Other Approaches

It is natural for readers to accept such repeated denigration of Ros-topchina's poetry over time as proof of its inferior quality. These negative opinions, however, could also be explained by the factors of class politics and cultural misogyny described in the preceding discussion. Rostopchina's work, like her biography, is worth reconsidering with an open mind.50

We have noted critics' use of the term poetessa to disparage Rostopchina.51 However, in reconsidering Rostopchina's significance, we must ask if she is a "poetess" in the well-defined European and American sense of the word.52 Nineteenth-century American and European literary scholars describe the poetess as a "sociomoral handmaiden" (Ross, Contours of Masculine Desire, 192) who did not "demonstrate ambition, . . . [was] not to lecture on public issues or speculate on philosophic or religious ones" (Ostriker, Stealing the Language, 31) or "[challenge] the status quo" (Walker, introduction to American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century, xxvi); who embodied the feminine "sphere of the domestic affections, religious piety, and patriotic passions, and of the female (more particularly maternal) responsibility for binding these sensibilities together."53 Such a poetic stance, if maintained consistently, would indeed be unlikely to produce deep or meaningful or even interesting poetry. But do these characteristics of the poetess describe Rostopchina's work?

It is true that Rostopchina did not speculate on philosophic or religious questions. Also, as we have seen, at the end of her life she wrote many poems that embodied "religious piety and patriotic passions" (see note 31), as did Iazykov, and Pushkin in "Klevetnikam Rossii" (To the slanderers of Russia, 1831). Even then, however, Rostopchina did not unconditionally support the status quo. She welcomed home the Decembrists, freed after Nicholas I's death, defended poets against autocracy ("Ot poeta k tsariam" [From a poet to the tsars, 1856]), and expressed rage at men's treatment of women:

[W]omen are always better, that is, kinder, more loving, less selfish, more truthful than men; .. . but she [woman] is perverted and corrupted by shortcomings, insults, dissuasions, ordeals—and from whom, dare I ask, does she suffer and endure them if not from you men? . . . Who leads, seduces, and abandons her? Who takes her from the pedestal . . . to bend her, break her pride, and throw her to her knees like a mute and defenseless slave? Who, if not your vanity, your lust, your pettiness, your emptiness, in a word, your debauchery? Messieurs, vous savez ce que vous faites. ... As a result of such convictions I hold the pen in my hand like a weapon, the only one given to us against you.54

The other characteristics that literary scholars attribute to the poetess mentioned previously apply even less to Rostopchina. Far from expressing no ambition, she published six books during her lifetime, including two editions of her collected works, a remarkable feat for a woman of that time.55 Rostopchina also expressed ambition by polemi-cizing with Russia's most famous men authors. She wrote Vozvrashche-nie Chatskogo (Chatsky's return, 1856), a sequel to Griboedov's Gore ot uma, as well as Dnevnik devushki (A girl's diary, 1845), the only other nineteenth-century Russian novel in verse besides Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin.

Nor did Rostopchina hesitate to write on public issues. We have already mentioned her support of the Decembrist uprising in "Mechta" (A dream, 1830) and "K stradatel'tsam-izgnannikam" (To the suffering exiles, 1831) and her criticism of Russia's oppression of Poland in "Nasil'nyi brak" (The forced marriage, 1845). In addition, in "Negodovan'e" (Indignation, 1840) she criticized U.S. treatment of the Seminole Indians, and in "Moim kritikam" (To my critics, 1856) and "Oda poezii" (Ode to poetry 1852) she polemicized with Russian literary critics.

Finally, Rostopchina's poetry can in no way be said to embody the sphere of domestic and maternal affection. Rather than describing the joys of marriage and motherhood, she depicted the joys and pains of extramarital love (for example, her cycle, Neizvestnyi roman, which was first published in its entirety in 1856). In the only lullaby she wrote ("Baiu-baiu," 1836) the speaker tells her own heart, soul, and imagination to go to sleep since life is meaningless.

Indeed, Rostopchina's challenges to contemporary understandings of woman's role may be the reason that she incurred so much hostility from her critics. In "Iskushenie" (Temptation, 1839) a young mother watching her two children sleeping wishes she could be at a ball. Here Rostopchina depicts a mother with feelings and desires independent of her children, a challenge to cultural assumptions about instinctive maternal self-sacrifice and the insignificance for women of mere pleasure compared to the sacred joys of motherhood. Many critics have commented on, and been scandalized by, this poem. They routinely identify the speaker with Rostopchina, berating her for frivolity and immorality.56 These critics, however, ignore the poem's moral sophistication. The title "Iskushenie" serves to name the speaker's feelings and to frame them for the reader. Rostopchina establishes the speaker as a moral agent who can choose whether or not to act on temptation. Perhaps that in itself frightened critics who preferred that a mother's submersion in her children be complete, unquestionable, and mandatory.

However, a more objective reading of the poem shows that these critics missed its point. The poem does not concern the speaker's temptation to reject motherhood in order to glitter in high society. At the beginning of the poem she says:

Tenept HaxoflHmt th MeHa 3a KHHron, 3a pa6oToH, . .

^Byx .nro.eK mopox c.Hmy a C y.HH6Kon h 3a6oToH.

H cBeTe., c.afloK moh noKoH, H floMa MHe He TecHo, . .

(Now, you [Midnight] find me At a book, at work, . . .

I listen to the rustle of two cradles With a smile and with concern

And my feeling of peace is bright and sweet And home doesn't constrain me, . . .)

Rather, the speaker struggles with the polarization that her society creates in her between two of her roles: the poet ("at a book, at work") and the woman:

[. . .] roHHTe.H HeBHHHon cyera! . . HeyMo^HMBie, BH »eH^HHe-nosTy Be.HTe MHCTHM H B^oxHoBemeM »HTB, ^HByro mo.o^octb nHmt necHaM nocBaTHTt, Ot Bcex 6.HcTaTe.tHHX HrpymeK oTKa3aTtca,

Bce HaM Bpo»fleHHoe HaflMeHHo Hcrpe6HTt [ ]

BaM, cyfltH cTporHe, BaM HeflocryneH oh, Pe6aqecKHH BocTopr Ha npa3flHHKax Bece.Hx!

(Implacable persecutors of innocent vanity

You command the woman-poet

To live by thought and inspiration.

To dedicate her lively youth only to songs [i.e., poetry]

To renounce all glittering toys

To extirpate everything innate in us [ ]

To you, harsh judges, to you

Childish ecstasy at happy celebrations is inaccessible!)

The speaker feels she must choose between the male image of the poet, which she perceives as dry, harsh, joyless, and disembodied, and her own "feminine" desire to enjoy herself. Yet although the speaker's last words are a demand for pleasure, affirming that she is a "woman," not a "poet" ("I love a party, give me parties!"), she has chosen to express herself in a poem. None of the critics have commented on, or perhaps even noticed, this deliberate irony.

This is not to suggest that Rostopchina never took the poetess stance, never promoted or even exploited the idea of the "essential feminine" in her poetry, but rather to suggest that her work deserves a different kind of reading. Like "Iskushenie," other poems by Rostopchina—lines of which are often quoted out of context—might better be understood as her struggle to deal with the tensions inherent in her "society's concepts of being a writer and a woman" (Feldman, introduction to British Women Poets of the Romantic Era, xxviii).

In "Chernovaia kniga Pushkina," for example, Rostopchina describes her feelings when Vasilii Zhukovsky, Pushkin's longtime mentor and friend, presented her with a notebook he found among Pushkin's effects after Pushkin's death. Zhukovsky had written a few poems in the blank notebook before sending it to Rostopchina with a letter requesting that she fill it with her poetry. In the 1856-57 edition of her works Rostopchina included the letter before her poem that concludes:

H MHe, h MHe ceH flap! MHe, cna6oH, HeflocTonHon, Moh cepfl^ flyxoBHHK npHmen ero Bpy^HTt, MHe necHtro po6Koro, HeonHTHon, HecTponHon Cthx qyflHHK nymKHHa Benen oh 3aMeHHTt! . . Ho He HcnonHHTt MHe TaKoro Ha3HaqeHta, Ho He flocTHrHyTt MHe senaHHon BHmHHti! He Bce hctohhhkh »HBoro necHonerna, He Bce npeflMeTH MHe flocTynHH h flami: 3 »eH^HHa! . . bo MHe h MHcnt h BfloxHoBeHte CMHpeHHoH cKpoMHocTtro 6HTB cKoBaHH flonSHH.

My heart's confessor arrived to entrust it to me, weak and unworthy.

He commanded me with my shy, inexperienced, ungraceful song

To replace the marvelous verse of Pushkin!

But it is not for me to fulfill such an assignment,

It is not for me to attain the desired heights!

Not all the sources of living poetry

Not all subjects are accessible and given to me:

I am a woman! ... in me both thought and inspiration

Must be constrained by humble modesty.)

While critics often cite the last two lines of this poem as an example of Rostopchina's "femininity," one notes the tension between their apparent humility and the repetition of "mne" (to me) eight times in the last ten lines of the poem.57 And perhaps Rostopchina in these last two lines does not so much humbly prescribe and glorify her lesser role as a woman poet as simply note the limitations to which she is subject. One thinks of similar lines by the American poet Frances Sargent Osgood (1811-50), born the same year as Rostopchina:

Ah! Woman still

Must veil the shrine,

Where feeling feeds the fire divine,

Nor sing at will,

Untaught by art

The music prison'd in her heart!58

"Art" here, one suspects, means artifice. Other poems by Rostopchina yield richer, denser, and more complex meanings in the light of the "interpretative strategies consonant with the concerns, experiences and formal devices of women writers" discussed in the introduction (Schwe-ickart, "Reading Ourselves," 29). For example, as suggested in the comments on "Iskushenie," one profitably might look for irony in Ros-topchina's work.59 Or one might apply to "Kak dolzhny pisat' zhen-shchiny"(How women should write, 1840), "Na lavrovyi venets" (On a laurel wreath," 1846), and Dnevnik devushki (A girl's diary, 1845, 6: iii) Alicia Ostriker's concept of "the duplicitous," in which contrary meanings coexist with equal force; in these works Rostopchina both denies and asserts the autonomy of the woman writer. These poems might also be read in relation to Cheryl Walker's discussion of women writers' "ambivalence" toward power, ambition, and creativity. Similarly, one might reexamine the often-republished "feminine" poems about balls mentioned earlier in the light of Sandra Gilbert's concept of "female female impersonation" or "womanly masquerade," in which the poet looks at herself being looked at.

Such interpretative strategies would help us better appreciate Ros-topchina's novel in verse, Dnevnik devushki, a very original work both in form (metrics) and content. In the nineteenth century Dobroliubov sarcastically remarked on its abundance of epigraphs, but the work received no other notice. In the twentieth century it has been characterized only as "unsuccessful," and "drawn out."60 Except for brief excerpts, it has not been republished since 1866.

Rostopchina's extensive use of epigraphs in this work should be considered in relation to Catriona Kelly's remarks on the "difference, indeed 'otherness,' of intertextuality in poetry by women." Kelly writes that in contrast to men writers, who observe "a respectful cult of cultural artifacts," women writers are "anticanonical"; their subtexts are not "carefully integrated," but rather "assembled by accretion, bricolage" ("Reluctant Sibyls," 132). In Dnevnik devushki Rostopchina assembles an alternative European literary tradition. Citations from now-forgotten gynocentric works by women writers (for example, Delphine Gay's "Napoline" [1833], Mme. de Krudener's Valerie [1803], Lady Morgan's Woman, or, Ida of Athens [1809], Mme. Roland's Memoirs [1795]) and from appropriated works by men (Byron, Zhukovsky, Goethe, Pushkin, and others) create a background against which a woman's story may be told. It is a work that deserves further study, both in relation to Elizabeth Barrett Browning's contemporaneous but "canonically" intertextual novel in verse, Aurora Leigh (1856), and also in relation to Evgenii Onegin.

All this is not to argue that Rostopchina's poetry belongs in the canon of Russian literature, but, rather, to point out that much of what has passed for the "reception" of her work more accurately may be characterized as sexual harassment.61 Rostopchina's poetry deserves a fresh consideration on its own terms, and this includes reading it with the same respect for Rostopchina's "concerns, experiences, and formal devices" that scholars automatically accord her male contemporaries.

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