History of Literature

Russian literature


Vasily Zhukovsky


Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky (Russian: Васи́лий Андре́евич Жуко́вский; February 9 [O.S. January 29] 1783 – April 24 [O.S. April 12] 1852) was the foremost Russian poet of the 1810s.

He is credited with introducing the Romantic Movement to Russian literature. The main body of his literary output consists of free translations covering an impressively wide range of poets from Ferdowsi to Schiller. Quite a few of his translations proved to be better-written and more enduring works than their originals.


Zhukovsky was born in Mishenskoe, near Tula Oblast, Russia, the illegitimate son of a Russian landowner named Afanasi Bunin (related to the Modernist writer Ivan Bunin) and his Turkish housekeeper Salha, who had been brought to Tula as a prisoner of the Russo-Turkish war. She was later christened as Elizaveta Demyanovna Turchaninova. The infant Zhukovsky was given the surname and patronymic of a poor family friend named Andrey Zhukovsky, who formally adopted him, but he was raised by Bunin's wife and her sisters and later ennobled in his own right. In his youth, he lived and studied at the Moscow University's Noblemen's Pension, where he was heavily influenced by Freemasonry, English Sentimentalism, and the German Sturm und Drang. He also frequented the house of Nikolay Karamzin, the preeminent Russian man of letters and the founding editor of The European Messenger (also known in English as The Herald of Europe).

In 1802, Zhukovsky published a free translation of Thomas Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" in The Messenger. The translation introduced Russian readers to his trademark sentimental-melancholy style and instantly made him a household name. Today it is conventionally cited as the starting point of Russian Romanticism. In 1808, Karamzin asked Zhukovsky to take over the editorship of the Messenger. The young poet used this position to explore Romantic themes, motifs, and genres. He was also among the first Russian writers to cultivate the mystique of the Romantic poet. He dedicated much of his best poetic work to his half-niece Maria (Masha) Protasova, the daughter of his half-sister, with whom he had a passionate but Platonic affair. His efforts to get permission to marry Masha never succeeded. In 1812 Zhukovsky was present at the Battle of Borodino outside Moscow, after which he served with Kutuzov's general staff. After the war he took up a position as Russian tutor to the Grand Duchess Alexandra Fedorovna, the German wife of the future tsar Nicholas I. Many of Zhukovsky's best translations from German were made as exercises for Alexandra.

In later life, Zhukovsky made a second great contribution to Russian culture as an educator and patron of the arts. In 1826, he was appointed tutor to the tsarevich, the son of Alexandra Fedorovna and Nicholas I, later to become Tsar Alexander II. Zhukvosky's progressive program of education so deeply influenced Alexander that the liberal reforms of the 1860s can be partially attributed to it. The poet also used his high station at court to take up the cudgels for such free-thinking writers as Mikhail Lermontov, Alexander Herzen, Taras Shevchenko (Zhukovsky was instrumental in buying him out of serfdom), and the Decembrists. On Pushkin's death in 1837, Zhukovsky stepped in as his literary executor, not only rescuing his work from a hostile censorship, including several unpublished masterpieces, but also diligently collecting and preparing Pushkin's legacy for publication. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, he nurtured the genius and promoted the career of Nikolay Gogol, another close personal friend. In this sense, he acted behind-the-scenes as a kind of impresario for the Russian Romantic Movement that he set in motion. During his later years he lived mostly in Germany where he married a local girl and fathered two children, Pavel and Alexandra. Zhukovsky died in Baden-Baden, Germany, in 1852, aged 69. His body was returned to Russia and buried in the Alexander Nevsky Lavra cemetery in St. Petersburg.

According to Nabokov, Zhukovsky belonged to the class of poets who incidentally verge on greatness but never quite attain to that glory. His main contribution was as a stylistic and formal innovator who borrowed liberally from European literature in order to provide models in Russian that could inspire "original" works. Zhukovsky was particularly admired for his first-rate melodious translations of German and English ballads.

Among these, Ludmila (1808) and its companion piece, Svetlana (1813), are considered landmarks in the Russian poetic tradition. Both were free translations of Gottfried August Burger's well-known German ballad Lenore -- although each interpreted the original in a different way. Zhukovsky characteristically translated Lenore yet a third time as part of his efforts to develop a natural-sounding Russian dactylic hexameter. His many translations of Schiller -- including lyrics, ballads, and the drama Jungfrau von Orleans (about Joan of Arc) -- became classic Russian works that many consider to be of equal if not higher quality than their originals. They were remarkable for their psychological depth and greatly impressed and influenced Dostoevsky, among others. Zhukovsky's life's work as an interpreter of European literature probably constitutes the most important body of literary hermeneutics in the Russian language.

When Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812, Zhukovsky joined the Russian general staff under Field Marshal Kutuzov. There he wrote much patriotic verse, including the original poem, A Bard in the Camp of the Russian Warriors, which helped to establish his reputation at the imperial court. He also composed the lyrics for the national anthem of Imperial Russia, "God Save the Tsar!" After the war, he became a courtier in St. Petersburg, where he founded the jocular Arzamas literary society in order to promote Karamzin's European-oriented, anti-classicist aesthetics. Members of the Arzamas included the teenage Alexander Pushkin, who was rapidly emerging as Zhukovsky's heir apparent. The two became lifelong friends, and although Pushkin eventually outgrew the older poet's literary influence, he increasingly relied on his protection and patronage. Following the example of his mentor Karamzin, Zhukovsky travelled extensively in Europe throughout his life, meeting and corresponding with world-class cultural figures like Goethe or the landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. One of his early acquaintances was the popular German writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, whose prose novella Undine was a European best-seller. In the late 1830s, Zhukovsky published a highly-original verse translation of Undine that reestablished his place in the poetic avant-garde. Written in a waltzing hexameter, the work became the basis for a classic Russian ballet.

In 1841, Zhukovsky retired from court and settled in Germany, where he married Baltic German Elisabeth von Reutern, the 18-year-old daughter of an artist friend Gerhardt Wilhelm von Reutern. The couple had two children, including Alexandra, who had an affair with Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich. The aged poet devoted much of his remaining life to a hexameter translation of Homer's Odyssey, which he finally published in 1849. Although the translation was far from accurate, it became a classic in its own right and occupies a notable place in the history of Russian poetry. Some scholars argue that both his Odyssey and Undina -- as long narrative works -- made an important, though oblique contribution to the development of the Russian novel.


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