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A Poet not in Pushkin’s Mold
Fyodor Tyutchev was born 210 years ago. His poetic legacy is not very great – poems occupy only two of the six volumes of the poet’s complete works – the rest is essays and letters. However, literary prolificacy has never been the main achievement of this poet, and the work of Tyutchev is evidence of this.
He was never a professional poet – poetry was only a hobby for him, partly a form of relaxation in his spare time. Then there is the fact that Fyodor Tyutchev served in the Russian Foreign Ministry. This is partly the reason for the paradox of Tyutchev’s outlook: he “loved” Russia and “believed” in Russia, while living abroad for most of his life. He spent a significant part of his life in Munich, where he fell in love with a Bavarian noblewoman – Countess Botmer.
Germany, or rather the German culture, is partly the reason for the depth and plasticity of Tyutchev’s poems – he was well received in high society of Heine and Schelling in which he moved, and he even engaged in hot debates about the future of Europe with the latter. As a consequence, here emerged his agonizing search for Russia’s place in the future world.
Incidentally, Tyutchev’s concern about how Russia would “fit” into the European political and cultural ensemble eventually became his occupation.
It is known that in 1843 he met with the all-powerful head of the Third Department, Alexander von Benckendorff. As a result of this meeting, Emperor Nicholas I supported all of Tyutchev’s initiatives for creating a positive image of Russia in the West. The emperor approved independent articles of the diplomat on political issues dealing with the relationship between Europe and Russia.
In 1844, the poet returned to Russia and continued to work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In parallel, he was one of those who, as we would say today, formed contemporary social discourse. Tyutchev actively participated in the liberal circle of Vissarion Belinsky, at whose meetings not only literature was discussed. In parallel, Tyutchev wrote articles in French, and Emperor Nicholas I personally read and approved them. Moved by the revolutionary events of 1848-1849, Tyutchev conceived, but did not complete, the creation of a treatise titled “Russia and the West”, in which he intended to explain the profound individuality of the Russian state system, and protect its conservative principles.
In 1858, State Councilor Fyodor Tyutchev was appointed as Chairman of the Foreign Censorship Committee – and served in this position for fifteen years, until his death. Tyutchev did not just “work for a salary”, but was deeply concerned about the state of society (by the way, his opinion did not always correspond to the views of the government). “Yet this profound moral corruption of society is really troublesome,” he says in one of his letters. It is known that Tyutchev banned distribution of the Communist Manifesto in the Russian language in Russia. “Those who need it – will read it in German,” Tyutchev stated ironically.
Publicist activities of the 1840s damaged the poetic sphere, and Tyutchev did not publish any poetry during the public and printed debates on the fate and importance of Russia.
Tyutchev got back on the poetic track in the 1850s and did not leave it until his death. Public debates did not fully capture the mind of the poet – thanks to this, we have Tyutchev’s recognized masterpieces, which were written in the later period, such as ‘You cannot understand Russia with your mind’, ‘I’ve met you (K.B.)’, and many others.
The poetic gift of Tyutchev sometimes contrasted with that of Pushkin. Back in the 1920s, Yuri Tynyanov wrote that Pushkin and Tyutchev belonged to such different vectors of Russian literature, that this distinction even excludes the recognition of one poet by the other.
Later this beautiful theory was refuted by the facts. It is known, for example, that Pushkin willingly placed Tyutchev’s poems in his Sovremennik magazine, and was quite sympathetic to his work in general. Nevertheless, the poetic styles of Pushkin and Tyutchev are enormously different. Pushkin’s writings are brilliant poetry about real life, while Tyutchev’s works are more metaphysical – in the German style. Pushkin is the creator of a new literary language, while Tyutchev’s poems have more archaisms, he is often compared with Derzhavin and his poetry is described as odic. And yet, Russian poetry only benefited from the presence of these two poetic poles formed by their two powerful forces.