A Rhetoric of Presence and Absence: Tjutčev’s “Ne to, čto mnite vy, priroda”

The scholarship to date on Tjutčev’s 1836 “Ne to, čto mnite vy, priroda” (“Nature is not that which you think it is”) has concentrated primarily on demonstrating that the poem is a clear example of Tjutčev’s High Romantic views on nature. Virtually all readings agree that the poem is a repudiation of Enlightenment beliefs regarding man and the natural world. Man, according to the tenets of the Age of Reason, has been created in the image of God, with God-like attributes, and has the innate capacity to think, to feel, to love, and—perhaps most importantly to a poet—to speak. Nature, on the other hand, is part of a sphere which exists solely as an empty representation of beauty, which can be studied and ultimately logically comprehended and explained by man. “Ne to, čto mnite vy, priroda,” so goes the explanation, is Tjutčev’s answer to this line of thinking, in which he mocks, rages against, and ultimately pities those who do not see the greater truth: that nature in fact is a force which is alive and capable of emotion and communication. Buxštab (1970) and Pratt (1977 and 1984) in particular have pointed out Schelling’s strong influence on Tjutčev in these Romantic organicist views of his on nature.

What has not been critically addressed in any detail is more specifically Tjutčev’s choice of language in the poem itself, and the even larger question of Tjutčev’s reasons for that choice. “Ne to, čto mnite vy, prioroda” consists mainly of a series of negative particles and prefixes, which build to a climax in quantity and intensity by the end of the poem. This overabundance of negative indicators point most towards the absence of crucial qualities, most pointed of which are those of sound and language, and of vision and light. In this paper, I argue that in “Ne to, čto mnite vy, priroda,” Tjutčev is attempting to turn on its head the Enlightenment idea that humans by definition have certain attributes and nature by definition does not. He rejects this model of humans as filled and nature as empty, and argues instead that it is nature which is inherently full and it is we, the humans, who are empty if we can’t appreciate that fullness. Those things viewed by eighteenth-century philosophy as inherently human domain, such as a soul, or freedom, Tjutčev argues, are in truth inherently part of the natural domain. Only by recognizing this fullness of nature, ironically, can we therefore become truly human.

I will show through my close reading of “Ne to, čto mnite vy, priroda” how Tjutčev presents this Romantic paradox of humanness through a process of personification of nature on the one hand, and de-personification of people on the other. He continually identifies nature with those traits usually though to be human, and de-humanizes those who are blind or deaf to this truth. I will also demonstrate that Tjutčev’s choice of negating modifiers when speaking on the non-initiates to his views on nature mirror the emptiness of human characteristics in those people. This mimetic relationship between linguistic device and foregrounding philosophy is what I have named here as Tjutčev’s rhetoric of presence and absence.