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Batiushkov and the myths of Alexander I

October 7, 2010

Monika Greenleaf on Batiushkov:

Alexander I, in the early part of his reign, created a myth of his Russia as ancient Rome (with an admixture of pre-Revolutionary France), with himself as Augustus (52-53). Batiushkov, meanwhile, recreated in miniature this mythical world that pervaded the culture he came of age in, through his “neoclassical” gestures and especially his translations of poets like Tibullus or Parny (55 and passim).

During the Napoleonic wars, when two emperors confronted each other and Batiushkov fought in the Russian army, Alexander sought to “resurrec[t] […] the political bodies of Old Europe.” The poet duplicated his feat by managing to “call up the ghosts of past Golden Ages” (60).

Alexander I

But in the postwar period, the myth of Alexander goes somewhere Batiushkov can’t entirely follow. Up to 1814 the tsar plays the civilizing liberator, but later he “conceived his divine mission to ‘raise’ and protect the old divine-right monarchies” and changed the “secular ‘quadruple alliance'” into the “Holy Alliance” (62). By thus “abandoning the Augustan metaphor,” Alexander demolished the cultural context in which Batiushkov’s poems made sense (63-64). Greenleaf sees Batiushkov lamenting this change in Элегия из Тибулла (1814?), which she reads as not divorced from the immediate historical context (63-65). The closest Batiushkov came to embracing the new mythology, if I understand Greenleaf correctly, was when he approached “the kind of pietist and mystical discourse that had gained currency in the last years of Alexander’s reign” in Ты знаешь, что изрек (1821?; 78-79).

See Greenleaf’s “Found in Translation: The Subject of Batiushkov’s Poetry,” in Russian Subjects: Empire, Nation, and the Culture of the Golden Age, ed. Monika Greenleaf and Stephen Moeller-Sally (Evanston, 1998), 51-79. More to come on this dense and extremely interesting article.

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