A Science Not for the Earth
By Yevgeny Baratynsky
Ugly Duckling Presse
Reviewed by Sam DiBella
Long neglected in English translation, the Russian elegiac poet Yevgeny Baratynsky has been resurrected in A Science Not for the Earth, a new collection of poems and letters translated by Rawley Grau. Almost all of Baratynsky's poetry and half of his existing letters are presented in this nearly 600-page collection. With extensive notation, Grau has brought Baratynsky's elegant elegiac meter into unmetered English poetry. The volume is intended as a comprehensive introduction to his work, and I found it easy to lose myself in these pages, following my own avenues of inquiry as I was checking and cross-referencing letters with events, publications, and translation notes.
Baratynsky wrote elegies in the mid-nineteenth century, a time in Russia where prose was the expected form of serious thought. His poetry has the emotional intensity of Romanticism and odd intellectual turns all its own. Watching him investigate classical ideas line by line and then allow himself a moment of sharp self-criticism—turning hope to despair or despair to hope—I always felt a pang:
O thought, the flower's fate is yours!
When fresh, the butterfly it lures,
the golden bee it fascinates;
to it with love the midge will cling,
of it the dragonfly will sing—
but when its youthful charm abates
and all its brightness fades away,
where then are bee, midge, butterfly?
Forgotten by their winged troops,
it's of no use to anyone.
But just now, in the seed it drops,
a brand new flower is being born.
He callously presents the darkness of the abandoned flower, with disdain for the light brought by the care of the insects. Instead, the single seed, the continuation of the cycle, redeems the flower. Already, Baratynsky's opinions on knowledge and writing come into sharp relief against the backdrop of the flower.
When he was a boy, Baratynsky stole from a teacher as part of a heist arranged by a secret society of students; his nobility was stripped from him by the tsar and he served the Russian military in Finland as penance. In his early letters, the guilt and the shame he feels for his family overrun his writing, even as his love of nature and history grows in his new home:
It's late, the day is done; but the dome of the sky still glows,
upon the Finnish cliffs the night falls without darkness,
and as if putting on her jewels
brings out on the horizon's edge
the diamond stars in a needless chorus.
Baratynsky's early poetry is filled with the general melancholy of romantic youth (themes of death and love), but as he grows older he begins to use nature in his attempt to map thought to feeling. As he writes in "Signs," introspection can actually be a vice, and following your emotions as they arise leads to an understanding more pure than overwrought contemplation:
As long as he loved her, Nature bestowed
Her love on him in return,
Devising a language for him, like a friend
Overflowing with friendly concern
. . .
Perceiving calamity over his head
a raven would cry out a caution
And man would humble himself before fate
and curb his too-daring intention.
Even in the world where "Man has all the world subdued / all except the dark blue sea," the control these new rationalist thoughts envision is never total, and something is lost in their attempt. Repeated in his poetry is his uncertainty over the price that the rising tide of industrialization in Russia would exact on humanity: "The age proceeds along its iron path: / hearts swell with greed." But buried in his letters, we find that Baratynsky, too, follows the dream of outpacing the cost of living and labor with technological advances:
Once I calculated the unbelievable profit we would get from building a similar [saw] mill, I seized on the idea . . . I, by the way, am as cheerful and happy as a sailor in the sight of the harbor. God grant I don't make a mistake.
Baratynsky is haunted by his compulsive need for certainty, worried that his scientific poetry, his desire to understand and explain, will actually remove him from the world. The tragedy of his elegies is the tragedy of an un-traversable distance.
Baratynsky thought that poetry wasn't incompatible with critical thought. However, he constantly had to defend his style of composition from his contemporaries. At the time, Vissarion Belinsky critiqued a collection of Baratynsky's work by saying "In our age, our cold, prosaic age, what we need in poetry is fire and more fire; otherwise, it is hard to get us burning." Then, it was normal for poets to write impassioned Romantic poetry while young and then tend towards writing sober prose as they grew older. Even the great Pushkin followed that trend, but Baratynsky's later poems, with their detached narration, didn't fit that mold. His work shines, rather than burns. As he wrote to his friend Kireyevsky, "You call blazing activity happiness; it frightens me, and I prefer to see happiness in tranquility . . . But these are not only opinions; they are feelings." And even though he had a scientific view of poetry—as he called it—he was still critical of the consequences that outlook would have in other domains of life.
The nineteenth-century themes of Romanticism feel odd to a modern reader, but it's the very idea of obsolescence—the rise and fall of ideas, of people—that Baratynsky is constantly turning over in his hands: "the temple's fallen, / and today's descendant cannot / guess the language of its ruins." Like other Romantics, Baratynsky is worried about mortality and love, but he obsesses over his own thought reflexively. As he does so, the fear of individual death, of existential meaninglessness, grows into a larger scale.
With global warming, the concept of the anthropocene, and the rise of speculative fiction, modern culture makes us feel like we are looking more towards the future than ever before. That's a ridiculous statement, but at this point the cost of averting our gaze seems higher than ever. In a host of his poems—"The Last Poet," "The Last Death," "Autumn"—Baratynsky, also, takes his mournful elegies to an apocalyptic extreme. He is a reminder that ours is not the first era to look upon looming upheaval and worry about our species as a whole:
[O]n the horizon the light of day appeared,
but now upon the earth nothing was able
to utter any greeting at its ascent.
There was only the mist, dark blue and twisting,
like cleansing smoke from a sacrificial victim.
But Baratynsky does not wallow in these grand themes. From us, he is looking for companionship and understanding, even though we might be far in time and space: "And as I found a friend in my generation / A reader in posterity I'll find." He was a child of his time and place, looking for friendship from another. That sincerity, so sweetly expressed, is what makes him so dear to me.