Mandelstam’s, seem oases of calm strength and beauty in a mad and murderous world.

Much of our poetry draws its powers from an opposite process. Some of the best poems of Sylvia Plath, even of Lowell, seem to extend into the reader their own menace of madness, held under marvellously tight verbal control, as if to prophesy of a more general madness in our society, in all our ways of living and being. However complete its achievement, such poetry is by instinct demoralising, whereas the Russian poets restore to the individual a blessed thankfulness that humanity is a resident of the private self, uncorruptible from without. A famous early poem of Mandelstam’s expresses this divine gift of personal being with an almost naive economy.

A body’s given me – what shall I do with it,
So one and so my own?
For the quiet joy of breathing and living
Tells me whom I am to thank?

Clarence Brown, whose translation that is, observes in his excellent book on Mandelstam’s poetry that ‘so one and so my own’ (Takim edinim i takim moim) trembles, both in Russian and English, on the verge of the comic. That is indeed the point – in a little verse epigram Mandelstam refers to a tramcar as ‘so number 8’ (takoi vosmoi) – and this simple emphasis on personal identity is strangely prophetic, though the poem was written several years before the Revolution, of what it would do to the individual, and how it would try to regiment the poet into a cultural shock brigade whose faceless members were all saying the same thing.

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