History of Literature








Russian literature

 


 


Gavrila Derzhavin


born July 3 [July 14, New Style], 1743, Kazan province, Russia
died July 8 [July 20], 1816, Zvanka, Novgorod province, Russia

Russia’s greatest and most original 18th-century poet, whose finest achievements lie in his lyrics and odes.

Born of impoverished nobility, Derzhavin joined the army as a common soldier in 1762 and was made an officer in 1772. In 1777 he entered the civil service in St. Petersburg, and during the next 26 years his posts included those of provincial governor at Olonets and Tambov, senator, and minister of justice. His Oda k Felitse (1782; “Ode to Felicia”), addressed to Catherine the Great, gained her favour, and he was briefly her private secretary. His liberal political inclinations put an end to his career in 1803, at which time he retired to his estate at Zvanka.

Derzhavin preserved the grandeur and solemnity of the classical ode as practiced in Russia but made it less restrictive and more lyrical and personal in its tone and subject matter. His odes are notable for passages of magnificent imagery. Derzhavin worked in many other poetic genres, and his poems express both lofty and idealistic moralism and his strongly sensual appreciation of life. His work helped to break down the strictures of the classical poetic genres. His lyrics and odes include “Na smert knyazya Meshcherskogo” (1779; “On the Death of Prince Meshchersky”), Bog (1784; Ode to the Deity), and Vodopad (1794; “The Waterfall”).




16-year-old Pushkin reciting his poem before old Derzhavin in the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum (1911 painting by Ilya Repin).



Gavriil (Gavrila) Romanovich Derzhavin (Russian: Гаврии́л (Гаври́ла) Рома́нович Держа́вин, July 14, 1743 – July 20, 1816) was arguably one of the greatest Russian poets before Alexander Pushkin, as well as a statesman. Although his works are traditionally considered literary classicism, his best verse is rich with antitheses and conflicting sounds in a way reminiscent of John Donne and other metaphysical poets.

Life
Derzhavin was born in Kazan. His distant ancestor Morza Bagrim, who relocated from the Great Horde in the 15th century to Moscow, was baptized and became a vassal of the Russian Grand Prince Vasily II. Nevertheless, by the 18th century Derzhavin's father was just a poor country squire who died when Gavrila was still young. He received a little formal education at the gymnasium there but left for Petersburg as a private in the guards. There he rose from the ranks as a common soldier to the highest offices of state under Catherine the Great. He first impressed his commanders during Pugachev's Rebellion. Politically astute, his career advanced when he left the military service for civil service. He rose to the position of governor of Olonets (1784) and Tambov (1785), personal secretary to the Empress (1791), President of the College of Commerce (1794), and finally the Minister of Justice (1802). He was dismissed from his post in 1803 and spent the rest of his life in the country estate at Zvanka near Novgorod, writing idylls and anacreontic verse. He died in 1816 and was buried in the Khutyn Monastery near Zvanka, reburied by the Soviets in the Novgorod Kremlin, and then reinterred at Khutyn.

 

Works

Monument of Gavrila Derzhavin in KazanDerzhavin is best remembered for his odes, dedicated to the Empress and other courtiers. He paid little attention to the prevailing system of genres, and many a time would fill an ode with elegiac, humorous, or satiric contents. In his grand ode to the Empress, for instance, he mentions searching for fleas in his wife's hair and compares his own poetry with lemonade.

Unlike other Classicist poets, Derzhavin found delight in carefully chosen details, such as a colour of wallpaper in his bedroom or a poetic inventory of his daily meal. He believed that French was a language of harmony but that Russian was a language of conflict. Although he relished harmonious alliterations, sometimes he deliberately instrumented his verse with cacophonous effect.

Derzhavin's major odes were the impeccable "On the Death of Prince Meschersky" (1779); the playful "Ode to Felica" (1782); the lofty "God" (1785), which was translated into many European languages; "Waterfall" (1794), occasioned by the death of Prince Potemkin; and "Bullfinch" (1800), a poignant elegy on the death of his friend Suvorov. He also provided lyrics for the first Russian national anthem, Let the sound of victory sound!


Influence
According to D.S. Mirsky, "Derzhavin's poetry is a universe of amazing richness; its only drawback was that the great poet was of no use either as a master or as an example. He did nothing to raise the level of literary taste or to improve the literary language, and as for his poetical flights, it was obviously impossible to follow him into those giddy spheres." Nevertheless, Nikolai Nekrasov professed to follow Derzhavin rather than Pushkin, and Derzhavin's line of broken rhythms was continued by Marina Tsvetaeva in the 20th century.
 

 

 
 
 
 
 

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