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"In the Vestal Abyss of a Line of Verse":
On Meaning in Poetry and Meaning in Doctrine

The complete article is published in: Olga Sedakova. Freedom to believe: philosophical and cultural essays. Bucknell University Press, 2010. We are grateful to the Publishing house Bucknell University Press for the permission to use the fragment of the book on this site.
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Poetic meaning and poetic flesh – which is called form – are indeed vestal, that is, secret and hidden. They appear before us and yet do not leave their native depths – the "vestal abyss" – they appear but cannot be caught, and cannot do otherwise: for this is not simply a "property" of poetry but its very nature. Moreover, when I say "poetry," I am not referring to just one of its aspects – the authorial – that is, the very creation of poems or an already existing collection of poetic works, but equally to the perception of poetry: the experience of the reader and interpreter. Anything that is created by other means–beyond this carefree non-possessive experience, this non-comprehending comprehension–and anything that is perceived in poems in any other way, does not, strictly speaking, have anything to do with poetry.

I have already said that the art of modern times is clearly far from its former choral origins. However, while it remains art and not "an artistic construction," or "a social strategy of the authorities," or anything else that has been described by modern journalism, it carries within it the inalienable gift of communication. True, there is no longer a choral unity, but we can hear a mysterious call and response from the depths of one human to another. The "vestal abyss of a line," like any other art, is an area of communication. An amazing quality of this communication is its ability to cross through different times, countries, ages, and the so-called "personal experience of people," which, for some reason, this communication does not need. The "other I" – the "I" of inspiration – has been called the "momentary personality" or the "musical subject" by those who tried to comprehend it. But we can put it differently: it is the common person in a person, the very substance of humanity in a human being, his or her heart – the heart that awakens as the heart of a poet. I had separated Zabolotsky’s line of verse from the preceding one – as a whole his thought would sound like this:

Only the heart of a poet shines eternally
In the vestal abyss of a line of verse. 1


The voice of poetry, the voice of a person who exists in the proper relationship with purity, depth, and mystery is a voice of amazing and inexplicable confidence. And we always recognize it by this confidence. The famous German theologian Karl Bart wrote about Mozart, trying to explain the miraculous power of his intonations: Mozart knows absolutely no doubts! Similarly, Mandelstam speaks of lyric poetry and music as the voice of innocence and inner truth:

In him [the artist] waves of inner rightness
Were rising, flowing and playing. 2


This moment of rightness – this miraculous oblivion in which it seems impossible to make a mistake or a blunder, impossible to experience one’s own painful imperfection – is called, in human terms, pure happiness. The gift of poetry as poetry, irrespective of its specific content, is the gift of this happiness: the gift of a sudden memory of one’s homeland, of a friendly, cherished relationship with something, in the presence of which we usually experience nothing but a sense of guilt. The gift of the memory of Eden.

Poetry is of course not the only doing of man. But if we lose this doing we will lose the fullness of the image of man and the image of humankind, of man who is making and of man who is being made. Into what is he made, we might at last ask?

You hold me like an artifact
And hide me like a signet ring in a case 3


– this is how a dying man addresses God in one of Pasternak’s poems. A person is made into what he or she originally was: a beloved treasure of the Creator:

Where simple existence
Cries like a child,
May God watch over you
Like his own gold! 4


And this, I would venture to say, is the doctrinal meaning of poetry.

Inaugural Lecture on the Occasion of the Bestowal of the Doctor of Theology Degree honoris causa (Minsk University of the Humanities)
Translated by Slava I. Yastremski

1 Only the heart of a poet shines eternally
In the vestal abyss of a line of verse

– a quote from N.Zabolotsy's poem "A Night Stroll" ("Nochnoe gulianie") (1953).

2 In him [the artist] waves of inner rightness
Were rising, flowing and playing.

– a quote from Mandelstam's poem "Grand Piano" ("Royal'") (1931).

3 You hold me like an artifact
And hide me like a signet ring in a case

– a quote from Pasternak's poem "In the Hospital" ("V bol'nitse") (1953).

4 May God watch over you
Like his own gold!

– a quote from the last part of Sedakova's poem "Hermit Speaks" ("Otshel'nik govorit") from the cycle of poems "Tristan and Isolde" (1978-1982).
The Issue of Man in Modern Secular Culture
"Non-Mortal and Mysterious Feelings": On Pushkinʼs Christianity
 "In the Vestal Abyss of a Line of Verse": On Meaning in Poetry and Meaning in Doctrine
Mediocrity as a Social Danger
The Light of Life. Some Remarks On the Russian Orthodox Perception
The Art of translation. Some remarks
The Morality of Art, or the Evils of Mediocrity
Once again about Childhood, Poetry, and Courage. Answers for Elena Stepanian
Hermes. The Invisible Aspect of Classical Literature
A Discourse on Method
Poetry and Anthropology
On the Nature of Tradition
Freedom as Eschatological Reality
Waiting for a Response
Totus Tuus
In Memory of John Paul II
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