Vasily Trediakovsky Essay - Critical Essays

Trediakovsky, Vasily


Vasily Trediakovsky 1703-1769

(Full name Vasily Kirillovich Trediakovsky; also Trediakovskyi, Trediakovskii, Trediakovski, Tred'jakovsij) Russian linguist, critic, translator, poet, and essayist.

Trediakovsky was responsible for several important developments in Russian literature. He was among the first to propose that Russian poetry break from its reliance on French and German verse structures and follow its own system of versification. Although Trediakovsky's syllabo-tonic system—proposed in his treatise Novyi i kratkii sposob k slozheniiu rossiiskikh stikhov (1735; A New and Brief Method for Composing Russian Verse) and revised in Sposob k slozheniiu rossiiskikh stikhov (1752; Method for Composing Russian Verse)—was overshadowed by the views of his contemporaries, such as Mixailo Lomonosov and Alexander Sumarokov, it marked a significant change in the development of Russian poetry. As a result of the debates between Trediakovsky and his contemporaries, Russian poetry largely abandoned European forms of versification and embraced a tonic system better suited to the Russian language. Trediakovsky's other achievements include his Ezda v ostrov liubvi (1730), a translation of Paul Tallemant's allegorical novel Voyage de L'isle d'amour, which marked one of the first works of secular fiction in Russian. In addition, his Tilemakhida (1766), a verse translation of a novel by François Fénelon, was the first work to use the hexameter form in Russian.

Biographical Information

Although there is a lack of certainty regarding Trediakovsky's birth date, most scholars agree that he was likely born on March 5, 1703, in Astrakhan, Russia, the son of Kirilla Iakovlevich, an Orthodox clergyman. Although his father had originally intended him for a career in the clergy, Trediakovsky's European education prepared him well for the academic community. He began his education learning Greek, Latin, and Italian, as well as rhetoric, geography, and philosophy from Capuchin monks. In 1723 Trediakovsky went to Moscow to study at the Slavo-Greek-Latin Academy. He left behind his first wife, Fedosii'ia Fadeeva (the marriage had been arranged by his father). He spent two years at the Academy, studying poetics in Russian and Latin as well as rhetoric. In 1725 Trediakovsky traveled to Europe where he spent the next five years absorbing European culture and literature as well as further pursuing his education. He spent time at The Hague, Paris, and Hamburg. Some scholars believe that during this period Trediakovsky may have become aligned with the Jansenists, a Catholic reform movement, and possibly took part in their efforts to unify the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches. In 1728 Trediakovsky's wife, father, sister, and brother all died in a plague that struck Astrakhan.

Trediakovsky's education in such subjects as linguistics and philosophy, together with his composition of poetry, led him to begin forming his syllabo-tonic system of versification, and to consider other methods of modernizing Russian literature. When Trediakovsky returned to Russia in 1730, he began working as a translator at the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences. In the same year, he published Ezda v ostrov liubvi. He was soon promoted to secretary, and his growing responsibilities included writing odes and orations for ceremonies, supervising translations from French and German, and many other linguistics-related activities. Trediakovsky also began to move in court circles. The Duchess of Mecklenburg, the sister of the empress, became his patroness. He used his growing influence to attempt to transplant European cultural life to Russia, primarily via translations. In 1735 Trediakovsky established the Russian Assembly, a group of linguists whose goal was the use of Russian instead of traditional Church Slavonic in works of secular literature. Trediakovsky's efforts in this area reached an early pinnacle with his theoretical treatise A New and Brief Method for Composing Russian Verse, which received initial praise, but was soon eclipsed by the work of other Russian theoreticians. Trediakovsky continued to translate texts and compose his own works, but several fires in his home destroyed many of his writings. Although he tried to rewrite and re-translate his projects, the losses were devastating.

By the 1740s Trediakovsky was involved in heated literary debates over Russian versification with his chief rivals, Lomonosov and Sumarokov. Because of his theories, he began losing the respect of others in the Academy. An incident in 1740, in which cabinet minister Artemii Volynskii had Trediakovsky beaten because he refused to write a poem for a wedding of court jesters—part of an entertainment for the empress—provided further matter for ridicule. Trediakovsky was still respected enough to maintain his position as a professor, but by late the 1740s the debate with Lomonosov and Sumarokov had turned bitter. As a result of his ongoing problems with the Academy—which began to refuse to publish him—and the other theorists, Trediakovsky was dismissed from the Academy in 1759. He continued to work and completed his Tilemakhida; although destitute, he managed to self-publish the work. He died in poverty on August 17, 1769.

Major Works

Trediakovsky's most important works are related to his proposals on Russian syllabo-tonic versification, which were influenced by German and other European models. In A New and Brief Method he argued that the syllabo-tonic system was ideally suited for the Russian language, with its regularly alternating system of stressed and unstressed syllables. He proposed a number of rules which would organize word placement in this system, believing that verse should be based on word stress over length of syllables. There were a number of limitations to Trediakovsky's proposals, however. Only poems with long lines would fit the syllabo-tonic system, and its many rules limited the practical impact of the theories. Two decades later Trediakovsky revised his theories in Method for Composing Russian Verse. In this work, he refined his ideas, changing some of his proposals dramatically. Although these two treatises are Trediakovsky's most notable works, he engaged in other forms of literary activity as well. He composed Razgovor mezhdu chuzhestrannym chelovekom i rossiiskiiim ob ortografi starinnoi i novoi i o vsem chto prinadlezhit i sei materii (1748; Conversation Between a Foreigner and a Russian about Old and New Orthography), an important linguistic work that commented on the reform of Church Slavonic orthography. Trediakovsky believed previous reforms had not gone far enough. He later altered his position on the subject, favoring efforts to bring Russian and Slavonic into the same literary language. In 1755 Trediakovsky published the essay “O drevnem, srednem i novom stikhotvorenii rossiyskom” (“On the Ancient, Middle, and New Russian Versification”), which describes Russian literary development in three stages.

Another significant area of Trediakovsky's literary career involves his translations of both fiction and nonfiction texts. Ostensibly translations, Trediakovsky's versions often adapt the original work and include much original material. His translation of Tallemant's Voyage de L'Isle d'Amour entitled Ezda v ostrov liubvi contains original verse and an introduction discussing his theories of translation. In 1753 Trediakovsky translated the biblical Book of Psalms, employing some of the theories he outlined in Conversation Between a Foreigner and a Russian about Old and New Orthography. With Tilemakhida, his verse adaptation of Fénelon's novel Les Aventures de Télémaque, Trediakovsky intended to create a Russian epic by putting into practice his poetic theories and imitating Greek epics. To that end, Trediakovsky used novel compound-epithets, orotund sound-orchestration, and hexameter. Trediakovsky also wrote original verse, much of it conventional lyric poetry, including occasional pieces and love poetry. Many of Trediakovsky's early poems were influenced by his experiences in Europe, but he also wrote an early example of patriotic poetry in Russian entitled “Stikhi pokhval'nye Rossii” (1728; “Laudatory Verses to Russia”).

Critical Reception

When Trediakovsky initially published A New and Brief Method, critics were very receptive to his ideas, despite the many restrictions he proposed. Soon, however, the debate with his rivals Lomonosov and Sumarokov diminished Trediakovsky's reputation and his ideas were increasingly ridiculed. Many of Trediakovsky's translations, which were intended to demonstrate the practicability of his theories, were also critically censured. Tilemakhida, with its numerous innovations, was particularly denigrated. Modern critics have attempted to recuperate Trediakovsky's reputation, stressing his skills as a linguist and theoretician. In studies of the origins and development of Russian syllabo-tonic verse, his contributions have been increasingly acknowledged. Critics have also explored the sources of his ideas, emphasizing the importance of his European experience. Trediakovsky's work as a translator has elicited a much more mixed response from modern commentators, however. Some critics continue to find Tilemakhida idiosyncratic and awkward, while others praise its experiments in style and meter. While acknowledging its flaws, commentators maintain that Ezda v ostrov liubvi represents a significant step in the development of the novel in Russia. Simon Karlinsky has characterized it as “the first attempt to create modern Russian prose.” Despite the damage to his reputation caused by his debates with Lomonosov and Sumarokov, Trediakovsky's works remain important to a full understanding of the development of Russian verse. S. M. Bondi has called Trediakovsky “the most brilliant theoretician in the history of Russian poetry,” and Alexander Pushkin, one of Trediakovsky's few supporters in the nineteenth century, wrote: “In general, the study of Trediakovsky is more profitable than the study of all our other old writers.”

Principal Works

Ezda v ostrov liubvi [translator; from the allegorical novel Voyage de L'Isle d'Amour by Paul Tallemant] (novel) 1730

*Novyi i kratkii sposob k slozheniiu rossiiskikh stikhov [A New and Brief Method for Composing Russian Verse] (essay) 1735

Razgovor mezhdu chuzhestrannym chelovekom i rossiiskiiim ob ortografi starinnoi i novoi i o vsem chto prinadlezhit i sei materii [Conversation Between a Foreigner and a Russian about Old and New Orthography] (essay) 1748

Argenida, povest' geroicheskaia. 2 vols. [translator and adapter; from the novel Argenis by John Barclay] (poetry) 1751

Sochineniya i perevody kak stikhami tak i prozoyu (collected works) 1752

Psaltir' ili kniga psalmov blazhennogo proroka i tsaria Davida prelozhennykh liricheskimi stikahami i umnozhennykh liricheskimi pes'mi [Psalter, or The Book of Psalms of the Blessed Prophet and King David Paraphrased in Lyric Verse and Supplemented with Lyric Songs] (poetry) 1753

Feoptiia. 4 vols. [translator and adapter; from the treatise Démonstration de l'existence de Dieu by François Fénelon] (poetry) 1754

Tilemakhida ili Stranstvovanie Tilemakha syna Odysseeva opisannoe v sostave iroicheskoi piimy [Tilemakhida, or The Wandering of Telemachus, the Son of Odysseus Described in the Form of a Heroic Poem] [translator and adapter; from the novel Télémaque by Fénelon] (poetry) 1766

*This work was revised as Sposob k slozheniiu rossiiskikh stikhov (Method for Composing Russian Verse) in 1752.

†This work was not published until 1989.

‡This work was not published until 1963.


Simon Karlinsky (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Karlinsky, Simon. “Tallemant and the Beginning of the Novel in Russia.” Comparative Literature 15, No. 3 (Summer 1965): 226-33.

[In the essay below, Karlinsky analyzes Ezda v ostrov liubvi, discussing its flaws and infelicities of style as well as its importance to the development of the Russian novel.]

It is seldom possible to date the introduction of a genre in a given literature with such precision as the introduction of the novel in Russia. The first novel (and, indeed, the first secular work of fiction) that was ever published in Russian appeared in 1730. It was titled Ezda v ostrov ljubvi (The Voyage to the Isle of Love), and the...

(The entire section is 3495 words.)

John Bucsela (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Bucsela, John. “The Birth of Russian Syllabo-Tonic Versification.” The Slavic and East European Journal 9, No. 3 (Fall 1965): 281-94.

[In following essay, Bucsela describes Trediakovsky's syllabo-tonic system, comparing it to other poetic theories of the time. Although Bucsela emphasizes Trediakovsky's importance in the history of the Russian syllabo-tonic system, he also criticizes Trediakovsky's own verse output.]

In 1735 V. K. Trediakovskij wrote Novyj i kratkij sposob k složeniju rossijskix stixov (A New and Brief Method for Composing Russian Verses). With this treatise Russian versification formally embarked upon the syllabo-tonic...

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Rimvydas Silbajoris (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Silbajoris, Rimvydas. Introduction to Russian Versification: The Theories of Trediakovskij, Lomonosov, and Kantemir, pp. 1-35. New York: Columbia University Press, 1968.

[In excerpt below, Silbajoris explains the syllabo-tonic system and its history, focusing on Trediakovsky's role in the system's development and his related theories.]

In the second quarter of the eighteenth century, a system of versification was introduced in Russia which was based on regular alternations of stressed and unstressed syllables. That system is traditionally referred to by Russian scholars as the “syllabo-tonic” system.1 Its name is rather inadequate, however,...

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Michael Henry Heim (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: Heim, Michael Henry. “Two Approaches to Translation: Sumarokov vs. Trediakovskij.” In Mnemozina: Studia litteraria russica in honorem Vsevolod Setchkarev, edited by Joachim T. Baer and Norman W. Ingham, pp. 187-92. Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1974.

[In following essay, Heim compares translations of the same works by Trediakovsky and Alexander Sumarakov, discussing how these translations played a role in the rivalry between the two theorists.]

Though translation was one of Trediakovskij's major literary activities and no more than a sideline for Sumarokov, both men translated several texts in common. The results are noteworthy from two standpoints: first,...

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C. L. Drage (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: Drage, C. L. “The Introduction of Russian Syllabo-Tonic Prosody.” The Slavonic and East European Review 54, No. 4 (October 1976): 481-503.

[In following essay, Drage discusses the early history of Russian syllabo-tonic verse, including Trediakovsky's theories, and assesses Trediakovsky's indebtedness to his predecessors.]

Unlike the prosody of Russian folk poetry, which appears to have changed little since early times,1 the prosody of Russian cultivated poetry has undergone profound changes. This article is concerned chiefly with the replacement of the syllabic prosody of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries by syllabo-tonic...

(The entire section is 11055 words.)

Karen Rosenberg (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: Rosenberg, Karen. “Trediakovsky on Sumarokov: The Critical Issues.” Russian Literature Triquarterly 21 (1988): 49-60.

[In the essay that follows, Rosenberg analyzes the conflict between Trediakovsky and Alexander Sumarokov in the context of the literary and academic culture of eighteenth-century Russia.]

In the late 1740s and early 1750s, Vasily Trediakovsky and Alexander Sumarokov engaged in a series of discussions on matters of languages and literature. According to earlier scholars such as P. O. Morozov and N. N. Bulich, the principal source of the conflict was the pugnaciousness of both parties. This point of view implies that Trediakovsky and Sumarokov...

(The entire section is 5870 words.)

Ilya Serman (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Serman, Ilya. “The Eighteenth Century: Neoclassicism and the Enlightenment, 1730-90.” In The Cambridge History of Russian Literature, edited by Charles A. Moser, pp. 47-49, 53-57. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

[In following excerpt, Serman summarizes Trediakovsky's life, works, and importance in his time, placing particular emphasis on his novel translations and versification.]

In 1730, in both capitals, but especially in Moscow, where the Court and the Guards regiments were situated at the time—that is, a large part of the nobility which had by that point become Europeanized—the verse satires of Antiokh Kantemir which had first appeared...

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Irina Reyfman (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Reyfman, Irina. “Criticism, Parody, and Myth.” In Vasilii Trediakovsky: The Fool of the “New” Russian Literature, pp. 70-131. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1990.

[In excerpt below, Reyfman discusses the use of parody in the critical discourse between Trediakovsky, Lomonosov, and Sumerokov. She goes on to examine the role parody played in the creation of myths about these authors.]

Two forces produced a distorted picture of literary life in the middle of the eighteenth century: the mythogenic spirit that underlay the cultural self-conceptions of the epoch, and the passion with which the participants in the literary process asserted their...

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Victor Terras (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Terras, Victor. “The Eighteenth Century: Trediakovsky.” In A History of Russian Literature, pp. 124-26. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Terras offers a brief overview of Trediakovsky's life and works, focusing on his poetry.]

Vasily Kirillovich Trediakovsky (1703-69), the son of a village priest, left his home near Astrakhan at the age of twenty to attend the Moscow Slavonic-Latin Academy, where, in his words, he “went straight into rhetoric,” having learned some Latin from Catholic missionaries in Astrakhan. At the academy he was taught to write syllabic verse. In 1726 he made his way to Holland, whence he...

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Further Reading


Kahn, Andrew. “Vasilii Vasil'evich Trediakovskii, 1703-1769: Poet, translator, and literary theorist.” In Reference Guide to Russian Literature, edited by Neil Cornwell, pp. 824-25. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1998.

Overview of Trediakovsky's life, works and importance.


Bailey, James. “The Versification of the Russian Kant from the End of the Seventeenth to the Middle of the Eighteenth Century.” Russian Literature 13, No. 2 (February 15, 1983): 123-73.

Analyzes the evolution of the kant, and the roles of Trediakovsky and other Russian poets...

(The entire section is 201 words.)