‘Silentium!’ by Fyodor Tyutchev

tyutchev

Silentium!

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal

the way you dream, the things you feel.

Deep in your spirits let them rise

akin to stars in crystal skies

that set before the night is blurred:

delight in them and speak no word.

How can a heart expression find?

How should another know your mind?

Will he discern what quickens you?

A thought once uttered is untrue.

Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:

drink at the source and speak no word.

Live in your inner self alone

within your soul a world has grown,

the magic of veiled thoughts that might

be blinded by the outer light,

drowned in the noise of day, unheard…

take in their song and speak no word.

______

Fyodor Tyutchev (1830), translated by Vladimir Nabokov

Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (1803-1873), a poet from the Golden Age of Russian literature, was persuaded to first begin publishing his poetry in earnest in 1836. In that year, under only the initials F.T., his poems began appearing in Pushkin’s recently founded journal, Sovremennik (‘The Contemporary’). D.S. Mirsky describes that there were ‘from 1836 to 1838 about forty lyrics, all of which (quite literally) are known by heart today by everyone who cares for Russian poetry’.

Mirsky was writing in the middle of the 1920s, in his landmark work A History of Russian Literature; Tyutchev’s poems received little attention upon their first publication, and – though he continued to publish poetry sporadically throughout his life, whether romantic poetry, nature poetry, or his later political verse, writing always in Russian despite using predominantly French in his personal relations and in his public life – he only became fully recognised and recovered by the Symbolists, around the turn of the twentieth century.

In his work, Mirsky considers Tyutchev second in Russian poetry only to Pushkin. He goes on to note that ‘from personal experience…when English poetry readers do discover him they almost invariably prefer him to all other Russian poets. This is only natural, for of all Russian poets Tyutchev abounds in those qualities which the English poetry reader has learned to value in nineteenth-century poetry’. The philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev even argued that Russian literature of the early twentieth century followed Tyutchev’s spirit of ‘torment and anxiety’ more than the spirit of any other Russian writer.

I considered naming this website ‘Silentium’; however, the domain has already been taken by a firm specialising in noise-reduction. Still, I wanted to open with Tyutchev’s poem because it is one of my favourites, and makes for a pleasing and perverse introduction to the enterprise of having a website and writing pieces for it. Tyutchev’s repeated invocation to ‘speak no word’ is one by which he himself did not abide; but his poem nevertheless retains its truth, depicting the insular and self-contained nature of the artist, and suggesting the ambivalence of any art which dwells within personal emotions, reflections and preferences, yet must be expressed in public in order to survive.

I think Tyutchev’s poem can be read in the context of the internet, blogging, and so on. Its demand that we conceal our feelings, suppress our thoughts, remain silent whilst allowing our inner lives to soar, is precisely opposed to the inclination to publish online in a ceaseless stream what we are feeling, what we are doing, our immediate responses to things, even our most strongly held likes and dislikes. I think that it is important to state and maintain this opposition even whilst beginning and developing a website, writing articles for it, and engaging in other quicker forms of media. It is a message to keep some things especially close; that sometimes it is important, and sometimes it can be richer, not to express yourself.

Gibian, G. (ed.) The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader (Penguin, 1993)

Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (London; Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968)

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