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  Philologica 6 (1999/2000)  


(Some Comments on “Eugene Onegin”)




1. In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the principal source for those who were interested in the life and work of Petrarch was the second volume of Ginguené’s Histoire littéraire d’Italie (1811). Batiushkov diligently studied this book when composing Petrarch (1815), Russia’s first original essay on the Italian poet. Batiushkov also writes of Petrarch in other articles, the main topics of which (Petrarch’s love for Laura, his fame as a poet, and his role in the making of the national language) became a point of departure for Pushkin’s judgements on Italian Renaissance literature.

Another influential treatise on the history of Italian literature was Simonde de Sismondi’s De la littérature du midi de l’Europe (1813). Sismondi (whom Pushkin reckoned among the most prominent European critics) not infrequently supplements and develops Ginguené’s argumentation, but Petrarch was an exception: “in opposition to the general taste”, Sismondi did not accept his poetics and made a public declaration of his “prejudice against Petrarch". In Russia, Sismondi’s démarche was supported by Katenin: in his Thoughts and Examinations (1830) he expressed his “discord with the common opinion” and maintained that, in Petrarch, “everything is affected, excessively sugary, strained and confused”, and Petrarch does not deserve “the title of Poet”. Pushkin avoided Katenin’s “extremism”: his attitude to Petrarch is, by and large, close to Batiushkov’s.

2. The mention of Petrarch in Eugene Onegin gave Pushkin an occasion to link the motifs of love and glory (1, LVIII, 11—13). This association is quite appropriate and justified: as Batiushkov pointed out, “an immoderate love for glory matched, or competed with love for Laura in Petrarch’s ardent soul”. Both themes are established as early as the opening lines of Batiushkov’s essay:

“S’amor non è, che dunque è quel ch’io sento?
What am I feeling then, if this is not love?”

As Valerij Briusov noted, the Italian quotation, with which Batiushkov’s article begins, is repeated in Pushkin’s prose tale, Snowstorm (1830): “It could hardly be said that she <Mar’ia Gavrilovna> flirted with him <Burmin>; but the Poet <he is openly named in the manuscript: ‘Petrarch’. — I. P. >, having seen her behaviour, would have said:

Se amor non è, che dun<qu>e?...
<= What is this, if not love?>”

In addition to abundant correlations between Batiushkov’s and Pushkin’s views of Petrarch, there is some other evidence that Pushkin remembered the Italian phrase through the mediation of Batiushkov: Pushkin’s spelling mistake (no ‘no’ instead of non ‘not’) repeats the misprint in Herald of Europe where Batiushkov’s essay was first published (1816). This inaccuracy was corrected in Batiushkov’s Essays in Verse and Prose (1817) which Pushkin had certainly re-read more than once by the time he began his work on The Tales of Belkin, of which Snowstorm is part); but, apparently, the first impression, as often happens, was stronger than the later one.

3. Coincidence in Batiushkov’s and Pushkin’s selection of quotations is symptomatic: it is very likely that Pushkin’s acquaintance with the legacy of Petrarch was limited to isolated poems and fragments available from critical and historical works. We have no evidence to prove that Pushkin made an independent effort to study Petrarch in the Italian original (as Batiushkov or Katenin did, or as Pushkin himself studied Dante). Quite the reverse, Pushkin could have known all the Petrarch quotations we find in his writings through the works of Batiushkov and Sismondi.

Extracts from Petrarch in Sismondi’s book are few in number: he examined fragments from the canzone “O aspettata in ciel, beata e bella...”, and five sonnets, one of which (“Erano i capei d’oro a l’aura sparsi...”) he translated into French verse. It is precisely these two pieces which found an echo in Eugene Onegin.

Lines 49 and 51 from the canzone “O aspettata in ciel...” form the epigraph to Chapter 6: La <sic!> sotto giorni <sic!> nubilosi e brevi // Nasce una gente a cui l'morir <sic!> non dole = In the part of the world where days are cloudy and short, // A people is born for whom death is not painful. Modern editors of Pushkin’s novel amend the first line in accordance with the standard text of the Canzoniere (sotto i giorni in place of sotto giorni). However, the omission of the article i preceding the noun giorni ‘days’ is significant: the point is that it was not Pushkin, but Sismondi who distorted the Italian text. Pushkin reproduced Petrarch’s canzone as it was quoted in De la littérature du midi de l’Europe, and this is not the only instance where Pushkin cites the Italian poets from the Swiss historian’s book without checking the primary sources.

Pushkin applied Petrarch’s words about a Northern country (Germany) to Russia. At the same time, a correction was introduced into the epigraph to Chapter 2: Pushkin complemented a textbook quotation from Horace (“O rus!. . ”) with a parodic exclamation “O Rus’!” = “O Russia!” (it was present in the manuscripts of Chapter 2, but did not appear in print until the publication of corrigenda appended to the separate edition of Chapter 6). The “Russian” theme in the epigraphs of Eugene Onegin became reiterative.

4. Another quotation from Petrarch should have appeared in the author’s comments on a lyrical digression about women found in Chapter 3 of Eugene Onegin. This passage begins with a description of “unapproachable beauties”: <...> Having deciphered on their brow // Hell’s terrifying imprecation: // Abandon hope for evermore (3, XXII, 8—10). The original of the emphasized line (Dante, Inferno, III, 9) is given in the note: Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’<i>ntrate. The next stanza of Pushkin’s “novel in verse” is paraphrased from Petrarch: : Thronged by adorers, I’ve detected // Another, freakish one, who stays // Quite self-absorbed and unaffected // By sighs of passion or by praise // To my astonishment I’ve seen her, // Having by her severe demeanour // Frightened to death a timid love, // Revive it with another shove — // At least by a regretful kindness; // At least her tone is sometimes found // More tender than it used to sound <...> [<...> Po krajnej mere, sozhalen’em, // Po krajnej mere, zvuk rechej // Kazalsia inogda nezhnej <...> (3, XXIII, 1—11; trans. by C. Johnston)].

The fair manuscript copy contains a footnote to the word sozhalen’e ‘regret, pity’ which balances the note to the Dante quotation and consists of lines 5 and 6 from the sonnet “Erano i capei d’oro...”: E’l viso di pietosi color farsi // Non so se vero o falso, mi parea = And her face was covered with pitiful colour, // It seemed so, though I do not know if it was true or false. Petrarch says in the same sonnet: <...> et le parole // Sonavan altro, che pur voce humana = <...> and her words (speeches) // Did not sound like a mere human voice (10—11). In Sismondi’s imitation Laura’s voice (son accent) is endowed with the epithets tendre et doux (both of them meaning ‘tender, soft’; cf. : <...> zvuk rechej // Kazalsia inogda nezhnej, lit. : the sound of their speeches // Sometimes seemed more tender). In Sismondi’s version these epithets are repeated twice: in lines 5—6 and in line 11. Thus, the fragments paraphrased by Pushkin form a leitmotiv in Sismondi’s text, rather than Petrarch’s.

Sismondi tells us that the sonnet “Erano i capei d’oro...” “was written at a time, when the beauties of Laura began to fade, and one was astonished at the constancy which Petrarch displays, towards a woman who could no longer charm the eye of the beholder”. Pushkin’s freakish ones are aged ladies who enjoy themselves giving vain hopes to inexperienced suitors [cf. : <...> I’ve seen how, trustful in his blindness, // The youthful lover once again // Runs after what is sweet, and vain (3, XXIII, 12—14)]. For an unknown reason, in the final wording the note which contained the Petrarch quotation clarifying the context of stanza XXIII was removed.

Conclusion. The facts reported in the present publication enable us to assert a decisive influence of Batiushkov and Sismondi on Pushkin’s view of Petrarch. Pushkin inherited Batiushkov’s respectful recognition of Petrarch’s contribution to Italian and world culture, but at the same time he shared Sismondi’s reserved attitude to the persona and work of the Italian poet (this attitude sometimes reveals itself in Pushkin’s light and good-natured irony).

The key roles in the Russian reception of Petrarch was played by Pushkin’s older friends — Batiushkov and Katenin. Batiushkov, who admired Petrarch and considered him one of the greatest lyric poets of the Christian age, adopted and developed the ideas of Ginguené, while Katenin, on the contrary, completed the dethronement of the “classicist” Petrarch begun by the “semi-romantic” Sismondi (Katenin’s own terms). Pushkin took up a moderate position: in his judgements about Petrarch extremes are avoided.

Of the extensive corpus of Petrarch’s poems Pushkin’s forerunners and contemporaries chose a limited number of works which became objects of citation and discussion. Taking into account the particular works which were cited and the opinions which were expressed, one can trace “isoglottic” lines connecting one writer with another. We do not merely register isolated coincidences and divergences, but reconstruct the whole cluster of relations between, say, J. -F. de La Harpe and Batiushkov, Batiushkov and Ginguené, Ginguené and Katenin, Katenin and Sismondi, Sismondi and Pushkin, Pushkin and Batiushkov, and so on.

The evidence that Pushkin’s acquaintance with the poetry of Petrarch was indirect is supplemented by textual details. Deviations from orthographic and grammatical norms in Italian quotations (which many editors regarded as an annoying impediment) become significant when a correct historical and literary perspective is found.



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