Russian poets sang, even to the end; Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution, by Ronald Hingley. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 269 pp. $16.50.
''Only in Russia is poetry respected. It gets people killed. Where else is poetry so common a motive for murder?'' These words, spoken by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, could well serve as the epigraph for Ronald Hingley's engaging study, ''Nightingale Fever: Russian Poets in Revolution.''
In this book, Hingley, widely published critic and translator in the field of Russian literature, takes as his subject ''nightingale fever'' -- the poet's inability to stop singing regardless of consequences -- showing how this ''disease'' afflicted four of this century's greatest Russian poets: Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetayeva, and Boris Pasternak.
Linked by their closeness in age, their similar cultural, educational, and social backgrounds, and their hostility toward a social system of which all became victims, the four poets, their lives, and their creative outputs are examined here against a backdrop of revolutionary and social upheaval during the years immediately preceding World War I to those just after the outbreak of World War II.
The idea of death as the penalty for poetic creation was that of Osip Mandelstam, whose disgust with the Soviet regime, its leaders, and the oppressive conditions under which writers labored led to a preoccupation with the notion of the artist overcoming death through art. The most politically brazen of the four poets, Mandelstam mocked the dangers and absurdities of the new Soviet society. His incessant ''singing'' eventually led to arrest, deportation to a concentration camp, and finally death.
A close friend of Mandelstam and sympathizer with his political views, Anna Akhmatova dealt primarily with the theme of tragic love, though she did not exclude political matters entirely. Akhmatova's poems, discussed in detail here, reflect a ''dispassionate adverse diagnosis of the human condition offered by one free from illusions.''
In contrast, the poetry of Marina Tsvetayeva is particularly subjective, largely mirroring its author's obsession with ''unhappy, unreciprocated, impossible love,'' and suggesting intimations of mortality. Tsvetayeva was the one poet to leave Russia, and, although she later returned to her homeland, some of her best and most prolific poetic output occurred abroad. For Tsvetayeva, poetry was everything, while politics was ''less than nothing.''
Boris Pasternak, despite his skepticism about the poet's role in Soviet society, was the only one of the four to make any serious, sustained effort to accommodate his country's new political stance and to conform in his writings to its position. Through his poetry and through a letter written to Stalin, Pasternak endeavored to arrive at an understanding with the leader; these attempts culminated in Stalin's famous telephone call to Pasternak on the subject of Mandelstam, at the end of which Pasternak voiced his desire to meet for a chat. Upon being asked what about, Pasternak replied, ''Life and death.'' Stalin hung up.
While alternation of the text back and forth from one poet to another occasionally seems confusing, ''Nightingale Fever'' is a coherent, engrossing work. Perhaps the words that linger longest in memory are those of Mandelstam: ''And there is no hope/For heart still flushed/With Nightingale Fever.''