I. A. PIL’SHCHIKOV
VIAZEMSKIJ AND FONTENELLE
(Concerning the “Gallic” Roots of the Epigram on Semen Bobrov)
A. A. Dobricyn discovered that Batiushkov’s epigram the earliest of the three epigrams on Bobrov, written by the future members of the “Arzamas” society, is translated from the French. Two other epigrams, composed by Petr Andreevich Viazemskij, were not original either. It is known that the first of them, entitled A True Story in Hell, is an imitation of Voltaire’s Épigramme sur la mort de M. d’Aube, neveu de Fontenelle. Together with this epigram Viazemskij published another one, under the title To the Portrait of Bibris:
There is no disputing that Bibris sang in the language of the gods,
For no mortal could understand him.
It turns out that this poem is of French derivation too, and, incidentally, it is also connected with Fontenelle. Viazemskij reworked his joke about the peculiarities of the Greeks’ epic dialect: “Cette étrange confusion de Langues, cet assemblage bizarre de mots tout défigurez, estoit la Langue des Dieux, du moins il est bien sûr que ce n’estoit pas celle des hommes” (“This strange confusion of Languages, this bizarre assemblage of disfigured words was the Language of the Gods; at least, and for sure, this was not the language of humans”).
Fontenelle’s Digression sur les Anciens et les Modernes, from which the above quotation is taken, was first published in 1688. Fontenelle put the Romans above the Greeks, he put the “civilized” Virgil above the “primitive” Homer and mocked at those who invoked the archaic art as an unattainable ideal. A century and a half later Viazemskij turned against the “archaist” Bobrov the very reproaches of awkwardness, which the “innovator” Fontenelle heaped on Homer: just like the epigram, a bon mot is potentially applicable to typical situations and can be easily detached from its initial context. Moreover, the Russian polemics surrounding the “old and new styles” was somewhat similar to the French “querelle des anciens et des modernes”, and the Russian writers had the possibility of borrowing some polemic devices from the French ones.
Discussion continues in volume 8 of Philologica