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A lazy, unmaterialistic, eccentric dreamer

September 6, 2010

What Batiushkov left out shaped our idea of his lyric hero

There’s a distinctive lyric hero in Batiushkov’s poetry, but Fridman argues (contra L.N. Maikov) that it wasn’t there from the beginning. The early poems, including their first-person character, sometimes continue in a neoclassical or sentimentalist vein, and they include several satirical works with a speaker bound to that genre. Batiushkov did develop his own kind of lyrical persona fairly early, though, and he hid the traces of the earlier efforts by excluding all his satirical poems from Опыты в стихах и прозе (82-83).

The lyric hero we think of soon emerged, along with the theme of taking pleasure in earthly life (84-85). Batiushkov called his own lyrical persona a чудак (for which I wish I had a better translation than “eccentric”); cf. descriptions of Griboedov’s Chatskii and Pushkin’s Onegin (86-88). The “I” in Batiushkov’s poems rejects ambition’s chase after glory and money, and in his letters too Batiushkov was bitterly critical of the mentality that held that only those with money were worthy of respect (88-89, also 84-85). In his letters as well as his poetry, Batiushkov treats лень as a positive quality essential for poets, but mainly means laziness in the sense of dropping out of the world of petty ambition; being lazy when it comes to getting a dead poet’s work published is no longer praiseworthy (89-91). Batiushkov also participated in the cult of мечта, of dreaming and dreamers, which was on the rise then (91-93). I wonder how much this sort of мечта was recognizable three or four decades later in the receding type of the мечтатель (as in, say, Dostoevskii’s “Белые ночи”).

Not everything Batiushkov was doing was unique; other poets delved into individual psychology, used “household gods” as a key image, felt poets must be dreamers (88, 93). But no one else created anything quite like his pleasure-loving and sensual lyric hero. Contemporaries agree that the biographical Batiushkov was nothing like the “Epicurean” hero of his poetry – his life was not filled with feasting, debauchery, and frequent love affairs. Fridman’s argument is that, since we (perhaps unsurprisingly) can’t derive the lyric hero from the biographical poet, creating such a free, optimistic, pleasure-loving persona was a pointed aesthetic and philosophical declaration. Batiushkov, through his lyric hero, dreams of a world where people were free to enjoy the pleasures of life unhindered (94-96). Indeed, in Fridman’s view, the nature of Batiushkov’s poetic persona says as much about what he didn’t like in Alexander I’s Russia and the shallow materialism of high society as it does about what he did value in life and art (84-85).

See section 2 of chapter 2 of N. V. Fridman’s Поэзия Батюшкова (Moscow, 1971), pp. 82-96.

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