Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Placing the Poet in the Prose Autobiographies of Ivan Dmitriev and Gavrila Derzhavin

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

Placing the Poet in the Prose Autobiographies of Ivan Dmitriev and Gavrila Derzhavin

Article excerpt

While today's readers of Russian literature are much more likely to know the name Gavrila Derzhavin than the name Ivan Dmitriev, in the last decade of the 1700's and the first decade of the 1800's the situation was quite different. From about 1790-1810, Ivan Ivanovich Dmitriev (1760-1837) was considered one of Russia's most significant poets, noteworthy not only for his odes and elegies but also for the fables and songs that brought him recognition far beyond the country's reading elite. In the poetic hierarchy of his day, Dmitriev would never have been considered Russia's premier poet (that spot was ultimately occupied by Derzhavin and then Pushkin), but during his most active years he could have counted on a place in the top rank and sometimes very near the peak. It has been many years since Dmitriev's name brought such immediate recognition, however, and today's reader is most likely to encounter Dmitriev through offhand references to him in articles about more illustrious contemporaries like Derzhavin or Nikolai Karamzin. Almost never is Dmitriev deemed worthy of more sustained attention.1

In this study I hope to show that Dmitriev deserves closer examination, but not just in the obvious way. Rather than attempt a reconsideration of Dmitriev by focussing primarily on his poetry, I propose instead a close look at Dmitriev's prose autobiography, in concert with an examination of Derzhavin's own autobiography. It is on the pages of the innocuously titled Vzgliad na moiu zhizn ' (A Look At My Life) that Dmitriev makes perhaps his most significant contribution to Russian poetry, for he makes poetry-not statesmanship, not history, not his career-the emotional and central core of his life story. When contrasted to the determinedly unpoetic cast of Derzhavin's own autobiography, and when seen in the broader context of Russian life-writing of the early nineteenth century, this is a remarkable step.

Dmitriev and Derzhavin (1743-1816) were almost contemporaries, but the seventeen-year gap between them meant that their encounters with political and literary changes were experienced differently. While the Pugachev uprising was formative for both men, Derzhavin lived through the events as an active participant, participating in the southern campaign against Pugachev and later trying desperately to prove his loyalty when some of his actions brought charges of treason against him; ultimately, this effort continued on the pages of his autobiography. Dmitriev remembers the events from a spectator's perspective, with the most vivid impressions left by his presence as a youngster at Pugachev's execution. In the literary realm, both acknowledge the importance of Lomonosov, Sumarokov, and Trediakovskii in their early poetry, but when the sentimental style grew in importance, Derzhavin maintained his own poetic course while Dmitriev embraced the new movement. Indeed, Dmitriev's lyrical songs touched a popular emotional chord and contributed significantly to the broad success of sentimentalism.2

When they wrote their autobiographies, though, both Dmitriev and Derzhavin had already reached a kind of "post-poetry" stage of life; their most active days had passed and Dmitriev already referred to himself only halfjokingly as a "retired poet." Derzhavin concluded his autobiography in 1813, while Dmitriev started about ten years later in mid-1823 and finished in early 1825, so each autobiography was written before Pushkin and his contemporaries introduced fundamental changes to both poetry and the understanding of a poet's place in society. The manuscripts remained unpublished through all these changes, and were known to only a small circle of friends before Derzhavin's Zapiski (Notes) were finally published in Russkaia beseda in 1859, and Dmitriev's A Look at My Life appeared as a separate volume in 1866.

In this study I will begin with a brief look at the social and literary factors that affected Russian poets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when they set to writing their autobiographies, and then examine both the substance and style of the two autobiographies to analyze the approaches to selfpresentation found there. …

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