Alter Ego. 1875 poem autograph.
Afanasy Fet in his later years
Afanasy Fet as a Russian army officer
Yakov Polonsky (standing, second from the left) and members of his family guesting at Vorobyovka in 1890. Sitting, left to right: Maria Botkina, Natalya (Polonsky's daughter) and Afanasy Fet
At age 14 Afanasy Afanasyevich was sent to a German boarding school in Võru. In autumn 1838 he enrolled at Moscow University (now Moscow State University) to study law and philology. In his first year, he started writing poetry, later citing Goethe, Heine, and Yazykov as influences, and met Apollon Grigoriev, a fellow student, and aspiring poet. The two became close friends and soon Afanasy moved into Grigoriev's house in Zamoskvoretchye and settled in a small room on the upper floor, often visited by two other friends, Yakov Polonsky and Sergey Solovyov. Apollon Grigoriev's ideas concerning poetry writing influenced young Fet too.
In the late 1830s, Afanasy Afanasyevich showed some of his poems to Pogodin, who sent them to Nikolay Gogol for an opinion. The writer's verdict encouraged Afanasy Afanasyevich to publish his first collection, Lyric Pantheon (1840, signed "A.F."). It was praised first by professor Pyotr Kudryavtsev in Otechestvennye Zapiski, then by Vissarion Belinsky. In 1841 the poem "Poseidon" appeared in Otechestvennye Zapiski; it was the first one to be published under the author's full name.
In 1842-1843 Fet's poems were regularly printed in Otechestvennye Zapiski and Moskvityanin, the latter's editor Stepan Shevyryov becoming his mentor. Some of his poems appeared in the collection The Best of Russian Poetry compiled by Aleksey Galakhov in 1843.
In 1844 Afanasy Afanasyevich graduated from the University. Later that year he lost his mother to cancer. In early 1845 he left the Novosyolky estate, went to Kherson, and in April, following the Shenshin family tradition, he joined the Imperial Cuirassier regiment as a junior officer with the view of possibly retrieving his surname and all the privileges of nobility he'd lost with it.
In the late 1840s, after stopping for several years, Afanasy Afanasyevich returned to writing. In 1850 a collection called Poems by A. Fet heralded his successful return to the Russian literary scene. In 1853 he was transferred to an uhlan regiment based in nearby Saint Petersburg. During the Crimean War, Afanasy Afanasyevich served with the troops guarding the Estonian coastline.
In 1853 Nikolai Nekrasov invited Fet to join Sovremennik, where he re-joined his old friends, Ivan Turgenev and Vasily Botkin. In Turgenev's house Fet met Leo Tolstoy, then a young officer fresh from the Crimean War, which resulted in a lifelong friendship.
Poems by Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet came out in 1856 but proved to be little more than a re-worked and edited version of his 1850 book.
In 1858 Afanasy Afanasyevich retired from army service and returned to Moscow. A year later he purchased the desolate Stepanovka khutor in the Mtsensk region of Oryol gubernia, and in 1860 moved there. In the course of the next fourteen years, Afanasy Afanasyevich turned a piece of bare land into a flourishing garden, launched a horse-breeding farm, built a mill, and embarked upon agricultural ventures which proved successful and lucrative.
In 1862 Russky Vestnik started to publish his articles on agricultural commerce and economy. All this evoked sharp criticism from, among others, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin. For eleven years (1867-1877) Afanasy Afanasyevich served as a local Justice of the peace and became much respected both by peasants and by fellow landowners.
In 1860s Afanasy Afanasyevich translated Aeneid and Arthur Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation. His translation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, published in 1859, though, was negatively reviewed by Sovremennik.
In 1873 Afanasy Afanasyevich bought a second village, Vorobyovka, nearby Kursk, and returned to writing poetry. In 1881 he bought a small house at Plyuschikha Street in Moscow. From then on he would spend winters in the city, move to Vorobyovka in April and stay there till late September. The result of this new surge of creativity were four books of the Evening Lights series (released in 1883, 1885, 1888, and 1891) which featured some of his finest work.
In 1890 two volumes of Fet's My Memories: 1848-1889 were published. Another book, My Early Years, came out posthumously, in 1893. His last poem is dated 23 October 1892.
The circumstances of Fet's death caused almost as much controversy as those of his birth. In October 1892, Afanasy Afanasyevich moved from Vorobyovka to his Moscow house. While visiting Countess Sophia Tolstaya he caught a cold and later contracted severe bronchitis. The family doctor Ostroumov, speaking to Fet's wife, suggested that the patient, bad as he now was, should take Communion. The cause of his death was maintained to be heart attack. The funeral service was held on 22 November 1892, at the Moscow University church. Afanasy Afanasyevich was interred on 23 November in his family vault in Kleymyonovo, the old Shenshin family estate.
Vladimir Semenkovich, the author of several books on Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet, argued that he was "...neither a liberal nor a conservative, just a man of the 1840s, or, should I rather say, one of the last men of the 1840s. One thing in which he might have differed from the people of his generation was that he was more of a practical man... Being courageous enough to have his own opinions, he spoke against the predominant social theory… and for that has been subjected to ostracism in the times when going against the grain was unthinkable."
Afanasy Afanasyevich was the proponent of the romantic idea of the need for a poet to make a distinction between the two life spheres, the 'ideal' and the 'real' one. The ideal sphere, according to Fet, encompassed beauty, love, moments of harmony between the human soul and the infinite cosmos, and Art as such. In his essay on Tytchev, published by Russkoye Slovo in 1859, Afanasy Afanasyevich maintained that it was only "pure love" that "pure art" was supposed to serve. While in the 1840s such ideas were still attractive, in the 1860s Afanasy Afanasyevich found himself a lone figure among the predominantly realist writers.
Afanasy Afanasyevich considered natural philosophy to be a mechanism for examining ties, seen and unseen, between man and nature. Along the lines of his quest for "wholeness", he united poems into cycles ("Spring", "Summer", "Autumn", "Snow", "Melodies", "Fortune-telling"), each representing some aspect of the soul, all united by the leitmotif of merging with what lies outside the boundaries of human perception. Only the "life outside" gives man moments of absolute freedom, Fet argued. The way to these outer realms lies in communicating with Nature, which has a soul of its own, through moments of joy.
Female beauty served as part of the whole picture for Fet who had the cycle of poems dedicated to women (A.Brzhevskaya, Sophia Tolstaya, A.Osufieva, and others) based on his "philosophy of beauty". The process of regaining unity with nature leads man out of the corrupt real world and brings him ecstatic joy and total happiness, according to Fet.
Quotes from others about the person
Tchaikovsky wrote: "Fet is an exceptional phenomenon. There is no use to compare him to other first-class poets, or go and analyze Pushkin, Lermontov, Al. Tolstoy and Tyutchev looking for similarities... For, in his finest moments, Fet leaves the boundaries of poetry altogether and boldly ventures into our field. That is why, when I think of Fet, often Beethoven comes to mind... Like Beethoven, he is endowed with the power to touch upon those strings of our souls which are out of reach for poets, no matter how strong, who rely on words only. Rather than a poet, he is a musician-poet."
Professor Pyotr Kudryavtsev also considered Fet a great master of the melody-driven verse: "His poetry, unique in terms of aesthetics, can be taken as proof that real poetry is self-sufficient and its sources won't dry out even in the most unfavorable times."
September 18, 1820, Afanasy Shenshin and Charlotte Elizabeth Becker secretly left for Russia. On November 23 (December 5), 1820, in the village of Novoselki, Mtsensk district, Orel province (now Mtsensk, Orel, Russian Federation) Charlotte Elizabeth Bekker was born a son who was baptized in the Orthodox rite on November 30 and was named Afanasy. In the metric book, he was recorded as the son of Afanasy Neophytovich Shenshin. However, the couple married only on September 4, 1822, after Charlotte Elizabeth Bekker converted to Orthodoxy and began to be called Elizabeth Petrovna Fet. On November 30, 1820, Afanasy was baptized according to the Orthodox rite and at birth recorded by the "legitimate" son of Afanasy Neofitovich Shenshin and Charlotte Elizabeth Becker.
In autumn 1848 Afanasy Afanasyevich Fet fell in love with 20-year-old Maria Lazich, a well-educated and intelligent girl, who loved him too. Seeing no way of marrying the penniless daughter of a poor Kherson landowner, he abandoned her. In 1851 Maria died, having set her dress on fire. Maria died from her burns four days later. An immense feeling of remorse tormented Fet for the rest of his life.
In 1857 in Paris Afanasy Afanasyevich married Maria Petrovna Botkina (the daughter of a rich tea-trader and sister of his good friend, literary critic Vasily Botkin), described as an exceptionally kind and sympathetic person, totally devoid of jealousy, who was perfectly happy to treat her husband "like a nanny treats a child".