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Fet's portrait by Ilya Repin.

Afanasy Afanasievich Fet (Foeth, Russian: Афана́сий Афана́сьевич Фет, later changed his name to Shenshin (Шеншин); 5 December 18203 December 1892), was a poet who dominated Russian poetry during the last quarter of the 19th century.

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Life

Afanasy was the child of a German woman named Charlotta who was initially married to Johann Foeth. She remarried a rich Russian landlord named Shenshin in 1822, after Afanasy's birth in 1820. It is unclear if Afanasy was the son of Foeth or Shenshin, but the decision was made by the Holy Consistory in Orel that he would go by his German father's name because the marriage between his mother and his Russian father was not legitimized soon enough. This was quite traumatic for him as he completely identified himself with Shenshin and not Foeth. He spent his youth studying at Moscow University, and serving in the army (until 1856). In 1850, a young woman named Maria Lazich, who was in love with Fet but who could not marry him because of financial reasons, perished having accidentally set herself on fire. This event and the image of Maria would be frequently evoked by Fet even in his later verses. The stigma of illegitimacy haunted him all through his life, and after years of litigation, he obtained the right to use the prestigious name Shenshin (1876). Promotion in the army ranks helped him to secure the longed-for admission to Russian nobility as well, just when serfdom was abolished.

Fet was despised and ridiculed by radicals as a mean personality of reactionary political views, but this doesn't concern his poetry. He held the view that a poet's lifestyle has little bearing on his art, and that an artist doesn't have to be sincere. While in the army, he made friends with another officer, Leo Tolstoy, whom he always admired. Later, he settled at the Stepanovka manor in his home district of Mtsensk and visited his illustrious neighbour as often as possible. Among Tolstoy's friends, he was the only professional man of letters.

In his later years, he also wrote literary reminiscences and translated the Aeneid and Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. In his old age, when his suffering became unbearable, Fet attempted to follow Schopenhauer's advice and commit suicide, but was stymied by his family. He died from a heart attack during another suicide attempt.

Poetry

When Fet first published his poetry in 1842, he was too timid to trust his own artistic taste. He therefore submitted his verse to be examined by Ivan Turgenev, whom he respected as an arbiter of literary tastes. This tradition continued for many years, until Fet understood that Turgenev had expurgated from his verse the most personal and original elements of his artistic vision.

The subjects of Fet's poetry are far from being original: unhappy love, the modest nature of Central Russia, the perfection of Greek statuary, and the majesty of God. But he treated them in an impressionistic manner, always trying to catch a moment of volatile change. He could write a poem consisting of nouns only and yet making an impression of restless dynamism.

His last pieces, arguably influenced by Baudelaire, are intricate and obscure: the images are meant to evoke (rather than to record) subtle associations of half-forgotten memories. He once said that the most important thing in poetry is a thread that would bind all the rambling associations into a tightly structured short poem.

Fet was never a popular poet during his lifetime. But he had a profound influence on the Russian Symbolists, especially Innokenty Annensky and Alexander Blok, and as such is firmly established among all-time Russian greats.

Sample

A sample of Fet's poem, with rhymes dropped
When you were reading those tormented lines
In which the heart's resonant flame sends out glowing streams
And passion's fatal torrents rear up,-
Didn't you recall a single thing?
I can't believe it! That night on the steppe
When, in the midnight mist a premature dawn,
Transparent, lovely as a miracle,
Broke in the distance before you
And your unwilling eye was to this beauty drawn
To that majestic glow beyond the realm of darkness,-
How could it be that nothing whispered to you then:
A man has perished in that fire!
15 February 1887

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