“Frivolous” Friendly Epistles? Simulation, Satire and Friendly Discourse in 1790s Russian Poetry

Romy Taylor, University of Southern California

Friendly epistles are usually dismissed as one of the early nineteenth-century “fluff” genres that lost resonance for good reason. Contemporary critics agreed: Puškin’s former classmate Vil′gelm Kjuxel′bèker, in an influential 1824 article, dismissed friendly epistles as “light poetry,” frivolous and therefore unworthy of authors’ and readers’ attention.

Yes, friendly epistles favored a light, bantering tone; their lines were liberally sprinkled with epithets declaring the addressee a “tender friend; nursling of Apollo” (“nežnyj drug, pitomec Apollona”). But, had friendly epistles’ subject matter been restricted to epithet-ridden declarations of friendship, the genre would probably never have been as popular as it was in the mid-1790s or in the 1810s. Friendly epistles could accommodate just about any theme, from invitations to dinner, to utopian republics, to homosexual relations. Likewise, the function of friendly epistles was rarely to simply assure the addressee of the author’s true friendship: friendly epistles served as a forum for discussion of serious issues, albeit in an informal context.

And discussion of serious issues in an informal context was a very important function to fulfill. For example, when Karamzin was smitten with his friend’s wife, A. I. Pleščeeva, in the mid-1790s, he found himself “wanting to express his love”—while at the same time needing to fulfill her wishes that he restrict himself to “friendship.” What genre could handle such diverse requirements? Madrigals served to convey more traditional compliments; love poems would only exacerbate the situation. But friendly epistles proved the solution: in his 1795 “Poslanie k ženščinam” (“Epistle to Women,” published in 1796), Karamzin muses at length on women’s virtues, and turns to Pleščeeva only at the end of the poem, assuring her that he has “said good-bye to love” and will now settle for “true friendship.” Though this is what Pleščeeva wanted to hear, the preceding 350+ lines of praise to women are, implicitly, both praising Pleščeeva and suggesting his continued stronger feelings.

Discussion of serious issues in an informal context was even more urgent in the 1790s political arena, with Radiščev and Novikov arrested and the French revolution turning to terror. Catherine II, hoping for some support from poets’ ranks, sent word out through third parties that she would be amenable to receiving odes. How does one respectfully decline a sovereign? Friendly epistles again provided the forum. Karamzin and Deržavin both declined Catherine’s commission, using friendly epistles’ gentle and informal tone to soften the answer. Finally, though discussion of the French revolution was off limits, Karamzin was able to lament turns of events in France by expressing disappointment in Plato’s Republic, rather than referring to France directly, in his 1794 “Poslanie k Dmitrievu” (“Epistle to Dmitriev,” published the same year). Though friendly epistles were criticized as frivolous, it was their veneer of frivolity that allowed poets in the 1790’s to express themselves without offending some very picky potential readers. Perhaps, sometimes, “frivolous fluff” can smuggle in the most punch.