Sumorokof, Alexander

, denominated the founder of the Russian theatre, was the son of Peter Sumorokof, a Russian nobleman, and was born at Moscow November 14, 1727. He received the first rudiments of learning in his father’s house, where, besides a grammatical knowledge of his native tongue, he was well grounded in the Latin language. Being removed to the seminary of the cadets at St. Petersburg!*, he prosecuted his studies with unwearied application, and gave early proofs of his genius for poetry. Even on holidays he would retire from his companions, who were engaged in play, and devote his whole time to the perusal of the Latin and French writers: nor was it long before he himself attempted to compose. The first efforts of his genius were love-songs, whose tenderness and beauties, till then unexpressed in the Russian tongue, were greatly admired, and considered as certain prognostics of | his future fame. Upon quitting the seminary, he was appointed adjutant, first to count Golovkin, and afterwards to count Rosomouski: and being soon noticed and patronized by count Ivan Shuvalof, he was introduced by that Maecenas to the empress Elizabeth, who took him under her protection. About the twenty-ninth year of his age, an enthusiastic fondness he had contracted for the works of Racine, turned his genius to the drama; and he wrote the tragedy of “Koref,” which laid the foundation of the Russian theatre. This piece was first acted by some of his former schoolmates, the cadets, who had previously exercised their talents in declamations, and in acting a French play. The empress Elizabeth, informed of this phenomenon in the theatrical world, ordered the tragedy to be exhibited in her presence, upon a small theatre of the court, where German, Italian, and French plays had been performed. The applause and distinction which the author received on this occasion, encouraged him to follow the bent of his genius, and he produced other tragedies, several comedies, and two operas. With respect to his tragedies, Racine was his model; and the Russian biographer of Sumorokof, who seems a competent judge of his merit, allows, that though in some instances he has attained all the excellence of the French poet, yet he has failed in many others; but it would be uncandid to insist upon such defects in a writer who first introduced the drama among his countrymen. The French overlook in their Corneille still greater faults. “His comedies,” continues the same author, “contain much humour; but I do not imagine that our dramatic writers will adopt him for their model: for he frequently excites the laughter of the spectator at the expence of his cooler judgment. Nevertheless, they present sufficient passages to prove, that he would have attained a greater degree of perfection in this line, if he had paid more attention to paint our manners, and to follow the taste of the best foreign writers.

Besides dramatic writings, Sumorokof attempted every species of poetry, excepting the epic. He wrotelovesongs, idyllia, fables, satires, anacreontics, elegies, versions of the Psalms, and Pindaric odes. Superior to Lomonozof in the compositions of the drama, he yet was inferior to him in Pindaric writings. Though his odes, adds his biographer, are distinguished by their easy flow of versification, by their harmony, softness, and grace, yet they are | far from reaching that elevation and fire which characterize those of Lomonozof. These two great poets had each their peculiar talents: the one displayed in his style all the majesty, strength, and sublimity of the Russian tongue; and the other all its harmony, softness, and elegance. The elegies of Sumorokof are full of tenderness: his idyls give a true picture of the pastoral life in all the pleasing simplicity of unimproved nature, without descending to vulgarity; and may serve as models in this species of composition, in all things excepting in strict morality. His satires are the best in the Russian language, but are extremely unequal, and deserve to have been wrought with more plan and regularity. In writing his fables, his pen seems to have been guided by the Muses and Graces; and his biographer seems inclined, if not to prefer them, at least to compare them with those of Fontaine. Sumorokof was also author of a few short and detached historical pieces. 1. “A Chronicle of Moscow,” in which he relates the origin of that city; and abridges the reigns of its monarchs from Ivan Danilovitch to Keodor Alexievitch. 2. “A History of the first insurrection of the Strelitz in 1682, by which Ivan was appointed joint-sovereign with Peter the Great, and the princess Sophia regent.” 3. “An account of Stenko Razin’s rebellion.” His style in these pieces is said to be clear and perspicuous, but somewhat too flowery and poetical for prose. Sumorokof obtained by his merit the favour and protection of his sovereign. Elizabeth gave him the rank of brigadier; appointed him director of the Russian theatre, and settled upon him a pension of 400l. per annum. Catherine II. created him counsellor of state; conferred upon him the order of St. Anne; and honoured him with many instances of munificence and distinction until his death, which carried him off at Moscow, October 1, 1777, in the fifty-first year of his age.

With respect to his disposition, says his biographer, it was amiable; but his extreme sensibility, an excellent quality in a poet when tempered with philosophy, occasioned that singularity and vehemence of character, which gave so much trouble and uneasiness to all his acquaintance, but particularly to himself. He was polite and condescending towards those who treated him with respect, but haughty to those who behaved to him with pride. He knew no deceit; he was a true friend, and an open enemy and coul neither forget an obligation nor an injury. Passionate, | and frequently inconsiderate in his pursuits^ he could not bear the least opposition and oftentimes looked upon the most trifling circumstance as the greatest evil. His extraordinary fame, the many favours which the empress conferred upon him, with the indulgence and veneration of his friends, might have made him extremely fortunate, if he had understood the art of being so. He had conceived a great, perhaps too great, idea of the character and merits of a true poet; and could not endure to see with patience this noble and much-esteemed art, which had been consecrated by Homer, Virgil, and other great men, profaned by persons without judgment or abilities. These pretenders, he would say, shock the public with their nonsense in rhyme; and clothe their monstrous conceptions in the dress of the Muses. The public recoil from them with disgust and aversion; and, deceived by their appearance, treat with irreverence those children of heaven the true Muses. The examples of Lomonozof and Sumorokof have tended to diffuse a spirit of poetry, and a taste for polite learning, among the Russians; and they are succeeded bj a, numerous band of poets. 1


Coxe’s Travels in Russia.