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Shishkov, Voltaire, Karamzin

August 21, 2010

At the beginning of chapter 2 we move from Fridman’s history of writing about Batiushkov to Fridman’s own view of Batiushkov’s early poetry, but not (yet) to detailed readings. Instead Fridman looks at where Batiushkov was positioned relative to the literary and cultural movements of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (the Enlightenment and “good” neoclassicism, later “bad” neoclassicism led by reactionaries like Shishkov, sentimentalism).


The backdrop is the “crisis” felt in the first decade of the nineteenth century as the feudal past gives way to the bourgeois future. Shishkov’s reactionary camp feels threatened and wants to defend the old order, which leads them to keep the forms of Enlightenment-era neoclassicism while inverting its values: “mysticism replaces the cult of reason, and obscurantism the propaganda of enlightenment” (65). Batiushkov had little use for them but felt very close to the older neoclassicism with Enlightenment values (71-78). He joined the Free Society of Admirers of Literature, Sciences, and Arts (Вольное общество любителей словесности, наук и художеств), a group of poets influenced by Radishchev; prerevolutionary scholars used to think this episode had little effect on the poet, but Fridman disagrees (71-72). This group translated and read “the works of progressive thinkers,” whence Batiushkov’s interest in classical literature (he quotes Seneca on Epicurus and transcribes passages of Lucretius – interestingly, from an Italian translation), as well as later Western European writers like Montaigne, Diderot, and especially Voltaire, whose anticlericalism the young Batiushkov liked (72-76).


Karamzin and company had a different response to the crisis, withdrawing from the world and focusing on the un-classical theme of the internal world of a single person (65-67). For Fridman this was in itself a step forward from classicism, but one that was limited by “conservative ideological aspects”; in particular, the sentimentalists replaced the “classical power of reason” with “the no less strict laws of generally accepted morality,” which placed a great burden on people’s “intellectual and emotional life” (67). Zhukovskii and Batiushkov followed the sentimentalists in paying attention to one person’s inner life, but Batiushkov, unlike both Karamzin and Zhukovskii, creates a persona that “places earthly joys above all and rejects the generally accepted morality founded on religious ‘truths'” (67-68).

We also see how the “withdrawal from the world” plays out in Batiushkov, with his disdain for the civil service and his ideal of the independent poet (68-71). We learn that Batiushkov grew even closer to the Karamzin circle’s positions after he met several of its members in 1810 (80-81), but that he rejected the lachrymose side of sentimentalism (81-82).

See section 1 of chapter 2 of N. V. Fridman’s Поэзия Батюшкова (Moscow, 1971), pp. 65-82.

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