A fundamental motif in Eminescu's poetry
Romanian Review, no 12, 1979, pp. 131-140
The literary debut of Mihai Eminescu was occasioned by the death of Aron Pumnul, his professor at Cernăuţi High School. There was a strong affectionate bondage between the two, and the death of the teacher deeply affected the young student. Thanks to T.V. Ştefanelli, a class-mate of the future poet, description of that important day in Eminescu's life has remained a memorable page in the history of Romanian literature.
It was for the first time that Ştefanelli saw Eminescu weeping. Later on, in the evening, he was surprised to see his friend composing verses dedicated to the dead man. The poem was published in the brochure Tears of the Students of Cernăuţi High School at the Death of their Most Beloved Professor Aron Pumnul on the day of burial, 12/24 January, 1866 (T. V. Ştefanelli, Recollections about Eminescu, p. 43).
It is significant that Eminescu discovered his poetic talent at his first contact with death and that poetry served him as a means to un¬burden his soul. Since then, the motif of death remained for ever attached to his thought and creation. From the funeral ode At the Grave of Aron Pumnul to his own poetic epitaph, The Boon which I Last Crave, death appeared in Eminescu's poems in different forms. Images of death in his poems are always new, one different from another.
At he age of sixteen, in the poem of debut, Eminescu sees death donned in garments of mythology. He looks upon death as a gateway towards the other world. In conformity with Christian Mythology, he imagines that the soul of the great son of Bucovina is awaited by a choir of angels in paradise ; it will pass from one glory to another, a greater one than earth could offer. The pang of separation is theirs who lost him. Death thus means a continuation of life in another level, and there seems to be no contradiction between the two. The poem is born of sadness, but its tone is almost happy. The happiness is an outcome of mythological precepts and not of philosophical concepts.
In Spring that year Eminescu leaves the Bucovinian town and sets out on a journey through Transylvania, where he goes once again in 1868. For three years he lives a wayfarer's life, sometimes as a porter in the port of Galaţi, sometimes as a prompter in the National Theatre of Bucharest and often as a simple traveller on the paths of the country. He work hard, knows poverty, learns to suffer hunger, becomes acquainted with the misery of peasant life and witnesses the dance of death in the Transylvanian revolution of 1868, which he describes in the novel Barren Genius.
The cruelty of death and the harshness of life that he comes to know in these days are reflected in To the Friend F. I., a poem published three years after that of the debut. Now life is synonymous with "past dreams"and "withered flowers". At the threshold of youth the poet feels that he drags his fate "as a vulture drags its wounded wings." Nor does death show any tenderness. He hears the song of death in winter blizzards "death laughs at him from all corners." Eminescu has already heard the deafening laughter of death in the revolution of 1868.
At this phase, Eminescu is confronted with the ruthless faces of bolt life and death, of which that of death appears less severe. Death seem to be a way of escape from the difficulties of life. It raises a hope for recom¬pensation in the other world. There is an aspiration after posthumous glory as well.
"If the thought of my days is put off in the mind of God
and if my soul finds its recluse only in the stars and
not in this world, I would like you to put a wreath on
my forehead and a lyre near my head on the day when His
angels will take my pale shadow to the white mountains."
Death haunts him even in moments of love. In Would I Die or Should You Die (1869), the poet is overwhelmed with the fear of death, which might separate him from his beloved. The presentiment of the young lover comes true in Mortua est! (1871). At the beginning of the poem Eminescu sees death through the prism of mythology.
"Like silver-lit shadows to me you appear —
Their wings now preparing a skyward career;
Pale soul, you're ascending on scaffolds of clouds
Through showers of raylets and star-studded crowds.
But maybe you find there fine palaces built,
With star-spangled archways resplendently gilt,
With silver-made bridges and rivers of fire,
And myrrh-scented meadows which strike up a choir."
(Trs. Andrei Bantaş)
The idea of the superiority of death over life is more prominent than in any earlier poem. The antithesis between life and death has assumed a well-defined shape.
"Oh, death is but chaos, a star-sea it seems,
While life is a fenland of riotous dreams;
Oh, death is like eras flowered with suns,
While bleak is life's story — it wastefully runs."
(Trs. as above)
The metaphors surprise us with their strangeness. While the death of an individual is associated here with the motive of light, in another stanza that follows "eternal death", the end of the world, is associated with darkness, with "black sky" and sift "universe." Nowhere in Eminescu's poetry is the play of life and shade so surprising, so mysterious.
Did the Romanian poet come across the verses of Shvetashvatara Upanishad of India as early as that: "I have known the great man bright as the Sun standing beyond darkness; only by knowing him one can sur¬pass death, there is no other way to overcome it."
Taken as a whole, the poem does not manifest any knowledge of Indian philosophy. Though some philosophical nuances twinkle here and there like flittering fireflies, contradictory ideas betray the fact that a proper philosophical concept was not crystallized in the poet's mind till then. In one of the drafts, death is described as the return of the soul "to its eternal source" (M. Eminescu, Works, edited by Perpessicius, Vol. I, p. 301). If he would have borrowed the idea from the Upanishads, or at least were conscious of the philosophical value of the expression, perhaps he would not have left it out. The approach to the Upanishads thus seems to be caused by way of intuition. It is nothing more than a happy coincidence.
Lack of a clear vision about death and immortality results in the weakness of the structure of the poem. At the beginning, the idea of the other world is glorified by all means, but the conception that death of the body makes it possible for the soul to enter a happier world cannot console the poet till the end. The last verses turn down all pre-conceived notions, contradict all that has been said before and declare an open chal¬lenge against the so-called destiny.
"But wherefore ? ... Are not all things sheer madness indeed? Why was, rny sweet angel, your death so decreed?
Where lies the world's meaning ? So smiling and gay,
Did you, dear, live only to die in this way ?
If this has some meaning, it's godless and odd:
Upon your man forehead one cannot read 'God' !"
(Trs. as above)
The God of mythology does not satisfy Eminescu any more. He sets out on another road to search for the truth about life and death.
The demon who revolted against the open sky calms down for a moment in Angel and Demon (1973). The demon/hero dies in a church, and just before death sees the angel-heroine praying for him. At the moment of death, love comes as reconciliation. Death is the Saviour that relieves the hero of the pains of life. Instead of promising any recompensation in the other world, it brings him the supreme reward, love, in earth itself. In Eminescu's vision death has already discarded its robe of mythology. Now he looks for the meaning of life and death in religion.
Yet, Eminescu's mind was too advanced to be limited to a dogma, to any particular religion. He was a poet of philosophy, not of religion. So, in Emperor and Proletarian (1874) he denounces religion and shatters all mythological concepts abouth death that influenced him till now.
"Religion? They've invented this hurdy-gurdy burden
That by its magic power you may be kept laid low:
If in your inmost nature there were no hope of guerdon,
When you have toiled a lifetime and borne the beggar's burden, Could you endure the trials of oxen at the plough?
With unsubstantial shadows they have bedimmed your sight And made of you believers in ransoms from on high.
Yo ! death of life has smothered all possible delight —
For he who here has only known pain, and grief, and plight, Has nought in the hereafter, for dead are those that die."
(Trs. Leon Leviţchi)
The concept of death is no longer linked with mythology, nor with religion. Death is no more a continuation of life. The antithesis between life and death is clear, devoid of any ambiguities.
In The Ghosts (1876) Eminescu returns to the Dacian myth and makes a daring step in the domain of Thanatos. Arald, the hero who had turned the earth upside down like the one in Angel and Demon, marries his dead lover. Dead himself as well, both are engaged by Death. Just as in the old Romanian ballad Mioriţa, the nuptial combines with the funebrial. The atmosphere of the supernatural poem is dominated by the unseen presence of Zalmoxis, the Dacian god. Death is once again the continuation of life, not in the after-world, but on earth itself. The heroes live their lives after death along with living beings.
Now we are in the year 1876, when after his return from Berlin the poet is absorbed in an ardent activity of creation. Till now he acquired a thorough knowledge of different systems of philosophy. He has learnt the teachings of Buddhism, which according to him is "the most poetic, most beautiful and the most profound religion of the world" (T.V. Ştefanelli, op. cit., p. 72). His concept of life and death has started to crystallize. The terror of death has gone. Now Death appears to be a well-wisher, a bestower of peace. Sentimental proximity to death brings Eminescu nearer to life, to Nature. Nature is all the more linked with love in this period. Even the thorns of disappointment are not so pointed.
In The Lake (1876) the poet sobs and suffers in vain on the bank of a blue lake, the heroine does not come to him. But love meets its fulfilment in The Desire (1976), the poem that succeeds it immediately. Here life is a happy dream harmonised with Nature. In The Story of the Forest (1878), forest, "the gracious emperor", plays host to the lovers. They meet in the land of imagination, as it happens in most love poems of Eminescu. The dream is not shattered as in The Lake, nor does the fright of death darkens the poet's mind, as it did in poems of adolescence.
Sadness comes back in Away from You (1878). At twenty-eight the poet feels old and it seems to him that his beloved is dead long ago. The longing for communion with Nature goes on increasing in urban surroundings, which finds its expression in the nostalgic question, "Where are you, o childhood, with your forest and all?" in Oh, Stay On (1879). There was such a strong heart-to-heart relation between Eminescu and Nature that the separation from her meant sheer exile to him. In city life he feels like a banished person, a misfit ; world, life, love everything loses its charms.
Disappointment reappears in the poems In the Same Old Lane, Whenever I Remember and some others written in 1879. The beloved is frequently lost in "the horizon of the eternal morning." Bitterness in life leads the poet to conclusions like "the world is divided between the fool and the crafty" (The Twins, published posthumously) and "behold the beautiful reward: a shroud and four planks" (ibidem).
In The Twins, perhaps the most shocking poem of Eminescu, death changes its gentle appearance. Distinctly different from The Ghosts, death in this poem disintegrates life and love. After the death of king Sarmis, priests try to bring him back to life by invocations, but the dead does not respond immediately. Then they arrange the coronation of his twin brother Brigbelu, who will at the same time, marry Sarmis's fiancee. When everything is ready, Sarmis enters the festive hall unexpectedly, reproaches Zalmoxis, who came to preside over the coronation and the marriage, then curses his brother and kills him.
The seamy side of life and death is once again prominent in The Twins. Love is nothing but an illusion that can never be realized in life, because "there is no room for so much mercy and so much luck in this world of misery and tears." Woman is deception embodied ; only Zalmoxis is capable of, observes Sarmis satirically, "combining so much charm with so much infidelity." Death is not the same compassionate spirit which married Arald with his dead lover. It is again a terror, as is evident from Sarmis's curse to his brother Brigbelu, "Let the terror of death enter every bone of yours."
The motive of black is abundant. Boats are black, black branches of lime shake off flowers towards the dark sea and the Sun blackens "the course of centuries", time. The latter two images appear constantly as refrains. The poet's world is plunged in darkness.
Death destroys the life of Brigbelu, and Sarmis's return to life is a greater catastrophe.
A Dacian's Prayer, written in the period 1976/1879, is created from a manuscript, of witch The Twins form a part. The name of Zalmoxis is not spelled out, but it is understood from some fragments related to the poem that he is the god to whom the poet bows and it is his glory that is sung in the opening stanzas, which happen to be an adaptation of a hymn from the Indian Rigveda. Apart from assimilating The Hymn to an Unknown God (Rigveda, X, 121), Eminescu uses some terms belonging to Indian philosophy, for example, "eternal rest" and "extinction for ever."
It was discussed if the following verses were not inspired from the idea of self-torture of Indian yoghins (C. Papacostea, Ancient Philosophy, in Eminescu's Works, p. 29).
"To curse all those who pity will show for me, to bless
All those who make me suffer and ruthlessly oppress ...
And if, by all accursèd, I die a stranger, they
Upon the street my body to dogs shall throw away,
And him who sets them on me, that they may tear my heart,
O him, my gracious Falher, the highest crown impart,
And him who stones will on me with hatred throw, o give
My Lord, that he in glory eternally may live!"
(Trs. P. Grimm)
In Yoga, an ascetic submits his body to different trials so that the spirit is liberated from the bondage of sense organs. The respective practices are but steps towards attaining spiritual equilibrium, the very factor totally lacking in this poem. The hero separates and isolates himself from humanity, even curses his mother and manifests a state of utmost agitation, which tears him to pieces. The reason of his fury cannot be understood from the contents of the poem. One can only guess it with reference to its prototype, The Twins.
The poem has textual similarities with the Vedic cosmogony and some Buddhist ideas, but the feelings expressed in it are foreign to Indian systems of thought. The poet's aspiration after the eternal extinction does not originate from the extinction of passions, an essential condition of the Buddhist nirvana. On the other hand, the hero is not at all indifferent to the fate of his body after death. This is not in conformity with the philosophy of the Upanishads or of the Bhagavad-gita. According to these, the soul cannot be cut with arms, not can it be burnt with fire. You can kill one's body, but not his soul. As a man throws his old garments away and takes new ones, the immortal soul passes from one body to another after physical death (Bhagavad-gita, II, 22-23). So it matters little for the spirit liberated from the body if the body is thrown on a street or is embalmed with myrrh. The hero of A Dacian's Prayer has not attained such indifference to his body.
The last part of the poem offers a sharp contrast to the first one. It is therefore difficult to decipher the message of the poem, to understand the poet's attitude towards life and death. We have noted a similar state of confusion in Mortua est! To our minds, Eminescu passed through another phase of spiritual transition in these days.
Till now he has come to know two important systems of Indian philosophy, namely the philosophy of the Upanishads and the Buddhist philosophy. They serve him as some sources of inspiration, but are not yet amalgamated with his own system of thought. He has found the road which would lead him to the truth about life and death, but has not attained the goal. The end of the way is far off. His mind is not yet prepared for the eternal rest. Perhaps the poet himself was conscious of the fact, and this might have been the reason that made him abandon the title, Nirvana, extinction of passions, which he gave to one of the variations of the poem.
The year 1879, in which A Dacian's Prayer was published, was a year full of journalistic and literary activities for Eminescu. During this year he used to write at least a page a day of the newspaper The Time, of which he was the Editor. At the same time he worked at the finalisation of the Epistles group of poems, which were published one by one in 1881.
In Spring of 1880 he writes to his sister Harieta, "Autumn of the year comes only once, and it is followed by Spring. You never know when and from where the Autumn of life comes ... You only find that everything has passed and that it will never come back. And then you feel old, very old and you would like to die" (M. Eminescu, Works, edition quoted, II, p. 169). The regret that his days are passing away for ever has already started.
Almost in the same time he publishes O, Mother, a poem dedicated to his mother, whom he lost in 1876. His mother's death is remembered in Lost for Me, You Move Smilingly in the World (1876).
"I did not love my poor mother so much / as I love you. Yet, when they covered her with earth, it seemed that
the world turned black and that my heart would crack. I would have liked to be put in the same grave with her.
When the bell rang and its copper cried, my wandering
mind shouted, "Where are you, mother?" I looked at the
bottom of the grave, and tears flowed down like rivers
from my unworthy eyes on her black coffin. I did not
know what happened to me, nor how I could live in this world all by myself, like a stranger. My heart shrank
and my life stayed in the throat."
The poem was not published during the life time of the poet. It would have been quite unnatural for Eminescu to publish his tearful sobs. He needed four years to suppress the cry of the orphan and helpless child, to write about his mother with self-control.
The years 1879 and 1880 bring maturity to Eminescu's thought. His mother's death makes him conscious of the fact that death is more than a mere idea ; it is a concrete reality. Now he has the presentiment of the end of his life. He waits for death, not as an inevitable evil, but a desired end. At this stage death means to him a deep, undisturbed sleep. The sinister laugh of death does no more ring in winter blizzards. To the contrary, he hears his mother's voice in the rustling of acacia leaves over her grave. He no longer desires the death of an Orpheus, does not pine for posthumous glory, does not want to have wreaths and lyre on his grave. Only a branch of the holy lime and a few drops of tears of his beloved are all that he wants. In the poem To the Friend F. I. he wanted to be buried on the mountains; now he wants his grave on the bank of a river. The flowing water, symbol of eternal life, is linked with the thought of death, as it was seen in his short story Cezara (1876). Feelings of purity and solitude are intensified. Interiorization of mind is reflected in the simplicity of language. The homage to his mother is a forerunner to his. own epitaph, The Boon Which I Last Crave.
Eminescu's philosophical vision is fully developed in the First Epistle (1881). The antithesis between life and death has totally disappeared. The image of the individual's death is integrated in the panorama of the end of the world. The concepts of the infinite and the eternity have crystallized. Microcosm has met macrocosm. Atman, the individual soul, has found its way to Brahman, the universal soul. The greatness of death has assumed proportions bigger than ever. The moon has become a symbol of death's genius. Like an Indian kavi, poet-philosopher, Eminescu has arrived at the conclusion that life and death are but two aspects of eternal life.
After the Epistles, Hyperion is published (1883) - Eminescu's masterpiece, with an altogether new idea of death. The astral hero and the earthly heroine can never unite. She will not leave the earth and he cannot leave the sky. She is subjected to the laws of death, and he is chained to the order of immortality. The Evening Star requests Demiurge to take back his halo of immortality, for He is "the fountain of life and the giver of death". But the Demiurge does not set him free from cosmic orders, an idea which corresponds to the conception of rita in the Rigveda. The laws of creation separates the loving souls coming from two different worlds, the heaven and the earth.
Usually death is conceived as a way of escape from the sufferings of life. In this poem Eminescu conceives it as a possible exit from the sufferings of immortality. The tragedy of the genius rests in the fact that the boon of death is denied to him; he will have to carry his burden of solitariness for ever. The mortals will attain uninterrupted peace at death; but the "thirst for eternal peace" of the immortal will never be quenched. By such an interpretation of the tragedy of the Evening Star, Eminescu makes death more desirable than immortality, and throws a new light on the myth of paradise.
The synthesis of life and death is more developed in The Gloss (1883), mainly inspired from Buddhist philosophy. Quite different from the hero of A Dacian's Prayer, who isolated himself from the world and challenged the creator with hate and curse, the poet of The Gloss stays in the midst of humanity, but does not hate anybody, nor is he attached to anything.
It is said in the Buddhist code of morals, Dhammapada, "Let us live among men who hate each other, and let us not hate anybody. Let us live in the midst of agitation and let us be calm and live happily" (Dhammapada, XV, 1-3). A similar spirit of detachment is observed in The Gloss.
"Give their touch a wide, wide berth;
Hold your tongue if they blaspheme;
Since you know what they are worth,
What could yotir advice redeem?
Let all say whate'er they like:
Never mind whom they surpass;
Lest you should endear some tyke,
Keep as cool as ice or glass."
(Trs. Andrei Bantaş)
Seated at the "cool balance of thought", Eminescu arrives at the control of passions. Now he is equally indifferent to the pleasant and the unpleasant. The disciple of the Buddha has come near nirvana. The spirit of The Gloss is also in conformity with that of the Bhagavad-gita, which maintains that one who is not moved by either happiness or sorrow, gain or loss, who remains the same in victory and defeat, and who is free from fear, anger and bitterness can verily be called wise" (Bhagavad-gita, II, 38, 56).
The Gloss is immediately followed by Ode in Sapphic Metre (1883), permeated with an acute longing for death. To Eminescu's mind, death no longer signifies the exit from sufferings. The teachings of the Buddha guides him not to look for salvation through death. He calls the "sad indifference" to make him pass over the humdrums of daily life. The poet believes that at last he has learnt to die.
The year 1883 is the last year of Eminescu's creative life. He loses his mental lucidity this year and dies in 1889. Now he feels steps of death within himself, and waits for it with the quietness of a philosopher. The love of life increases at the same time, but it is not mixed with any lust for living. Death and life attract him equally, but there is no conflict, no dichotomy between the two.
"My mind tries hard to lead me along oft-trodden roads
For Life and Death to liken, my soul it lures and goads;
But my thought's scales and balance to change are ever loath Because the tongue is lying unmoved between them both."
('Tis Midnight Struck. Trs. Andrei Bantaş)
The time has come for death to put him to sleep. After the intense restlessness of a dramatic life, Eminescu is left with one single desire, the last desire, to die at the border of the sea. No rich coffins are wanted, no banners, no tears. He wants to be one with the earth in a bed woven with tender twigs, to have the blessings of the holy lime and to be assimilated in Nature:
"As I shall cease at last
To wade in the world's muddle,
Dear moments of the past
Will to my tombstone huddle.
The stars, my friends that peep
Through shady firs, of yore,
Will smile and evermore
Will watch and guard my sleep.
Torn by her passions rude,
The sea will sing and cry,
While I am dust and lie
In perfect solitude."
(The Boon Which I Last Crave. Trs. Leon Leviţchi)
Death will linlk him to life for ever.
The Romanian poet searched for the sense of death in mythology, in religion and in philosophies of the world over. In the last days of his life he discovered it in "the mioritic space", in the fundamental idea of Mioriţa, the ballad of his native land.
And, he left us his epitaph and his testament, The Boon Which I Last Crave, the poetry and the philosophy of his immortal life.