LESSON 3 Classicism and Sentimentalism
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
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
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
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
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.
Read the two stories by Karamzin, "Poor Liza" and "The
Island of Bornholm" (available on-line from the
page for Russ 3421)
For Further Thought
Optional and Personal
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