Tchernichowsky, Saul

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TCHERNICHOWSKY, SAUL (1875–1943), Hebrew poet. Born in the village of Mikhailovka, Russia, Tchernichowsky grew up in the home of pious parents who were, however, open to the influences of the *Haskalah and *Ḥibbat Zion. He attended a modern Hebrew school, where he studied mainly Hebrew and the Bible, and at ten entered a Russian school. The many-sidedness of his education left a distinctive mark on his poetry in which the village, its life, and its landscape are also intrinsic components. Opening wide intellectual vistas for the young poet, his learning and knowledge were a source of inspiration as well as a wealth of material which Tchernichowsky transformed into aesthetic experiences. His education developed and nourished his critical attitude toward Diaspora Jewish culture and the yoke of the Jewish exile; cultivated his interest in other cultures; inspired his devotion to the Hebrew language, Jewish nationalism, and Zionism; and influenced his attitudes toward the traditional Jewish way of life.

His literary life may be divided into five periods:

The Odessa Period (1890–99)

At 14, Tchernichowsky was sent to Odessa to further his education: first in commercial secondary schools, and later through independent study in preparation for entry into the university. He was especially interested in languages and his studies of German, French, English, Greek, and Latin later stood him in good stead when he translated poetry from these languages into Hebrew. An avid reader of poetry, he was particularly influenced by the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Goethe, Heine, Shakespeare, Byron, Burns, Longfellow, and later the Greek classics. In Odessa, Tchernichowsky was drawn to Zionist circles as well as to the younger Hebrew literary circles; the latter stimulated his interest in modern Hebrew literature, especially in the poetry of M.J. *Lebensohn, J.L. *Gordon, Ḥ.N. *Bialik, and the stories of S.Y. *Abramovitsh (Mendele Mokher Seforim). These left their mark on the writings of the young poet who at that time started publishing in various periodicals. His first two poems were "Masat Nefesh" in Ha-Sharon (Cracow, 1892/3) and "Ba-Ḥalomi" in Ha-Pisgah (Baltimore, 1892/3); and his first published book of verse – Ḥezyonot u-Manginot ("Visions and Melodies," 1898). This full-length work reflects the poet's deep involvement with the poetry of different nations and the influence it had on both the form and the content of his original poems, as well as his translations.

Characterized by a variety of classical poetic forms and complex rhythms, Tchernichowsky's poetry reveals his sensitivity to the sound and rhythm of language and his flair for accurate epithets. In this first collection of poems, the Tchernichowsky style is already clearly expressed. While most of his contemporaries developed their style through a struggle with classical Hebrew sources, Tchernichowsky put special emphasis on formal elements in both the choice of language and forms of verse. He drew his images from direct observation. Though his style has a biblical flavor and is replete with biblical imagery, he did not draw on the multifarious traditional implications and overtones that Hebrew terms and stock phrases could yield. Tchernichowsky's concept of love and nature, major themes in Ḥezyonot u-Manginot, is in the spirit of the Romantic poets. This quality added a new dimension to contemporary Hebrew poetry. The ideological concepts of his poetry may be traced to the poet's early Haskalah education and to the influence of Zionist and Hebrew literary circles with which he associated in Odessa. His reflective poems strongly call for a revolt against the fate of the Jewish people in exile, and even more, against the futility of the people's struggle for freedom. Criticism of Diaspora Jewish culture, an important motif in Tchernichowsky's later poetry (see "Be-Leil Ḥanukkah," "Ḥarbi Ei Ḥarbi?" and others) is already anticipated in this early work. The socialist influence (as in "Ani Ma'amin" and "Me-Ḥezyonot ha-Navi"), although found in these poems, was to remain marginal.

The Heidelberg-Lausanne Period (1899–1906)

Failing to gain admission to a Russian university, Tchernichowsky studied medicine in Heidelberg. He completed his medical studies in Lausanne in 1905. During this period, the poet came under the influence of the works of Goethe and Nietzsche. His own writings at that time are contained in two volumes: Ḥezyonot u-Manginot (Book 2, 1900), and the first part of Shirim ("Poems," 1910, which subsequently appeared in four enlarged editions). The motifs and stylistic peculiarities of the first volume of Ḥezyonot u-Manginot are also basic to the second, but the work is characterized by a more profound insight. Formalistically, the poet experiments with the long poem (the ballad and the epic). The form and structure of "Bein ha-Meẓarim," "Amnon ve-Tamar," and "Barukh mi-Magenẓah" are an extension of the ballad; while "Levivot," "Berit Milah," and "Ke-Ḥom ha-Yom" are narrative poems of wide scope. These poems are marked by the poet's close involvement expressed through his identification with his protagonists (spiritual personages in Jewish history) whose victory in defeat epitomizes the tragedy of the Jewish destiny.

In his narrative poems (the idylls), he lovingly describes the traditional Jewish way of life as he remembers it from his village childhood. His reflective poems, influenced by Nietzsche, are a criticism of Diaspora Jewish culture and Jewish religion which he contrasts with the Hellenic ideal of beauty, advocating an absolute response to the life impulse which imbues earthly existence (e.g., in "Le-Nokhaḥ Pesel Apollo," "Me-Ḥezyonot Nevi'ei ha-Sheker," and "Le-Nokhaḥ ha-Yam"). The motifs of enjoyment of the life of the senses and corporeal existence, whose tragic undertones are already felt in these early poems, are also dominant in the love and nature poems of the period ("Ha-Navah mi-Dilsberg," "Lenchen," "Aggadot ha-Aviv," "Si'aḥ Kedumim," and "Mi-Tokh Av he-Anan"). Tchernichowsky's romantic tendencies evidenced in the poems in the first collection are here replaced by an outspoken and consistent pantheistic and worldly view of life. His poetry at this time, infused with an underlying tension between two extreme yet mutually complementary motifs, embodies two different, possibly contradictory attitudes to reality. Ideologically, this tension is manifest through the poet's ambiguous attitude toward the Jewish heritage and the Jewish destiny. In terms of poetic experience and style, it is marked by a simultaneous double play of expression – sentimental lyricism and the restrained epic narrative.

The Russian Period (1906–22)

His personal experiences and the contemporaneous historical events left a deep impact on the poet; they form the subject of many of his works, and are a crucial factor in the molding of his outlook during these maturing years. Upon completion of his studies in Lausanne, he returned to Russia but had difficulty in finding a permanent post since he did not have a medical degree from a Russian university. He wandered from place to place, holding various posts. In Melitopol, he was arrested as a "political agitator" (1907). He settled in St. Petersburg in 1910, after his medical degree had finally been recognized. At the outbreak of World War i, he was drafted and served as an army doctor. After the Bolshevik revolution his economic situation deteriorated and in 1919, he settled in Odessa after a long journey through the Crimea. There he earned a scanty livelihood as a physician, and after three years of hardship left Russia.

Despite the years of adversity, there was no letup in Tchernichowsky's literary creativeness. In addition to poems, most of which were written in the latter part of the period, he composed stories, a number of scholarly essays and, of particular importance, translated a number of literary works from the Greek: Anacreon's lyrics (1920), Plato's Symposium (1929), and part of Homer's Iliad; and various English works, including Longfellow's "Evangeline" (he had previously translated the "Song of Hiawatha" which appeared in Odessa in 1912–13).

His poems of this period were collected and published under the title Shirim (Part 2) and Shirim Ḥadashim ("New Poems," 1923). Few of the poems in this volume, however, directly reflect the contemporaneous events that agitated the world; they are rather marked by Tchernichowsky's deliberate tendency to evade a confrontation with his time. In Shirim Ḥadashim, the poet expresses himself mostly in the rigorous form of the sonnet, but the poetic content does not complement the form. In his long narrative poems, especially those written in the later part of the period ("Ba-Goren" and "Ḥatunnatah shel Elkah"), he reverts back to the past and its tranquility, particularly his childhood years. These poems are free of the tragic undercurrent that lurked in his early "idylls," instead they highlight the comic ("Ma'aseh be-Mordekhai ve-Yukhim," "Eli," and "Simḥah Lav Davka").

Tchernichowsky also continued to write in the vein of the nature poetry of the Heidelberg period ("Kismei Ya'ar") with his detailed and minute descriptions of landscape (the Crimea sonnets) and the recrudescence of his "pagan" motifs, especially in the first part of the period ("La-AshtoretShir ve-la-Bel," "Olat Regel," and "Mot ha-Tammuz"). Through withdrawal and by delaying and restraining his reaction he responded to contemporary historical events, which had undermined his naive attitude toward reality; they were reflected in a literary retrogression (e.g., in "Al Tivez li-Meshorer"). The shock finally finds direct expression in "Ha-Kaf ha-Shevurah" where for the first time he describes the experience of his arrest; in some of his stories based on his experience as an army doctor; and, especially, in the two sonnet sequences "La-Shemesh" (1919) and "Al ha-Dam" (1923). The aesthetic moment in these sonnets is kindled by a powerful tension between two diametrically opposed, incompatible, and irreconcilable attitudes. In "La-Shemesh," Tchernichowsky affirms life in all its manifestations, despite the disease and death that surround him; he accepts civilization: religion, art, and philosophy, despite fading ideals and the degeneration of the times. This is a crystallization of the ideal of the poet's cultural universalism which characterizes his previous works and now also includes the religious aspects of Jewish culture. In "Al ha-Dam," however, civilization is seen as a manifestation of the degeneration of the creative life force and is rejected with the same vigor as it had been affirmed in "La-Shemesh." The poet spurns any ideology which claims to bring salvation to the world but which, in fact, only leads to more bondage and death. The redemptive power of art is man's only hope and the poet's only asylum in the wreckage of his universe.

The Berlin Period (1922–31)

After a brief stay in Constantinople where he tried in vain to secure a position as a doctor in Palestine, Tchernichowsky moved to Berlin. He visited Palestine (1925) on behalf of the newly founded World Red Magen David Organization and tried to find permanent employment there; unable to do so, he returned to Berlin. In 1928, he visited the United States. In Berlin he earned a meager living from his literary work. For some time he edited the natural sciences and medicine section of the Eshkol Encyclopaedia and the literary section of the quarterly Ha-Tekufah. During this period, he wrote stories and articles which were published in the collection Sippurim (including also works he had written in Odessa, 1921–22) and in Sheloshim u-Sheloshah Sippurim (1941–42). In the main, he devoted himself to translation. Among the works he rendered into Hebrew are Goethe's Reineke Fuchs; Molière's Le Malade Imaginaire; Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and Macbeth; the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh; the Finnish epic Kallevvallach; Sophocles' Oedipus Rex; and he completed the translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Tchernichowsky also wrote children's poems, published in the collection He-Ḥalil (1922–23), a literary study of *Immanuel of Rome (1925), and a play Bar Kokhva. Many of his writings of the period were collected in a ten-volume jubilee edition of his works (1928/29–1933/34). These were edited by him and published by the Zionist General Council as a mark of appreciation to Tchernichowsky. Most of Tchernichowsky's poems of the period were printed in the third volume of his collected works.

"Mayim she-Lanu" ("Stale Water"), a narrative poem which bears a thematic link with the poet's earlier literary periods, has for its subject an episode that occurred during his stay in Odessa after the revolution. It describes the physical but mostly the spiritual distress of an intellectual who had become superfluous in the new social order and seeks escape in his memories of the distant, stable, and peaceful past. The keen awareness of historical perspective, missing from the earlier work "Ḥatunnatah shel Elkah," is one aspect of a general tendency in Tchernichowsky to retrospect now through a tragic consciousness. This casts his themes in a new light. His despair "of God and of gods," the general theme of "Al ha-Dam," also forms a background to his love poems "Shirim le-Ilil" and "Ha-Na'ar ha-Kushi"; the motif of the poems is the tragic nature of a fateful, ephemeral chance meeting expressed through desire and longing for another and fateful dependence on him. This motif does not form part of the exultant and egocentric love lyrics of his earlier works. Love now takes the place of faith and has become almost a cult. His serious poetry on nature and the theme of sensual existentialism have taken a mystical bent. The affirmation of the redemptive mission of art and of the gospel of beauty are the subject of several poems in this collection. This affirmation the poet has also filtered through his tragic consciousness in which he has come to realize that total achievement is impossible (see "Ha-Pesel"). His tragic ballads are an external expression of this mood.

Tchernichowsky also develops the tragic theme in his nationalist poetry of this period. At the beginning of his career, he had expressed sorrow at his alienation from his people and its culture, brought on by the futility of their struggle for freedom; now his sorrow is caused by his inability to be in Ereẓ Israel and to participate in the national rebirth to which he was so committed. During this period, he wrote some of his most fervent Zionist poems ("Omerim Yeshnah Ereẓ," "Ẓedaktem ha-Bonim ha-Ẓe'irim," and "Al Harei Gilbo'a). In his tragic absence he recognizes the inexorable fate of the eternal wanderer. Only through acceptance of his fate and identification with it, is he able to overcome its tragedy. The entire universe now becomes the scene of his wanderings (see "Ha-Adam Eino Ella").

The Ereẓ Israel Period (1931–43)

In 1931 Tchernichowsky was commissioned to edit (in Latin, English, and Hebrew) Sefer ha-Munnaḥim li-Refu'ah u-le-Madda'ei ha-Teva ("The Book of Medical and Scientific Terms") on the basis of material collected by A.M. Masie, and was thus able to settle in Ereẓ Israel. Upon completion of the work (1934), he was appointed physician of the municipal schools in Tel Aviv. In 1936, he signed a contract with Schocken Publishing House, and moved to Jerusalem where he lived until his death in August 1943.

Despite economic and social difficulties which led to his silence during his early years in Ereẓ Israel, he soon found himself at home in the country and its public life. Three times he was elected to represent the Hebrew branch of the pen Club, an international literary organization, at its world conference, and he expressed his opinions freely on current political questions. During this volatile period of Arab rioting, the struggle for Jewish labor and land settlement, controversy over defense policy and partition, World War ii, and the beginning of the Nazi Holocaust, Tchernichowsky supported the Jewish maximalist-nationalist position. His poems were imbued with deep nationalist pathos (see the one-volume Kol Shirei Sha'ul Tchernichowsky, 1937); the collection Re'i Adamah (1940); and his last volume of poetry Kokhevei Shamayim Reḥokim (1944), many of them expressing his direct reaction to the struggle of the Jewish yishuv for its rights. This change in the poet's outlook is also discernible in the development of constantly recurring themes in his poetry on love, on nature, and of contemplation. Tragic retrospection gives way to direct and optimistic identification with contemporary life, in many respects recalling Tchernichowsky's early poetry with its critical attitude to religion and its "pagan" credo. This apparent retrogression to his earlier view, however, seems to have been prompted by an attempt at identification with the life in Ereẓ Israel which he saw as a regeneration of the ancient myth of settlement in the homeland.

In this last period, the poet, retracing his literary path, arrives at a second culmination: a more comprehensive and balanced tragic retrospection. With the outbreak of World War ii and the Holocaust of European Jewry, he relives the shock of the World War i period and the Bolshevik revolution. As in his earlier works, Tchernichowsky reacts with ballads whose themes were taken from the tragic history of Jewish persecution in the Diaspora ("Harugei Tirmunya," "Nisset ba-Olam," and "Balladot Vormaiza"), seeking in the past an explanation for the tragedy of the present. No less characteristic is his return to early narrative poetry ("idylls") describing his childhood and village life. These poems served as a vehicle both to express the poet's present emotional state and, in a way, to escape it. His identification with the tragic Jewish fate, emphasized by the moral victory of the innocent victim devoted to truth and righteousness, however, overpowers pagan triumph. There is also a recrudescence of the idyllic love for the traditional Jewish way of life. This return to memories of a European childhood may possibly explain the poet's sense of estrangement from the renascent Jewish life in Ereẓ Israel. This tragic consciousness is apparent in many of Tchernichowsky's later poems ("Ani-Li mi-Shelli Ein Kelum," "Amma de-Dahava," his most comprehensive epic work, and his last poem "Kokhevei Shamayim Reḥokim") which bear parallels to the poet's tragic retrospective poetry of the Berlin period. For the third time, the poet comes to feel alienated from his people, due to his culture, his emotional reactions, and his national and social outlook. Though he reverted to the tragic evaluation of the national and individual destinies, Tchernichowsky's later poetry also shows a tendency toward reconciliation and acceptance. In "Amma de-Dahava" there is an attempt to bridge the gaps between the experiences of the child and those of the aging poet, and between the experiences of the alien homeland and that of alienation in the historical homeland.

Tchernichowsky's work, as a poet and as a translator, reveals a consistent tendency to break the constricting bonds of Hebrew literature and expand its content and form. In his translations, the poet presented the Hebrew reader with some of the finest classics of world literature: in the fields of epic and lyric poetry, of folk literature and drama. In this way, he realized the logical consequence of his proclivity for a universal culture which does not contradict one's national loyalties. His work as a translator had a direct influence on his original poetry which, with every successive collection of poems, showed a greater command of form; it was in consonance with his avowed program for widening the horizons of Hebrew poetry through the mastery of classical poetic forms (see his critical essay on the poetry of Immanuel of Rome). Tchernichowsky's concern with the aesthetic form is one of his important contributions to modern Hebrew poetry. This deliberate program to come to grips and to control the classic poetic form and structure was undoubtedly connected with the poet's national, social, and cultural outlook with which every critical evaluation of his work must contend. It is easy to perceive the connection between his criticism of stagnant Jewish culture in the Diaspora and his admiration for the ideal of Hellenic beauty or paganism on the one hand, and his concern with aesthetic form on the other. It is also easy to understand the effect that these extreme ideological criticisms had on the Hebrew reading public. This inconsistent and often self-contradictory ideology is, however, one of the fundamental premises which underlie the total poetic experience in Tchernichowsky. The national, social, or cultural ideology is not merely a central characteristic which may be isolated and separately recorded; it is an integral and consistent feature of all his poetry. Tchernichowsky's "ideology" is, in effect, a rejection of life bound by ideology; its aim is to justify the unmediated expression of experience by its own inner logic. His sensitivity to sound and rhythm, and his predilection for realistic narrative stem from this view. This "ideology" is the basic motif in his earthy love and nature poetry in which he expresses the feelings of a Jew of his time. This poetry among all his works is his most individual and characteristic contribution to modern Hebrew literature, and it produced a lively and enthusiastic reaction among his younger contemporaries.

His aspiration for an unmediated expression of the totality of existence, of which man is a part, also explains the poet's vacillation between idyllic contemplation, which conceives man as a being who belongs to the universe, and tragic contemplation, which sees man as a stranger in the universe. One view or the other may at times be emphasized, but each element (tragic or idyllic) is alternatively present in the poetry of the other. The duality, inherent in a view of reality where the idyllic and the tragic are components, apparently explains Tchernichowsky's changing evaluation of Jewish and world cultures. The interchangeability of the sense of belonging and the sense of alienation, which ideologically is contradictory, in the sphere of experience is a fluctuation between extremes. Tchernichowsky comes to accept his people's heritage within the framework of human culture. In "Amma de-Dahava" and "Kokhevei Shamayim Reḥokim," the poet welded out of the contradictory experiences and evaluations that constituted his universe as a Jew who is devoted both to the culture of his people and to European culture a balanced and harmonious acquiescence. These two works are among his most complete artistic achievements, and his most important contributions to Hebrew poetry. Various editions of Tchernichowsky's work were published through the close of the 20th century. In 1990 a new edition of Kol Kitvei S. Tchernichowsky appeared. A list of the English translations of his works appears in Goell, Bibliography.


E. Silberschlag, Saul Tschernichowsky (1968; containing translations and bibliography); Ha-Shilo'aḥ, 35 (1918), 97–222 (autobiography and articles about him); J. Klausner, Sha'ul Tchernichowsky, ha-Adam ve-ha-Meshorer (1947); J. Lichtenbaum, Sha'ul Tchernichowsky, Ḥayyav vi-Yẓirato (1953); D. Sadan, Bein Din le-Ḥeshbon (1963), 14–34; B. Kurzweil, Bialik ve-Tchernichovsky (19672), 211–344; E. Schweid, Ha-Ergah li-Mele'ut ha-Havayah (1968), 85–194; Shunami, Bibl, nos. 4376–4386; M. Ribalow, The Flowering of Modern Hebrew Literature (1959); Waxman, Literature, index; Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 44–58. add. bibliography: Y. Haefrati, Disjunctive Structure in the Poetry of S. Tschernichowsky, with Special Emphasis upon his Idyll (1974); idem, Mivḥar Ma'amrei Bikkoret (1976); Sh. Avnery, Sheloshah She'arim: Ma'amarim be-Vikkoret Shiratenu (1978); Sh. Yaniv, Hitpatteḥut ha-Baladah ba-Sifrut ha-Ivrit (1981); A. Shaanan, S. Tshernichovski: Monografiyyah (1984); Ch. Shoham, Be-Darkhei ha-Idiliyah (1989); Y. Mazor, Tshernichovski ha-Aḥer: Tavnit Nof Sippuro (1992); H. Barzel, Shirat ha-Teḥiyyah (1992); B. Arpaly, S. Tshernichovski: Meḥkarim u-Te'udot (1994); Z. Luz, La-Shemesh (1996); M. Zohori, Pirkei Lashon: Shirat Tshernichovski ve-ha-Tanakh (1997); B. Arpaly, Tom u-Tehom: Ha-Idiliyah shel Tshernichovski (1998).

[Eliezer Schweid]