“The Waterfall”: Derzhavin’s Ode on Potemkin’s Death
Derzhavin’s ode on Potemkin’s death is not, as might be expected for eighteenth-century Russian literature, a conventional piece of occasional poetry, and it certainly is not a form of hero worship. It is rather a poetic evaluation of Potemkin as a Russian statesman. Potemkin’s achievements are not neglected, but the dominant attitude is one of critical distance. Derzhavin proceeds by comparing Potemkin with Rumiantsev, another Russian statesman. The portrait of Rumiantsev fills the first half of the poem, whereas Potemkin makes his appearance only in its second half. By describing Rumiantsev as an embodiment of political and military virtue Derzhavin establishes a normative backdrop, against which Potemkin is to be judged. The implied conclusion is predominantly negative, based on the principles of Enlightenment morals: the splendor of Potemkin as “the magnificent prince of Tauris,” which accounts for his similarity to Derzhavin’s equally splendid waterfall, disguises a lack of truly “useful” and humane achievement.