Blog Post

A Poet, an Empress, and the Sublime

One way to fight an addiction is to try to substitute a second, healthier activity for the baleful one.  Lately, during the evenings, to prevent myself from playing World of Warcraft, I have been translating Russian verse. 

Currently I’m working my way through a poem with a very long title.  In English:  “An Ode for the Empress Anne, of Blessed Memory, on a Victory over the Turks and Tatars and on the Taking of Khotin, the Year 1739.”  The poem, too, is prolix, sustaining its fulsome praise and flights of fancy for twenty eight ten-line stanzas. 

When I first began to explore The Arcade web site, I was surprised and pleased to discover that the ode’s author, Mikhail Vasil’ievich Lomonosov, happens to be the subject of an article by Gary Marker that can be found in the first issue of the journal Republics of Letters.  Lomonosov there appears as “Russia’s first Renaissance man,” a polymath who “published monographs on physics, geology, chemistry, optics, classics, language, and history” and a polyglot who could read French, German, Latin, and the “Scandinavian languages.”

Marker portrays Lomonosov as “a product of backwardness,” that is, as someone afflicted by the belief that Russia had fallen far behind the more developed states of Western Europe.  His many accomplishments can be explained by what in the early Soviet years was called dognat’ i peregnat’, the will “to catch up to and surpass.”  This sense of belatedness also led him to espouse a utopian vision of “science” (nauka) working hand-in-glove with imperial power to create a modern, enlightened polity.  .

The “Ode on the Taking of Khotin” might not place “early-modern science” at its center, but it supports Marker’s argument.  Lomonosov did not simply write a panegyric to a ruling monarch.  He invented a new genre.  As Harsha Ram has shown, the Khotin ode established the template for all future statements of the Russian “imperial sublime.” 

The poet started with the form of the Pindaric ode, as earlier revived and revised by Western European writers such as Nicholas Boileau and Johann Christian Günther, and then he tried to produce an analogue in his native language, despite the fact that Russian was a vernacular tongue with only a short, limited history as a vehicle for literary expression. 

First, he replaced the old syllabic system of versification, originally borrowed from Polish, with an accentual system much better adapted to Russian morphology and syntax.  (This gesture proved decisive:  the iambic tetrameter used in the “Ode on the Taking of Khotin” became, by the twentieth century, the default Russian poetic meter, akin to iambic pentameter in English.) 

He also coined a “high style” (vysokii shtil’) by mixing contemporary Russian words with terms borrowed from Slavonic, the old liturgical language used in Russian Orthodox church services.  In other words, Lomonosov effectively installed the state religion of imperial Russia as the discursive gatekeeper granting access to the Classical sublime of Pindar and Longinus. 

Finally, he identified the sublimity itself less with mountains and other natural phenomena than he did with tsars and tsarinas, God’s anointed representatives on earth.  In his poem, the spectacle of imperial rule expanding into Asia became an occasion for self-abasement and worshipful reverence:  it had the same terrible majesty and seductive wonder as volcanic eruptions, thunderstorms, and the open sea.

Anyone who follows current events knows that in the last decade Russia has re-emerged as a global power.  Moreover, even a casual read-through of such newspapers as Argumenty i fakty, Izvestiia, and Literaturnaia gazeta will reveal the existence of an intensely anti-Western point of view founded in nationalism, religiosity, and historical grievances.  Other countries are routinely chided for their revisionist rush to distort the past and cast Russia in a bad light.  The United States in particular is attacked for meddling in the Balkans and the Caucasus. 

Kevin M.F. Platt writes—also in Republics of Letters—that Russians today tend to present themselves as heirs to a grand imperial tradition that includes both the Romanov and the Soviet eras.  Ruptures are overlooked in favor of continuities.  The same people fought off Napoleon and Hitler.  Similarly, following the humiliations of the 1990s, they see themselves as poised for yet another illustrious period of renewed glory.

By sharing my amateur attempts to read eighteenth-century Russian poetry, I am grappling with what it meant for Russia to imagine itself entering modernity.  On what terms would it do so, toward what ends?  What would a modern Russian state look like, and what language could describe it?  The old imperial cult is a subject worth pondering, too:  how does resemble or differ from today’s official Russian self-representations—or ones that can found at independent literary and cultural sites such as OpenSpace.ru,?  These questions are too enormous to answer head on, but they frame my efforts.

I am also fascinated by Lomonosov’s poem as a poem.  For someone like myself steeped in avant-garde writing from Gertrude Stein to Rachel Zolf, “Ode on the Taking of Khotin” is estranging—but also absorbing. It opens with a rush: “Rapture, sudden, captured the mind, / Leads to the top of a high mountain / Where the wind forgot to make noises; / In the deep valley is silence . . . .”  I was hooked; I had to keep reading.  Why the changing tenses?  The oscillation between altitude and depth?  Why does rapture imprison instead of liberate?  What next?

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.