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On the banks of the Lethe

November 14, 2010

Batiushkov may have “made shedding light on a person’s internal world his primary artistic task,” but he had to go outside the psychological interior “to argue for the necessity of its depiction” (151). To this end he wrote satirical poems that polemicized with Shishkov and his followers, notably “Видение на берегах Леты” (1809) and “Певец в Беседе любителей русского слова” (1813), discussed on pp. 142-47 and 147-50.

Here is how Fridman characterizes Batiushkov’s overall position: he admired the great Russian classicists of earlier generations, including Kantemir, Lomonosov, Sumarokov, and Derzhavin, but could not stand their epigones, like Shikhmatov, Shakovskoi, Khvostov, and Shishkov (140-41). He was also critical of the “saccharine and lachrymose sentimentality” of certain followers of Karamzin, but admired Karamzin himself and refrained from attacking him, even though he “probably” felt some of his works were “worthy of oblivion” (143).


In “Видение на берегах Леты,” which impressed Pushkin and amused Krylov, Batiushkov “had the major writers of classicism (Lomonosov, Sumarokov, Kheraskov, Fonvizin, etc.) criticize their untalented epigones (such as Shikhmatov) and more generally supporters of the ‘old school’ (Merzliakov, Bobrov)” (142). He didn’t attack the Colloquy of Lovers of the Russian Word as such, as it didn’t yet exist (148). At the end it is Krylov who is deemed worthy of immortality (143).

A long catalogue of Shishkovites was targeted in “Певец в Беседе любителей русского слова” (148-49). Fridman considers this poem less of an artistic success than “Видение на берегах Леты,” largely because it is too blunt and descends into invective and insult, giving only caricatures where the humorous “Видение” had managed to give realistic portraits (149). He proposes two reasons for this: Batiushkov’s attitude against Shishkov and his circle may have hardened after he attended a few of their meetings, and a certain A. E. Izmailov, not known for his subtlety, had some part in writing “Певец” (149-50).

Evidently many of the writers satirized by Batiushkov held it against him and wanted literary revenge, but not Shishkov himself, who reportedly found “Певец в Беседе любителей русского слова” funny and asked for a copy of it when S. T. Aksakov read it to him (150).

See section 6 of chapter 2 of N. V. Fridman’s Поэзия Батюшкова (Moscow, 1971), pp. 140-51.

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