Review: K.N. Grigor´ian, «Pushkinskaia elegiia» and V.E. Vatsuro, «Lirika pushkinskoi pory»

K.N. Grigor´ian. Pushkinskaia elegiia (natsional´nye istoki, predshestveniki, evoliutsiia). Leningrad: Nauka, 1990. 256 pp. Indexes.

V.E. Vatsuro. Lirika pushkinskoi pory: "Elegicheskaia shkola." Sankt-Peterburg: Nauka, 1994. 239 pp. Index.


Given that the two books here under review both carry forms of the words "Pushkin" and "elegy" in their titles, it is not surprising that they have similar aims: to trace the development of the Russian elegy from the middle of the eighteenth century through the first third or so of the nineteenth. In addition, both books, as products of the newly open cultural climate after glasnost´ and the fall of Soviet communism, strive to recuperate a central genre of Russian poetry that seemed to embarrass Marxist positivism as a pothole in the road to realism.

Let me begin with Kamsar Grigor´ian's book, which, like many examples of the genre it treats, is a miniature, perhaps a nod to the fashionable almanacs of Pushkin's time. The volume is divided into two unequal sections. The first, shorter section begins with an introduction that traces the development in Russia of a literary language for "the expression of intimate emotions" from the earliest times to the middle of the eighteenth century (3-12). Four short chapters follow. The first two discuss the development of the genre from A.P. Sumarokov, the dominant eighteenthc-century elegist, thorugh the innovative reforms of M.N. Murav´ev and N.M. Karamzin. Here the author draws on a wealth of primary material and includes several examples from contemporary journals. The second two chapters, however, on K.N. Batiushkov and V.A. Zhukovsky, tend towards the cursory, stressing themes that the author will discuss in relation to Pushkin (i.e., psychological development, use of landscape, etc.) but for the most part rehashing familiar critcal material, mostly borrowed from V.G. Belinsky.

The second part is fuller, containing six chapters on various aspects of Pushkin's elegiac poetry. The section's introduction initiates a polemic that underlies the rest of the book. The polemic is best understood in teh context of the late eighties, when glasnost´ had penetrated deeply enough into the Pushkin House to allow Soviet scholars to omit the previously obligatory references to Lenin and Marx and to stop cramping Pushkin's romantic style with the ineluctable march towards realism. (S.A. Fomichev's Poeziia Pushkina: tvorcheskaia evoliutsiia (1986), wihch Girgor´ian does not mention, is a late example that contains both features.) This freedom allows the author to argue convincingly that elegy—the genre Pushkin most associated with romanticism—remained a central feature of the poet's repertoire until the end of his life, and thus to stress the persistence of romanticism throughout Pushkin's career. Unfortunately, none of this is particularly new for the Western reader, and it also seems to have left the author adrift theoretically. Not content to reject Marxist criticism alone, he also attacks structuralism (which he calls scientific criticism), leaving him chained to his thirteen-volume edition of Belinsky, who rivals Pushkin for the author's attention and dominates nearly every chapter.

The first of the second part's six chapters treats Pushkin's early elegies, with attention on his inheritance from Zhukovsky and Batiushkov. It continues the author's polemic and contains, in this context, a useful discussion of V.K. Kiukhelbeker's attack on elegy. Other chapters discuss the elegiac poetry that emerged from teh poet's southern exile; his nature poetry, which Grigor´ian links explicitly to romanticism; the "inexpressibility" in non-poetic language that links music and romantic lyric; and PUshkin's place in the tradition of philosophical elegy that is usually associated with E.A. Baratynsky and F.I. Tiutchev. Another chapter, "Tragediia liubvi," treats the poet's all-consuming jealousy. After discussing a handful of poems in strictly biographical terms, however, the chapter becomes yet another clucking (and extended) lament about hte poet's unfortunate marriage to Natal´ia Goncharova.

The chapter on Pushkin's marriage is characteristic: the book is generous with poetic examples, but it has the frustrating tendency to avoid actual textual analysis. A typical discussion of a poem will begin with a reiteration of Pushkin's undisputed mastery and then digress for pages on an apparently tangential topic. It will then return to the text, quote a critic or two, either approvingly (usually Belinsky) or as a rhetorical strawman (his favorite targets are canonical Soviet critics such as B.V. Tomashevskii, B.P. Gorodetskii, or G.A. Gukovskii), and move abruptly to the next topic. An illustrative example comes at the end of the second chapter, in a discussion of "Net, ia ne dorozhu miatezhnym naslazhden´em..." (1830). The author reads the hpoem, reasonably enough, as Pushkin's epxression of an ideal love. Of the five pages he devotes to the poem, however, three and a half are occupied by an odd tangent that insists in rather Dostoevskian terms upon Pushkin's originality, that literary sources, even those the poet himself indicates, have no role in his creative work beyond that of a stimulus to his all-encompassing imagination. The actual analysis of the poem itself is limited to a single point, cited from A.D. Grigor´eva, about the way thge poem's language exalts the beloved woman (137-42). In sum, despite its admirable focus on a central facet of Pushkin's lyric poetry and several useful general discussions, especially about the origins of the Russian elegy, it is hard to call this book a full-fledged success. There are two indexes: one for Pushkin's works and one for names.

Besides its larger format, the most obvious distinguishing feature of Vadim Vatsuro's book is the author's decision to leave a consideration of Pushkin and his immediate contemporaries for a sequel. Instead, he focuses exclusively on the flowering of what he calls the "elegiac school," the most influential poets of the early nineteenth century, all of whom worked "under the sign of elegy, which ornaments with its reflexes or directly subordinates to itself nearly every neighboring poetic genre..." (5). While Vatsuro's tone is not polemical, he has even more than Grigor´ian shaken himself free of Soviet positivism, implicitly rejecting the familiar historical paradigm, first constructed by Belinsky, that makes the poetry of Zhukovsky, Batiushkov, and their lesser known contemporaries nothing but the foundation for Pushkin's towering achievement. This move allows for a sensitive treatment of the period's literary evolution that encompasses both discussions of general poetic traits (with admirable attention given to European sources) and analyses of important individual texts, including, among others, Andrei Turgenev's "Elegiia," M.V. Milonov's "Paden´e list´ev," Zhukovsky's "Sel´skoe kladbishche," and Batiushkov's "Umiraiushchii Tass."

Besides a short foreword, there are seven densely packed chapters. The first traces the development, familiar from Grigor´ian, of the Russian elegy from Sumarokov through Murav´ev and Karamzin, but adds a discussion of the idea of "mixed feelings" ("smeshannye oshchushcheniia" from Herder's "vermischte Empfindungen") that descended from a variety of European sources. Chapter 2 picks up the story of the "Friendly Literary Society" and its appropriation of Schiller's ideas of enthusiasm and friendship for the fledging Russian literary tradition. Along with Karamzin, young Russian "Schillersists" chose the elegy, with its wide emotional range, as the most suitable vehicle for the expression of their "genuine" emotions. Among these young poets was Zhukovsky, whose translation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" was a watershed in the Russian elegiac tradition. In his third chapter, devoted to the poetics of the "graveyard elegy," Vatsuro places Zhukovsky's translation in the context mapped out in the previous chapter. He emphasizes both eht poem's suggestive (as opposed to strictly denotative) character an, by means of comparison with other Russian versions and with the original itself, Zhukovsky's remarkable solutions to the problems of translation.

In the fourth chapter the author compares Zhukovsky with Batiushkov, arguing against the received tradition that opposes the latter's joyful epicure with the former's gloomy romantic, thus endowing Batiushkov's poetry with more weight than it usually enjoys. The book's fifth chapter focuses on the development by Zhukovsky and other Russian poets (most notably Milonov) of the European trend of the "unylaia elegiia." Here Vatsuro concentrates on German models, understating, I think, the at least typological similarity with English romantic poetry. Chapter 6 discusses the impact of the War of 1812 on elegiac expression, most notably in how historical, patriotic, and civic themes began to widen elegy's thematic and even emotional range. D.V. Davydov, whose elegies are usually neglected in favor of his more familiar persona as hussar-poet, is an indicative example of this expansion; his poetry is characterized by a passion that conventional elegiac resignation typically excludes. Finally, the seventh chapter treats the wide-spread theme of the dying poet, with special focus on Milonov and Batiushkov. These two poets produced distinctive translations of Charles Millevoye's "La chute des fueilles" that help to breed the elegiac hero that evolves, in parodic form, into Lensky. There is a brief conclusion and a name index.

Vatsuro's book is immensely informative, although it tends to suffer from the rather un-Soviet trait of being over-stuffed—occasionally this reader would have appreciated a slightly more spacious discussion. In addition, given the author's extensive research into European sources, it is a pity that he gives only cursory attention to the legacy of Western criticism of romanticism, which so often provides fresh perspectives for the study of the Russian appropriation of pan-European literary trends. He also fails to mention Savely Senderovich's Aleteia: Elegiia Pushkina "Vospominanie" i problemy ego poetiki (1982), which contains a useful, Bakhtin-inspired discussion of elegy in relation to other, less dominant genres, nor does he take advantage of recent, post-structuralist contributions to the study of the genre such as Peter Sacks' The English Elegy (1985), which Monika Greenleaf uses to such powerful effect in her recent Pushkin and Romantic Fashion (1994; of course, Vatsuro could not have known of Greenleaf's book). These are mere cavils, of course, which in no way deter me from whole-heartedly recommending Vatsuro's extremely useful book.


James Morgan
Yale University



Morgan, James. Rev. of K.N. Grigor´ian, PUshkinskaia elegiia and V.E. Vatsuro, Lirika pushkinskoi poryPushkin Review 1 (1998): 161-64.


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Vol. 01 (1998)