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ART. IV.-RUSSIAN LITERATURE: MICHAEL
Otcherk Istorii russkoi Poesi. A. Milukoff. (Outline of the History
of Russian Poctry. By A. Milukoff.) St. Petersburg, 1858. Michael Lermontoff"& Poetischer Nachlass, übersetzt von Fr. Boden
stedt. (M. Lermontoff's Poetical Remains. Translated by Herr
Bodenstedt.) Berlin, 1852. Du Développement des Idées révolutionnaires en Russie. Par A.
Herzen. Deuxième édition. Londres, 1853. In a previous Number* of this Review we gave our readers some general notice of the development of modern Russian literature, and a more detailed account of the great poet, with whom, in fact, the era of original and really national Russian poetry begins. When we consider how recent this era is, we cannot wonder that we have but few distinguished poets to enumerate; since true poetic genius has, of course, at all times and in all countries, been confined to a chosen few. Even the political influence of the Russian empire in European politics is itself but of recent growth. Fostering its helpless infancy is seen the gigantic figure of one who was at once a tyrannical barbarian and the arbitrary patron of the arts. Peter I., whose imperious will imposed upon Russia the first restraints of civilisation, was the first to direct the national mind towards Europe, and to introduce those European forms and ideas under whose influence a national literature at length developed itself.
So far as we can trace back the history of Russian literature to earlier periods, we find, as yet unmixed, those elements which were afterwards blended in the matured national character. The spirit of the Norse invaders, who about the year 862 conquered, and founded constitutions among, the scattered branches of the Slavic races, entirely pervades the historical tales referring to the heathen period of Russian history, which were written by the monk Nestor in the eleventh century. He was, however, imbued with the spirit of the Byzantine literature, and thus could not fully appreciate a poetry which sprang up in the heroic age of Scandinavian enterprise. He regarded the events which he recorded partly in the prosaic spirit of a mere chronicler, partly in the hostile spirit of a zealous opponent of heathenism. But notwithstanding his antipathy to his subject, and in spite of the dryness and pedantry of his style, his tales contain passages which undeniably prove the existence of an ancient though rude poetry, beginning to develop itself in Russia under the influ
# No. XIV. for October 1858; Article V.
ence of the Norsemen, celebrating deeds which extended over a century and a half, and whose theatre stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. We discern here clearly enough traces of the same spirit which pervades the tales and legends of the Icelandic chroniclers. Several of the latter are undoubtedly of common origin with those of Nestor. For example, the “ Life and Death of Swatopolk," related by Nestor, forms part, and that the most important, of an Icelandic literary collection of the thirteenth century. But though the common origin is undeniable, the Russian historian, in this instance, much surpasses the Icelandic in his style, his narrative being full of life and poetry. How finely has he painted this Swatopolk, the son of a Greek nun, who, from the day of his unlawful birth, seems doomed to sin and ruin; who climbs to his throne through fratricide, who is punished on the very scene of his crimes by the hand of an avenging brother, and finally expires in the desert! It is difficult to say how far historic truth has been respected in this tale; but as a literary production it is of great dramatic interest.
The stories of Nestor give us a partial glimpse of those times when martial honour and glory were the moving springs of life in the Russian people; when before going to war they would proudly warn their enemies; and when they would doom those who should break their word “to be slaves for life,” considering this to be the greatest of all curses.
Indeed, when we observe in the simple tales of the monk what germs of poetry there were in the early history of Russia, it is sad to think of the rich fruit they might have borne, had they not been blighted while yet in their first development, and choked by parasitic plants of foreign origin. The Norse chiefs themselves sought and inaugurated an intercourse with the Byzantine empire, and about A.D. 1000 the Christian faith in the doctrines of the Greek Church was adopted by Russia. But this approximation to Byzantium, instead of throwing open to the Russian people the treasures of the Greek classic world, merely led to an acquaintance with Byzantine literature, consisting of dry chronicles, scholastic discussions on dogmatic questions, and empty rhetoric, and inculcating a profound contempt for every thing connected with heathen antiquity, and consequently even the Greek classic poetry.
Then came the invasion of the Mongols, about 1236, and the establishment of Mongol rule, diffusing new and oriental ingredients through the nation. We trace the influence of the new conquerors mainly in the popular poetry; we mean, in the rich collection of Russian songs and tales. There are perhaps few nations whose primitive poetry presents so true a mirror of the people's life and feelings as that of the Russians. In it we find reflected their wbole existence up to the time of Peter the Great, and every boon which nature has bestowed upon them: “the broad fields with the silken grass and the blue flowers;" “ the thick woods in which the stormy wind rattles;" “the boundless plains of snow,” on which nothing but the “black fir or the silver birch” is to be seen detaching itself from the white ground; again, when the snow is melting, “ the song of the lark, the blushing roses of summer, the swift falcon, the dove-coloured pigeon;" and once more, “ winter with its dull deathlike silence, broken only by the shriek of the ravens” and “the howling of the snowstorm.” In these songs, too, we have plenty of allusions to special Russian scenery ;-“the shining Duna,” “the limpid Don,” “the benefactress Wolga,” “ the princely Great Novgorod,” “the stone-built Moscow.” We behold the wandering life of “the Wolga robbers," and the bold enterprises of the Kossacks. We see the customs, the sympathies, and the antipathies of the people, their faith, their hopes and sufferings; and we are made acquainted with the favourite heroes of their history.
But at the same time, as we have already said, we distinctly trace in the popular songs and tales the decline of those beneficial influences which, under the Norsemen, fostered the national development. Not only political activity and independence declined under their successors, but likewise the purity of homelife. Women were entirely subjected to the despotic power of men, and the Terem, * borrowed from the Byzantine Greeks, deprived them of social importance, reducing them to an oriental slavery. The customs of Norse life had accorded to them a far nobler position; and this change was therefore in every way for the worse. Moreover, the estrangement from Europe caused by the Mongol influence, prevented the chivalrous reverence for women,—which at this time pervaded European society,—from penetrating into Russia. The Asiatic notion that women are the ruin of the world was imported by the Mongols, and completed the subjugation of the weaker sex. We no longer find women like those spoken of by Nestor in his tales of the Scandinavian times; but now begin to hear of the beautiful Russian girl who sits lonely in "the silver cage," making “the golden net,” leading a monotonous life far from society and civilisation, and expecting with awe the day when, amidst tears and songs, her fair hair will be unbraided, and she will be led, "according to God's will” (that is to say, her father's), to a marriage to which her own sanction was never asked. And often this change is only for the worse; she leaves
The women's place.
her “ silver cage" but for another, sometimes of iron, which does not even afford her the consolation of parental love. Doomed to pass her life with a husband whom for the most part she did not love, the Russian wife was surrounded by none of those influences which beautified the life of European women in the middle ages. Nothing but the Terem awaited her. She was governed by the despotic rule of a husband, whose best tenderness was not unfrequently the scourge. The natural consequence of such a position was the degradation of social life. A mother who was herself a slave could not but transmit to her sons a sense of abasement, the unavoidable result of which is tyranny. Society, robbed of its highest elements, impressed the Russian youth with a sense of emptiness and ennui, which forced him to seek in dissipation the highest excitements of an existence in which he was at the same time both slave and tyrant.
The result of all this is to be found in the popular poetry of the Russians; and hence its tone of deep sadness, of desperate gaiety, of endeavour after complete self-oblivion. In almost every specimen of this literature we see the cloud which hangs over the heart," like a fog over the blue sea :” the mother is represented in it as weeping like the stream that flows;” the tears of the sisters fall “like rivulets;" the heart of the young girl fades away “ without sun,” her joys are carried away " by stormy winds over the clear white field;" the youth who was " born in tears, all his life long shakes his homeless head like the grass-blade on the fields in the wind.” If, on the other hand, we find in these songs wild outbursts of merriment, they are but intended to conceal the void beneath. Characteristic and full of poetry are the songs of the Wolga robbers, and those of the Kossacks; the wild love of freedom which led them into peril and crime frequently also giving birth to heroic enterprise, as, for instance, the colonisation of Siberia. These songs breathe contempt of danger and death, immoderate gaiety, unbounded liberty and license, -as is usual with men who have broken with the common ties of society and citizenship, whose companions are the night and the storm, who spend their life either in the forest or on the waters. The tales of this epoch exhibit also the literary shortcomings as well as the emptiness and sadness of the contemporaneous Russian life; the narrative form requiring, like that of the epic poem, a greater social development than Russia had then attained.
Thus gradually had the dawn of genuine poetry among the Russian people faded away, and none of the old seed was now left, when the great reformer came, and called Russia to a new life.
We referred in our former Article to the changes which worked themselves gradually out in the Russian language and literature from the time of Peter the Great. The language had to emancipate itself from the conventional clerical jargon, and then developing its great beauty and flexibility, to become truly popular. The intercourse with Europe opened a new world of ideas, and at the same time excited the Russian imagination to activity in fresh directions. After a succession of more or less original writers, Alexander Pushkin appeared, and put the finishing stroke to that purification of the language which his predecessors had begun. We have had occasion already to speak of him at some length, and have explained the high rank which he holds in the estimation of his people, and which he must, when thoroughly known, obtain in that of all nations.
Next to him stands another contemporary but younger poet, Michael Lermontoff, a son of one of the first families of the Russian aristocracy. Like most of the Russian nobles, he entered the Guards when yet very young. A poem which he composed on the death of Pushkin was the cause of his exile to the Caucasus, where he became imbued with that deep love for the country which made him, so to speak, the poet of the Caucasus. Though having for an author the rare privilege of holding an independent position with regard to fortune, his life seems nevertheless to have been one long train of sufferings, to which his poems bear ample evidence. Equally ardent and faithful in his friendships as he was vindictive and unrelenting in his hatreds, he had to endure many bitter disappointments. He was often called upon to part from true, and to endure the treachery of false friends. Brought up in a world where he dared not speak out what was in him, he had to undergo the hardest of all human trials, that of being compelled to remain silent in sight of injustice and oppression. With a heart glowing with the love of beauty and liberty, he was doomed to live in a society which, viewed from without, was full of outward show and false splendour, and from within of servitude and corruption. One of his first attempts at expressing the burning indignation with which these things filled him, the ode on Pushkin's death, brought down upon him exile. A life of action thus forbidden him, the only resource left him was his poetic genius; and when his heart was too full, he devoted himself to it, and called forth wild passionate strains, pathetic melodies, mocking satires, or the poetry of love; but always true pictures of emotions experienced and deeply felt, always children of an inward necessity, and in accordance with Goethe's canon, that every true poem is born of a special occasion and impulse (a Gelegenheits-gedicht).
Lermontoff was strongly impressed by the genius of Pushkin,