Tjutčev and Poetic Closure

Michael Wachtel, Princeton University

The question of how a poem ends (and why it ends where it does) is of obvious interest to scholars and general readers alike. Within the Russian tradition, Tjutčev’s lyrics offer especially rewarding material for such an investigation. As an aphoristic thinker and author of many extremely short poems, he was especially inventive in his approach to poetic closure. My paper will examine a few of his techniques (rhythmical, lexical, syntactic, intonational) and relate them to his poetics as a whole. Poems to be discussed (albeit briefly) are among his most famous: “Vesennjaja groza” (I focus on the “missing” final stanza, omitted not by Tjutčev but by numerous subsequent editors of Russian children's poetry), “Videnie” (with its famously bizarre syntax and obscure use of myth), as well as two of the “patriotic” poems: “Umom Rossiju ne ponjat’” and “Eti bednye selen’ja.” It is my contention that Tjutčev’s poetry is more often invoked than analyzed, and a reading that focuses on the problem of closure forces one to ask genuinely interpretive questions.

The theoretical background of this paper is diverse. I include the usual Formalist suspects (Tynjanov, Jakobson), but also Barbara Herrnstein Smith (whose book on poetic closure, while limited to English-language poetry, is easily applicable to the other national literatures) and even some of Gary Saul Morson’s ideas about narrative and freedom. In other words, I am interested in what constitutes successful closure, but I am even more interested in examining the creative possibilities that a poet ultimately rejected. I conclude by considering how these issues might alter the conception of “wholeness” that is traditionally ascribed to lyric poetry.