LESSON 3 Classicism and Sentimentalism

Study Notes

In the last lesson you read about the decline of the literary culture of old Rus' and about the beginnings of a modern Russian literature based on the European model. The preliminary tasks of normalizing the literary language and developing a system of versification appropriate to the Russian tongue had been completed by about the 1760s, at least to the point of providing a serviceable foundation for the further development of Russian literature. As you will remember, the syllabo-tonic system of versification eventually replaced the syllabic system adopted by the first Russian poets at the end of the seventeenth century.

There was less consensus with respect to the normalization of the literary language. Two schools of thought were current in the 1760s: (1) followers of Lomonosov held that his system of "three styles" was the best standard for the literary language; (2) followers of Sumarokov supported his use of the speech of educated persons as the standard, with the concomitant excision of elements (whether foreign or archaic) not commonly used by educated speakers.

Even without complete agreement, however, the elements of a modern literature on the European model were sufficiently in place by the 1760s that literature ceased being the work of a few isolated individuals and began to show evidence of trends, schools, tendencies, and other phenomena associated with a mature literary culture.

Classicism and Sentimentalism

The first such literary tendency was Classicism, also called Neo-classicism or Pseudo-classicism. Its founder and main spokesperson in Russia was Aleksandr Sumarokov, about whom you learned something in the preceding lesson. Among Sumarkokov's works are his "Letters to Writers." In these he explains (following the French critic Nicolas Boileau) the principles of what scholars now call Classicism. Sumarokov was the first Russian writer to attract to himself and his style a coterie of followers who thought of themselves as pupils of a famous teacher. Sumarokov's Classicism was of a standard type. He emphasized the notions that literary art was a form of communication; that it was a craft, which could be learned by diligent effort and practice; that success would be ensured by the imitation of proper models; that the best models were those written by the authors of classical antiquity (hence, the term "Classicism"); and that the heart of any composition was its intel- lectual and moral clarity. The works of Sumarokov and his followers, not surprisingly, tended to be devoid of emotion and to favor intellect.

In the course of time, in Europe as well as in Russia, the apparent lack of feeling in Classicist works began to be perceived as a fault, and a new trend developed around the desire to reform this aspect of Classicist practice. The new tendency, called "Sentimentalism" by literary historians, sought to place feelings (French, sentiment) on a par with intellect and morality with respect to their fitness for inclusion in a literary composition. The rise of Sentimentalism in Russia is closely associated with the increasing legitimacy of prose as a medium of literary expression. The master of Sentimentalism was Karamzin, who is the subject of the second half of this lesson.

N. M. Karamzin (1766-1826)

Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin was the son of a wealthy provincial family. He received a fine education which began with domestic tutors and ended at the University of Moscow. After a brief period of service in the army, Karamzin settled in Moscow in 1784. He joined the leading literary and intellectual circle of the time, which was led by the publisher and journalist, N. I. Novikov. Here, two main influences were exerted upon Karamzin. First, he was impressed with a favorable attitude toward the goals of the Enlightenment, a movement, experienced throughout Europe, in favor of the spread of education and the advance of material progress. Novikov was the acknowledged leader of this movement in Russia. The second major influence on the young Karamzin was that of Freemasonry, at that time of great intellectual and cultural importance in Russia. Nearly all of the well- known figures of that period were Masons. Especially important to Karamzin was the work and friendship of M. M. Kheraskov, a Mason who had been one of Karamzin's teachers at the University of Moscow. Early Masonry (1740-1780) had provided enthusiastic support for the goals of the Enlightenment, but in the 1780s the emphasis (especially in that offshoot of the Masons known as the Rosicrucians) began to shift from social to personal concerns, and a cult of emotional friendship became very popular.

Karamzin began his literary career in the mid-1780s. His first efforts were as a journalist and a translator. He read widely, especially contemporary European authors such as Rousseau, Richardson, Sterne, Thomson, and Young. He derived the basic elements of the Sentimentalist style from these writers. Karamzin's first original work was published in the late 1780s. His first celebrated success was his Letters of a Russian Traveller, which he published serially during and after a lengthy tour of Europe. Following his return to Russia in 1791, Karamzin settled down in Moscow to the life of a professional writer. He founded a literary magazine called The Moscow Journal and edited it for two years. Later in the 1790s he edited a number of literary almanacs. In 1802, he founded one of the most important of the nineteenth-century Russian journals, The Messenger of Europe.

Also in this period, from 1791-1804, Karamzin established himself as the first major short-story writer in Russia. He wrote more than a dozen stories. All were in the Sentimentalist style and most were extremely popular. The best remembered are "Poor Liza" (1792) and "The Island of Bornholm" (1793). These stories inspired a large number of imitations and provided the basis for literary Sentimentalism in Russia.

In 1804 Karamzin was named historiographer to the court of Tsar Alexander I. He devoted the rest of his life mainly to the compilation of his mammoth History of the Russian State. At his death he was halfway through the twelfth volume and had carried the story of the Russian state as far as the early seventeenth century.

Required Reading

Read the two stories by Karamzin, "Poor Liza" and "The Island of Bornholm" (available on-line from the main web page for Russ 3421)

Supplemental Reading

Auty and Obolensky, An Introduction to Russian Language and Literature, pp. 111-129

Moser, The Russian Short Story, section on Karamzin

Neuhauser, Towards the Romantic Age

Terras, Handbook of Russian Literature articles on "Neoclassicism," "Sentimentalism," and "Karamzin"

Holman, A Handbook to Literature, sections on "Neoclassicism" and "Sentimentalism"

For Further Thought

1. Identify the following in the context of Russian literature of the last third of the eighteenth century.

F. Emin
D. I. Fonvizin
G. R. Derzhavin
N. I. Novikov
M. M. Kheraskov

Need Help?? Look them up in Handbook of Russian Literature, ed. Victor Terras, in the Reference Room at Wilson Library.

2. Explain why Karamzin's story "Poor Liza" can be said to be a good example of the style of Sentimentalism.

3. What is the awful secret of the Island of Bornholm and what is its role in the creation of a sentimentalist mood in the story of that name?

Optional and Personal

Is it possible for modern readers to appreciate stories like "Poor Liza" directly, or must they be taken as being of "historical" interest only?

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