Silence and the Rest: On the Inexpressible in Russian Romantic Poetry

Sofya Khagi, Brown University

Given Romanticism’s preoccupation with the theme of verbal inadequacy, it is only natural that the subject became a focus of fertile critical attention. However, critical studies all to often reduce a complex problem of romantic verbal skepticism to a more uniform and straightforward motif of the “inexpressibility” of the lyrical subject’s exceptional emotional life as (s)he intuits the infinite. Thus, while “Romantic inexpressible” is a staple of literary criticism, a closer look at the theme is in order. As I demonstrate by considering several Russian lyrics of the period, Romantic articulations of the skeptical outlook toward language present a more intricate and heterogeneous picture than that of a traditional notion of the “chosen one’s” inexpressible inner reality. I follow the development of the theme from Batjuškov’s and Žukovskij’s early explorations of the subject of the inexpressible through Puškin’s and Venevitinov’s lyrics of the twenties to Tjutčev’s celebrated metaphysical statement. I demonstrate that the subject of verbal skepticism underwent significant transformations in the process of its consecutive presentations. The notion of the “incommunicable” has been added to that of the inexpressible, the discourse has been ironized, and a darker strain of existential anxiety has, to a large extent, superceded an earlier idealistic vision of the inexpressible. I argue that Tjutčev’s disillusioned vision of verbal and existential predicament is fundamentally different from Batjuškov’s and Žukovskij’s high-spirited strivings to convey their inexpressible intuition of the transcendental.

In addition, later articulations of the inexpressible (Tjutčev in particular), as I claim, offer a more compelling critique of language by enacting the very theme they occupy themselves with. I suggest that criticism of language and poetic art becomes increasingly penetrating in correlation to an ever more skeptical view of the existential condition expressed in the lyrics.