Boris Pasternak's The Year 1905: Visual Arts in the Genre of Epic Poetry

Ludmila Shleyfer Lavine, Princeton University

The role of the visual arts in Pasternak's poetic development has been frequently alluded to in passing. Indeed, many of Pasternak's lyric poems can be regarded as versified landscapes. In these instances, the lyric "I" disperses to such an extent that, as Sinjavskij notes, landscape and its observer switch places: "ne ja pro vesnu, a vesna pro menja" ("Poezija Pasternaka," Boris Pasternak. Stikhotvorenija i poemy, 20). Since both epic poetry (in contrast to lyric poetry) and the visual arts are spatial, the pictorial technique finds an appropriate place in the poet's "turn to the epic" of the 1920s. This paper examines the formal implications of Pasternak's amplification of visual imagery for the genre of poema, with The Year 1905 as a case in point.

Description is an important component of narrative poetry. In Boileau's discussion of the epic in Art poetique, the critic suggests that "descriptions should enliven narrative." I argue that, in The Year 1905, Pasternak distorts this complimentary relationship between narrative and description by conflating the two. The narrative thread in this text is virtually non-existent in its traditional form. Instead, what is usually viewed as a digression from the plot, i.e. the visual imagery, becomes the main structural principle in Pasternak's poem. In this paper, I suggest that in many places The Year 1905 borders on ekphrasis, i.e. a poem that describes a work of art (Homer's description of Achilles' shield is a famous example of this). But even when the text is not based on a specific work of art, the element of the visual arts, landscape painting in particular, is still its the dominant feature.

In general, the fundamental quality of epic or narrative poetry is action, while stasis is the principle of painting. According to Hagstrum, "the pictorial necessarily involves the reduction of motion to stasis or something suggesting such a reduction" (The Sister Arts). Often descriptive excerpts in the epic genre are seen not only as mere digressions from the plot, but also as a technique to slow down the action. The categories of motion and stasis lie at the heart of Pasternak's poema and illuminate the poet's life-long philosophy of erasing distinctions between animate and inanimate objects. Instead of the usual epic hero, set against the immobile backdrop of historic events, in this poema everything in the speaker's angle of vision -- human beings, buildings and trees -- participates in the action. The poet lays bare this device in the first section of the poema, with an image of the speaker (first person plural) approaching the window to take in the view: I togda-to pridet / ta zima / Kogda VSE OZhIVET... Predvechernee solnce / Podzovet nas k oknu. My ODUXOTVORIM naugad / Neprevychnyj zakat,... (emphasis added, lines 116-124). The final section of the poema, whose title is suggestive of a cityscape painting ("Moscow in December") is the epitome of the pictorial, set in motion.

Finally, I consider the consequences of the participation of all elements, rather than that of a single main character, for the genre of poema. Not only is the epic hero supplanted, but so is the plot itself. It is often the case in the poema of the twentieth century that the traditional understanding of the epic hero and the epic plot are compromised by the overwhelming presence of the speaker's persona. In The Year 1905 this effect is achieved differently. The speaker's lyric "I" is, for the most part, absent. All creative potential is relinquished to landscape descriptions, i.e. to what is essentially considered the background of action.