Ivan Bunin’s “Without Me”; 1916)

Alexander  ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)


What follows is an analysis of an infinitive poem by Bunin, from 1916, about death – my poetic offering to the memory of M.L. Gasparov, who often used Bunin’s poetry in his work.

In Bunin’s oeuvre infinitive writing is rare. But in this poem, three infinitive fragments (залетать, порхать, шуршать и трепетать — смотреть — манить), connected by an anaphora (И так же будет…),comprise two of the three quatrains. In fact, the anaphoric leitmotif starts forming already in the 1st quatrain (Все то же будет:…); it comes to dominate the 2nd and the 3rd quatrains and is then tactfully elided in the ending (И море <…> манить…). Thus it accompanies the central theme of death, which is characteristic of infinitive poetry in general, but is presented here from a special angle, emblematized by the poem’s original title – “Without Me.”

The infinitives of the 2nd quatrain describe the lively movements of a butterfly that will continue after the death of the lyrical persona. Butterflies can symbolize the human soul as well as the fleeting nautre of life; in infinitive poetry they often embody the object of the lyrical persona’s metamorphic longing. Here the butterfly, alive and clinging to the blue ceiling – in a foreshadowing of the azure of the sky and the sea in the next quatrain – is a link, a mediation between the soul of the freshly departed “I,” still within the confines of his room, and the completely uninhabited outer expanse into which everything in the poem eventually dissolves.

In the 3rd quatrain, the physical movement dies down. On the formal plane, this change is paralleled by the switch from alternate rhymes (abab) to couplets (aabb) and from contrastive vocalization in A-O, A-U to the stabilized monotonous vocalization in O. At the same time, the activity of looking, смотреть, one of the favorite verbs of infinitive poetry, is predicated on one of its favorite nouns (неба дно) – but with a drastic difference: what has usually been the object of wistful gazing becomes its subject. The final infinitive манить plays with the human yearning for the virtual other mode of being, characteristic of infinitive poetry, even more provocatively: by predicating it, because of the persona’s passing, on the external inanimate object of attraction turned grammatical subject (море), while pointedly omitting the implied animate grammatical object (манить кого).

The poem’s infinitive structures iconize its central theme: ‘After [my] death the world will seem to remain the same but will actually be different.’ All six infinitives are brought under a common frame (И так же будет..) and thus seem to form one homogeneous seriesas is the rule in infinitive writing. But they actually refer to – are grammatically linked to – different subjects(бабочка, дно неба, море). This sequence of subjects begins as early as the 1st quatrain (стол, скамья, Да образ, древний и простой). And these subjects are quite tangible and graphic physical entities, rather than the implied, unnamed, grammatically disembodied subject of the usual infinitive series.

In other words, under the pressure of the theme the poem mutates, as it were, into a certain opposite, anti-infinitive mode. Bunin could have adhered to the archetype of Khomiakov’s “Zhelanie” (“A Wish,” 1827):

Хотел бы я разлиться в мире,
Хотел бы с солнцем в небе течь <…>
Или лучом зари румяной
Скользить по плещущей волне <… >
Жить ласточкой под небесами,
К цветам ласкаться мотыльком <..>
Как сладко было бы в природе
То жизнь и радость разливать,
То в громах, вихрях, непогоде
Пространство неба обтекать!
I would like to spill [myself] out into the world,
Would like to flow with the sun in the sky <..>
Or as/like a ray of the rosy dawn
To glide on a wave lapping [upon the shore] <…>
Live as/like a swallow in the skies,
To caress flowers as a moth would <…>
How sweet it would be in nature
Now to spill life and joy,
Now in thunders, whirlwinds and storms
To flow round/across the expanse of the sky!

Then the poem might have ended up something like:

* O, если б бабочкой в шелку
Порхать, шуршать и трепетать
По голубому потолку <…>
Смотреть в открытое окно
И видеть только неба дно,
Да к морю на простор пустой
Лететь заманчивой мечтой.
* Oh, if only as/like a butterfly in silk
To flutter, rustle and tremble
Against the blue ceiling <…>
To look out the open window
And see only the sky’s bottom,
And into the sea’s empty expanse
To fly with/in an alluring dream.

But Bunin destroys – kills – these standard expectations, while maintaining the appearance of a regular infinitive series. Moreover, from quatrain to quatrain there proceeds a gradual dissipation of the comfortable physical “thingness” of the grammatical subjects (room, table, bench — icon — butterfly — sky’s bottom, sea — even azure, desert-like expanse). The idea of the persona’s disappearance is also echoed by the final ellipsis of the все так же будет formula.

     <Без меня>
Настанет день — исчезну я,
А в этой комнате пустой
Все то же будет: стол, скамья
Да образ, древний и простой.

И так же будет залетать
Цветная бабочка в шелку,
Порхать, шуршать и трепетать
По голубому потолку.

И так же будет неба дно
Смотреть в открытое окно,
И море ровной синевой
Манить в простор пустынный свой.

     <Without Me>
The day will come – I will disappear,
And in this empty room
All will be the same: the table, the bench,
And the icon, ancient and simple.

And in the same way will [there] fly in
The colorful butterfly in silk,
Flutter, rustle and tremble
Against the blue ceiling.

And in the same way will the sky’s bottom
Peer into the open window,
And the sea, with [its] even azure,
Beckon into its desert-like expanse.