- К.Н. Батюшков
Life and Work
by Igor A. Pilshchikov
with T. Henry Fitt
Konstantin Batiushkov — called the “Russian Tibullus” and the “Russian Parny” — was a poet whose work largely determined the evolution of Russian poetry in the “Golden Age”. For contemporary as well as later critics, Batiushkov and Zhukovsky were the founders of a new school in Russian poetry which we tend to define as Romantic or pre-Romantic. Most of Batiushkov’s poems, published during the mid 1800s and 1810s, were collected in the second volume of Opyty v stikhakh i proze (Essays in Verse and Prose, 1817). The wider audience was perhaps less impressed by Batiushkov’s poetry than Zhukovsky’s, but the former’s influence on the younger generation of poets was extraordinary, and in this sense Batiushkov could be called “a poet’s poet”. Baratynsky, Ryleev, and, to a large degree, Pushkin, began their careers as imitators of Batiushkov. Although the formal “date of birth” of the Russian Romantic elegy is 1802 (with the works of Zhukovsky and Andrei Turgenev), it was Batiushkov’s later elegies that inspired the elegiac breakthrough in Russia in the mid 1810s. The most influential of his “friendly” epistles (as opposed to “didactic” ones), “Moi Penaty” (My Penates, 1811), inspired a plethora of poetic replies and innumerable imitations. His free translations of Greek epigrams, published in O grecheskoi antologii (On the Greek Anthology, with Sergei Semenovich Uvarov, 1820), showed a highly original approach to the Classical heritage and established the Russian anthological genre. Batiushkov’s metapoetic prose essays were the first to raise literary criticism to the level of culturological work. His familiar letters (began to appear in press from the 1820s) are also of great literary interest. Unfortunately, Batiushkov’s creative life finished long before his death; he became mentally ill in the early 1820s, and after 1822 was considered, to use Vissarion Grigor’evich Belinsky’s words, “as if dead”.
Konstantin Nikolaevich Batiushkov was the son of Nikolai L’vovich Batiushkov and Aleksandra Grigor’evna Batiushkova (neé Berdiaeva); both parents belonged to the old nobility. Konstantin had three elder sisters (Aleksandra, Elizaveta and Anna) and one younger (Varvara). His father also had children by his second wife, Avdot’ia Tegleva, one of whom, Pompei Batiushkov, later became the publisher of Konstantin’s biography and collected works (1885—87), edited by a leading academician, Leonid Maikov. Family tradition spoke of Nikolai as a “nobleman out of imperial favour”. His career difficulties could be explained by the unfavorable attitude of Catherine II, caused by his involvement in the “affair” of his uncle (Il’ia Batiushkov) who was exiled in 1770. From 1767 (1764?) to 1777 Nikolai was in the army. Only in 1781 was he appointed a procurator of the court, in the civil service: at first in Velikii Ustiug, and later in Yaroslavl, Vologda (1786—91) and Viatka. His fourth child, Konstantin, was born in Vologda on 18 May 1787. Nikolai’s family circumstances were complicated by financial difficulties, and were made even worse when the poet’s mother, Aleksandra, became mentally ill (apparently c. 1793, but not earlier, as a later family tradition supposed). Nikolai was obliged to take her to St. Petersburg, where she died on 21 March 1795.
The early years of Konstantin Batiushkov’s life are difficult to reconstruct. He probably spent the first four years of his life in Vologda; the exact place he lived from 1792 to 1796 is unknown: possibly with his father (first in Viatka, and then in St. Petersburg), possibly with his grandfather, Lev Andreevich Batiushkov, on their family estate, the village of Danilovskoe, Bezhetski district, Tver province. However, it was Konstantin’s youth spent in Petersburg which played the most important part in his development as a poet.
Batiushkov’s earliest extant letter from St. Petersburg is dated 6 July 1797. His first years there were spent in Pensionnats (private boarding schools). Contact with his relatives was restricted to correspondence and rare meetings. From 1797 to 1800 he studied at the Pensionnat directed by a Frenchman, O.P. Jacquinot; it was a rather expensive school for children of good families. Most subjects were taught in French; the curriculum included French, Russian, German, divinity, geography, history, statistics, arithmetic, chemistry, botany, calligraphy, drawing and dancing. In 1801 Batiushkov entered the Pensionnat run by an Italian, I.A. Tripoli; he graduated in 1802. It was here that Batiushkov began to study Italian. His first literary offering, however, was a translation into French of Metropolitan Platon’s Address on the occasion of the coronation of Alexander I; in the autumn of 1801 it was published as a separate pamphlet by Platon Sokolov, an acquaintance of his father.
1802 is conventionally considered the beginning of Batiushkov’s poetic career. He wrote in a letter to Nikolai Gnedich on 1 April 1810 that he had composed his first poem at the age of fifteen. Batiushkov quotes two lines; he felt that their main idea — dissatisfaction with reality and a longing for “distant lands”, both geographic and spiritual — anticipated his mature work: “Muza moia, eshche devstvennitsa, ugadala” (My Muse, while still a virgin, had divined it).
When he graduated from the Pensionnat he moved in with his father’s cousin, Mikhail Murav’ev and his wife Ekaterina Fedorovna Murav’eva. The friendship, patronage and influence of Mikhail Nikitich Murav’ev, one of the most important writers of Russian Sentimentalism and the creator of Russian “light verse”, were decisive in Batiushkov’s spiritual biography. Batiushkov later confessed that he was obliged to Murav’ev for his education. A passionate lover of Antiquity, he introduced Batiushkov to the Latin language and Classical literature. In his house Konstantin evidently became acquainted with the poets he admired, Gavriil Derzhavin and Vasilii Kapnist; most likely he also formed there a friendship with Aleksei Nikolaevich Olenin, who was both a successful “bureaucrat” and a knowledgeable amateur of the arts. Olenin’s circle, however varied the literary opinions of its members, was the aesthetic centre of Russian Neoclassicism, or the Russian style empire, which combined the “cult of sentiment” with an interest in both classical and Northern Antiquity. An appreciation of this circle’s atmosphere contributes much to the understanding of Batiushkov’s poetics.
On 20 December 1802 Batiushkov entered the newly formed Ministry of Public Education, “without salary and self-supporting”. Murav’ev became assistant minister of public education and also Supervisor of educational institutions in Moscow. It is not surprising that with such a patron, Batiushkov served, in his own words, “udachno i ne ochen’ userdno” (succesfully and not very assiduously). At first his service was wholly nominal; obviously, a fifteen year old would only take such an unreal post to fulfill the prescribed number of years to obtain at least the lowest rank in the Petrine “Table of Ranks” (corresponding to the fourteenth, i.e. the lowest class). He was granted this rank on 7 November 1803, and on 21 June 1804 he retired.
In early 1805 Batiushkov returned to the same ministry; this is why he later wrote that he had entered the civil service only in 1805 as a secretary of Mikhail Murav’ev. This time the work was more real, but Batiushkov’s duties were clearly not too wearisome. In a letter to Gnedich (autumn 1810) he tells an anecdote which fully reveals the character of his preoccupations. One of the higher clerks, annoyed that Batiushkov “did not want to do any office work”, complained to Mikhail Murav’ev; as proof of Batiushkov’s idleness he produced Évariste Parny’s verses copied by Batiushkov’s hand which served as an epigraph in an epistle to Gnedich, and which celebrated la paresse et l’insouciance (idleness and the carefree life). Murav’ev merely smiled at Batiushkov’s negligence. This anecdote, incidentally, testifies to Batiushkov’s early interest in the French elegist Évariste-Désirée De Forges de Parny (in the same year Batiushkov published his first translation from this poet). He was already showing an interest in his other favourite French poets and literary critics: Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, Voltaire, Jean François de La Harpe and Jean-Baptiste-Louis Gresset (whose “La Chartreuse” later became a model for “Moi Penaty”).
Batiushkov began to write poetry seriously in 1804 (at least, the dating of his first works from 1802—03 is not documented). Two poems are conventionally regarded as having been written before the first published one. The first of these, “Bog” (God), is a direct imitation of Derzhavin’s spiritual odes (Echoes of Derzhavin continued to appear in Batiushkov’s mature work, but as only one element of his own, highly individual, style). The other poem is “Mechta” (the title, usually translated as “Dream”, can also mean “Fantasy” or “Imagination”). Never satisfied with the realization of his idea, Batiushkov reworked “Mechta” for the rest of his literary life; thus it is possible to illustrate the evolution of Batiushkov’s versification and verbal style using only examples from successive wordings of this piece. Written under the influence of Murav’ev’s lyrics, and including both original and translated fragments, this piece became a manifesto of Batiushkov’s own aesthetics: “Mechtan’e est’ dusha poetov i stikhov” (Dreaming is the soul of poets and of verse). This brings him close to Karamzin and the early Zhukovsky, but even in “Mechta”, the literary pose of an escapist and hedonist is already evident. It was most likely the programmatic nature of this, on the whole rather weak, poem that continued to hold the interest of its otherwise self-critical author.
The journals, in which Batiushkov’s first poems were published, are easy to link to his personal contacts. His first poetic offering was the satirical “Poslanie k stikham moim” (Epistle to My Verses); in January 1805 it appeared in Novosti russkoi literatury (News of Russian literature), supplement to the periodical of Moscow University, where Murav’ev was the supervisor. Individual works of insignificant Sentimentalists and even Admiral Shishkov’s manifesto of “archaism”, can be recognized in Batiushkov’s descriptions, although this satire, as he pretended, was not “personal”; it mocks the stylistic extremes of contemporary literature. Three of the five poems, published in 1805, appeared in Severnyi vestnik (The Northern Herald), edited by Ivan Ivanovich Martynov, a colleague of Batiushkov.
Batiushkov’s relations with his colleagues in the Ministry form part of his literary biography: many of them were, after all, poets, essayists or publishers. For example, Nikolai Ivanovich Gnedich, a member of Olenin’s circle and future translator of the Iliad; Ivan Petrovich Pnin, a poet and publicist, the President (from July 1805 until his death in September 1805) of the Vol’noe obshchestvo liubitelei slovesnosti, nauk i khudozhestv (Free Society of Lovers of Letters, Sciences and the Arts). Other colleagues were also members of The Free Society: Nikolai Radishchev, son of the famous writer Aleksandr Radishchev; Dmitrii Ivanovich Iazykov, the Secretary of the Society (and its President from 1807 to 1811).
Batiushkov’s stylistics and genre repertoire of that period were partly oriented to the tastes of this literary group. In 1804—05 he wrote two more satirical pieces, one of which he presented to the Society for his membership. It was read at a meeting, on 22 April 1805, by Nikolai Petrovich Brusilov and reviewed by three “censors”, among them one of Batiushkov’s future co-authors, Aleksandr Efimovich Izmailov — but Batiushkov was not formally accepted into the Society. He was not present at the meetings dedicated to the late President Pnin, when poems in memoriam were recited; nevertheless, Batiushkov published his own poem on the same subject. He was associated with this group for only a short time; the friendship which he formed with Gnedich proved to be more lasting. In 1805 he wrote the first of many epistles to Gnedich, “Chto delaesh’, moi drug, v Poltavskikh ty stepiakh...” (What do you do, my friend, on the Poltava steppe...), published in 1809.
In 1806 Batiushkov published the first version of “Mechta” and a new poem, “Sovet druz’iam” (Advice for Friends). The latter appeared in Martynov’s Lyceum (continuation of The Northern Herald) and was soon completely rewritten, with a totally different metric scheme, and published in 1810 as “Veselyi chas” (A Happy Hour), which should be considered a different work. The subjectivist poetic formula, found in the first and modified in the second — “Umru, i vse umret so mnoi!” (I’ll die, and all will die with me!) — impressed his younger contemporaries: both Baratynsky and Pushkin repeated it.
Also in 1806 Batiushkov wrote another epistle to Gnedich (published in 1807 in Aleksandr Benitsky’s almanac Thalia): “Druzhba tol’ko obeshchaet / Mne bessmertiia venok” (It is friendship which can promise / An immortal crown for me). This was the earliest of his poems included in Opyty without significant changes. Although by this time Batiushkov was the author of only a dozen poems, Gnedich, in his (non-extant) epistle, predicts literary fame for his young friend. In his reply, Batiushkov, glorifying friendship (this theme came to dominate their poetic correspondence), blithely denied his own literary merits. The concluding lines of the first wording play upon Horace’s Non omnis moriar (Not all of me will die): “Chut’ ne ves’ li i s stikhami / Vopreki tebe umru” (Almost all of me, with my verses, / Despite what you say, will die). Batiushkov’s verses and personal letters reveal an abundance of echoes from Horace. Incidentally, the opening line of the first epistle to Gnedich alludes to Horace’s epistle to Tibullus, with whose name Batiushkov soon became closely associated.
In the autumn of 1806 Napoleon occupied Berlin and most of Prussia, Russia’s ally; Alexander I declared a mass levy. On 13 January 1807 Batiushkov, with the civil rank corresponding to the twelfth class, was attached to General Nikolai Nikolaevich Tatishchev’s staff under Olenin (the general was commander of the Petersburg Militia, a Volunteer Corps). On 22 February he enlisted in Colonel Verevkin’s Petersburg battalion of the Militia as sotennyi (a junior officer), and immediately set out for the West. On 2 March he was in Narva, 19 March — in Riga, from where he sent letters to Gnedich, containing an improptu and another verse epistle. When taking part in the Prussian campaign, he met Ivan Aleksandrovich Petin, an officer, who was to become another close friend. Batiushkov fought at the battle of Gutstadt (22—27 May); on 29 May he was seriously wounded at the battle of Heilsberg. (A year later, on 20 May 1808, he was awarded the Order of St. Anne, 3rd class, for bravery.) After the battle he was transported to hospital and then to Riga where he was convalescing during June and July 1807. Meanwhile the Russian army had suffered a serious defeat at Friedland, and Alexander I signed the Treaty of Tilsit with Napoleon.
In Riga, Batiushkov was living at the house of a merchant, Müguel (Batiushkov’s French spelling), with whose daughter (Emilie?) he fell in love. This episode formed the background for two poems: “Vyzdorovleniie” (Convalescence, 1815—16?), considered by Pushkin one of Batiushkov’s best elegies, and “Vospominaniia 1807 goda” (Recollections of 1807), whose popularity is also testified to by Pushkin’s note in his epistle “To Batiushkov” (1814). Both works strongly influenced the Russian elegy of the 1810s and 1820s.
”Vyzdorovleniie”, not published until the appearance of Opyty, is an exquisite 20-line poem, written in 6- and 4-foot iambic quatrains (so called “Gilbert’s stanza”). Its lyric plot unfolds on the boundary between two abstract worlds: the bright world of life and a gloomy pseudo-classical Hades. The two first quatrains describe the lyric “I” dying. The motif of “fading/withering” predominates the poem. It begins with the simile: “Kak landysh pod serpom zhnetsa ... vianet, / Tak...”, and then: “Ia vianul, ischezal” (As the lily of the valley withers under the raper’s murderous sickle, so ... I withered and disappeared). The next two quatrains present “thou” as an incarnation of life: “No ty priblizhilas’, o zhizn’ dushi moei” (But thou hast come, o life of my soul). “Thou” is an active principle whose function is salvation; the first-person pronoun even grammatically acquires the function of object (menia [me]). The last quatrain binds together all the semantic and grammatic themes. In its first line, two pronouns appear in marked positions, “thou” and the feminine for “it” which refers to “life”: “Ty snova zhizn’ daesh’; ona tvoi dar blagoi” (Thou givest life anew; it is thy blessed gift). In the concluding line the “I” theme returns, and an unexpected pointe is introduced: the lyric persona, who has escaped the withering of death, predicts: “Ia ot liubvi teper’ uvianu” (It is from love that I shall wither).
The other elegy, “Vospominaniia 1807 goda”, published in 1809 and 1811, and republished in Opyty as “Vospominanie” (Recollection), is highly autobiographical: Heilsberg and Emilie are named. Although the love section of the poem is absent from Opyty, the opposition of “war” and “love” (a polarity he also found this in the works of Torquato Tasso and Tibullus) became a perennial theme for Batiushkov.
1807 was a difficult year. On leave, Batiushkov went to Danilovskoe where he learned that Murav’ev had died in late July. Moreover, instead of a joyous home-coming, he quarrelled with his father over the latter’s second marriage. Konstantin and his unmarried sisters, Aleksandra and Varvara, moved to their late mother’s family estate, the village of Khantonovo, Cherepovetski district, Novgorod province. In the autumn of 1807 Batiushkov (along with his friend, Petin) obtained a transfer to the Guards’ Regiment of Jägers.
The following year, 1808, he was away from the capital: estate affairs kept him in Vologda and Khantonovo (he was not even able to be present at the funeral of his eldest sister, Anna, who died in St. Petersburg). In September he had to return to active service in Finland, in the war against Sweden, as a member of Colonel Turchaninov’s battalion of Jägers. Nevertheless, he became quite a generous contributor to Dramaticheskii vestnik (The Dramatic Messenger), the newly founded journal of Olenin’s circle. Here Batiushkov published his fable in defence of Vladislav Aleksandrovich Ozerov, tragedian-playwright and the favourite of the Oleninites. Batiushkov compared the fate of Ozerov, who later became insane, with the similar fate of Torquato Tasso (ironically, he himself would come to the same end).
Tasso and his Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered, 1580) — the epic that Batiushkov always described as nothing less than “immortal” — became Batiushkov’s main preoccupation from 1807 to 1810 as he worked on translating it into Russian. The idea of presenting the main works of world literature in the Russian language and making them part of Russian belles lettres is characteristic of the early nineteenth century. Batiushkov (also advised by Kapnist) might have come to similar ideas under the influence of Gnedich who was already working on his translation of the Iliad. First and foremost in importance to the literati were heroic epopees. This is why in Batiushkov’s correspondence with Gnedich, “your poet” and “my poet” are Homer and Tasso, although Batiushkov considered only two extracts from his incomplete verse translation of Gerusalemme liberata worth publishing. In his translation Batiushkov ignored the metric and stanzaic form of the Italian original, octave, and used the “classical” alexandrine (we should remember that, at that time, Gnedich, who later used hexameters, was still translating Homer into alexandrines).
Tasso did, however, become a personage in Batiushkov’s poems. The first such poem, “K Tassu” (To Tasso), appeared in 1808 in Dramaticheskii vestnik as a kind of introduction to Batiushkov’s translation of a fragment from Canto I of Gerusalemme; both were written during the Finnish campaign. Batiushkov’s “introduction” is, in fact, a free version of La Harpe’s Épître au Tasse (Epistle to Tasso, 1775; La Harpe was also a translator of Gerusalemme liberata). Although Batiushkov’s views sometimes differ from La Harpe’s, they do come together at two points: an emphasis on the contrasting themes in Tasso’s work (war and love), and an empathy with the poet’s fate (misfortune and madness).
Another interesting work that had been published in Dramaticheskii vestnik was “Son Mogol’tsa” (The Mogul’s Dream, 1808), a translation of one of La Fontaine’s fable previously translated by Zhukovsky. Batiushkov introduced a personal motif: “esli mne dana / Sposobnost’ malaia i skudno darovan’e” (if I am given / A minor talent and a meagre gift). A “minor gift” is, of course, “a gift for minor genres”, but this motif also has an existential element (developed by Baratynsky). Although later Batiushkov came to dislike his own translation (republished by Zhukovsky in 1810), Gnedich included it in Opyty against the author’s wishes.
The extract from Tasso published in Dramaticheskii vestnik concludes with the promise “to be continued”; however, the journal was closed down, signalling a split in Olenin’s circle. Another fragment from Gerusalemme liberata appeared next year (1809) in Tsvetnik (The Flower Garden), the Petersburg journal edited by Batyushkov’s old acquaintances, Izmailov and Benitsky. (The latter is even less known to the modern reader than the former; Batiushkov, however, thought highly of Benitsky’s talent. Benitsky died from consumption on 30 November 1809, aged 27.)
Batiushkov kept in contact with his Petersburg friends largely through correspondence. Actual meetings in the capital (in June and July 1809, on his return from Finland to his estate) were quite brief. For the first half of 1809 Batiushkov was still on active service. In March he took part in the campaign for the Åland Islands, and by the beginning of May he had received the rank of second lieutenant and submitted his application to resign (confirmed by June 1809). In July 1809, he went to Khantonovo, where he lived until December; there he wrote his famous “Videnie na b(e)regakh Lety” (A Vision on the Shores of the Lethe). His first publishable prose pieces (including one on Finland) were also written in 1809.
A satirical poem that Batiushkov had refused to have published (it finally appeared in 1841), “Videnie” soon became widely known and brought the author a certain notoriety. In October 1809 it was sent to Gnedich who allowed Olenin to make a copy, which rapidly multiplied. Batiushkov wrote the poem following the French satirical tradition, but its material was wholly Russian: it describes a dream in which all contemporary Russian poets have unexpectedly died and turned up in Elysium; their works are immersed in the waters of the Lethe: those found wanting sink into oblivion. The Russian writers of the eighteenth century were not the main concern of the satire. In the poem, it is not only the notorious Barkov who escapes oblivion, but also Trediakovsky who was generally despised at that time. The latter’s role, however, is reduced to that of defender of the Shishkovites, partisans of the archaist (“Slavo-Russian”) tendency in literature. Shishkov himself, like Trediakovsky, is saved for his diligent though ungifted work, but not other archaizers, who had already been targets of Batiushkov’s epigrams. As in Batiushkov’s first satirical work, the Moscow “tearful” Sentimentalists (headed by Prince Shalikov) are mocked. Batiushkov did not mention the leader of Russian Sentimentalism: he wrote to Gnedich (November 1809) that he “dare not drown” Karamzin because he respected him. Of contemporary writers, only Ivan Andreevich Krylov is saved. After the split in Dramaticheskii vestnik, Krylov published in Tsvetnik; the literary policy of the authors for this journal (including Batiushkov) was to distance themselves from both “Slavophiles” and pretentious Sentimentalists.
“Videnie” performs a balancing act between ridicule and obscenity, it is full of caustic allusions and offensively transformed or reinterpreted quotations. Pushkin, who otherwise did not like Batiushkov’s poetic jokes, wrote in the margins of Opyty that this poem was “clever and funny”, and in “Gorodok” (The Town, 1815) he called the author “nasmeshnik smelyi” (a daring mocker). With “Videnie”, Batiushkov’s reputation was established; he began to regard himself as a mature and original poet, and started gathering material for a publication of his collected works.
In the same year (1809) he began his association with Vestnik Evropy (Herald of Europe), the Moscow journal founded by Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin; it was edited, at that time, by Vasilii Andreevich Zhukovsky and Mikhail Trofimovich Kachenovsky. Batiushkov came to know them personally a little later: he arrived in Moscow only on 25 December 1809, invited there by Ekaterina Murav’eva, in whose house he stayed until the end of May 1810. He quickly entered Moscow literary circles; not only Zhukovsky, but also Prince Petr Andreevich Viazemsky, Vasilii L’vovich Pushkin (Aleksandr Pushkin’s uncle) and Karamzin became his close friends. For the next three years he published almost exclusively in Vestnik Evropy. His first work to appear here was “Vospominaniia 1807 goda”. The journal published many of his prose works (five in 1810), epigrams and other miscellanea; but the most important were translations and “imitations” (free adaptations). Although he usually completed only two or three translations a year, from December 1809 till February 1811 he published more than ten translations from Italian, Latin and French (and composed even more): two from Petrarch, one from Giambattista Casti, two from Tibullus, and five from Parny (some epigrams are also translations).
Batiushkov’s admiration for Italian culture was not limited to Gerusalemme liberata, the epic which was generally considered the main link in a chain between antiquity and modernity. He extended this attitude to the whole of Italian Renaissance literature, in which he found “genuinely classical beauties, well-tried by the centuries” (“sokrovishch istinno klassicheskikh, ispytannykh vekami”, as he wrote to Prince Viazemsky on 4 March 1817). The chronological horizon of Batiushkov’s Italian interests gradually extended (Ariosto, Petrarch, Dante; contemporaries: Casti, Rolli, Alfieri, Monti) — until he conceived the project of Panteon Itail’ianskoi Slovesnosti (Pantheon of Italian Letters) in 1817.
Batiushkov’s interest in Casti was inspired by Antonio Scoppa who wrote in his Traité de la poésie italienne, rapportée à la poésie française (1803): “...le célèbre Casti, dont le grand génie embrasse tout ce qui rendit immortels les ouvrages de Tasso et d’Ariosto”. Batiushkov translated two Anacreontic poems of Casti: “A Fille” (To a Girl) and “Il Contento” (The Contented). A free adaptation of the former, “Schastlivets” (The Fortunate), appeared in 1810 in Vestnik Evropy; the poem became popular and was often republished. An imitation of the other piece, “Radost’” (Joy), did not appear in print until the publication of Opyty. This poem evoked Pushkin’s comment: “Vot Bat<iushkovsk>aia garmoniia” (Here is the harmony of Bat<iushkov>).
Among Batiushkov’s marginalia in Scoppa’s book is a translation of the three opening and three concluding lines of Paolo Rolli’s “Piangete, o Grazie, piangete Amori...” (“Weep, o Graces, weep, Amours...”), later copied into Batiushkov’s notebook of 1810—11, Raznye zamechaniia (Various Remarks). Characteristically enough, Batiushkov did not consider what we regard as a masterpiece of his to be a finished work and did not dare to publish it. Instead, he included in his Opyty a translation of an epigram on the nymph Io by an anonymous disciple of Scoppa, although both the original and the translation can only be appraised as mediocre (Pushkin remarked of this epigram: “What a banality!”).
The translation-imitation of Lygdamus’s elegy (Corp. Tib. III, 3), then considered authentic Tibullus, was composed at Khantonovo in the autumn of 1809. As with his next two Tibullan imitations, he used alexandrines. Unlike contemporary “hellenists”, Batiushkov was neither interested in reforming Russian prosody nor in detailed antiquarianism. Significantly, his translation of Horace’s Carmen I, 22, following the original stanzaic form, remained in draft form only. After Batiushkov’s imitation, Tibullus III, 3 became popular; Milonov and Ryleev published versions (though the latter’s translation is rather an imitation of Batiushkov than of the Latin original). The presentation of Tibullus in Russia came to be closely linked with the name of Batiushkov, although Ivan Ivanovich Dmitriev (1795) and Vasilii Grigor’evich Anastasevich (1806) had already imitated Tibullus I, 1. Dmitriev’s influence is evident in Batiushkov’s version of Tibullus I, 10 (published 1810), echoes of which are frequent in Aleksandr Pushkin and Baratynsky. Later, Batiushkov translated Tibullus I, 3 (published in 1815). The choice of these elegies was clearly motivated by their themes: the contrast of war and love.
Translations from Parny, whom Batiushkov considered the greatest exponent of poésie légère, were also of exceptional importance for the Russian writer. The first to appear at that time was a free adaptation of the elegy “Le Revenant” titled “Prividenie” (The Ghost), composed in February 1810. Batiushkov was right when he wrote to Gnedich that month that he had not translated this piece, but “conquered” it: filled with playful allusions to Karamzin’s, Derzhavin’s and Zhukovsky’s poems, it fits perfectly into a Russian context, developing the theme of “apparition”, initiated by Zhukovsky’s Russified imitation of Bürger’s ballad “Lenore” (“Liudmila”, 1808). On the other hand Parny’s works could, for Batiushkov, be associated with the Roman poets: Batiushkov himself acknowledged (in letters to Zhukovsky on 26 July 1810 and to Gnedich on 13 March 1811)
that he had introduced a Tibullan word theme in his verse translation of Parny’s idyll in prose “Le Torrent” and Virgilian motifs in his extract from Parny’s “Scandinavian” poem “Isnel et Asléga”. Batiushkov’s translations are highly original, while his original works are filled with classical reminiscences. In an elegant poem about Elysium (unpublished until 1834), Tibullan and Horatian motifs, having passed through the prism of Parny and Antoine Bertin’s poetics, are realized in pure Batiushkovian Russian stylistic formulae.
In summer 1810 Batiushkov spent three weeks on Viazemsky’s estate, Ostaf’evo, in the company of his host, Karamzin and his wife, and Zhukovsky. Batiushkov left his friends suddenly and fled to Khantonovo from where he wrote playfully apologetic letters to Zhukovsky and Viazemsky (late July 1810). He enclosed some pieces, (including a new version of “Mechta”) intended for Vestnik Evropy and for the five-volume Sobranie Russkikh stikhotvorenii (Collected Russian Poems, 1810—11), edited by Zhukovsky. Batiushkov stayed at Khantonovo until the end of the year. This pattern of living — half of the year spent in the “capitals”, half in the countryside — became habitual for him. At Khantonovo he wrote a vast amount of prose (mostly non-extant), including “Predslava and Dobrynia”, a tale of ancient Russia, published in Del’vig and Pushkin’s almanac Severnye tsvety (Northern Flowers) in 1832. In addition, Batiushkov, made one more attempt at the grand genre: a verse variation of The Song of Songs. This non-extant poem was sent to Gnedich in St. Petersburg and to Viazemsky in Moscow; neither liked it. Its failure contrasted with his succesful poésies fugitives, which established the literary image of the “voluptuary” Batiushkov (of course, his friends knew his character was rather different). Nevertheless, his diversion into light verse and refusal to complete his translation of Tasso displeased Gnedich, who called the subjects he chose “unworthy” of his “excellent talent” (letter to Batiushkov on 16 October 1810). The poet even had to defend his works from his closest friend.
In late February 1811 Batiushkov went back to Moscow, but by the end of July 1811 had run out of money and left for Khantonovo. He was often invited by his Moscow friends, but in place of his company he presented them with one of the most original works of the 1810s, “Moi Penaty”, which he subtitled “an epistle to Zhukovsky and Viazemsky” (revised version, 1812; published in 1814). The literary background of the poem is heterogeneous: the title recalls Ducis and de Bernis; the setting, Parny and Gresset; details, Gresset, Bertin, Tibullus and Horace. There are also many allusions to Russian poets. The diversity of contrasting themes is extraordinary: imagination and reality, friendship and eroticism, country life and literature, existence and death. All is merged in Batiushkov’s unrepeatable intonation, in a “light” metre, iambic trimeters (in the eighteenth century this metre was used the for Anacreontic and song genres). In reply Zhukovsky and Viazemsky composed similar epistles. With “Moi Penaty” several topoi (for example, the shades of poets’ visits), original and borrowed details (such as Gresset’s rickety table, the classical rusty sword), devices (chiefly the mixing of antiquity and modernity) and characters (such as retired soldier) became fashionable. The trimeter epistle came to be recognized as a genre in its own right — an extremely popular one.
In January 1812 Batiushkov left his estate for St. Petersburg to find a post at the Imperial Public Library (the director was now Olenin). This offended Viazemsky who was waiting for him in Moscow, and who apparently feared the “Petersburg” influence on his friend. However, Batiushkov arrived in the capital as a poet of the “Moscow” (i.e. Karamzinist) orientation. Somewhat avoiding his old literary acquiantances, he got to know future members of the “Arzamas” group: Dmitrii Nikolaevich Bludov, Dmitrii Vasil’evich Dashkov, Aleksandr Ivanovich Turgenev. While awaiting a position at the Library, Batiushkov lived at Gnedich’s house. His new friends became members of The Free Society, which had changed considerably in character (its President was now Izmailov). On 8 February 1812 Batiushkov was accepted into the Society, but again his association with it was short-lived: on 14 March Dashkov delivered his notorious speech, a tongue-in-cheek eulogy to the “graphomaniac” Count Dmitrii Ivanovich Khvostov, and was asked to withdraw from the Society; Batiushkov, Bludov and Dmitrii Petrovich Severin walked out in sympathy.
On 22 April 1812 Batiushkov became an Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts at the Library, under the palaeographist Aleksandr Ivanovich Ermolaev. His colleagues included Gnedich, Krylov and Uvarov. In June he bought an apartment nearby. The quiet life (“thank God, I have wine, friends, tobacco...”) was clouded only by ill-health (“I am so weak that shall not even outlive my verses”); in a letter to Zhukovsky of June 1812 (just quoted) he enclosed an epistle “Prosti, otshel’nik moi...” (Goodbye, my anchoret), a sort of melancholic addition to “Moi Penaty”. Its revised version, “Prosti, balladnik moi...” (Goodbye, my balladist), was published in Pavel Aleksandrovich Nikol’sky’s Panteon Russkoi Poezii (Pantheon of Russian Poetry, part II, St. Petersburg, 1814).
But even now peace and calm denied Batiushkov: Napoleon invaded Russia on 12 June 1812. Batiushkov wrote to Viazemsky that had it not been for a fever, he would have immediately joined the army. Nevertheless, he left St. Petersburg: Ekaterina Murav’eva and her children were living, without any help, at her dacha near Moscow; 14 August Olenin gave him leave to go to them. Two days after the Russian army had left Moscow, he accompanied the Murav’evs to Nizhnii Novgorod, where most Muscovites had fled. It was probably here that he wrote a poem, Razluka (The Parting), which became a popular song (not to be confused with a later elegy of the same title). In October he accompanied Olenin — who had just arrived — to Tver, via the burned ruins of Moscow. The scenes of destruction deeply affected him and determined his attitude to the war; he wrote to Gnedich of the French: “Varvary! Vandaly! I etot narod izvergov osmelilsia govorit’ o svobode, o filosofii, o chelovekoliubii!” (Barbarians! Vandals! And this nation of monsters even dares to speak of freedom, of philosophy, of philanthropy!). While in Nizhnii Batiushkov became acquainted with General Aleksei Nikolaevich Bakhmetev who promised to facilitate his joining the army, and who sent the necessary papers to the capital. On 18 December Batiushkov was released from the Library, and in February 1813 arrived, via Moscow, in Petersburg. Meanwhile the French army had been driven from Russia, and the foreign campaign began.
On 29 March Batiushkov again entered military service, with the rank of junior captain (tenth class), and was appointed Bakhmetev’s adjutant. Because the general had been wounded, he was unable to take part in the campaign and Batiushkov waited for him in St. Petersburg. It was the events of 1812 that dictated the mood of an epistle-elegy, “K Dashkovu” (To Dashkov), a turning-point in Batiushkov’s poetics and weltanschauung. The poem echoes his personal letters and expresses his feelings on seeing Moscow in ruins: the apparently rhetorical “trikraty” (thrice) refers to three real visits. Together with “a wounded hero” (Bakhmetev) he thirsts for revenge; hence the refusal to sing of love and joy. The War becomes an incarnation of Evil: “Moi drug! ia videl more zla / I neba mstitel’nogo kary” (My friend! I saw a sea of evil / And wrath of the avenging heavens). The poem presents a strong contrast to Zhukovsky’s hymn to the events of 1812; optimism was now alien to Batiushkov, and he was only able to use the form found in Zhukovsky as a pastiche.
One of two satires, written with Izmailov, “Pevets v Besede liubitelei russkogo slova” (The Bard in The Colloquy of the Lovers of the Russian Word), although not directed against Zhukovsky, parodies his title, composition and metre. This satire on the Colloquy, the Shishkovites’ Petersburg nucleus after 1811, gave Batiushkov the reputation of a militant Karamzinist, and became the precedent for the parodic and even obscene use of alternating lines of iambic tetrameters and trimeters by other poets from Pushkin to Maiakovsky. Probably, at this time Batiushkov wrote an epistle to Alexandr Turgenev (published in 1827) describing Olenin’s estate, Priiutino, and containing portraits of its habitués: Gnedich, Krylov, the painter Orest Adamovich Kiprensky. It was not only the presence of friends that attracted him to Priiutino: in April or May 1813 he fell in love with Anna Furman, the Olenins’ ward. Batiushkov spent the rest of the war remembering and hiding his love.
In July 1813 Bakhmetev arrived in Petersburg, and, still unable to take part in the campaign, gave Batiushkov permission to go on active service. Batiushkov set out for Count Petr Khristianovich Wittgenstein’s headquarters near Dresden on 24 July. He was appointed adjutant to General Nikolai Nikolaevich Raevsky, commander of the Third Corps of Grenadiers, and took part in the battle of Teplitz (15 August). Twice he met Petin; these, and earlier, meetings are described in his “Vospominanie o Petine” (Memoir on Petin, unpublished until 1851). Petin was killed at Leipzig in “The Battle of Nations” (4—6 October). Raevsky, whose Corps was in the vanguard, was severely wounded, while Batiushkov (who on 27 January 1814 was awarded the Order of St. Anne, second class, for bravery) was not even scratched. Through October and November, he stayed with Raevsky in Weimar, where his interest in the German authors (Goethe, Wieland, Schiller, Voss) grew. In a letter to Gnedich on 30 October 1813 Batiushkov wrote that he occasionally visited theatre and, in particular, attended a performance of Schiller’s Don Carlos (staged, incidentally, by Goethe).
By mid December Raevsky and Batiushkov had caught up with the army. In January 1814 the Russians crossed the Rhine, entered France and moved in on the capital. From the literary point of view the castle of Cirey in Lorraine, where the fugitive Voltaire had lived, was the most important place Batiushkov visited at that time. He describes the visit in a prose piece, “Puteshestvie v zamok Siree (Pis’mo iz Frantsii k g. D.)” (A Visit to the Castle of Cirey: A Letter from France to Mr. D[ashkov]), written in the autumn of the following year and published in Vestnik Evropy in 1816 . During the battle for Paris (17—18 March 1814), Raevsky’s Corps was held in reserve. The following day Alexander I, at the head of his armies, entered the city (a scene Batiushkov described in a letter to Gnedich on 27 March 1814).
The first month in Paris was an exciting time for Batiushkov. He even managed to attend a meeting of the Academy (his favourite, Parny, was absent). Batiushkov’s impressions were negative and he wrote to Dashkov on 25 April 1814 that the age of glory for French literature had passed (“vek slavy dlia Frantsuzkoi Slovesnosti proshel”). This letter was also a literary work; an abridged version was published by the poet’s friends in Boris Mihkailovich Fedorov’s Pamiatnik Otechestvennykh Muz (The Monument of Fatherland Muses) in 1827. In May Batiushkov fell ill, grew depressed and decided to return home. Severin suggested he go via England, following the emperor’s retinue. Batiushkov arrived in London in mid May and spent two weeks in England. On 25 May he was issued a passport to travel home via Sweden, and from 30 May to June was sailing from Harwich to Gothenburg (Sweden). The crossing was described in a letter to Severin on 19 June 1814; Batiushkov later revised it as a traveller’s sketch which appeared in Severnye tsvety in 1827. His sea trip also became the setting (“Ia bereg pokidal tumannyi Al’biona”, I left the misty shores of Albion) for his elegy “Ten’ Druga” (The Shade of a Friend), in which the narrator is visited by the silent ghost of a fallen comrade-in-arms (meaning Petin). According to Viazemsky, this piece was actually composed during the voyage; however, it may have been written a year later, along with other works of reminiscence.
From Gothenburg Batiushkov travelled to Stockholm from where he set out for St. Petersburg via Finland, accompanied by Bludov (at that time an official at the Embassy in Sweden). He arrived in early July and moved into Ekaterina Murav’eva’s house. There he worked on “Stseny chetyrekh vozrastov” (Scenes of the Four Ages of Man), a libretto for the celebrations on the return of Alexander I, which took place in Pavlovsk on 27 July 1814. The Dowager Empress had entrusted the preparations to Iurii Aleksandrovich Neledinsky-Meletsky, a senator-poet, who passed on this task to Batiushkov, an aquaintance. Several others, including Derzhavin, had a hand in its composition. The result was, according to Batiushkov, a “jumble”, for which, nevertheless, the Dowager Empress presented him with a diamond ring; he sent it to his younger sister. At the same time he was editing, and writing an introduction to, an 1815 collection of Mikhail Nikitich Murav’ev’s prose works. This piece had also been published separately in Syn Otechestva (Son of the Fatherland) in 1814 and appeared later in Opyty and in Murav’ev’s 1819 Collected Works. Batiushkov considered the returning of Murav’ev’s works to society his moral and literary duty.
The second half of 1814 and the beginning of 1815 was artistically a very fruitful time, outwardly calm, but psychologically the most difficult period of the poet’s life. Several circumstances kept him in the capital. he had not received leave from thr temporarily absent Bakhmetev; moreover, Raevsky had proposed Batiushkov for more awards and his transfer to the prestigious Izmailovsky Regiment. The wearisome waiting and suspense eventually caused disillusionment with his social career.
On his return to St. Petersburg Batiushkov’s matrimonial hopes collapsed. Although the Olenins, the Murav’evs and his relatives all approved of the match, he realized (or imagined) that Anna Furman did not really love him, so he did not propose, using the excuse of a lack of money (incidentally, a real problem for him). Nevertheless, he continued to work. He wrote (consulting Olenin) an essay on Russian cultural history, “Progulka v Akademiiu Khudozhestv” (A Stroll through the Academy of Arts, published Syn Otechestva in 1814) and composed several important poems. Batiushkov’s works of this period are coloured by his experiences of war, travels and other cultures. Even an elegy, “Plennyi” (The Captive), is based on the real captivity in France of Lev Vasil’evich Davydov (his fellow officer and brother of the famous poet, Denis Davydov). Batiushkov’s critical essays and traveller’s sketches are closely related to his familiar letters (and the familiar letter as a genre).
Batiushkov had been wanting, at least since the end of Finnish campaign, to compose a long poem about the North (instead he translated two extracts from Parny’s Scandinavian poem); now he wrote “Na razvalinakh zamka v Shvetsii” (On the Ruins of a Castle in Sweden). This gloomy elegy, written in regular strophes combining iambic hexameters and tetrameters, was partly inspired by a poem by Friedrich von Matthisson and the work of the historian Paul-Henri Mallet. It was a marked departure from light verse. The theme of imagination acquired a historical dimension; this new modification of the meditative poem was to be developed in Russian poetry (for example, Pushkin’s “Recollections at Tsarskoe Selo”, 1815) and essentially influenced the Russian elegiac vision of Scandinavia (as in “Finland “, Baratynsky’s famous elegy, written in 1820).
A tale, “Strannik i domosed” (The Wanderer and The Home-Lover), conceived in London and completed in St. Petersburg, was also an attempt, although of debatable success, to leave behind his intimate lyricism. However, at this time or a little later he wrote one of his most beautiful love elegies, “Ia chuvstvuiu, moi dar v Poezii pogas...” (I feel my gift of Poetry has died...), an expression of his love and loss of Furman. Like Virgil’s Tityrus (the character who personified Virgil himself in an epistle to Ivan Matveevich Murav’ev-Apostol, another of Batiushkov’s works of the period), the poet teaches an echo to repeat his beloved’s name, not in Arcady, but in the heat of battle, and during lonely wanderings through countries actually visited; his existence is a far cry from the shepherd’s innocent happiness: both love and poetic inspiration have left him in the desert of sad experience. An extract from this elegy appeared in Opyty as “Vospominaniia” (Recollections) preceded by (and so paralleled with) the “Recollection” of his Riga love.
In early January 1815 a serious illness caused a nervous reaction; this led to a temporary change in his opinion on his chosen poetic path. In a letter to Viazemsky from February 1815 he cited the concluding lines from the complete version of the elegy to Furman: “Muza... Svetil’nik gasit darovan’ia” (The Muse... extinguishes the lantern of inspiration). Also in February he wrote a dedication to Bludov in a manuscript collection. He claimed that his poetry was insufficiently crafted, but that it comprised a true history of passions (“istoriia strastei”); he calls the collection “zhurnal... poeta” (“a poet’s diary”). This piece, with the title “K druz’iam” (To Friends), became the dedicatory poem in the second volume of Opyty. Tellingly, Batiushkov sought justifications for his “unworthy” poetry.
In March he set off in search of spiritual healing, accompanied by Ekaterina Murav’eva; they spent the second week of Lent at a monastery in Tikhvin. It seems that Batiushkov experienced a religious conversion, evidence of which may be found in a poem of this year, “Nadezhda” (Hope). Apparently in the same year he composed a poem combining the motifs of love and fatal illness: “Posledniaia vesna” (The Last Spring), a free version of Charles-Hubert Millevoye’s “La Chute des feuilles” (The Fall of Leaves, 1811), one of the most popular elegies among Russian translators of the 1810s and 1820s. Another translation, “Mshchenie” (Vengeance) from Parny, was composed both as an addition to the earlier “Prividenie” (a “mirror image” of the same theme), and a possible sublimation of his dissapointment in love, which was still eloquent in his poems.
In the first half of 1815 Batiushkov came to meet the young Aleksandr Pushkin at Tsarskoe Selo; in the eyes of later generations this meeting took on an historic or even symbolic meaning, but we have little information about it. Pushkin’s second epistle to Batiushkov may be a delayed response to some real remark. In mid April 1815, having at last obtained leave, Batiushkov went to Danilovskoe where he spent six “torturous” days with his father (whose second wife had died in 1814), then went on to Khantonovo. He was soon recalled to service and on 8 June set out for Kamenets-Podolsky in Bessarabia, where Bakhmetev had been made governor. Batiushkov spent the rest of the year in this remote province occupying himself with Italian, writing prose and, of course, poetry.
In August 1815 Batiushkov informed Zhukovsky: “Ia po gorlo v proze” (I’m up to my neck in prose), and as early as December he made a promise to send
off his “scribblings” (“maran’ia”). Essays on Ariosto and Tasso, Petrarch, Lomonosov, a program article “Nechto o poete i poezii” (A Word on the Poet and Poetry), two “allegories” all appeared the following year in Vestnik Evropy (republished in Opyty); moral essays and memoir pieces were written and earlier drafts revised. “All this is scribbled here, out of boredom, without any books or other material (bez knig i posobii)”, Batiushkov thus excused himself in a letter to Zhukovskii from December 1815, “but possibly because of this my ideas may well appear more original to you (pokazhutsia vam svezhee)”. He was being a bit cunning of course: for instance, it is evident that he had at his disposal the works of Petrarch and Tasso, Pierre Louis Ginguené’s Histoire littéraire d’Italie (1811—12) and some other critical studies. However, Batiushkov suceeded in expressing a consistent, and in its own way original, view of the Italian classics. The religious eroticism of Petrarch’s Canzoniere, the grandeur of Tasso’s Christian epic, and the protean universality of Ariosto’s Orlando furioso are grasped in their indissoluble relation with the essential characteristics of the national language.
Batiushkov borrowed from critical literature only those ideas which were intimately close to his own, and was not scared to express his disagreement with accepted opinions. Thus, in his essay “Petrarch” (the earliest Russian work on this subject) he disagreed with La Harpe who maintained that “the principal merit” of Petrarch was his “style” and “poetic diction”, whereas “thoughts” and “invention” were lacking in his works. Batiushkov argues: ‘But I want to justify the poet whom critics (while praising, however, the harmony of his verses) often equate with ordinary writers when it comes to invention and thoughts. In prose there remain only thoughts”. In order to demonstrate this, Batiushkov produced his own translations from Petrarch’s canzoni and Trionfi. The concepts of the essay “Ariosto and Tasso” were also illustrated by prose translations: extensive fragments from Gerusalemme liberata.
On 11 August 1815 Batiushkov sent a letter to Ekaterina Murav’eva, explaining his relationship with Furman; he enclosed “Moi Genii” (My Genius) and “Razluka” (The Parting), two elegies thematically close to “Ia chuvstvuiu, moi dar v Poezii pogas...”. During a gloomy Moldavian autumn he wrote two masterpieces: the light neoclassical “Tavrida” (Tauris), and an epistle/elegy addressed to Viazemsky, “K drugu” (To a Friend). The latter synthesizes practically all the themes of his poetry, symbolically representing his life’s path: epicurean motifs appear as the irretrievable past, while the loss of love and inspiration are the present; faith gives hope, but only for another world.
Meanwhile some humorous, but significant events were taking place in St. Petersburg. In September Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Shakhovskoi (a former member of Olenin’s circle) attacked Zhukovsky in his comedy Urok koketkam, ili Lipetskie vody (A Lesson for Coquettes, or The Lipetsk Spa, staged 23 September 1815), which was considered by the Karamzinists as the declaration of war from the Beseda liubitelei russkogo slova. On 14 October a polemical, parodical and oppositionist society, Arzamas, was founded; members were given nicknames borrowed from Zhukovsky’s ballads. At the first meeting Batiushkov was accepted, in absentia, into the group as Achilles (a name contrasting to his appearance, and corresponding to his former merits as a satirist).
Provincial service was dissatisfactory; 4 November Batiushkov requested retirement. 26 December 1815 he was given leave and left for Moscow, where he obtained a transfer to the Izmailovsky Regiment, but decided to end his military career. He stayed with the statesman and writer Ivan Matveevich Murav’ev-Apostol, a relative and the addressee of Batiushkov’s epistle on the role of poetry and of his letter/essay on Murav’ev. Batiushkov’s poetic output was not high at that time, though he did write a version of Harald’s Song, one of the most well-known ancient Scandinavian poems, previously translated into many languages, including Russian. 26 February 1816 Batiushkov and Zhukovsky became, in absentia, members of the Obshchestvo liubitelei rossiiskoi slovesnosti (Society of Lovers of Russian Letters) at Moscow University. Although Batiushkov’s attitude to this society, expressed in letters to Gnedich on 25 September and 28—29 October 1815, was somewhat disdainful, his preliminary speech (delivered on 26 May by Fedor Fedorovich Kokoshkin), became his most famous critical work. It was modeled on Parny’s address to the French Academy on poésie fugitive and when it was published as the opening piece in the first volume of Opyty, it was titled “Rech’ o vliianii legkoi poezii na iazyk” (A Discourse on the Influence of Light Verse on Language). Batiushkov includes himself in a pan-European light-verse tradition, from the Greek idyllists and Roman elegists to Ippolit Bogdanovich, Murav’ev and Ivan Dmitriev in Russia. He seems to have found a justification for the light verse: since it is “prelestnaia roskosh’ slovestnosti” (a charming luxury of literature), it demands the utmost possible perfection, and is thus fruitful for language and society. He also emphasized the unity of the poet’s life and poetry; this connection became his principle. Half a year earlier, in “Nechto o poete i poezii”, he had said: “zhivi, kak pishesh’, i pishi, kak zhivesh’” (live as you write, and write as you live).
In early April, as a junior captain of the Household Guards’ Izmailovsky Regiment (equal to major in ordinary regiments), he retired. The rank corresponded to the eighth class, but he was dissapointed: many of his friends had been promoted to generals or colonels. An unexpected event distracted him from career problems: in August, Gnedich offered to publish his collected works at the publisher’s own expense, with a 1,500-ruble honorarium for the author. Batiushkov replied with doubts in the enterprise. Nevertheless, he refused to include “Videnie” simply to boost its popularity: first, some of its “heroes” were actually in difficult straits, second, Batiushkov, although an Arzamas member, felt distant from literary polemics. The success of Opyty v stikhakh i proze exceeded all expectations. Gnedich finally paid the author 2,000 rubles (having made 15,000 in all — not unusual for the early 19th century). Gnedich actually broke all Batiushkov’s desired publication conditions. The two volumes appeared with a five-month interval, not simultaneously; they were advertised in advance, and did not appear “suddenly”; moreover, a subscription for the second volume was announced, against Batiushkov’s wishes. In the two “capitals” Opyty had 183 subscribers (a number which, for that time, testifies to the author’s fame).
The prose volume had been largely compiled by early October 1816. On 30 December 1816 a censor, Ivan Osipovich Timkovsky, permitted publication, and the volume appeared in early July 1817. The prose volume has a conceptual symmetrical design, partly developed by Gnedich. Two articles on poetry (“Rech’ o vliianii legkoi poezii na iazyk” and “Nechto o poete i poesii”) open the volume; two essays on moral philosophy conclude it. The former are followed by three essays on Russian poets (Lomonosov, Kantemir and Murav’ev), while the latter are preceded by three “Italian” pieces (an essay on Ariosto and Tasso, one on Petrarch and a translation from Boccacio). Followed by two “military officer’s sketches” and miscellanea, the culturological “Progulka v Akademiiu khudozhestv” forms the ideological centre.
From late December 1816 till late July 1817 Batiushkov stayed at Khantonovo, working on the verse volume of Opyty, rewriting earlier pieces, and composing new ones. The number of unfinished projects is tantalizing: tales, long poems, a collection of translations from Italian, even a history of Russian literature. Most of the poems, written especially for Opyty, do not belong to the light-verse genre. Three of them, epic and lyric in character, were later called “historical (or epic) elegies” (an expansion of a term used by Belinsky). The first, “Geziod i Omir, soperniki” (Hesiod and Homer, Rivals), completed by mid January, is a translation from Millevoye, whom Batiushkov called, in a note, a rare true talent in contemporary France. The second, “Perekhod cherez Rein. 1814” (The Crossing of the Rhine. 1814), a military elegy with historical overtones describing a recent event of the Napoleonic wars, was considered by Pushkin indisputably to be “the best” and “strongest” of Batiushkov’s poems. The third, another famous elegy, “Umiraiushchii Tass” (The Dying Tasso), was written in spring 1817. The poem was an innovation from the viewpoint of its genre (historical elegy), its composition (soliloquy set in frame: elegy within elegy), versification form (alternating iambic hexameters and pentameters) and content: “On croirait, en lisant ce morceau, sentir quelques-unes des émanations de l’Italie”, Uvarov wrote.
By that time Batiushkov had given up the idea of translating Tasso’s work into verse; the same year he published (in Vestnik Evropy, along with a prose extract from Ariosto) a prose extract from Gerusalemme liberata intended for Panteon Itail’ianskoi Slovesnosti, an unrealized 1817 collection. Kapnist, in an epistle, reproached Batiushkov for abandoning his verse version, but “Umiraiushchii Tass” eclipsed the translations. The younger generation was, however, to reevaluate the poem; despite its fame, Pushkin did not like it, preferring Lord Byron’s version of the same subject. Both the work on the Hesiod-Homer competition and “Besedka Muz” (The Bower of Muses) testify to a renewal of Batiushkov’s interest in classical antiquity; the latter poem, celebrating a real bower, elegantly resumes familiar Tibullan motifs.
In mid August, having spent a few weeks at Danilovskoe, Batiushkov arrived in Petersburg. On 27 August he paid his first visit to Arzamas (at their twenty-sixth meeting), where he delivered his “preliminary” speech. At an earlier meeting on 6 January his essay “Vecher u Kantemira” (An Evening with Kantemir) had been read in his absence. The members of the group, however, began gradually to go their separate ways. In early September, in Tsarskoe Selo, Batiushkov, Zhukovsky, Aleksandr Pushkin and Aleksandr Alekseevich Pleshcheev together composed an improptu on Viazemsky’s departure to Warsaw. On 18 September, Batiushkov attended an Arzamas meeting for the last time; on 5 October, with Pushkin, he saw off Zhukovsky, who left for Moscow.
The verse volume of Opyty appeared in October 1817. It was divided into genre sections: “elegies” (opened by “Nadezhda” and concluded by a new version of “Mechta”); “epistles” (first, a “friendly” one, “Moi Penaty”, and last, a “didactic” one to Murav’ev-Apostol); and “miscellanea” (a section with an undefined organizing principle, for some reason followed by three of Batiushkov’s most recent works). The distribution, however, created a precedent for genre blurring: epistles to Gnedich, Dashkov and “a Friend” (Viazemsky) turned up as “elegies”.
Public recognition immediately followed. On 17 October 1817 Batiushkov became an honorary member of the Obshchestvo voennykh liudei (Military Society); on 18 November he was made an honorary librarian at the Public Library; and in April 1818 he became an honorary member of the Vol’noe obshchestvo liubitelei rossiiskoi slovesnosti (Free Society of the Lovers of Russian Letters). Meanwhile reviews of Opyty began to appear; it was praised by Izmailov, Sergei Nikolaevich Glinka and Vasilii Ivanovich Kozlov.
The most authoritative response came from Arzamas circles. Uvarov, in an unsigned French article, was the first to proclaim Zhukovsky and Batiushkov leaders of “a new school”. He demonstrated both a unity and difference between the two poets; though representing the new poetics, in all else they followed different paths: for instance, Anglo-German spirituality (Zhukovsky) vs Franco-Italo-classical exquisiteness (Batiushkov). This observation was to become a critical commonplace and was repeated, during the 1820s and 1830s, with variations, by Petr Aleksandrovich Pletnev, Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Bestuzhev, Aleksandr Pushkin and others. In “O napravlenii nashei poezii, osobenno liricheskoi, v poslednee desiatiletie” (On the Tendency of our Poetry, Especially Lyric Poetry, in the Last Decade), Vil’gel’m Karlovich Kiukhel’becker’s famous attack on the new elegists, published in Mnemosyne in 1824, the ephemeral coryphaei are again Batiushkov and Zhukovsky. This tradition was summarized by Belinsky, who, wanting to find a genealogy for Pushkin, created a triad, following the German Romantic philosophers’ model. Since Pushkin represented the modern synthesis, Zhukovsky was to stand for the spiritual indefiniteness of the Middle Ages, and Batiushkov for the sculptural plasticity of classical Antiquity.
In 1817 the desire in Arzamas was to give the society a more serious purpose. The idea of a journal was born, but it was not realized. As a potential contribution, in 1817 or 1818 Uvarov (possibly with Batiushkov) wrote a monograph article on the Greek Anthology, illustrated with imitations of epigrams by Batiushkov, who actually used Uvarov’s French translations (also included) as a medium. In 1820 all this was published by Dashkov as a separate pamphlet, O grecheskoi antologii. The work preserved evidence of its Arzamas origins: it was preceded by Dashkov’s mystifying introduction, and the authors were revealed only by the initials of their Arzamas nick-names, Akhill (Achilles) and Starushka (The Old Lady). Along with another anthological (non-translational) cycle, written in 1821 under Johann Gottfried von Herder’s influence, the “Greek epigrams” were to have been included in an unrealized, revised edition of Opyty. When reviewing the pamphlet, Kiukhel’beker noted that, judging from their quality, the poems could belong only to Pushkin or Batiushkov; the style, he felt, was more likely to be Batiushkov’s. This confusion was telling. Later Belinsky considered Batiushkov the creator of Russian anthological verse and traced not only Pushkin’s but also Apollon Maikov’s and the young Afanasii Fet’s “anthology” to him.
On 9 January 1818 Batiushkov returned to St. Petersburg and continued his attempts (begun in the autumn) to enter the diplomatic service. The whole year was spent trying to get away from familiar places. He obtained leave from the Library on 10 May to go to the South to research manuscripts and monuments. In late June, having spent some time in Moscow with Mikhail Nikitich Murav’ev’s son, Nikita (the future author of the Decembrist’s constitution), he left for Odessa, accompanied by Ivan Matveevich Murav’ev-Apostol’s son, Sergei (later hanged with four other Decembrists). Before his departure, advised by Aleksandr Turgenev and helped by Zhukovsky, he wrote a letter to Alexander I, describing his imperial service and asking for a post in Italy. On 16 July the emperor raised him to the seventh class and attached him to the Consulate in Naples. After a month in Odessa, Batiushkov left for Moscow, arriving on 25 August. In September he sent the Karamzins an unsigned poem celebrating the publication of Karamzin’s Istoriia gosudarstva Rossiiskogo (History of the Russian State,1816—18). On 11 September he wrote an epistle to Prince Shalikov, which, ironically, turned out to be his farewell to Russia; Shalikov, a chance addressee, did not miss the opportunity to publish it in 1822 without the author’s permission.
In mid October Batiushkov arrived in Petersburg, and on 19 November a farewell dinner in his honour was given at Tsarskoe Selo; among those present: Zhukovsky, Aleksandr Pushkin, Gnedich, Ekaterina and Nikita Murav’ev, and Aleksandr Turgenev. Batiushkov set off for Naples (arriving in late February) via Vienna, Venice and Rome (where he met the Russian painters, among them Kiprensky). “The classical land”, in which he was to spend more than two years, appeared to him as “a library, a museum of antiquities”: “Rome is a book; who can read it?”; “Magical, unique city, it is a cemetry of the universe”, he wrote in his letters letter to Gnedich (May 1819) and Olenin (February 1819). The conventional image of the Eternal City which had crystallized in neo-Latin, Italian and French poetry from Janus Vitalis’s “Qui Romam in media quaeris...” to Jacques Delille’s Les Jardins revived here as a supreme aesthetic reality. Batiushkov did not wish to see the mundane, everyday Italy; hence his dislike of Naples itself and admiration for Vesuvius, Pompeii, Cumae or Baia. He described the latter in a short poem that was published in 1857 and became well known: “Ty probuzhdaesh’sia, o Baia, iz grobnitsy, / Pri poiavlenii Avrorinykh luchei, / No ne otdast tebe bagrianaia dennitsa / Siianiia protekshikh dnei...” (Thou art awakening, o Baia, from thy grave, / With the appearance of Aurora’s rays, / But the purple dawn will not return to thee / The radiance of thy past days...). Among his extant “Italian” poems is a translation (possibly from an Italian medium version) of a stanza from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage that Pushkin added to his own copy of Opyty v stikhakh i proze. Batiushkov also imitated an octave from Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (I, xlii), reshaped as an “anthological” sixain.
During 1820 Batiushkov’s depression grew. In August he applied for leave to go to Germany, confirmed only in April 1821. From December 1820 to May 1821 he lived in Rome, then went to Teplitz for convalescence; in November he moved to Dresden. The first signs of approaching insanity were a series of quarrels on relatively insignificant grounds. In 1820 an editor of Syn otechestva, Aleksandr Fedorovich Voeikov, permitted himself an unauthorized publication of an epitaph by Batiushkov. The author overreacted; Bludov came to his aid; and Voeikov bore a grudge. In February Voeikov published Pletnev’s poem, “B—v iz Rima” (B[atiushko]v from Rome); Pletnev’s name was (perhaps deliberately) missing, so the poem was taken as its “hero’s” creation. Batiushkov, infuriated, sent Gnedich a letter intended for Syn otechestva, claiming he had abandoned his writing forever. Pletnev, a genuine admirer of Batiushkov, attempted to palliate his “guilt” by publishing a panegyrical “inscription” to Batiushkov — who took it as yet another insult. Batiushkov’s mind became clouded, and in a fit of depression he destroyed his latest manuscripts.
On 18 September and 12 December 1821 Batiushkov applied for retirement. Instead, the emperor granted him indefinite leave. He came to St. Petersburg on 14 April 1822 and travelled to the Caucasus from May to July; in August he arrived in Simferopol, where, over the following months, symptoms of persecution mania became obvious. He burnt his books and three times attempted suicide. On 4 April 1823 he was sent to St. Petersburg, supervised by a doctor. For a whole year his relatives and friends looked after him. In April 1824 he wrote a completely mad letter to the emperor with a request to enter a monastery. After a word with Zhukovsky, Alexander decided to send the unfortunate writer for treatment at state expense. From 1824 to 1828 Batiushkov was at the “Maison de santé” in Sonnenstein (Saxony), from 1828 to 1833 in Moscow; and from 1833 onward he lived in Vologda. On 9 December 1833 the incurable Batiushkov was at last released from service and granted a life pension.
In 1834 his works were republished, with additions. The same year one of his pieces from the early or mid 1820s was published as “Izrechenie Mel’khisedeka” (The Apophthegm of Melchizedek), in a very popular journal, Biblioteka dlia chteniia (Library for reading), and fifty years later republished in Russkaia Starina (Russian Antiquity) with a note stating that these verses had been found after Batiushkov’s death, written on the wall. Actually, when “Izrechenie Mel’khisedeka” first appeared, he was still living, but refused to live within time. His obsessive devotion to “Eternity” was remembered, in the twentieth century, in “Net, ne luna, a svetlyi tsiferblat” (No, not the moon, but a bright clock-face..., 1912), a poem by Osip Mandel’shtam. “Izrechenie Mel’khisedeka”, a poem about the senselessness of human existence and suffering, is considered the last of Batiushkov’s “normal” works. When ill, he wrote only a few incoherent texts. His final poem was written in Vologda on 14 May 1853; it is a quatrain which concludes as follows: “Ia prosypaius’, chtob zasnut’, / I spliu, chtob vechno prosypat’sia” (I only wake to fall asleep / And sleep, to awake without end). At 5 p.m. on 7 July 1855 he died from typhus. Few noticed his passing — he was already living in history.
This is a substantially revised version of Igor A. Pilshchikov and T. Henry Fitt’s “Konstantin Nikolaevich Batiushkov”, published in: Crystine A. Rydel (ed.), Russian Literature in the Age of Pushkin and Gogol: Poetry and Drama, Detroit Washington, D.C. London: Bruccoli Clark Layman; The Gale Group, 1999, pp. 2037 (Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 205).
© Online publication: Russian Virtual Library, 19992017. Version 2.0 of September 4, 2017