The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals
The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals
Norman Dubie 1977
“The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals” appears in Norman Dubie’s 1977 collection The Illustrations. Many of the poems in the collection are told from the point of view of artists or historical figures or are about them. The “Czar” in the title is Nicholas II, Russia’s last czar, who abdicated the throne in 1917 and was assassinated with his family by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918. Dubie’s poem is in the form of a letter from Nicholas to his mother, Maria Fyodorovna Romanova, formerly Dagmar, princess of Denmark, and is written in thirty unrhymed couplets. Traditionally, Christmas letters fill in the person addressed with details of the writer’s life over the last year, and this is the approach that Dubie takes. Nicholas tells his mother what his life has been like during his time in captivity in the Ural Mountains. He recounts stories about his servant, Illya, and his wife and daughters.
The tone of the poem is intimate. At the same time the letter intimates death. It is this relationship between intimacy and intimation that makes the poem intriguing because readers realize that the letter is Nicholas’ last Christmas letter, whereas he does not. In addition to intimations of death, the poem implicitly addresses the changes in Russia at the time, its movement from monarchy to communism, and the effect that this change has on the country’s former czar and those opposed to him and the idea of monarchy. These changes are symbolized in the details that Nicholas provides about his family, and the simple joys he writes that they find
in their daily lives, even though they are prisoners. Readers can infer from the details that Nicholas and his mother write to each other often, and that the Czar is as concerned with not upsetting his mother as he is with telling the truth about his situation.
In an age of poetry dominated by the confessional lyric, Norman Dubie’s poetry stands out for its exploration of the lives of others. In addition to Russia’s last czar, Nicholas II, Dubie has written poems about or from the point of view of Madam Blavatsky, Queen Elizabeth I, Proust, Chekhov, Ingmar Bergman, and Rodin, among others. His poetry is one of America’s best-kept secrets. Known for his deep knowledge, allusiveness, and sophistication, Dubie is a “poets’s poet,” meaning that he has yet to achieve the popular acclaim of others less deserving and less talented. Born on April 10, 1945, in Barre, Vermont, to Norman Dubie, an insurance-claims adjuster and theological student in a progressive congregational church, and Doris Dubie, a registered nurse, Dubie began writing poems when he was eleven years old. Dubie cultivated his distinctive style under poets Barry and Lorraine Goldensohn at progressive Goddard College, where he received his B.A. in 1969. In 1971, he finished his M.F.A. at the University of Iowa, studying under George Starbuck and Marvin Bell.
Dubie has held a number of academic posts, teaching at the University of Iowa, Ohio University, and the University of Arizona, where he helped found the creative writing program and has taught since 1975 and is now Regents’ Professor of English. Few contemporary poets have demonstrated his poetic range or have been more prolific. In addition to being awarded numerous grants and prizes for his poetry, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the Ingram-Merrill Foundation, Dubie has published nearly twenty volumes of poems. These include Alehouse Sonnets (1971), The Illustrations (1977), which includes “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals,” The City of the Olesha Fruit (1979), Selected and New Poems (1983), and Groom Falconer (1989). His Collected and New Poems will be published in 2001. Dubie lives with his wife, the poet Jeannine Savard, and his daughter Hannah in Tempe, Arizona.
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[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
In the first line of “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals” the speaker, Nicholas II, addresses his mother, Maria Fyodorovna Romanova, formerly Dagmar, princess of Denmark, who was married to Czar Alexander Alexandrovich Romanov. Nicholas II was born in 1868, married Alexandra Feodorovna, formerly Alix of Hesse-Darmastadt, and assumed emperorship of Russia in 1894 when his father died. He was Russia’s last czar. If this fictional letter were true, Nicholas would have written the letter in 1917 when the czar and his family were being held by Bolshevik revolutionaries in the city of Tobolsk in west central Russia.
According to Dubie, Illya is not a real person, but a device that allowed the poet to inhabit the persona of the czar more fully. Nicholas is recounting an episode that happened years before. He had never told his mother about this incident and readers can infer that it is because of his dire circumstances that he “confesses” the details of it to her. “That last holiday” is Ascension Day, which commemorates Christ’s ascension into heaven. Saint Petersburg, through which Illya stumbles, is the second largest city in Russia and a place of great architectural and natural beauty. From 1712 to 1917 Saint Petersburg was the capital of the Russian empire. Illya’s assembling a “choir of mutes” and dressing them in pink ascension gowns suggests both decadence and desperation. The phrase “choir of mutes” itself is an oxymoron. An oxymoron is a paradox reduced to two words, and is used to emphasize incongruities or contradictions.
In these lines, Nicholas continues the story of Illya during Ascension Day. Dubie characterizes Nicholas by the way in which he has the Czar tell the story. He does not interfere with Illya’s wild behavior but merely observes it, even when Illya sold a stallion belonging to Nicholas’ father to finance his absurd plan. Illya’s aggressive behavior and the relative ease with which he was able to put on a recital illustrate the privilege and power of those connected with the Romanov family. The very idea of a recital by mutes is a ridiculous one but full of symbolism. The early twentieth century was a chaotic time for Russia. Revolutionaries constantly tried to overthrow the government, almost succeeding in 1905 before finally succeeding in 1917. Russia lost millions of people during World War I, and toward the end of the war, bombings, assassinations, looting, and general mayhem were widespread. During his last year in power, Nicholas was largely ineffectual and powerless in the face of this chaos. The image of a “choir of mutes” embodies this idea of powerlessness. Lines 15–17 contain
- Books on Tape released the audiocassette Romanovs: The Final Chapter, by Robert K. Massie in 1995. The book is read by Geoffrey Howard.
- Twentieth-Century Fox released Anastasia in 1997. This cartoon musical is a fictional story about the daughter of Czar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. Anastasia was rumored to have survived the family’s 1918 massacre. Meg Ryan plays the voice of Anastasia.
- In the 1986 television drama Anastasia, Amy Irving plays the Russian princess who reappears in Berlin in 1923 after supposedly having been murdered five years before.
- The Academy of American Poets sponsors a webpage on Dubie at http://www.poets.org/poets/poets.cfm?prmID=175 (January 2001) with links to other relevant sites.
a simile. Like “the voices / Of mutes,” the sound of “wind passing through big winter pines” does not so much suggest sound as it suggests an ominous and ghostly silence.
Nicholas finishes his story about Illya. Nicholas regrets Russia’s war with Japan—in which Russia was soundly defeated—not because so many lives were lost but because Illya was lost to the family. How he was lost is unclear. On the one hand, he might have been a participant in the war and have died. On the other hand, he might have lost his mind during this time. Evidence of this is Illya’s drooling and laughing at the children while eating clams in lines 21–23. By telling his mother how he feels about the loss of Illya, Nicholas is humanizing himself for the reader, making him seem more of a regular person than a royal.
Nicholas notes the pleasures he takes in his life after he is no longer czar, even while noting the closeness of danger. On March 3, 1917, with popular uprisings increasing daily and mounting citizen anger at his inability to institute reforms or to address the rampant poverty of the country and the chaos it had fallen into, Nicholas abdicated the throne to his younger brother, the Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovitch. The grand duke himself renounced the throne the next day, effectively ending the three-century-old Romanov dynasty. The sound of Illya’s chorus haunts Nicholas; symbolically, it is the sound of imminent death. Lines 27–29 underscore the presence of death in Nicholas’ thinking. Teaching his children “decreasing fractions” suggests he is teaching them to expect less.
In line 30, Nicholas mentions Alexandra, his wife, the czarina. The two had been estranged for a time in 1917 in part because of his wife’s religious obsessions, but were now reunited. Dubie emphasizes Nicholas’ tender qualities and his love for his wife, but it is a bittersweet and melancholic love. He is both touched and saddened by her beauty, as line 38 suggests.
On March 8, 1917, Alexandra and her family were placed under arrest at the czar’s winter palace at Tsarskoye Selo, outside of Saint Petersburg. Riots, bloodshed, and general chaos had engulfed the streets of the capital during February and March, as Bolsheviks staged a major offensive against counterrevolutionaries. The imperial family stayed there until August when the Bolsheviks, unsure of what to do, shipped them to Tobolsk, the capital of Siberia. The czar and his wife made the best of their situation, and these lines emphasize Nicholas’s hope and despair. The conflicted feelings of the revolutionaries themselves are highlighted when one of the soldiers calls Nicholas “Great Father,” one of the czar’s titles. The samovar that the soldier finds is an urn used for boiling tea.
Nicholas expresses his fear that when the soldiers give him letters from his mother, which they have been withholding, it will be a sign that he and his family will be executed. He returns to the metaphor of the fraction, comparing the increasing possibility of his death to the way that the bottom integer of a fraction increases the smaller the fraction becomes. Nicholas ends the letter formally, yet affectionately. That he repeats his name at the end shows his own diminishing sense of self in the wake of all that has passed.
“The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals” shows how the idea of class is as much a psychological as a social structure and how people’s perception of class is ingrained in their behavior. This idea is evident in the relationships that Nicholas describes to his mother. Those of a privileged class, such as royalty, or even the servants of royalty, have a sense of entitlement that others do not. Illya exhibits this when he organizes an absurd recital for Ascension Day featuring a “choir of mutes.” A peasant could not have gotten away with this in Russia during this time. Nicholas, on the other hand, is caught between a sense of entitlement, which comes with position, and the realization that he is no longer as entitled as he was before he abdicated the throne and became a prisoner.
Being in this state of “class limbo” means that types of behavior that would previously not have been tolerated, now are. For example, the guards flirt with the czar’s daughters and the czar sees “nothing wrong with it.” The guards are also caught in a psychologically conflicted position in relation to their duty. On the one hand, as members of the Bolshevik revolution, they are in an adversarial position to the czar and his family, yet on the other hand they still retain a deep respect and admiration for the czar, whose family has ruled Russia for the last three centuries. This conflict is evident when a soldier calls the czar “Great Father,” a title of respect and deep reverence, but then refuses to let the czar touch him. Such confusion of class-based affection and affinity is conventionally more common for prisoners than for captors. Its appearance in this poem illustrates the concrete changes that occur when the social order of a country shifts.
“The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals” explores how the possibility of death colors human beings’ waking life, and how that possibility floats between the conscious and the unconscious mind. The things that Nicholas tells his mother not only have the feel of a confession, but they also sound like someone’s last words. Illya’s story is itself like a dream, and Nicholas tells it by way of saying that the loss of his servant was a great emotional blow to him. The tone of the poem, the subtle but ominous images, and readers’ own awareness that the czar and his family have only six months more to live all make readers doubt Nicholas’ intimations that being czar was more a
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem to a clearly identified audience from the point of view of a well-known historical figure. Try to locate this poem in time. For example, you might want to imagine what President Clinton might have written to his brother during the president’s impeachment hearings.
- Russia has changed a great deal since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Research and report on the ways in which that revolution succeeded and the ways it failed.
- Nicholas mentions mint twice in the poem, once in line 40 and once in line 55. What is its significance?
- Read Dubie’s “The Piano,” a poem included in The Illustrations, then reread “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals.” How does your reading of “The Piano” change your response to the czar’s letter?
- Write a letter from the point of view of the czar’s mother, answering her son’s letter.
burden than a pleasure. If Nicholas were still the czar, his chances for living would be greater.
Ultimately, it is what Nicholas does and not what he says that makes this poem about death. The love that he expresses for his children, his wife, and even his former subjects (the soldiers and guards) all point to a mind in the act of reflection, of combing over the significance of one’s life in the face of death. The consolation that he attempts to give himself, that somehow he and his family will be “increased by death,” does not ring true, as he himself admits. For Nicholas, this letter is therapeutic; it’s a way of grappling with the inevitability of death and of finding a place for it in his daily life.
An epistolary poem is a poem written in the form of a letter. The name comes from the word epistle, which means letter. Epistolary novels were popular in the eighteenth century, but epistolary poems have become popular only in recent times. Poems in the form of letters allow for a high degree of intimacy and self-reflection while simultaneously following the formal conventions of a letter. They are often written on a specific occasion for a particular reason. Dubie shapes his poem using free-verse couplets, that is, couplets that do not rhyme and have no set meter. Some of the lines are end-stopped and some of them are an enjambment (the running over of one sentence in a couplet into another). By using end stops or an enjambment, he counterbalances the conversational quality of the letter/poem with a formality befitting someone of Nicholas’ rank. Readers can infer from the manner in which Nicholas addresses his mother and the details that he provides that he is fearful and unsure of what is going to happen to him and his family. Other poets who have composed epistolary poems include Ezra Pound, Richard Hugo, and William Carlos Williams.
In 1917 when Nicholas II would have written this letter to his mother (if this were a real letter), Russia was in a state of virtual anarchy. Nicholas had abdicated the throne in March after months of rioting and demonstrations, and the provisional government presided over by Prince Lvov passed a resolution putting the czar and his family under house arrest. The government’s intention was to allow the Romanovs to emigrate to England, but the Petro-grad Soviet (the Revolutionary Worker’s and Soldiers’ Council) objected.
In August, as popular sentiment turned more violent against the czar, the imperial family was moved to Tobolsk, the capital of Siberia, where they were housed in the governor’s mansion. Home to descendents of political prisoners who had been sent there by Nicholas’ own ancestors, Tobolsk nonetheless welcomed the Czar and his family.
In October a wave of revolution and counterrevolution swept Russia again, with Vladimir Ilich Lenin and the Bolsheviks seizing power on November 17th from Alexander Kerensky’s government. The Whites, those loyal to the Romanovs or just hostile to the revolutionaries, battled against them. Since Tobolsk is isolated and its rivers are frozen during the winter, the only way to get to the city was by horse. Consequently, news about the Bolsheviks’ victory did not arrive until late November. Nicholas was surprised and dejected by the news, as Lenin made no secret of his contempt for the imperial family. The mood at the mansion darkened considerably. Historian Peter Kurth writes that in December
Christmas came, and with it the last resemblance of ‘useful’ activity in the governor’s mansion. According to custom, the imperial family gave presents to all of their servants, down to the last footman, and this year a number of the soldiers also received gifts of knitted scarves, gloves, and caps.
In March 1918, Bolshevik Russia signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, renouncing its sovereignty over Finland, Estonia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, and over the Ukraine in the south. Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan declared their independence as well. The Bolsheviks hoped this would allow them to consolidate their power and institute sweeping social reforms. Instead, the counterrevolution intensified, as the Allies swept into former Soviet strongholds and helped anti-Bolshevik forces. During this time, the Bolsheviks renamed themselves the Communist Party, and moved the country’s capital from Petrograd to Moscow. In May 1918, the imperial family was moved one last time, to Yekaterinburg, a dark and lawless diamond-mining town in the Ural Mountains, where they were held in the home of an engineer named Ipatiev. Residents of Yekaterinburg despised the imperial family, jeering at them and spitting on them as they arrived. With anti-Bolshevik forces approaching the town, a decision was made to kill the royal family. Around midnight on July 16, Nicholas and his family were ordered out of bed and into the basement of the house, where they were told they were to be moved again. Instead, they were lined up and shot to death. Their bodies were then run over by trucks, dismembered, burned, and dumped in a mine.
Historians debate whether or not Lenin ordered the killings. Those who claim he did point to Lenin’s hatred of Nicholas, and the fact that Lenin’s brother, also a revolutionary, had been ordered executed years before under Nicholas’ orders. Out of fifty-three Romanovs alive in 1918, the Bolsheviks killed seventeen. The rest escaped the country by 1920. The Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna, Czar Nicholas’ mother, emigrated to Britain to live with her sister, the Queen Mother, Alexandra of Britain.
In 1977, when “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals” was written, Leonid Brezhnev was head of the Soviet Union. Historians
Compare & Contrast
- 1917–1918: Czar Nicholas II abdicates the throne to his brother, who renounces the throne the next day. More than three centuries of Romanov family rule end. The Bolshevik Party changes its name to the Communist Party, and is led by Vladimir Ilich Lenin.
1985–1991: General Secretary of the Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev announces the programs of perestroika (economic and governmental reform) and glasnost (openness), which unleashes international political forces that help lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. In 1991 the Soviet Union dissolves. The Communist Party loses power in a failed coup against Gorbachev, and fifteen formerly Soviet republics declare their independence.
Today: Vladimir Putin, former head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), one of the successor bodies of the Soviet-era Secret Police (KGB), is named Russian prime minister and elected president.
- 1917–1918: Czar Nicholas II and his family are imprisoned and massacred by Bolshevik revolutionaries.
1991: DNA tests confirm that the bodies found in 1979 are indeed those of the czar and his family.
1998: Nicholas II and his family are given an official burial in Saint Petersburg eighty years to the day after he and his family were executed. Russian President Boris Yeltsin calls the Czar’s murder “one of the most shameful pages in our history.”
refer to the 1970s in Russia as the “period of stagnation,” because few real reforms or changes occurred. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had thawed a bit, and the two superpowers negotiated a number of strategic arms limitation agreements. In 1979 those relations became tense again, as the Soviets stepped up internal repression of dissidents and invaded Afghanistan. In this same year, the remains of the Romanov family and household were discovered by Dr. Alexander Avdonin. However, due to political conditions, researchers were forbidden to exhume them until 1991, when DNA tests confirmed their identities.
Critics often note Dubie’s ability to internalize the experience of others in his poems. Calling the tone of “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals” “choric and valedictory,” critic Christopher Baker writes that “Dubie’s relationship with those who have spoken, written, and painted creates a gallery of alter egos.” In the foreword to The Illustrations, in which the poem appears, Richard Howard asks if the poet’s life is “a world of derived identities?” Howard observes that in writing from the point of view of such figures as Nicholas II “it is always the experience which has the root of peril in it, the ripple of danger which enlivens the seemingly lovely surfaces, the ‘ordinary’ existence.” Howard continues, pointing out Dubie’s propensity for mixing fact and fiction: “We are not to know what is given and what is taken, what is ‘real’ and what is ‘made up.’”
In their introduction to Dubie’s poems, anthologists Richard Ellmann and Robert O’Clair praise Dubie’s willingness to tackle historical subjects, noting that he writes “in a period when narrative verse is in disfavor, and specific times and places tend to be avoided.” Other critics have not been as kind. Reviewing The Illustrations, Lawrence Raab writes that
even when most (if not all) of the facts of a given poem are clear . . . and the writing is sharp, controlled and engaging, the poem can seem to be talking to itself, and the reader may feel that he has blundered into the middle of a fascinating story the significance of which he can never hope to fathom.
Semansky’s poetry, fiction, and essays appear regularly in literary magazines and journals. In the following essay, he considers how to read Dubie’s poem inferentially.
In an interview with critic and reviewer James Green in American Poetry Review, Norman Dubie gives this advice about reading his poems:
I think if you’re sitting behind a woman and a girl on a bus and you’re listening to them talk and you suddenly are certain that this is a mother and daughter, and that today the daughter visited a friend that the mother doesn’t approve of, and then you conclude that the friend has a romantic attachment to the daughter and that the mother has been divorced twice and that her third husband died on a highway in Poughkeepsie. . . . You see what I mean. If the kind of effort that we make out of natural curiosity, eavesdropping in a restaurant or on a bus, was brought to the poem, we would understand the . . . poem.
This advice—to explore a poem through its inferences by “eavesdropping”—fits Dubie’s poems well, for they are often communications between two identifiable people and are often packed with historical references and information about those people. Dubie, however, suggests that one need not be versed in this information to understand the emotional truth of a poem, that readers can glean enough from the information provided. A close look at his poem “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter: A Barn in the Urals” bears this out.
Readers are first drawn to the poem because it is written in letter form. Everyone has written a letter at one point or another. Because letters are most often a communication between two people, the speaker and the audience are clearly defined. Poems may speak in a universal voice to an undefined or generic audience, but letters do not. They are written on a specific occasion and for a particular purpose. The occasion here is Christmas, the holidays. Often the purpose of Christmas letters is to send greetings to someone with whom the writer has been out of contact and to fill them in on what happened during the last year. This letter/poem begins with the narrator, Russian Czar Nicholas II, confessing something to his mother. Readers do not initially know who Illya is and, indeed, do not have to know to appreciate the gesture of telling someone something that has been kept from them for some time. Nicholas’ story of Illya is engaging, not because it is so bizarre (although it is) but because Nicholas imbues it with such significance. What is a “choir of mutes” and what does Nicholas’ choosing to tell this story to his mother tell the readers about their relationship? The joy of eavesdropping is that it places readers/listeners in the position of doing something forbidden, that is, being privy to information not meant for them. They are witnesses to an emotional outpouring not meant for them. This aspect both titillates and intrigues readers, and they want to know more.
What readers learn about Nicholas’ character through his letter to his mother is that he is more concerned with personal relationships than world affairs. In lines 18–20 Nicholas writes:
Mother, if for no other reason I regret the war
With Japan for, you must now be told,
It took the servant, Illya, from us. It was
Russia lost the war with Japan (1904–1905), many soldiers, and a good deal of political capital, yet Nicholas regretted the war because he lost a servant. A personal letter is the only conceivable context in which an internationally known leader of a major country could make such a statement. If Nicholas were to have made this statement in public, he would have been forced to abdicate even sooner than he was. Nicholas continues his “confession” in line 26:
Don’t think me a coward, Mother, but it is
Now that I am no longer Czar. I can take pleasure
From just a cup of clear water. I hear Illya’s choir
I teach the children about decreasing fractions, that is
A lesson best taught by the father.
Alexandra conducts the French and singing lessons.
Mother, we are again a physical couple.
I brush out her hair for her at night.
The images in these lines symbolize simplicity and tenderness. The “clear water,” the “mute choir,” even the “decreasing fractions” all point to an emptying out of thought and emotional clutter. Nicholas’ fear that his mother might think him a “coward” is natural for someone whose image has been built upon his reputation for strength and leadership. But this was precisely the image that Nicholas did not have. He was largely considered to be weak and ineffectual as Russia’s leader. These lines rather speak to Nicholas’ image of how the czar ought to be considered and how he thought his mother thought of him. By admitting that he takes pleasure in simple, often domestic acts now, Nicholas reveals his relief at no longer having to be czar, and the joy he takes in family life.
The last five couplets of the poem spell out Nicholas’ fear of death. Whereas, the previous fifty lines detailed events from the distant past (Illya’s story) and the recent past (developments in his family), these lines express what was only previously implied.
I know they keep your letters from us. But,
The day they finally put them in my hands
I’ll know that possessing them I am condemned
And possibly even my wife, and my children.
We will drink mint tea this evening.
Will each of us be increased by death?
With fractions as the bottom integer gets bigger,
Represents less. That’s the feeling I have about
This letter. I am at your request, The Czar.
And I am Nicholas.
Nicholas repeats his mother’s name four times during the letter and twice in these lines. This gesture is a convention used to develop a deeper intimacy between the writer and the addressed. Readers see this and empathize with Nicholas because they already know the ending of his story. Adding to the pathos is the way in which Nicholas jumps between surface detail (what they will drink in the evening) and his sense of foreboding. He describes his fear ingeniously, by comparing death to decreasing fractions, thereby continuing an image introduced earlier in the poem. His diminished role in Russia, his imprisonment, and his uncertainty about the future all “add up” to less, as does the letter he has just finished. Fittingly he signs off as both “The Czar” and Nicholas, identities his mother obviously knows. This gesture, however, is more for Nicholas himself, who inhabits the netherworld between these identities and between the past and the future.
John Keats called the process of imagining one’s self in a situation one has not necessarily experienced “negative capability.” Dubie has made a career out of his capacity to imagine himself in the skin of another and to generate poetry out of that imagining. Some poets, such as Robert Browning, engage in this practice through dramatic monologues, where the mode of expression is written speech. “My Last Duchess,” in which Browning writes from the point of view of a diabolical duke discussing the fate of his last wife is one such example. Dubie’s mode of expression, however, is writing itself, and the conventions and expectations that letters embody. Whereas speech is immediate, as the addressee typically occupies the same space
“John Keats called the process of imagining one’s self in a situation one has not necessarily experienced ‘negative capability.’ Dubie has made a career out of his capacity to imagine himself in the skin of another and to generate poetry out of that imagining.”
and time as the speaker, letter writing is, at least theoretically, more reflective. The writer can read over his words and change them. Also, with letters, the intended audience (in this case, the czar’s mother) is reading the letter at a later time and in a different place than where the letter was written.
What distinguishes Dubie’s monologues and letters from others is that they are always at least partially true. Nicholas and his mother did write to each other often, and they did have a very close relationship. Indeed their correspondence has been published, as have Nicholas’ diaries, which he kept every day he was in power. The details that Dubie presents about life at Tobolsk where the Czar and his family were imprisoned could have happened. But what’s most important is that the details he provides aim at establishing a kind of psychological and emotional truth, which for Dubie transcends the truth of any fact.
Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Piano is a third-year graduate student in English at Bowling Green State University. In the following essay, she explores how Dubie’s poem reveals Czar Nicholas as a once powerful man who, humbled by imprisonment, now focuses on living life as if each day were his last.
In the summer of 1918, Czar Nicholas and his family were executed in the Ural Mountains of eastern
What Do I Read Next?
- Dubie’s 1989 collection of poems Groom Falconer has been widely praised as one of his best collections. In this collection, Dubie continues his practice of writing about historical figures. Some of these figures include Edgar Alan Poe, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Derrida.
- Dubie’s Selected & New Poems was published in 1983 and contains poems from all of his previous books, including the ones that are out of print.
- Richard Pipes’s 1995 study, A Concise History of the Russian Revolution, offers a conservative interpretation of the events leading up to and immediately following the Russian Revolution. Pipes’s book is one of the most popular studies on the subject.
- Russian historian and playwright Edvard Radzinsky’s 1992 book, Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II, tells the story of the last days of Russia’s last royal family using diaries, letters, and eyewitness accounts from Nicholas and others.
Russia by the Bolshevik army, the ruling party of the newly founded Soviet Union. As the last Russian monarch to rule before the revolution of 1917, Nicholas was against more democracy in government, but he was never an effective leader. Thus, his rule was rife with mismanaged social and economic affairs that resulted in a number of popular uprisings. Peasants as well as intellectuals organized demonstrations and strikes to oppose Nicholas’ totalitarian regime. In addition, what made the royal family even more open to criticism were their elaborate displays of wealth and their intimate relationship with a mystic monk, Rasputin, who at times seemed to be running the country more than the royal couple. Not long after the 1917 revolution, Nicholas and his family were arrested and sent to the Ural Mountains where they lived until they were executed.
Despite reports from a handful of witnesses and the royal family’s own letters and diaries, the circumstances of the royal family’s life and death under house arrest are still largely undetermined. Thus, this event in Russian history has produced some interesting speculation not only by historians but also by writers such as the poet Norman Dubie. In the poem “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter: A Barn in the Urals,” Dubie takes imaginative liberties by writing from the point of view of Czar Nicholas during the last year of his life. What is most striking about this poem is its portrayal of the czar not as a selfish and arrogant despot, the predominant image of him, but as a man humbled by the present conditions of his life. Confined to living on the estate of a former royal member, Nicholas obviously had much time for reflection. It is this more intimate aspect of his life that Dubie probes in his poem. Though often historical in setting, Dubie’s poems “exist at the juncture of several ‘realities,’ sometimes historical and sometimes personal” as the poet David St. John claims in his essay “A Generous Salvation: The Poetry of Norman Dubie.” In “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter: A Barn in the Urals,” Dubie uses the form of a letter written by Nicholas to his mother to reveal how the historical and personal are deeply entwined.
Dubie relies on the poetic form of the dramatic monologue to create a complex character of the now-dethroned czar. A dramatic monologue is a type of lyric poem characterized by several features. First, it takes on the “persona” or “voice” of a well-known and/or historic person to reveal his or her particular temperament. For example, in the poem “Ulysses,” Alfred Tennyson writes from the perspective of the Homeric hero Ulysses to reveal his constant need to wander even after he has returned home from the Trojan War. Secondly, the dramatic monologue has a specific audience or addressee that is part of the poem’s content. One of the most popular dramatic monologues, “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning, has the Duke cavalierly revealing to an emissary that he sentenced his wife to death. Lastly, the poem is recited at a critical moment in the speaker’s life. In Dubie’s poem, the czar knows that he is nearing the end of his life; his tone then reveals some misgivings about the decisions that he has made and the personal toll they have taken. By analyzing the poem through the particular features of the dramatic monologue, one can get an idea of the complexity of the poem’s subject matter and form without having to understand all of the historical references that may or may not be historically accurate.
Contrary to the dominant historical portrayal of him as tyrannical and arrogant, Dubie’s czar appears as a sensitive and compassionate man dedicated to keeping his family’s spirit buoyed during their imprisonment. Instead of being focused on maintaining his power, the czar in Dubie’s poem is a ruler who no longer rules “the masses” and is relieved to do so. “Don’t think me a coward, Mother, but it is comfortable / Now that I am no longer Czar. I can take pleasure / From just a cup of clear water. . . .” Dubie creates images of the czar’s family participating in ordinary activities such as frying bread, studying math and French, or sketching to reveal how the czar’s world view has changed. Everyday activities that he may have overlooked as a world leader are now the sole focus of life. Thus, his daughters’ flirtations with the guards, his wife’s washing of her legs in front of the family, and a soldier’s gift of “an enormous azure / And pearl samovar” are aspects of life that now take on greater meaning as the czar realizes that death is imminent.
Ground-swelling events such as the Russo-Japanese war in 1904–1905, the First World War, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 no longer preoccupy his time. Dubie reveals the change in the czar’s perspective by recasting a major conflict that occurred during his rule, the war between Russia and Japan, as being a personal rather than political matter. Rather than viewing the war as a mistake that leads to economic and social upheaval, as many Russians did, the czar focuses on his personal regret for involving Russia in the war when he writes:
Mother, if for no other reason I regret the war
With Japan for, you must now be told,
It took the servant, Illya, from us. It was
Here, Dubie’s czar is far more concerned with telling his mother, as delicately as possible, the truth about a servant of the royal family who died in the war than with the consequences the war had on the Russian economy. However, by admitting his personal regret, he also obliquely appears to take responsibility for his actions as a ruler.
Throughout the poem, the former czar’s mother is the recipient of his confessions and observations. The letter starts on a personal note, a recollection of a childhood memory, “You were never told, Mother, how old Illya was drunk / That last holiday, for five days and nights. . . .” Although this appears to be an odd way for such a powerful man to begin a letter, the tone establishes an intimate moment, one that is offstage of the international
“What is most striking about this poem is its portrayal of the czar not as a selfish and arrogant despot, the predominant image of him, but as a man humbled by the present conditions of his life.”
political arena. Confessing a childhood secret that Nicholas has kept from his mother reveals the ruler as being vulnerable and honest. His confession suggests that Nicholas did not, like many children, tell his parents everything and that despite his mother’s leading role as an adviser to him on foreign and domestic affairs, the czar managed to keep certain kinds of information from her. In Dubie’s rendering of their relationship, Nicholas is not seeking counsel but is confessing some very intense truths, probably with the knowledge that he will never see her again.
That Nicholas is writing to his mother is significant as he is trying to tell her, the former czarina of Russia, that the days of the monarchy are over and a new order has arrived. Nicholas uses the image of Illya, a family servant, to describe to his mother the “new man” of Russia, one whose roots are in the peasant class and who is not afraid to be among the people. The power demonstrated by the servant Illya and his “choir of mutes” is representative of the Russian people under the newly formed Soviet Union. Nicholas is aware of this change of power when he writes:
. . . the audience
Was rowdy but Illya in his black robes turned on
And gave them that look of his; the hall fell silent
By describing Illya as a powerful figure who can silence people with a look, Nicholas indirectly acknowledges that the royal family has fallen out of power and that people like Illya have taken their place.
Not only does the czar tell his mother of changes in Russian rule, but he also explains that there is no hope of seeing each other again as when he writes, “The day they finally put them [his mother’s letters] in my hands / I’ll know that possessing them I am condemned.” Throughout the poem, Dubie uses images to convey both the new-found powerlessness of the czar as well as the political and personal dimensions of his relationship with his mother. For example, the last two lines show Nicholas as occupying two roles—both a czar, as when he writes “at your request, The Czar” and also a son, as when he adds “And I am Nicholas.” It is possible that only at the end of his life can he allow himself to be intimate and informal with his mother by using his first name, yet this honesty ultimately redeems Nicholas and elicits the reader’s sympathy.
What is particularly poignant about this poem is how Dubie renders the royal family as living as normally as they can under such uncertain circumstances. The strain of being confined to a house and having little power over their future is conveyed most acutely by descriptions of Alexandra, who seems especially bereft by their circumstances. Nicholas realizes this when he writes, “We became sad at her beauty. She has a purple bruise.” Yet life goes on as “the guards flirt with your granddaughters. . . .” and “Alexandra conducts the French and singing lessons.” Even under extreme circumstances, Nicholas and his family continue to conduct the business of everyday life. In fact, with their future as yet unknown and their glories behind them, it is their focus on ordinary everyday events that is their only salvation.
In his essay, “My Dubious Calculus,” the writer William Slattery states “Norman Dubie makes images that suggest stories . . . stories in which people, alive with idiosyncrasy and trapped in desperate situations, transfer highly charged bits of their experience to the reader.” Regardless of how much he knew of the czar’s actual life and death, Dubie renders a complex portrait of the czar and his family’s final months of life by using highly descriptive images that makes the royal family’s fate tragic, compassionate, and illuminating.
Source: Doreen Piano, Critical Essay on “The Czar’s Last Christmas Letter. A Barn in the Urals,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Baker, Christopher, “Norman Dubie,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 120: American Poets Since World War II, edited by R. S. Gwynn, Third Series, Gale, 1992, pp. 52–60.
Dubie, Norman, The Illustrations, Braziller, 1977.
Ellmann, Richard, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The Norton Anthology Of Modern Poetry, 2d ed., Norton, 1988.
Garber, Frederick, “On Dubie and Seidel,” in The American Poetry Review, May–June 1982, pp. 44–47.
Green, James, “Norman Dubie: ‘Groom Falconer,’” in The American Poetry Review, November–December 1989.
Horowitz, David A., Peter N. Carroll, and David D. Lee, eds., On the Edge: A New History of 20th-Century America, Thomson Learning, 1990.
Howard, Richard, Alone with America, Atheneum, 1961.
Kurth, Peter, Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Little Brown & Co., 1985.
———, The Lost World of Nicholas and Alexandra, Little Brown & Co., 1995.
Raab, Lawrence, Review in American Poetry Review, July–August 1978.
Radzinsky, Edvard, Last Tsar, Doubleday, 1992.
Slattery, William, “My Dubious Calculus,” in Antioch Review, Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter 1994.
St. John, David, “A Generous Salvation: The Poetry of Norman Dubie,” in Conversant Essays: Contemporary Poets on Poetry, edited by James McCorkle, Wayne State University Press, 1990.
Howard, Richard, Alone with America, Atheneum, 1980.
This collection of essays by one of America’s finest literary critics of poetry contains reviews of the work of Dubie’s contemporaries.
Kurth, Peter, Anastasia: The Riddle of Anna Anderson, Little Brown & Co., 1985.
This book is a comprehensive collection of information on Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, Nicholas II’s daughter. Anderson claimed to have survived the July 17, 1918, massacre of her family.
Perry, John Curtis, and Constantine V. Pleshakov, The Flight of the Romanovs, Basic Books, 1999.
Perry and Pleshakov use interviews and unpublished diaries to tell the story of the Romanov family. This text is an authoritative account and one of the most comprehensive to date.
Youssoupoff, Felix, Rasputin, The Dial Press, 1928.
Rasputin was a peasant, a mystic, a rascal, and a confidant of Alexandra. His influence over the royal family is widely debated by historians.