Book Review — Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry

Writings from the Golden Age of Russian Poetry by Konstantin Batyushkov and translated by Peter France is a poetry collection infused into a biography. Batyushkov was a Russian poet, essayist, and translator of the Romantic era. He also served in the diplomatic corps, spending an extended period in 1818 and 1819 as a secretary to the Russian diplomatic mission at Naples. France is honorary fellow and professor emeritus at the University of Edinburgh. He has translated French and Russian prose texts as well as the works of many Russian poets, most recently Lermontov, Baratynsky, Mandelstam, and Aygi.

Russian poetry tends to be difficult to find in the West. Russia had no shortage of poets and no shortage of very good poets. Much of the problem lies in the translation. Russian poetry is heavy on feminine rhyme. Feminine rhymes end in unstressed syllables preceded by stressed syllables. In English these rhymes usually depend on suffixes, for example, shocking and stocking. In Russian feminine rhyme is much more common and easily lost in translation. France does an excellent job of preserving the rhythm and form of the original Russian.

Batyushkov lead an amazing life filled with adventure, through wars, and the place of history when he lived. He saw Moscow burn and fought in Finland and was part of the chase that forced Napolean back to France. In his own words:

What a life I have lived for poetry! Three wars all on horseback and the highways of the world.

France weaves together Batyushkov’s poetry and places it in context with his life. His poetry on war is notable in that even in victories he does not resort to false heroics or patriotic embellishments.  Most of Batyushkov’s writing is pastoral with limited rhymes.  His writing was brilliant and he was a leader of Russia’s Golden Age of Poetry.  However, by 1820, at the age of 33, his depression and developing mental illness ended his writing career.  He spent the next 35 years moving about before resettling in the town of his birth where he died from typhus in 1855.

France does a commendable job of introducing the poet and poetry to the English speaking world.  Combining the biography with selected poems adds depth to the poetry as well as an understanding of Russian history and its effects on the poet. Batyushkov’s rich personal life provided ample material for his poetry.  Whether watching Moscow burn or crossing the Neman or the Rhine.  His own return to Russia to stay was recorded the “Return of Odysseus.”  A great introduction to 19th century Russian poets and poetry.

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