Portrait by Ilya Repin
|Born||5 December [O.S. 23 November] 1820
|Died||December 3, 1892
Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet (Russian: Афана́сий Афана́сьевич Фет; IPA: [ɐfɐˈnasʲɪj ɐfɐˈnasʲjɪvʲɪtɕ ˈfʲɛt] ( listen)), later known as Shenshin (Russian: Шенши́н; IPA: [ʂɨnˈʂɨn] ( listen)); 5 December [O.S. 23 November] 1820 — 3 December [O.S. 21 November] 1892), was a Russian poet regarded as one of the finest lyricists in Russian literature.
The circumstances of Afanasy Fet's birth have been the subject of controversy and remained uncertain. Even the exact date is unknown and has been cited variously as October 29 (old style), November 23 and 29, 1820. Brief biographies usually have it that Fet was the son of the Russian landowner Shenshin and a German woman Charlotta Becker, and that at the age of 14 he had to change his surname from that of his father's to Fet, because the marriage between Shenshin and Becker, registered in Germany, was deemed legally void in Russia. Detailed studies reveal a complicated and controversial story.
In September 1820 a respectable 44-year-old landowner from Mtsensk, Afanasy Neofitovich Shenshin (described as a follower of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's ideas), returned to his Novosyolky estate from the German spa resorts after a year spent on a recreational trip. There he was renting rooms in the house of Karl Becker and fell for his daughter Charlotta Elizabeth, a married woman who had one-year-old daughter Carolina, and was pregnant with another child. As to what happened next, opinions vary. According to some sources, Charlotta hastily divorced her husband, Johann Foeth, a Darmstadt court official; others maintain that Shenshin approached Karl Becker with the idea that the latter should help his daughter divorce Johann and, when the old man refused to cooperate, kidnapped his beloved, on her consent. One thing is certain: in the autumn of 1820 the 22-year-old Charlotta Foeth found herself at Shenshin's Novosyolky estate. In October (or November, depending on a source) she gave birth to a boy who was christened Afanasy Afansyevich Shenshin and registered in the local records as Shenshin's son (which Shenshin had to concede several years later could not be true). The pair married in 1822.
The question of Fet's ethnicity has been a matter of some debate too. People who knew Fet well (among them were the poet Yakov Polonsky and members of Leo Tolstoy's family) referred to Charlotta Foeth as 'a German Jew'. According to Tatyana Kuzminskaya (Sophia Tolstaya's sister), Fet's "greatest grievance in life was the fact that he was not a legitimate Shenshin like his brothers (who treated him as a brother) but the illegitimate son of a Jew named Foeth. He just refused to see that the name 'Fet' was now superior to that of Shenshin, and that he himself had created it - the fact which Leo Tolstoy tried in vain to put to him."
There are numerous marginal theories as to Fet's origins. One of them, mentioned in a 1937 autobiography by Igor Grabar, asserted that "…it was a well-known fact that Fet's father, a Russian 1812 army officer, who was returning from Paris through Königsberg, met a Jewish beauty near Korchma, fell in love, bought her from her husband, took her to Russia and married her." According to another (advocated by the Russian women's magazine Sudarushka), Charlotta Elizabeth Becker came from an "ancient aristocratic family based in East Germany" while Johann Becker was an illegitimate son of Louis I, Grand Duke of Hesse, who insisted on Johann and Charlotta's marriage, thus making Afanasy Fet nothing less than the cousin of Maria Alexandrovna. Sudarushka calls Fet "the third great German on the Russian Parnassus after Khemnitser and Kuchelbecker".
When Afanasy Fet was 14 years old, an official request came from Germany as to the details of his birth certificate. Discrepancies were revealed, the consistory in Oryol decided that from then on the boy should go by his German father's name and be stripped of all the privileges of nobility that he otherwise might have claimed rights to. This was a traumatic experience for Afanasy, who by this time completely identified himself with Shenshins. More controversy was added by the fact that, while Shenshin admitted he could not be Afanasy's biological father, Johann Foeth back in Darmstadt refused to acknowledge the boy as his son. As a result of long and painful Shenshin-Foeth negotiations, the subject received the name Afanasy Foeth, "a true citizen of Hesse-Darmstadt". Even this rather humiliating outcome was a merciful alternative: otherwise, as an illegitimate child, he'd have fallen to the bottom of the Russian social hierarchy.
Education and literary debut
At the age of fourteen Afanasy was sent to the Livonian town of Werro, where he was accepted (allegedly through the influence of Vasily Zhukovsky) into a German boarding school owned by a man named Krummer. It was while there that he received the letter informing him that from then on his name would be Foeth and not Shenshin; without a name, a family, a nationality or anything to hold on to, the teenager felt, in his own words, "like a dog that had lost its master." It was this cruel transformation, scholars later opined, that accounted for all the idiosyncrasies and the pessimistic outlook of a man who spent most of his life contemplating suicide. Once, on a trip into the countryside at Werro, close to the Russian border, young Afanasy got off his horse, ran up to where the Russian land was supposed to begin, knelt down and started to kiss the soil. Those were the years, though, when the youngster was beginning to discover a poetic gift within himself and use it as something to be shield by from oppressive reality. "In quiet moments of total carelessness I was beginning to feel flowery spirals whirling inside of me, as if some unknown blossoming was coming to the surface. Each time only stems appeared, without any flowers on them. I scribbled verses on my slate desk and wiped them off, finding them unworthy," Fet wrote in his autobiography.
In 1837 Fet's stepfather Afanasy Shenshin removed the boy from Krummer's institution and sent him to a boarding school in Moscow owned by Mikhail Pogodin, a respected historian and professor at the Moscow University. In the autumn of 1838 Fet enrolled into the University to study law and philology. In his first year he started writing poetry (Goethe, Heine and Yazykov being his major influences) and met Apollon Grigoriev, a fellow student and another aspiring poet. "Aphonia and Apollosha", as the pair were known, became close friends. Soon Afanasy moved to Grigoriev's house at Malaya Polyanka in Zamoskvoretchye and settled in a small room on the upper floor, often visited by friends, young Yakov Polonsky and future historian Sergey Solovyov among them. Later critics regarded Apollon Grigoriev's ideas and poetic technique (namely the romance-like structure) among Fet's major influences of the time.
In the late 1830s Pogodin received from the boy several verses and gave them to Nikolay Gogol. "Undoubtedly gifted" was the writer's verdict. This did a lot to boost Fet's creativity and prompted him to publish a book. It was in Apollon Grigoriev's room that the two friends compiled Fet's first collection, The Lyrical Pantheon (1840), signed "A.F." The book, in which the author began to develop his unique style of poetry dealing with the twin subjects of love and nature, caused only a slight stir, but was welcomed by some "thick periodical" critics. In Otechestvennye Zapiski the young critic P. Kudryashov, Vissarion Belinsky's protege, praised the debut, and his opinion was soon endorsed by Belinsky himself. For the next few years Belinsky continued to maintain that "of all the living Russian poets Fet is the most gifted."
It was in Grigoriev's house that some of Fet's better known poetry has been written, signed A. Fet. This fuller signature first appeared in late 1841 under the poem called "Poseidon", published in Otechestvennye Zapiski. Later historians of literature argued whether it was due to a typesetter's mistake that the Russian letter ё (as in Foeth) in the poet's surname turned into e (as in Fet), but, according to Tarkhov, "this change was significant: in just one moment the name of a 'true Hesse-Darmstadt's citizen' was transformed into the pseudonym of a Russian poet."
From 1842 Fet's poems started to appear regularly in Moskvityanin and Otechestvennye Zapiski magazines, instantly making their author a literary sensation. One of the young poet's mentors was Moskovityanin's editor Stepan Shevyryov, another Moscow University professor, who often invited the young man to his home. Critics couldn't get enough of the young master, praising the "whiffs of joy" and "fragrant freshness" of his verse. Some of his poems were featured in the collection The Best of Russian Poetry compiled by Aleksey Galakhov in 1843. "Don't wake her up at dawn...", set to music by Alexander Varlamov, became a hit of the time. But for Fet those were troubled years. "Never in my life have I known a person so tormented by depression and whose life I'd be so concerned about. The possibility of him committing suicide horrifies me. I've spent hours by his bedside, trying somehow to dispel terrible, chaotic movements of his psyche... He had to either kill himself or to become the sort of man he turned out later," Apollon Grigoriev wrote, referring to Fet's much talked-about dichotomy, with a poet and a real man coming across as different, conflicting personas.
Military service and the Sovremennik years
In 1844 Fet graduated from the University. That year his uncle, Pyotr Neofitovich Shenshin, died. A large sum of money he intended to transfer to the young man has never been traced after his death. Then, also in 1844, after long suffering, Afanasy's mother Charlotta died of cancer. In the beginning of 1845 Afanasy Fet left the Novosyolky estate forever: he went to the Kherson gubernia and on April 21, following the tradition of Shenshins, joined the Imperial Cuirassier regiment as a junior officer. Fet's goal was to retrieve the surname and all the privileges of nobility he'd lost with it. He did indeed start to progress in rank but the process was too slow: the nobility-granting level was being continuously raised too.
One thing Fet enjoyed in the army was the discipline; everything else he loathed. In his letters Fet was complain of utter cultural isolation and financial difficulties "bordering on poverty", calling his experience "life amongst monsters" when "once an hour a [Gogol's] Viy approaches you and you are supposed to smile". "Never before have I felt so morally destroyed," he wrote in another letter, speaking of feeling like buried alive and comparing his mission of 'regaining nobility' to the toils of a "joyless Sisyphus". Only in the late 1840s, after several fruitless years, Fet returned to writing poetry. In 1850 Moskvityanin magazine published "Hearts whispering, lips breathing...", which became very popular. It was followed by a collection called Poems by A. Fet (Moscow, 1850) which also had success and heralded its author's return to the Russian literary scene.
Of all the sacrifices Fet had to make on his way to realising his social ambition, one was exceptionally painful and left a scar that has never healed. In the autumn of 1848 he met and fell in love with named Maria Lazich, the 20-year-old daughter of a poor Kherson landowner, a well educated and intelligent girl, who passionately loved him too. For Fet, though, marrying a penniless girl was out of question and he left her. In 1851 Maria died in mysterious circumstances. Some sources suggest she accidentally set herself on fire; some maintain that was a deliberate move of "a proud and desperate girl who decided life was not worthwhile without the man she loved. She set her dress on fire with a match, and died of burns, four days later, her last words being: 'He bears no guilt'." But the feeling of remorse was immense and it looked like Fet has never been able to get rid of it. This incident and the image of Maria would be frequently evoked in his later verses.
While Maria Lazich left a distinct mark on Fet's poetic legacy, his military service did nothing of the sort. The only thing it succeeded in doing was make the schism between Fet the poet and Fet the man even more obvious. In 1853 he was transferred to an uhlan regiment based near Saint Petersburg. During the Crimean War he served with the troops guarding Estonian coastline.
In 1853, encouraged by Nikolai Nekrasov, Fet joined the then rising Sovremennik circle, meeting among new faces his old friends Ivan Turgenev and critic Vasily Botkin. It was at Turgenev's house that Fet later met Leo Tolstoy, another young officer, who had just returned from Sevastopol. In the first 1854 issue of the magazine Nekrasov (now at the helm) informed readers that from then on Fet would be a major contributor to Sovremennik and that he had already provided a wealth of brilliant material "not just on par but even superior to what has been already published." Not only did Nekrasov promote Fet as a poet, but obviously preferred his work to that of others, himself included. Fet was making everybody wonder. "What could be the source of this inexplicable poetic daring, the true characteristic of a great poet, coming from this good-natured, plump officer, is beyond me," wondered Leo Tolstoy.
The Poems by A.A. Fet (1856) collection proved to be, in effect, a re-worked and harshly edited (by Turgenev, Botkin, Druzhinin and others) version of the 1850 book. According to writer and memoirist Avdotya Panaeva, Fet gave Nekrasov and Turgenev carte blanche in compiling the 1856 anthology and there was much argument between the two: Nekrasov protested against heavy editing, Turgenev insisted on drastic cuts and, in the end, had his way. In the preface to the book, Nekrasov wrote: "Not a single poet after Pushkin brings so much delight to those who understand poetry and readily open their soul to it, as Fet does. In saying this we do not venture to equate the two, just to make a positive statement: in his own field Fet is as superb as Pushkin was in his more vast and versatile one."
In 1856, when poetry collections by Fet and Nekrasov came out almost simultaneously, ideological conflict started to strain their personal relations. Fet continued to contribute regularly to Sovremennik until 1859, when he became ostensibly out of place in that magazine, now deserted by Nekrasov and Turgenev and dominated by radicals Nikolay Chernyshevsky and Nikolay Dobrolyubov). Before that, in 1859 he published the article On Tyutchev's Poetry that outraged many. In it Fet wrote: "The notion that poetry's social mission, moral value or relevance could be superior to other aspects of it, is nightmarish to me, and long ago I abandoned [such notion] altogether." The rift with his former friends became obvious and Fet left Sovremennik.
In 1857 in Paris Afanasy Fet married Maria Botkina (daughter of a rich tea-trader and sister of his good friend, literary critic Vasily Botkin) described as unattractive, but very kind and warm person, devoid of jealousy and prone to treating her husband like a nanny treats a child. In 1858 he retired from the army and returned to Moscow. A year later, encouraged by his father-in-law and having overcome his wife's unwillingness to leave the city, Fet paid 20,000 rubles for the totally desolate Stepanovka khutor in the Mtsensk region of Oryol gubernia and in 1860 moved there. In the course of the next fourteen years he planted alleys, dug out ponds and turned a piece of bare (even if fertile) land into a flourishing garden. Besides, he embarked upon major agricultural activities which proved to be highly lucrative. This kind of retreat confirmed Fet's reputation of a 'social egotist' and provoked fierce criticism from many who knew him, notably Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin and Dmitry Pisarev. Reviling Fet's pro-conservative essays, Saltykov wrote: "Among those who have crawled down into holes in the earth is Fet who hides in a village. In moments of leisure he produces by turns now a fine romance, next a misanthropic piece, then another romance, and more misanthropy." For eleven years (1867-1877) Fet served as a local Justice of the peace and was greatly respected by both peasants and fellow landowners.
Meanwhile, Leo Tolstoy, who at roughly the same time retired to his Yasnaya Polyana country estate, hailed Fet's decision to "sit upon land" ("Our regiment has now a fine new member," he wrote in a letter). Unlike Tolstoy, though, who departed to the country seeking better working conditions, Fet stopped writing altogether. "He has turned into an agronomist, a 'landlord in desperation', let his beard grow, some improbable behind-the-ears curls as well, is unwilling to hear of literature and only damns all periodicals enthusiastically," Turgenev informed Polonsky in a May 21, 1861, letter.
In 1862, in The Russian Messenger Fet started publishing articles on agricultural commerce and economy. The author proved to be a fine entrepreneur: he started a horse-breeding farm, built a mill, embarked upon commercial activities. Turgenev, congratulating Fet with another mercurial success, remarked once (to the latter's enjoyment) that never in his life had he met a man who pronounced the word tselkovy (a rouble coin) "with such relish, as if he'd already put one into his pocket". "I used to be a poor man, a regimental adjutant, and now, thank God, I am an Oryol, Kursk and Voronezh landowner, I live a beautiful manor with a park. And all this I've acquired by hard labour, not by some machinations," wrote Fet in a letter to K.Revelioti, one of his Army officer friends.
In the 1860s Fet stopped writing verse and switched to non-fiction, memoirs and translation. In those years he translated Aeneid and Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. His version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, published in 1859, was negatively reviewed in Sovremennik by D. Mikhalovsky.
Fet's two collections of essays, From the Village and Notes on Civilian Labour (1862-1871), published in The Russian Messenger, Literaturnaya biblioteka and Zarya magazines, were finely written and, along with essays on very practical things, contained novellas, very much in tune with the village prose of the time. Fet wrote traditional prose too, which, unlike his poetry (and rather more in agreement with his everyday persona) was down-to-earth and realistic, the best example being the The Golts Family (1870), a short novel that told the tragic story of an alcoholic village doctor's social and mental decline. These were the years of his close contact with Leo Tolstoy. Residing at the Stepanovka manor, he often visited Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana.
The stigma of illegitimacy which haunted Fet all through his life, was finally dropped in 1873. By the special decree of Tsar Alexander II, he was granted the return of his stepfather's surname and all the rights and privileges that went with belonging to that aristocratic Russian family. In 1873 Fet wrote to his wife: "You can't even imagine how I hate this Fet name. I implore you never to mention it… If someone were to ask me what the name of trials and tribulations of my life was, I’d answer: that name is 'Fet'". Turgenev greeted with sarcasm "the disappearance of Fet and the emergence of Shenshin." Much more sympathetic was Tolstoy who praised Fet's courage and patience in bringing this painful matter to an end. Now officially Shenshin, the poet retained Fet as a 'nom de plume'.
In 1873 Fet bought (for 105,000 roubles) his second village, Vorobyovka, near Kursk. Here things started to change. "At Vorobyovka my muse awoke from many years of sleep and started visiting me as often as she used to at the dawn of my life," Fet wrote to Grand Duke Konstantin Romanov on August 25, 1891. In 1881 Fet bought a small house on Plyuschikha street in Moscow. From then on he would spend winters in the city, move to Vorobyovka in April and stay there till late September. Fighting off critics, who ridiculed the incongruity between this image of a wealthy and somewhat pompous landowner and that of the author of sublime, unearthly verse, Fet claimed it was his pragmatism that provided him with "total artistic freedom," but still his critics were not impressed, suspecting some kind of inner conflict lurking behind such rationalisations.
Never famous for warmth and openness as a person, over the years Fet was becoming more secretive and self-centred. "Never, as far as I can remember, has he expressed any interest in any other person's inner world. I never noticed in him a trace of... even curiosity as to what another soul might feel," wrote Tatyana Kuzminskaya (Leo Tolstoy's sister-in-law), a woman to whom Fet dedicated one of his most beautiful poems ("The night was shining, trees were full of moonlight…") According to Sergey Tolstoy, Fet was "indifferent to music and was heard to be referring to it as 'nothing but unpleasant noise'". At the same time Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky considered Fet more a musician than a poet, comparing him to Beethoven.
Dismissed at the time as unpleasant and dour by Tolstoy's children, Fet was greatly valued by the master of Yasnaya Polyana himself. "…That is the reason why we love each other: we two are able to think with, to quote you, 'the heart’s brain' as opposed to 'the brain’s brain'," Tolstoy wrote to Fet on June 28, 1867. "I haven't got anybody except you. Intellectually you are superior to everybody else who's around me. You're the only one who can give [my mind] this 'different kind of bread' for it to be satiated with," he confessed on another occasion.
According to Vladimir Semenkovich (Fet's nephew and author of several studies on him) among the poet's exceptional qualities, was his unique ability to stop personal conflicts and make peace between feuding parties, which was unusual for a man whose habit it was to express his views in the most straightforward way. "Fet was one of the few people [in Russia] who could be seen as true, 'classic' Europeans, in the best sense of this word; with his vast education and delicate manners he was reminiscent of the French marquises of better times. That was why the best people from all 'camps' were attracted to him. Once one met Fet, one became his friend. You could dislike him as a writer, but not as a person," Semenkovich wrote.
Not long before his death Fet was granted the ceremonial title of a chamberlain and was so delighted as to entreat his relatives to bury him in a uniform. Many were horrified by how ridiculous he looked. "It seemed strange, this golden-laced jester's dress next to this pale, serene face of a dead man that bore a somewhat anxious, totally unearthly look," Sophia Tolstaya wrote in her memoirs. Yet it was Fet to whom Leo Tolstoy wrote in April 1876: "In the final moments of my life I'd like to have two men by my side: my brother and you. It is a joy and pleasure to have nearby a person who in their lifetime was busy examining things lying beyond life's boundaries. You are one of those very few real people in my life who, while retaining a rather rational attitude to life, have always stood on its edge, staring into nirvana. [People like you] see life clearer for, peering into timelessness, they greatly strengthen their vision."
Not long before Fet's death Polonsky wrote him in a letter:
What kind of creature you are, I just can't understand. Where do you produce those unctuously clear, idealistically sublime, reverentially youthful verses from? Could Schopenhauer or any other philosopher help you see the origins of this lyrical mood of yours, the psychic process behind it? Explain it to me, or I'll have to suspect there is some other being, unseen to us, mere mortals, lurking down there, amidst glowing light, with eyes azure, and wings behind!.. You've grown old, while he is young. You deny everything while he is a believer. You despise life while he, down on his knees, bursts into tears readily when witnessing any of its true manifestations!…
The incredulity at the way Fet managed to create inside himself not just another world, but a perfect antidote to his own outward persona, was common among those who knew the poet well.
Fet was scorned by left wing radicals as a mean character prone to expressing reactionary political views, but this never concerned his poetry. In the 1870s and 1880s, despite his falling out of fashion and favour with critics, Fet continued to write refined poetry, the Evening Lights series (1883, 1885, 1888, 1891) featuring some of his finest work. In the Preface to the Volume 3 of the series, Fet scorned the wave of 'civil sorrowfulness' (epitomised by Semyon Nadson) which only added to the hostility towards him. Even limited editions of the Evening Lights (several hundred copies each) were left unsold, with only a small circle of friends (Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Solovyov, Strakhov, Polonsky, Aleksey K. Tolstoy, Pyotr Tchaikovsky among them) remaining interested. Having learned of the Evening Lights Vol. 4 release, Polonsky wrote in a letter (12 November 1890): "I eagerly wait now for your Evening Lights and will always be. I would have liked to add the whole of the intelligentsia waits for them, but alas, that wouldn't be the case".
In 1890 two volumes of Fet's My Memories: 1848-1889 were published. Another book, My Early Years, came out posthumously, in 1893. On 28 January in the Moscow Hermitage restaurant the 50th Anniversary of Fet’s literary career was celebrated. The poet seemed pleased with lavish ceremonies but later in a poem called On My Muse' 50th Birthday referred to the event as a social 'requiem'. On 26 February Fet was granted the title of a kamerger by a special monarch's decree. His last poem is dated 23 October 1892.
The circumstances of Fet's death caused almost as much controversy as those of his birth. According to initial reports (later reproduced by some biographers) he died in his Moscow home of a heart attack. While being formally true, this fact concealed a much more bizarre sequence of events. In October 1892, Fet moved from his Vorobyovka estate to Moscow. While visiting Countess Sophia Tolstaya he caught a cold and then contracted severe bronchitis. The family doctor, Ostroumov, at one point suggested to Fet's wife that the patient, being so ill, should take Communion, but she responded that "Afanasy Afanasyevich recognises none of these rituals" and told the doctor that she was ready to take the sin (of depriving a dying man of communion) upon herself.
On the morning of 21 November the patient, ever up on his feet, suddenly sent for champagne. His wife protested, arguing that the doctor would have surely prohibited this, but was urgently sent to the doctor to get the necessary permission. Fet seemed to be in great haste. "Now go and get back quickly," he ordered as she was entering a carriage. As Maria left, Fet told his secretary (a Mrs. F.): "Now, come with me, I will dictate to you". – "A letter?" she asked. "No", came the reply. On a piece of paper Mrs. F. wrote the following: "I see no reason for consciously prolonging the suffering. I willingly chose what would be inevitable anyway." He signed this: "21 November. Fet (Shenshin)", with a firm hand, "certainly not a hand of a dying man," according to Boris Sadovskoy. What happened next the biographer explained by "some kind of mental storm people sometimes experience facing death. Only temporary madness could make him run about, grabbing dinner and paper knives which were obviously not supposed to cause man serious harm," Sadovskoy wrote. First Fet grabbed a paper knife from the table before him. Mrs. F. disarmed him, injuring her hand. Then he started running about the house, closely followed by Mrs. F., who was bleeding and calling for help, to no avail. In a dining-room he ran up to a cabinet where table-knives were kept and started jerking the door. Then, panting, he fell on a chair. According to the secretary, his eyes opened wide, as if facing some terrible sight, his hand rose as if to make a cross, then fell down. Next moment his body was lifeless.
The cause of his death, as it turned out later, was a heart attack. The funeral service was held on 22 November 1892, in the Moscow University church. Afanasy Fet was buried on 23 November in his new family vault in Kleymyonovo, the old Shenshin family estate.
Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet is regarded as the greatest lyric poet of Russia. His verses were highly esteemed by Vissarion Belinsky, who ranked him on par with Mikhail Lermontov. Fet's lyrical poetry, sensual and melancholic, was imbued with tints of sadness and tragedy. "Such lyrical insight into the very core of the Spring and human emotion risen by it was hitherto unknown in Russian poetry," wrote critic Vasily Botkin in 1843. Osip Mandelstam considered Fet to be the greatest Russian poet of all time. Fet exerted strong influence upon Russian Symbolists, notably Innokenty Annensky and Alexander Blok, the latter referring to him as his "great teacher". Among those influenced by Fet were Sergey Yesenin and Boris Pasternak. Tchaikovsky wrote:
Fet is an exceptional phenomenon. There is no use to compare him to other first class poets, or try and seek for common streaks with Pushkin, Lermontov, Al. Tolstoy or Tyutchev... For, in his best moments, Fet leaves poetry boundaries altogether and ventures boldly into our field. That is why, when I think of Fet, often Beethoven comes to mind... Like Beethoven, he has this power to touch strings of our souls which would be out of reach for those artists, no matter how strong, who rely on words only. Rather than just a poet, he is a musician-poet.
Professor Pavel Kudryavtsev argued that Fet had "his very special way of producing verse, the latter having been driven not necessarily by rational thought" but by melody. "It is of musical nature and... is being realized in a musical way, straight into [a verbal] melody," the critic wrote. With his poetry, "quite unique in terms of aesthetics", Fet has proven that "real poetry is self-sufficient and it’s spring won't ever dry out, no matter how unfavorable were the times," Kudryavtsev wrote.
Yet Fet was never a popular poet during his lifetime. Critic Vasily Botkin remarked that while in the 1860s reviewers generally lauded Fet's poetry, "the general public looked at these praises with incredulity, refusing to see any virtues in [it]. In other words, his success is but literary and we think the reason lies in the very nature of his talent," Botkin concluded. Others thought it was Fet's unwillingness to change. "The reason was in his being totally foreign to the spirit of times. Unlike Nekrasov, who expressed this spirit perfectly, always going with the flow, Fet never did, refusing to 're-tune his lyre's strings'," argued the Soviet scholar Dmitry Blagoy.
Fet's aesthetics and philosophy
At the foundation of the aesthetics of Fet's romanticism was the idea of "total distinction between the two life spheres: the ideal and the real one." "Only an Ideal sphere gives one an opportunity to take a whiff of a better life," he wrote in his memoirs. This sphere, according to the poet, encompasses beauty (that "permeates the world" and which "an artists gets drawn to like a bee to a flower"), love (serving as a link between elements of Nature), moments of harmony between human soul and infinite cosmos and Art as such. Longing for an Ideal, according to Tarkhov, was the driving force of Fet's poetry.
Fet's aesthetic agenda was first formulated in his essay "On Tyutchev's poems", published in Russkoye Slovo magazine in 1859. In it Fet explained his views on the concept of 'pure love' (introduced to the Russian literature by Vasily Zhukovsky and then Alexander Pushkin), as the one and only thing that "pure art" was supposed to serve. While in 1840s and 1850s such ideas were still attractive, in the 1860s’ atmosphere of rising social awareness in the Russian cultural elite Fet found himself flowing against the stream.
Fet developed his personal branch of natural philosophy, as a kind of mechanism for examining ties, seen and unseen, between man and Nature. In order to come with the whole picture he started to unite his poems into cycles: "Spring", "Summer", "Autumn", "Snows", "Melodies", "Fortune-telling", and others (each containing poems linked with one general idea and driven by intertwining motifs) which, taken as a whole, were supposed to represent the whole picture of human soul. All these cycles are bound by the leitmotif: protagonist's striving to "merge with what lies outside" of human perception. Only "life outside life bounds" gives man moments of absolute freedom, according to the poet. The major route leading to these outer realms is live Nature, with a soul of its own. Moment of joy is the moment of "one-ness" with Nature (once described as 'heart-blossom': "Night flowers dream all through the day/ But once the Sun's beyond the trees/ Leaves open up and now I hear/ The sound of my heart blossoming", - 1885). Female beauty is seen as part of the picture, and contemplating it is blissful, too. Based on this "philosophy of beauty" was the cycle of poems dedicated to women (A.Brzhevskaya, Sophia Tolstaya, A.Osufieva, and others). This process of regaining unity with nature leads man out of the corrupt real world and brings him ecstatic joy and total happiness, according to Fet.
Vladimir Semenkovich, author of several books on his uncle, argued that…
…[Fet] was neither a liberal nor a conservative, just a man of the 1840s, or, should I say, one of the last men of the 1840s. One thing in which he might have differed from [people of his generation] was that he was more of a practical man… Being courageous enough to have his own opinions, he started to speak out on the total impracticality of the theory that is now known too well. That was the reason he's been put to ostracism. For those were the times when speaking out against the majority was something unthinkable. Who's not with us is against us, was the motto. Fet couldn't be with them for he was seeing life from the ground, not from cabinet windows or some conspiratorial circle's walls.
According to Semenovich, "...common people loved him. The right kind of barin, no question about it", such was the general opinion of him. And this was being said of a barin who never hesitated to speak out what he thought was truth - to peasants too, not only men of his own class." "My father thought his greatest asset was the ability to think independently: he always had his own ideas, never borrowed them from other people," remembered Ilya Lvovich Tolstoy.
Detractors of Fet and his "cult of domesticity" failed to recognize the idea behind his pathos, that of seeing the "civil labour" as another "higher ideal". "Natural attitude towards work" to him was analogous to love, linking man to Nature and potentially bringing back harmony to the society that had lost it. Part of Fet's "philosophy of labour" was the romantic notion of freedom. He advocated free development of the human character and warned against exceedingly regulating social life. "An artful tutor should learn to restrain himself from removing what looks to him as ugly features of his subject. Cut of a young fur-tree's crooked branches and you'll kill it, it will die of asphyxiation. Wait for 40 years and you'll see a straight and strong trunk with a green crown," Fet wrote in 1871. Naturally, such philosophy of the "social waiting" would not appeal to those aiming at revolutionary changes.
|on YouTube by actor Vladimir Samoylov.|
I Have Come to You, Delighted
- I have come to you, delighted,
- To tell you that sun has risen,
- That its light has warmly started
- To fulfil on leaves its dancing;
- To tell you that wood’s awaken
- In its every branch and leafage,
- And with every bird is shaken,
- Thirsty of the springy image;
- To tell you that I’ve come now,
- As before, with former passion,
- That my soul again is bound
- To serve you and your elation;
- That the charming breath of gladness
- Came to me from all-all places,
- I don't know what I'll sing, else,
- But my song’s coming to readiness.
- Tarkhov, A. A.A.Fet. Verses and Poems. Contemporaries on Fet. Moscow, Pravda Publishing house. 1988. A Foreword. "To Give Life a Breath..." Pp. 5-16.
- Blagoy, D. (Мoscow. Pravda, 1983). "Afanasy Fet: the Poet and the Man". Remembering A.Fet. Foreword by D.Blagoy. Compiled by A.Tarkhov. Retrieved 2011-10-10. Check date values in:
- Strakhov, Nikolai. A.A.Fet. Biographical sketch. Lyrical Poems, Vols.1-2. Moscow, 1894. Pp. 328-334.
- Carolina Petrovna Foeth later came to Russia too and married A. P. Matveev, the rector of Kiev University.
- "Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet". "Russian Writers". Biobibliographical Dictionary. Moscow. Prosveshchenye. Vol 2. Ed. P.A.Nikolayev. 1990. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
- Bezelyansky, Yuri. "Landowner Shenshin and the Poet Fet". www.c-cafe.ru. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
- Grabar, I.E. My Life. Autobiography. Moscow-Leningrad, 1937, pp.252-253.
- "Do not awaken her at dawn (Na zare ty eyo ne budi)...". www.sudarushka.su. 2011. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
- Mirsky, D.S. "The History of Russian Literature". az.lib.ru. Retrieved 2011-10-10.
- Fet, А. Early Years of My Life. Moscow, 1893, p. 115.
- "Otechestvennye zapiski", 1840, Vol. 12, Sc. VI, pp. 40-42; Belinsky's letter to V.P.Botkin, December 26, 1840. The Complete V.G.Belinsky in 12 Volumes. Vol. XI. Мoscow, p.584.
- Belinsky, V.G. Vol. VII, pp. 636-637; Vol. VIII, p. 94
- Grigoriev's accounts should not be necessarily taken at their face value, as they are part of the autobiographical novella Ophelia (telling the story of a girl he and his friend were in love with) where he himself is 'Vitalin' and Fet is 'Voldemar'. If the story is to be believed, Grigoriev's infatuation with Fet at the time was immense: "I loved him with the unconscious, tender and humble devotion of a woman and he was the only person in the world with whom it was not shameful for me to indulge in childishly girlish smoochings... I was babysitter for him, a lover, a woman, and he knew it, and he tormented me... He did love me, but only in so far as he felt the need in me. Despising my sufferings, he participated in them only as a mirror participates in an object it reflects." - Apollon Grigoriev. Ophelia (fragment). A.A.Fet. Poems. Moscow, 1988. pр. 341-342.
- As a student Fet went known by the nickname of Reickenbach, the hero of Nikolay Polevoy's novel, noted for the saying: "Never could I find harmony and peace between reality and poetry."
- Fet, А. Early Years of My Life (Rannye gody moyei zhizni). Pp. 341, 318; "Fet and I.P.Borisov’s Correspondence". Literaturnaya Mysl. Book I. Petersburg, Mysl Publishers. 1922, pp.214, 227-228.
- "Literaturnaya Mysl", Book I, P. 216, 220.
- Blagoy, D. From the Russian Literature's Past. Turgenev and Fet's Editor. Publishing and Revolution magazine. 1923, Book 3, Pp. 45-64.
- Panayeva, Avdotya. From Memoirs (Iz vospominany). А.А.Fet. Verses and Poems. Moscow. Pravda. 1988. P.351
- A.A.Fet. Poems. Moscow, 1988. Letters. р.414.
- The Works by M.E.Saltykov-Shchedrin. Moscow, 1968. Vol.6. Pp. 59-60).
- February 23, 1860. Letters. The Complete L.N.Tolstoy. Vol.60, P.324.
- May 21, 1861. The Complete I.S.Turgenev. Letters. Vol. IV, P.240.
- Fet, А. My Memories. Part 2. P.210.
- Fet, А. My Memories. Part 2. P.190.
- Grigorovich, А. The History of the 13th Dragoons Regiment, vol.I. Saint Petersburg, 1912, P. 223.
- Lavrensky, М. (D.L.Mikhaylovsky). Shakespeare as Translated by Fet. Sovremennik, 1859, No.6, Pp. 255-258. Later Fet himself admitted that as a dramatist he had no gift whatsoever.
- Tolstoy, L.N. The Complete of... Vol.62, P.63.
- "Т.А.Kuzminskaya on А.А.Fet", P.172.
- Tolstoy, L. "А.А.Fet. Verses and Poems. Contemporaries on Fet". Moscow. Pravda, 1988. Pp. 412.
- Leo Tolstoy’s letters: November 7, 1866, June 24, 1874, August 30, 1869. - The Complete L.N.Tolstoy. Vol. 61, Pp. 149, 219; Vol. 62, P. 96
- Semenkovich, V. "А.А.Fet. Verses and Poems. Contemporaries on Fet". Moscow. Pravda, 1988. Pp. 450-456.
- "А.А.Fet. Verses and Poems. Contemporaries on Fet". Moscow. Pravda, 1988. Pp. 357-463.
- Sadovskoy, Boris. The Death of Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet. "А.А.Fet. Verses and Poems. Contemporaries on Fet". Moscow. Pravda, 1988. Pp. 444-450.
- Botkin, V.P. Works. Vol.2 Saint Petersburg, 1891, P.368.
- "А.А.Fet. Verses and Poems. Contemporaries on Fet". Moscow. Pravda, 1988. P.403.
- Fet, А. From the Country. Zarya (Заря) magazine. 1871. No 6. Pp. 9-10
- Translated by Yevgeny Bonver, March, 2001
|Wikisource has the text of a 1920 Encyclopedia Americana article about Afanasy Fet.|
- Afanasy Fet. Poems
- Collection of Poems by Afanasy Fet (English Translations)
- English translations of 3 poems by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky, 1921
- English translations of 5 Miniatures