Vasily Zhukovsky's Romanticism and the Emotional History of Russia

Vasily Zhukovsky's Romanticism and the Emotional History of Russia


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Vasily Zhukovsky's Romanticism and the Emotional History of Russia by Ilya Vinitsky

The first major study in English of Vasily Zhukovsky (1783–1852)—poet, transla­tor of German romantic verse, and mentor of Pushkin—this book brings overdue attention to an important figure in Russian literary and cultural history. Vinitsky’s “psychological biography” argues that Zhukovsky very consciously set out to create for himself an emotional life reflecting his unique brand of romanticism, different from what we associate with Pushkin or poets such as Byron or Wordsworth. For Zhukovsky, ideal love was harmonious, built on a mystical foundation of spiritual kinship. Vinitsky shows how Zhukovksy played a pivotal role in the evolution of ideas central to Russia’s literary and cultural identity from the end of the eighteenth century into the decades following the Napoleonic Wars.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810131859
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 05/31/2015
Edition description: 1
Pages: 340
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

ILYA VINITSKYis a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania

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Vasily Zhukovsky's Romanticism and the Emotional History of Russia

By Ilya Vinitsky

Northwestern University Press

Copyright © 2015 Northwestern University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8101-3185-9


Breakfast at Dawn

They ate their morning meals and slept till late, finding the winter season far sweeter than the summer, fall or spring.

— Longus, Daphnis and Chloe

Vos chèvres sont devenues sauvages; vos vergers sont détruits; vos oiseaux sont enfuis, et on n'entend plus que les cris des éperviers qui volent en rond au haut de ce bassin de rochers.

— Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Paul et Virginie

THE MAIN SOURCE of information about the early years of Zhukovsky's life are the memoirs of his niece, the children's writer Anna Petrovna Zontag (née Yushkova; 1786–1864), which were first published in the 1849 issue of the journal Moskvitianin (The Muscovite), and then — in an expanded version — in the 1883 issue of Russian Thought (Russkaia mysl'). These memoirs were to a great degree inspired by the poet himself, who saw in Zontag not only his closest childhood friend, but also a talented and observant storyteller, capable of resurrecting the lost Eden of the "sweet Past." It seemed symbolic for Zhukovsky that Zontag would write her memoirs in the place where they spent the first years of their life — the village of Mishenskoe, which belonged to the poet's father and to the grandfather of the memoirist Afanasy Ivanovich Bunin (approx. 1716–1791). By the 1840s there remained only the ruins of the family home, but the memory of the narrator, according to Zhukovsky, was capable of populating this deserted world with family ghosts.

Zontag begins her narrative with the story of the poet's ancestry. According to family legend, the most honorable and noble, although not the most strictly moral landowner, Bunin, master of the picturesque and rich estate of Mishenskoe, jokingly asked his peasant, who had volunteered for the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–74 as a civilian servant, to bring him back from the campaign a "pretty little Turkish girl." "My wife has become completely aged," he complained. The peasant brought him two Turkish sisters: the sixteen-year-old Salkha, whose husband was killed during the storming of Bender, and the eleven-year-old Fatima. Fatima soon died, but Salkha — beautiful, dexterous, meek, and modest — survived. She considered herself Bunin's concubine and second wife and submitted to Maria Grigorievna, the wife of her master, as her own mistress. The latter did not blame her, taking into account her Mohammedan beliefs. Once she lost hope of returning home in a prisoner exchange, Salkha converted to Orthodoxy. In baptism she received the name Elizaveta Dementievna Turchaninova. She was much loved in the Bunin household. Over the various years she performed the duties of nanny, housekeeper, and household manager.

On January 29, 1783, Elizaveta Dementievna gave birth to a son, who was given the name Vasily. A poor nobleman named Andrei Zhukovsky, a dependent of Bunin's, agreed to serve as godfather. Zontag writes that this Zhukovsky adopted the boy, who thus got his last name. For her part, Maria Grigorievna blessed the boy and "adopted [him] in her heart" because she thought of her own, only son, a student at the University of Leipzig, who had died two years earlier. When Elizaveta Dementievna laid the boy at the feet of the mistress, the latter, deeply moved, took him in her arms, "kissed him, blessed him, and wept." "From that time," writes Zontag, "little Vasily was the favorite of the entire family": "For the elders he was a favorite son, for the younger ones, a beloved brother. In our family there were many girls, but he was the only boy."

Zhukovsky's biographers established long ago that the story of the poet's birth, which Zontag based on the words of her grandmother and Zhukovsky's mother Elizaveta Dementievna, was very far from the truth. It was not his peasant who brought the two Turkish girls to Bunin, but rather a neighboring landowner, Johann Carl Mufel, a participant in the storming of Bender. Mufel turned them over "for education," according to the official document, but more likely simply sold them. The relationship between the Bunin spouses was far from the idyllic picture painted by the memoirist, and the position of the boy, the son of a servant, was ambiguous and insecure. Adopting a godson was against the laws of the time, and children born out of wedlock to landowners were registered, in accordance with the legislation of the time, as peasants under their own parents of "noble birth." To obtain the dignity of gentry status for the boy meant getting around the law, and the Bunin family, influential in Tula Province (guberniia), had to use all of their connections and carry out very complex and time-consuming schemes, despite which Zhukovsky's nobility remained in dispute until the end of the 1830s.

The literary-mythological foundation of Zontag's story, however, is of the greatest interest. It resembles a starting point for a sentimental family novel: the idyllic, secluded, provincial little spot in which only the far-off sounds of war are heard; a good but sinful landowner; his virtuous wife, who forgives her husband's exotic, noble concubine; the concubine, who adores her mistress; the illegitimate boy, sent by God to the magnanimous mistress in exchange for the son who had perished in a foreign land. For practically every thematic element of this story it is possible to find a prototype in the sentimental literature of the late eighteenth century, in whose crucible Zhukovsky's family myth was formed. Thus, the touching unity of the wife and concubine resembles the utopian project of the Church of Friendship, in which, according to Sir Grandison, his wife and lover ought to embrace. In turn, the figure of the humble, selfless Salkha corresponds to the model of the noble Turkish woman, popular in the literature of the end of the eighteenth century (see, for example, a novel published in 1780, eloquently entitled Example of Firm and True Love, or the Adventures of the Beautiful Turkish Kseminda, Christened Elisaveta, Rejecting the Marriage Offered to Her with the Royal-Born Persons for the Carrying out of the Spousal Promise Given to a Lover). Also traditional for the sentimental romance is the motif of the illegitimate child raised by a virtuous lady. This kind of literariness not only camouflages or idealizes the facts, but also "smoothes over" the rough places of real-life situations and aestheticizes personal traumas. A story typical of the stormy and immoral eighteenth century is translated into the language of the Age of Sentimentalism. As we will see, the poeticization and mythologization of one's own biography using the framework of the literary models becomes a key principle of the poet's own creative consciousness.

In her literary reminiscences, Zontag creates a group of "beautiful souls" living in the Russian provinces at the end of the "uncivilized century." At the head of this mostly female "kingdom" is the grandmother. Next are her respectful daughters, sweet granddaughters, and the faithful female servant-friend. The hero is a marvelous boy (the only one in the family!), the son of the servant and the future great poet. "About Vasily Andreevich," concludes Zontag, "one can say in his own words, that he was beloved by the gods before his very birth; he was also the favorite of his own family and was happy by his very nature, and his family luxuriated in the pleasure of his presence." Raised in the women's realm of the Bunin family, Zhukovsky was the product and, perhaps, the best expression of the female sentimental culture that formed in Russia at the end of the eighteenth century. If Nikolai Karamzin, as Yury Lotman so convincingly showed in his works, created Russian literature for educated and sentimental women, then the educated and sentimental women "created" Zhukovsky — their own poet.

First Drama

The tale of Zhukovsky's first literary attempts holds an important position in Zontag's memoirs. Events take place in the home of the parents of Anna Petrovna in Tula — a cultural oasis of Russian provincial life in the 1790s. The lady of the house — Zhukovsky's half-sister and godmother, Varvara Afanasievna Yushkova (1768–1797) — was an intelligent, enlightened, and talented woman. At her home —"the best and most pleasant in all of Tula" — she hosted literary readings, musical concerts, and children's celebrations and shows. Yushkova actively occupied herself with the affairs of the Tula theater. In her home she opened a small pension in which her four daughters, Zhukovsky, and twelve other children studied. The influence of her personality on the formation of the future poet was, by his account, significant. "She was a gifted person ..." he wrote at the end of his life to Anna Zontag upon reading her recollections of her mother. "She had a very poetic nature. Everything transcending a lower order of life engaged her interest. Many hidden talents remained undeveloped. This struck me clearly even then, with my lack of education. And now I still remember how appealingly she could tell stories."

The first literary works of the future poet, according to Zontag's recollections, date to the winter of 1794–95. They were of a dramatic nature. In that winter the Yushkov family was expecting a visit from their grandmother, Maria Grigorievna, and Zhukovsky's mother, Elizaveta Dementievna. For their arrival, Zhukovsky wrote and staged, with the help of a small troupe of Yushkova's pupils, the historical tragedy "Camillus, or the Liberation of Rome." Zontag preserved in her memory many details of this work, which has not survived. In the finale Camillus (played by Zhukovsky, of course) saved the city from the Gauls and mourned the Aurelian queen Olympia, who sacrificed herself to Rome. The play enjoyed thunderous success and inspired the twelve-year-old author to compose yet another drama, this time in the sentimental vein.

The boy derived the theme of this new production from the famous sentimental novel of Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814), Paul et Virginie (1787; in Russian translation by Mrs. Podshivalova — "Pavel and Virginia"), the story of two families on the faraway Île-de-France (Mauritius) — the aristocratic Madame de la Tour and her daughter Virginia and the peasant woman Margarita and her illegitimate son Paul.

According to Zontag, Zhukovsky entitled his play after the name of the mother of the heroine of the novel — "Madame de la Tour." The memoirist writes very little about this piece, but as we will see, it suffices as a basis for some conclusions regarding the sources of Zhukovsky's poetic ideology. "Here, in the first scene," recalls Zontag, "breakfast is brought out. Madame Yushkova, wishing to comfort the author and the entire troupe, ordered, instead of breakfast, a beautiful dessert. What happened? Everyone forgot their roles, all the actors suddenly spilled out from behind the curtains and threw themselves at the dessert. Everyone was talking and eating, not listening to the director who, in sadness, took to eating together with the rest. This surprise pleased the audience more than the drama itself. The play proceeded no further."

These few lines from Zontag's memoirs have elicited the attention of Zhukovsky biographers and scholars. According to Carl Seidlitz, the failure Zontag describes affected the poet: a passionate lover of theater, he preferred not to try his hand at drama. In turn, Vladimir Rezanov, a scholar of Zhukovsky's early creative works, noted that in Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's novel Zhukovsky might have been interested by the description of children's pantomime theater, put on in the surroundings of the majestic natural scenery of Paul and Virginia: "To be distracted by this example was all the easier because the passion for the theater was apparently a trait of his since birth." The modern biographer of the poet, Viktor Afanasiev, notes that it was the melodramatic nature of the novel that attracted the young author:

The misadventure of two families, trying to live outside of society on one of the distant islands, the love of a youth and maiden — Paul and Virginia, the fight against civilization's attempt to intervene in their lives — all this touched the heart of the readers. No one was bothered by the far-fetched plot, no one looked for verisimilitude in the episodes. It was all about feelings.

"It came as a complete surprise," concludes the biographer, "that already on his second attempt Zhukovsky found a theme in harmony with his future literary efforts." No less surprising was the originality of the play's focus — at the foundation of the drama "lay the tragedy of a mother, rather than the story of two lovers' demise." This twist in the plot, the biographer suggests, was provided to Zhukovsky "by the fate of his own mother."

Attempts to link this no longer extant play with the life of the young author are completely justified, but the opinions given cannot be regarded as convincing. In a reconstruction of the idea of "Madame de la Tour" we ought to turn our attention to the only comment of the memoirist and, apparently, participant in the unsuccessful production: the description of how breakfast was served during the first scene. It is quite obvious that the breakfast scene, with which the young author began his play, was the climactic scene for the development of the action of the story. At this breakfast, prepared by Virginia, the governor of the island, Monsieur de la Bourdonnais, arrives. He brings Madame de la Tour a letter from her aunt, a rich French lady, who directs that Virginia be sent to her to be educated. If the girl justifies the aunt's expectations, then she will become her heiress.

The governor was pleasantly surprised by the simple and healthy food of the poor but happy inhabitants of this little spot so far from civilization. He was charmed by the order and cleanliness of the small hut and the harmonious relations between the two "interesting families," as well as those between the landowners and the servants. "I observe here," said he, "only furniture of the meanest kind, but I see serene countenances, and cheerful minds." His visit also marks the beginning of this idyll's end. The invasion of civilization, represented by a figure of colonial power, into the life of the people, which had heretofore followed its natural laws, destroys that life. (It is telling that the governor brings a sack of money intended for Virginia's trip.) Madame de la Tour reluctantly agrees to send her daughter to France. There follows a series of tense dialogues laying bare the hidden conflicts of the idyllic novel and of the conversation between Madame de la Tour and Virginia, as if ready-made for dramatic reproduction, their discussion with their confessor, and the dialogues between Paul and his mother, the peasant woman Margarita, and finally, Paul and Virginia. At the end of this structurally closed part of the novel, which began with an idyllic breakfast, Bernardin depicts the sufferings of Paul, who has learned that Virginia was forced to depart without his knowledge. I contend that Zhukovsky's no longer extant play followed (at least, in the most general aspects) this very scheme.

The Saved Idyll

This is, apparently, Zhukovsky's first attempt to use a "foreign" text as the model for the expression of his own experiences and manifestation of his own life situation (and, perhaps, first love), addressed to a "kindred" public. License to the biographical assimilation of the text was given by the very author of the novel. In the preface to the novel, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre writes:

It was my desire to blend with the beauty of Nature between the Tropics, the moral beauty of a small Society. It was likewise my purpose, to place in a striking light certain truths of high moment, and this one in particular: That human happiness consists in living conformably to Nature and Virtue. It was not necessary for me however to compose a romance, in order to exhibit a representation of happy families. I declare in the most solemn manner, that those which I am going to display have actually existed.

The play, written by Zhukovsky to mark the arrival of two mothers, Maria Grigorievna and Elizaveta Dementievna, was full of allusions. The title referred, of course, not to Zhukovsky's mother, but to her noble friend, who raised Anna Yushkova together with Zhukovsky in her home at Mishenskoe. In the figure of the commoner Margarita, the mother of Paul, one could see the mother of the young author. Paul and Virginia grew up together as brother and sister. They were christened in the same baptismal font, they slept in the same cradle. In her memoirs of Zhukovsky, Zontag wrote of their common childhood:

[Vasenka] loved me very much, and he often came to me in my chamber and, when they rocked me ..., he asked them to put him to bed with me in my cradle, and he would fall asleep next to me. In the mornings they carried me to his chamber in order to wake him, and so put me in his bed. Naturally, I cannot remember this, but he remembered and called me his cradlemate, even shortly before his death he wrote to me, recalling, how we were rocked in the same cradle.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgment xi

A Note on Transliteration and Chronology xiii

Introduction 3

Prologue: Russian Troubadour: A Brief Survey of Vasily Zhukovsky's Life and Work 17

Part I Family Romance

Chapter 1 Breakfast at Dawn 27

Chapter 2 Holy Family 37

Chapter 3 The First Love 56

Part II Love as Religion

Chapter 4 Maria 85

Chapter 5 Heavenly Abode 110

Chapter 6 Woman's Lot 137

Chapter 7 The Dove and the Crocodile 153

Postscriptum: Allegro and Penserosa 165

Part III Poet and Prince

Chapter 8 The Enchanted Tutor 179

Chapter 9 The Flower of the Oath 198

Chapter 10 Under the Constellation of the Crown 214

Part IV The German Wife

Chapter 11 Sunset Love 239

Chapter 12 The Last Supper 263

Epilogue: The Heavenly Sisters 271

Notes 285

Works Cited 355

Index 375

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