Three Metaphors for Life: Derzhavin’s Late Poetry

Three Metaphors for Life: Derzhavin’s Late Poetry


Tatiana Smoliarova
Translated by Ronald Meyer
Translated and edited by Nancy Workman

Series: Liber Primus
ISBN: 9781618115737 (hardcover)
Pages: 420 pp.; 31 illus. 
Publication Date: April 2018

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The poetry of Gavrila Derzhavin is a monument to that which could be read, heard, and, most important, seen in the two centuries in which he lived. The Palladian villa he occupied, the British service placed on the table before him, the English spinning machine put to use on his estate, and even the optical devices, such as the telescope, magic lantern, and camera obscura, which populated his home: Tatiana Smoliarova restores Derzhavin’s visual environment through minute textual clues, inviting the reader to consider how such impressions informed and shaped his thinking and writing, countering the conservative, Russophile ideology he shared in his later years. In examining the poetics, aesthetics, and politics of Derzhavin’s poems written in the early nineteenth century, Three Metaphors for Life makes us see this period as a chapter in the contradictory development of Russian modernity—at once regressive and progressive, resistant to social reform, insistent on a distinctly Russian historical destiny, yet enthusiastically embracing technological and industrial innovations and exploring new ways of thinking, seeing, and feeling.  

Tatiana Smoliarova is an associate professor in the Slavic Languages and Literatures Department at the University of Toronto.


The Russian text on which this book is based was published in Moscow in 2011 by Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie under the title Zrimaia lirika. It was warmly received, saluted especially for its adventurous, deeply informed intellectual scope. This English version must be acclaimed first of all as a feat of translation; the particular contribution of each of the three individuals credited is not specified. The main difficulty arises, needless to say, in translating adequately the primary material concerned, which is exhaustively and bilingually cited here. … This poetry is rugged, pocked with archaisms, and seems to revel in syntax that is sometimes maddeningly convoluted. The task of translation has been accomplished with rare sensitivity and insight; chasteningly, it is hard to imagine anybody reading the result who cannot at least make at least a stab at the original Russian. … All in all, this book will be useful reading for anyone interested in how best to read Russian poetry before Pushkin; rather than driving home hard conclusions, though, it will stimulate and suggest.
— G. S. Smith, New College, University of Oxford, Slavonic and East European Review Vol. 79, No. 3
Three Metaphors for Life is a fascinating, well-researched and well-written study of the late Derzhavin which brings new insight into his place in Russian literature, politics, philosophy and society. What’s more, it carefully connects Derzhavin to the intellectual, philosophical, poetic and scientific currents of his time, demonstrating that he is not merely an essential figure in the Russian enlightenment, but has significant contributions to make as a European intellectual. Smoliarova is a seasoned scholar, with bona fides in comparative European intellectual history and literature. Her bibliography is deep and current, and her voice is authoritative and truly erudite. With command of languages and specialized literature from Russia, England, France, and Germany, Smoliarova writes clearly and vividly, expressing and tracing coherent connections across European borders that shed light on the Russian empire and the experience of living in the years before the war with Napoleon. This translation lucidly introduces Smoliarova to an English-language audience. What’s more, Ron Meyers ably handles the difficult task of rendering scholarly prose and classical Russian poetry in English.
— Angela Brintlinger, Ohio State University
Comparatist Tatiana Smoliarova’s 2011 book on Derzhavin’s late poetry was a memorably innovative study of Russia’s most accomplished eighteenth-century poet. This English version—elegantly written, translated, and edited—is in significant ways a new and even better book. It is more sharply focused on crucial metaphors in Derzhavin’s poetry and it adds new historical perspectives, taking its discussion into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Its deft, sophisticated illuminations from the history of science and from literary history are highly original and persuasive. The author accomplishes the most valuable of critical feats, compelling readers to see canonical texts with fresh and invigorated eyes.
— William Mills Todd III, Harvard University

Table of Contents


In Search of a Metaphor: In Place of an Introduction

Part 1. Magic Lantern (Projection)
Chapter 1. A Text in Performance
Shadows Only
Pregnant Moments
An Attempt in the Dramatic Field

Chapter 2. Lanterns and Lanternists
Laterna Magica
Citizen Robertson
The Fantasmagoria

Part 2. Rainbow (Refraction)
Chapter 1. Unweaving the Rainbow
The Meteorological Cycle
From Allegory to . . . Allegory
Magic Made Simple or Do-It-Yourself
Addison and His Pleasures

Chapter 2. The Limits of Imitation
Apelles and His Lines
Camera Obscura
The Child of Thaumas

Part 3. Garden of Memory (Reflection)
Chapter 1. The Keys to Zvanka
Beatus, My Brother
Essay on Man
The Art of Memory
A Peculiar Vision: Approaches to the Text

Chapter 2.  Nine Views
Pleasures of the Imagination
Choral Vision
Fifteen Stanzas of Solitude

Chapter 3. The Poet’s House
The Bard Lived There
Zvanka’s Echo

Pindar, Derzhavin, and the 1920s: In Place of a Conclusion