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There is a clear and vital connection between Batiushkov’s early poetry and its historical context, but what?

October 17, 2010

Reading Fridman (1971) and Greenleaf (1998) at the same time, I’m struck how they have definite ideas about how Batiushkov reacted to his historical moment, each of which seems convincing, but which cannot both be true. (I have the impression that each of them thought scholars had already paid plenty of attention to formal elements of Batiushkov’s work and should think more about historicizing him – see Greenleaf 52 – though Fridman does have a chapter on “artistic method and style.”)

Fridman’s idea is simpler: Batiushkov’s choice of lyric persona (of a carefree man who seeks pleasure with a lover or carousing with friends, but disdains ambition and society) is not an apolitical act. Instead it registers his dissatisfaction with the shallow materialism of people in high society in Alexander I’s Russia (in the “greedy for expensive objects” sense, not the philosophical one). His poetic retreat to a world of individual psychology is not something any poet could have done equally well in any time and place, but a rebellion against specific historical circumstances (82-96 and passim).

I found Greenleaf’s idea hard enough to summarize in a whole post, let alone a paragraph, but I gather she saw Batiushkov’s early poetry not as pointedly divorced from contemporary society. On the contrary, it was an attempt to participate in the grand imperial mythmaking that was at the center of the culture in the early part of Alexander I’s reign.

I’m working my way through this contradiction (if there is one). Beyond the obvious 1970s/1990s, USSR/USA differences in the two scholars’ perspectives, I’m struck that they read very different things, once you get past, say, Tomashevskii on Batiushkov. Fridman seems very steeped in Batiushkov’s letters, while Greenleaf spends more time on secondary sources that zoom out and try to show what it would have been like to live in Batiushkov’s cultural moment. After reading Greenleaf I very much want to read Iakubovich and perhaps Wortman.

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