A Russian Aeneas: Exile and Citizenship in Vjačeslav Ivanov’s Roman Sonnets

Judith E. Kalb, University of South Carolina

“Perhaps exile is the poet’s natural condition. I felt a certain privilege in the coincidence of my existential condition with my profession,” Iosif Brodskij remarked in a 1987 interview. Physical exile can echo the intermediate space between thought and action where the writer dwells, a space which originates the narrative act that bridges the two and in so doing constructs the writer’s own created and creative identity (Seidel 1986). Exile, then, can function as a realization of the writer’s metaphorical home, a familiar and fruitful region long inhabited and made one’s own. This paper seeks to explore issues of exile and citizenship in Vjačeslav Ivanov’s Roman Sonnets. Studies consulted include Klimoff 1986, Rudich 1988, West 1970, and Jackson 1986.

Written from 1924–25, the sonnets reflect the poet’s longstanding interest, both historical and cultural, in the city of Rome. Ivanov had studied Roman history for five years under the famous German historian Theodor Mommsen, and he had written his dissertation in Latin on the history of Roman tax farming. While Ivanov’s intellectual interests had strayed in the direction of ancient Greek culture, and in particular the cult of Dionysus, Rome had continued to play an important role in Ivanov’s life, including on a personal level: in Rome in 1893 Ivanov had met his second wife Lidija Zinovieva-Annibal, who was to prove his greatest poetic inspiration. Long after her death in 1907, Ivanov returned to Rome in 1924 after gaining permission from the Soviet government to leave Russia with his two children. Once again, he found in Rome an inspiration to create.

Ivanov describes himself in the first sonnet as a “faithful pilgrim,” thereby affirming his longtime commitment to Rome and at the same time asserting a distance between his own provenance and the “eternal city.” Pilgrims do not as a rule hail from or inhabit at length the objects of their pilgrimage. Indeed, Ivanov goes on to compare Russia to Troy, burning amidst world destruction. Ivanov, therefore, is a modern-day Aeneas, fleeing his native land to seek refuge in another. Ivanov will perpetuate the Trojan theme throughout the cycle, continuing implicitly to recall his origins in another realm.

And yet paradoxically the exile who comes to Rome is in a sense coming home. Aeneas, while initially a stranger to Italy, went on to join with that land’s earlier inhabitants to found a new dynasty, one that would become the mighty Roman empire. The exile can become native, and powerfully so; in fact, Vergil tells us that King Latinus has heard Aeneas’ arrival predicted long before Aeneas actually appears. The stranger thus has a longstanding home in Rome, one to which he must lay claim. In his Roman Sonnets, Ivanov inserts himself into the Vergilian narrative to assert his status of simultaneous exile and citizen. He bases his declaration on his identity as a poet, one who through his descriptions of Rome will join in the creation of the city inaugurated by Aeneas’ dreams and perpetuated by the generations of artists and craftsmen who have described and helped to create the world (mir) that is Rome (Rim).

Rome, then, becomes for Ivanov a symbol of the creation of culture, a realm that he, like all writers, has in fact long inhabited. Rome can be seen on the metaphorical plane as Ivanov’s eternal home, a creative world capital that exists outside of particular geographical boundaries and historical events. The city with its ancient aqueducts and fountains represents the durability and life of artistic creation. And Ivanov’s sonnets about Vergil’s city become part of the chain that has served to create this symbol of eternal culture; Ivanov the exile, therefore, becomes a citizen, once again and as ever, of Rome.