Inventing Tauris: Elegy and the Creation of a Myth

The consistently elegiac timbre of Puškin’s Crimean poems is significant not only for examining, on the one hand, the poet’s esthetic biography and, on the other, the development of the Russian elegy—subjects on which a great deal of scholarship has focused. Puškin’s use of the elegy is also of particular interest for the archeology of the literary identity, and the larger cultural mythology, of the Crimea. The fundamental role of Puškin’s poetry in forming the paradigms of an esthetic and experiential perception of the Crimea as a geopoetic phenomenon in Russian culture has obscured, and helped to erase from cultural memory, the earlier poetic visions of the peninsula which had affected Puškin’s perception of the Crimea’s esthetic potential. Among these were works well known to the Russian reading public by 1820, when the poet undertook his Crimean journey—most notably, Batiuškov’s elegy “Tavrida” (1815). By examining specific ways in which the poetic creation of the Crimea as an elegiac space is made possible in the works of Deržavin, Semen Bobrov and Batjuškov, this paper situates Puškin’s stylized Tauric landscape within the remarkable tradition that conceives of the Crimea as an imaginary geography in the 1780s–1820s.

From Deržavin’s 1784 “Ode on the annexation of Tauris” to the Crimean stanzas of “Onegin’s Journey” the peninsula is repeatedly perceived as an earthly Paradise. Yet in transforming Catherine II’s Imperial idyll (the Crimea as a key symbol of Russia’s manifest destiny) into an ambivalent lyrical domain whose discourse of love and loss is intimately intertwined with the Arcadian landscape, Bobrov and Batjuškov reforge and complicate the Crimean myth. This process can be seen as a series of esthetic “sublimations”—deflections of the “Imperial sublime” (Harsha Ram, 1998) which seek to negotiate the boundaries of Paradise and Inferno, Elysium and Tartarus within an elegiac Tauric Hades. Appropriating the esthetic myth(s) of his predecessors, Puškin reinvents the Crimea as a poetic space in which the paradoxes of individual experience reverberate in the nostalgia for the murky realm where Heaven can only be found by descending into an abyss.