Your last letter, the one of May 14th, had already reached the prison when I sent mine to the post. I am so glad to be in touch with you again, and today I want to send you a cordial Whitsuntide greeting.
You remember the opening words of Goethe’s Reynard the Fox: “Whitsuntide, the joyous festival had come.” I do hope you will pass a cheerful Whitsuntide. Last year at this season we made with Mathilde that delightful excursion to Lichtenrade, where I picked the bundle of long grasses for Karl and the exquisite spray of birch catkins.
In the evening we went for another walk through the fields at the South End, with roses in our hands like the “three noblewomen of Ravenna” ... The lilac is in bloom here, the buds opened today; it is so warm, that I have begun to wear my thinnest summer dress.
Notwithstanding the sunshine and the heat, my little birds have almost stopped singing. They are too busy to think of anything but their eggs, the hens are sitting, and the cocks have their beaks full seeking food for themselves and their mates. Besides, I suppose their nests are in the open country or in the big trees. At any rate all is quiet in my little garden, except that now and again the nightingale sings a note or two, or the greenfinch makes a rat-tat-tat with its feet, or perhaps the chaffinch sounds its pipe late in the evening. My tits are no longer to be seen. Yesterday, indeed, I had a brief greeting, of a sudden, from a blue-tit; the sound came from a long way off, and thrilled me more than you can imagine. For the blue-tit, you know, is not like the coal-tit a bird that stays with us all the winter; it only comes back towards the end of March. At first this blue-tit used to fly about quite close to my window. It came to the sill with the others, and diligently sang its merry “zeezeebey”, a long-drawn-out call, reminding one of a mischievous child in a teasing mood. It always made me laugh, and answer with the same phrase. Then the bird vanished with the others in the beginning of this month, nesting no doubt elsewhere. I had seen and heard nothing of it for weeks. Yesterday its well-known notes came suddenly from the other side of the wall which separates our courtyard from another part of the prison; but it was considerably altered, for the bird shrilled thrice in brief succession “zeezeebey, zeezeebey, zeezeebey”, and then all was still. It went to my heart, for there was so much conveyed by this hasty call from the distance – a whole history of bird life. There was a reminiscence of the splendid days of wooing in the spring, when the birds could sing and make love the livelong day; now the blue-tit had to be on the wing all the time collecting flies for itself and the family. The bird seemed to be saying: “I’ve no time to spare; oh how lovely it was; spring is nearly over; zeezeebey, zeezeebey, zeezeebey!”
Will you believe me, Sonyusha, when I tell you that a little snatch of bird song can be so full of meaning, can move me so profoundly. My mother, who considered that Schiller and the Bible were the supreme sources of wisdom, was firmly convinced that King Solomon understood the language of birds. In the pride of my fourteen years and my training in natural science I used to smile at my mother’s simplicity. But now I have myself grown to be like King Solomon; I too can understand the language of birds and beasts. Not, of course, as if they were using articulate speech, but I understand the most varied shades of meaning and of feeling conveyed by their tones. Only to the rude ear of one who is quite indifferent, does the song of a bird seem always the same. Those who love birds and beasts, those who have a sympathetic understanding, can perceive great diversity of expression, and can recognise a complete language. There is a meaning even in the universal silence which has followed the clamour of the early spring. I know that if I am still here in the autumn (as I probably shall be) all my friends will come back to seek food at my window. Already I can rejoice at the return of this blue-tit which is a special friend of mine.
Sonyusha, you are feeling embittered because of my long imprisonment. You ask: “How can human beings dare to decide the fate of their fellows? What is the meaning of it all?” You won’t mind – I couldn’t help laughing as I read. In Dostoyeffsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazoff, one of the characters, Madame Hokhlakova, used to ask the same questions; she would look round from one member of the company to another, and would then blurt out a second question before there had been time to begin an answer to the first. My dear little bird, the whole history of civilisation (which according to a modest estimate extends through some twenty thousand years) is grounded upon “human beings deciding the fate of their fellows”; the practice is deeply rooted in the material conditions of existence. Nothing but a further evolution, and a painful one, can change such things. At this hour we are living in the very chapter of the transition, and you ask “What is the meaning of it all?” Your query is not a reasonable one to make concerning the totality of life and its forms. Why are there blue-tits in the world? I really don’t know, but I’m glad that there are, and it is sweet to me when a hasty “zeezeebey” sounds suddenly from beyond the wall.
Moreover, you make too much of my “equanimity”. My poise and my cheerfulness can, alas, be disturbed by the slightest of shadows. When that happens, I suffer inexpressibly, but it is my way to suffer in silence. Literally, Sonichka, I am unable at such times to utter a word. For example, within these last few days, I was feeling so bright and cheerful, rejoicing in the sunshine. Then, on Monday, there came a piercing wind, and in an instant my radiant spirits gave way to the profoundest gloom.
If at this moment the very joy of my soul had stood embodied before me, I should have been unable to utter a word of greeting, and could only have gazed at the vision in a dumb despair. In fact I rarely have much inclination to talk. Weeks pass without my hearing the sound of my own voice. This is why I heroically resolved not to have my little Mimi here. She is used to cheerfulness and bustle; she is pleased when I sing, laugh, and play hide-and-seek with her all over the house; she would be hipped here. That is why I have left her in Mathilde’s care. Mathilde is coming to visit me in a few days, and that will cheer me up. Perhaps for me, too, Whitsuntide will be “the joyous festival”. But Sonichka, you must not get into the dumps yourself; I know everything will turn out all right in the end. Give my love to Karl. A good hug to yourself.
Many thanks for the charming picture.
 Goethe, German poet, dramatist, and philosopher, born 1749, died 1832, rewrote this celebrated folk-tale, of which the earliest versions extant date from a thousand years back. In the form of a romance describing the doings of the fox and the other beasts, the fable contains a satire on contemporary manners, and especially on the lives of the clergy.
 German poet and dramatist, born 1759, died 1805.
 Russian novelist, born 1821, died 1881.
Last updated on: 16.12.2008