Nikolay Nekrasov: A Sketch Of His Life

Portrait of Nikolay Nekrasov - Konstantin Makovsky, 1856

Western Europe has only lately begun to explore the rich domain of Russian literature, and is not yet acquainted with all even of its greatest figures. Treasures of untold beauty and priceless value, which for many decades have been enlarging and elevating the Russian mind, still await discovery here. Who in England, for instance, has heard the names of Saltykov, Uspensky, or Nekrassov? Yet Saltykov is the greatest of Russian satirists; Uspensky the greatest story-writer of the lives of the Russian toiling masses; while Nekrassov, "the poet of the people's sorrow," whose muse "of grief and vengeance" has supremely dominated the minds of the Russian educated classes for the last half century, is the sole and rightful heir of his two great predecessors, Pushkin and Lermontov.
Russia is a country still largely mysterious to the denizen of Western Europe, and the Russian peasant, the moujik, an impenetrable riddle to him. Of all the great Russian writers not one has contributed more to the interpretation of the enigmatical soul of the moujik than Russia's great poet, Nekrassov, in his life-work the national epic, Who can be Happy in Russia?
There are few literate persons in Russia who do not know whole pages of this poem by heart. It will live as long as Russian literature exists; and its artistic value as an instrument for the depiction of Russian nature and the soul of the Russian people can be compared only with that of the great epics of Homer with regard to the legendary life of ancient Greece.
Nekrassov seemed destined to dwell from his birth amid such surroundings as are necessary for the creation of a great national poet.
Nicholas Alexeievitch Nekrassov was the descendant of a noble family, which in former years had been very wealthy, but subsequently had lost the greater part of its estates. His father was an officer in the army, and in the course of his peregrinations from one end of the country to the other in the fulfilment of his military duties he became acquainted with a young Polish girl, the daughter of a wealthy Polish aristocrat. She was seventeen, a type of rare Polish beauty, and the handsome, dashing Russian officer at once fell madly in love with her. The parents of the girl, however, were horrified at the notion of marrying their daughter to a "Muscovite savage," and her father threatened her with his curse if ever again she held communication with her lover. So the matter was secretly arranged between the two, and during a ball which the young Polish beauty was attending she suddenly disappeared. Outside the house the lover waited with his sledge. They sped away, and were married at the first church they reached.
The bride, with her father's curse upon her, passed straight from her sheltered existence in her luxurious home to all the unsparing rigours of Russian camp-life. Bred in an atmosphere of maternal tenderness and Polish refinement she had now to share the life of her rough, uncultured Russian husband, to content herself with the shallow society of the wives of the camp officers, and soon to be crushed by the knowledge that the man for whom she had sacrificed everything was not even faithful to her.
During their travels, in 1821, Nicholas Nekrassov the future poet was born, and three years later his father left military service and settled in his estate in the Yaroslav Province, on the banks of the great river Volga, and close to the Vladimirsky highway, famous in Russian history as the road along which, for centuries, chained convicts had been driven from European Russia to the mines in Siberia. The old park of the manor, with its seven rippling brooklets and mysterious shadowy linden avenues more than a century old, filled with a dreamy murmur at the slightest stir of the breeze, stretched down to the mighty Volga, along the banks of which, during the long summer days, were heard the piteous, panting songs of the burlaki, the barge-towers, who drag the heavy, loaded barges up and down the river.
The rattling of the convicts' chains as they passed; the songs of the burlaki; the pale, sorrowful face of his mother as she walked alone in the linden avenues of the garden, often shedding tears over a letter she read, which was headed by a coronet and written in a fine, delicate hand; the spreading green fields, the broad mighty river, the deep blue skies of Russia,—such were the reminiscences which Nekrassov retained from his earliest childhood. He loved his sad young mother with a childish passion, and in after years he was wont to relate how jealous he had been of that letter[1] she read so often, which always seemed to fill her with a sorrow he could not understand, making her at moments even forget that he was near her.
The sight and knowledge of deep human suffering, framed in the soft voluptuous beauty of nature in central Russia, could not fail to sow the seed of future poetical powers in the soul of an emotional child. His mother, who had been bred on Shakespeare, Milton, and the other great poets and writers of the West, devoted her solitary life to the development of higher intellectual tendencies in her gifted little son. And from an early age he made attempts at verse. His mother has preserved for the world his first little poem, which he presented to her when he was seven years of age, with a little heading, roughly to the following effect:
    My darling Mother, look at this,
    I did the best I could in it,
    Please read it through and tell me if
    You think there's any good in it.
The early life of the little Nekrassov was passed amid a series of contrasting pictures. His father, when he had abandoned his military calling and settled upon his estate, became the Chief of the district police. He would take his son Nicholas with him in his trap as he drove from village to village in the fulfilment of his new duties. The continual change of scenery during their frequent journeys along country roads, through forests and valleys, past meadows and rivers, the various types of people they met with, broadened and developed the mind of little Nekrassov, just as the mind of the child Ruskin was formed and expanded during his journeys with his father. But Ruskin's education lacked features with which young Nekrassov on his journeys soon became familiar. While acquiring knowledge of life and accumulating impressions of the beauties of nature, Nekrassov listened, perforce, to the brutal, blustering speeches addressed by his father to the helpless, trembling peasants, and witnessed the cruel, degrading corporal punishments he inflicted upon them, while his eyes were speedily opened to his father's addiction to drinking, gambling, and debauchery. These experiences would most certainly have demoralised and depraved his childish mind had it not been for the powerful influence the refined and cultured mother had from the first exercised upon her son. The contrast between his parents was so startling that it could not fail to awaken the better side of the child's nature, and to imbue him with pure and healthy notions of the truer and higher ideals of humanity. In his poetical works of later years Nekrassov repeatedly returns to and dwells upon the memory of the sorrowful, sweet image of his mother. The gentle, beautiful lady, with her wealth of golden hair, with an expression of divine tenderness in her blue eyes and of infinite suffering upon her sensitive lips, remained for ever her son's ideal of womanhood. Later on, during years of manhood, in moments of the deepest moral suffering and despondency, it was always of her that he thought, her tenderness and spiritual consolation he recalled and for which he craved.
When Nekrassov was eleven years of age his father one day drove him to the town nearest their estate and placed him in the local grammar-school. Here he remained for six years, gradually, though without distinction, passing upwards from one class to another, devoting a moderate amount of time to school studies and much energy to the writing of poetry, mostly of a satirical nature, in which his teachers figured with unfortunate conspicuity.
One day a copy-book containing the most biting of these productions fell into the hands of the headmaster, and young Nekrassov was summarily ejected from the school.
His angry father, deciding in his own mind that the boy was good for nothing, despatched him to St. Petersburg to embark upon a military career. The seventeen-year-old boy arrived in the capital with a copy-book of his poems and a few roubles in his pocket, and with a letter of introduction to an influential general. He was filled with good intentions and fully prepared to obey his father's orders, but before he had taken the final step of entering the nobleman's regiment he met a young student, a former school-mate, who captivated his imagination by glowing descriptions of the marvellous sciences to be studied in the university, and the surpassing interest of student life. The impressionable boy decided to abandon the idea of his military career, and to prepare for his matriculation in the university. He wrote to his father to this effect, and received the stern and laconic reply:
"If you disobey me, not another farthing shall you receive from me."
The youth had made his mind up, however, and entered the university as an unmatriculated student. And that was the beginning of his long acquaintance with the hardships of poverty.
"For three years," said Nekrassov in after life, "I was hungry all day, and every day. It was not only that I ate bad food and not enough of that, but some days I did not eat at all. I often went to a certain restaurant in the Morskaya, where one is allowed to read the paper without ordering food. You can hold the paper in front of you and nibble at a piece of bread behind it…."
While sunk in this state of poverty, however, Nekrassov got into touch with some of the richest and most aristocratic families in St. Petersburg; for at that time there existed a complete comradeship and equality among the students, whether their budget consisted of a few farthings or unlimited wealth. Thus here again Nekrassov was given the opportunity of studying the contrasts of life.
For several years after his arrival in St. Petersburg the true gifts of the poet were denied expression. The young man was confronted with a terrible uphill fight to conquer the means of bare subsistence. He had no time to devote to the working out of his poems, and it would not have "paid" him. He was obliged to accept any literary job that was offered him, and to execute it with a promptitude necessitated by the requirements of his daily bill of fare. During the first years of his literary career he wrote an amazing number of prose reviews, essays, short stories, novels, comedies and tragedies, alphabets and children's stories, which, put together, would fill thirty or forty volumes. He also issued a volume of his early poems, but he was so ashamed of them that he would not put his name upon the fly-leaf. Soon, however, his poems, "On the Road" and "My Motherland," attracted the attention of Byelinsky, when the young poet brought some of his work to show the great critic. With tears in his eyes Byelinsky embraced Nekrassov and said to him:
"Do you know that you are a poet, a true poet?"
This decree of Byelinsky brought fame to Nekrassov, for Byelinsky's word was law in Russia then, and his judgement was never known to fail. His approval gave Nekrassov the confidence he lacked, and he began to devote most of his time to poetry.
The epoch in which Nekrassov began his literary career in St. Petersburg, the early forties of last century, was one of a great revival of idealism in Russia. The iron reaction of the then Emperor Nicholas I. made independent political activity an impossibility. But the horrible and degrading conditions of serfdom which existed at that time, and which cast a blight upon the energy and dignity of the Russian nation, nourished feelings of grief and indignation in the noblest minds of the educated classes, and, unable to struggle for their principles in the field of practical politics, they strove towards abstract idealism. They devoted their energies to philosophy, literature, and art. It was then that Tolstoy, Turgenieff, and Dostoyevsky embarked upon their phenomenal careers in fiction. It was then that the impetuous essayist, Byelinsky, with his fiery and eloquent pen, taught the true meaning and objects of literature. Nekrassov soon joined the circles of literary people dominated by the spirit of Byelinsky, and he too drank at the fountain of idealism and imbibed the gospel of altruistic toil for his country and its people, that gospel of perfect citizenship expounded by Byelinsky, Granovsky, and their friends. It was at this period that his poetry became impregnated with the sadness which, later on, was embodied in the lines:
My verses! Living witnesses of tears Shed for the world, and born In moments of the soul's dire agony, Unheeded and forlorn, Like waves that beat against the rocks, You plead to hearts that scorn.
Nekrassov's material conditions meanwhile began to improve, and he actually developed business capacities, and soon the greatest writers of the time were contributing to the monthly review Sovremenik (the Contemporary) which Nekrassov bought in 1847. Turgenieff, Herzen, Byelinsky, Dostoyevsky gladly sent their works to him, and Nekrassov soon became the intellectual leader of his time. His influence became enormous, but he had to cope with all the rigours of the censorship which had become almost insupportable in Russia, as the effect of the Tsar's fears aroused by the events of the French Revolution of 1848.
Byelinsky died in that year from consumption in the very presence of the gendarmes who had come to arrest him for some literary offence. Dostoyevsky was seized, condemned to death, and when already on the scaffold, with the rope around his neck, reprieved and sent for life to the Siberian mines. The rigours still increased during the Crimean War, and it was only after the death of Nicholas I., the termination of the war, and the accession of the liberal Tsar, Alexander II., that Nekrassov and Russian literature in general began to breathe more freely. The decade which followed upon 1855 was one of the bright periods of Russian history. Serfdom was abolished and many great reforms were passed. It was then that Nekrassov's activity was at its height. His review Sovremenik was a stupendous success, and brought him great fame and wealth. During that year some of his finest poems appeared in it: "The Peasant Children," "Orina, the Mother of a Soldier," "The Gossips," "The Pedlars," "The Rail-way," and many others.
Nekrassov became the idol of Russia. The literary evenings at which he used to read his poems aloud were besieged by fervent devotees, and the most brilliant orations were addressed to him on all possible occasions. His greatest work, however, the national epic, Who can be Happy in Russia? was written towards the latter end of his life, between 1873 and 1877.
Here he suffered from the censor more cruelly than ever. Long extracts from the poem were altogether forbidden, and only after his death it was allowed, in 1879, to appear in print more or less in its entirety.
When gripped in the throes of his last painful illness, and practically on his deathbed, he would still have found consolation in work, in the dictation of his poems. But even then his sufferings were aggravated by the harassing coercions of the censor. His last great poem was written on his deathbed, and the censor peremptorily forbade its publication. Nekrassov one day greeted his doctor with the following remark:
"Now you see what our profession, literature, means. When I wrote my first lines they were hacked to pieces by the censor's scissors—that was thirty-seven years ago; and now, when I am dying, and have written my last lines, I am again confronted by the scissors."
For many months he lay in appalling suffering. His disease was the outcome, he declared, of the privations he had suffered in his youth. The whole of Russia seemed to be standing at his bedside, watching with anguish his terrible struggle with death. Hundreds of letters and telegrams arrived daily from every corner of the immense empire, and the dying poet, profoundly touched by these tokens of love and sympathy, said to the literary friends who visited him:
"You see! We wonder all our lives what our readers think of us, whether they love us and are our friends. We learn in moments like this…."
It was a bright, frosty December day when Nekrassov's coffin was carried to the grave on the shoulders of friends who had loved and admired him. The orations delivered above it were full of passionate emotion called forth by the knowledge that the speakers were expressing not only their own sentiments, but those of a whole nation.
Nekrassov is dead. But all over Russia young and old repeat and love his poetry, so full of tenderness and grief and pity for the Russian people and their endless woe. Quotations from the works of Nekrassov are as abundant and widely known in Russia as those from Shakespeare in England, and no work of his is so familiar and so widely quoted as the national epic, now presented to the English public, Who can be Happy in Russia?
DAVID SOSKICE

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