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

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Ivan Dmitriev has virtually disappeared from memory, but in the late eighteenth century he was known as one of Russia's foremost poets. What even fewer readers know is that Dmitriev's most significant contribution to Russia's literary heritage may have been his decision to make poetry the centre of his prose autobiography. In the literary and social context of the 1810s and 20s, this was a remarkable step because it showed Dmitriev's conviction that poetry had an inherent value that earned it a place in the narrative formulation of one's "life plot." Dmitriev's approach is even more remarkable when his autobiography is compared to the prose autobiography of Gavrila Derzhavin, the greatest poet of his time. Derzhavin's autobiography ignores poetry almost completely, and usually refers to the author's literary endeavours only when they intersect with the dominant thread of his political life. This article looks at the social and literary contexts in which these autobiographical texts were written, and then examines closely the style and substance of each text to explore the way each poet creates his own life story. This comparison shows that the great poet Derzhavin depicts himself almost exclusively as a statesman, and it is the long-forgotten Dmitriev who reveals a profound allegiance to poetry as the most important part of his life.

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. …