The slim volume of poetry with which Mikhail Matveevich Kheraskov’s oeuvre is represented in this [i.e., the 20th] century does not even begin to outline the influence this poet had on the development of Russian literature, nor does it give any idea of his actual importance for Russian cultural history. Cliché formulas about Kheraskov, mostly generated during the period following his death and generally hostile to his legacy, abound even among scholars of eighteenth-century literature. Much of this unjust posthumous assessment stems from the fact that Kheraskov simply is not read. If his complete works were ever published, they would fill the space on bookshelves occupied only by the most prolific of poets. His only published collected works (1796–1803) comprise twelve volumes but account for only about half of his writings. Besides being scarce, Kheraskov’s works are but a pale reflection of a man who left his imprint on practically every genre practiced during his long life and who helped shape the aesthetic norms of his age.
Kheraskov was one of the century’s most important men of letters [….] A most versatile writer of poetry, drama, and prose; founder of the first Russian literary salon, in which his wife, E. V. Kheraskova, the first Russian female poet to be published, actively participated; publisher of the first Russian weekly devoted to literature and publisher and participant in a number of other journals; one of the first to introduce sentimentalism to Russian literature; a novelist and the creator of the first historical epic poem in Russia, the Rossiada (The Rossiad, 1779); the overseer of Moscow University; an important Mason; and, finally, a colleague and patron to many Russian writers. The young Nikolai Karamzin declared Kheraskov to be Russia’s greatest poet, and his works were generally considered classics during his lifetime.
Misperceptions about Kheraskov’s role in literature have a variegated history with at least two phases. The first began in the midst of the Romantic movement, which in Russia was even more violently opposed to classicist literary norms than in Europe. The second phase began in the twentieth century and did not involve any hostility but was due rather to a conceptual fallacy by a pioneer in eighteenth-century literary studies, Grigorii A. Gukovsky, who took it upon himself to resurrect the stature of another important but nearly forgotten poet, Aleksandr Sumarokov. In doing so he tended to subordinate nearly every poet associated at some point of his life with Sumarokov to the status of his pupil, and Kheraskov was no exception.
I’ve liked Kheraskov ever since I read Sergei Aksakov‘s wonderful autobiographical novels, in which he reminisced about growing up reading Rossiada, which I duly dipped into and enjoyed, so I’m glad to see him defended so stoutly.