Pushkin’s biography and the reformulated aesthetics of Vladimir Solov’ev

A troublesome life: Pushkin’s biography and the reformulated aesthetics of Vladimir Solov’ev

Donald Loewen

No, I will not wholly die-my soul in the sacred lyre

Will outlive my dust and will conquer decay

And I will be famous as long as

A single bard remains alive on earth.

News of me will spread throughout great Russia

And my name will be spoken in every language there…

Aleksandr Pushkin, “I Have Created a Monument to Myself”

[la pamiatnik sebe vozdvig]

Even Pushkin might have been surprised at how accurate a prophecy these lines had become by the late 1890s, for preparations leading up to the 1899 centenary celebration of his birth were unlike anything Russia had seen before. New editions of Pushkin’s works were printed and widely distributed on a steadily increasing scale throughout the decade.1 Festivities were organized by literary scholars and Pushkin enthusiasts, but their efforts couldn’t begin to match the extraordinary attention lavished on Pushkin by the Russian government. It endeavoured to have Pushkin plays featured in imperial theaters in April and May of 1899, to create special Pushkin Jubilee medallions for students, and to convince Orthodox religious leaders to hold a special series of services for Pushkin.2 There seems little reason to argue with Levitt’s conclusion that “the state created a literary holiday of unprecedented proportions.”3

The festivities leading up to the 1899 Jubilee were accompanied by a flood of new articles about Pushkin and his relevance to Russian culture. The civic critics of the 1860s and 1870s with their sometime disparagement of Pushkin were little more than a bad memory in the exuberant adulation heaped on Pushkin in the 1890s. The critical approach to literature was itself in transition. Russian literature needed a fresh start, argued Dmitry Merezhkovsk in Reasons for the Decline of, and New Developments in, Contemporary Russian Literature (O prichinakh upadka i o novykh techenakh sovremennoi russkoi literatury): a more subjective, even psychological, approach to literature was required, he contended, because the “truth of a work is sometimes more accessible to a poetcritic than to an objective scientific researcher.”4 Aikhenval’d’s thinking was moving in a similar direction as he developed his theory of “intuitive criticism” and argued that cultural context and biography were largely irrelevant in literary criticism.5 Religious critics of the time participated in the move toward a more subjective approach, adopting an openly moralistic set of criteria in their literary endeavours and treating Pushkin with rapturous admiration, even idealization.6 Merezhkovsk took his own advice in the 1896 essay “Pushkin,” reaffirming the value of “subjective criticism” and arguing that Pushkin was a fully realized human being who was able to resolve within himself the binary oppositions which others could not synthesize: art and life, spirit and flesh, paganism and Christianity.7 The Nietzschean undercurrents of this argument reflected a broader fascination with Nietzschean ideas and helped catapult Pushkin into a position of unprecedented popularity, while also providing the framework for later Symbolist appropriations of Pushkin. Here the Symbolist notion of uniting one’s life with one’s art (zhiznetvorchestvo) finds a resonance with Merezhkovsk’s argument that Pushkin was able to transcend the life/art or poet/man dichotomies by forming within himself a united whole. The Symbolist appropriation of Pushkin did not go unopposed, however, and the debate over “Pushkin as poet” versus “Pushkin as human” became a focal point for the key literary debates of the 1920s.8

One scholar who played a key role in establishing the terms of this debate was Vladimir Solov’ev. From 1889 until his death in 1900 Solov’ev spent a great deal of time writing on aesthetics and literature. The first part of this period dealt primarily with attempts to establish a theoretical aesthetic framework, while the later part found Solov’ev applying his aesthetic principles to the works of authors including A.A. Fet, F.I. Tiutchev, A.K. Tolstoi, Ia.P. Polonsk and the Russian Symbolists. Then in 1897 Solov’ev began a series of articles on Pushkin which reveals a substantial change in his critical approach, and an attempt to reformulate his aesthetic position. Solov’ev’s strong emphasis on human agency and the role of “thought” in artistic creation-essential in Solov’ev’s theoretical works and early criticism-give way to a notion of creation where human passivity becomes the key factor in determining artistic success.

It is clear that Pushkin’s poetry held pride of place in Solov’ev’s literary pantheon long before he began the extended scrutiny of Pushkin’s life and work that provoked the revision of his aesthetic views. In an 1890 commentary on Fet’s Evening Lights (Vechernie ogni) Solov’ev holds Pushkin up as the standard bearer of “pure poetry” (“On Lyric Poetry,” Sobranie Sochinenii [hereafter SS] 6:235).9 His 1894 essay “The First Step Towards a Positive Aesthetics” (Pervyi shag k polozhitel’noi estetike) contains a defense of Pushkin’s poetry, saying that Pushkin’s work has a “perfect beauty” which satisfies the requirements of those demanding either “art for art’s sake” or “art for society’s sake.”10 In 1895 Solov’ev separates Pushkin from all other Russian poets, calling him the one poet whose thought and work representes “an organic whole” (“The Poetry of Count A. K. Tolstoi” [Poeziia gr. A. K. Tol’stogo].”11

The focus of this study will be to show how Solov’ev’s aesthetic views are substantially reformulated when he begins an extended study of Pushkin in a series of articles beginning in 1897. I will begin with a brief outline of Solov’ev’s aesthetic thought, examine how it was implemented in his early literary criticism, and then show how Solov’ev modified his thinking to account for Pushkin, whom he could not comfortably accommodate in his existing aesthetic theory.


Solov’ev’s focus on aesthetics was heralded by the appearance of the article “Beauty in Nature” (Krasota v prirode) in 1889; this was followed shortly by a continuation of the study of beauty in “The General Meaning of Art” (Obshch smysl’ iskusstva) ( 1890) and later by one of his last theoretical works on art, the review article “The First Step Towards a Positive Aesthetic.”

Solov’ev’s move into the field of aesthetics was seen by some as a logical extension of his earlier writings: “In the articles on beauty and art he expresses in aesthetic terms his teaching about Sophia, the ‘world soul,’ and the cosmological process,” says Mochul’sk.12 Losev suggests that Solov’ev was uniquely gifted for this type of thought, rivaling “many of the most outstanding European philosophers; but in the sharpness and strength of his logic even surpassing them.”13

Others were less complimentary. The reviewer for Russian Riches (Russkoe bogatsvo) considered Solov’ev’s efforts a failure, writing, “Unfortunately this article [“The General Meaning of Art”], like its predecessor [“Beauty in Nature”], suffers from a certain mystical haziness and from the arbitrariness of its contentions” (1890, No. II, p. 237).14

Perhaps some who considered “Beauty in Nature” and “The General Meaning of Art” to be failures did not recognize how closely these articles are linked to Solov’ev’s earlier philosophical works, where Solov’ev identifies the general goal of history as a movement towards “all-unity” (vseedinstvo) and argues that humans have an important role in achieving this goal. Solov’ev’s aesthetic theory builds on this foundation as he outlines the key role that beauty plays in the historical process. In “Beauty in Nature” Solov’ev examines various parts of the natural world to show that beauty is “the incarnation of the idea of ideal existence” and is a vital part of the movement towards all-unity. Humans not only participate actively in the actions of the “cosmic forces,” but are capable of knowing the goal of these actions and acting to bring about this goal.15

The nature of this human participation is made clear in “The General Meaning of Art.” Solov’ev suggests that art does not merely imitate nature, but rather “continues the artistic process which was begun by nature-in the further and fuller solution of the very same aesthetic task.”16 Human consciousness, the ability to think, is identified as one of the features which uniquely enables humans to become instrumental in the creation of art and beauty.17

Solov’ev then argues that “artistic beauty” is essentially a spiritual phenomenon, for it is in fact the incarnation of what we might name “truth” or “the good” in abstraction. Commenting on the function of such artistic works, Solov’ev says: “art ceases to be an empty toy and becomes important and edifying, not in the sense of a didactic sermon, but in the sense of inspired prophecy.”18

Solov’ev develops this idea further in “The First Step Towards a Positive Aesthetic.” “Art is not for art’s sake,” says Solov’ev, “but for the realization… of the fullness of life.”19 Art is not something passive or aloof, but through beauty points toward the universal goal of all-unity which is central to Solov’ev’s thought. Beauty is not estranged from life, and therefore art has an innate and valuable “usefulness” (pol’za); the realization that art serves the “common goal of life” (obshchaia zhiznennaia tsel)) is the first step toward a genuine and positive aesthetic, asserts Solov’ev.20 Humans recognize this ontological process as something “in whose achievement we can consciously participate.”21

When Solov’ev shifts from aesthetic theory to literary criticism, “human participation” finds a clear counterpart in the poet’s thought. Where the theoretical articles emphasize human agency in achieving the goal of history, the early critical articles emphasize the poet’s thought as an important component in the creation of beautiful poetry. Solov’ev’s attention to the interrelationship between inspiration and individual thought comes through clearly in his study of Tiutchev, where he argues that

[Tiutchev’s] reason (um) was in complete accord with his inspiration, his poetry was full of conscious thought, but his thoughts were completely poetic, they were animate and complete expressions…. A conviction (ubezhdenie) in the truth of the poetic view of nature and the resulting wholeness of creative work, the harmony between thought (mysl’) and sensation, between inspiration and consciousness, make Tiutchev greater even than such noteworthy poet-thinkers as Schiller (“Poeziia F.I. Tiutcheva” [The Poetry of F.I. Tiutchev]).22

The importance of thought to poetry is underlined again in the 1895 article “The Poetry of Count A. K. Tolstoi,” when Solov’ev says: “The future of Russian poetry depends on whether our poets have enough strength of thought (sila mysli) to go beyond subjective negation.”23 As late as 1897 in “Impressionism of Thought” [Impressionizm mysli] Solov’ev grants human thought an important role in the creative process: “if an impression had a genuine aesthetic value, if there was an element of beauty within it, then its primary expression in the thoughts (mysli) of the author gives a genuinely poetic work, and if not, then it comes off as a strange or whimsical work at best” (77-78). Solov’ev insists that thought is not self-sufficient, though: “In the unsuccessful poems of Polonsk… the reasons for the lack of success are not coincidental, nor at all puzzling. It is completely clear that these poems are written not ‘from inspiration’ but ‘from the mind.’ And with reason alone it is as impossible to give birth to real poetry, as it is to give birth to a real child…” (“On Lyric Poetry” SS 6:258). The demand that inspiration and thought work together is also behind Solov’ev’s critique of “civic poetry”: “All this is very nice, but it is obvious that you don’t need inspiration for this kind of advice, just intellect. There is no need to give it the external appearance of poetic form when there is a complete absence of inner poetic content” (SS 6:258).

Without the complementary interrelationship of inspiration and active thought there can be no beauty in art; and without beauty, art will have nothing to offer in the pursuit of all-unity which remains at the core of Solov’ev’s thought. These precepts appear to be the central elements in Solov’ev’s aesthetic thought until the late 1890s, when he began an intense study of Pushkin, whose genius he regarded as the essence of “pure poetry” (chistaia poeza).


Solov’ev’s first article on Pushkin (“Pushkin’s Fate” [Sud’ba Pushkina] 1897) is in large part a defense of Pushkin’s human agency, to counter the current of opinion which claimed that Pushkin was a helpless victim of fate in the events surrounding his final duel and death.24 On the contrary, Solov’ev argues: it is demeaning to a great poet to suggest that he was helplessly tossed about at the whim of fate.25 Solov’ev’s efforts did not have the desired effect. After the famous “Pushkin edition” of World of Art (Mir iskusstva) was published, Solov’ev wrote: “earlier I thought that I was dealing with minds that were open and seeking truth, but there is no doubt that I was mistaken in this” (“Against the Writ of Execution” [Protiv ispol’nitel’nogo lista] SS 9:293). In a biting rebuttal to an article by Rozanov, Solov’ev charges: “The outpourings of Mr. Rozanov provide insight into only one writer-into [Rozanov] himself’ (“A Strange Celebration of Pushkin” [Osoboe chestvovanie Pushkina]).26 Commenting on Minsk’s article in the same issue of World of Art, Solov’ev asks: “Is it possible that Mr. Minsk thinks that his readers have completely forgotten Pushkin?” Minsk bravely “attributed his own ideas to Pushkin, that is all.”27 Solov’ev later returns to this theme, lamenting that many critics

claim to see in [Pushkin] that which is most pleasant to [them], receiving from him not what he presents to us-poetic beauty-but taking instead what they need from him: authoritative support for their own thoughts and cares. With a strong desire to do so and with the help of bits and pieces torn from the whole, it is of course possible to ascribe to Pushkin all possible tendencies, even those which completely contradict each other: extremely progressive and extremely reactionary; religious and free-thinking; westernizing and Slavophile, ascetic and epicurean. (“The Significance of Poetry” [Znachenie poezii v stikhotvorenakh Pushkina] 227)28

Solov’ev had long recognized the challenge that Pushkin presents for the critic. In his article on the poetry of A.K. Tolstoi, Solov’ev divides nineteenth-century Russian poets into three groups based on the relation between “conscious thought” (mysl’) and “poetic quality” in their works. But while Solov’ev finds sufficient commonality to group Baratynskii and Lermontov together in one group, and Fet and Tiutchev in another, one poet resists such classifications and has to be put in a group by himself-Pushkin.29 Recognition of Pushkin’s singularity is perhaps a foreshadowing of the kind of theoretical rethinking that will occur when Solov’ev directs his full attention to Pushkin in later articles.

In “Pushkin’s Fate” Solov’ev’s concern is directed almost exclusively at Pushkin’s personal life, particularly the events leading up to his tragic duel and untimely death. The article drew considerable attention, almost all of it negative. In The Moscow Gazette (Moskovskie vedomosti) Medvedsk wrote: “Even in Pisarev we do not find the same kind of absurdity that we see in these slurs of Pushkin. Mr. Solov’ev, a philosopher and scientist-aesthetician, can not distinguish things accessible to the understanding of any layman (profan) with common sense” (1897, No. 257). In God’s World (Mir Bozh), A. Bogdanovich reported that it was “Difficult to communicate the painful impression one gets from reading this article, permeated with boundless arrogance and self-satisfied confidence… [Solov’ev] carries out his trial of Pushkin in a magisterial tone, not allowing even the least doubt of the rightness of the condemnation he is uttering” (1897, No. 10, Section II, p. 7).30

The content of this “trial” deserves attention, since it provides the foundation for Solov’ev’s subsequent study of Pushkin’s poetry. Solov’ev begins with a brief look at the idea of fate, then switches to a description of genius and its attendant responsibility, and then studies Pushkin’s life to show that he was responsible for his own “fate.” Much of Solov’ev’s argument is based on his desire to combat-a misconception of genius: a genius, he argues, is often considered to be someone set apart, and people forget that a genius is still a human being with human weaknesses.31 As a human being, a genius is not cut off from certain human responsibilities-to say anything else would be a form of idolatry. The greater the genius, the higher the level of accompanying moral responsibility, says Solov’ev. Given this line of reasoning, it is a natural step to conclude that Pushkin’s lofty stature at the pinnacle of poetic genius automatically carries with it an unprecedented high level of moral responsibility.32 The point, for Solov’ev, is to reassert Pushkin’s human responsibility and to show that it is a level of responsibility beyond that required of others.

Considering the adulation given Pushkin at the time Solov’ev was writing, it was a difficult and unpopular position to take. By 1897 the first stage of the Pushkin centennial celebrations was well underway, accompanied by a tremendous surge of adoration for Pushkin. In the introduction to his 1899 article “The Significance of Poetry in Pushkin’s Verse” Solov’ev reviews the Pushkin celebrations and praises an article by Men’shikov on the “slander of adoration” exhibited by many of Pushkin’s admirers.33 Solov’ev, like Men’shikov, noticed the “extraordinarily unfounded evaluations” of Pushkin by these admirers, and draws forceful attention to the fact that Pushkin, genius though he may have been, was still human. These two sides-the all-too-fallible human side and the “genius” side-can be examined in the light of Pushkin’s response to the dichotomy between lofty ideals and the realia of life, says Solov’ev. This conscious separation of Pushkin as poet from Pushkin in “daily life” was a clear challenge to those who, like Merezhkovsk, were inclined to see Pushkin as a reconciling force, a genius whose supreme achievement lay in his ability to bring together polar opposites.

As a reference point for his study in “Pushkin’s Fate,” Solov’ev chooses a situation which Pushkin dealt with both in poetry and in letters, the poet’s encounter with Anna Petrovna Kern. Here, says Solov’ev, the reader is forced to make a decision. Either the verse rendition is simply dreamed up, a kind of poetic hoax, or else the poet experienced some form of inspiration in the moment of creation and actually sensed within himself the “divine” vision that he recorded.34 If one accepts inspiration, says Solov’ev, then

it should be clear that in the minute of creation Pushkin definitely felt what he expressed in the poem; he actually saw a genius of pure beauty, he actually sensed a divine rebirth within himself. But this ideal reality existed for him only in the minute of creation. Returning to real life, he immediately ceased believing in this re-lived realization, immediately admitted that it was only the trick of the imagination. (italics in the original)35

There is no question which side-the “human” or the “genius”-of Pushkin that Solov’ev preferred. Solov’ev refers to Pushkin’s “pride” (samoliubie) and “conceit” (samomnenie) as key elements in his downfall, since he did not have the moral fibre to withstand their insidious effects. Or, put another way, if genius brings with it dignity, then it also brings a corresponding level of responsibility; unfortunately, in Solov’ev’s view, Pushkin was unable to meet this standard in his personal life.36 To Solov’ev, the greatest tragedy of the fateful duel was the fact that Pushkin allowed his passions to obscure his honour as a person, an honour he lost when he broke a promise given to the tsar: “Pushkin gave his word, but did not keep it.”37 In fact, even if Pushkin had killed D’Anthes and survived the duel, speculates Solov’ev, it would have been a moral “catastrophe”: Pushkin would have been unable to write the same kind of beautiful poetry that he had written earlier, since he would have “lived only for the saving of his own soul.”38 Pushkin’s “fate,” Solov’ev concludes, should really be acknowledged as “divine providence” since it led Pushkin to a spiritual rebirth in the days before his death.39


Solov’ev’s last and most significant critical article, “The Significance of Poetry in Pushkin’s Verse,” was written as a complementary work to his earlier “Pushkin’s Fate.” Commenting on the “feast of Pushkin” that the Jubilee celebrations had brought, Solov’ev expresses his surprise that the “best dish” and most important topic has remained untouched-the aesthetic side of Pushkin’s verse.40 Solov’ev’s approach is noteworthy in several respects. First, Solov’ev’s expressed intention to take a close look at a series of Pushkin’s lyrics signals a departure from the critical approach used by many of his contemporaries and explains why his essay is still such an important landmark in the history of Pushkin criticism. A refocusing of critical attention to actually deal with Pushkin’s works, as opposed to simply Pushkin’s person and biography, was a welcome step. Solov’ev’s extended discussion of several Pushkin lyrics remains engaging even today.

The article is also significant in another respect, for in this study Solov’ev, without apology, changes or contradicts several foundational elements of his earlier aesthetic thought. In the earlier theoretical articles and in critical studies of Fet, Tiutchev and A. K. Tolstoi, Solov’ev acknowledgs the role of the intellect (um) and thought (mysl’) in the creative process. Now he abandons this position, calling the poet’s role in the moment of creation “passive.”

William Mills Todd, noting Solov’ev’s attempt to refocus attention on the lyrics themselves, suggests that this is an effort to dismiss the poet’s biography from the critical approach.41 In Todd’s view, Solov’ev’s article “helped prepare the way for a modern approach to Pushkin’s texts, in negative terms by refusing to employ regnant critical methods, and in positive terms by its reading of a handful of Pushkin’s poems and by its treatment of the author himself.”42 I would argue that any influence on modern text-centered criticism came more from Solov’ev’s stated intention than from his actual practice, which is still rooted largely within the biographical and subjective critical approaches of his day. Solov’ev’s dismissal of “biography” is actually a smokescreen of sorts: it is an “anti-biographical” approach motivated specifically by biography. When Solov’ev recognized that Pushkin’s biography was incompatible with his (Solov’ev’s) notion of poetic genius, he needed to find a way to resolve the resulting aesthetic dilemma. The whole attempt to divorce Pushkin’s biography from analysis of his poetry (unsuccessful though it was, as we shall see later) was based on Solov’ev’s openly moralistic contention that genius carries with it high moral responsibility.43 As Solov’ev has already argued in “Pushkin’s Fate,” the greater the genius, the greater the weight of human responsibility. Since in Solov’ev’s view there was no higher poetic genius than Pushkin, no one else is held to the same moral standards.44

In his attempt to separate Pushkin’s “pure poetry” from the poet’s human agency, Solov’ev is forced to reformulate one of his fundamental aesthetic beliefs, the assertion that human thought and inspiration are interdependent in the creative process. In the case of Pushkin this reformulation offers unique challenges, for Solov’ev generally appears to have regarded Pushkin as a man of considerable intellect:45 “Pushkin was unarguably a most intelligent person-the brilliant sparks of his intellect are strewn throughout his letters, notes, articles, epigrams, etc. That is all valuable, but it does not account for the priceless value and significance of Pushkin: he is unconditionally dear to us not for his intelligent, but for his inspired works. In the face of inspiration, the intellect is silent” (“The Significance of Poetry.”)46 With these words Solov’ev establishes the main argument of his article, the contention that Pushkin’s intellect had no importance or role in the creation of his poetry.

Solov’ev’s readers would have looked askance at such an attempt to limit the role of Pushkin’s intellect, say Gal’tseva and Rodnianskaia. After all, they point out, most would agree with Nicholas I’s pronouncement that Pushkin was “the most intelligent man in Russia,” and would be “surprised at the insistence with which Solov’ev, acknowledging Pushkin’s intelligence, stresses the irrelevance of this intellect in the valuation of Pushkin’s poetry.”47

Insistence on the irrelevance of Pushkin’s intellect is actually a logical extension of the argument that Solov’ev initiated in “Pushkin’s Fate.” There, he separated the “human” Pushkin from the “genius” Pushkin. In “The Significance of Poetry” this dichotomy is transformed into the “thinking” Pushkin and the “inspired” Pushkin. Thought/intellect replaces fallible human nature, and passive inspiration replaces genius. References to the two poles of this dichotomy surface repeatedly throughout the article. Solov’ev refers to the “receptivity of [Pushkin’s] spirit to influence from the supraconscious realm”48 and maintains that “genuine pure poetry demands from its priest only a boundless receptivity to spiritual sensations, completely obedient to higher inspiration. The intellect (um), as the base of independent action in humans, has no place here.”49 Contrasting Pushkin to Byron and Mickiewicz, Solov’ev argues that they each brought something from within themselves (ot sebia) into their poetry, but with Pushkin

there was only a living, open soul which was uncommonly receptive to everythingand besides this soul, there was nothing… [li]t is clear that he could not bring anything significant from within himself (ot sebia) and carry it into poetry which remained pure poetry…. The primary distinguishing mark of this poetry is its freedom from any preconceived tendency and from all pretense. (italics in the original)50

The attempt to discard all of Pushkin’s own human participation from the production of “pure poetry” is a stark contrast to Solov’ev’s statements about other poets. In Tiutchev Solov’ev found what he considered to be a rare match between intuitive sensitivity and conscious thought, something which he later labeled “positive thought” in describing the works of Tiutchev and A. K. Tolstoi as “the poetry of harmonic thought” (“The Poetry of Count A. K. Tolstoi.”)51 In the same article Solov’ev asserts that “the future of Russian poetry depends on whether our poets have enough strength of thought (sila mysli).”52 Similar comments occur in articles related to Fet, Polonsk, and Sluchevsk, and correspond closely to the earlier philosophical and aesthetic writings, where Solov’ev explained the importance of human involvement in the movement of history towards the goal of all-unity (“The General Meaning of Art”; “The First Step”).53 In the new aesthetic formulation that develops as Solov’ev studies Pushkin, the notion of human involvement is almost entirely lost as “thought” gives way almost exclusively to “inspiration”: “The soul of the poet as a person (the personal will and intellect) is passive in the realm of poetry and silent in the face of forthcoming inspiration…” (“The Significance of Poetry.”)54 The passivity described here is completely absent in his discussions of other poets, yet Solov’ev suddenly asserts that it is virtually a truism in aesthetic thought:

A poet is not free in his creation. This is the first axiom of aesthetics…. [C]reation is not at all free in the sense that the intellect of the poet may, by his will, by his prior deliberate choice and intention, create a poetic work. That kind of work can only be a fake…. Genuine freedom of creation requires a preliminary condition of passivity, pure potential of intellect and will; freedom here belongs first of all to those poetic figures-thoughts (mysli) and sounds-which themselves come freely to the spirit which is prepared to meet and receive them.55

This quotation contains both the core of Solov’ev’s thoughts on Pushkin, and the loose threads which threaten to unravel his new aesthetic tapestry. For while Solov’ev argues on one hand that the poet is unthinking and passive at the moment of creation, he provides no explanation for the sudden appearance of the thoughts (mysli) that “come freely” to the poet at this time. The distinction that Solov’ev makes between “prior” thoughts or intentions (which are bad), and “thoughts coming freely” (which are good) is very helpful for his argument, but troublesome in its application. Who is to determine which thoughts are “prior” and which “come freely via inspiration?” Can this happen only after the fact, perhaps when one gauges the quality of the resulting work? And who is the final arbiter in the matter? The poet? Or perhaps each individual reader?

These questions point to the shifting ground which underlies Solov’ev’s theory, for there are no established criteria to guide his approach. A search for the source of Solov’ev’s assertions suggests a certain circularity in his argument, for Solov’ev rules inadmissible any evidence which is not itself “inspired poetry.” He draws virtually all of his arguments about the nature of Pushkin’s creative process directly from a handful of Pushkin’s metapoetic poems; of these, he examines only “The Poet” (Poet) and “The Prophet” (Prorok) thoroughly and concludes that “[in them] we have seen [Pushkin’s] description of the creative process itself.”56 The exclusive attention to poetry is not an oversight but rather an intentional choice by Solov’ev, who dismisses the importance of prose comments and notes made by Pushkin about the creative process:

In order to understand the significance [of Pushkin’s views on poetry], it is better to turn to what Pushkin created in his poetry, rather than to what he said about it elsewhere-his words there can sometimes lead to errors…. It would be unfair to search for precise thoughts and definitions in the incidental/casual comments of the poet, who himself didn’t take these reflections seriously and didn’t confuse them with the “divine word.” (“The Poetry of Count A. K. Tolstoi”)57

In other words, Solov’ev has constructed a circular argument: Pushkin’s pure poetry describes the creative process as inspired, therefore Pushkin’s poetry is inspired and anything which contradicts the poetry is uninspired and must be disregarded

Solov’ev’s actual study of the texts provides some fascinating moments, particularly in his discussion of the significance of Pushkin’s Prophet. Textual comparisons, historical study and cultural context are employed by Solov’ev to show that the prophetic figure is not based on Islamic models, that it has a certain relationship to ancient biblical figures, but is first and foremost the incarnation of a true poet. It should be no surprise that Solov’ev also pays particular attention to the poem “The Poet,” since here one finds a poetic corroboration of the very dichotomy which is at the heart of Solov’ev’s argument: the poet is a true poet only in the moment of creating pure poetry, and the rest of the time is simply “a mere mortal in the midst of other mere mortals, a child of dust, no better and perhaps even worse than others.”58 Arguing that there is no inherent contradiction between the message of “The Prophet” and “The Poet,” Solov’ev does a short interlinear comparison to show the similarity between the expressions in the two poems. He goes on to discuss “The Mob” (“Chem’,” later called “Poet i tolpa”), and touches very briefly on several late lyrics and the short dramatic work “Mozart and Salieri.” His argument is passionate and compelling, returning again and again to drive home the point that Pushkin’s genius is inextricably tied to a kind of transcendent passivity at the moment of inspiration.

Yet even while admiring the energy of Solov’ev’s approach, it is hard to ignore the unresolved contradictions within his argument. Solov’ev himself seems to have recognized some of these weaknesses and struggled to resolve them, for after insisting on the passive nature of inspiration Solov’ev remains troubled by his excision of the intellect from poetic creation. Perhaps in an attempt to restore some human agency to the poetic process, he suggests that the sharp and clear intellect (um) of Pushkin, in conjunction with a keen sense of taste, with trustworthy literary tactfulness and a broad literary education-all this came forward and came into its own when the ‘quick cold of inspiration’ disappeared, when it became necessary to cultivate, to touch up with the judgement of the mind, that which had been created not by the mind, but under higher inspiration. (“The Significance of Poetry”)59

What he does not make clear-and can not make clear, since it will always remain a subjective judgement-is exactly how much work the intellect does, and how one knows this.

The consequences of Solov’ev’s programmatic approach to Pushkin’s poetry are particularly evident when he sorts Pushkin’s works into “pure” and “impure” poetry. Having noted that poets (including Pushkin) may become impatient waiting for inspiration and decide to write poetry anyway, Solov’ev draws the inevitable conclusion: Pushkin’s great poetry coexists with many poorer, uninspired poems that are not worthy of consideration.60 To clarify, Solov’ev sets up a classification system with a general hierarchy of genres. Thus Solov’ev can conclude that although Pushkin’s epigrams and other works may be brilliantly witty, they are not successful as poetry.61 Commenting on an especially pointed epigram, Solov’ev says: “Such unworthy personal pranks were, unfortunately, too often found in Pushkin’s work even in his last years; sometimes, as in this case, they were completely alien to poetic inspiration, and sometimes they represented an abuse of poetry” (“Pushkin’s Fate.”)62

Throughout his study, Solov’ev is haunted by a central, recurring dilemma: the need to maintain some level of emphasis on Pushkin as a living, breathing person. If he were to reduce Pushkin to the level of an automaton who merely took ethereal dictation, Pushkin as Pushkin would be irrelevant as a poet. At the same time, the whole point of Solov’ev’s article is to dissociate the “fallible human” Pushkin from the “genius poet” Pushkin. Solov’ev is forced to finesse a number of details, but eventually it becomes clear that this separation is hard to maintain: Solov’ev lapses into his own form of “biographical criticism” and begins to contradict his own arguments. I would like to examine several specific examples to show the difficult position in which Solov’ev finds himself.

Citing some of Pushkin’s own poetry as support, Solov’ev argues that Pushkin produced his best work in the fall. Other times of the year were more likely to produce witty poetry than inspired poetry; fall was a time of intense (high volume) and successful (often inspired) poetic activity (“The Significance of Poetry”).63 Todd notes the presence of these biographical elements in the text, suggesting that they are related to “Solov’ev’s experience with material thought.”64 I would suggest that the instances are too significant and numerous to dismiss so lightly; rather, this link between “selective” inspiration and biography indicates Solov’ev’s inability to move beyond the biographical frame of reference, an inability tied largely to the reformulation of his aesthetic views.

As noted earlier, in several instances Solov’ev has based his argument on the dichotomy between life and art. In “Pushkin’s Fate” Solov’ev noted the discrepancy between real-life comments about Anna Petrovna Kem and the vision in “I Remember a Wondrous Moment,” and took Pushkin’s comments in letters as the poet’s genuine feelings, discarding the poetic statement as something which did not convey Pushkin’s real views.65 This dichotomy helped to justify Solov’ev’s modified explanation of the creative process (i.e. the new emphasis on passive receptivity to inspiration). Now, instead of following the notion of a separation between life and art, he shifts to a correspondence between life and art: Pushkin’s poetry expresses a greater affinity toward autumn and solitude, therefore Pushkin wrote better, more inspired poetry under these conditions. This seeming conflict requires closer examination.

Solov’ev’s interest in Pushkin’s biography is most obvious in “Pushkin’s Fate,” where he focuses on Pushkin’s personal responsibility for the tragic duel that took his life. The function of the biographical interest in “Pushkin’s Fate,” though, is not to connect Pushkin’s life to his work but to separate the two. At the beginning of “The Significance of Poetry” Solov’ev restates the “antibiographical” position in his discussion of Mickiewicz and Byron as foils for Pushkin, but this theoretical downgrading of the biographical element is not maintained in practice. In an extended study of Pushkin’s 1826 poem “The Prophet” Solov’ev allows a steady influx of biographical details to play a substantive part in his interpretive argument. First, he appeals to his earlier assertion that Pushkin wrote best in autumn and in solitude, then goes on to say: “we must attribute special significance to the fact that in 1826 Pushkin found himself in precisely those circumstances… which were expressed in the grandiose image of the ancient prophet.”66

Solov’ev goes on to describe Pushkin’s life in 1826, when the poem was written: it was a year that marked the middle of his creative period, and it in fact came to be seen as a watershed year which divided his earlier, “lighter” work from his “mature” creative output. Solov’ev links this change to an increased receptivity to inspiration.67 In keeping with this view that 1826 was a turning point for Pushkin, Solov’ev sees the poem’s reference to a “crossroads” as “an autobiographical element,” indicating Pushkin’s awareness that he was at a personal crossroads in his own life.68

In these observations we see the beginnings of another circular argument. Why is it important that Pushkin found himself in the same circumstances that the poetic Prophet experiences, since Solov’ev has earlier argued that Pushkin (if “The Prophet” is considered one of the “inspired” poems) was only a passive element in the artistic process? How could Pushkin-in 1826-have known that this year would later be considered a watershed year in his life? Solov’ev’s judgement about the significance of the year is not the issue.69 The objection lies in the fact that Solov’ev seems to view Pushkin as both an active force and a passive element simultaneously without offering an explanation for this apparent contradiction.

At times Solov’ev seems to recognize the “biographical dilemma” which he is trying to skirt. Noting that readers will make biographical assumptions about Pushkin when they read “The Prophet,” Solov’ev argues that the autobiographical element should not be exaggerated. Readers should not assume that Pushkin had an experience similar to the one portrayed in the second half of the poem. There is, in Solov’ev’s view, an overtly moral tone here that is not in keeping with anything Pushkin expressed in his life, and he says that this part of the poem “did not have and could not have a direct autobiographical significance for Pushkin.”70 This statement seems overly categorical when one considers that Solov’ev has himself made a direct biographical connection to the first half of the poem (the “crossroads”). Solov’ev argues one position for the first part of the poem, and a contrary position for the second half.

Other examples show that these inconsistencies were not isolated occurrences. In two separate discussions of “The Poet” Solov’ev argues that the opening lines are very autobiographical, calling it Pushkin’s “very own testimony” (“Pushkin’s Fate”; see also “The Significance of Poetry”).71 In “Pushkin’s Fate” Solov’ev takes three lines from different poems to demonstrate Pushkin’s aesthetic views, and then uses the same lines to demonstrate Pushkin’s understanding of his calling and place in society.72 After completing a study of seven works by Pushkin in “The Significance of Poetry,” Solov’ev concludes: “they are united in the sense that in Pushkin’s thought and inner feeling (mysl’ i vnutrennee chuvstvo) is the entire significance of poetry-in self-governed inspiration, unconditionally independent of outer goals and intentions…”73 The reader is left somewhat puzzled by an implicit selfcontradiction in this passage. First, Solov’ev asserts that Pushkin’s thought and feeling (mysl’ and chuvstvo) have shown us where poetry’s significance lies. Then in the second part of this passage he emphasizes the absolute independence of inspiration as creator of beauty-the point that he has expended so much energy trying to prove. But if inspiration is so independent the reader could not know Pushkin’s thoughts on the significance of poetry, since they are not really Pushkin’s but rather something which he passively received. Solov’ev’s views are clear, but Pushkin’s? This summary link between the person and the poetry indicates that Solov’ev remains firmly in the biographically-based critical approach.

The significance of this for Solov’ev’s argument does not rest on the relative merits or weaknesses of the biographical method. These are, in a sense, irrelevant here. Rather, the issue is one of internal consistency. Solov’ev’s argument contradicts itself when he first cites a biographic/poetic dichotomy to validate a passive theory of artistic creation/inspiration, then reads biographical elements back into the resulting “inspired” text. It would seem to make more sense, in terms of Solov’ev’s own argument, that Pushkin the person could be found in the “uninspired” poetry, since the higher force of inspiration did not interfere with personal expression in these poems. By Solov’ev’s own definition, though, these poems are not “beautiful” and therefore do not need the critic’s attention. Eliminating these “poet-centered” poems, the critic is left with only the “inspired” poems. This poses a dilemma: either leave the poet out of the discussion altogether, or discuss biographical relationships with the knowledge that this discussion undercuts the initial argument for inspiration. It is a roundabout with no obvious exit. Perhaps Solov’ev could have offered a solution by softening some of his statements about the passivity of the personal agent during inspiration, or by expanding his explanation of what happens after inspiration has passed, when the mind regains control of the poet. But these options remain unexplored, leaving Solov’ev with a creative theory that has the potential to account for Pushkin’s greatness as a poet, but is hobbled by the need to maintain emphasis on Pushkin as a human being.


Solov’ev’s three articles on Pushkin marked a significant step for him both as a critic and as a theorist. In grappling with the phenomenon of Pushkin and his reception in a Pushkin-mad society, Solov’ev tried to understand how a person like Pushkin-a genius whose “humanity” was somewhat too obvious, in Solov’ev’s view-could produce Russia’s finest poetry. In an attempt to remain true to what he saw in Pushkin both as a person and as a poet, Solov’ev was forced to rethink his theoretical understanding of artistic creation, for Pushkin simply could not be accommodated in his earlier formulations. He did not entirely discard principles like the emphasis on beauty as the fundamental agent and goal of art, but he modified his description of the creative process with Pushkin in mind. The notion of inspiration’s interdependence with human thought, so important in his theoretical articles and discussions of Fet, Tiutchev and Tolstoi, disappears; in its place Solov’ev offers a picture of creativity in which inspiration reigns supreme and the poet’s greatness consists only in the ability to wait passively for inspiration to arrive. Individual thought is pushed aside in Solov’ev’s effort to distance the greatness of Pushkin’s poetry from the weaknesses that he saw in Pushkin’s life. At the same time there are signs that Solov’ev himself was uncomfortable with this approach, and his articles show that it was impossible for him to apply it consistently in his critical practice.

Solov’ev’s death shortly after the publication of “The Significance of Poetry in Pushkin’s Verse” prevented him from adding further to the turbulent debates over creativity and literature at the turn of the century, and his hopes of continuing this controversial “Pushkin series” were left unfulfilled. As a result, we are left with only a series of tantalizing questions concerning the effect his reformulated aesthetics would have had on his overall critical stance. Would Solov’ev have maintained his new emphasis on passive receptivity to inspiration if he had returned to the work of poets like Tiutchev and Fet? Or would he have been content with an essentially double approach to artistic creation, offering one model to explain Pushkin and another for all other poets? There are indications that in Solov’ev’s approach Pushkin would always have remained a unique case who required a unique approach: as the greatest of poetic geniuses, Solov’ev saw him as bearing a greater weight of human responsibility and correspondingly every one of his actions must be judged by a higher standard.

While Solov’ev may have had grave reservations about the weaknesses he saw in Pushkin’s life, there is no doubt about his passion for Pushkin’s poetry. It was this intense appreciation which led him to reformulate his aesthetic system in an attempt to come to grips with Pushkin. Solov’ev’s method and argument drew widespread criticism and suffered from internal inconsistency, but it nonetheless reflects Solov’ev’s sincere appreciation for the purity of Pushkin’s poetry, a purity which no other Russian poet could match.

* I would like to express my gratitude to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for financial support while writing this article. By 1899 almost seven and a half million copies of Pushkin’s works were in print; of these, more than 2.6 million were printed in 1899 alone. See Marcus C. Levitt, “Pushkin in 1899,” in Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism. California Slavic Studies XV. Boris Gasparov, Robert P. Hughes and Irina Paperno, eds. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) 183-84.

Levitt notes that the church was the source of some resistance as the state expanded Pushkin-related celebrations to an unprecedented degree. The government’s attempt to schedule special religious services for Pushkin was especially contentious. (Levitt 189-90.) Levitt 185.

4 D.S. Merezhkovsk, Oprichinakh upadka i o novykh techenakh sovremennoi russkoi literatury (St. Petersburg: B.M. Vol’f, 1893) 25. 5 Although Aikhenval’d’s ideas are largely revealed in his 1906 Siluety russkikh pisatelei, his ideas were widely circulated long before this (see V.l. Kuleshov, Istoriia russkoi kritiki XVIII-Nachala XX vekov. 4th ed. [Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 19911 361 ff.).

A.P. Dmitriev, “Dukhovnye pisateli kak literaturnye kritiki (1855-1900)” Dissertation, Saint Petersburg University (1996) 15.

7 D.S. Merezhkovsk, Vechnye sputniki. 2nd ed. (St. Petersburg: n.p., 1899). Irina Paperno offers a convincing argument that Merezhkovsk actually established Pushkin as a Russian equivalent of Nietzsche, to the extent that “in the cultural mythology of the Silver Age the image of Pushkin acquired stable Nietzschean connotations and ‘Pushkin’ was frequently used as a codeword for Nietzsche.” Irina Paperno, “Nietzscheanism and the Return of Pushkin in Twentieth-century Russian Culture (1899-1937),” Nietzsche and Soviet Culture. Bernice Rosenthal, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 214.

For a thorough discussion of these debates, see Paperno 219-29. 9 V.S. Solov’ev, Sobranie sot#nii VS. Solov’eva. 12 vols. 1897-1900. Reprint, Brussels: n.p., 1966. :

10 VyS. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika (Moscow: Sovremennik, 1990) 59. II Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 123.

iz K. Mochuleskii, Vladimir Solov’ev: Zh/zn’ i uchen/e (Paris: YMCA Press, 1951 ) 240.

13 A.F. Losev, Vl. Solov’ev (Moscow: Mysl’, 1983) 156. 14 Cited in A.A. Nosov, “Kommentar,” to Vladimir Solov’ev, Filosofiia, iskusstva i literaturnaia kritika (Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1991) 650. 15 V.S. Solov’ev, Vladimir Sergeevich Solov’ev: Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh. Filosofskie Nasledie. Vol. I (Moscow: AN SSR, 1988) 389.

16 Solov’ev, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh, 1: 390. Solov’ev, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh, I: 394. Solov’ev, Sochineniia v dvukh tomakh, I: 394-99. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 64. 20 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 64. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 63.

22 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 112. 23 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 126.

24 Merezhkovsk puts it rather bluntly: “The bullet of D’Anthes simply brought about the end to which Pushkin was being pushed, gradually and unavoidably, by Russian reality. [Pushkin] perished because there was nowhere left for him to turn (emu nekuda bylo dal’she idti)” (Merezhkovsk, Vechnye sputniki 453).

25 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 181. 26 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 219. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 221.

28 Solov’ev himself did not escape criticism by some who considered him guilty of that which he so abhorred in others. Mochul’sk argues that “Solov’ev did not so much engage in artistic criticism as much as he strove to confirm his philosophical ideas through the use of literary materials” (Cited in N.I. Tsimbaeva and V. I. Fatiushchenko, “Vladimir Solov’ev: Kritik i publitsist,” Literaturnaia kritika 21.) 29 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 123.

30 Bogdanovich cited in Nosov 665. Almost a century later Andrei Siniavskii (Abram Terts) provoked a similar outburst of ridicule for his unorthodox treatment of Pushkin in Progulki s Pushkinym (Paris: Syntaxis, 1989). 31 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 181. 32 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 182.

33 Solov’ev notes that “slander” is an unfortunate choice of words for Men’shikov, since it carries the connotation of “falseness” and “evil intent.” The adoration may have been well-meant, says Solov’ev, but it was careless and in some respects misguided. A better description would have been “unreasonableness of adoration,” he suggests (Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 224). 34 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 185.

35 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 185. Here Solov’ev seems to assume that Pushkin’s letters would more accurately reveal his true feelings than his poetry. Lydia Ginzburg, for one, would not necessarily agree. People of Pushkin’s generation, she suggests, were characterized by a “hidden inner life” which “was revealed neither in conversation with one’s friends, nor in letters and journals… It was opened only by the key of poetry, where it became, in aesthetically transmuted form, the possession of all who could read” (Lydia Ginzburg, On Psychological Prose. Trans. Judson Rosengrant [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991] 32). If this was the case for Pushkin, than his true feelings and thoughts may have been most accurately revealed in his poetry about Anna Petrovna, and the letter to Vul’f was a kind of culturally-conditioned bluster between young men.

36 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 182-85. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 197.

38 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 202. In fairness to Solov’ev it is important to note that many facts presently known concerning the circumstances of Pushkin’s fatal duel were unknown to Solov’ev when he wrote “Pushkin’s Fate” (See Tsimbaeva and Fatiushchenko 31).

39 Solov’ve, Literaturaia kritika 203-04.

40 Solov’ve, Literaturia kritika 224.

William Mills Todd III, “Vladimir Solov’ev’s Pushkin Triptych: Toward a Modern Reading of the Lyrics,” in Cultural Mythologies of Russian Modernism (cited in footnote I above) 259. 42 Todd 254.

43 Such a morally-based approach is somewhat jarring to today’s literary scholar, but in Solov’ev’s day there were quite a number of writers whose articles were largely framed by ethical constructs (see Dmitriev 16 ff.). Subjective criticism was heralded by Merezhkovsk and others as a new and vital critical approach, and ethical categories simply provided one more possible launching pad for critical assessment. In Merezhkovsk’s fonnulation, the approach would be completely within bounds: “The subjective critic should judge the task accomplished if one finds something new in the familiar, one’s own in someone else’s (svoe v chuzhom), the new in the old” (Merezhkovsk, Vechnye sputniki iii, my italics-D.L.). This hierarchical ranking of poetic gifts may explain why Solov’ev does not dig as deeply into the moral character of other poets whose works he examines.

45 A notable exception is found in an 1895 article, where Solov’ev chastises those who “do not stay within the proper bounds of veneration [for Pushkin], admiring every phrase of the poet and calling him a brilliant thinker, which he never was and by his very nature could not be. In fact, his reflection was like dust on a brilliant diamond: it did not lower the value of the diamond, but all the same it is better to clean it off than to admire it” (“The Poetry of Count A. K. Tolstoi,” 125). In the context of his early aesthetic theory, this must have seemed a strange comment to Solov’ev’s readers. Looked at from the vantage point of the later Pushkin articles, though, it can be seen as an early, albeit unstructured and relatively “unmotivated,” attempt to account for the dichotomy that Solov’ev must have already sensed between Pushkin’s life and poetry. 46 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 229.

47 R. Gal’tseva and 1. Rodnianskaia, “Real’noe delo khudozhnika,” in Solov’ev Filosofiia, iskusstva i literaturnaia kritika 23.

Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 232. 49 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 229. 50 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 226. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 127. 52 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 126. 53 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 396; 60. 54 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 269.

55 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 234. 56 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 235. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 124.

58 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 261. 59 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 229.

Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 230. 61 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 235. 62 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 196. 63 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 230-32, 248. Todd 258.

65 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 185. 66 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 247. 67 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 247. 68 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 250.

69 Solov’ev’s assessment is supported by numerous critics who see 1826 as a significant turning point for Pushkin. See Sergej Davydov, “Puskin’s Easter Triptych: `Hermit fathers and immaculate women,’ `Imitation of the Italian,’ and `Secular Power’,” in Pu.*kin Today, David M. Bethea, ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993) 42 and S.L. Frank, “Religioznost’ Pushkina,” in Etiudy o Pushkine (Munich: Family of S.L. Frank, 1957) 12. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 255. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 187; 262. Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 188.

73 Solov’ev, Literaturnaia kritika 273.

Copyright Canadian Assosciation of Slavists Sep-Dec 1998

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