Ballada

The ballad has been described as a narrative poem of twenty to eighty lines, characterized by compressed, objective narration, with an emphasis on action rather than character. Both motivation and denouement are often described enigmatically. Other characteristics include an abrupt opening question, violent plots with supernatural elements, revelation through dialogue, lack of moralizing, and fragmentariness. Although the ballad—an oral folk genre of medieval origin—would not seem to be an obvious descendent of the classical epic, during the late eighteenth and the nineteenth century it was accepted as such because of the polemics surrounding the European ballad revival.32

In the early eighteenth century English and German collectors began to publish ballads supposedly transcribed from folk sources, but, in fact, significantly reworked: Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765); Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802); collections by J. G. Herder, and others.33 By the middle of the eighteenth century these ballads were being compared to the works of Homer as part of the ongoing "Homeric question," the debate over whether Homer was one or many authors. European poets who wrote literary imitations of the genre represented themselves as Homeric bards (as discussed in chapter 2). As recently as 1978 a Russian scholar described the ballad as a "lyrico-epic genre" (Iezuitova, "Ballada v epokhu romantizma," 138).

European literary ballads differed significantly from their folk models. From the beginning ballad collectors and imitators mixed the originally stark ballad genre with the richer, metrical romance—stories of knights and medieval pageantry, told in more flexible octosyllabic couplets. In England, for example, writes Albert Friedman, poets not only intermingled "bardism, primitive poetry, minstrelsy and balladry" (Ballad Revival, 175), but also added psychological descriptions, a variety of meters, a greater emphasis on the narrator, and many elements from urban folk forms, such as broadsides and street calls (257, 260).

If European literary ballads differed appreciably from their folk models, Russian literary ballads differed from them even further. At the end of the eighteenth century no collections of Russian folk ballads existed, nor did even the concept of such a genre. European models, therefore, provided Russian writers with their knowledge of both folk ballads and literary imitations of them.34

Vasilii Zhukovsky popularized the European literary ballad in Russia by translating or writing thirty-nine ballads based on European models. His ballads both reflected and established gender norms for writers and characters. Like other ballad writers, Zhukovsky represented himself as a bard, a tribal poet-singer, and a declaimer of verses about heroes and their deeds—for example, in "Pesn' barda nad grobom slavian- pobeditelei" (Song of the bard at the grave of the Slavic victors, 1806) and "Pevets vo stane russkikh voinov" (The singer in the camp of Russian warriors, 1812)—a literary stance not possible for women, as we have seen in chapter 2. As for gender norms for characters, one of Zhukovsky's most pervasive themes is men's violence against women; many of his ballads depict men as representatives of evil or death who victimize young women. In "Liudmila" (1808), for example, the heroine's beloved, who comes for her at midnight, turns out to be a corpse. After their ride together Liudmila dies as well. The heroine of "Adel'stan" (1813) marries a knight who nearly succeeds in sacrificing their child to evil forces. Other such examples can be found in "Eolova arfa" (The Aeolian harp, 1814) and "Dvenadtsaf spiashchikh dev" (The twelve sleeping maidens, 1810). Zhukovsky's one depiction of an old woman ("Ballada, v kotoroi opisyvaetsia, kak odna starushka ekhala na chernom kone vdvoem, i kto sidel vperedi," 1814)—a translation of Robert Southey's "Old Woman of Berkeley: A Ballad: Shewing how an old woman rode double and who rode before her" (1799)—tells of an evil witch whom the devil drags down to hell. The next generation of men poets in their ballad/romances not only, like Zhukovsky, depicted women as victims of male violence but also as gratuitously false and evil. Neither image was very useful for those women poets who wished to tell women's stories.35

Nonetheless, Russian women poets seem to have experienced somewhat less genre anxiety in relation to the ballad than to the poema, perhaps because they had greater access to the sources of the ballad. While few of these women writers knew Greek and Latin, many of them knew German, French, and even English, which allowed them to read European folk and literary ballads in the original.36 In any case, Russian women poets seem to have felt freer to experiment with the genre, in order to make it fit their needs.

Interestingly, it was a woman, Anna Turchaninova, who wrote the first ballads published in Russia, "Pesenka ob Leonarde i Blondine" (see appendix) and "Villiam i Margarita" (both 1799-1800). "Leonard i Blondina," an original ballad set in Spain, tells of a woman whose beloved dies in the bullring. While the story seems conventional enough, we note that Blondina serves neither as the primary victim of the story nor as the capricious cause of the hero's death. It is Leonard's father who demands that Leonard fight the bull to prove his manhood to Blondina. When Blondina protests that she does not want her fiancé to risk his life in such a demonstration, Leonard's father tells her she is not fit to be the mother of his future grandsons. Leonard fights the bull, which fatally gores him and Blondina, who runs to his aid. The lovers are reunited as ghosts. The ballad could be seen as a comment on the cult of machismo in Spain and elsewhere.

The second ballad, "Villiam i Margarita," is a Russian translation of the German translation of an English reworking of two ballads from Percy's Reliques. It tells of a man who sees the ghost of the woman he has betrayed and the next day dies on her grave. This theme of a woman taking postmortem revenge on a faithless lover also appears in Lisitsyna's "Byl'" (True story, 1829), her "Romans" ("Sir Artur byl khrabroi voin" [Sir Arthur was a brave warrior], 1829), and Rostopchina's "Revnost' za grobom" (Jealousy beyond the grave, 1852). This recurring theme may reflect the anger and powerlessness upper-class women felt in the face of such betrayals.37

Five of the women poets we have been considering wrote ballads or poems with strong balladic elements. Some of these follow male norms in depicting faithless, evil, or victimized women. For example, in Gare-lina's "Za reshetkoiu v temnitse" (Behind the grille in the dungeon, 1870), a prisoner sees in a prophetic dream his beloved being unfaithful to him. In Khvoshchinskaia's "Blednaia deva: Videnie: Ballada" (The pale maiden: A vision: A ballad, f. 541, no.1, ed. kh. 3, 33, 1842, RGALI), a knight meets a belle dame sans merci. Other ballads by women, like those by men, narrate men's stories, for example, Pavlova's "Ballada," (1841). Several, however, tell very different stories. Mordovtseva follows Tur-chaninova in questioning the military ethic. Her "Ballada" (1870) tells of a young man who leaves his fiancée to go to war, where he is killed. The fiancée is left with only a medal and some poems. Many of Pavlova's ballads tell even less conventional stories. Her "Doch' zhida" (The Jew's daughter, 1840), for example, depicts a recently captured woman in a harem about to murder the emir with a knife she has hidden. Byron's Gulnare in "The Corsair" also kills the sultan who has held her captive, but only after many years, when she has met another man (Conrad) whom she prefers. Pavlova's captive also contrasts with another harem captive, Pushkin's Mariia in Bakhchisaraiskii fontan (The fountain at Bakhchisarai, 1822). Although, like Mariia, Pavlova's heroine remains pure, unlike Mariia, whom the khan's jealous favorite murders, Pavlova's heroine is not victimized by another woman. In "Starukha" (The old woman, 1840) Pavlova presents an old woman who, in contrast to Zhukovsky's repulsive starushka, captivates a beautiful young man through her ability to tell him stories, that is, her power as an artist. In "Ogon'" (Fire, 1841) a male, rather than a female, succumbs to the temptation of an evil serpent—here in the guise of a fire—destroying an Eden-like idyll.

Garelina also presents an unusual ballad subject: a woman in an unhappy marriage. In "Mama! Chto ty vse vzdykhaesh'?" (Mama, why are you always sighing? 1870) a woman is anxiously asked by her child why she is sighing over a man's portrait. The woman comforts and asks the child to pray for her. Shakhova appears to comment on men's and women's ideas of altruism in "Dva sna, Ballada" (Two Dreams, a Ballad, 1849). A husband says he would let his children drown to save his wife. She says she would sacrifice herself and their children for her husband.38

As with povesti v stikhakh, women poets used the ballad to tell very different stories from men.

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