Rostopchina as Poetessa

But she never even thought of renouncing the feminine quality of her poetry, to try to become a Poet, and not a Poetess. (Afanas'ev, "'Da, zhenskaia dusha,'" 9)

Critics have also trivialized Rostopchina's work by invoking the poetessa archetype to describe it. In chapter 1 we discussed the contrast between the terms poet, which, as one scholar has remarked, in Russia "is honorific as much as descriptive," and "poetessa," which connotes both excess and lack.43 Except for a brief period in the 1830s and 1840s, critics have invariably referred to Rostopchina as a poetessa rather than a poet, and virtually all of them have characterized, and trivialized, her work as excessive and lacking.44 So, for example, Ivan Aksakov in a review of Rostopchina's first poetry collection, referred to her as poet but engaged in what could be described as "botanical" or "taxonomical" criticism. His review, rather than addressing the content of individual poems, tallies them by year and place of composition, supplying number counts for each.45 That is, he treats the poems as if they were an endless and excessive proliferation of insects or plants to be dealt with generically.

Sergei Ernst similarly lists the sources of Rostopchina's epigraphs and the subjects of what he calls her "souvenir" poems, without discussing their content ("Karolina Pavlova i gr. Evdokiia Rastopchina [sic]," 23, 29).

Other critics more directly disparage Rostopchina's work as excessive by stating that she wrote "too much": "It is impossible not to be amazed at the unusual fecundity of Countess Rostopchina" (Bykov, "Russkie zhenshchiny-pisatel'nitsy," 240). Several stated that her works were too "drawn out" (rastianutyi or zastianuty).46

Critics also described Rostopchina's work as lacking. Several attributed Rostopchina's success to the popularity of her poetry with women, by implication an undereducated and undiscriminating audience. Others criticized her work as too personal, specific, and lacking in universality. One wonders if perhaps women readers found Rostopchina's poetry more "universal" than did men because it described their experience. How "universal," one might ask, is Pushkin's poem "Net, ia ne dorozhu miatezhnym naslazhden'em" (No, I do not value stormy pleasure, 1831), in which a man speaker describes his enjoyment in having sex with a reluctant woman? Or Baratynsky's Bal, in which women are depicted as angels or devils?47

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