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The Verse of the Chancery School


Until recently it was thought that the versification of the first half of the seventeenth century was a random collection of a few disconnected and immature attempts at writing verse. An analysis of manuscript material has shown, however, that by the late 1620s and early 1630s a poetic school had emerged in Russia that functioned actively over two decades right up to the reforms of Patriarch Nikon.26 It consisted of up to ten versifiers—the Secretaries Alexei Romanchukov and Pyotr Samsonov, the Under-Secretary Mikhail Zlobin, the redactors of the Moscow Printing House Savvaty, Stefan Gorchak, Mikhail Rogov and others. For the most part, they were government officials, not of noble descent, whose families had only recently, in the first or second generation, won themselves a place on the administrative ladder. Which is why this literary group is called the ChancerySchool.

At that time the most educated members of the Russian intelligentsia had posts in the Printing House and the Moscow chanceries, particularly the Ambassadorial Chancery, the central office dealing with foreign affairs. Literary work was the main profession of the redactors in the Printing House. The ability to wield the pen was also essential for the secretaries and under­secretaries of the chanceries. They had to receive foreign envoys and carry out various commissions abroad, so they were accus­tomed to have contact with European culture. One of the most distinguished and also typical members of the ChancerySchool was the Secretary Alexei Romanchukov, who was in charge of the Russian embassy to Persia from 1636 to 1638. The Russians travelled together with the Holstein trade mission, whose members included some famous writers, such as the great German Baroque poet Paul Fleming. Alexei Romanchukov was in constant contact with him (and, incidentally, managed to learn Latin during the journey). A reminder of this encounter is his own verse entry, an acrostic, in the album of the Holstein physician Hartmann Gramman (who later went into Russian service, becoming court physician to Tsar Michael):

He дивно во благополучии возгоржение,

единай добродетель — всего благого совершение.

Дом благой пускает до себя всякого человека

и исполняет благостыню до скончания века.

Вина всяким добродетелем — любовь,

не проливается от нее никогда кровь…27

’Tis по wonder that folk grow proud in prosperity,/but there is a single virtue—to pursue goodness./A good home is open to every man,/goodness dwells within it forever./The origin of all virtues is love./Love prevents the spilling of blood…

This verse is a kind of landmark in the history of Russo- European cultural contacts: in 1638 the lines of a Moscow poet appeared for the first time in the manuscript of a European.

The ChancerySchool poets had intensive personal and creative contacts. A popular expression with them was “spiritual alliance” (a variation on “amorous alliance”), a term which they applied to themselves as a body. What professional qualities should a poet who belonged to the “spiritual alliance” possess? Above all, “wit”.

In that period the word “wit” did not bear any relation to the ability to think up an apt expression. “Wit” was knowledge, intellect. But the Chancery poets gave the term a special meaning. From their point of view “wit” was the ability to use oratorial language. A favourite device of oratorial language is comparison. In their search for material for comparison the poets turned, for the most part, to the Russian tradition, the miscellanies of The Physiologos (Bestiary) and ABC, from which they borrowed information about animals, plants, stones and trees.

Есть в море хитрый зверь, он ныряет на большую глубину,

Так же ритор и философ мудро рассуждает о природе вещей…

Мы просим у тебя любви, как просят воды жаждущие онагры…

Камень хризолит по виду подобен золоту,

Этому камню и ты подобен своим разумом…

Камень карбункул зелен цветом,

А твоя, государь, царская душа прекрасна перед богом молитвами…

There lives in the sea a cunning beast, he dives to a great depth,/Likewise the rhetorician and philosopher discourse wisely on the nature of things…/We ask you for love, as thirsty onagers ask for water…/The chrysolite stone is like unto gold in appearance,/And you are like unto this stone in intellect…/The carbuncle stone is green in colour,/And your royal soul, Tsar, is fair with prayer before God…

The poet had to possess an associative mind. “Wit” is the ability to find new associative links. Association is the focal point of the language of the ChancerySchool. The search for new associations is something that it shares in common with the artistic style that prevailed in Europe in the seventeenth century, Baroque. The Moscow versifiers avoided outlandish associations, however, contenting themselves with traditional metaphors and symbols. The information about magnets, onagers (wild donkeys), chrysolite and carbuncle was taken from books long popular in Russia.

From the 1620s to 1640s versification was still a new occupation for Russian writers. It was regarded as a kind of literary game. It is no accident that among the genres used by the Chancery poets, the epistolary one prevailed. They wrote epistles mainly to one another, but also to Tsar Michael and those who were close to him, Ivan Romanov, brother of Patriarch Philaret, Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, and others. These epistles, as a rule, contained little information (usually centring around a request for patronage), but they were often fairly lengthy (a hundred lines or more). It is obvious that the Chancery poets were concerned not so much with the content, as with showing off their ability to write “two-lined harmonies”.

Like all budding poets, they showed exaggerated concern for the technique of versification, first and foremost, for the acrostic. Their epistles literally abound in acrostics. The first letters of each line form a phrase containing the name of the recipient and the name of the author. The author invariably points out in the text that he has made use of an acrostic and indicates where it ends. There was no need to conceal the name of the author and the recipient because the epistles were handed to real people.

Thus, the acrostics in the epistolography of the ChancerySchool are also element of the literary game, a sign of literary “elegance”. But the acrostic had another function as well. It distinguished the “two-lined harmony” of Moscow intellectuals from the “low-brow” rayeshnik (it should be noted that Chancery epistles and comic rayeshnik messages were included in the same collections). The division was further widened by the difference in rhyming technique. In the rayeshnik we find sound rhymes, including root and compounded rhymes. What predominates in the works of the Chancery poets are grammatical or suffixal-inflexional rhymes formed by the consonance of suffixes and inflexions, when verb rhymes with verb, adjective with adjective and noun with noun in the same grammatical form. This is not to say, of course, that the Chancery poets were technically imperfect.

By preferring grammatical rhymes and renouncing sound rhymes, they set themselves apart from the rayeshnik. It is interesting that this disdain of sound (particularly compounded and punning) rhyme was preserved in the “high-brow” genres of Russian poetry right up to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Chancery poets very soon turned from literary games to serious poetic pursuits. Savvaty wrote a cycle of didactic poems On Light, On the Flesh, and On the Womb, in which he developed the theme of the vanity and transience of human life, a traditional theme in Christian culture and a major one in European Baroque. He tried to get this cycle published at the Printing House, then the only printing house in Russia. Other verse texts were also prepared for printing: a condensed version of Hamartolos’ Chronicle and prefaces to several Moscow publications. But none of these texts were printed. They remained in manuscript form. Evidently the authors of the “two-lined harmonies” had not only protectors, but some influential enemies as well.

The Chancery School ceased to exist in the 1650s. When Patriarch Nikon began to introduce his ecclesiastical reforms, the leading poets of the ChancerySchool, Savvaty included, joined the supporters of the “old belief”. And that was the end of the Chancery School.