A. A. DOBRICYN
RUSSIAN EPIGRAMS OF THE EIGHTEENTH
AND NINETEENTH CENTURIES
AND THEIR WESTERN EUROPEAN ORIGINALS
In poésie légère, the epigram occupies a special place: one can hardly find any other genre, in which works would be translated from one language into another so frequently. The meaning and aesthetic value of the epigram is not usually too sensitive to the details of verbal form, which itself easily tolerates variation and deformation (even in the pointe), and this is the reason why the merits of epigrammatic works suffer much less from the liberality of translation. Sometimes the epigram has several versions both in translation and in its own language, and different versions can belong to one and the same poet. This makes epigrams akin to folklore texts: they are also able to remain “the same” while undergoing different mutations in their outward appearance. Thanks to this ability, epigrams, even if they were written ad hoc, are often more durable than “sublime” lyrical poetry, with its claim to immortality.
It would be naive to explain the durability of the epigram on the grounds that the castigation of vices in a witty, comic form is always more interesting than the odic celebration of virtues. Such a hypothesis can be easily rejected by simply mentioning numerous gnomic and sententious epigrams, as well as epigrams written in the Marotic style (that is, deprived of causticity). A more plausible explanation might be one based on the fact which is well known to the logician: an inverse relation between intension and extension (the greater the extension of the notion, the poorer its intension, and vice versa). The intension (as regards content) of the festive ode is much richer than that of the epigram, and this is why the ode is more tightly bound by a historical and cultural context: it is very difficult (almost impossible) to transpose the entire poem (rather than individual odic motifs and clichés) to a new ground and apply it to different historical conditions. On the contrary, the construction of the epigram makes its potential application extremely wide: even if it is initially linked with a particular person or event, it can be detached from the original situation without difficulty, and begins to migrate in time and space.
It is not surprising that many of the Russian epigrams of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are translated or imitative, which, nevertheless, does not belittle their merits. The researcher’s interest to their sources (they are chiefly French) does not need special justification: knowledge of the original helps us to avoid mistakes of interpretation and can be used to define the date more exactly or solve the problem of attribution. Some Western European sources of Russian epigrams (mostly Pushkin’s) were established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by V. P. Gaevskij, L. N. Majkov, S. A. Vengerov’s collaborators, R. R. Tomshevskaia, B. V. Tomashevskij, L. P. Grossman and others. An astounding amount of work on the detection of foreign originals was undertaken by V. E. Vasil’ev the results can be found in the commentaries to the collection, Russian Epigram from the Second Half of the Seventeenth to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century (Leningrad 1975). However, even in this edition, unavoidable lacunae may be found, and these are partly filled in the present article, the latter being a fragment of a wider study of the sources of Russian translated epigrams.
In this article, the foreign originals of about 80 epigrams are identified; they belong to two dozens Russian poets, from Sumarokov and Derzhavin to Pushkin and Baratynskij. Alongside first and second-rate epigrammatists (such as Bogdanovich, Zhukovskij, Batiushkov, Viazemskij, Del’vig and others), the works of minor or even unknown poets are taken into consideration.