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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1489

The Lay of Igor’s Campaign, a heroic romance, is the earliest great work of Russian literature. Moreover, it is the only surviving heroic poem of the Russian Middle Ages, and it is one of the few pieces of literature known to have appeared in Russia before the nineteenth century. The poem, of which the author is unknown, is admired by most educated Russians both for its place in the Russian tradition and for its literary excellence. Although it is relatively unknown outside Russia, it has been widely translated.

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The subject matter of The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is typically medieval: the expedition, defeat, capture, and escape of a knightly warrior—Prince Igor of Novgorod-Seversk (not to be confused with Novgorod the great, a much more famous and important city of old Kievian Russia). Igor’s antagonists were the Kumans, a race of pagan nomads who inhabited the southern steppes around the Don River. Three other princes and their troops accompanied Igor’s contingent: Igor’s brother, Prince Vsevolod; Igor’s son, Prince Vladimir; and Igor’s nephew, Prince Svatoslav. However, while it is an early work, and while it did not appear in a culture notable for its literary and artistic achievements, and while it is a heroic tale of warriors and battle, the poem is far from being a primitive and unsophisticated work. Like the other medieval national epics to which it is sometimes compared, The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is the product of a very skillful artist whose insight and poetic skills are of the highest order. In fact, the art of this Russian poem strikes one as being in some respects subtler than that of the nation’s romantic epics; it has been said with some justice that the sophisticated, symbolic technique of the lay has a striking kinship with modern poetic techniques.

The history of the poem is somewhat obscure. It was probably written about 1187, but memory of it was soon lost, and it remained unknown until 1795, when Count Alexei Ivanovich Musin-Pushkin, a distinguished literary amateur, discovered a manuscript copy of the poem. He purchased what was probably a sixteenth century codex from a former official of a recently dissolved monastery. The Lay of Igor’s Campaign was one of several manuscript items included in the codex, which had been in the monastery library. The text was published in 1800, but little was known at that time about interpreting and editing early Russian texts, and the edition was marred by errors and misinterpretations. Moreover, the sixteenth century scribe who had copied the text into the codex was himself unfamiliar with the twelfth century Russian language, and thus the manuscript itself was far from accurate. Before a second edition of the poem could be prepared for the printer, the manuscript was damaged by fire when Napoleon burned Moscow in 1812. Modern scholars have succeeded in repairing much of the damage of time, but nevertheless certain brief passages in the poem remain obscure. It should be noted also that for a time some scholars assumed that the story of the discovery of the poem in 1795 was a hoax and that the poem was a modern forgery. However, a portion of the poem has been found quoted verbatim in a manuscript made in 1307, and thus it has been certified that the poem is genuine.

The unknown author of the lay composed his masterpiece late in the twelfth century, about one or two years after the events of which he writes had occurred. This date can be determined by certain matters that are mentioned in the text. It is known that the characters and the events of the narrative are historical, for the story can be checked in surviving medieval chronicles. So far as can be determined from the poem, the author was a layman, very likely a soldier, who was the companion of some prince of Kievian Russia, perhaps of Igor himself. The poet was a city dweller but was familiar with the life of the steppes. He was also familiar with the literature and oral traditions, such as they were, of his times. One can tell from references in the text that a tradition of heroic oral poetry existed in the generations before the author of The Lay of Igor’s Campaign wrote. The author refers to and quotes one of those older poets, Bayan the Bard.

The poem was not written by a professional singer; that is, although the author did not hesitate to use the techniques of oral poetry to achieve many of his poetic effects, the lay is a purely literary work, and it is written to be read. The spirit of the poem, it should be noted, is secular, heroic, and, crucially, patriotic. Russia as much as Igor is the hero of the piece. While the poem is nominally a Christian work, Christianity is only an incidental element in it. The older pagan nature worship of pre-Christian Russia has a much more integral place in the imagery and the tone of the poem than does Christianity.

Although often called a heroic poem, The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is not a heroic tale per se. It is really quite difficult to classify, for while a heroic narrative is the foundation of the piece, much of it is a lyric lament for the feudal discord that characterized the poet’s age; moreover, much of the time the author’s objective seems to admonish the princes responsible for the feuds and troubles of Kievian Russia, and to that extent the lay is an inspired piece of political oratory. One must conclude that the work is a blend of the narrative, the lyric, and the hortatory. Further, it is not a poem in the strict sense but a prose poem. Although it may be sung, The Lay of Igor’s Campaign is not composed in verse. The rhythm of the language is not that of verse, and the work is not composed in lines but in the rhythmical prose typical of the old Russian liturgy. Nevertheless, the work is emphatically poetic in its complex and vivid use of imagery, metaphor, and simile, and the total effect of the work can only be described as powerfully poetic.

Structurally, the poem falls into eight sections. The first is the poet’s prologue, in which the author comments on the literary usage of the past and the departures he will make to achieve his own literary ends. The second deals with the determination of Igor and his brother to make their expedition. The third describes the advance across the steppes and Igor’s initial success. The fourth is about the defeat and capture of the Russian forces. At this point the scope of the poem expands dramatically. The poet begins to dramatize the meaning of Igor’s defeat to the Russian people. In the fifth section, the poet begins a lyrical-oratorical digression, first in his own voice and then in the voice of the Great Prince of Kiev. The prince, not yet aware of the disaster of Igor, has had a prophetic and symbolic dream of ill omen. Next, in the sixth section, the poet apostrophizes to nine other princes, asking them to end their quarrels and to join together to save Igor and Russia. This section is followed, in section seven, by a lyric lament by Igor’s wife on the walls of her city. The poem ends (section eight) with a brief account of Igor’s escape from the Kumans and a closing apostrophe by the poet.

This structure is supported by a pattern of metaphor, symbol, and imagery based primarily on nature: the sun, light and darkness, the land, the rivers, plants, winds, and the ancient nature gods. The men of the poem, their actions, their emotions, and the political, military, and social forces in the world of the poem, are all perceived and expressed in terms of this nature imagery and symbolism. In the end, the picture that The Lay of Igor’s Campaign presents is one of a totally integrated world in which there is no distinct line of separation between the world of people and the world of nature. For example, the expedition begins amid ominous eclipses of the sun, and the light-darkness idea is complicated throughout the narrative until, at the end, Igor escapes his captors under cover of darkness. Also, at the sight of Igor’s defeat, the trees bow down in grief. Throughout the poem the foreboding and anxious voices of nature can be heard moving in the wind and the rivers, and as Igor escapes, he holds a thankful dialogue with the pro-Russian river Donets while he sneeringly mocks the anti-Russian river Stugna. For all the lay’s complexity of parts, when it is seen as a whole, it has, as do all great works of art, an overall simplicity and power that no serious reader can miss.

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