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.

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