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After 1812

December 19, 2010

Fridman’s two periods of Batiushkov’s poetry are 1802-1812 and 1812-1821. He begins his chapter on the second period by explaining the watershed, telling us what Batiushkov lived through and how he understood Napoleon, Alexander I, and the idea of patriotism.

The year that divides the periods is not the poet’s first experience of war, but the invasion of Russia and the fall of Moscow. Batiushkov, who was seen as something of a war hero by his contemporaries, had signed up to fight against Napoleon’s France as early as 1807, when he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Heilsberg. In 1808-1809, he took part in the Finnish War against Sweden. He rejoins the military in 1813, takes part in the Battle of the Nations (apparently the largest single battle in Europe before World War I), and is with the victorious army in Paris in 1814 (154-55).

The Battle of the Nations, as painted in 1815 by V. I. Moshkov

Batiushkov hated Napoleon; he incorrectly saw him as the successor of the Jacobins; and he disliked it when other poets portrayed him as a caricature of evil instead of a formidable and complex figure (155-56). Like many others in the “progressive nobility” of the time, he admired Alexander I, but unlike “conservative poets and journalists,” he didn’t combine his praise of Alexander with praise of the monarchy in general, and he was not inclined to interpret the Patriotic War (against the invading army in 1812) in religious terms (157). Patriotism mattered to Batiushkov, but unlike the Decembrists and many followers of Radishchev, he did not link the idea of patriotism to a struggle for liberty. Instead he linked it to the “peaceful idea of enlightenment.” He attacks what he considers the false patriotism of, one the one hand, reactionary followers of Shishkov whose supposed patriotism is a defense of backwardness, and on the other hand, people in high society who claim to love ancient Russian traditions but live a life modeled on France – those who are “сердцем славянин, желудком галломан” (153).

This section ends with a quotation that nicely reverses the typical view of Batiushkov as a writer of erudite and sensual love poems who is as far removed from the mid-century idea of “civic poetry” as can be. In a letter to Dashkov of August 9, 1812, Batiushkov attacks the Free Society of Admirers of Literature, Sciences, and Arts (to which he once belonged) for writing as if everything were not being destroyed around them (159). The verse passage ends:

Они покойны. Есть перо,
Бумага есть — и всё добро!
Не видят и не слышут

И все пером гусиным пишут!

Granted, Fridman has been working hard all along to play up anything progressive or just politically engaged he can find in Batiushkov. Still, this kind of passage complicates at least my idea of Batiushkov. The quip about high-society people who are Slavs in their heart but Francophiles in their stomach anticipates Nekrasov (“Я, душа моя, славянофил.”/ — “А религия ваша?” — “Католик”).

See section 1 of chapter 3 of N. V. Fridman’s Поэзия Батюшкова (Moscow, 1971), pp. 152-59.

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