This work presents a preliminary study of the history of metaphors and ideas lying at the core of four Russian poems (Kostrov’s Put’ zhizni, Viazemskij’s Kataj-Valiaj, Pushkin’s Telega zhizni, and Baratynskij’s Doroga zhizni). We examine the metaphor of life as road (traditionally associated with the figure of homo viator in bivio, the wanderer at the crossroads, and the idea of choosing a path); the concept of the body as chariot of the spirit; and the metaphor of life as a wagon driven by Time. The first of these metaphors is derived from both the classical (Hesiod, Prodic and their interpreters) and the biblical traditions; the second was initiated by Plato and developed by Neo-Platonists up to the seventeenth century; and the last has roots in numerous medieval and Renaissance illustrations of Petrarch’s Triumphs.
This highly variable set of symbols made its way into Russian poetry through the French poetic tradition. In the late eighteenth century, Kostrov translated work by Pierre-Antoine-Augustin de Piis, whose poetry was most likely inspired by an earlier poem by Régnier-Desmarais. In his poem Kataj-Valyaj (circa 1820), Viazemskij reworked Moreau’s couplets Fouette cocher which in turn had been inspired by Régnier and Piis. In 1822, another translation of Piis’s Road of Life was published by Illichevskij, who was Pushkin’s schoolfellow; so Pushkin himself, as he wrote Telega zhizni in 1824, probably had Illichevskij’s work in mind (noticed by Mark G. Altshuller). Some similarities suggest Pushkin could also have been inspired by Viazemskij’s song. Thus, the poems by Viazemskij and Pushkin brought together several different developments of the old and rich metaphor of life as a road.