To the Sun

Among the great longer poems of the twentieth century, the circumstances under which Shaul Tchernikhovsky’s To the Sun was composed were perhaps the most unlikely. This sonnet cycle was written in Hebrew in war-torn Odessa in 1919, with Red and White forces struggling for control of the city. Tchernikhovsky, then forty-five, had served on the front lines as a doctor in the Russian army, an experience directly reflected in the seventh sonnet of the cycle. He grew up in a modest- sized town on the Ukrainian steppes, and Russian, not Yiddish, was his first language. The experience of being nurtured there through an intimate bond with nature is explicitly recalled in the first three sonnets of the cycle, as is his feeling of being torn away from that cherished bucolic realm when he came to Odessa while still in his teens. After his army service, working part time as a doctor in Odessa, he was earning barely enough to support himself, his Russian wife, and their young daughter, and food in any case was in scarce supply.  In the midst of all this turmoil, Tchernikhovsky chose to compose a hugely ambitious synoptic poem that would tell the story of his calling as a poet, express his passionate credo as a vitalist and a pantheist, articulate a vision of the role of art and also science in human culture, and confront the challenge to that vision posed by violence in history. He did all this, moreover, in Hebrew, a language that was just beginning to be revived as a spoken tongue. The poetic form that he embraced was the sonnet corona, an especially intricate one originating in the Italian Renaissance. It consists of a sequence of fifteen Petrarchan sonnets, with the requisite rhyming octaves and sestets, in which the last line

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