Boris Pasternak
Kansas City, MO: Hallmark Editions, 1967
62 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2009

This is a lovely little book which is excerpted from the novel DOCTOR ZHIVAGO. Pasternak worked with this project, choosing the order of poems and allowing for some editing. The poems are accompanied by dark but haunting drawings by Bill Greer.

I read the novel many years ago, and have seen the film made from the novel several times. There are lots of scenes I recall, including that Zhivago wrote poetry, but I didn’t have any memory that poems themselves had appeared in the novel.

What was pretty amazing to me is that Pasternak could not only write the appealing poems, but so within the character of Zhivago. To me that was quite an achievement. In my college days I fancied myself a poet and struggled over the handful of poems I wrote, seeking my voice and editing constantly. The notion of writing poems in a voice not one’s own and doing so convincingly is a noteworthy achievement to me.

The bulk of the poems have two features which are close to Zhivago. First there are the four seasons and Zhivago’s belief that life in general follows, as fundamental nature, the pattern of the seasons. He enriches his poems with many references and images of nature as mirroring human life problems and issues, and following a pattern of birth, development, maturity and decay. Secondly Zhivago emphasizes the closeness of the cycles of nature with the life of Jesus Christ. First birth to the development of spring, the death and then again, the renewal of the resurrection.

It’s a fascinating world view and one seemingly most common before the Industrial Revolution. After that things gradually seem to have changed and abandoned this dominant cyclical image of human existence and religion.

Zhivago’s gentleness of person and attention to the harmony with nature emphases consistently the person whom he is.

Almost every poem has nature and images of nature at their center. A typical example is AUTUMN

I’ve given leave to all who’re dear
And near to me to go their way.
The world is empty; in my heart
I feel my lifelong loneliness.

We’re now together in this lodge,
Alone. The forest is deserted.
As in our ancient songs, the trails
Run wild in brambles and in weeds.

The timbered walls in quiet sadness
Regard both you and me. We made
No vows to cross all obstacles,
And so we’ll simply face our end.

We’ll meet as one -- I with a book,
And you with your embroidery;
We shall forget at break of day
How long our kissing in the night.

Let leaves spin headlong down, ablaze
In glory, splendid in their death,
And swell our cup of bitter grief
And anguish deeper day by day.

Let storm winds strew as leaves afar
Our life, devotion, beauty, joy!
Like a leaf in autumn, drift away,
Go half insane, out, out of sight

Yet as the coppice flings its leaves
Upon the air, you loose your dress
And, in your silken dressing-gown,
You fall into my waiting arms.

You are my gift of life when days
Grow baneful, worse than the disease,
Heroic life is the root of beauty,
And it draws together you and me.

Several other poems center around the theme of life of Jesus, often emphasizing power and prestige which give way to collapse and ruin – before the resurrection and history. The last three stanzas of HOLY WEEK emphasize this theme.

March scatters handfuls of the snow Like alms among the lame,
As though a man had carried out
The holy Ark outside the church,
And gave its all unto the poor.
They sing until the sunrise hour.

Then, having wept their fill,
Their chants of the Psalms and Acts
Flow with an air serene
Into an empty lamplit street.

All creatures hear the voice of spring
In the still of night, believing
That when good weather comes
Death itself shall he destroyed
By the travail of the Resurrection.

This was a pleasant read, taking me back to a simpler day when people seemed to be in much greater harmony with nature and saw nature as the model of the basic form of human existence.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett