Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Russian Byronism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Russian Byronism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Article excerpt

Abstract

This essay discusses a period of Byron's reception in Russia characterised not only by an intensified interest in Byron's works, but also the modification of Byron's influence by Russian literary tradition, contemporary aesthetic and philosophical ideas, a particular interest in Byron in relation to the perceived 'end' of European culture and an attention to Byron's 'metaphysical' dramas in connection with a more general turn to ontological/metaphysical questions in Russian thought. Most striking, however, is the fact that between the 1880s and 1910s, the theoretical, literary and philosophical discussion of Byron in Russia played a significant part in the much larger national debate then going on about the kinds of survival and development available to humanity in general and Russian civilisation in particular. The essay shows that during this period Byron's life and work were read as containing the prototypes of contemporary individualistic and pessimistic 'diseases', as offering profound insights into the foundations of human existence and as prophesying a new era of the titanic 'superhuman' and 'divine humanity'.

In 1914 Aleksey Veselovsky, a renowned Russian scholar, wrote that Russian culture was experiencing 'a new turn to Byron'. According to Veselovsky, this had first become noticeable at the end of the nineteenth century, but was 'still intensifying' in the first decades of the twentieth century.1 This 'new turn to Byron' can be traced in various spheres of culture - in numerous translations of Byron's poetry into Russian, in original works by Russian authors, in theatrical productions, and musical interpretations, of Byron's poems, in literary and philosophical essays devoted to the British poet. Among the distinctive features of the Russian reception of Byron at this time are the following: the modification of Byron's influence by Russian literary tradition, as well as contemporary aesthetic and philosophical ideas; a particular interest in Byron in relation to the perceived 'end' of European culture; an intensified attention to Byron's 'metaphysical' dramas in connection with a more general turn to ontological/metaphysical questions in Russian thought. Most striking, however, is the fact that between the 1880s and 1910s, the theoretical, literary and philosophical discussion of Byron in Russia played a significant part in the much larger national debate then going on about the kinds of survival and development available to humanity in general and Russian civilisation in particular.

In the period between the 1880s and the 1910s, the themes, motifs, forms and aesthetic/philosophical values of Russian poetry were rapidly changing. Nevertheless, Byron's poetry, though modified by and approached from various modern points of view, was one of its most consistent and recognisable sources. Byron's influence particularly shines through the themes of anguish, loneliness and alienation from the world, as well as through the motifs of imprisonment, slavery, tyranny and liberation, common in the poems of Nikolai Minsky, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Sologub and Ivan Bunin, and in the stories of Vikenty Veresaev, Aleksandr Kuprin and Alexander Serafimovich. It can also be seen in the themes of personal freedom, alienation and domination, in the images of storms and other natural elements, in the titanic, demonic characters and in the motifs of fate, violence and prophetic guidance that permeate the poems of Konstantin Balmont, Valery Brusov, Vyacheslav Ivanovich Ivanov and Alexander Blok, as well as the poetry and prose of Andrei Bely, the dramas of Leonid Andreev and the poetry, prose and drama of Maxim Gorky.

In the early years of the twentieth century, before, during and in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1905 and the First World War, the motifs of political struggle and national liberty also, naturally, began to play a prominent role in the work of all sorts of Russian writers. …

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