Network of Figures and Multiplicity of Lexicalized Meanings in Pasternak’s Early Poetry

By Jessica Carlzohn

Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) is universally acknowledged as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Perhaps he is most spoken of as the writer of Doctor Zhivago, the novel that was rejected for publication in the USSR but published and acclaimed in the West, followed by the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. This unleashed a bitter official campaign against Pasternak, forcing him to reject the award. However, Pasternak began his carrier already in the beginning of the century. In his early years he studied musical composition for six years, read philosophy at Moscow University (1908-1913), and studied Neo-Kantianism at Marburg University in the summer semester of 1912. Despite great success in Marburg he finally decided to dedicate himself to writing

It is generally agreed that Pasternak’s early poetry is difficult to understand. Serious research has been devoted to an identification and analysis of different aspects of his early poetry such as his use of metonymy1, metaphor, obscure syntax, and a thorough stylistic mix of colloquialism, poetic expressions and specialist vocabularies. The perspective I have chosen to adopt in my research is centred around how these separate aspects are combined in the poems, or in other words, how they become entangled. In this article I will demonstrate that all of these aspects are in fact frequently combined and entangled in Pasternak’s early poems; one single word, line or stanza may constitute or be part of more than one trope and, at the same time, be articulated in incomplete or misleading syntactic connections.2

In my research, I first and foremost accentuate the occurrence of metonymy, metaphors and words that have more than one lexicalized meaning (that is meaning codified in a dictionary) which are relevant or possible in the immediate context. Different senses of a word may also connote different contexts and each of these senses may in its turn be part of different tropes. As a consequence of lexical multiplicity it is not unusual that the thematic development draws towards different directions during a reading. When more than one lexical meaning of a word is possible in the immediate context of the poem, it is natural that our comprehension of the poem becomes affected: the different lexicalized meanings may refer to divergent contexts. Each of these meanings may also simultaneously constitute or be part of different tropes. It thereby follows that the lexicalized meanings may become entangled not only with each other but also with the occurring tropes.

In this network of figures and multiplicity of lexicalized meanings, the question of semantic coherency and thematic development becomes intricate. From the entangled figures emerges a multiplicity of semantic threads that seems to lead the thematic development in the poems in different directions. One semantic thread may introduce words in their lexicalized meaning and then become part of a metonymy or metaphor. Another thread may be discernable in the very same words, however this time in the form of a metaphor or metonymy derived from lexicalized meanings. The effect of the entanglement and various ways in which the semantic threads become perceptible is that threads seemingly disappear and become replaced by new ones. The result is that that the poems at a first glance appear to be a collection of disparate threads with no obvious connection. Another reason for disorientation is the fact that threads in one way or another are present throughout the poems; there is no preference for one single thread that in turn develops into a coherent theme of the poem as a whole. On the contrary, the threads appear simultaneously and as parallels. Furthermore, to a certain degree the semantic threads are notable as narrative clusters.

I will illustrate this entanglement by presenting a reading of ‘Pianistu ponjatno’ (‘The pianist understands’) from 1921. The poem is part of the cycle with the collected title ‘Son v letnuju noč’ (‘Summer night dream’), which in turn constitutes the ninth part ‘Neskučnyj sad’ of the collection as a whole. The entanglement in ‘Pianistu ponjatno’ consists of a succession of metaphors that, interlaced with lexicalized meanings of the words, emerge into three narrative clusters.

1.1 Пианисту понятно шнырянье ветошниц
1.2 С косыми крюками обвалов в плечах.
1.3 Одно прозябанье корзины и крошни
1.4 И крышки раскрытых роялей влачат.

2.1 По стройкам таскавшись с толпою тряпичниц
2.2 И клад этот где то на свалах сыскав,
2.3 Он вешает облако бури кирпичной,
2.4 Как робу на вешалку на лето в шкаф.

3.1 И тянется, как за походною флягой,
3.2 Военную карту грозы расстелив,
3.3 К роялю, обычно обильному влагой
3.4 Огромного душного лета столиц.

4.1 Когда, подоспевши совсем незаметно,
4.2 Сгорая от жажды, гроза четырьмя
4.3 Прыжками бросается к бочкам с цементом,
4.4 Дрожащими лапами ливня гремя.

1.1 The pianist understands the way rag-and-bone women poke around
1.2 With hooks askew making landslides in their shoulders.
1.3 Baskets and wicker bags and the open lids of grand pianos
1.4 Live a vegetative existence.

2.1 Having dragged himself around building sites with rag-picking women
2.2 And found his treasure somewhere on the dumps,
2.3 He hangs a cloud of brick-red storm
2.4 Into a cupboard, as though hanging up work clothes on a hook for the summer.

3.1 And he is drawn, as though reaching for his water flask,
3.2 Beyond the outspread military map of the storm,
3.3 Towards the grand piano, usually so abundant I the moister
3.4 Of the vast stifling summer typical for capital cities.

4.1 When, stealing up without being noticed,
4.2 Consumed by thirst, the storm
4.3 Throws itself in four leaps at the cement churns
4.4 And roars with the trembling paws of summer rain.3

An appropriate description of ‘Pianistu ponjatno’, especially the last phrase, is that the ‘perspective changes according to the “heat of the moment”’ to borrow Björling’s expression in her analysis of Pasternak’s poem ‘Sestra moja — žizn´’ (‘My sister — life) (Björling 1976, 177). The image of jumping from one direction to another permeates the poem as a whole. In the first stanza there is a description of the piano player and rag-and-bone women. The description continues in the first line of the second stanza with a spatial determination of a building site. Further, in the second stanza, there is a change to a home, presumably the piano player’s. The third stanza presents a war motif and a weather condition. Finally, in the last stanza the poem turns back to the building site where there is a roaring cloudburst. Despite these changes of direction, a closer reading discerns three different narrative-like clusters: the current situation in society, the weather conditions and music. The clusters are possible to follow simultaneously throughout the poem, even though with varying clarity.

Considering that the poem was written in 1921 in the presence of war and revolution, the narrative-like cluster of the current situation in society is first and foremost evident in the third stanza where the water flask, за походною флягой, and the military map, Военную карту, occur. But if we turn, back we note that the war is sensed already in the first stanza. The rag-and-bone women’s poking about at building sites may be understood as a metonymic description of the conditions during war times, when a lack of necessities forces people out to find a way of surviving. The fact that it is women and not men who represent the rag-and-bone people also points at war assuming, that the men are serving at the front. The vegetative existence, влачат прозябанье, is a further indication of the status of life during wartimes.

In the second stanza, the current situation is perceptible both through a metaphorical description and through the words’ lexicalized meanings as a continuation of the description of the rag-and-bone women. The women are still present in 2.1, rag-picking women, с толпою тряпичниц. Together with the building sites, По стройкам, the brick, кирпичной, and the work clothes, робу, the stanza articulates the current situation in society and renders scavenging. If we allow that the quality of the storm clouds, кирпичной, activates in this context associations to the dust and splinter from an explosion from weapons or bombs, then the building sites where the rag-and-bone women drag along simultaneously evoke associations to a battlefield. Consequently, the second stanza is from this perspective, to be understood as devastation. Accepting the image of devastation, the storm clouds that are put away for the summer, Он вешает облако бури кирпичной, / Как робу на вешалку на лето в шкаф, may be understood as the end of the devastation or as a cease-fire.

Represented by the water flask and the military map, the third stanza is a validation of the current situation with a military stress. Accepting the second stanza as an image of devastation with a following cease-fire, the third stanza evokes associations to a soldier who reaches out for his water flask, И тянется, как за походную флягой, and examines the military map, Военную карту грозы расстелив, to find out where the next threat is hiding.

In the concluding stanza, the acting role is occupied by the thunderstorm, гроза. The cement churns, к бочкам с цементом, signalizes that we are back at the building site or have entered a new one. In this context, in accordance with the previous stanzas, this is to be understood as a battlefield. The war is also notable through a metaphor. The power of the thunderstorm activates different senses and one of them is sound: the roaring, гремя, brings the thoughts to the sound of a distant artillery fire or detonation. Further, the sound of the rain bouncing against the walls of the churns, бросается к бочкам с цементом, дрожащими лапами ливня, evokes associations to the sound of the rattle from machineguns. From this perspective, the first line of the fourth stanza, подоспевши совсем незаметно, may apply to attackers sneaking around so the enemies should not discover them, followed by the explosion as a surprising ambush.

Although not present until the second stanza, weather in form of the approach of a thunderstorm is an obvious semantic thread. In the second stanza, the heavy brown storm cloud, облако бури кирпичной, gives a presentiment of the forthcoming storm. They do not, however, as yet break into a storm, but are put away, на вешалку на лето в шкаф. In the third stanza, there are no clouds, but an unpleasant heat and moisture, обычно обильному влагой / Огромного душного лета столиц. Finally, in the last stanza, the thunderstorm bursts. The rain is so powerful that it jumps up and down and hits the churns with cement, гроза четырьмя / Прыжками бросается к бочкам с цементом, / Дрожащими лапами ливня гремя. In accordance with the current situation in society, the subject is inanimate, now succeeded to the thunderstorm.

The musical perspective is obvious in the very first word of the poem by means of the piano player, Пианисту, as well as the piano lids, крышки раскрытых роялей. In contrast to the reading of the words’ lexical meanings that describes the rag-and-bone women’s poking about searching for useful things, the first two lines from a musical perspective is to be understood as a metaphorical description of how the piano player improvises on the grand piano. In accordance with the rag-and-bone women’s search, the piano player is searching among the keys to find a path to music. The second line evokes an image of the position: the piano player sits in front of the grand piano with bowed head and shoulders, С косыми крюками обвалов в плечах, while his crooked fingers move along the keys. Further, the last two lines present a metonymy of the piano player’s ache for the piano, and his miserable life without it. The metonymic description transfers the action onto the inanimate surroundings by means of the grand piano that draws the player towards it: Одно прозябанье корзины и крошни / И крышки раскрытых роялей влачат. This reading assumes an understanding of 1.3-1.4 as separate lines with an initiating emphatic And, И in 1.4. Entangled with the metaphor of improvising and metonymy of the piano player’s ache, the first line may also be understood as a second metaphor. We may in this context recall Pasternak’s discussion of the ontology of art and inspiration as presented in his autobiographical work A Safe Conduct (Oxrannaia gramota), part one, chapter six:

Она рождалась из перебоев этих рядов, из разности их хода, из оставанья более косных и их нагроможденья позади, на глубоком горизонте воспоминанья. (PSS vol. III, 159)

It was born from the irregularities in these ranks of things, from the differences in their speed, from the way the more sluggish of them lagged behind and heaped up in the rear, on the deep horizon of memory. (Pasternak 2008, 88)

In ‘Speeding in Time: Philosophy and metaphor in a presentation of Okhrannaia gramota Part One 6’. Björling suggests that these sluggish things are part of a metaphor that she calls ‘speeding in time’. The sluggish things are defined by Björling as ‘those things spread out at various points in time past, left behind like debris’:

These sluggish things were part of that everyday life which were apparently not worth of being carried along with time. The poet heard the half pleading half threatening “hiss of a yearning” [svist toski] eminating from these dead and motionless objects piling up on the horizon of memory. In this backward glance was precisely that which is called inspiration [to, chto zovietsia vdochnoven’em]. The poet was inspired by this, the feeling for those details which were not in themselves on the move, not worthy to be born by time. (Björling 2006, 290)

In the context of ‘Pianistu ponjatno’ we may understand these sluggish things not only as the subject for the rag-and-bone women’s poking about but also as the piano player’s search for inspiration; the debris that might be found at building sites, the motionless things, that inspired him. The motionless things in this context may in its turn be understood as old worn out musical phrases.

The narrative cluster about the piano player’s improvising continues in the second stanza. In respect to the metaphor of old compositions, the first line may be understood as an extension of the metaphor. In this case, the building sites, По стройкам, designate the compositions in the sense of ‘building’ music. From this perspective, the piano player is not physically together with the rag-and-bone-women, but is occupied with the same kind of activity: looking through sluggish things to find something useful, which here are old musical phrases. In the second stanza he finds a treasure among the compositions, И клад этот где то на свалах сыскав. The treasure is further referred to in 2.3 as a cloud of brick-red storm, облако бури кирпичной, which he hangs in the closet.

The third stanza refers explicitly to music by mention the grand piano in the third line, К роялю. There is also a metaphorical music notation in the second line: tactical designations on a military map, Военную карту грозы, marked with needles or something of that sort is remarkably similar to a sheet of music. This evokes an image of how the piano player first spread out his sheet of music, Военную карту грозы расстелив, and then reaches towards the piano, И тянется к роялю.

In the forth stanza, finally, the piano player bursts out in his music: the two last lines are understood as a metaphor of how his fingers strike the piano, Throws itself in four leaps at the cement churns / And roars with the trembling paws of summer rain, Прыжками бросается к бочкам с цементом, / Дрожащими лапами ливня гремя.

If we turn once again to the three clusters, we note that each of them expresses a development from a more or less motionless condition that becomes weighed down by a pressure and finally explodes in all embracing relief. In the musical cluster, the piano player is longing for inspiration, крышки раскрытых роялей влачат. His search is similar to the rag-and-bone women’s search for necessities, which implies that inspiration is a necessity for the piano player. The fact that he searches at building sites activates associations to Pasternak’s description in A Safe Conduct of the origin of inspiration as a ‘backward glance’:

Я часто слышал свист тоски, не с меня начавшейся. Настигая меня с тылу, он пугал и жалобил. Он исходил из оторвавшегося обихода и не то грозил затормозить действительность, не то молил примкнуть его к живому воздуху, успевшему зайти тем временем далеко вперед. В этой оглядке и заключалось то, что зовется вдохновеньем. (PSS vol. III, 159f)

I often heard the hiss of yearning that had not begun with me. Trying to catch up with me from behind, it provoked fear and pity. It issued from the point at which everyday life had been torn away, and it either threatened to put breaks on reality or begged to be joined to the living air which in the meantime had got a long way ahead. What is called inspiration consisted in this backward glance. (Pasternak 2008, 88f)

At the building site the piano player found something that he values as a treasure, И клад этот где-то на свалах сыскав, which may be understood as something that emerges as inspiration. But inspiration has not yet captured him, so he hangs the treasure in a closet, Он вешает облако бури кирпичной, / Как робу на вешалку на лето в шкаф. The treasure he found is equivalent to storm clouds. This implies that the musical inspiration, like the storm clouds, is hanging over the piano player but not yet ready to explode. The pressure becomes stronger, the air is filled by moister, and he reaches out for the grand piano, И тянется / К роялю. The war image expresses the same preparation: the soldiers look at the military map, preparing themselves for an attack, Военную карту грозы расстелив.

In the last stanza, the clusters are united by a powerful explosion: the storm clouds burst out in a downpour, machineguns fires off and the piano player bursts out in an intense act of music. As a conclusion, each of the perspectives is tangible in the poem as a distinct narrative-like cluster from divergent areas of life. Each of the clusters is thereby associated with power, which is equal to the strength of inspiration.

Each of these clusters is in itself legitimate, which is why I do not want to exclude any of them in my reading of the poem. In Evgenij and Elena Pasternak’s comments about this poem, they stress the theme of art and Pasternak’s view of art; how he collected all elements surrounding him and that they, together with his thoughts about art, express creation (PSS vol.I, 496). Since each cluster is obvious and occurs as entangled parallels it would be misleading to extract only one of them as the theme of the poem as a whole. Instead, each cluster turns out to be different sides of one and the same phenomenon – the phenomenon of power and inspiration – is thereby to be considered as the main theme.

Common for Pasternak’s poems is that they involve some kind of movement, intensity and power. Movement as a basic dimension for poetry is most significant in Pasternak’s poetry and fundamental in his expressions about art in A Safe Conduct. In A Safe Conduct, Pasternak describes art as an image of the human being, emphasizing that this image is larger than the human being and that art can only be born in motion: ‘Art is interesting in life at the moment when the ray of power is passing through it’ (Pasternak, 2008, 111).

If we interpret ‘Pianistu ponjato’ in the context of Pasternak’s statements about art, a major conclusion comes to the fore: art begins in life; it is reality that ‘presents itself in a new category’. What is real and familiar is changed into inspiration by the ‘ray of power passing through’. When the moment of inspiration is passing through, reality is hardly recognizable: reality becomes displaced. The power and unrecognizable reality can be articulated by a dynamic use of displaced images. Each of the clusters in ‘Pianistu ponjatno’ conveys an intensity and movement of reality that is total.

In my reading of the poem, I suggest that the intensity and power that permeate these various spheres of life may be understood as manifestations of inspiration. The only way for the power, that is inspiration, to manifest itself is, according to Pasternak’s statement in A Safe Conduct by the mobile language of images:

Но ничем, кроме движущегося языка образов, то есть языка сопроводительных признаков, не выразить себя силе, факту силы, силе, длительной лишь в момент явленья. (PSS vol. III, 187)

But there is nothing except the mobile language of images, that is, the language of accompanying signs, for power to express itself by, the fact of power, power which lasts only for the moment of its occurrence. (Pasternak 2008, 112)

By recording these momentarily moments of power in life, we may conclude that the overall theme is the phenomenon of inspiration. We can also see that each image of a nature which is dynamic is constantly being replaced by others. This never ending act of replacement does however not exclude ‘worn out’ images. Further it is not the images themselves that are of importance but, as Pasternak states, their being equal and thereby interchangeable:

Взаимозаменимость образов есть признак положенья, при котором части действительности взаимно безразличны. Взаимозаменимость образов, то есть искусство, есть символ сили. (PSS vol. III, 187)

The interchangeability of images is the sign of the situation in which the parts of reality are mutually indifferent. The interchangeability of images ― that is, art ― is the symbol of the power. (Pasternak 2008, 112)

Turning back to the poem, we see that the entangled clusters, emerging from the entangled figures, articulate interchangeability ― none of the clusters is dominant. They are all expressions of a power that passes through reality. Since the clusters appear simultaneously and entangled, they articulate a displacement of reality by the power. Images become interlaced and result in an apparent change of direction as to the thematic development of the poems. These dynamic relationships, the interplay, involving all parts of reality, are expressed as a fundamental idea in A Safe Conduct. where Pasternak points out that ‘parts of a displaced reality, mean nothing if taken separately’. Accordingly, the entangled figures are revealed to be not merely a means of expression which is difficult to comprehend. Entanglement constitutes the overall theme of Pasternak’s idea of poetry as the only response to a reality displaced by a ray of power passing through it.


1In my use of metonymy, I follow Roman Jakobson’s definition as presented in his article ‘Randbemerkungen zur Prosa des Dichters Pasternak’ from 1935. In the article, metonymy is defined as ‘association by proximity’, also termed contiguity, while metaphor is defined as ‘association by similarity’. Jakobson points out that association by proximity manifests itself in Pasternak’s poetry first and foremost as an ‘apparent relegation’ of the lyrical ‘I’: ‘instead of the hero it is, as often as not, the surrounding objects that are thrown into turmoil’ and take on the acting role. The lyrical ‘I’ is pushed aside, but nevertheless present metonymically: ‘images of the surrounding world function as contiguous reflections, or metonymical expressions, of the poet’s self (Jakobson 1969, 141)

2By ‘trope’ I consider language in the sense of figures of speech, that is transference of language away from literal meaning and towards figurative meaning. A transference with the aim of achieving a new meaning. (Cf. Hawkes, 1972, 1ff)

3This is a working translation made by Fiona Björling and added in Appendix in my thesis.


Works by Boris Pasternak

Oxrannaja gramota, translated as A Safe Conduct by Angela Livingstone [in:] The Marsh of Gold. Pasternak’s writings on Inspiration and Creation, Boston, 2008

PSS = Polnoe sobranie sočinenie s priloženijami v odinnadcati tomax = Полное собрание сочинений с приложениями в одиннадцати томах, 2003-2005, ред. Елена и Евгений Пастернак, Москва

Secondary sources

Björling, Fiona 1976, Aspects of Poetic Syntax. Analysis of the Poem ‘Sestra moja ─ žizn´ i sevodnja v razlive’ by Boris Pasternak, [in:] Boris Pasternak. Essays, ed. Nils Åke Nilsson, Stockholm Studies in Russian Literature, no 7, Stockholm

Björling, Fiona 2006, Speeding in Time: philosophy and metaphor in a presentation of Okhrannaia gramota Part One 6, [in:] Eternity’s Hostage. Selected Papers from the Stanford International Conference on Boris Pasternak. May, 2004, vol. I, ed. Lazar Fleishman, Stanford, 285-302

Carlzohn, Jessica 2009, Entangled Figures. Five Poems from Temy i variacii by Boris Pasternak, Lund Slavonic Monographs 10, Lund

Hawkes, Terence 1972, Metaphor, London

Jakobson, Roman 1969 Randbemerkungen zur Prose des Dichters Pasternak, [in:] Slavische Rundschau (Prag), VII; translated as The Prose of the Poet, [in:] Pasternak. Modern Judgements, eds. Donald Davie and Angela Livingstone, London: Macmillan, 135-151 (first edition 1935 in Slavische Rundshau, VI)

Pasternak, Elena and Evgenij 2003 = Пастернак, Елена и Евгений, 2003б Комментарии, Борис Пастернак. Полное собрание сочинений с приложениями в одиннадцати томах, том I, Москва, 421-564

Om Jessica Carlzohn 1 artikel
Jessica Carlzohn, PhD in the subject slavonic studies, is a researcher in Russian literature. In January 2010 she defended her thesis Entangled Figures. Five Poems from Temy i variacii by Boris Pasternak at Lund University, Centre for Languages and Literature. Her study is centred around different aspects of Pasternak's early poetry that jeopardize semantic coherency and interpretation of his poems.