Books: Mirror of the Soul. A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev
by John Dewey
Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-73) was a contemporary of Pushkin and is widely considered his equal as a lyric poet. This new biography tells the story of a fascinating life and personality as reflected in the poems, presented here in the author’s own verse translations.
How can the soul its flame impart?
How can another know your heart,
The truths by which you live and die?
A thought, once uttered, is a lie,
The limpid spring defiled, once stirred:
Drink of it, and say not a word.
A paradoxical statement for a poet to make, one might think. Unless, that is, he believes poetry to be uniquely capable of challenging the opaqueness and inadequacy of language alluded to in these lines. Tyutchev’s lyric verse can be read as an intimate diary of his inner life (the ‘mirror of his soul’, in the apt phrase of a contemporary), publication of which he resisted or at best tolerated throughout most of his mature years. It was largely thanks to the persuasion and efforts of others that his work became more widely known.
Tyutchev’s poetry combines emotional intensity with philosophical depth, revealing glimpses of an eternal, unfathomable reality beneath the fleeting world of appearances. His nature lyrics are unsurpassed, as is the remarkable ‘Denisyeva cycle’ charting a tempestuous long-term extramarital relationship.
In his own country his literary status has never been in doubt. He was the favourite poet of Leo Tolstoy, who declared: ‘One cannot live without him.’ For Dostoyevsky he was ‘our great poet’, for Turgenev (who published his first volume of verse) ‘one of our most remarkable poets’. Afanasy Fet considered him ‘one of the greatest lyric poets ever to have existed on this earth’. Yet outside Russia Tyutchev’s name remains curiously unknown.
John Dewey’s biography — the first in English, and one of the most comprehensive to date in any language — provides a long overdue introduction to this major figure, with new verse translations by the author. Written with the general reader in mind, the book also makes important new contributions in the field of Tyutchev studies. For its account of the life it draws on an extensive range of sources, including much previously unpublished archival material. Datings, addressees and circumstances of composition are established for a number of the poems which have hitherto proved problematic in this respect. Tyutchev’s poetry, and his relationship to the major intellectual and political movements of his age, are subjected to detailed analysis and reassessment.
Reviews of Mirror of the Soul:
- 'magnificent book ... beautifully written and edited. It will be, for a long time, the standard work on Fyodor Tyutchev anywhere in the world'
- - Times Literary Supplement
- 'This book is not only the first life of Tyutchev in English, it is by far the best and most complete anywhere, including Russia. Dewey's scholarship is meticulous'
- - Literary Review
- 'magnificent biography ... the clear writing and lively exposition keep the reader fully engaged ... a highly informative and richly rewarding volume'
- - Slavonic and East European Review
- 'Not least impressive are the translations of Tyutchev's lyrics which ... give the non-Russian speaker a real sense of the originals'
- - Malcolm Jones, Emeritus Professor of Slavonic Studies, Nottingham University
- 'brilliant analysis of the lyric verse ... penetrating commentaries on [Tyutchev's] political writings.'
- - Radio Free Europe
- 'has convincingly resolved many of the unresolved questions of Tyutchev's biography ... Brimstone Press are to be congratulated on making it available.'
- - East-West Review
555 pages, including 17 photographs.
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