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The Imperial Sublime

A Russian Poetics of Empire

Harsha Ram

Publication Year: 2003

The Imperial Sublime examines the rise of the Russian empire as a literary theme simultaneous with the evolution of Russian poetry between the 1730s and 1840—the century during which poets defined the main questions facing Russian literature and society. Harsha Ram shows how imperial ideology became implicated in an unexpectedly wide range of issues, from formal problems of genre, style, and lyric voice to the vexed relationship between the poet and the ruling monarch.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-x

Writing about the sublime is frequently less sublime than living it, yet this book is also the outcome of a prolonged love affair with the Russian language and its poetry, an experience that has certainly afforded me many moments of rapture. Let me then begin by thanking all the teachers who have transmitted to me the passion they felt for the Russian...

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pp. 3-27

In 1721, with a twenty-year war against Sweden concluded in victory, Tsar Peter I of Russia proclaimed himself emperor. To the state chancellor Count Golovkin the new title ratified Peter’s feat of ushering his “loyal subjects from the darkness of ignorance onto the theatre of universal glory, from nonbeing . . . into the society...

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1. Sublime Beginnings

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pp. 28-62

Some forty years after Peter the Great assumed the title of emperor, Voltaire, whose enthusiasm for Peter’s legacy was an important confirmation by a key figure of the Enlightenment of Russia’s entry into the concert of European nations, would comment suggestively but inaccurately on this shift in terminology: “As for the title of czar, it comes from...

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2. The Ode and the Empress

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pp. 63-120

In the preceding chapter we saw that the imperial sublime came together in Lomonosov as the sum of many parts: the sublime of Longinus and Boileau, with its notions of lyric transport and Pindaric rapture, the vysokii shtil’, which allowed for the grafting of the European ode onto the domestic tradition of ecclesiastical writing and panegyric verse, the...

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3. Sublime Dissent

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pp. 121-159

Early in the nineteenth century, under the reign of Alexander I, the imperial sublime became progressively detached from its commitment to tsarist autocracy. Politically this was related to a general radicalization of expectations of what Russia could be and a concomitant crisis of faith in autocracy as an agent of progress. Socially it reflected...

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4. Pushkin, Lermontov, and the Elegiac Sublime

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pp. 160-211

A challenge to any scholar, Pushkin is doubly so for any consideration of the imperial sublime. Along with a number of works born of the poet’s two journeys to the south, Pushkin’s Kavkazskii plennik (Prisoner of the Caucasus), written in 1820–21 and published in 1822, is rightly credited with consolidating the Caucasian theme in Russian literature. No other poet, save Pushkin’s anointed successor, Lermontov, is so closely...

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pp. 212-234

The imperial sublime had a dynamic history that began with the ode and its “lofty style” but which did not end there.1 It was an evolving tradition, reexamined by each generation, retaining some of its initial features, shedding or transforming others, and adapting to an increasingly diverse literary and political environment. This last chapter, which deals...


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pp. 237-265


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pp. 267-289


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pp. 291-307

E-ISBN-13: 9780299181932
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299181901

Publication Year: 2003