|Born||Maria Alexanrovna Lokhvitskaya
November 19, 1869
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
|Died||August 27, 1905
Saint Petersburg, Russian Empire
|Notable awards||Pushkin Prize|
Mirra Lokhvitskaya (Russian: Ми́рра Ло́хвицкая; born Maria Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya – Russian: Мари́я Алекса́ндровна Ло́хвицкая; November 19, 1869 – August 27, 1905) was a Russian poet who rose to fame in the late 1890s and, due to the flamboyantly erotic sensuality of her works, was regarded as the "Russian Sappho" by her contemporaries, which did not correspond with her conservative life style of dedicated wife and mother of five sons. In her short lifetime Lokhvitskaya published five books of poetry, the first and the last of which received the most coveted Russian literary award of the day, the Pushkin Prize. Completely forgotten in Soviet times (when she was dismissed as one of the petty balmontoids), in recent years Lokhvitskaya's legacy has been totally reassessed. She is generally regarded now as one of the most original and influential voices of the Silver Age of Russian Poetry and the first in the line of modern Russian women poets who paved the way for Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva. Lokhvitskaya's younger sister Nadezhda became a well-known humorist writer better known as Teffi, and their brother Nikolay Lokhvitsky, a Russian White Army general and a one-time associate of Kolchak, fought against the Red Army forces in Siberia.
Mirra Lokhvitskaya was born on November 19, 1869 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. Her father Alexander Vladimirovich Lokhvitsky (1830–1884) was a well-known lawyer of the time, famous for his public speeches, the author of several academic works on jurisprudence and countless articles. The primary source of young Mirra's creative aspirations, though, was her mother Varvara Alexandrovna (born Hoer), a well-versed French woman, fond of literature and poetry. Lokhvitskaya's younger sister Nadezhda became a famous Russian humourist short story writer known as Teffi, their brother Nikolay Lokhvitsky (1868–1933) – an army general. Younger sister Yelena (1874–1919) is often mentioned in Teffi's memoirs, while Mirra is almost completely ignored. Yelena Lokhvitskaya wrote poetry, translated Maupassant (together with Teffi) and was a Drama Society member, but never regarded herself as a professional. Of Mirra's two other sisters only the names are known: Varvara Alexandrovna (Popova) and Lydia Alexandrovna (Kozhina).
In 1874 the Lokhvitsky family moved to Moscow. In 1882 Mirra enrolled in the Moscow Aleksandrinsky Institute, from which she graduated in 1888. According to a popular belief, her literature tutor was Apollon Maykov, a well-known Russian poet and writer, but, according to scholar T. Alexandrova, there is no evidence supporting what looks like one of the many myths surrounding her: Maykov at the time was working in Saint Petersburg as a senior Censorship Committee member. At the age of 15 Lokhvitskaya began writing poetry and published two of her poems as a small brochure (approved by the college's authorities) not long before graduation. In 1884 A. V. Lokhvitsky died and his widow took the children back to Saint Petersburg. Mirra, with a teacher's diploma, followed suit four years later.
In 1888 several of her poems, signed M. Lokhvitskaya, were published in the Sever (The North) magazine. Several popular literary journals became interested in the young debutante and soon the moniker "Mirra" emerged, having to do with her dying grandfather Kondrat's last words ("...and the smell of myrrh is blown away by the wind"), if the family legend is to be believed.
Life and literary career
Lokhvitskaya rose to fame in 1891 when her first long poem "By the Seaside" (У моря) was published in the August issue of the Russian Review (Русское обозрение) magazine. As a promising starlet she was befriended by many prominent figures in the Saint Petersburg literary establishment, including Vsevolod Solovyov, Ieronim Yasinsky, Vasily Nemirovich-Danchenko, Pyotr Gnedich and Vladimir Solovyov. In late 1891 Lokhvitskaya married a French construction engineer named Eugeny Gibert and the couple moved first to Yaroslavl, then to Moscow. They had five sons.
Lokhvitskaya's first major book, a compilation called Poems, 1889–1895 (Стихотворения, 1889–1895) drew a positive response and brought her the prestigious Pushkin Prize in 1896, a year after its publication. "Ever since Fet, not a single poet has managed to take hold of their audience in such a way," wrote her friend Vasily Nemirovich-Danchenko. "Like sprinkling sunlight..." was the way he described the young poet's style of writing and the way the book impressed him personally. Volume II (1896–1898) followed in 1898 and two years later was re-issued, coupled with the first volume, in The Complete... edition.
In the course of the next few years Lokhvitskaya published dozens of new poems including the extensive Him and Her. Two Words (Он и Она. Два слова) and two epic dramas, Eastward (На пути к Востоку) and Vandelin. The Springtime Fairytale. By the time her Volume III (1898–1900) came out, Lokhvitskaya was Russia's most popular and best-loved woman poet. Far from enjoying her stardom, though, she spent the last five years of her life in physical pain and mental turmoil.
The exact cause of Lokhvitskaya's death remains unknown. Her health started to deteriorate in the late 1890s: she complained of insomnia and violent nightmares, suffered from bouts of severe depression, and later from chronic and ever worsening stenocardia.
In 1904 her illness progressed; she was bedridden for most of the year, tortured by pain and anxiety. In the early days of summer 1905, the family moved Mirra to Finland, where her condition improved slightly, but on return she was hospitalized. Mirra Lokhvitskaya died on August 27, 1905. Tuberculosis has often been cited as the cause of death, but this is unsubstantiated: there was no mention of it in any of the obituaries. Lokhvitskaya was buried on August 29 in Alexander Nevsky Lavra's Dukhovskaya Church, with only close relatives and friends attending the ceremony.
Among those conspicuous by their absence was Konstantin Balmont, a man whom she had been passionately in love with. It was the stresses of this strange and morbid friendship that, as some believed, became the reason for her psychological crisis, and led to moral and physical demise. "Her death was enigmatic. Spiritual disturbance was the cause," friend Isabella Grinevskaya wrote in her memoirs.
Relationship with Konstantin Balmont
Lokhvitskaya and Balmont first met in the mid-1890s, probably in the Crimea. Holding similar views on poetry in general, and its symbolist line of development in particular, they instantly became close friends. Soon (according to the Lokhvitskaya scholar Tatyana Alexandrova) the "spark of love was ignited". The effect of this, though, was not a trivial affair, but the most peculiar and still in many ways obscure poetic dialogue full of allusions, to decipher the details of which one had to examine the whole bulk of the heritage of both poets. In Lokhvitskaya's poetry her lover figured under the moniker of "Lionel" – after the character of Percy Bysshe Shelley (Balmont famously translated into Russian most of the Englishman's poetry in the 1890s), a "youth with curls coloured ripen rye" and "eyes greenish like the sea".
This passionate love affair was far from clandestine: it instigated public discussion and was often referred to as "scandalous". Insinuations were continuously made as to whether the two had ever been physically close. Poet, publisher and literary critic Pyotr Pertsov called "their acclaimed romance" the first in the line of Balmont's numerous romantic victories. Some suggested that the two might have had a short affair in the early days; otherwise they were geographically wide apart, with Balmont travelling abroad. In his autobiography At the Dawn (На заре) he described their relationship as a "poetic friendship". Latter day researchers are inclined to think that their love indeed was a truly platonic affair, but violently passionate, frustrating and psychologically detrimental for both.
In 1901 Balmont and Lokhvitskaya met, apparently, for the last time. Afterwards their relationship, confined to enigmatically constructed poetic dialogues, deteriorated into something rather ominous, full of demands and threats on his part and pleas for mercy on hers. Considering the ever present gothic element in both writers's works of the time (full of coffins, corpses and "demonic" imagery), this 'friendship', even on paper, was now getting more and more strange. It was apparent that both took their shared self-created world of horror and passion very seriously. Balmont was continuously complaining in his letters of being "possessed" (and, according to many, suffered from Jekyll and Hyde sindrome), while Lokhvitskaya submerged herself in a quagmire of violent visions which, coupled with feelings of guilt towards her family, led to an illness the roots of which were obviously psychosomatic. Some (T. Alexandrova included) tend to regard the involvement of Valery Bryusov, Balmont's close rival/friend, as the most damaging factor. The well-publicized fact that Bryusov (who hated Lokhvitskaya, thinking she was on a mission to "steal" a friend of his) dabbled in black magic added another gothic touch to the whole thing.
Those who knew Lokhvitskaya personally later spoke of the stark contrast between the poet's bacchanal reputation and her real, daily life self. The blatantly erotic author (whom some critics labeled "pornographer") in reality was, according to Ivan Bunin, "the most chaste woman in Saint Petersburg, a faithful wife and the most caring, protective mother of several children." Playing a kind of "Eastern beauty" role at home, she received visitors lying down, languidly, on a couch. But, according to Bunin, there was not a trace of pretentiousness behind this posturing; on the contrary, the hostess greatly enjoyed matter-of-fact chattering about funny and trivial things, displaying wit and disarming self-irony.
In the circle of her literary friends, Lokhvitskaya was always surrounded by an "aura of adoration" – it seemed like every man "was a little in love with her." Among them was Bunin. In the rather grim gallery of the Nobel Prize laureate's literary portraits (caricatures, rather), Lokhvitskaya was the only person whom he remembered fondly. "Everything in her was charming: the sound of her voice, the liveliness of her speech, the glitter of her eye, her wonderful facetiousness. The colour of her face was exceptionally beautiful: opaque and smooth, like that of a ripe Crimean apple," Bunin wrote in his memoirs.
For all her popularity, Lokhvitskaya led the life of a recluse. Being reticent, she rarely went out, finding excuses in one or another of her children's being unwell. It is known that at "poetic parties" her arrivals were eagerly awaited, but that her appearances there were only occasional and not necessarily triumphant. "She stepped on stage, and there was such a helplessness in her look that it took away all the attractiveness we've all been familiar with – through this photo of hers, published in all the journals," wrote religious author Yevgeny Poselyanin, remembering one such evening.
Lokhvitskaya's shyness was one of the reasons why so little mention has been made of her in the extensive body of Russian Silver Age memoirs. Influential critic Akim Volynsky once confessed: "Sadly, Lokhvitskaya, one of the most intriguing women of the time, left but a vague trace in my memory."
Attractiveness certainly played a part – first, in Lokhvitskaya's meteoric rise to fame, then in the way people "refused to see beyond her beauty, remaining oblivious to the sharp intelligence that was becoming more and more obvious in her work." According to biographer Alexandrova, Lokhvitskaya's was a "typical drama of a good-looking woman in whom people failed to notice anything except for her physical attractiveness."
Mirra Lokhvitskaya's poetry on the face of it wasn't innovative. Critics and admirers agreed, though, that her works were marked by a unique lightness of touch, rare musical quality and dazzling technical perfection at times. "Exquisite", "colourful", "catchy" and "easily recognizable" were the most common words of praise given to her works at the time. In retrospect it turned out that Lochvitskaya's work bore at least one profoundly novel element: "the outright celebration of a purely female outlook." In that respect Lokhvitskaya is considered by many the founder of Russian woman's poetry, a predecessor to such groundbreaking figures as Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva.
There was another original aspect that made Mirra Lokhvitskaya an instant sensation in late 19th century literary Russia: the unusual frankness of her verses made her arguably the first woman in Russian literature to enjoy the total freedom of self-expression, speaking openly of sensuality, passion and sex. The famous phrase "Lasciviousness equals happiness" (Eto stchastye – sladostrastye) summed up her attitude and for a while was seen as her trademark line.
Passionate love was the leitmotif of Lokhvitskaya's poetry. Her feelings, motives and inclinations, though, transformed over the years in quick and dramatic fashion, making the decade of her reign in Russian poetry an intriguing field for literary research. Literary critic and author Semyon Vengerov who rated her among the "outstanding Russian poets" wrote (in Brockhaus and Efron Encyclopedic Dictionary):
The history of Lokhvitskaya's literary eroticism can be divided into three periods. Her first volume, despite the presence of cynicism, bore the mark of naive graciousness. There were plenty "sweet songs of love", but they were addressed to her husband who brought her "happiness and joy". In Volume II this half-shameful hue of teenagers's delights disappears without a trace. The lady singer's feelings become extremely sultry... Volume III brings her into the third and final phase where darkness prevails over light. There is no joy anymore: hopelessness, suffering and death is what Lokhvitskaya becomes preoccupied with. Lucid simplicity is gone, giving way to decorative quirkiness, with plots becoming increasingly subtle and exquisite.
There wasn't a trace of lusciviousness left in the last, fifth volume. Lokhvitskaya excluded all poems addressed to her "spiritual lover," and what was left amounted to a fine collection of elegies full of dark premonitions, quasi-religious fables and thinly veiled farewells to her children. After her death in 1905, the lines of a late 1890s poem which sounded like a perfect epitaph were often quoted:
I'd rather die young / Tumble down like a star of gold / Drop like a flower that's fresh / For the fires to burn till the end / And memories forever remain / Of the one who disturbed people's hearts / In order to bring them to life
Я хочу умереть молодой.
Золотой закатиться звездой.
Облететь неувядшим цветком.
Я хочу умереть молодой... <...>
<...> Пусть не меркнет огонь до конца
И останется память о той,
Что для жизни будила сердца.
Я хочу умереть молодой!
Meanwhile, there were several misconceptions that Vengerov in his 1913 article tried to brush away. First, he argued, the way literary historians signed Lokhvitskaya's name to the list of Russian decadents was wrong: "Totally devoid of sickly feebleness and vain extravagance" (generally associated with the Russian decadent movement), she was, "eager to enjoy life, declaring her right to put forth her feelings with all the mighty fullness of her soul," he maintained. In fact, "the poetess's agility was very much akin to the challenge of Marxism,", ventured the critic (known for his leftist inclinations), adding that her "views on the meaning and reason of life were essentially Eastern, the full force of her poetic drive channelled into a narrow love theme. She spoke with outrageous frankness – but only of her "soul's fiery desires" and "passion's madness"". If there was one thing Lokhvitskaya had been unanimously condemned for by contemporaries, it was her poetry's rather demonstrative lack of social awareness.
Many saw her as a true mystic poet. Vyacheslav Ivanov, speaking of Lokhvitskaya's enigma, praised her "almost antiquely harmonious nature". According to Ivanov, "She accepted Christianity with all the joy of her unbroken soul, that of a true pagan outsider, responding to Christian demands with her wholesome, natural kindness." Typecasting her as an "original" (as opposed to "proto-modern") bacchanalian character, he wrote:
...And as a true bacchanal woman she was carrying in herself a fatally polarized outlook. Passion calls for – and is responded to by – death; pleasure brings pain. The beauty of erotic love and the demonic horrors of violence inspired her in equal measure. With daring curiosity she poised over abysses of torture. Possessed by the devilish charms of the Middle Ages, she ecstatically turned into one of those witches who've known all the joys of Sabbaths and burning fires...
Critic and writer Alexander Izmaylov, rating Lokhvitskaya (in 1905) as the best Russian woman poet ever ("in fact, the only one – due to lack of competitiveness") was deeply impressed by the contrasts of, as he put it, "her unique individuality". "Full of fiery passions, yet occasionally sickly nervous, she entered this world as a strange amalgam – of Heaven and Earth, of flesh and spirituality, of sinfulness and saintly aspirations, of lowlife delights and the longing for a higher plane, the future Kingdom of Beauty," he wrote. Izmaylov admitted that many spoke of Lokhvitskaya's being one-dimensional, and that this criticism was well justified; this narrow-mindedness in her poetry became more and more obvious as the years passed by.
According to M. Gershenzon, Lokhvitskaya was misunderstood by wider audiences; only "those enchanted by the subtle aromas of poetry, its musicality, easily recognized her exceptional gift." Speaking of the posthumous compilation Before the Sunset (Перед Закатом), he wrote: "Lokhvitskaya's verse is charming. Rarely was she able to fulfill all of her ideas in one play, but her poetic plans worked – better still, when she herself wasn't aware of their meaning. In the art of bringing individual verses, lines even, to perfection, she had no equal. It looks as if not a single Russian poet has ever come as close as she did to Pushkin’s lucid clarity, her verses being easily as catchy." Summarizing Lokhvitskaya's development over the years, Gershenzon wrote: "While in her earlier poems there prevailed a – "hurry up, lover, my oil is burning" – kind of motif, her latter works showed her soul getting deeper and quieter. As if the moment she spotted this mysterious pattern of things beyond the passions adorning human life's fanciful facade, the walls opened wide to let her see through into unfathomable space."
The notion of Lokhvitskaya as a "domestic temptress" prevailed over the decades. Meanwhile, Alexandrova (the author of the book Mirra Lokhvitskaya: Doomed to Melt in Flight, 2008) insists that the poet was more of a mystic seer than a "sultry songstress". Quoting Lokhvitskaya's short poem (written in 1902, long before even the First Russian revolution):
I hate the colour Red / For it's forever cursed
In it – all crimes of times gone by / Death sentences of the Past...
Мне ненавистен красный цвет / За то, что проклят он.
В нем – преступленья долгих лет,/ В нем – казнь былых времен...
...the author suggested that "...in effect, this poem was in itself a good enough reason for Lokhvitskaya's legacy to remain unpublished in Soviet times."
Soon after her death Mirra Lokhvitskaya's popularity began to fade. In the 1910s she was subjected to the "cold sneers of literary fashion-mongers" and the snipes of petty critics. Igor Severyanin became fascinated with her poetry and even called his fantasy world Mirrallya in her memory, but his affectation, as Alexandrova noted, did little to add credibility to the late poet's name. Since the 1920s Lokhvitskaya's name and works were in oblivion – both in the USSR and abroad. Soviet and Russian immigrant critics labeled her and her poetry as "narrow-minded, trivial, saloon-wise and vulgar." The first half of Valery Bryusov's statement, – "For Russian poetry's complete future anthology, 10–15 of Lokhvitskaya's truly flawless poems would be enough...", – became a cliche, its second half ("...but the attentive reader will forever be excited by and engaged in the hidden drama of this poet's soul that has marked the whole of her poetry"), was usually left unmentioned. For more than ninety years Lokhvitskaya remained unpublished in her homeland.
In the 1990s things started to change. The Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (1994) admitted that Lokhvitskaya's "influence on her contemporaries and on later poets is only beginning to be recognized". The American slavist V. F. Markov called Lokhvitskaya's legacy "a treasury of prescience", suggesting that it was her and not Akhmatova who "taught [Russian] women how to speak." For, as Alexandrova puts it, "her poetic world might have been narrow, but shallow – never." It's just that, according to Vyacheslav Ivanov, this depthness wasn't obvious: "the depth of hers was that of a sunlit well, unseen to the untutored eye."
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- Solomon Volkov, translator Antonina W. Bouis. St. Petersburg: A Cultural History. books.google.com. Retrieved 2010-08-13.
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- Marina Ledkovskaia, Astman, Charlotte Rosenthal, Mary Fleming Zirin. Dictionary of Russian Women Writers. books.google.com. Retrieved 2010-08-13.
- Markov, V. Russian Crespuscolari. p. 80.
- on YouTube, on YouTube, songs by Larisa Novoseltseva on poems by Mirra Lokhvitskaya