“The poet sees a palace in his retreat—
Happy because he dreams.”
— Konstantin Batyushkov (1787-1855)
In celebration of National Poetry Month, today we’re presenting you with this contemplation of Konstantin Batyushkov’s Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry (Presented and translated by Peter France). This piece was written by Xiaohan Du, a PhD Candidate in Art History at Columbia University.
Remember to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy!
• • • • • •
In his masterfully curated edition, Peter France charts a journey through the life and career of Konstantin Batyushkov, following his journey from Russia to Italy and back through an intimate reading of the poet’s works, building off of Batyushkov’s own motto: “Write as you live, live as you write.” Batyushkov epitomizes the translator as creator; he contributed to the secularization of the Russian language and established himself as one of the principal creators of what would come to be known as Russian Golden Age poetry by “building on his reading and translation of foreign poetry, ancient and modern, to forge a fluent, natural-seeming, yet richly sonorous language for the expression of emotion, experience, and imagination.”
Several themes feature prominently in Batyushkov’s oeuvre: friendship, travel, love for his homeland, language, antiquity, and increasingly heavier subjects such as mortality and melancholia, as the poet struggled with increasingly acute mental health issues for the last few decades of his life. Leading a financially precarious existence, Batyushkov oscillated between an epicurean enjoyment of life and skuka, a Russian term commonly translated as “boredom,” but really a more “all-embracing world weariness.” The poet yearns for the quietude of his modest country estate while abroad, and yet he gets bored fast once ensconced in the countryside. The following passage captures the aura of the poet’s mindset in an almost humorous light as he describes a typical day in a letter to a friend:
Ten or twelve hours in bed sleeping and dreaming, one hour smoking, one hour getting dressed, three hours of dolce far niente, one hour for dinner, one hour digesting, quarter of an hour watching the sun set, three quarters of an hour for “natural needs,” one hour remembering friends, one hour with his dogs, half an hour reading Tasso, half an hour repenting that he has translated him, three hours yawning and waiting for nightfall.
Batyushkov’s life and work was deeply shaped by the Napoleonic Wars, in which he participated. Youthful idleness and ennui gradually gave way to weary contemplations on the nature of war and human suffering, following the disastrous French invasion and the great fire that destroyed Moscow in 1812:
I’ve seen the world, and now,
A quiet stay-at-home, I sit and ponder
By my own fireside how
Hard it can be to keep your life in order;
How hard to spend your days on your own patch
When you have roamed about on land and water,
Seeing and knowing everything, then coming back
No wiser and no better
To your ancestral plot:
A slave to empty fancies,
You live condemned to seek…but seek for what?
So let me tell the tale of one such traveler.
—1814 St. Petersburg
The poet was also deeply concerned with the identity of Russian literature and the nature of the Russian language. He mused in his notes: “Can a language thrive without a philosophy, and why can it thrive, but not for long?” These interests and predilections were sustained by his creative translation of poetry throughout his career that in turn nurtured his own sensibility as a poet.
Batyushkov’s productive years as a poet were truncated by the deteriorating condition of his mental health. What works he did write during the last few decades of his life might have been burned by him in moments of confusion and rage. As if engaged in a self-interrogation on what could have been achieved, Batyushkov thus pondered about his own writing:
What can I write, what can I say about my poems?…I am like a man who didn’t reach his goal and was carrying on his head a beautiful vessel full of something. The vessel slipped from his head, fell and was shattered into smithereens. Just try guessing what was in it!
Despite his tenebrous final years, readers shall remember Batyushkov as the man himself wanted to be remembered:
Since at thirty I shall be the same as I am now, an idler, a joker, an oddball, a carefree child, a scribbler but not a reader of verse; I shall be the same Batyushkov who loves his friends, falls in love out of boredom, plays cards having nothing better to do, fools around like a devil, thinks deeply like a little Dane, argues with everyone, but fights with no one…