Pavel Lebedev-Polyansky 1931

Russian Romantics

Author: Pavel Lebedev-Polyansky;
Written: 1931;
First published: 1931 in Literary Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, pp. 589-673;
Translated by: Anton P.

N. M. Karamzin (1766-1826) was a follower of Lessing and a defender of the French bourgeois drama, an opponent of classicism and an admirer of Shakespeare, Karamzin preached the right of every person to happiness, while happiness lies in the satisfaction of passions. The desire to live in harmony with feelings put Karamzin in opposition to the Shishkov group. Here existed a protest against the existing order, the transition to romanticism and sentimentalism. In his old age, Karamzin lost all spirit of protest; for this he was brutally whipped by Pushkin. The poet V. A. Zhukovsky [1783-1852] also acted as a critic. The poet carried out a verse reform, his criticism saw the benefit in the spread of taste. He spoke more than once about a writer-teacher who condemned evil, but immediately made a reservation that one should not attack the existing order. Himself, as a peace-loving person, he went “into the realm of dreams and hope for providence.” The critical activity of Karamzin and Zhukovsky was of little significance; they themselves were law-abiding people and yet they expressed the mood of an intellectual nobleman, who no longer put up with feudal culture and walked, albeit timidly, towards the bourgeois tendencies of life, covering up his timidity with moderate romanticism.

The representatives of classical criticism were Kachenovsky and Merzlyakov. M. T. Kachenovsky [1775-1842] is a professor, educated, but obsequiously devoted to the government. His criticism is picky, but sometimes convincing. Defending classicism, he fought not so much for Lomonosov and others, as for the French bourgeois literature up to Voltaire. Kachenovsky’s activity must be taken in the light of romanticism, which has brought confusion to literature, in the process of repulsion from classicism, which has turned into academicism. The share of rationalism defended by him also puts him out of the ranks of the critics of that time. A. F. Merzlyakov [1778-1830], a professor at Moscow University, is of considerable interest for the history of Russian criticism. He was a talented erudite, he loved Lomonosov, Sumarokov, Kheraskov and Ozerov. Language for him is a shell of thoughts, there must be correspondence between language and thought. Thought is the expression of the soul. Poetry teaches and excites the senses. Imitating nature the poet takes only her beautiful sides, eliminating everything that outrages. Tragedy gives a triumph of virtue, and comedy should show not only darkness, but also a triumphant light beginning. Merzlyakov was a kind of enlightener of his time. As an ideologist, he is a victim of the transition period from commercial capital to industrial capital. A classic in his views, he felt the beauty of romantic poetry. He cried, reading Pushkin’s Prisoner of the Caucasus, “he understood that it was wonderful, but he could not realize this beauty and was silent,” Shevyrev writes. This classic told his listeners more than once, pointing to his heart: “This is where the system is.” Merzlyakov was the first critic in the modern sense of the word. The emerging industrial capitalism spawned a romantic trend. Romanticism united both the heroes of the revolution and those who were wrecked in it; he inspired the battle for great ideals and gave consolation to those who lost hope for the best in the battle, who were gripped by the grip of the unfolding industrial capitalism. This romanticism, full of confusion, did not satisfy Merzlyakov, but the classicism of the commercial bourgeoisie, dying, cold, little relevant, made it impossible to live a full life. Feeling the pulse of the industrial bourgeoisie, Merzlyakov, however, was unable to abandon the moribund ideology of the commercial bourgeoisie. This split is his tragedy. Feeling the pulse of the industrial bourgeoisie, Merzlyakov, however, was unable to abandon the moribund ideology of the commercial bourgeoisie. This split is his tragedy.

The classicist trend was replaced by Romanticism. Everything that is historically young, fresh, progressive, liberal has risen under this banner in Europe and in our country. The turn towards romanticism in criticism coincides with the speech of A. S. Pushkin, who immediately united around himself new poetic forces. D. V. Venevitinov [1805-1827] was a fighter for a new direction in criticism. A student of Merzlyakov, an admirer of Plato, Schelling and Fichte, a typical romantic of the German school, he was at enmity with his contemporary system; he was arrested for his acquaintance with the Decembrists; believed in the high vocation of the poet, hid from the storms of life in the mists of eternal boundless beauty. The discord between reality and the dream was due to his disappointed subjectivism. Venevitinov, for ideological art, he demands that literature should serve society, and writers should be philosophers, thinkers, that criticism would approach a work from a historical point of view, armed with the philosophy of his time. Venevitinov stood for a nationality, for a nationality not Slavophile and reactionary, but for a nationality in the spirit of Belinsky. This gave Venevitinov the opportunity to evaluate Pushkin as a “national” phenomenon, whereas Kachenovsky treated Ruslan and Lyudmila as a “rude and disgusting joke.” Venevitinov’s criticism wore a philosophical and aesthetic character and brutally attacked unprincipled Romanticism. At the beginning of the 19th century, for a long time they could not understand the essence of Russian Romanticism and were inclined to see in it a formal protest against formalistic classicism or an unbridled element of feelings. Venevitinov brutally attacked Polevoy when he characterized Romanticism as “an indefinite, inexplicable state of the human heart.” Venevitinov was looking for a single basic idea in everything. Classicism was smashed in the pages of Son of the Fatherland and Polar Star, especially Bestuzhev was merciless in his attacks on the literary conservatives. He spread the classical canons, defending the freedom of creativity. Shakespeare, Schiller, Byron and Hugo were his idols.

As we know, the beginning of the 19th century was characterized by the onset of industrial capitalism. It found its political expression in the Decembrist movement. The industrial bourgeoisie realized the uselessness of serfdom and autocracy; on this basis, it entered into a struggle with commercial capital, which had not yet completely severed economic and political ties with the feudal nobility. Since, however, the Decembrists were landlords, and the industrial bourgeoisie was supported only by an insignificant group of middle landowners in central Russia, two wings were formed among the Decembrists: the big-bourgeois and the petty-bourgeois. The latter trend reflected the class interests of the petty bourgeoisie, urban and rural. This part of the Decembrists was democratic and revolutionary, it was they who raised the uprising; the big-bourgeois part, due to the economic conjuncture, went to reconciliation with Tsarism and even with corvee economy. The petty bourgeoisie, suppressed in 1825, noisily entered the historical arena in the 1860s and 1870s. Romanticism in the early 19th century was precisely the ideological expression of the class interests of the petty-bourgeois part of the Decembrists. The different shades of this romanticism naturally corresponded to the different social conditions of the individual groups of the petty bourgeoisie. Russian Romanticism, as already noted, was not distinguished by the harmony of ideas, it did not have a system, it suffered from the vagueness of ideas. And yet, in Russian Romanticism, two streams were defined: the socio-political and the philosophical. The defeat of the Decembrists contributed a lot to the fact that the philosophical direction of criticism prevailed.

N. A. Polevoy [1796-1846], who after the death of Venevitinov played a prominent role in criticism, remained, as Belinsky puts it, in the “uncertainty” and “contradictions” of the era. For Polevoy, romanticism was something sublime, heroic, and light. In romanticism, he saw progress in both the artistic and moral fields. As a follower of Cousin’s eclectic philosophy, Polevoy taught that art expresses ideas, that feeling has in art the role of mediator, the spirit is reflected through it. He honored Byron and Hugo. Polevoy’s romantic dreams of the lofty and beautiful, colliding with the cruel Russian reality, gave a well-known aftertaste of bitterness. Hence, in Polevoy, the social stream in criticism was evident. Defenders of classicism proceeded from the laws of absolute truth, goodness, and beauty. Behind this absoluteness they lost a living person, a person of a certain time, of certain social relations. If so, then classical poetry cannot fulfill its social role in its entirety. On the other hand, romanticism, brought by the Great French Revolution, made it possible to understand that every nation lives its own life. Romantic poetry provides an opportunity to fully express the ideas of the time. So. for Polevoy, romanticism was an instrument of progress. Because of this, the disputes between Classicism and Romanticism were very often transferred to the field of politics. Naturally, Polevoy was in favor of the historical criticism, he strove to explain the manifestations of the human spirit in connection with the development of social life. But since Polevoy was an eclectic, because he wanted to combine materialism with idealism, he did not solve the problem posed. Belinsky did it later. However, the very formulation of the question already speaks of the height to which the Russian critics had reached. Polevoy published the Moscow Telegraph magazine, on its pages he acquainted readers with foreign literature, with the economic and political measures carried out in the West by the bourgeoisie. He was the first to make criticism an integral part of the magazine and raised it to the proper height. After him, it was no longer possible to publish the magazine without literary criticism. Polevoy was a representative of the various intelligentsia. The son of a clever manufacturer-merchant who knew the grip of life, he naturally gave his sympathies not to the aristocratic nobility, not to the commercial bourgeoisie, but to the industrial bourgeoisie. In the progressive march of capitalism, in the bourgeois principles of the French Revolution, he saw his ideal, but he himself was not a revolutionary democrat. Polevoy welcomed capitalism not as an inevitable moment in the history of mankind, but as a social order, which satisfied him and in which he could find his place. Despite his diversity, Polevoy was not a representative of that part of the revolutionary petty bourgeoisie, the first spokesman of which was Belinsky. Polevoy is an ideologue of the capitalist order. Pushing off from the feudal nobility and the merchant bourgeoisie, Polevoy was replaced by N. I. Nadezhdin [1804-1856]. There is a lot of romanticism in his views, but he also has a critical attitude towards the latter. Nadezhdin, completely standing on the basis of romantic theory, according to which “poetry should be the free outpourings of a free spirit”, on the one hand, tries to correct the extremes of Romanticism by turning to Classicism, and on the other, paves the way for Realism. He is looking for an aesthetics that would combine the sound principles of classical and romantic aesthetics. Believing that poetry should serve the sublime, good, joy, noting that Classicism and Romanticism served this, he, rejecting the extremes of these two directions, brings poetry closer to reality, giving the former a utilitarian character. Classicism and Romanticism had their justification in past eras, but now they do not meet the needs of the time, and “do not reach the inner ear of the human soul.” New life requires “new poetry”, new forms in art. In search of new forms, Nadezhdin advises to follow the “great artist – nature.” Hence the realistic tendencies. As a utilitarian, approaching the sociological interpretation of a work of art, showing realistic tendencies, Nadezhdin approached the issue of the relationship between science and poetry and solved this issue in the sense that the artist should be able to combine the freedom of creativity with “the need for the eternal order of the world-powerful legislator of nature”, therefore it is necessary to observe and study nature: “Ignorant arrogance and self-delusion is a misfortune.” Nadezhdin reasoned as follows: “The entire classical existence of the human race was nothing but a merry feast in the luxurious bosom of nature.” Now there must be a “striving for the establishment, exaltation and enlightenment of citizenship.” “This is the essential character of the period in which we live.” “In the times of Classicism, society was a secular gathering; in Romantic times a military camp; today it wants to be a true civil society. But in a comfortable civil society, only freedom reigns, governed by reason.” All this, however, did not in the least prevent Nadezhdin from being an esthete. A monarchist and a morally unscrupulous person, Nadezhdin nevertheless pushed criticism’s cause forward. This “learned donkey”, as Belinsky called him, played in the 1830s a leading role as the educator of the idealistic youth of that time. He combined his great learning with solemn inspiration. Since Nadezhdin paved the way for Realism, looked for ways of new poetry, he paved the way for Belinsky.