Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin was arguably one of the greatest Russian poets before Alexander Pushkin, as well as a statesman. Although his works are traditionally considered literary classicism, his best verse is rich with antitheses and conflicting sounds in a way reminiscent of John Donne and other metaphysical poets.
Derzhavin was born in Kazan. His distant ancestor Morza Bagrim, who relocated from the Great Horde in the 15th century to Moscow, was baptized and became a vassal of the Russian Grand Prince Vasily II. Nevertheless, by the 18th century Derzhavin's father was just a poor country squire who died when Gavrila was still young. He received a little formal education at the gymnasium there but left for Petersburg as a private in the guards. There he rose from the ranks as a common soldier to the highest offices of state under Catherine the Great. He first impressed his commanders during Pugachev's Rebellion. Politically astute, his career advanced when he left the military service for civil service. He rose to the position of governor of Olonets (1784) and Tambov (1785), personal secretary to the Empress (1791), President of the College of Commerce (1794), and finally the Minister of Justice (1802). He was dismissed from his post in 1803 and spent much of the rest of his life in the country estate at Zvanka near Novgorod, writing idylls and anacreontic verse. At his Saint Petersburg house, he held monthly meetings of the conservative Lovers of the Russian Word society. He died in 1816 and was buried in the Khutyn Monastery near Zvanka, reburied by the Soviets in the Novgorod Kremlin, and then reinterred at Khutyn.
Derzhavin is best remembered for his odes, dedicated to the Empress and other courtiers. He paid little attention to the prevailing system of genres, and many a time would fill an ode with elegiac, humorous, or satiric contents. In his grand ode to the Empress, for instance, he mentions searching for fleas in his wife's hair and compares his own poetry with lemonade.
Unlike other Classicist poets, Derzhavin found delight in carefully chosen details, such as a colour of wallpaper in his bedroom or a poetic inventory of his daily meal. He believed that French was a language of harmony but that Russian was a language of conflict. Although he relished harmonious alliterations, sometimes he deliberately instrumented his verse with cacophonous effect.
Derzhavin's major odes were the impeccable "On the Death of Prince Meschersky" (1779); the playful "Ode to Felica" (1782); the lofty "God" (1785), which was translated into many European languages; "Waterfall" (1794), occasioned by the death of Prince Potemkin; and "Bullfinch" (1800), a poignant elegy on the death of his friend Suvorov. He also provided lyrics for the first Russian national anthem, Let the thunder of victory sound!
According to D.S. Mirsky, "Derzhavin's poetry is a universe of amazing richness; its only drawback was that the great poet was of no use either as a master or as an example. He did nothing to raise the level of literary taste or to improve the literary language, and as for his poetical flights, it was obviously impossible to follow him into those giddy spheres." Nevertheless, Nikolay Nekrasov professed to follow Derzhavin rather than Pushkin, and Derzhavin's line of broken rhythms was continued by Marina Tsvetaeva in the 20th century.
Gde stol byl yastv, tam grob stoit (English: Where used to be a table full of viands, a coffin now stands)
I'm a czar - I'm a slave - I'm a worm - I'm a God
…Heart of a lion, wings of an eagle Are no longer with us! – How can we fight?
Lines found at Derzhavin's table after his death
The current of Time's river
Will carry off all human deeds
And sink into oblivion
All peoples, kingdoms and their kings.
And if there's something that remains
Through sounds of horn and lyre,
It too will disappear into the maw of time
And not avoid the common pyre... [lines broken]