Happy Days

…by Lillian Broadbridge, with the Revd Septimus Hazard, MA.

You’d never guess, I’m a poetess! That little spark of creativity has always been within me, and I felt I just had to write this, bringing back memories of the good old days when Churchill was at No. 10 and our dear Queen was young and lovely. Ah! I’m no expert poetess, I’m the first to admit, but I thought I would share it with that wonderful Rector of Prawnsby, the parish next door to Radlett and Aldenham (where we still miss Mr. Manley). My Leslie, I’m afraid, would be useless here: you don’t hear much poetry in Barclay’s Bank. Well, quick as a flash, Father Septimus (who I know likes me) replied “I would be only too enchanted, Mrs. B. Can a man with a second-class degree in divinity possibly lend you a hand? (It was from Oxford, mind!) But, revenons à nos moutons as they say across the Channel, would you like me to read your meter?” He indeed did, and was really quite gushing about my talent, as well as the deeper message of this little poem. Who knows, we may collaborate again. Without further ado…

Happy Days

There was a time when children were God-fearing,
Boys were bold and little girls endearing
When our world was wholesome, pure and true
You’d say sorry; please; or, indeed, thank you.
At table you’d neatly handle fork and knife,
Lest Mother scolded—ah, a faithful wife!
She’d put out Father’s after-office slippers,
For breakfast there’d be soldiers, even kippers.
The wireless would play a merry tune
The latest, greatest hit from Patrick Boone.
The Morris Oxford, ’twas neat as a pin
Our trusty carriage for the Sunday spin;
That same Sabbath we’d sing the Good Lord’s praise…
Oh, can’t we please bring back these happy days?

In Search of Boris Poplavsky

An Introductory Digression

I first ran into Boris Poplavsky’s name in 1940 or 1941, and it was a case of mistaken identity. I was in Beverly Hills, California, at the home of a remarkable woman named Anna Semyonovna Meller, who in the days of my childhood was Madame Antoinette, the best known and most elegant couturiere in Harbin. My mother’s dressmaking establishment, Levitina-Karlinskaya, was not even a close second, but theirs was a friendly rivalry.

Anna Semyonovna’s adopted son Alex, six years my senior, was the idol and the despair of my Manchurian childhood: a champion ice skater, a concertizing pianist at the age of twelve, and a stoic who, during a hike in Chalantung, went on talking with a smile after a sharp rock had opened a bleeding gash on his knee. (I was half his age at the time and I remember screaming my head off at the mere sight.) Now, in California, he was a Surrealist painter, had been awarded a Guggenheim grant, and had spent a summer in New York, where he had met Pavel Tchelitchew (Chelishchev) and the son of Max Ernst and a number of other persons of equally supernatural stature.

Staying as a boarder at Anna Semyonovna’s was Alex’s friend Eddie, a young man of similar origins and background (his parents owned a dress shop on the Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai, and my mother had worked for them in her early youth), a former Berkeley architecture major who was now studying costume design at an art school somewhere near Westlake Park. Eddie’s sketches usually took first prize at school competitions, with the second prize going to his principal rival and fellow student, a melancholy-looking German refugee boy named Rudi Gernreich.

Waves of pure happiness would wash over me every time I waited for the Wilshire bus to take me for a day or a weekend to the Meller home in Beverly Hills, away from everything that made my life in Los Angeles glum and barely endurable: the incomprehensible courses in civics and physics (even their names seemed interchangeable) at Belmont High; the hopelessly boring afternoon job at the grocery store; and the pointless weekly exchange of mutual insults between Jack Benny and Rochester on the living room radio. (“It is all probably very funny and subtle, if we could only truly understand it,” my father would assure me after denying me permission to turn the dial to some concert music. But I did understand it all and it was not funny.)

At the Mellers’, things were altogether different. To begin with, it was perfectly all right to speak Russian and to have been born in China without having everyone exclaim, as they did at school, “How did you ever manage that?” or “Were your parents missionaries?” Instead of Jack Benny on the radio, there were real live stars to be encountered in Beverly Hills. Once I had to jump back when a long black car swung into a driveway with George Raft at the wheel and Rita Hayworth next to him.

Another time, Eddie and I were walking past the John Frederics millinery shop on Beverly Drive and were stopped dead in our tracks by the sight of the most unbelievably beautiful woman either of us had ever seen. She was selecting a hat inside. We stood there staring, exchanging whispered conjectures as to who this magical creature might be; then a saleslady came out, not to ask us to move, but to announce, “Miss del Rio would like to know which of the two models you gentlemen consider more becoming.” None of the Dolores del Rio films I saw later even began to do justice to the unforgettable radiance of her beauty.

Many years later, I felt a shudder of recognition as I watched that same scene reenacted (transposed into a comical key) in Billy Wilder’s film Witness for the Prosecution. Could Eddie have recounted it to someone during his brief career at the film studios? He was designing costumes for Gene Tierney and Maria Montez at Universal—or was it United Artists?—when he was run over and killed by a drunken driver. It happened as he was crossing Beverly Drive one evening in 1945, about half a block from where he and I had once stood admiring Dolores del Rio. Eddie also had connections in the world of burlesque. Rose La Rose wanted a new kind of stage costume and he came up with one that featured a quivering pink lobster over the G-string. One night he sneaked me backstage at the burlesque house on Main Street (I was too young to purchase a ticket), and I watched from the wings a performance of a tassel-twirler named Ermaine Parker. Afterward we went out for coffee with her and her tall, handsome husband, the straight man for the foul-mouthed, baggy-pants comedian in the show. The talk was mostly about the couple’s infant son, who had developed a liking for classical music before he learned to speak.

There were art exhibits of new painters, to which Alex or Eddie would take me: Salvador Dalí at the Ambassador Hotel, Eugene Berman and Christian Bérard at little galleries on Sunset Strip. But above all, books and poems were a part of daily life at the Mellers’. It was there that I was introduced to, or urged to read, Look Homeward, Angel; To the Lighthouse (which I couldn’t get through on the first try); Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (the book that provided the model for the title came later); a volume of short stories by Noel Coward (which I still think quite good); and collections of poems by Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and (whatever happened to him?) George Barker.

While everyone at home and at school kept urging me to forget about those useless Russian books I was forever dragging about, Alex and Eddie, older and wiser, never considered giving up their cultural heritage. Alex had his cult of the “three fellow-Alexanders”—Pushkin, Blok, and Scriabin; he had given up playing the piano when he decided that, compared to the later period of Scriabin, all music was primitive and dull. The three of us used to get high reciting Blok to each other, mostly from The Mask of Snow and The Nightingale Garden cycles. But here I could contribute as well as receive.

One day, after leafing through A Synthetic History of the Arts, by a Soviet scholar named Ioffe, at the Los Angeles public library, I learned of the existence of Boris Pasternak and Velimir Khlebnikov. There was no Khlebnikov at the library, but I immediately copied out his poem about the grasshopper, which Ioffe had cited to illustrate some principle of modern painting or other. They did have My Sister Life and Themes and Variations. I took these over to the Mellers’ the next weekend, and while the older generation (Alex’s parents and his aunt Madame Olga) pronounced Pasternak incomprehensible, Alex and Eddie both agreed that here was a major discovery. I also introduced them to my favorite modern Russian novelist, a man I knew only as V. Sirin, with whose work I had become involved several years earlier. When I brought over my copy of Invitation to a Beheading, Eddie tried reading it out loud, but his long sojourns in Shanghai and Berkeley had done something to his Russian stress. (This was not noticeable when he spoke, only when he read aloud.) I took the book away from him and began to read slowly, getting all the stresses right, but after three pages I had to stop: Eddie was on the floor, his legs kicking in the air, a beatific smile on his face. “Stop it, I can’t stand it, it’s too beautiful,” he was moaning.

Alex’s reaction was a little more reserved. He kept the book for several days and when he returned it, he remarked, “If I were a writer, this is how I would want to write.” And a little later: “I had the damnedest feeling I wrote some of it myself.”

Sirin then joined Pushkin, Blok, Pasternak, Thomas Wolfe, and Dylan Thomas in our literary pantheon. It was on one such enchanted Sunday afternoon, leafing through the New York Russian newspaper Novoe russkoe slovo [published until 2010], to which Anna Semyonovna subscribed, that I came upon Poplavsky’s name—and this is where the mistaken identity part comes in. A memoirist (Yury Terapiano? Vladimir Varshavsky?) was reminiscing about the Russian Montparnasse of the 1920s. He could vividly remember the poet Boris Poplavsky drunkenly declaiming:

And the nightingale in the Sanskrit tongue
Shouts “More wine! More wine!” over the yellow rose.

The name was unfamiliar, but there was something about those two lines that made me resolve to look up their author. As a matter of plain fact, however, the lines were not by Poplavsky. I could never find them in any of his books, and after years of fruitless searching I finally, through sheer accident, discovered the awkward truth. The lines are a quotation from the Rubaiyat translated into Russian by Ivan Tkhorzhevsky. In connection with that translation Vladislav Khodasevich, when asked one morning why he looked so poorly, quipped: “I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that I was a Persian poet and that Tkhorzhevsky was translating me.” [The passage corresponds to stanza 6 of Edward Fitzgerald’s version, where the nightingale speaks in Pahlavi and the rose is sallow. The notes to my (New York, 1888) edition explain that the rose was yellow in the first edition of Fitzgerald’s translation and identify Pahlavi as the “old, heroic Sanskrit of Persia.” This seems to suggest that Tkhorzhevsky was translating Fitzgerald into Russian, rather than the original Omar.]

But never mind. These two lines of Tkhorzhevsky’s pseudo-Omar did direct me to Poplavsky.

The Discovery

The strange Aztec-Mayan pyramid that houses the main public library in downtown Los Angeles will always remain for me one of the endearing spots in Southern California. Its dark tile walls that kept the air comfortably cool on the muggiest days; the long, Alhambra-like vistas that opened from one room to another; the purling fountains in the inner yards (if I’m making it sound garish and eclectic, it no doubt was) I still find unforgettable. There was a Russian lady in the Foreign Books Room, whose name I never learned, who made it a point to purchase everything worthwhile in contemporary Soviet and Russian émigré literature. The library’s collection of volumes on Russian painters and painting and on the Soviet theater of the 1920s was nothing short of opulent.

Yes, of course they had Poplavsky at that library. There were two slim volumes: a selection from his journals and a volume of verse called Flags. I got Flags, opened it in the middle, and immediately felt as though I were falling through a hole in the ice. Nikolai Tatishchev described his first impression of reading Flags thus: “A pure and piercing sound. Hardly anything can be made out. Now and then something breaks through and stings you. ‘O Morella, come back, it will all be different one day.’ Alarm, apprehension. The barometer needle quiveringly indicates a storm. A degree of agitation that can be expressed only in deliberately approximate terms.” [N. Tatishchev, “O Poplavskom” [On Poplavsky], Krug [The circle], vol. 3 (Paris, 1938)].

This was how a mature person, a close friend of the poet and the publisher of his posthumous books, reacted to Flags. My own impression (and it remains one of the most vivid of my entire life) was somewhat different. I was struck first of all by the bright colors, the swirling images, the authenticity of the dreamlike states the poems conveyed:

In the emerald waters of the night
Sleep lovely faces of virgins
And in the shadow of blue pillars
A stone Apollo slumbers.

Orchards blossom forth in the fire,
White castles rise like smoke
And beyond the dark blue grove
Vividly dark sand is ablaze.

Flowers in the garden hum,
Statues of souls come to life
And like butterflies from the fire
Words reach me:

Believe me, angel, the moon is high,
Musical clouds
Surround her, fires
Are sonorous there and days are radiant.

My English cannot reproduce the pulsating music that emanates from these lines in Russian, nor does it convey the artful and often startling rhymes. There are pages and pages in this little book that project this blend of color and music, but there are also other things:

We shelter our caressing leisure
And unquestioningly hide from hope.
Naked trees sing in the forest
And the city is like a huge hunting horn.

How sweet it is to jest before the end
This is understood by the first and the last—
Why, a man vanishes, leaving fewer traces
Than a tragedian with a divine countenance.

There was an attitude in those poems, a vision, a sensibility quite new to me, but one that I instantly recognized and accepted:

But now the main entrance thundered and the bell started barking—
Springtime was ascending the stairs in silence.
And suddenly each one remembered that he was all alone
And screamed “I’m all alone!” choking with bile.
And in the singing of night, in the roar of morning,
In the indistinct seething of evening in the park
Dead years would arise from their deathbeds
And carry the beds like postage stamps.

I did not know enough about poetry at the time to recognize Poplavsky’s sources, to discern his French influences: Baudelaire (who had a greater impact on him than anyone except Blok), Nerval, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Apollinaire, Breton. I did not know then, as I know now, that Boris Poplavsky was in a sense a very fine French poet who belongs to Russian literature mainly because he wrote in Russian. But much of his sensibility was also a verbal equivalent of the visual imagery I knew and loved in the work of the exiled Russian neo-Romantic painters Pavel Tchelitchew and Eugene Berman. [“But Poplavsky’s surrealistic world is created illegitimately, using means borrowed from another art, namely painting (some of the critics have pointed out that Poplavsky is actually a visual rather than a musical poet; his poetry has been compared to Chagall’s painting…” Gleb Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii [Russian literature in exile] (New York, 1956), 339. The observation is absolutely correct, but why is cross-fertilization between the arts illegitimate? Russian poetry of the twentieth century in particular has a deep-going and highly legitimate symbiotic involvement with both painting (Voloshin, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov) and music (Bely, Blok, Kuzmin, Pasternak)].

An uncritical acceptance? I knew at once that much of what Poplavsky was doing was highly artificial. But I knew even then that artifice was a natural component of some of the finest art and had no objections. Despite its artificiality (and partly because of it), the book hit me with a wave of lyrical power I would not have believed possible, a wave that swept me off my feet and held me prisoner for many weeks. This was not like getting intoxicated on Blok’s verbal magic, nor was it like the intense intellectual pleasure afforded by Pasternak’s formal perfection and his freshness of perception.

Poplavsky came to me more like a fever or a demonic possession. I went around reciting Poplavsky’s lines by heart. I tried composing melodies to them. I discovered that stanzas 3 and 4 of his poem “To Arthur Rimbaud” could be conveniently sung to the tune of the clarinet solo from Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, and I did sing them, obsessively. The next thing I knew, my mother, normally infuriatingly indifferent to poetry, was muttering Poplavsky to Chaikovsky’s music in an undertone while fixing dinner.

It was a heavy burden to keep to oneself at sixteen. I was fortunate indeed to have two older friends with whom I could share it. Alex and Eddie were almost as enthusiastic about Poplavsky as I. The three of us leafed through the fragments of his journals. We did not find his religious quest congenial, but the seriousness and depth of his spiritual experience got through to us, and his ways of formulating it we also found impressive. Seeing that Russian poetry could be this closely allied with Surrealism in painting, Alex was moved to write a few Russian poems, which were meant as literary parallels to his paintings. He submitted them to Novoe russkoe slovo and one of them was printed, not in that newspaper’s Sunday poetry section as he had hoped, but as an illustration to an editorial which discussed the poor quality of Russian émigré poetry and asserted that Surrealism as a whole was an unimportant trend, by now entirely passé and forgotten. Then Alex was drafted into the army. He wrote me asking for the library copy of Flags. I sent it to him, he returned it, then he wanted it again, and it was lost in the mail. I ruefully paid the charges for the lost book ($2.50, I think). A few months later it turned up at Alex’s training camp. When I tried to return it, I was told that there was no need, because the library had replaced it. I now had my own copy of a book by Poplavsky… But just who, exactly, was Boris Poplavsky?

Some Biographical Materials

Exhibit A: His Father

[The vice president of the Moscow Association of Manufacturers] was Yulian Ignatievich Poplavsky, an extremely original and colorful personality even for the Moscow of those days. Poplavsky was a musician. He graduated (with very high grades) from the Moscow Conservatory where he majored in piano and was one of the favorite pupils of Pyotr Chaikovsky, with whom he was on intimate terms, as can be seen from his memoirs. I do not remember what it was that moved him to give up his musical career and take up industrial relations….

Poplavsky was a talented person; one seldom encounters such facility with word and pen. He could discuss any topic and could treat the most serious subject in a frivolous vein. His speech mannerisms, which corresponded to his manner of dress, irritated many and Poplavsky was widely disliked. It was said that he was “barred from the stock exchange.” This seems to be factually correct: invitations were not extended to him and this would cause clashes between the Manufacturers’ Association and the Stock Exchange Committee. He was also active in St. Petersburg where he was the representative of his organization, together with Jules Goujon [the president of the Manufacturers’ Association] at the Convention Council. When a petition had to be drafted or a summary of a discussion prepared, he was irreplaceable and was able to draft them with the utmost ease and elegance.

Gradually, people became accustomed to his manners, and he began receiving invitations to Stock Exchange Committee sessions, especially when labor problems were involved, inasmuch as the antiquated organization of the Stock Exchange Committee was falling behind the times in collecting current statistical data and the documentation pertaining to labor problems. Poplavsky’s office on Miasnitskaia Street was excellently organized and the Association (it was in existence for only twelve years) was able to accumulate much valuable material.

[A portrait of Boris Poplavsky’s father, from Paul A. Bouryschkine, Moskva kupecheskaia – The Merchants’ Moscow (New York, 1954), 256–57. This little-known volume is an astoundingly thorough and convincing record of the contribution made by the traditionally maligned and despised Russian merchant class to the development of Russian culture, literature, and the arts during the century preceding the Revolution.]

Exhibit B: His Sister

I can still see one [of these poetesses]—tall, feverish, everything about her dancing: the tip of her shoe, her fingers, her rings, the tails of her sables, her pearls, her teeth, the cocaine in the pupils of her eyes. She was hideous and enchanting with that tenth-rate enchantment which cannot but attract, to which people are ashamed to be attracted, to which I am openly and shamelessly attracted.…

I can say in general that I was met with kindness in this alien world of female practitioners of drug-addicted poetry. Women are in general kinder. Men do not forgive felt boots or having starving children. But this very same P——skaya, I am convinced, would have removed the sables from her shoulders had I told her that I had a starving child at home.…

I did not get to hear the feverish, fur-clad beauty recite her poetry, but I doubt that cocaine could have disposed her to write of love.…

[Three glimpses of Boris Poplavsky’s sister Natasha, gleaned from Marina Tsvetaeva’s memoir A Hero of Labor (1925). Tsvetaeva and Natasha Poplavskaya both appeared at a reading of women poets in the cold and starving Moscow of 1920].

Exhibit C: His Biography

Boris Poplavsky was born in Moscow on 24 May 1903. His father was a free artist—a musician, a journalist, and a well-known social figure; his mother, née Kokhmanskaya, came from an old, cultivated, aristocratic family, had a Western European education, and was a violinist with conservatory experience. As a child, Boris Poplavsky was first looked after by his nanny, Iraida, and then by a German nurse and a French governess. Later, as an adolescent, he had Swiss and English tutors, and when he reached school age, he was taught by Russian university students, hired to give him lessons. He also studied music, but showed no enthusiasm; lessons in drawing, however, were always his favorites.

In 1906, his mother had to take the children abroad because of the severe illness of her daughter. They lived alternately in Switzerland and Italy, while his father remained in Moscow. While abroad, Boris forgot his native tongue to such an extent that, when he returned to Moscow, his family had to enroll him and his brother at the French lycée of Saint Philippe Néri, where he remained until the Revolution. Boris took to reading early … and it was hard to tear him away from a book. When his elder sister Natasha, a dazzlingly educated and talented girl, published a collection of verse in Moscow, where she was considered an avant-garde poetess, Boris, either through competitiveness or imitation, also began to practice writing verses in his school notebooks, accompanying them with fanciful illustrations.

When the Revolution broke out in February 1917, Boris was fourteen years old. In 1918 his father was forced to travel to the south of Russia, and he took his son along. Thus, while still quite young, Boris had to part from his family and experience all the horrors of the civil war. In the winter of 1919, when he lived in Yalta, he gave his first reading as a poet at the Chekhov Literary Circle. And in March of the same year he and his father emigrated to Constantinople. This period of his life can be summed up in two words: he meditated and prayed. All the money his father gave him, his own belongings, even his food, Boris gave to the poor; at times several homeless people would spend the night in his room: students, officers, monks, sailors, and others, all of whom were literally refugees.

In Constantinople, Boris attended a makeshift equivalent of high school, did a great deal of sketching, read a lot, occasionally took incidental jobs, and spent much time with the cub scouts at the Russian Hearth, which was organized by the YMCA. At the same time, Boris saw life through a veil of profound mysticism, as if sensing the breath of Byzantium which gave birth to the Orthodox faith, to which he yielded himself unconditionally. In June 1921, his father was invited to Paris to attend a conference on Russian trade and industry.

For ten years Boris lived in the Latin Quarter, during the last four on the rue Barrault near the place d’Italie. There he died in the little annex at number 76-bis, located on the roof of the immense Citroën garage. The exciting and intriguing city of Paris absorbed Boris so much that he left it only once, in 1922, to spend a few months in Berlin. There he moved in the avant-garde literary circles, often appeared at literary gatherings and artistic soirées, and made a number of literary acquaintances.

The Poplavsky family gradually all assembled in Paris and Boris’s life seemed to enter upon a normal course. He regularly attended the Art Academy at La Grande Chaumière and was later enrolled at the Sorbonne, majoring in history and philology. He immersed himself in philosophy and theology and spent long hours in the rare manuscript room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. He was a passionate book collector; he had two thousand volumes at his death. He regularly visited museums, where he would stay for days on end. He studied assiduously, practiced sports, and wrote. As in earlier days, he was interested in poetry, literature, economics, philosophy, sociology, history, aviation, music, and everything else. He was always in a hurry to live and work, and he sometimes dreamed of becoming a professor of philosophy in Russia … not merely when collective farmers got to wear top hats and drive around in Fords, as he put it, but when the persecution of faith would end and a free life of the spirit would begin.

His novel Homeward from Heaven, which is partly autobiographical, gives an idea of how Boris lived and worked in Paris. He frequently appeared at literary gatherings, debates, and conferences as the principal speaker or as a discussant; he was well known in literary and artistic circles. His close friends valued him as a religious mystic, a God seeker, and a perceptive philosopher and thinker. The last years of his life were profoundly enigmatic. Many found in him not only a friend, but a source of support for attaining an ideological turning point in their lives. He was destitute at the time, but he would still share his last penny with the poor.

A tragically absurd incident brought his life to an end. On 8 October 1935, Boris met a half-mad drug addict, who under the pressure of his own adversity decided to commit suicide and wrote a suicide note, addressed to the woman he loved. He persuaded Boris, “on a dare,” to try out a “powder of illusions,” but instead, excited by the maniacal idea of taking a fellow traveler along on his journey to the beyond, gave him a fatal dose of poison, taking one himself at the same time.

Boris left behind two parts of a trilogy in the form of two large novels, Apollon Bezobrazov and Homeward from Heaven, and sketches for the third part, The Apocalypse of Therese. Then there are three volumes of verse ready for publication, a philosophical treatise on logic and metaphysics, the essay “Solitude,” a multi-volume diary, notations, drawings, letters, his favorite books which contain many jottings on the margins, and a great deal of other material, which so far has not been sorted out.

Paris, October 1935
[Yulian Poplavsky’s biography of his son, slightly abridged. [Iu. I. Poplavskii, “Boris Poplavskii,” Nov’ (Tallinn), no. 8 (1936): 144–47.]

Exhibit D: A Friend

I began writing verse quite early, and in 1920 Boris Poplavsky and I organized a Poets’ Guild in Constantinople.

Vladimir Dukelsky, alias Vernon Duke. [Autobiographical note in the anthology Sodruzhestvo (Washington, 1966), 521. Although both wrote poetry at the time, it was the future composer of Cabin in the Sky and Le bal de blanchisseuses who considered himself a poet then, while Poplavsky saw himself as a future painter.]

Exhibit E: Self-Portraits

  1. “Poverty is a sin, retribution, impotence, while luxury is like a kingdom in which everything reflects, extends, incarnates the slightest flutter of God’s eyelashes. And nevertheless, stoically, heroically, Oleg managed to bring his life to a realization, extricated it out of its wraps, despite poverty, inertia, and the obscurity of his underground destiny. Having received no education, he wrenched one for himself from the stained, poorly illuminated library books, read while his behind grew numb on the uncomfortable benches. Anemic and emaciated, by abstinence and daily wrestling with heavy iron weights, he forced life to yield him cupola-like shoulder muscles and an iron handgrip. Not handsome, unsure of himself, he used his hellish solitude, know-it-allism, valor, asceticism to master that fierce eye mechanism which was able to subjugate, at times to his own amazement, female heads radiant with youth. For Oleg, like all ascetics, was extraordinarily attractive, and his ugliness, rudeness, and self-assurance only enhanced his charm. Life refused him everything and he created everything for himself, reigning and enjoying himself now amidst the invisible labors of his fifteen-year effort. Thus, in a conversation he would calmly and slyly radiate the universality of his knowledge, which astounded his listeners as much as did the ease with which he could, while sitting on a sofa, lift and toss about a thirty-kilogram weight or a chair, held horizontally by its back in his hand, as he laughed at the gloomy, lifeless, unascetic, sentimental, disbelieving Christianity of the Paris émigré poets.”
  2. “You thought, Oleg, that you could at last do without God, rest from His insatiable demands; and see, now He is doing without you.… Look, nature is about to enter upon her sad, brief summer triumph and you were asleep, your heavy head full of the hot waters of sleep, and you dreamed of earthly, full-blooded, bearded life. Once again you were insolent to God, Oleg, and tried living without Him, and your face hit the ground, heavily, stupidly, clownishly. You finally awoke from the pain, took a look around, and see, the trees are already in bloom and have hung out their vivid, abundant new leaves. It is summer in the city and again you are face to face with God, whether you want to be or not, like a child that conceived the wish to hide from the Eiffel Tower behind a flowering shrub in the Trocadero garden and after walking around it was instantly overtaken by the iron dancer-monster that takes up the entire sky. You try not to notice it, but it hurts you to look at the white sky and a heavy, sweaty stuffiness is pressing on your heart. You are again in the open sea, in the open desert, under an open sky covered up by white clouds, in the intolerable, ceaseless, manifest presence of God and sin. And there is no strength not to believe, to doubt, to despair happily in a cloud of tobacco smoke, to calm yourself at a daytime movie. The entire horizon is blindingly occupied by God; in every sweaty creature He is right there again. Eyesight grows dim and there is no shade anywhere, for there is no home of my own, but only history, eternity, apocalypse. There is no soul, no personality, no I, nothing is mine; from heaven to earth there is only the fiery waterfall of universal existence, inception, disappearance.”

[Two of Boris Poplavsky’s self-portraits as Oleg in his novel Homeward from Heaven. Fragments from Homeward from Heaven, in Krug, vol. 3].

Exhibit F: The Critical Response

[R]ecently Will of Russia (Volia Rossii) discovered the amazingly gifted B. Poplavsky. Of all his delightful poems it printed, not a single one could have possibly appeared in Contemporary Annals (Sovremennye zapiski)—they are far too good and uniquely original for it. [Georgy Ivanov in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 31 May 1928]

Among the Parisians, Boris Poplavsky is particularly outstanding. Some of his poems (especially the one with the epigraph from Rimbaud that appeared in volume 2 of Poetry and the “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” in Will of Russia, number 7) force one to stop and listen in astonishment to the voice of a genuine and entirely new poet. What is interesting about Poplavsky is that he has severed all ties with Russian subject matter. He is the first émigré writer who lives not on memories of Russia, but in a foreign reality. This evolution is inevitable for the whole of the emigration. [D. S. Mirsky (Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky), in Eurasia (Evraziia), Paris, 5 January 1929.]

…Poplavsky’s pseudonaiveté and sleek imitation of the correctly grasped literary fashions. There is no point in mentioning Poplavsky’s name next to the names of Blok and Rimbaud (and yet this has been done by Weidlé and Adamovich and Mochulsky). The scribblings (pisaniia) of Mr. Poplavsky, whose critical articles are as deliberately insolent as his verse, would not even deserve mention were it not for the fact that these puerile and shrill scribblings found an echo in Georgy Adamovich. [Gleb Struve in Russia and Slavdom (Rossiia i slavianstvo), 11 May 1929; 11 October 1930.11].

Gleb Struve attacked Poplavsky’s work vehemently when it first appeared in print, and he remained Poplavsky’s most consistent critical opponent. The only other adverse response to Poplavsky’s literary beginnings in émigré criticism, Vladimir Nabokov’s review of Flags in Rul’ [The rudder]—which Nabokov subsequently repudiated—is far milder in both its tone and its conclusions. Although Nabokov took Poplavsky to task for his violations of meter, ungrammatical usages, and abuses of inappropriate colloquialisms, he ended the review with the admission that some of the poems in the collection “soared with genuine music.”

In his later history of Russian émigré literature, Professor Struve cites the highly favorable opinions of various important émigré writers and critics about Poplavsky’s poetry with exemplary scholarly objectivity; he even seems to see some promise in Poplavsky’s novels. But his ultimate judgment on Poplavsky can be summed up in this quote: “He was a gifted man and an interesting phenomenon, but he never became any kind of writer, no matter what his numerous admirers may say” (Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii, 313).

Exhibit G:

THE TRAGIC DEATH OF THE POET B. POPLAVSKY

The lower depths of Montparnasse have claimed the lives of two more young Russians. Under circumstances that are still being investigated, the poet Boris Poplavsky and nineteen-year-old Sergei Yarko, well known in certain shady cafés of boulevard du Montparnasse, died of narcotics poisoning.

ACCIDENT OR SUICIDE?

The police commissioner of the Maison Blanche quarter immediately initiated an investigation. At first, the possibility of a double suicide was not ruled out. But upon examination of the evidence, it became clear that the young men were the victims of a drug overdose. It is also possible that the drug, purchased on Montparnasse from nameless dealers, contained an admixture of some kind of poison.

Boris Poplavsky never thought of suicide. Sunday evening he visited Dmitry Merezhkovsky and discussed literature and politics with him. On Monday he was seen on Montparnasse. His parents, with whom he had a conversation several hours before his death, categorically reject the possibility of suicide. Their son was a victim of “white powder” vendors.

Apparently Poplavsky and Yarko had been addicts for a long time. In the poet’s wallet, his own photograph was found, bearing a revealing inscription: “If you are interested, I found a source of cocaine, etc. Reasonably priced: heroin 25 fr. a gram, cocaine—40 fr.” This was written in Poplavsky’s hand—apparently in some café, where he was not able to announce the news out loud to his friend.

NO FUNDS FOR BURIAL

At 4 p.m. yesterday, Poplavsky’s and Yarko’s bodies were taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine for autopsy. The funeral is planned within the next few days. But there are absolutely no funds available for Boris Poplavsky’s burial. His family is destitute. There is not a sou in the house. Boris Poplavsky’s parents are appealing to all his friends and to all generous people to help them pay for a coffin and a burial plot for the poet whose life ended so tragically. Donations may be sent to Latest News.

[Selected passages from the lengthy news story in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 11 October 1935].

Excerpts from “The Book of Blessings,” Poplavsky’s Unpublished Journal for 1929.

109. I need only those writers whom I can apply practically in my life, from whom I can learn a particular form of pride or pity and, of course, whom I can develop and alter in my own way. Chekhov teaches me to endure in a special way, not to surrender, to hope, for in Chekhov there is much that is Roman, there is much of “no matter what happens,” of quand même. With Dostoevsky one can be ill and die, separate and perish, but it is impossible to live with him. As for Tolstoi, with his ancient Hebraic family idylls, I find him repulsive. But Chekhov I hope to put to use, after first rendering him harmless. How? By expanding and developing his admiration for the perishing, beautiful failures, by cleansing him of his disgusting squeamishness and his dignified contempt, contempt for what has failed, what has perished, i.e., extending him in a Christian or, more correctly, specifically Orthodox direction.

110. Chekhov is the most [Russian] Orthodox of Russian writers or, more correctly, the only Orthodox Russian writer. For what is Russian Orthodoxy if not absolute forgiveness, the absolute refusal to condemn which we hear in the voice of Sonya and of the Little Priest of the Swamps? [I.e., Sonya from Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, and the elfin creature from Blok’s poem of that name, who prays with equal fervor “for the injured leg of a frog and for the Pope in Rome.”]

111. Blok is also an Orthodox poet, the poet of absolute pity, angry at nothing, condemning nothing….

115. It seems to me that the closest work we have to the spirit of the Prometheus of Aeschylus is Chekhov’s Ivanov. Let us note, en passant, that the Prometheus of Aeschylus is one of the most pretentious heroes in world literature. But then, is there anything more beautiful than heroic pretentiousness, for is not the perishing hero higher than the smugly successful hero? And is not the point of a perishing hero in his pretense at being a hero?

116. All my poetry is only the voice of Sonya, or at least I would like for all my poetry to be the voice of Sonya, consoling Uncle Vanya abandoned by everyone in the midst of the demolished estate….

123. Oh, how the lower strata of the émigrés are irritated and outraged by the sight of an impoverished and merry friend of books and stars, with his tattered pants and a monocle in his eye! It is their enormous, base yearning for power that is outraged within them. What! He dares to be joyous, that owner of worn-out shoes? Isn’t he in the same position as we? He has no money, no power, and he dares to be joyous. Where does he get his joy? Surely not from that bookish, intellectual stuff—the very thing that ruined Russia? From Culture and Social Conscience? Thus the poor people. And a huge disgust hangs suspended in perplexity from their curled lip, while the friend of the stars goes his own way in his worn-out shoes, waving his handsome athletic arms in the air as he recites poetry to his neighbor.

124. The attitude of the wealthy émigrés toward the friend of the stars is even more base. What! We’ve done our best, we’ve achieved, we’ve recovered our own, and this one dares to be joyous while the seat of his pants is in patches? What was the point of our struggle?

125. But the attitude of foreigners is delightful. It can be seen from their glances in the street, for in them there still survive the ancient, beautiful ideals, merry and profound, of ancient stoical poverty. There was once this delightful philosopher—Anaximenes of Dorcrete seems to have been his name—a fine athletic old man. Diodorus tells us that he was once invited to some ritzy party, by some tyrant or other. Coming to the table, he bared himself and beshat the company and the table, and with this excellent deed he indubitably deserved his immortality. His other works were forgotten, but compared to this they could not have been important.

Poplavsky Yesterday and Today

When I first read Flags, I had no idea of Poplavsky’s position in the Russian literary hierarchy. I had simply assumed that he was a poet as famous as Blok and Pasternak. I knew little about Russian poetry as a whole at the time, and there were many important modern poets I was yet to discover and read. It took me a few years to realize that apart from a small cult centered in Paris, almost no one had ever heard of his name. In the late 1940s my colleagues at the Control Council for Germany, Alain Bosquet and Edouard Roditi, were publishing a literary journal in Berlin. They asked me to write something about Russian poetry for it, “about somebody modern and famous, like Selvinsky or Bagritsky,” as Roditi put it. I had no idea who Selvinsky and Bagritsky were, but I offered to write about the three poets who had been my favorites during my school years in Los Angeles. They let me, and I wrote three brief pieces on Khlebnikov, Pasternak, and Poplavsky; these were translated into German and published in Das Lot in 1950, with a selection of translated poems by each of these poets. [S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 46–51].

The overindulgent accompanying note identified me as the author of “numerous articles published in American newspapers and magazines,” but apart from a few pieces in the college newspaper, this was actually my debut in print. I’m glad it had to do with Poplavsky and that I already then called him the most interesting poet produced by the Russian emigration between the two world wars.

By then I had already read his two posthumous collections of verse (they contain some astounding poems, but I found them on the whole a bit of a letdown after Flags); the published portions of his novels (Homeward from Heaven contains some of his finest lyrics, inserted between passages of prose and printed to look like prose); his paradoxical critical essays; the highly original short story “The Ball;” his pieces on painting and boxing.

When in 1965 Nikolai Tatishchev privately published a new volume of Poplavsky’s previously uncollected poems, Dirigible of Unknown Destination, my torch for the poet flared up again. The volume contained some of his most typical and most perfectly realized poems (“On the Frontier,” for instance, with its striking central metaphor of a poet as a customs official trying to stop the two-way smugglers’ traffic between the Land of Good and the Land of Evil; or “The Biography of a Clerk,” with its transposition of the humiliated clerk of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk into a Kafkaesque and surrealistic tonality).

I read a paper on Poplavsky’s surrealistic techniques at a scholarly gathering in Washington, D.C., and published it as an article in Slavic Review. A few graduate students purchased copies of the Dirigible as a result, but I knew that, with one or two exceptions, I had failed to convince my fellow Slavicists of the value of Poplavsky’s work. Just how badly I had failed was made clear to me by one of my most respected and discerning colleagues, who referred to him as a Parisian Vertinsky (a popular émigré nightclub singer) for the elect few.

Doing literary research in Europe in the fall of 1969, I made a point of seeking out and talking about Poplavsky with those who knew him or were his friends in an effort to reconstitute the reality of the man behind the poetry and the prose: the poets Alla Golovina and Sofiya Pregel; the painters Ida Karskaya (a marvelously warm and compassionate woman and a far more important painter than I had previously realized) and Constantine Terechkovitch; the critic Georgy Adamovich; the literary scholar Sophie Laffitte (née Glickman, later Sophie Stalinsky and Sophie Bonneau); and of course Poplavsky’s closest friend and the curator of his archive, Nikolai Tatishchev. All of them had observed Poplavsky at close range at one or another time in his life, all but the first two had poems dedicated to them in Flags, and all were willing to talk about him candidly and openly.

Some day I hope to transcribe these interviews in full, but for the moment I can say that their sum total has helped me to formulate the two sets of polarities that I feel primarily motivated and shaped Poplavsky’s literary art. The never-resolved dichotomy between poetry and painting is what accounts for the intensely visual nature of his imagery and much of his subject matter.

According to Terechkovitch, Poplavsky thought of himself during his first few years of exile not as a poet but as a painter. In 1922, Terechkovitch and Poplavsky traveled together to Berlin to study art. In Berlin, Poplavsky met the leading Soviet abstractionists as well as Chagall, Tchelitchew, and Chaim Soutine. But everyone, and particularly his teachers and colleagues, kept assuring him that he had no talent for painting. At first he tried to ignore their verdict. When he realized that they were right, the result was a total nervous breakdown that kept him bedridden for several weeks. Not only his highly personal articles on art exhibitions and painters, which appeared later in the journal Numbers (Chisla), but much of his prose and poetry testify to his never-ending yearning for mastery of the visual arts. His literary development reflects not so much the development of Russian émigré poetry as the evolution of the Paris schools of painting in the late 1920s and early 1930s—especially those of the Surrealists and the neo-Romantics.

The other central polarity has to do with his insatiable hunger for mystical experience (any kind of mysticism) and drug experience (any kind of drugs). It was his sister Natasha, that “dazzlingly educated and talented girl” his father wrote about, who introduced Boris to drugs by the time he was twelve. Her search for the ultimate high eventually took her to Madagascar, to Africa, to India, and finally to Shanghai, where she died in the late 1920s—of pneumonia, according to her father’s biography of Boris, but of a hopeless opium addiction according to everyone else.

Drugs remained a constant presence in Poplavsky’s life, both in Berlin and in Paris, and they (rather than imitation of his idol Rimbaud) account for the psychedelic swirling of images and the vivid, violent colors so typical of his verse. There are vast riches of authentic psychedelia to be mined in twentieth-century Russian poetry—Balmont and Khlebnikov are the names that come to mind most easily—but no one in the Russian tradition exploited the openings to other realities that drugs afford as systematically as did Poplavsky in the service of his poetry. There was, unfortunately, no LSD or mescaline to be had in those days, and he had to do it the hard way. (A tremendous stimulus for writing much of Flags came when his friend, the minor poet Boris Zakovich, the “Pusya” of Poplavsky’s journals, inherited a large supply of pain-killers and mind expanders from his dentist father.)

Those who are capable of appreciating the unique kind of beauty Poplavsky was thus able to glimpse and convey are the beneficiaries. Poplavsky’s religious quest was as intense as it was eclectic. A devout and loyal member of the Russian Orthodox Church (as his journals leave no doubt), he was powerfully drawn to Roman Catholic rite and lore, to Hindu mystics, to freemasonry, and to various forms of spiritualism.

One of the most intense experiences of his life, according to Tatishchev, occurred in 1918, when he met Jiddu Krishnamurti, the philosophical and spiritual teacher, who took his hand and addressed a few words in English to him. Poplavsky understood no English, but he was moved to tears. In Berlin he had several discussions about anthroposophy with Andrei Bely. (His mother and aunt were close to Moscow anthroposophic circles.)

Boris Poplavsky was loved by a number of exceptional and brilliant women in his day, but the central relationship of his life, its keynote, was what he himself called his love affair with God (roman s Bogom). This affair is the subject of many poems in Snowy Hour; it is basic to his novels, and it is vividly reflected in the portions of his diaries which his friends Dina Shraibman and Nikolai Tatishchev published after his death. It was also discussed in print by no less a thinker than Nikolai Berdyaev in his puzzled, perplexed, and not entirely sympathetic review of Poplavsky’s journals [In Sovremennye zapiski Contemporary annals, no. 68 (1939)]. I’ll venture to say, with all due respect, that the celebrated philosopher simply failed to grasp the point of Poplavsky’s mysticism. Like art, like drugs, mysticism was for Poplavsky both a way of expanding his personal vision and a means of transforming unbearable social reality.

Poplavsky’s lecture on Marcel Proust and James Joyce (he is the only Russian writer I can think of besides Vladimir Nabokov who responded creatively to Ulysses), of which I have the outline, concludes with a surprising prediction of impending social revolution in Western Europe, which would combine social, sexual, and personal-mystical elements. For Poplavsky, the reason the Soviet experiment turned Russia into a “vast, barbarous, snow-clad field” was that in its attempt to build a better society it suppressed the human spirit and its most precious manifestations. This was well understood by Poplavsky’s friends Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky; yet one can easily imagine the shock that this conclusion of the Proust-Joyce lecture occasioned among the émigré audience when Poplavsky delivered it at the Kochevie Club on 22 October 1931.

Poplavsky’s career in the world of émigré letters was brief and meteoric. Only six years separate his literary debut from his death. During that time he impressed some of the most important older writers-in-exile (Merezhkovsky, Khodasevich, Georgy Ivanov) and was acclaimed by the finest émigré critics (Mirsky, Mochulsky, Adamovich, Weidlé). He must have made an enormous impression on the émigré writers of his own age group, for he looms as a momentous presence in the subsequently written autobiographies and memoirs of Nina Berberova [The Italics Are Mine (New York, 1969)]; Yury Terapiano [Vstrechi [Encounters] (New York, 1953)]; Vladimir Varshavsky [Nezamechennoe pokolenie-The unnoticed generation (New York, 1956)]; and V. S. Yanovsky [“Eliseiskie polia” [Les Champs-Élysées], an excerpt from his memoirs, in Vozdushnye puti: Al’manakh [Aerial ways: An anthology], vol. 5 (New York, 1967), 175–200].

Vladimir Nabokov on two occasions singled out Poplavsky as the only poet of importance among the younger émigrés.20 At Poplavsky’s funeral, homage was paid to him by such diverse figures as Mark Aldanov, Aleksei Remizov, and Vladislav Khodasevich, whose eloquent obituary of Poplavsky was later reprinted in a collection of his critical essays [V. Khodasevich, “O smerti Poplavskogo” [On Poplavsky’s death], in Literaturnye stat’i i vospominaniia [Literary essays and memoirs] (New York, 1954)].

And yet, if we were to take a count, there would probably be fewer people in the world today who are aware of Poplavsky’s existence than there were in 1935. I am convinced that Boris Poplavsky has his readers somewhere. But where? Russians, either abroad or in the Soviet Union, don’t seem to want to read him. When Olga Carlisle included Denise Levertov’s fine translation of his poem, “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” in her book Poets on Streetcorners, the Moscow Literary Gazette took her to task for including this “tramp of whom no one has heard” among the other fine Russian poets in her anthology.

Publication of a few excerpts from The Apocalypse of Therese in George [Yury] Ivask’s Russian literary journal Experiments (Opyty) in the late 1950s was met with similar scorn by Russian newspapers in Paris and New York.

I tried submitting several of his unpublished poems and a highly interesting essay on Russian painting (which I obtained from Nikolai Tatishchev and which Jean-Claude Marcadé carefully annotated) to the New York Russian literary journal Novyi zhurnal. Two of the poems were published, with distorting “corrections” by the editor, while the remainder of them and the article were rejected after a two-year wait. [An English translation (by Peter Lawless) of Poplavsky’s article about the Berlin Exhibition of 1922 was eventually published: “The Notes of Boris Poplavsky,” intro. by Simon Karlinsky, annotations by Jean-Claude Marcadé, Art International 18 (1974): 62–65].

In a personal letter to me, the editor of Novyi zhurnal, Roman Goul, wrote that Poplavsky was “an utter madman” and proudly recalled how he and a group of friends once threw Poplavsky out of a Berlin beer hall.

And yet, as Vladimir Nabokov put it when I informed him of my interest in Poplavsky: “Yes, write something about him. He was, after all, the first hippy, the original flower child.” This might simplify things a bit, but it is not wrong. [His involvements with drugs and Hindu mystics are two of the more striking ways in which Poplavsky seems to foreshadow the hip culture, but that is by no means all. He dressed unconventionally, was never without a pair of dark glasses, thought bathing unnecessary, and would wear the same shirt for weeks on end. His favorite music was by Bach, Scriabin, and Stravinsky. A beard and long hair are the only ingredients that were missing, but that tonsorial style was inextricably connected with the priestly caste in Russian culture. There clearly would have been no point in Poplavsky’s trying to pass for an Orthodox priest.]

During the past few years young Slavic scholars in the West, those in their early twenties, have been repeatedly taking to Poplavsky like the proverbial duck to water. I’ve read with pleasure the intelligent papers Olga Bazanoff and Mike Hathaway wrote about him for Vsevolod Setchkarev’s seminar on émigré literature at Harvard, and Hélène Paschutinsky’s first-rate MA thesis on Poplavsky’s imagery, written under Sophie Laffitte’s direction at the Sorbonne. I am excited about Anthony Olcott’s Stanford thesis.

[Particularly impressive is Mlle Paschutinsky’s demonstration of the central function of the states of flying, floating, and levitation in Poplavsky’s poetry, and of his systematic use of objects and beings capable of these states: fish, ships, dirigibles, balloons, submarines, interplanetary rockets, clouds, comets, and angels, as well as the role of Poplavsky’s ubiquitous bridges, balconies, and towers, functioning as steppingstones to flight and levitation. The resultant antithesis of lightness and heaviness is then used by Mlle Paschutinsky to construct a highly convincing and logical system that provides us with a key not only to Poplavsky’s imagery, but also to the whole of his complex metaphysics. Should Poplavsky’s poetry ever gain the wide readership it so very much deserves, Hélène Paschutinsky’s study will certainly be a fundamental source on this poet.

[In subsequent years Paschutinsky, under the name of Elena Menegaldo, published widely on Poplavsky. See, for example, her important edition of Boris Poplavskii, Neizdannoe: dnevniki, stat’i, stikhi, pis’ma, ed. A. Bogoslovskii and E. Menegal’do (Moscow: Khristianskoe izd-vo, 1996), and subsequent editions of Poplavsky’s collected works. See also Dmitrii Tokarev, “Mezhdu Indiei i Gegelem” (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011)].

Perhaps Poplavsky was an émigré in more senses than one. Caught between cultures, he was also trapped in the wrong historical period. Many young non-Russians today should have no trouble identifying with him and seeing him as one of themselves. As Emmett Jarrett and Dick Lourie wrote,25 when I sent them some trots of his poetry for translation: “He’s dynamite…”

How to detonate him?


It is of interest to read Karlinsky’s early publication—dating from 1950—which was written as an introduction to a German translation of three of Poplavsky’s lyrics:

Boris Poplavsky’s name is completely unknown in his own country. Poplavsky was perhaps the most gifted representative of a generation of Russian émigré poets who were born in Russia but whose literary activity between the two wars took place everywhere: from Warsaw to Addis Ababa. Poplavsky spent his short life (1903–35) mostly in Paris. His literary reputation was based on a small volume of poems with the title Flags. This book was published in Paris and Tallinn in 1931.

After his death, a collection of poems with the title In a Wreath of Wax, a short novel (Homeward from Heaven), and Diaries were found among his papers. A selection of these works was published by Poplavsky’s friends. In Diaries, Poplavsky gives a detailed description of his poetic method. In this context, Poplavsky quotes an old Hindu poem in which an unknown poet is not satisfied with the sentence “The tree of my life yearns on a hill;” a few lines later the same poet gives a modified version of the same sentence: “The blue tree of my life yearns on a hill.” As Poplavsky noted, the color blue is added to express the intangible.

Nowadays Poplavsky’s poetic method seems to be similar to French Surrealism, and Diaries shows that he had studied and admired the writings of André Breton. When reading Poplavsky’s poems one is reminded of surrealistic paintings.

[Translated by Joachim Klein, from S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 50].


Simon Karlinsky (1924–2009) was a prolific scholar of modern Russian literature who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, from 1964 to 1991. This memoir is an excerpt from Freedom From Violence and Lies, a collection of Karlinsky’s essays.


Featured: Boris Poplavsky, at KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, Department Store of the West), Berlin, 1922.

Francis Thompson: Three Poems

Francis Thompson (1859–1907) was an English poet and Catholic mystic whose work outlines the numinous basis of reality. His work has been neglected of late and needs to be more widely read. The selection that follows is from a collection entitled, Poems, which was published in 1909.


Before Her Portrait in Youth

As lovers, banished from their lady’s face
      And hopeless of her grace,
Fashion a ghostly sweetness in its place,
      Fondly adore
Some stealth-won cast attire she wore,
      A kerchief or a glove:
      And at the lover’s beck
   Into the glove there fleets the hand,
   Or at impetuous command
Up from the kerchief floats the virgin neck:
So I, in very lowlihead of love,—
      Too shyly reverencing
   To let one thought’s light footfall smooth
Tread near the living, consecrated thing,—
   Treasure me thy cast youth.
This outworn vesture, tenantless of thee,
      Hath yet my knee,
   For that, with show and semblance fair
      Of the past Her
Who once the beautiful, discarded raiment bare,
      It cheateth me.
   As gale to gale drifts breath
   Of blossoms’ death,
p. 4So dropping down the years from hour to hour
   This dead youth’s scent is wafted me to-day:
I sit, and from the fragrance dream the flower.
      So, then, she looked (I say);
      And so her front sunk down
Heavy beneath the poet’s iron crown:
      On her mouth museful sweet—
      (Even as the twin lips meet)
      Did thought and sadness greet:
         Sighs
      In those mournful eyes
   So put on visibilities;
As viewless ether turns, in deep on deep, to dyes.
      Thus, long ago,
She kept her meditative paces slow
Through maiden meads, with wavèd shadow and gleam
Of locks half-lifted on the winds of dream,
Till love up-caught her to his chariot’s glow.
Yet, voluntary, happier Proserpine!
      This drooping flower of youth thou lettest fall
      I, faring in the cockshut-light, astray,
         Find on my ’lated way,
      And stoop, and gather for memorial,
And lay it on my bosom, and make it mine.
To this, the all of love the stars allow me,
      I dedicate and vow me.
      I reach back through the days
A trothed hand to the dead the last trump shall not raise.
      The water-wraith that cries
From those eternal sorrows of thy pictured eyes
Entwines and draws me down their soundless intricacies!

“Manus animam pinxit”

Lady who hold’st on me dominion!
Within your spirit’s arms I stay me fast
      Against the fell
Immitigate ravening of the gates of hell;
And claim my right in you, most hardly won,
Of chaste fidelity upon the chaste:
Hold me and hold by me, lest both should fall
(O in high escalade high companion!)
Even in the breach of Heaven’s assaulted wall.
Like to a wind-sown sapling grow I from
The clift, Sweet, of your skyward-jetting soul,—
Shook by all gusts that sweep it, overcome
By all its clouds incumbent: O be true
To your soul, dearest, as my life to you!
For if that soil grow sterile, then the whole
Of me must shrivel, from the topmost shoot
Of climbing poesy, and my life, killed through,
Dry down and perish to the foodless root.

Sweet Summer! unto you this swallow drew,
By secret instincts inappeasable,
      That did direct him well,
p. 9Lured from his gelid North which wrought him wrong,
      Wintered of sunning song;—
By happy instincts inappeasable,
      Ah yes! that led him well,
Lured to the untried regions and the new
      Climes of auspicious you;
To twitter there, and in his singing dwell.
      But ah! if you, my Summer, should grow waste,
      With grieving skies o’ercast,
For such migration my poor wing was strong
But once; it has no power to fare again
      Forth o’er the heads of men,
Nor other Summers for its Sanctuary:
      But from your mind’s chilled sky
It needs must drop, and lie with stiffened wings
      Among your soul’s forlornest things;
A speck upon your memory, alack!
A dead fly in a dusty window-crack.

         O therefore you who are
      What words, being to such mysteries
      As raiment to the body is,
         Should rather hide than tell;
      Chaste and intelligential love:
         Whose form is as a grove
Hushed with the cooing of an unseen dove;
Whose spirit to my touch thrills purer far
Than is the tingling of a silver bell;
Whose body other ladies well might bear
As soul,—yea, which it profanation were
p. 10For all but you to take as fleshly woof,
      Being spirit truest proof;
Whose spirit sure is lineal to that
      Which sang Magnificat:
         Chastest, since such you are,
         Take this curbed spirit of mine,
Which your own eyes invest with light divine,
For lofty love and high auxiliar
         In daily exalt emprise
         Which outsoars mortal eyes;
      This soul which on your soul is laid,
      As maid’s breast against breast of maid;
Beholding how your own I have engraved
On it, and with what purging thoughts have laved
This love of mine from all mortality
Indeed the copy is a painful one,
         And with long labour done!
O if you doubt the thing you are, lady,
         Come then, and look in me;
Your beauty, Dian, dress and contemplate
Within a pool to Dian consecrate!
Unveil this spirit, lady, when you will,
For unto all but you ’tis veilèd still:
Unveil, and fearless gaze there, you alone,
And if you love the image—’tis your own!

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The Hound of Heaven

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
   I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
   Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
               Up vistaed hopes, I sped;
               And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
   From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
               But with unhurrying chase,
               And unperturbéd pace,
      Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
               They beat—and a Voice beat
               More instant than the Feet—
      “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

               I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
   Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followéd,
               p. 49Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside)
But, if one little casement parted wide,
   The gust of His approach would clash it to
   Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,
   And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
   Smiting for shelter on their changèd bars;
               Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to dawn: Be sudden—to eve: Be soon;
   With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
               From this tremendous Lover!
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
   I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
   Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
   Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
         But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
      The long savannahs of the blue;
               Or whether, Thunder-driven,
         They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
   Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
         Still with unhurrying chase,
         And unperturbèd pace,
   Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
            p. 50Came on the following Feet,
            And a Voice above their beat—
      “Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.”

I sought no more that, after which I strayed,
      In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
      Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
      With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
“Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me” (said I) “your delicate fellowship;
      Let me greet you lip to lip,
      Let me twine with you caresses,
            Wantoning
      With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
            Banqueting
      With her in her wind-walled palace,
      Underneath her azured daïs,
      Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
            From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.”
            So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
      I knew all the swift importings
      On the wilful face of skies;
      p. 51I knew how the clouds arise
      Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
            All that’s born or dies
      Rose and drooped with—made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine—
      With them joyed and was bereaven.
      I was heavy with the even,
      When she lit her glimmering tapers
      Round the day’s dead sanctities.
      I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
      Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
            I laid my own to beat,
            And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
      These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
      Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
      The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
               My thirsting mouth.
               Nigh and nigh draws the chase,
               With unperturbèd pace,
      Deliberate speed majestic instancy
               p. 52And past those noisèd Feet
               A voice comes yet more fleet—
   “Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me.”

Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
               And smitten me to my knee;
      I am defenceless utterly,
      I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
      I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
      Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
      Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
      Ah! must—
      Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?
p. 53My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
      From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
      Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity,
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again;
      But not ere him who summoneth
      I first have seen, enwound
With grooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
      Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
      Be dunged with rotten death?
            Now of that long pursuit
            Comes on at hand the bruit;
      That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
            “And is thy earth so marred,
            Shattered in shard on shard?
      Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

      “Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said),
“And human love needs human meriting:
      p. 54How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
      Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
      Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
      Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
      All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
      Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

            Halts by me that footfall:
            Is my gloom, after all,
      Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
            “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
            I am He Whom thou seekest!
      Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”


Featured: “The Mystical Flower,” by Tintoretto; painted ca. 1588.

The Poet’s Eye

I really enjoy reading Plato. I am always struck by the significance of Plato’s allegory of the cave. We are all bound by convention to some extent and influenced by our surroundings. Perhaps any attempt to find enlightenment, whatever one perceives that to be, will require us to venture outside of our own caves. The poem was written in December 2012.

The Cave

      I too was in a dream and sound asleep,
      A dweller in a cave of common themes,
Where shadows were the subject of our dreams,
      They danced behind the fires in the dark,
      The flickers of some odd reality,
Which never seemed to make much sense to me.
I took my place among those in their trance,
I spent my days discussing what was right,
      But as I ventured closer to the light,
Inconstantly, our sunlight seemed to dance
      And dislocate our dreary day without
A dawn, thus spawn the nature of my doubt.
I searched within the confines of my mind,
      And found such places I had never been,
I weighed the chains that I had never seen,
      Then realized I’d never looked behind,
Or even thought that I was so restrained
By convention, where I’d willingly remained.
      Breaking the bonds of slumber I awoke,
And left those souls that I could never save,
      I left them groping in the gloomy cave.
Outside I met the Sun and thus I spoke:
      “Great star! Your happiness can truly be
      To bless the dawn by shining forth for me!”

I find the sonnet form to provide just enough room to neatly encompass an idea from beginning to end. We all have our psychological mountains to climb. Moreover, the pursuit of anything worthwhile is often a steep ascent with its perils and pitfalls along the way. For me the poem is about the pursuit of truth, amid the doubts and uncertainties that exist. It is also about facing unresolved issues and even poetry composition. However, my hope is that it may resonate in different ways, depending on the readers and the challenges they face when achieving their own goals. The poem was written in February 2022.

Summit

      I have to climb the mountains in my mind;
      I stem the sole and cling to what I know;
When on the edge and feeling so inclined,
      I lose my grip the higher up I go.
      I can’t look down, so focus on a lie,
And grapple with the cliff I have to face,
      To jam oneself within and wonder why
My heart it seems has never left the base.
The summit looms but seems so far away
      And out of reach, and I am at a loss
      To know if I can make it all the way,
When scrambling through the chaos and the choss.
      But at the top I reach the mountain peak,
      The heights, and all the answers that I seek.


Jonathan Lester has been writing poetry since 2000. He was born in Australia. His parents returned to England when he was young. Jonathan studied philosophy at university and continues to study history and philosophy. He is passionate about classical and baroque music. Jonathan is married with two young children.


Featured image: “The Devil’s Bridge, St Gotthard Pass,” by J. M. W. Turner, ca. 1803-1804.

Three Sonnets in Ordinary Time


News of the World

Even in wartime, what is deeply true
is said in a low voice, the placid voice
of a high tree cut down a hundred times
and growing back again among the noise
each time until it looks like something new;
always appealing in that field of crimes,
by modesty aloof from schemes and ploys.
But chainsaws do what they are made to do
in case the tree be fruitful as it climbs.
And we who keep a watch in dust and dew,
and tie our ribbons like the soul’s bright toys
to branches crossed one time, then many times
—we keep our ears primed for a placid voice
still sounding as a murmur out of view.

Grace

Nobody was quite sure what had gone on.
Some even said nothing occurred at all.
No tremor ran along the skin or wall.
But some new shade was visible when dawn
drew open curtains on the brightening sky
—was visible to some at least, not all.
It changed the light and shaped the view, but why
only the short could see it, not the tall,
and the farther off you were the clearer eye
you brought to making out the great from small
– this couldn’t be explained by seer or spy:
no-one could tell what force had quivered by,
that made the light, for some, pierce fog and wall,
while others saw no difference at all.

In this Together

You shuffle through the hedges, little wren,
not bothering about the greater good;
just minding your own business, even when
you know the hawk is in the neighbourhood,
taut and motionless in his high station.
You keep one eye up there, the other down
(whence your air of restless agitation)
for bits to pick up on your quick-eyed rounds.

The hawk too has to hedge his concentration
against the perils of peregrination.
The high binds with the low in tight suspension
so that they both won’t perish if it loosen.
It seems we have to live and die in tension
or otherwise just die in dissolution.


Murchadh Seosamh is a retired Irish lawyer, having practised in a senior corporate position in the energy sector (under the English-language rendition of his name). He is preparing a collection of poems for publication in 2023.


Featured image: “Tree Stump and Bird,” by Neil Adamson; painted late 20th century.

Mona Vale, Flower-Lulled

Mona Vale—who sounds like a lovely girl—is in fact an Edwardian homestead, in the garden city of Christchurch, New Zealand.

A man of many parts, Dr. Stocker does voluntary gardening there one day a week. Justly proud of his achievements, he was inspired to write this ode to the Christchurch ladies in his life. The response was rapt. Indeed, one or two of them felt that the poem was universal in its appeal, while the editors here readily admit brushing away a collective tear upon reading it. Hence its appearance in this little magazine…

A Mona Vale Ode

In Mona’s gardens, on your stroll
Yesterday, your eyes would roll
At all those horrid, torrid weeds;
“Mona Vale? It’s gone to seeds!”
You would angrily exclaim;
Fair enough, you’re not to blame.

But on this morn, with all my might,
I vowed I’d put the garden right,
Wearing my erotic Uggs,
I filled a myriad of trugs
With weeds that just had bit the dust…

So, ladies, now you’ll take delight,
Clad in muslin frocks (washed white)
As you saunter past the roses
(Avoiding all those sprinkler hoses)…
And I vouch that you will say,
“This garden makes a maiden gay,”
And, rapt with my devoted toil:
“Bless the dear, he’s fluffed the soil!”

Dr. Stocker’s muslin-dressed lady love, tiring of his sweet nothings, told him, “Go jump in the pond!” The poet was at a loss for words… [Photo Credit: Professor Michael Dunn.]

Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.

W.B. Yeats and Tradition

The French traditionalist philosopher René Guénon wrote in his Crisis of the Modern World that the craving for the material is an inherent feature of modern Western civilization. The need for endless activity, the pursuit of the material, the desire to keep up with the accelerating rhythm of everyday life have replaced tradition; that is, the awareness of human life through a higher principle that goes beyond the material understanding of life. The philosophy of rationalism, empiricism, and positivism, on which the modern understanding of things rests, recognizes only knowledge gained by contact with matter, and religion and metaphysics as “obsolete” worldviews that have no place in a world of nonstop progress.

Philosophy that emerges in the modern age inverts man’s understanding of life, literally from top to bottom. If in primordial (i.e., traditional, according to Guénon) society and then in Christian (medieval) society the vertical model of awareness of reality prevailed—God is the Absolute, who orders life on earth—then, starting in the 17th century, man becomes the measure of all things, and he defines existence for himself. In the new, materialistic world, truth does not lie in a higher principle, but is the result of the thinking of the individual person. Society, philosophy, and politics are not built according to “God’s will,” but according to human thinking.

In this context, Nietzsche’s words become clear: “God is dead. And we killed him.” This means that the modern philosophical paradigm has put in the place of God—the Antichrist, embodied in the unstoppable pursuit of progress and the immutability of material values of Western European civilization, which carried out a rebellion against God.

In the nineteenth century, when Nietzsche lived, the intensification of industrialization and the flowering of capitalism led to an even greater dependence on money and a rejection of traditional values. The expansion of cities and total resettlement severed the of families to their homeland, leading to a loss of intergenerational understanding. Along with the dominance of money came economic doctrines: free trade and Marxism, according to which economic relations are the fundamental principle of building society; and culture, religion and even politics are secondary elements. The new belief in the materialistic sciences began to prevail over the belief in God. The will to accumulate monetary wealth overcame the will to be spiritual.

In the early twentieth century, the conservative philosopher Oswald Spengler, in his voluminous work The Decline of West, expressed the idea that Western civilization had entered its last cycle. He understood the crisis of the Western world as the problem of civilization, which is the final stage in the development of culture. “Civilizations are the most extreme and most artificial states to which only man of the highest kind is capable.” Thus, Spengler declared that Western culture has disappeared qualitatively and had reincarnated into a civilization that rests on the power of materialism and progress.

It can be said that the three above-mentioned philosophers—Nietzsche, Guénon and Spengler—articulated the state of decline of their modern world, which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was artistically felt by many writers and poets. Some members of the creative intelligentsia responded sharply to the challenges of the material world; in their work, they not only spoke caustically about the problems of the new world order, but also called for a return to the deep roots of tradition.

One of the poets who “rebelled” against the modern world was the leader of the Irish literary revival, W. B. Yeats. In many ways his creative path was shaped by his interest in mysticism and esotericism and his refusal to accept material temptations as the basis of life.

Yeats was born in 1865, at a time when Ireland was sharply contrasting its metaphysical, popular spirit with the imperial and colonial ambitions of England, which was expanding its presence in many parts of the world. The imperative of modernity, industrial revolution and progress, imposed by England, was alien to “a society dominated by Celtic archaicism.” Against this background, a particular Irish way began to develop assertively, which combined folk identity and the Celtic spirit, created not by artificial simulacra of modernity, but taking its origin in the traditions and legends of old Ireland.

Thus, from an early age, Yeats moved in the circles of writers and artists who introduced him to the ancient Irish myths and instilled in him a love of his Celtic roots. The future poet became aware early on of his soil-based identity, which eventually became a defining factor in his later work. At the age of 20, Yeats was no longer shy about identifying himself with soil-oriented movements. The young writer joined the “Young Ireland” movement, and then in his poetry there appeared a national motif, expressed in praise of Irish rebellion and a negative attitude, above all, to modern England.

Young Ireland’s Sovereignism was based on a hatred of British utilitarianism and a desire for global subjugation of the indigenous peoples of other countries. Political and cultural liberation from the dictates of England was seen as setting the stage for a deeper transformation of Irish society and the end of the cycle of decline. It is important to note that for Yeats the revolt against British colonialism was based not on the enthusiastic possibility of building a “nation-state,” which is also a bourgeois construct, but primarily on the principles of Irish cultural revival, based on its mythology, history and Tradition.

His understanding of the historical context and cultural decline of Ireland motivated him to write, for example, such a poem as “The Curse of Cromwell.” Oliver Cromwell’s revolution, as well as subsequent revolutions in Europe (and Russia), marked the triumph of materialism over spirit and tradition. Modern English society was founded on a puritanical money ethic that spread to other parts of the world as well. This was unacceptable to Yeats and his circle. They believed that a small, soil-based and anti-bourgeois Ireland should stand up to the Protestant and capitalist sedition that had spread its stench across Europe:

You ask what—I have found, and far and wide I go:
Nothing but Cromwell’s house and Cromwell’s murderous crew,
The lovers and the dancers are beaten into the clay,
And the tall men and the swordsmen and the horsemen, where are they?
And there is an old beggar wandering in his pride—
His fathers served their fathers before Christ was crucified.
O what of that, O what of that,
What is there left to say?

This is how the poet conveys his idea that English modern society, which has established its materialistic one-man rule, has destroyed the tradition and “chivalrous” spirit of old England. There were no more people of noble tradition, no more “high men;” the old-time cheerfulness of the peasant village, the squire’s manor and the aristocrat’s estate were destroyed.

In many ways, of course, Yeats’s soil and traditionalism stemmed from the poet’s interest in religion. As a teenager, he sensed that poetry and artistic culture in general were fueled by signs, symbols, and a strange magical mystery that had no place in the material world. But the soulless scientific materialism of the nineteenth century—the Darwinist theory of human evolution, the discovery by scientists of the age of the earth, etc.—deadened belief in the divine, as well as ancient knowledge in alchemy, the mysteries of numbers, and metaphysics.

Yeats saw that official Christianity—Irish Catholicism and English Protestantism—were driven into the conventions of the new materialist era. He rejected Protestantism as totally unorthodox and alien. His contemporary Catholicism also had nothing in common with the sacraments, rites and Christian mysticism. Insisting on intuitive spiritual truths inaccessible to the philistine worldview, he set out in search of a secret, symbolically expressed wisdom which he thought might be common to the world’s various orthodox and unorthodox religious traditions.

It is telling that Yeats’ understanding of the foundations of Christianity and any religion is similar to that of traditionalist philosophers, such as René Guénon. For Guénon, the fact of being introduced to Tradition is important; he points out that Tradition (the philosopher intentionally capitalizes this word) is a special reality, a special language, which is opposed to the reality of the modern world. Guénon structured a “skeleton” of Tradition that precedes “the formulation of a particular Tradition in its historically fixable incarnation.” In other words, there is one truth that is embodied differently in one particular tradition or another.

An interest in Tradition with a capital letter led Yeats to a fascination with mystical movements and organizations practicing hermeticism and studying the sacred sciences. In 1897, Yates moved to London and joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which was a major influence in the revival of interest in metaphysics in England.

Yeats saw in the metaphysical and the spiritual a basic unity for all manifestations of culture and Tradition, which was embodied in the magical original: “I believe in the practice and philosophy of what we have agreed to call magic, in what I must call the evocation of spirits, though I do not know what they are, in the power of creating magical illusions, in the visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed.”

Human wisdom, divine revelation, and truth exist in all people of Tradition simultaneously, flowing from one mind into another, and revealed in one mind, in one energy. Let us compare this with what Guénon wrote: “In traditional civilization, it is almost impossible for a person to attribute an idea exclusively to himself… If an idea is true, it belongs to all who are able to comprehend it… A true idea cannot be ‘new,’ since truth is not a product of the human mind.”

Guénon was born 20 years after Yeats, but they worked and wrote around the same time. There is no evidence that Yeats was acquainted with the writings of Guénon , but it is surprising that two men who lived in different parts of the world—Yeats in England and Ireland, Gaenon (mostly) in Egypt—discovered the same truth of Tradition.

Guénon devoted part of his life to the study of the Hindu tradition. And it is significant that Yeats also studied Hindu philosophy with the theosophist Mohini Chatterjee, and joined the Theosophical Society in 1895. However, after the formation of the Irish Hermetic Order, the poet decided to devote himself to the study of the spiritual basis of Celtic culture and mythology, as a devoted son of his fatherland.

In 1931, no longer a young man, he met the Hindu preacher Sri Purohit Swami and again immersed himself in Hinduism. This second period of interest in Hindu mysticism replaced the romantic fascination of the early period with a much more active personal quest, accompanied by public apologetics for Eastern esotericism. Thus, despite his individual artistic path, Yeats had many points of contact with the founder of the philosophy of traditionalism and the chief critic of the modern world, René Guénon.

It should be noted that Yeats’s interest in Hinduism was more a strongly orientalized version of traditionalism rather than a complete immersion in the Hindu tradition, because his knowledge was gained at a considerable distance from India. Yeats’s study of Celtic archaicism, Hindu mysticism, or metaphysics are manifestations of a common truth that is revealed through the study of either tradition or religion.

Traditionalism opened to the poet a special understanding of the world and a vision of things. Yeats was characterized by a cyclical vision of history. In accordance with the Celtic tradition, he believed that “a complete cycle takes place within two millennia, and on this basis he linked the new stage of Irish liberation and rebirth with the more global processes—the end of the old aeon and the beginning of the new.” The philosopher Alexander Dugin uses the word “aeon” here not by chance—the cycles of time are characteristic of both European traditions and Hindu cosmology (where the term is taken from).

Guénon, describing Hindu teachings, claimed that the human cycle is divided into four epochs, during which primordial spirituality becomes more and more obscured. Currently, humanity is at the darkest point of the last cycle, Kali Yuga. And we have been in the “Dark Age” for six millennia; that is, since time older than known to history. According to Hindu doctrine, the end of the cycle will prove to be the beginning of a new cycle, when primordial Tradition will once again become true for all.

The cyclicality described in Hindu cosmology has common features with Christian eschatology described in the Revelation of John the Evangelist—the end of the world will come when the Antichrist will be born on earth and the wrath of God will fall on humanity.

After that Jesus Christ will appear and establish His kingdom forever. The Apostolic interpretation of the end of the world has the same structure as any Tradition—the end of the old, dark world and the beginning of the new world of light.

The theme of the Apocalypse is vividly reflected in Yeats’s poem, “The Second Coming.” In it, the poet combines all the major themes of his work—the decline of Western European culture (“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”), the loss of its spiritual core (“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”), the appeal to the mystical World Soul (“Spiritus Mundi”), the antagonism between the kingdom of the Antichrist, the world of modernity, and the Kingdom of Christ, the world of Tradition (“The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity”).

It is quite clear that the poet prophesies the appearance of a certain eschatological monster that will emerge from the chaos of the modern world, with its craving for the material, the denial of traditional values and the absolute of destructive progress:

That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It is interesting that in his poetry (as seen in this example) Yeats uses modernist literary devices, such as allusions to literary monuments and biblical motifs to describe modernity. The modernist techniques in Yeats’s work are symptomatic, but he can be classified as a modernist only in form, not in content. “Yeats was immersed in modernity only in part—to the extent of his engagement with English culture and English society… but at the same time his cultural identity was rooted in the traditional society that prevailed in Ireland until very recently.”

Recall also that the cyclical nature of the times—from dark to light and from light to dark—is found in Spengler: “Birth contains death, youth contains old age, life as such contains its image and its predetermined limits of duration. Modernity is a civilized and not at all a civilized age.” However, this “Spenglerian” (and at the same time ” Guénonian”) theme in Yeats’s poem takes into account not only the demise of civilization, but also the time cycle, where a new king (Jesus Christ) emerges from a decadent era to begin the rebirth of culture.

Like Spengler and Guénon, Yeats saw meaning and hope in emerging “hermetic” societies, as well as right-wing movements that promised to revive the world of Tradition and oppose their politics to the unstoppable machine of progress and money. The poet’s entire oeuvre is permeated with warnings about the perniciousness of modernity and the banality of the material world. Ultimately, though, Yeats, like any traditionalist, anticipated that the crisis of the modern world would inevitably lead to the final destruction of civilization, and he was prepared for the coming of the Antichrist so that he could subsequently cross the threshold and find himself in a new cycle of a renewed world. This belief did not leave him until the end of his creative journey, even when there were hardly any like-minded people left. Hence Yeats was honorably called “the last knight of Tradition” in the Irish literary canon.


Pavel Kiselev is a Russian literary critic. His work appears in Katehon, to whose generous courtesy we owe this essay.


Featured image: Portrait of William Butler Yeats, by Sarah Purser; painted in June 1898.

Fun in May: Poetry and Hilarity

No doubt, in common with other Postil Magazine contributors, I get sacks of fan mail from grateful and admiring readers. One particular epistle deeply moved me. It read thus:

Dear Dr Stocker,

I am a 6th former at an exclusive private girls’ school in the Cotswolds and I hope to read history of art at Oxford or Cambridge. My teacher, Miss Trevelyan, told me to read your Postil Magazine articles to improve my own writing. I think they are excellent. My problem is that the Pop singers you write about are often old or dead, and my parents say they are even before THEIR time. I am a real fan, however, of your poetry and jokes. Could you please write something special in this line? I would be so thrilled.

Thank you so much in anticipation,

Sincerely,

Stephanie (age 16)

P.S. I do think you’re rather dishy!

****

Well, how could I possibly turn down a request like that? To please Stephanie, and many thousands more (not all of them nicely behaved girls of 16), I supply herewith two poems and four jokes.

The first poem is written in honour of my good friend Michael, an art historian, who recently attained a certain age.

The second one, I believe, will touch the hearts of everyone accustomed to condo or apartment living, and alludes to our sometimes faulty communal garage auto door, which opens to correctly swiped cars and drivers for precisely 90 seconds.

The jokes, I think, speak for themselves. I trust Stephanie and the rest of you will respond with gales of laughter and near ecstasy. If you don’t, contact the editor.

****

To Michael at 80

For four score years thou’st nobly trod this earth
A man possessed with decency and worth,
Who solemnly regards it as his duty
To say sagacious things on art and beauty.

You’re blessed with a shrewd aesthetic eye;
Of serious mien – and yet of humour dry
At a pinch that verges on the sly!

Emotions, no, you don’t betray too much
Yet a cunning feline, he can touch
Your heart, just like a much-loved wife;
Salutations on your well-lived life!

Ode to a Garage Automatic Door

Coming from a lowly station
I approach’d in trepidation
Our reconditioned portcullis.
Would I find garagèd bliss?
        Or would access be denied?
        “Open, Sesame!” I cried…
At one fell swipe of card—it oped!
Had it not, could I have coped?
And then, count 90—would it close?
It did! The air smells like a rose!

And now for those jokes…

I was listening to KD Laing, as one does, and suddenly a great name for a meat eaters’ buffet restaurant occurred to me: Constant Carving.

An uncharacteristically clumsy painting by a great American realist caused him to be nicknamed “ClodHopper.”

The famous and very savvy New Zealand artist Dick Frizzell proudly showed me his latest painting:
“Well, Dick, me old son, there’s only one word for that.”
[I am prone to talk like that, I’m very irritating]
“Pray what is that, Dr. Stocker?”
Moneymaker!

The woke art historian’s dilemma:
Hogarth had a much-loved pug called Trump.
Should the artist’s statue be toppled?


Mark Stocker is an art historian whose recent book is When Britain Went Decimal: The Coinage of 1971.


Featured image: “Picasso’s Tomato,” by Dick Frizzell; painted in 2022.

The Prescience Of Rudyard Kipling

In 1896, English writer and political observer Rudyard Kipling published a short poem titled, “The Deep-Sea Cables”:

The Deep-Sea Cables

The wrecks dissolve above us; their dust drops down from afar --
Down to the dark, to the utter dark, where the blind white sea-snakes are.
There is no sound, no echo of sound, in the deserts of the deep,
Or the great grey level plains of ooze where the shell-burred cables creep.

Here in the womb of the world -- here on the tie-ribs of earth
Words, and the words of men, flicker and flutter and beat --
Warning, sorrow and gain, salutation and mirth --
For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet.

They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time;
Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun.
Hush! Men talk to-day o'er the waste of the ultimate slime,
And a new Word runs between: whispering, "Let us be one!"

The late nineteenth century was the halcyon age of the British Empire, an empire for which Kipling is often remembered (or, more accurately, detracted) as an “apologist.” It is rare to find a mention of Kipling in the popular press without a damning association, with his 1899 verse encouragement of the American takeover of the Philippines, “White Man’s Burden.”

On that reading, and given Kipling’s reputation as the “unofficial poet laureate of Empire,” it would be justified to explicate “The Deep-Sea Cables” as a typical pith-helmeted glorification of British rule over the planet—now, with the laying of the submarine cables, aided by the cutting edge of communications technology. With the “deep-sea cables” spiderwebbing the ocean floor, Kipling seems to be anticipating, the world will finally, as the British Empire aimed for all along, “be one.”

I take a very different view of “The Deep-Sea Cables,” and a very different view of Kipling. The later British Empire subject Eric Blair, who very much wrote in Kipling’s shadow, when he wrote about imperialism as George Orwell, adopted a cynical view of British rule which Kipling, the usual interpretation goes, was too tally-ho and forward-march to understand. However, if we take Kipling on his own terms, and read the poem for what it says, I believe we arrive at a much darker vision for the touted unity of humanity than one finds when “The Deep-Sea Cables” is read flat against the page and in the darkroom redlight of post-imperial autopsies. “The Deep-Sea Cables” was not encomium but Greek tragedy, a warning against the hubris of men who think they have become like the gods.

In the September, 2019, issue of The Kipling Journal, I find an intriguing note about “The Deep-Sea Cables,” linking it to a couple of other Kipling poems “in which we are treated to a glimpse of a huge blind sea monster, which an underwater earthquake hurls up to the surface.” Godzilla some sixty years in advance, perhaps. But I think the analogy is more than coincidental. The 1956 Japanese movie Godzilla, like “The Deep-Sea Cables,” can also be read two ways. On the one hand, Godzilla is a campy horror flick—more for laughing at than for being frightened by—about a monster (so obviously a guy in a rubber suit) lurching out of the Pacific Ocean to stomp around Tokyo. On the other hand, Godzilla is a commentary on war, imperial politics, and the nightmare of nuclear holocaust. “The Deep-Sea Cables,” too, can be read as a celebration of empire; or, as I read it, as a warning about human pride, about the false ecumenicism of what today I think we would call “globalization.”

To get a sense of what Kipling was trying to say in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” let us start with the last line of the poem. Here, we find the word “Word” curiously capitalized. This is the hinge of the work.

In a 2015 essay in Modern Fiction Studies, Heather Fielding interprets the capitalization this way: “As the capitalization of ‘Word’ indicates, Kipling ascribes a clear moral authority to the unifying power of the telegraph wires, which enable communication and in the process draw subjects of different nations toward a ‘common good’ that was certainly imperial, Christian, and British in nature.” In the endnote following this sentence Fielding drives the point home further: “Of course, Kipling’s vision of the common structure uniting mankind is an imperialist one. As Bernhard Siegert argues [in Relays: Literature as an Epoch of the Postal System, trans. Kevin Repp. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], ‘[t]he command given… in the “deserts of the deep” was not to become one, but to become ‘British.’” Again, the standard “Kipling as imperial apologist” interpretation.

But consider that Rudyard Kipling, although notoriously difficult to pin down theologically was a product of a British education, and as such would no doubt have been more than passingly familiar with the Holy Bible. Even if Kipling was an atheist, as he himself seems to have said, he would have known the foundational text of Christianity much better than most in our contemporary secular culture do. The Bible would have been baseline for his literary development, storehouse for the imagery and phrasing which a poet deploys in his crafting of lines. In the Bible, in the Gospel of St. John, we read of the “Eternal Word,” Who came into the world, which knew Him not.

The capitalization of “Word” in Kipling’s poem has nothing at all to do with the glorification of empire, nor of being British, nor of being Christian. Kipling was no Pollyanna, no evangelical soapbox orator. Kipling’s odd use of the capitalized “Word” is a warning, with unmistakable Biblical overtones, that man is arrogating to himself a power which he does not understand, and which has the potential to ruin him.

Working backwards from the last line, the rest of “The Deep-Sea Cables” follows from this single capitalized word. At the beginning of the poem, we find ourselves at the bottom of the pitch-black sea, with the wrecks of the vessels which men have built “dissolv[ing]” above us and “drop[ping] down from afar.” The world of men is distant from this deep, dark place. The surface of things, the ships and commerce and battles of nations, is another world, one which, heretofore and while the old technology has prevailed, has left this abyssopelagic cosmos undisturbed. “Blind white sea-snakes” live here, slithering in “great grey level plains of ooze.”

But now there is a new trick that men have learned, a new Promethean moment in their history. It is on this otherworldly muck-bottom that the cables which men have laid—and by Kipling’s day submarine telegraph cables were already a highly-developed technology—repose, providing a home for mollusks. This unpeopled deep is not where men ought to go—this is the strong sense of Kipling’s poem overall.

The Biblical motif of the poem continues. It is impossible for me to read the second stanza, about “the womb of the world” at the sea floor, “the tie-ribs of earth” where the planet is mortised and tenoned, without thinking of the first chapter of Genesis, of God’s awful might in calling forth the bottomless waters out of nothingness. Or of the Book of Job, wherein God taunts a member of his puny human creation who dares inquire after the ways of the Almighty:

Then the Lord answered Job out of a whirlwind, and said:
Who is this that wrappeth up sentences in unskillful words? Gird up thy loins like a man; I will ask thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? tell me if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Upon what are its bases grounded? or who laid the corner stone thereof,
When the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody?
Who shut up the sea with doors, when it broke forth as issuing out of a womb;
When I made a cloud the garment thereof, and wrapped it in a mist as in swaddling bands?
I set my bounds around it, and made it bars and doors:
And I said: Hitherto thou shalt come, and shalt go no further, and here thou shalt break thy swelling waves.

Hast thou entered the depths of the sea, and walked in the lowest parts of the deep?
(Job 38: 1-11, 16)

Once we have this Biblical context in place, the poem knits together, and in a way very unlike the glib celebration of the British Empire that many scholars understand “The Deep-Sea Cables” to be. This is Godzilla, a shudder at what is going to come out of the “ooze,” the “waste of the ultimate slime” if men keep “whispering” words in the blind, deaf, and dumb deep, “Joining hands in the gloom, a league from the last of the sun”—where men ought not go. In their hubris, Kipling is saying, men are making a new dispensation, a new “Word” for the world. This is not empire; this is something that men do not understand. And it will cost them dearly in the end.

Kipling senses that the old world of politics and dominion—the ships whose wrecks filter down as rotted powder from above (and Kipling would have been completely aware, of course, that the British Empire rested on naval prowess)—is meaningless in the new age of instantaneous information sharing. Some people have called this network of telegraph cables “the Victorian internet,” which may sound outlandish at first, given the extraordinarily slow (by today’s standards) rates of information transmission of which even the best telegraph cables were capable. But I think the internet metaphor is more apt than might at first appear. It seems that Kipling’s poet’s antennae were sensing, in “The Deep-Sea Cables,” what a later inspired writer, Marshall McLuhan, tried working out in the 1960s—namely, that new modes of communication exert profound, transformative influence on human society. Whispers across cables thrill the pride of man—we are becoming one! But as the second stanza gives way to the third and last, we find this chilling turn: “For a Power troubles the Still that has neither voice nor feet./They have wakened the timeless Things; they have killed their father Time.” This is no longer empire. This is now myth, the eternal retelling of the same story of man’s rise and fall.

Who is “Father Time?” In the deep of the underworld, Tartarus, dwelt the old, wild gods, the Titans, imprisoned there by the Olympians, the bright and shining deities (“Zeus” comes from an Indo-European root meaning “to shine”) who banished the horrible Titans to their prison in the bowels of the earth. While there are many theories on the etymology of the name of one of the Titans, Cronus, in Kipling’s day the most common would probably have been “Father Time,” thought to derive from the Greek word chronos. Cronus was identified in Roman mythology with Saturn, the god of bounty. In ancient Rome, the Temple of Saturn was where the imperial treasury was housed.

Cronus as Saturn, Saturn as the god blessing the political dominion of Rome over the known world. But once a line is crossed, the god no longer blesses, but destroys. In the myth of the Titans, all was well until Saturn, Cronus, “Father Time,” thought that his children were going to usurp him, just as he had usurped his father and mother, the heavens and the earth. Fearing this rebellion by his offspring, Cronus ate his children one by one. The god turned on his empire. The Titan devoured what he had brought forth.

Rudyard Kipling was no Boy Scout cheerleader for progress and the British Empire. He was, above all else, a poet, a man with a mystical connection to the incantatory power of words. “The Deep-Sea Cables” represents one of the most prescient and accurate foreshadowing of the dangers which men were stirring up—“the timeless Things” which men were “waken[ing],” the “Power troubl[ing] the Still” which men were disturbing with their globalist chatter in the primordial deep.


Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan.


Featured image: “Rudyard Kipling,” by Sir Philip Burne-Jones, painted in 1899.

Romantic Nationalisms And Pop-Kultur: An Interview With Andrzej Waśko

This month we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Waśko, the foremost authority on Romantic literature in Poland. He is the author several important books and currently serves as the advisor to Mr. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland. Professor Waśko is here interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with a question about your recent article about the popular band Queen. You are a scholar of Polish Romanticism. You wrote your first major work, which received a national award, on Adam Mickiewicz (the prince of Polish Romantics) and your second on Polish conservative Romantic Zygmunt Krasinski. The role they played in Poland (along with the third major poet Juliusz Slowacki) may be compared to Byron, Shelley and Keats in England.

All of them belong to an epoch which existed two hundred years ago. The English rock group Queen was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. How come a professor of literature writes about about popular music?

Andrzej Waśko.

Andrzej Wasko (AW): These topics are not as far apart as they seem. The aesthetic revolution, called Romanticism, which broke out in Europe after the French Revolution, began earlier with the rehabilitation of popular songs and with the ballads of Goethe and Schiller; and later with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Mickiewicz and others.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1960s, in the genre of popular song on the “lower” level of culture. Joan Baez and other folk music performers began their careers with the same or similar folk ballads. At that time, the post-war generation, largely made up of university-educated workers’ children, was knocking on the gates of the middle class. These people needed their mythology and it was provided, at least to some extent, by popular music – Joan Baez, as already mentioned, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, and many others.

Here, I see a certain analogy to the situation that took place in the 19th century. Romanticism gave a cultural identity to the bourgeois and popular masses that began to build modern nations on the ruins of class-based society. The history of pop music is the story of what happened to society in the second half of the 20th century. Besides, today there is a radio in every car. Popular songs are a topic that a literary historian can talk to a taxi driver about.

ZJ: Your last remark reminded me of Allan Bloom’s conversation with a taxi driver. This is what he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): “A few years ago I chatted with a taxi-driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily, he had undergone ‘therapy.’ I asked him what kind. He responded, ‘All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis,’ but what he liked best was ‘Gestalt.’ Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-brow talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi-driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with original sin or devils inside him. We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”

One may draw many conclusions from Bloom. One such is that once high-brow ideas fall to a level of ordinary people, the inevitable result is nihilism. Let me invoke the lyrics of Queen:

Empty spaces.
What are we living for?
Abandoned places.
I guess we know the score.
On and on.
Does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero,
Another mindless crime
Behind the curtain.
(“The Show Must Go On”).

Queen’s song and Lennon’s “Imagine” – “no heaven, no hell” – can be said to repeat the basic building blocks of Existentialism, especially the ideas we find in Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. De Beauvoir and Sartre considered the world without God to be a reason to rejoice. Camus, on the other hand, was deeply troubled by it; he understood that in such a world the only jurisdiction of philosophy is suicide. This is not different from what we find in Queen: “does anybody know what we are looking for?” Are these songs existentialist philosophy of the Parisian cafes turned nihilistic?

AW: The fact that the songs you quote and probably many others show traces of the existential philosophy of Parisian gurus, such as Sartre and Camus, seems very likely to me. Certainly, Lennon welcomes the vision of an axiological void and proclaims it as “good news,” just like Sartre.

Both the philosopher and the ex-Beatle call for a revolution, each in their own way. In practice, however, Lennon’s way turns out to be more effective, because his song is pretty, it reaches the masses and moves their emotions. But the lesson Lennon gives his followers leads to nihilism – in a world where there is nothing to die for – “nothing to kill or die for” – there is nothing to live for.

This was understood by Camus and I think also Freddie Mercury, whose lyrics, on the contrary, are not cheerful. “What are we living for?” – in a world devoid of essence, without absolute values and absolute norms. Of course, this is also existentialism for the people. But at the same time it is a lamentation over a world ruled by nihilism.

Taxi drivers I speak with in Poland are more likely to lament and never say anything about psychology, which is otherwise a very fashionable field at universities in Poland. Rather, it is the establishment that thinks like the Atlanta taxi driver Bloom writes about. This is pure and self-conscious nihilism – but it is rather rife among teachers and students at universities.

ZJ: You made a connection between the aesthetic revolution of Romanticism and the post-French revolutionary world. In 1833, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his Diary: “My mind is a continental mind… It is a revolutionary mind.” What Disraeli is referring to is the influence Romanticism had on him. What made Romanticism such a powerful social force?

Second, for all the greatness and beauty of Romantic poetry, Romanticism turned out to become a political outlook which shuttered the old order no less than the French Revolution. Is there a connection between the slogans of the Revolution – equality in particular – and the Romantic exaltation of self-consciousness as the source of truth and a fountainhead of artistic creativity?

AW: What made Romanticism a social force was certainly the democratization of the language of literature and art, an example of which is the turn to ballads. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth tells us that poetry should speak the language that people actually use in their lives. The explanation lies in the saturation of art with emotions. Wordsworth and Coleridge talk about this in the Preface as well. This is the hallmark of Romantic literature – unlike the classics, the speaking subject in romantic poetry is always in a state of some emotional agitation, a mood he then communicates to his audience.

This is simple, and pop culture of the 20th century has similar features – it expresses the emotions and infects its audience. And contemporary people living in an extremely rationalized world, living in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” do not become machines – on the contrary, they want to react to the coldness of social institutions in which they find themselves. They want to cry or feel euphoric. They want to feel “like gods,” or lose themselves in a “great whole” – a service provided by, along with drugs, ecstatic music. In this regard, pop music of the second half of the 20th century uses some elements of Romanticism in an intensified and simplified form.

Your second question concerns individual self-realization and creation, which are inventions of literary Romanticism. Based on idealistic German philosophy, Romanticism builds the concept of the subject as creator – of poetry (from the Greek poiesis – creation), but also a creator of various geniuses. Napoleon changed the world thanks to his genius. Byron changed the world thanks to his genius, too. It’s a status of the self in society and in politics. It is a challenge for everyone, including me. Perhaps this is what Disraeli thought.

ZJ: Should we take the idea of genius to mean a way of democratization of politics as well? I do not mean democratization in the sense of universal suffrage and an electoral system; but in the sense of opening the public and political realm to people who in the past could never see themselves as social or political leaders. Being a genius became a form of political passport, if you will. It provided a new form of socio-political legitimacy. Poets became national bards, unelected national leaders.

AW: Yes, both the cults of genius artists (“prophets”) and the cults of charismatic political leaders have something to do with democratization in the sense you suggested. The genius embodies the characteristics of the community that recognizes him as its representative, as the medium of its thoughts and feelings, as the embodiment of the aspirations and goals it pursues. As Rzewuski put it: “There is a sympathetic bond between a genius and his people.”

ZJ: You mentioned Byron, an artist, who saw himself as having a social, political message. Let me quote here a stanza from Childe Harold:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? no!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom's altars flame.
Shades of the Helots! triumph o'er your foe!
Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same;
Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame.

This is his message to the Greeks, calling on them to rekindle past greatness, to shake off the yoke of the Turkish oppression. This kind of message, formulated by poets, seems to be common for the Romantic period. We find it also in Juliusz Slowacki’s Agamemnon’s Tomb.

Could one say – call it a wild guess, if you want – that Romanticism created a path to a new political reality, wherein artistic geniuses (poets, writers, painters) but also all kinds of political charlatans, madmen and social reformers could call on a nation, or the world, to action? First it was done under the banner of liberation (as in Greece), or unification (as in Italy, or Germany), and later, in the 20th century, as a call to a regeneration of national spirit (as in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Now, in the 21st century, we hear an echo of national slogans: “Great China,” “Making America Great Again,” “Poland – A Great Project” (the name of an annual conference), and so many others.

Politics, before the American and French Revolutions, was a domain of one class, the upper class. But 19th century Romanticism changed it.

AW: Yes, Romanticism paved the way for charlatans as well; it gave them a certain role model. But you cannot blame the Romantics for the actions of charlatans like Hitler or Mussolini, who adopted the dress of geniuses. Otherwise, you could then also accuse Rubens or Rembrandt of paving the way for picture forgers. Morally and politically, everyone is responsible for himself.

Also, we should not toss together all political slogans designed to mobilize supporters with references to the greatness of the nation or the greatness of some future project. This is just commonplace in the politics of our times. Ordinary people want to feel that they are participating in some great collective endeavor. And PR specialists give it the form of slogans. I do not see anything wrong with that, although of course in totalitarian regimes it has a different dimension and can be terrible. But don’t overdo your concerns, remembering what the difference is between the present conditions and the regimes of the kind we lived in before 1989.

ZJ: One often links Romanticism with nationalism. There is a good reason to accept the assumption that the latter sprang from the former. When you read books about Romanticism, you come across a number of terms or expressions that their authors use to characterize Romanticism. Here is a handful: genius (that is, someone who defies rules by his untrammeled will), individual spirit, nation, mythological history of a people, authenticity, creative self-expression, self-assertion, the worship of heroes, and contempt for reason.

The genius of Romantic poets notwithstanding, reading their exaltation one gets the impression that this form of emotional exhibitionism, if you want, could happen only among people who have lost their minds, who rejected Reason, as they did. They were the first ones to believe that they can create nations, a people’s soul. As Herder once wrote, “A poet is a creator of a people; he gives them a world to contemplate; he holds its soul in his hand.”

Add messianism to this, which is a consequence of such a belief, and you have a fuller picture – we no longer deal with an individual genius who has risen above others but a nation which believes – rightly or wrongly – that it has a mission, that it has been given a special task to save others, or save even a civilization itself. Since there are no clear rational criteria for judging reality, the political realm must, it seems, become an “irrational” domain operated by individuals – leaders, if you will – who believe that they can lead the nation. As it happens, sometimes things went very wrong. In view of this, could you say a few words about the connection between Romanticism and nationalism.

AW: First, Herder’s words are the words of a literary critic, who is referring not so much to the times of his own epoch, but to the beginnings of civilization. “Philosophers are the children of civilization, but the poets are its fathers” – this is how what he says should be understood. The original language of humanity was, according to Herder, poetic language. Prose and the attitude to the world based on reasoning came later – Homer preceded the birth of philosophy in Greece.

The Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was an apology for poetry understood as the original path of cognition, earlier than philosophy and science. You can partly agree that something like creative imagination actually exists and at times helps to solve some problems that seem unsolvable at first glance.

A feature of political Romanticism, as Carl Schmitt understood it, was the transfer of certain aesthetic rules and preferences to the field of policy thinking. If there is one language and one German literature, there should also be one German state. Genius can work in different fields. Thus, a brilliant poet plays a role within his own national community, etc. Under Byron’s influence, in the first half of the 19th century, extreme (that is, pre-20th-century existentialism) individualism wen hand-in-hand with dandyism, with mal du siècle, boredom (ennui), and the search for strong impressions.

All of this goes beyond nationalism; and all of it can be an object of criticism – and has been repeatedly criticized from the point of view of reason. But the Romantics were right in that man is not (and never will be) a fully rational being. If the process of modernization, which began in the West in the 17th century, is identified (as Max Weber would have it) with the process of rationalization of social life, Romanticism is an expression of rebellion against this rationalization, a rebellion rooted in the irrational characteristics of human nature. And it did not end in the 19th century. In the 1960s, it found expression in popular culture.

ZJ: Isaiah Berlin, in a series of articles on Romanticism, offered a number of insights that can explain why the currents hidden in Romanticism became pernicious.

One could distinguish several layers which created conditions that later led to the horrors of the 20th century, beginning with the sense of humiliation that stems from another nation’s cultural superiority. Such is the case of Germany vis-à-vis France, and the disruption of the old way of life, as happened in Russia under Peter the Great and, to a lesser degree, in Frederick the Great’s Prussia.

The old class becomes displaced and psychologically unfit, and creates a new synthesis, a new vision or ideology that explains and justifies resistance to forces working against the convictions and ways of life of the old class.

Finally, when a nation is at one with other forces, such as race and religion, or class and nation, we have all the conditions that can turn into a political force represented by the State. “One form of these ideas was the new image of the artist,” writes Berlin, “raised above other men not only by his genius but by his heroic readiness to live and die for the sacred vision within him… It took a more sinister form in the worship of the leader, the creator of a new social order as a work of art, the leader who molds men as the composer molds sounds and the painter colours.”

Heine, as Berlin explains, foresaw the future: “these ideologically intoxicated barbarians would turn Europe into a desert,” writes Berlin, quoting Heine, “restrained neither by fear nor greed… like early Christians, whom neither physical torture nor physical pleasure could break.”

To be sure, the legacy of Romanticism was not as morbid among the English, French, Russians or Poles as it was among the Germans. However, in the case of the Poles, and perhaps Russians, Romanticism survived as the worship of poets as national bards, men who — because of later communist oppression – filled a political void. (Mickiewicz and Slowacki, for example, are buried alongside Polish kings at Wawel Castle in Krakow). Now that Poland is a free country, is there as much room for the adoration of poets as there was before?

Walenty Wańkowicz, “Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz,” ca. 1827-1828.

AW: Isaiah Berlin, as well as other well-known analysts of nationalism in English-speaking countries – Hans Kohn, Ernest Gelner, Eric Hobsbawm, Zygmunt Bauman – built the following historical sequence: romanticism – nationalism – Hitler.

All these thinkers had roots in Central Europe and brought their trauma to Anglo-American sociology from Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trauma of the persecution of Jews that ended in the Holocaust.

A similar interpretation was applied after World War II by the Communists in the German Democratic Republic. Because the roots of Nazism were said to be rooted in German Romanticism, in Jena, where the “Romantische Schule” was born, the Communists demolished part of the historic old town with the old buildings of the university and erected a gruesome modernist tower in its place, where they built a new communist university to break away from the traditions of Fichte and Novalis.

In reality, this was all much more complicated. In Poland, for example, there was a sharp conflict between the ideology of modern nationalism, represented by Roman Dmowski, and the Romantic tradition, which this nationalist and social Darwinist openly fought in his writings.

The Nazis, with whom, moreover, Polish nationalism had nothing in common, during the occupation fought fiercely against the memory of Polish culture, led by Chopin’s music and Mickiewicz’s poetry, whose monument in Krakow was demolished in August 1940. How do these facts reconcile with the theory of Romantic sources of nationalism and Nazism?

Nazis toppling monument of the Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, in Krakow, August 17, 1940.

The claim that Romantic writers (but not only Romantic ones) contributed to the awakening of “nationalism,” or simply national consciousness among Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Serbs and Croats, seems obviously true. Pushkin, who wrote anti-Polish poems after the Russians suppressed the November Uprising in 1831, could also be called a Russian nationalist. So what?

The obsessive tracking down of nationalism leads only to the belief that communism was better in Eastern Europe, “threatened by nationalism.”
However, it is also true that Polish literature of the 19th century, including Romantic literature in the first place, was the main bridge leading to the assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland.

The poetry of the Romantics, both great and smaller but equally popular, was something that could fascinate in Polish culture and which could be relatively easy to accept, along with language, regardless of any other differences. Therefore, educated Jews got Polonized in the nineteenth-century; and among writers and historians of Poland of the next century we have many of them.

ZJ: The post French Revolution world created two categories: Liberalism and Conservatism. In his essay on Alfred de Vigny, sometimes referred to as, “On Conservative and Liberal Poets” (1838), John Stuart Mill makes a list of characteristics of Conservative and Liberal literature. One of the functions of Liberal poets or writers is, as Mill states, “to lay open morbid anatomy of human nature,” which is “contrary to good taste always.”

In short, Liberalism created a new realm of literary possibilities, where vices can no longer be swept under the rug, treated as vices, but as ingredients of human nature, which should not shock us. In fact, we should find enjoyment in reading about characters who embody these vices.

What comes to mind as examples supporting Mill’s interpretation are writers such as, Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky; but above all Ibsen; his A Doll’s House, where “sweet hypocrisy” is exposed for what it is. Yet Nora, who breaks social and moral norms, is by far a more sympathetic character than her husband, and as much as we may not like her decision. But it is impossible to feel sympathy toward her husband. Anna Karenina is another great example. And, let’s remember, Tolstoy came to regret writing it.

If Mill is right with respect to what constitutes the elements of Conservative and Liberal literature, is the liberal imagination an indisputable winner in this literary contest? Good literature is no longer a teacher of virtues and vices, has no unambiguous moral message; it is not supposed to give us moral warnings.

AW: The moral message, apart from moving emotions and satisfying the taste, was mandatory for a classical poet, of the type that reigned in all our literatures, before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although he himself was not a poet and his La Nouvelle Heloise has a built-in moral core. Rousseau paved the way for “liberal poets,” because he recognized that it is not the individual who is morally responsible for evil. Rather, evil comes from a society corrupted by civilization. Byron’s heroes (and this is his influence), who commit crimes, are at the same time victims of the existing social order and the embodiment of interpersonal relations in this system.

Similarly, we can sympathize with Nora and Anna Karenina. It is Rousseau as a philosopher who is responsible for this, and since he is also one of the founders of liberalism, Mill’s opinion makes some sense. But literary currents are not simple equivalents of modern political ideologies. Dostoyevsky with his Demons is probably a conservative writer. But was Chateaubriand conservative or liberal? And Mickiewicz?

ZJ: Thanks to the works of Jacob Talmon (Romanticism and Revolt, 1967; Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, 1960), of Sir Kenneth Clark (The Romantic Rebellion, where he discusses art), and of later writers such as, Adam Zamoyski (Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871), we can form a general impression of how Romanticism influenced the way 19th century man thought. However, if you want to pinpoint what exactly Romanticism contributed to political thought, we are unlikely to have a clear answer.

However, Mill’s biographer, Nicholas Capaldi, suggested that the roots of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech can be traced to the Romantic concept of imagination, without which an argument such as this could hardly be made: why should I allow you to say something I disagree with, unless I believe that your soul, your self, can express a truth, something which reason alone – common to us and praised by Enlightenment thinkers – cannot.

Here is what Capaldi says:

“Mill will remind us that Coleridge is the English bearer of the continental tradition, and especially of German Romanticism… More specifically, Mill will argue that modern liberal culture, as best exemplified in England, cannot be adequately explained and defended except with the resources of Romantic continental thought… The French Revolution of 1789 had momentous symbolic significance for liberals everywhere. It became the symbol of the overthrow of feudalism and the dawn of a new day of freedom. Liberals as well as conservatives in Britain were later horrified by the excesses of the revolution, but the destruction of feudal privilege was looked upon as a necessary prerequisite for a truly free and responsible society.

“The stress on imagination, as opposed to intellect, is a familiar Romantic theme. It reflects the nineteenth-century rejection of the eighteenth-century’s narrow rationalism… The first consequence of this view of the primacy of imagination is the recognition that ultimate values are apprehended through imagination… One of the reasons Mill will be so adamant about opposing censorship and encouraging debate is that it is only in the imaginative re-creation, the rehashing, of the arguments that we come to understand truly the meaning of ultimate values and to make that meaning a vital part of who we are.”

Is there anything else in the realm of political ideas that belongs in the Romantic tool-box?

AW: Creative imagination as a tool for learning about the world is undoubtedly a hallmark of romantic trends all over Europe, but these trends were very diverse, and the ways of understanding them were different. If the German readings influenced Coleridge, as Professor Capaldi reminds us, it must be remembered that earlier German translations of Edmund Burke’s On the Revolution in France inspired the Schlegel brothers and their entire generation in Germany. Thus, the exchange between England and the Continent was mutual. Liberalism is older than the Romanticism, as is republicanism, which is important to Poles. So, there were liberal and conservative romantics, and the great Polish romantic, Juliusz Słowacki, described himself as “republican in spirit.”

Ivan Trush, “A Portrait of Juliusz Slowacki,” ca. 1880.

Hence Mill’s brilliant thought that the genesis of the idea of freedom of speech must be the Romantic idea of imagination, may be true in some cases, but historically speaking not at all. In short, the specific influence of Romanticism on the understanding of politics may consist in giving politics an eschatological dimension (messianism), in referring to pre-philosophical national traditions as an expression of the community spirit, in the observation that the poet has a special type of power – over the work he creates and over their recipients – and that authority should have such a character in general, and that the poets thus should be the charismatic leaders of the nation.

Let me add that in the 19th century the cult of poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński) gained political significance in Poland; and in the 20th century, in popular culture, we are dealing with something analogous, when, for example, Bono from the band U2 speaks about politics, and all world agencies keep repeating what he utters.

Ary Scheffer, “Portrait of Zygmunt Krasiński,” 1850.

ZJ: Nihilism which we’ve mentioned was not the only social worry of the second half of the 20th century. One can argue that hedonism is as pernicious as nihilism. I would like to invoke another song by Queen, “I Want It All;”

I’m a man with a one track mind,
So much to do in one life time (people do you hear me)
Not a man for compromise and where’s and why’s and living lies
So I’m living it all, yes I’m living it all,
And I’m giving it all, and I’m giving it all,
It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth,
Here’s to the future, hear the cry of youth,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.

Each time I hear it, I think that this song is the utmost expression of hedonism, which is a product of an infantile mind. Only children want it all and want it now. It is their perception of time which makes them want to satisfy their wants and needs right away. They want immediate gratification. Adults know that you can’t have it now. But there are more serious problems that go beyond the song. First, immediate gratification of all desires would be deadly for moral discipline. Liberalism is the only political philosophy that tells us that we have a right to satisfy our wants.
Would you agree that this kind of thinking – nihilism mixed with hedonism – is what our world today is made up of.

AW: I don’t know if this song is so clearly about a hedonistic attitude. Your question about modern hedonism is much more serious. Westerners, when they believed in God, wanted the salvation of their souls – eternal life beyond this world. Then, under the influence of humanism and the Enlightenment, happiness became their goal. Happiness on earth, not in the afterlife. But that happiness did not have to be immediate; it could be the achievement of some ambitious goal or perfection (per aspera ad astra), or the pursuit of perfection itself. In the end, happiness was equated with pleasure, which was independently invented by the Marquis de Sade and 19th-century Liberals. It appealed to simple people, because pleasure is not some abstract ideal, but something concrete, sensually experimental. And why shouldn’t we experience it too, here and now?

This ethical turn, which took place in the West in the 19th century, seems to be something permanently present in people’s attitudes to life today. In the second half of the 20th century, it coincided with the triumph of technology and capitalism, which turned out to be capable of producing an inexhaustible amount of consumer goods; that is, those that both satisfy our needs and provide us pleasure. Since constant enjoyment has become easy and readily available for all, a new hedonism has indeed spread in the society of “well-being.” It is based on the pursuit of immediate satisfaction of our whims. And after satisfying them, new needs appear, which are also immediately satisfied, and so on.

Mandeville noted, as early as the 18th century, that people who are accustomed to luxury buy more things that, objectively speaking, they could live without. In this way, which may not be beneficial to themselves in the long run, they nevertheless make money for the craftsmen and merchants, who supply them with these luxuries.

So, the need for pleasure drives the economy to work. The capitalism of our time creates these artificial needs in people in a systemic way, stimulating them through advertising, and by presenting the model of a human being present in pop culture, whose success lies in the fact that he has everything, here and now.

The contemporary ideal image, spread in commercials, in television series about the lives of millionaires, in photo essays about celebrities, is therefore the image of a hedonist – an ideal, i.e., the ever-insatiable consumer. So, hedonism drives sales – that is, the entire economy – and thus promotes it.

The problem is that all civilizations of the past that fell into this trap collapsed. While we can make our toys endlessly, we are not in danger of collapsing because of the wear and tear of our accumulated goods – waste was condemned by moralistic people since antiquity, but that doesn’t help.

The process of ceaselessly satisfying an appetite that is continuously, artificially stimulated, is destructive in itself. We need stronger and stronger stimuli, bigger and bigger doses of new stimulants. And in the end, they kill us – like the drugs that have killed a legion of stars of modern pop culture.

The biggest problem of any civilization, at some point, ceases to be the struggle with nature and hostile tribes, and it becomes the need to fight our own weaknesses, which come to us as a result of our own success. We are safe, rich; we have free time – and we don’t know what to do with all of this. This is when the self-destructive process begins. Giambattista Vico already knew that.

ZJ: Let me go back to what you said about the democratization of language, and that the success of Romanticism lies in using the language people use and emotions that they feel. As always, what at the beginning sounds like a well-intentioned idea, later can have unintended consequences. We talked about John Lennon and Queen, nihilism, and hedonism. One could still argue that they translated high-brow philosophical ideas into language that the ordinary people could understand as their own. Neither Lennon nor Queen are guilty; they just “expressed,” in the form of popular music, what philosophers said decades earlier.

Now, 50-60 years later, it is not Romanticism or Existentialism which stand behind the new trends in music. It is the naked, ugly reality of the street, to which once high-brow philosophy led society. In America it is called rap. Rap spread everywhere like a tsunami. It started as a form of expression of the feelings – or more likely resentment – of the destitute, undereducated Black segment of American population. However, because of its vulgarity and outright racism it is listened, for the most part, by Blacks, and it terrifies most of the Whites. Yet the liberal media bow to it.

One of the Founding Fathers of rap, JZ, is a musical icon, interviewed on National Public Radio and television in the US. University professors organize courses about JZ. When you listen to his public pronouncements you get the feeling that rap is not music but a form of mental imprisonment of someone who never grew up. Do you have an explanation as to what happened and why? Is rap the last phase of the Romantic rebellion led by adult children, like JZ?

AW: Paradoxically, I agree with this last sentence, at least to a certain extent. Yes, I can see that music videos of this type tend to be soft pornography and praise the lives of gangsters – obviously I’m not attracted to the stupidity of it all. There are also nobler forms of this music; but I do not follow or analyze them either. Both rap and hip-hop are artistic styles with their own rules and structure. I can imagine a masterpiece in this genre, although I cannot name it. Perhaps it is because of my own ignorance, or perhaps a rap-style masterpiece has never been created and will never be.

But since rap exists as a separate style – the existence of outstanding songs of this type is also possible and probable. In Poland, where all Anglo-American musical styles are imitated, the band Kaliber 44 enjoyed a short-lived fame some time ago, whose young soloist was considered a genius; but his life was short, because he killed himself jumping, out of a window under the influence of drugs.

This is hard to approve of in any way, but the interpretation you are proposing here also seems possible. Rap is a peculiar rhythm that is based on the intonation of individual sentences and crossed with relatively regular versification. The content of the rapper’s monologue is important; the music has a secondary role; it accompanies the recitation of the text and emphasizes its meaning. These are features that are well known from the folklore of bygone eras.

Thus, the romantic theory of nature poetry, which is born spontaneously among simple people, lacking knowledge of the conventions and rules of official art, fits it. Rap with its style and place of birth (in the dangerous neighborhoods of New York) fits well with this romantic theory.

Besides (probably) rap performers cannot be suspected of illustrating Sartre’s theses. So, maybe this is not a simplified adaptation of high culture, but a real inflow from below – the music of the roots? On the other hand, it is also not ordinary folklore, because in the process of producing recordings, the simplicity of style and the primitiveness of picture-suggestions are combined with technical and technological refinement.

ZJ: Going back to your remark about the use of ordinary language by the Romantics. Is this the beginning of the process which led to the birth of what we call “popular culture” – as opposed to High Culture? Today no one uses the distinction between High and Low/popular culture. The educational system in Western countries is structured in a way that what belonged to the Treasure of Western Culture or Kultur, is no longer taught. It is at best tolerated. The last attempt at defending High Culture was probably T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1959). Do you see where we are today as a result and the end of cultural mutation of Romanticism?

AW: I prefer to think of Romanticism and pop-culture, and, more precisely, of the specific elements of these different, certainly broad and difficult to define phenomena, not as mutations, but as cultural modalities. In similar cultural phenomena, the actualization of similar potentials, constantly inherent in human nature, takes place. Cultural updates are historical and the potentialities of nature’s people are unchanged.

ZJ: Thank you Professor Wasko for this wonderful interview.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Sielanka (An Idyll),” by Józef Chełmoński, painted in 1885.