Derzhavin Poems

Gavril Romanovich Derzhavin (1743-1816) rose from penniless obscurity to the highest offices of state, but is remembered today as Russia's greatest poet before Pushkin. Derzhavin's poetry is powerfully and distinctly his. By force of inspiration, this minor aristocrat completed the hopes of eighteenth century predecessors like KatemĂ­r, Trediakovsky and Lomonosov, and lived long enough to hear Pushkin recite his first poems, recognizing a talent that would usher in a new sensibility. Derzhavin is best known for his odes, into which he packed a great deal of elegy, humour and satire. To our ears, the poems are rather high-minded and over-long, but they are also exceptionally accomplished and powerful.

Selected Poems

The translations in this ebook include the more important odes, namely On the Death of Prince Meshchersky (1779), Felitsa (1782), God (1785), the opening excerpt from the Waterfall (1794), written on the death of Prince Potemkin, and the Bullfinch (1800), which served as a short elegy on the death of his friend, Marshall Suvorov.  Also included are the attractively informal Invitation to Dinner, and Life at Zvanka.

It was Derzhavin far more than Pushkin who created the writer's claim to be the social conscience of Russia. Ironically, the gift came from Derzhavin’s marked disabilities, the contrariness that so exasperated contemporaries expecting deference to wealth, social position and court procedures. Hemmed in by a social order to which he did not wholly belong, Derzhavin's own scruples became his lodestone, first in his Pugachev adventures, and increasingly in his writings. His first book, The Chitagalai Collection, published anonymously and at his own expense in 1774, followed an unusual order: translations of four of Frederick the Great’s odes, then his own poems, plus a dedication to General Bibikov followed by one to the empress Catherine, but was otherwise modest and unassertive. Two important odes followed: On the Death of Prince Meshchersky and To Rulers and Judges, the first having the blood-chilling note of great poetry and the second causing some censorship problems. Then came Felitsa in 1782, which portrayed the empress as an exceptionally competent, hard-working and sensible woman.

Derzhavin Poems and Their Achievement

Pushkin and his contemporaries thought Derzhavin's The Waterfall the greatest poem in the Russian language. It is exceptionally long, however, and is for the most part the standard ode, a three-year labour of love to Derzhavin's hero and part patron, Prince Grigory Potemkin: foremost statesman and military leader. I have only given the opening verses, where Derzhavin appears in a different guise, as the keen student of nature, almost the Romantic poet of contemporary Germany or England.

A free e-book in pdf format.

Excerpt (Opening of Felitsa)

Tsarina, wise, omnipotent
and of the Kirghuz-Kaisak race:
one whose powerful mind has bent
to find the path, the faithful trace
5. that Khlor, the young tsarevich 1
may climb the highest mountain’s reach.
Say, you whose rose can have no spine,
whose very virtue is designed
to captivate my heart and mind,
10. say how your counsel would incline.

Felitsa, give me sound instruction
in worldly opulence that’s true,
have the passions find reduction
and in this world be happy too.
15. How admirable is now your voice.
Your son escorts me in this choice.
Alas, my urge to fight but thins
against the vanities of wealth,
and if today I curb myself,
20. tomorrow I’m a slave to whims.

Unlike the mirzas in  your court,
you often go about on foot.
The plainest food is what you’ve sought
where honest fare is simply put.
25. Your hard-won rest is much the same:
you read and write by candle flame.
To us mere mortals from your pen
comes sensible but fervent bliss,
and even cards you choose to miss
30. as I do morn to morn again.

You do not care for masquerades
and to a club are quite unknown:
habit and custom, neither fades,
nor is there dancing by the throne.
35. You do not haunt Parnassus, nor
what séances are practiced for.
No eastern rule is in your gaze,
who traced an honest path, both whole
and modest. So your waking soul
40. but works for other’s useful days.

But I, of course, have slept till noon,
which fumes of pipe and coffee show.
My working day is one long swoon
within whose thoughts chimeras grow.
45. With captives under Persian skies
I arm myself in Turkish guise.
Still dreaming that I am the sultan
I make my piercing look oppress,
or captured by some other dress
50. will slip out quickly for a caftan.