Friday, September 28, 2012

Pushkin, Genre Experimentation and the Creation of the Literary Language

Harsha Ram (in The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire) demonstrates how a certain set of formal traits pertaining to the ode, and in particular to the victory ode, as written by Mikhail Lomonosov and Gavrila Derzhavin in particular, became subject to formal experimentation by the Romantic poets, and most notably Alexander Pushkin. Thus, Pushkin's first published poem, Memories in Tsarskoe Selo [Vospominaniia v Tsarskom Sele], which Ram notes was declaimed in front of an aging Derzhavin, contains elements of the odic sublime mixed with elegy:
Instead of simply writing a patriotic ode celebrating Russia's victory over Napoleon, Pushkin feels compelled to frame that victory in a remembrance of the past. 'Vospominaniia v Tsarskom Sele' is less an ode, it seems, than an elegiac commemoration of the ode as a genre: the poet's stylistic distance from the ode precisely mirrors the temporal remove that separates him from the victory monuments he so wistfully contemplates (162).
Ram notes other examples of experimentation in different forms: "Pushkin's other political verse of the time is similarly hybrid: 'Derevnia' (The countryside') (1819) begins as a pastoral idyll and ends with an odic denunciation of serfdom (1:359-61), whereas Pushkin's celebrated poem to Chaadaev of 1818 superimposes the imagery of love poetry onto the political theme of liberty (1:346)" (162).

It is interesting that Pushkin, who is regarded as the founder of modern Russian literature and is a Shakespeare-like figure within the Russian canon, began his poetic career by violating established genre boundaries. And this experimentation in mixing the public, high-style elements of the ode with the topoi of private, elegiac reflection, for example, was intimately connected with Pushkin's creation of a unique literary language that would mix elements of the low and high styles. We are told in V. V. Vinogradov's History of the Russian Literary Language, for example, that Pushkin belonged to the Karamzin school, which believed in bringing the Russian literary language into accord with the spoken language of the intelligentsia and opposed the dominant use of the Church Slavonicisms, which was advocated by an opposing conservative camp headed by Admiral A. S. Shishkov. (Of course, Pushkin as a poet would grow to use all the stylistic resources of the Russian language as well as foreign borrowings.) So it is no wonder that a major aspect that bothered Pushkin about the unadulterated odic style was its exclusive use of what Lomonosov termed the high style, which is dominated by the Church language. Ram notes that in a letter to his brother, Pushkin expresses his dissatisfaction with an ode written by his fellow Tsarskoe Selo classmate, Wilhelm K├╝chelbecker, in which the latter uses "Slavo-Russian verse taken entirely from [the Book of] Jeremiah" to champion the Greek revolutionary cause in the early 1820s.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Tyutchev and the Imperial Sublime

I am just finishing up reading Harsha Ram's The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire. The book focuses in particular on the evolution of the poetic genre of the ode from Mikhail Lomonosov's Ode on the Taking of Khotin (the archetypal "ceremonial ode" of Russian literature) through to the odes of Pushkin and Lermontov, with some attention to how the meaning of the sublime (as evoked in these works) evolved over this period of Russian literature from being a simple borrowing from Longinus to use as a device of Romantic dissent. And though there is much of interest to comment on from the main arguments developed in the body of the book, I wanted to touch on on some ideas brought forth in the conclusion about Fyodor Tyutchev, one of my favorite Russian poets and someone who admittedly falls outside the author's chronological scope.

Ram concludes that for poets before Tyutchev the ode, in spite of whether it was used to attack or praise the monarch, had nonetheless been "based on an implicit (ideological or structural) identification between poet and monarch as well as with the monarch's expanding realm" (218). However, Tyutchev "identified with a liminal state of inchoate inspiration that no longer found an immediate analogy in the figure of the tsar." So in such poems as Prophecy [Prorochestvo] (1850) (cited by Harsha) or even in Napoleon (1850) (which is not mentioned by the author), Russia is presented and addressed as an independent agent whose historical path and future greatness lie all before her. There is no one appointed person to affect anything, but the country itself is destined to achieve her lot according to the laws of history. (The Russian tsar occurs in the closing lines of Prophecy almost as an afterthought, and even there he bows down at the altar of Hagia Sophia, from which he derives his power). What Ram does not mention, but which might be a determining factor in separating Tyutchev from earlier Russian poets, are his formative years spent in Germany (he attended lectures by Schelling in Munich) and thus his strong intellectual relationship to German philosophy. And it is this particular messianic formulation of Russian geographical expansion and Panslavism that also has particular relevance when trying to understand Dostoevsky's political essays in the Diary of a Writer. In any case, it is important to understand that Tyutchev and Dostoevsky were not simply conservative apologists of the Tsar.

More comments on this book will follow in future posts. I will make a point of taking more time away from translation work to write them.