Vasily Trediakovsky Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.”