Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev

Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev (Russian: Федор Иванович Тютчев) (November 23, 1803 - July 15, 1873) is generally considered the last of three great Romantic poets of Russia, following Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov.


Tyutchev was born into an old noble family in Ovstug near Bryansk. His childhood years were spent in Moscow, where he joined the classicist academy of Professor Merzlyakov at the age of 15. His first printed work was a translation of Horace's epistle to Maecenas. From that time on, his poetic language was distinguished from that of Pushkin and other contemporaries by its liberal use of majestic, solemn Slavonic archaisms.

His family teacher was Semyon Raich, one of the first Russian experts in German philosophy; it was him who imparted to Tyutchev a taste for metaphysical speculations. In 1819-1821, Tyutchev attended Moscow University, where he specialized in philology. In 1822 he joined the Foreign Office and accompanied his relative, Count Ostermann-Tolstoy, to Munich. He fell in love with the city and remained abroad for 22 years.

It was in Munich that Tyutchev met his first wife, a Bavarian countess, who maintained a fashionable salon frequented by the likes of Heine and Schelling. Upon her death, Tyutchev married Countess von Pfeffel, who had been his mistress for 6 years and had a child by him. Both of his wives didn't understand a single word in Russian. This is hardly surprising, given the fact that Tyutchev spoke French better than Russian, and all his private correspondence was Francophone.

In 1836, the "Jesuit" Prince Gagarin obtained from Tyutchev a permission to publish his selected poems in Sovremennik, a literary journal edited by Pushkin. Although appreciated by the great Russian poet, these superb lyrics failed to spark off any public interest. For the following 14 years, Tyutchev didn't publish a single line of poetry. He wrote several political articles, though, which were published in Revue des Deux Mondes. These articles brought him in touch with the diplomat Prince Gorchakov, who would remain Tyutchev's intimate friend for the rest of his life.

In 1837, Tyutchev was transferred from Munich to the Russian embassy in Turin. He found his new place of residence uncongenial to his disposition and retired from service to settle in Munich. Upon leaving Turin it was discovered that Tyutchev had not received permission to leave his post, and was officially dismissed from his diplomatic position as a result. He continued to live in Germany for five more years without position before returning to Russia. Upon his eventual return to St Petersburg in 1844, the poet was much lionized in the highest society. His daughter Kitty caused a sensation, and the novelist Leo Tolstoy wooed her, "almost prepared to marry her impassively, without love, but she received me with studied coldness", as he remarked in a diary. Kitty would later become influential at Pobedonostsev's circle at the Russian court.

As a poet, Tyutchev was little known during his lifetime. His 300 short poems are the only pieces he ever wrote in Russian, with every fifth of them being a translation. Tyutchev regarded his poems as bagatelles, not worthy of study, revision or publication. He generally didn't care to write them down and, if he did, he would often lose papers they were scribbled upon. Nikolay Nekrasov, when listing Russian poets in 1850, praised Tyutchev as one of the most talented among "minor poets". It was only in 1854 that his first collection of verse was printed, and that was prepared by Turgenev, without any help from the author.

In 1846 Tyutchev met Elena Denisyeva, over twenty years his junior, and began an illicit affair with her. Having born three children to the poet, she succumbed to tuberculosis, but a small body of lyrics dedicated to Denisyeva are rightfully considered among the finest love poems in the language. Written in the form of dramatic dialogues and deftly employing odd rhythms and rhymes, they are permeated with a sublime feeling of subdued despair. One of these poems, The Last Love, is often cited as Tyutchev's masterpiece.

In the early 1870s, the deaths of his brother, son, and daughter left Tyutchev partly paralysed. He died in Tsarskoe Selo in 1873 and was interred at Novodevichy Monastery in St Petersburg.


Tyutchev is one of the most memorized and quoted Russian poets. Occasional pieces and political poems constitute about a half of his sparse poetical output. Politically, he was a militant Slavophile, who never needed a particular reason to berate the Western powers, Vatican, Ottoman Empire, or Poland, perceived by him as Judas of pan-Slavic interests. The failure of the Crimean War made him look critically at the Russian government, too. This side of his oeuvre is almost forgotten, except the following stanza, often cited as a motto of Slavophilism: Russia is baffling to the mind / Not subject to the common measure / Her ways - of a peculiar kind / One only can have faith in Russia.

The rest of his poems, whether describing a scene of nature or passions of love, put a premium on metaphysics. Tyutchev's world is bipolar. He commonly operates with such categories as night and day, north and south, dream and reality, cosmos and chaos, still world of winter and spring teeming with life. Each of these images is imbued with specific meaning. Tyutchev's idea of night, for example, was defined by critics as "the poetic image often covering economically and simply the vast notions of time and space as they affect man in his struggle through life". [1] In the chaotic and fathomless world of "night", "winter", or "north" man feels himself tragically abandoned and lonely. Hence, a modernist sense of frightening anxiety that permeates his poetry. Unsurprisingly, it was not until 20th century that Tyutchev was rediscovered and hailed as a great poet by the Russian Symbolists such as Andrey Bely and Alexander Blok.

Sample of Tyutchev's verse

Silentium! is an archetypal poem by Tyutchev. Written in 1830, it is remarkable for its rhythm crafted so as to make reading in silence easier than aloud. Like so many of his poems, its images are anthropomorphic and pulsing with pantheism. As one Russian critic put it, "the temporal epochs of human life, its past and its present fluctuate and vacillate in equal measure: the unstoppable current of time erodes the outline of the present." ^

Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirit let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.
How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard...
take in their song and speak no word.
/trans. by Vladimir Nabokov/

Incidentally, this poem inspired two early-20th century composers, Georgi Catoire (the setting of the poem in the song Silentium) and Nikolai Medtner (the Night Wind piano sonata (#7) of 1911). While the title of Nikolai Myaskovsky's 1910 tone poem, "Silence", may have been borrowed from Tyutchev, the inspiration is credited to Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven", according to the original reference on Myaskovsky's life and works by Alexei Ikonnikov (Philosophical Library, 1946). The same poem was also set to music by the 20th century Russian composer, Boris Tchaikovsky (1925-1996), in his 1974 cantata "Signs of the Zodiac".