LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 25, No.1 - Spring 1979
Editor of this issue: V. Stanley Vardys
Copyright © 1979 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
JURGIS BALTRUĐAITIS AS A LYRIC POET*
Whoever hears the verses of Jurgis Baltruđaitis for the first time—if he is not entirely deaf to lyrical harmony—will experience—initially—a vague trepidation that unusually possesses the soul. It is as if from out of the leafy old trees— half muffled by the gray thickness of church walls—an organ fugue resounds. And here the vain smile has already left the lips, and suddenly the spirit—ready for flight—has sobered up—while the ear contentedly marks the fidelity and nobility of the naturally blossoming potent forms. What a richness of inner (spiritual) and outer (music and verbal) resonances and reverberations—and with what artistic chastity is this glitter dimmed by a severe calm and proud abstention from blandishments that evoke surprise and curiosity, from flattering enticements, from selfish intentions. Nothing persistent, loud, or forced; nothing swept in by fashion or the conventions of modernity or antiquity, will be caught by the listener in these timeless verses, sung to the stars. What magnificent contempt for the stupidity of the mob! And what noble humility of the singer who has cast off all self-love—a lyricism, having unlimited rights to a personal self-freedom as though freeing itself of its personality(1) . . . Self-denial is the profound pathos of this poetry, but, however, it is all one long monologue of a personality turned to God who reveals himself in the creation of the world.
To interpret this monologue is a spiritually difficult and responsible task. How does one eavesdrop on whispered prayer, how does one understand what one hears? This is why the writer of these lines is glad that he has the opportunity and the ability to preface his attempt at interpretation with the self-interpretation of the poet, entrusted him through friendship.
Steps of Earth (Zemnyja stupeni) . . ., The Mountain Path (Gornaja tropa) . . . What special, personal meaning is hidden in these symbols, the titles of the two books which we have set out to discuss? The poet in his past inner experience discerns seven successive levels of the personality's assimilation of the world and gives to these levels the unexpected and very significant name: "seven forgetfulnesses." For when man leaves his closed and self-contained circle of habitual impressions and judgements with which he has learned to live as with his native "roof," and a new world opens to his soul, having changed internally, he forgets his former "roof" and former imprisonment, as he will forget, in turn, this new temporary dwelling, having crossed the threshold of the next one, which lies in his path. And existence in each separate sphere, under each successively discovered "roof" sheltering the spirit from the enormity of the reality for which it cannot make room—is the forgetfulness of other shores, worlds, dwellings; and each moment of incarnate being is the forgetfulness of the original and—at the end of "the path"— ordained, all-embracing, divine plenitude.
The poet characterizes his first "forgetfulness" (embracing the period of his life up to 1900) as a simple "standing in the world, without questions and answers;" he is absorbed in the observation of things and in their esthetic evaluation. And when different demands started moving in the soul, he would have wanted to lull them to sleep and to linger longer is his unthinkingness: "noli turbare circulos meos" (Steps of Earth, p. 51). In reality, he enters the circle of "orphanhood and alienation." The awakened personality is opposed by the external world which represses and horrifies the soul, which is alien to it, being of a different nature, and a different tongue, and is unassimilable by the personality. The soul fortified itself in order to conquer this imprisonment—"but there was neither death, nor birth." And when it seemed to the soul that it was making its peace with the world, this forced Yes to being was, in the poet's words, "reverence out of fear."(2)
The dejection of orphanhood was replaced—in the circle of the third "forgetfulness"—by a sense of submission of "voluntary (!) agreement" to a higher will, transcending the personality. The release was purely religious. It was fulfilled under the sign: "pray." But inner harmony, of course, was not gained through this resignation. The approach of the new, fourth period of his spiritual life became connected with the Italian impressions of the creations of Michelangelo, particularly of his "Night" (1906). The poet becomes full of "the sadness of human limitation," or the sensation of "life as delirium." This, he says, was the "sadness of one asleep on God's threshold."
With blinded eyes
We gaze, slaves of shades,
Into the world, sparkling before us,
Widening only with dreams
The lot of our smallness.
(Steps of Earth, p. 95)
Slaves of a single galley in the light of day,
With separate hurts, cursing our lot
Into the separateness of darkness.
(Steps of Earth, p. 189)
In 1908 what he calls "the beginning of the world in man" glimmered before the poet, and sorrow, already "radiant," marked this establishment in the inner experience of the first living link between the "I" and the universe.(3) If, on this fifth level the mystery of immanent knowledge is revealed to the poet, filling him with light, on the next, the sixth, the mystery, in accordance with the basic rhythm of his development, finds its tragic antithesis: he "tragically" experiences the unity of personality and world, of "the drop and the sea."(4) And only after 1912—after entering the circle of the last of the "forgetfulnesses"—the poet discovers in the deepened sentiment of "mixing with the world" a source of inner freedom and courageous pathos. Before him "the coinciding limitlessness of world and man" is uncovered; he sees "man uncreated in a world as yet not created," and—a new Elysian—like a wintering seed the revelation of universal life and the guarantee of universal hope ripens . . .(5)
It is not for us to develop these perhaps meager but descriptive hints in which the poet himself, as a personality, was painted still more clearly than his path of poet-thinker.(6) Let the hints aid the readers in checking our observations which follow, directed not to a genetic link, but to the artistic unity of his lyrical creations which is presented to us.
This lyricism, transforming all the impressions of being into one unified psalm, can seem to us avaricious of "the tedious songs of the earth," monotonous and somber. Lyricism sings phenomena only to the extent that the spirit is liberated from them; the platonic eros of unattainable plenitude reverberates within it as a thirsting for a different being.
O beatitude—in plenitude
Not to distinguish moment from moment!
To undo endlessly
The links of life's yoke!
(Steps of Earth, p. 30)
This lyricism is the "prayerbook" of the heart, only a "prayerbook,"(7) not a canzoniere, not a diary, and not a songbook in the worldly sense of the word. Before us are the confessions of one of those mystics for whom the sensation of God—the immediate objectivity and Divinity, in a certain sense—is more obvious and more sensible than the world. From this stems the consistency and wholeness of the high religious order of these desert meditations and melancholic hymns
All of me bent low before the living Lord . . .
(Steps of Earth, p. 61)
There is a divine meaning in life and a benevolent aim is realized in it; live life and suffer; your living it has immeasurable value, your moment is stuck into the life of God himself—this elegiac theodicy assures us:
In your dark path go fearlessly,
Man, subject to the hour!
Your pain comes not from dust,
Your short span not from earth . . .
And let the end of noisy reality
Be only rot, but eternity is its border,
And in it is your many-thoughted reason
And your heart's will.
All that you mark with the perishable sign
And call with a mortal name,
Thrives on eternity's changeless breath,
Blooms in the worlds, like dream, like trembling.
(The Lily and the Sickle (Lilija i serp), "Parting Words")
The doubt of thought is the rarest and ephemeral shadow of earthly fatigue and dejection on the unshakeable white walls of this spiritual fortress.
I see through my reason the destruction
Of all dreams—the lying world in dust—
And again prefigure the realization
Of all the secret desires of the earth.
The mortal spirit of thorns and crucifixions
Will be transfigured for all in vain.
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Presentment")
All, arms my spirit
With living thrust of being.
(Steps of Earth, p. 35)
The doubt applies, however, only to the fates of the earth, to the justification of phenomena, and not to the divine ontology of the spirit, not to being, timeless, limitless, superterrestrial. But "the shining of the starry secret" is not always visible through the valley's smoke."
Sometimes it is painful and hard
In God's universal woods.
(The Mountain Path, p. 48)
A mystic without a purely religious temper is subject to the temptation of rejecting the earthly and carnal, of despairing of the triumph of truth on earth, of despairing of the transfiguration of the earth, of taking the life of suffering for a bad dream, for a deceitful mirage of the spirit submerged in matter; our poet does not permit himself to fall into this temptation—he must open his heart to both spheres, accept and find room for both, whatever the cost.
And hollowly the heart, iron pendulum,
Suffers the fate of two diverse limits . . .
My imprisoned spirit burns with a double flame
And reason, complaining fruitlessly, must
Recognize life and death simultaneously.
(The Lily and the Sickle, "The Midnight Sail")
And in the moments of final sobering he announces:
I think more and more rigorously, penetrating
Into the flight of days, importantly colorful:
Human thought is not an indolent ear of grain.
Human dreams are not an empty flower.
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Awakening")
Then a triumphant consonance is torn from the chords:
I believe, I believe, O God
In the evening, singing of stars
Promising the morning of birth
By the miracle of hunger,
I believe in the splintering hammer,
In flame and the creating sword,
In the sacrifice of fundamental trembling,
In the power of hope.
(The Lily and the Sickle, "I Believe")
"We order you to hope (wir heissen euch hoffen)," say the mysterious preceptors and leaders in the Masonic "Symbol" of Goethe. Not a few of the poems of our poet would have been suitable for the mystical lodges of the eighteenth century.
This lyricism contains, as we have seen, the spiritual life-sketch of the poet; but the reader will find nothing externally biographical in it. It seems that the poet, approaching the "altar" of the muses' service, his own "severe sacrificial altar" (and the ancient metaphor does not sound false in this case)—before turning into Apollo's swan—seeks to pull off the passionate membrane of his spirituality, revealing the hidden sanctity of "the inner man," already as if it were completely impersonal. Through this effort the negative self-definition of the personality through "I" and "not-I", "mine" and "not-mine" is done away with; the limited, solitary, carnal self-consciousness calms down.
The flesh melts, losing its limits
In the sacrificial flame . . .
(The Mountain Path, p. 52)
The night tore apart my mortal imprisonment,
And there was no more flesh in me,
There were no more walls around me.
(The Mountain Path, p. 148)
Then the heart goes deeper, life becomes clearer.
My lonely trembling grows silent . . .
The heart is deeper, life clearer.
(Steps of Earth, p. 102)
Rarely do the last dying echoes of spiritual struggle and grumbling mix with this white melody: the small "I" of man has become exterior to the creative "I"—now the small "I" is only an object of contemplation and perhaps compassion.
In the midnight hour, in my beast's breast,
In the damnation of insatiable desire.
Dreams are splintered, like the flame of a long fairy tale
Amid the whirlwind of the ashes bitterly defenseless.
(The Lily and the Sicke, "Midnight Sail")
But the personal becomes silent and the Elysian all-night lucubration of the human spirit, earing along with the stars, begins.
And the heart that struggled in delirium
And was garbed in decay
Weaves the night into its starry ear
Like an equilibrous grain.
You who in the prophetic hour of the night level
Has lifted his lot to Eternity,
Rush to tear apart—through the miracle of shade—
All the blindness of valley tears.
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Through the Miracle of the Shade")
The poet is already only—"the subject of cognition (as the gnoseologists say—naturally of contemplative cognition, of "knowledge without thought," according to the expression of our lyricist), only the bearer of universal empathy—a wanderer through worlds of incarnation, a "knight of eternal 'Distances,' " the song he sings is the single song of the Path and the Staff.
The earthly staff shines in the hand . . .
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Sun Wings")
On the sunny slopes, my intoxication is deeper;
From heaven—my staff, from heaven—my reed.
Outside mortal fear, like the clarity of a spring,
From God—about God—is my song.
(The Mountain Path, "Shepherd of the Alps")
Having rejected himself, he begins to sing of the world's being and about himself, as an atom of this world's being; and in this self-forgetfulness is his mellifluous wisdom.
Wise is he who has lifted his hungering heart
Into the quiet of the last limit . . .
(Steps of Earth, p. 76)
But, removing from himself all that is individual, the poet is not inspired—except in the solitary moment of the divine and earthly process that he contemplates—to affirm it in the visible, through which he passes. Everything, on which this pilgrim with a staff, blossoming with lilies, in his manly hand, would rest his glance is generalized into the typical, the generic: morning and evening, the road and the absence of people in the forest or on the mountain; an ear of grain in the field and a flower in the meadow; "the trepidation" of universal life, exploding in the proud flowering of the human impulse, and the stubborn labor of the tirelessly hammering worker. Rarely is the poet attracted by the specific and the concrete, and only to the extent that it represents a general idea—like Waterloo plain in this majestic epitaph to human glory:
Let each forehead bend with grief:
Peace grazes in Waterloo plain . . .
All rumor will be silenced in the world.
(Steps of Earth, p. 185)
For everyone and for everything—a prayer; before every exploit—tenderness; for every lot—glory.
Let every lot be glorified in life!
(Steps of Earth, p. 37)
Trepidation in the great and small
Is equally balanced on the eternal scales.
(Steps of Earth, p. 25)
. . . The proud lot
Of the eagle in the mountains and the mouse in the hole—
Two equal sparks in that fire
That flamed about the Architect in the sky;
And in that same fiber the unity of days
And the moment of my separateness.
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Ilinsky Village")
In particular—the noble bowing before the low; to all that is humiliated and suppressed—reverent love; to all meekness— a bow to the earth.
I bow to the fate of those drowned in dust—
In God's name—to the gray earth.
(Steps of Earth, p. 103)
Bow, mortal, to the daily blue;
Bow to the leaves in their spring muttering;
Bow lower to the autumn grass!
Bow to the stars, so that they will light up brightly;
Warmly love the lightning;
Pray more warmly to the light of a small spark!
(The Mountain Path, p. 87)
Enthusiastic praise of the toilers of being, of the heavy laborers of life:
The underprivileged chosen of Christ,
In the chains of toil, the accomplices of the Creator.
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Praise of Slaves")
But nothing specific is chosen by a caprice of the heart, nothing is selected by an eccentric penchant, nothing called by an inimitable, small, and dear name, nothing inspires a loving desire, nothing arouses tears of despair and separation... Is not everything which the wanderer sees a mirage?
No, not a mirage, but the ephemeral aspects of the life of the universe, the innumerable and temporary raiment of myriad upon myriad of souls walking together, in the world host of which the poet serves as a witness for all:
We are misty levels
To the radiant peaks of God's mountains.
(Steps of Earth, p. 75)
In the ultimate sense, however, this whole host is one splintered world Soul; and its raiment, its definitions of place and time are only its dreams.
And fate—is the splintering
Of irretrievable plenitude.
(The Mountain Path, p. 99)
A phenomenon appears and disappears, and the spirit which vivified it moves to another place; but the clothes fall off and rot, in the way that flowers fade, having left seeds for a future blossoming, for a future incarnation. And the singer blesses beforehand this future dwelling and its inhabitant, tenderly, but parting without grief from a dying or from a still blossoming form. It seems that about all that is visible the poet tirelessly repeats: "When the spirit passes from it, it will cease to be, and will not know its place . . ."
Woe! How will the heart encounter
The poverty of new silence?
(The Mountain Path, p. 116)
In general this religious worldview combines the characteristic traits of transcendentalism and immanentism. The former is manifested in the affirmation of a "universally different existence," of a pacified existence in the living God. For man it is unattainable, though the soul remembers the limitless plenitude that it once contemplated.
I was born in a distant land . . .
(Steps of Earth, p. 137)
But the "exultant holidays of Eternity" (Steps of Earth, p. 83) about which the dream of the other-worldly "fatherland" sings to the poet, have been profoundly forgotten. What of it? Divinity, nevertheless, is around him and in him and in this suffering world, not of truly essential being, but of flowing formation.
Whether you look into the distance,
into the depths, into the heights,
Everywhere there is a trembling,
Only attend, only think:
You will find out everything,
(Steps of Earth, p. 27)
This manifest and suffering "world of Golgotha" is a theogonic process, in which we participate directly— universal, Divine, and worldly drudgery, from which only "Death, our Sabbath day" frees us. Therefore, every breath is the breath of divinity, and every phenomenon is a miracle.
Human affairs are in a hidden fabric.
Miracle is our Helmsman, we are thrusts of the oar.
Do you know, mortal, in your dark struggle,
Whose unearthly soul is in you?
The hour of man is like the wave;
Do you know, wanderer, in the night silence,
Meeting the starry quiet with a prayer,
With whose lips you. speak?
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Meditation")
A diminished perception of evil in the world, on the one hand, the mystery of the flesh, on the other — somewhat removes this worldview from the purely Christian and approaches the Indian (perhaps this is one of the reasons why Baltruđaitis' lyricism was so dear to the late A. N. Scriabin). It seems that the ancient genetic heritage of the poet has made itself felt here, the poet, whom not only we but also young Lithuania glorifies as our own and who himself enthusiastically believes in the single Ancestor—Soul of the Lithuanian-Slavic family.
In conclusion—several remarks about the method of representation, the lyrical form, and the lyrical tone.
It would be extremely erroneous to confuse the indicated generality representation with abstraction of content. Baltruđaitis' poetry is full of dicta expressing a general condition; but just as the material of the contemplative is wholly based on living observation and inner experience, so the processing of this material in the consciousness is unconditionally free from reasoning. From this—with the total absence of bloodless abstractions and notion-"concepts"—comes the perfect objective materiality of poetic images. But the objects, attracting the poet's attention, are taken so eidetically (if one is allowed to use a school expression, but nonetheless uniquely defining one's thought); in other words, the unity, unfurling in a myriad of local phenomena (en dia pollon of Plato) is so salient in them that every name in these lyrics serves as a designation for a whole genre or type. So, the method of Baltruđaitis, a symbolist in his entire spiritual makeup, and one of the affirmers (from beginning of Northern Flowers) of the literary school that has taken this name—is not nearly always the method of pure symbolism. Indeed, symbolism avoids connecting things according to generic signs, it rather combines diverse things, preferring symbolizing to naming, setting itself as a goal the expression of the idea, as act, through the representation of the predominantly separate phenomena which it is defining—and moreover, in its mutual relation and interaction with other ideas. Finally, things—in the representation of our poet—are not so much "the analogue"—that is "all that dies" according to the famous symbolist formula of Goethe, the poet—as "the flowery dimmings of light" in the sense of "the theory of flowers" of Goethe, the physicist and metaphysician. In the method itself it is said how we see the pathos of progression from the specific to the "universal" and through them to utter unity, that flight from the separate to pan-unity, from the colorful refractions of the spectrum to the whiteness of union, from life to the source of being. ("Am farbigen Abglanz haben wir das Leben!" — Goethe).
In poetic speech Baltruđaitis is majestically simple, conservative in moderation and perhaps monotonous (=monoimagic) as in his rhymes. The latter is explained mainly by his eccentric static symbolics: "reality" (jav'), "trembling" (droţ), "limit" (gran'), "moment" (mig), "ashes" (prax) play the role of constant symbolic terms or hieroglyphs, as do "stars" (zvëzdy), "ear of grain" (kolos), "sickle" (serp), "hammer" (molot), "staff" (posox). His verse, of a somewhat muted timber, is fully resonant, rigorously worked and vividly instrumentalized. In the rhythmics there is little movement of gesture and the dance, nevertheless all the lyrical trepidation and resonance is one trembling, one movement to the final depths, like the very element of music from which this art emerges and in which it would like to dissolve, obviously not finding full freedom for itself in words. The musically meditative character of the inspirations of our lyricist has conditioned the organic formation of a new compositional form, representing in itself the synthesis of hymn and elegy. In the development of this form, we observe the peculiar work of this poet, in general, profoundly original and not resembling any of his contemporaries or predecessors; is it only in the manner of Baratynsky that his orderly meditations sometimes evince a distant and rather accidental resemblance?
Often these elegiac hymns bear the traits of a tragic epilogue. One hears in them the quiet tenderness of separation, the praise of cried-out tears, a farewell "amen" to the world, exhausted by the personality/individual. One also hears in them the lily's hungering for the sickle which will mow it down, the poet's blessing of the priest's sickle, sating the sorrow of separateness. And through the elusive noise of the bells of the universe—by way of a magnificent victory of the divine Mover—there will sometimes resound, echoed in the heart by a slight ache, the sudden ringing of a precious broken vessel.
And silence, like a sonorous vessel, was broken . . .
(Steps of Earth, p. 11)
Something living has died, in which we dreamed of fulfillment and the attained peace of perfection; again it broke and died—and with mysterious sadness, resembling joyous-ness, the writer of the epilogue asks:
Why is God's cup of mortal silence
So fragile? . .
(The Lily and the Sickle, "Waterfall")
* Jurgis Baltruđaitis (1873-1944) was a Lithuanian and Russian symbolist poet who published his works in both languages though mostly in Russian. Baltruđaitis spent his adult years in Russia where in 1919 he was elected chairman of the Soviet Writers Union. In 1920-39 he served as independent Lithuania's envoy to the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1939 he was appointed councellor at the Lithuanian Legation in Paris, France, where he died. Further see Lituanus, Vol. 10, No. 3-4 (1964) and the special issue of
Lituanus, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1974) which was dedicated to the examination of his works.
** Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov (1866-1949) was a major scholar-poet and translator and one of the important literary critics of the twentieth century. A student of classical antiquity, he left Russia in 1924 and settled in Italy where he converted to Roman Catholicism. Mirsky calls him "the master of the Petersburg symbolists." Ivanov's essay was first printed in Russkaja literatűra XX veka (1890-1910), Part Two, S. A. Vengerov, ed., (Moscow: Izd. T-va "Mir," 1914-1916), pp. 301-311. Translated from the Russian by THOMAS E. BIRD.
1 "La semplicità del Baltrusciaitis e la vera è severe semplicità quasi monacale molto armoniosa, forte, musicale, come gli antichi salmi." Rassegna Contemporanea, VII, s. II, fasc. 3 (febbraio 1914), p. 485.
2 To this period belong the following poems from his anthology Steps of Earth (Zemnyja stupeni): "At Night," "Surf," "Taedium Vitae," "A Child's Fears," "The Island," "Orphanhood," "Despair," "Weaver," "Solitude," and others.
3 Cf. Steps of Earth, "Evening Songs," especially III.
4 Cf. in the same book of poems: "Elegy," "Midnight," "A Bow to the Earth;" in The Mountain Path (Gornaja tropa): "Captive," "Second Thoughts" (p. 141), "Awakening," "Without a Roof Overhead," "On the Way," "Appeals."
5 Cf. in the anthology The Mountain Path: "Now and Forever," "Ascent," "The Power of Smallness," "The Mountain Path," "The Blue Sky," and others. The moods of this period find their ultimate expression in the still unpublished book of poems The Lily and the Sickle (Lilija i serp).
6 Dai versi dël B. si sente ch'egli e un vero figlio della Lituania, uno di quegli esseri silenziosi, austeri, d'una sincerita sovente tragica per se e per gli altri, difficili a piegarsi nel loro intimo . . . In B. il dolore metafisico del mondo—prigione fa tacere ogni personale dolore . . . Ma non soltanto del dolore s'ispirano i canti del B.: come ogni cuore veramente mistico, a traverso il suo Weltschmerz, egli è giunto ad uno stato d'animo eroico, il cui carattere fondamentale è la speranza." Kuhn-Amendola, La Scala Terrestre, traduzione. Firenze, 1912, p. 9.
7 Iu. Aikhenval'd in his nuanced and rich study of Baltruđaitis (in the June 4, 1912 issue of the newspaper Rech', no. 150): "Ne cherchons pas de joie dans le lyrisme philosophique de B. Mais disons qu'entre les auteurs actuels il est—un des rares chez qui la melancolie se maintient belle et dont la tristesse de vivre ne tombe pas jusqu'au degout. Il sait concevoir l'immortelle splendeur de la terre et la rendre avec majesté, en exprimant le mystere qui transparait dans ses aspects multiples." A. de Holstein, "Un poète au sourir amer," La Vie, No. 2, Mars 1912.