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Chaucer, Chernyshevsky and the Crystal Palace

Or, Russian perspectives on the Great Exhibition (4).

The late arrival of much of the Russian exhibit probably explains why we have to wait until the August issue of Sovremennik to read any details about what one assumes would have been of some significance to many Russian readers. The majority of the report is taken, if not word-for-word, then in broad detail, from The Morning Post, 16 June 1851, p. 6. This newspaper is one of the sources for some of the other reports as well, but one has to say that the description here is much less lively than the others we have already seen, and it has an air of duty rather than genuine interest or entertainment about it.

Much more notable is the reference to the ‘English poet’ in the opening paragraph. The writer in question is Chaucer – one imagines his name is omitted version because he was so little known in Russia – and the source of this part of the report is the 10 May, 1851 issue of Notes and Queries, which suggests that the dream of a temple made of glass in Chaucer’s 1380 poem The House of Fame was a prophecy of the Great Exhibition. The Notes and Queries version goes like this:

… But, as I slept, me mette I was
Within a temple ymade of glas,
In which there were mo images
Of gold, standing in sundry stages,
Sette in mo rich tabernacles,
And with perrie mo pinnacles,
And mo curious portraitures,
And queint manner of figures
Of gold worke, than I saw ever.
But all the men that been on live
Ne han the conning to descrive
The beaute of that ilke place,
Ne couden casten no compace
Soch another for to make,
That might of beauty be his make;
Ne so wonderly ywrought,
That it astonieth yet my thought,
And maketh all my witte to swinke
On this castel for to thinke,
So that the wondir great beautie
Caste, crafte, and curiositie,
Ne can I not to you devise,
My witte ne may not me suffise;
But nathelesse all the substaunce
I have yet in my remembraunce …

The poem is semi-translated (compare it to the texts on eChaucer and Wikisource – the quotation begins at l. 119), but it seems unlikely that our not-so-intrepid Sovremennik reporter went as far as digging out the original, so it was evidently this bastardized version that acted the source for the (rather loose) translation in his article.

Aside from contemporary accounts, I’ve read a good deal of later writing on the Crystal Palace – both literary evocations and critical/historical studies – and do not recall coming across any reference to either the Notes and Queries article or the Chaucer poem, so this is a significant discovery. I’m not making any claims, of course, for Chaucer’s prophetic status, but would suggest that the vision in the poem – and the fact that it was compared to the exhibition so soon after the opening – may modify our idea of what the Crystal Palace means. Its great resonance as an iconic structure and an idea is apparent in the amount of literature it has generated and, I can testify, in its hold on the imagination in the area where it was reconstructed, still going strong 75 years after it burned down. It’s generally assumed that its status as a symbol of modernity was fundamental to this, and I’m not denying the importance of that. But the Chaucer poem also suggests that the building appealed to something deeper – the mystical palace of wonders as the ideal of human life. What is significant here is that the dream is of a human construction, not a natural environment. A similar conception is apparent – including an echo of the role of glass and light – in Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, where the ‘decreed’ building betters nature: ‘A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!’ This suggests that the brilliance of Paxton’s design and the achievement of the modern age was that it actualized this long-held dream.

And it’s the dream form – the workings of the unconscious – that is particularly significant when we bring Chernyshevsky into the equation, as the famous utopian image of the Crystal Palace occurs in ‘Vera Pavlovna’s Fourth Dream’ (part 4, chapter XVI of Chto delat?; bowdlerized English translation here, with the relevant chapter, differently numbered because of the cuts, beginning on p. 367). Dreams are quite significant in the novel – as the chapter title suggests, Vera has others – but to my knowledge no-one has adequately explained the manifest inconsistency of Chernyshevsky, who denied the existence of anything beyond the physiological, introducing the irrational and the unconscious specifically to depict his conception of the materialist, rationally organized future (the criticism voiced by Dostoevsky’s underground man is precisely that the irrational has no place in this world).

One could suggest that Chernyshevsky’s appeal to this dream was a coincidence, but it is far from outlandish to suppose that he actually read the article in Sovremennik touching on the idea. His career as a writer had not quite begun, and he was not yet working for the journal – following his graduation from St Petersburg university he was employed as a teacher in Saratov – but his radical beliefs were already in place, and it is inconceivable (and not in the News International sense) that he did not keep up with developments through regular reading of the most significant radical organ of the era. It’s clear from his later writings, such as the 1854 piece from Otechestvennye zapiski I discussed in a previous post, that by this stage he saw the Crystal Palace as the epitome of progress and modernity; it is unlikely that his interest was not sparked three years previously by the Great Exhibition itself. Even if he missed the article at the time, it is quite possible he revisited reports when writing his later works on the subject and editing Sovremennik. The fact that the Chaucer poem is presented alongside the description of the Russian contribution to the exhibition makes it all the more probable that it would have attracted attention.

The inclusion of Chaucer’s other-worldly vision may have been the result of the Sovremennik writer trying to add a bit of colour to an otherwise dull but necessary piece – raw materials are hardly the stuff of feuilletonistic irony and wordplay, after all. But the juxtaposition of the earthly and the ethereal, combining the different dimensions of the Crystal Palace, also seems to suggest a brighter future beyond the material reality of Russian life. So it seems we may have this humble report to thank for sparking off one of the most significant debates of nineteenth-century Russian literature.

О лондонской выставке

Современник, 28 (1851). Современные заметки. Август, 29-30.

Знаменитый английский поэт, родившийся в 1328 и скончавшийся в 1400 году, некоторым образом предсказал открытие всемирной выставки в Кристальной Палате. В предисловие к поэме “The House of Fame” (Дом славы), написанной им в 1380 году, он говорит: “Я спал и во сне видел себя перенесенным в палату, выстроенную из стекла. В этой палате расставлены были в различных местах бесчисленные золотые изображения, богатые шатры, множество было полок, наполненных драгоценными вещами, множество чудных скульптурных произведений и огромное количество золотых вещей, каких я никогда еще не видывал. Потом я видел, что по обеим сторонам с низу до верху возвышались бесчисленные колонны, блиставшие светом. Вокруг меня толпились люди различных стран, всех сословий, какие существуют в подлунному мире, богатые, точно так же, как и бедные. Я никогда не видывал и вероятно никогда не увижу такого множества людей, которые входили в палату и толпились по всем по всем направлениям ее.”

Сообщим нашим читателям некоторые известия о русских произведениях, красующихся на всемирной выставке. Вот что напечатано об этом в “Morning-Post”:

“Из всех предметов, помещенных в русском отделении Кристальной Палаты, особенного внимания заслуживают произведения минерального царства, и преимущественно произведения, выставленные гг. Демидовым. Так, например, мы рассматривали в большим удовольствием отличные сорты железа, которые известны под названием “старого соболя”, и которым шефильдские фабриканты отдают особенное предпочтение. Это железо, впервые привезенное в Англию в начале прошлого столетия, очень много содействовало к упрочению славы шефильдских фабрик. Усилившееся с тех пор потребление железа внутри России и сношения англичан с Швецией уменьшили ввоз русского железа в Англию, нисколько, впрочем, не повредив славе, которой оно пользуется на наших фабриках.

“Русская медь отличается такой же добротой и чистотой, как и железо, и особенно пригодна к тонкой работе. Но для этого требуется особенное искусство в отделке, к которой не всегда удобно даже самая лучшая английская медь, употребляемая на свансийских заводах, между тем как в числе образцов, доставленных из России в Лондон, есть такие сорта необделанной меди, которые вполне соответствовали бы всем требованиям этой отрасли английской промышленности.

“Между образцами драгоценных металлов выставлены: два золотых самородка, из которых один весит 5 фунтов, 4 лота, и три платиновых самородка, между которыми один весит 21 фунт, 12 лотов.

“Но первое место между всеми русскими предметами, как по богатству, так и по красоте, бесспорно, принадлежит малахитовым изделиям. Громадность, чудная отделка и вкус, которыми они отличаются, составляют небывалое до сих пор явление в истории искусства. На одном из рудников гг. Демидовых несколько лет тому назад найдена была глыба, объемом и красотой превосходившая все прежние. Из нее приготовлены были превосходные колонны для Исакиевской церкви и те чудные вещи, которые красуются теперь на всемирной выставке. Эти произведения составляют важное событие в истории искусства, потому что до сих пор никогда еще не употреблялись такие дорогие материалы для украшения частных домов. Нельзя также не заметить, что отделка их требовала очень значительного капитала, и следовательно мы должны смотреть на эту присылку как на одобрение, которым Россия почтила исполинскую мысль о всемирной выставке. Истощение приисков а трудность сбыта таких дорогих предметов, вероятно, надолго остановит приготовление других малахитовых произведений, и потому образцы, выставленные теперь в Кристальной Палате, бесспорно, составляют одно из самых достопамятных и необыкновенных явлений в истории промышленности.

“Мы заметили также с удовольствием прекрасную медь с завода г. Пашкова в Оренбургской губернии, отличнейшее листовое железо с завода г-жи Пономаревой в Вятской губернии. Но особенного внимания заслуживают превосходные произведения с завода г-жи Яковлевой в Рязанской губернии; они доказывают, что Россия начинает с успехом употреблять в дело собственно для себя то превосходное железо, которое прежде обрабатывалось только на английских фабриках.

“Русское правительство доставило также из своих рудников несколько произведений, добытых большей частью русскими горными офицерами в казенных рудниках. Преимущество, бесспорно, принадлежит железу и чугуну с заводов Олонецких, Златоустовских, Каменского и Камско-воткинского; по ним уже можно судить о совершенстве, до которого достигли русские заводы и фабрики. Не менее заслуживают внимания отличные образчики меди с плавильных заводов Пермских и Богословских, — дамаскированная сталь, приготовление которой введено в Уральских и Алтайских горных заводах, и наконец косы, присланный с Артинского завода.

On the London exhibition
The Contemporary, 28 (1851). Contemporary Notes. August, pp. 29-30.

A famous English poet who was born in 1328 and died in 1400, in a sense predicted the opening of the world exhibition in the Crystal Palace. In the preface to his poem “The House of Fame,” written in 1380, he says, “I was asleep and in my dream saw myself transported into a chamber made of glass. In this chamber there were placed in various places countless gold images, rich pavilions, many shelves filled with precious things, many wonderful sculptures and a huge number of gold objects that I had never seen before. Then I saw that on both sides from top to bottom rose the countless columns, sparkling with light. Around me crowded people from different countries, of all classes that exist in the sublunary world, the rich as well as the poor. I’ve never seen before and will probably never see again that number of people who entered the chamber and crowded in every direction”.

We will acquaint our readers with some news about the Russian works presented at the World Exhibition. That is what was printed on the subject in the “Morning Post”:

“Of all the items found in the Russian department of the Crystal Palace, special attention should be paid to products from the mineral kingdom, and especially the works by Messrs. Demidov. For example, we have scrutinized with great pleasure the different varieties of iron known by the name of “Old Sable,” to which the Sheffield manufacturers give special preference. This iron, first brought to England at the beginning of last century, has contributed a great deal to the consolidation of the Sheffield factories’ fame. The increase since that time in demand for iron in Russia and relations between the British and Sweden have reduced the importation of Russian iron to England, but without, however, damaging the fame it enjoys in our factories.

“Russian copper is notable for the same goodness and purity as the iron, and is particularly suitable for fine work. But this requires special artistry in the workmanship, for which even the best English copper used in the Swansea factories is not suited, whereas among the samples brought from Russia to London, there are varieties of raw copper that fully correspond to the requirements of this sector of British industry.

“Among the samples precious metals exhibited there are two gold nuggets, one of which weighs 5 pounds 4 ounces, and three platinum nuggets, among which one weighs 21 pounds 12 ounces.

“But the first place among all the Russian objects, in both their richness and beauty, belongs without a doubt to the malachite products. In their huge size, and their wonderful taste and workmanship, they stand out, and are an unheard-of phenomenon in the history of art. At one of the Demidovs’ mines a few years ago a block was found, the volume and beauty of which surpassed all other. It was made into the superlative columns in St. Isaac’s Church and the wonderful items that now adorn the world exhibition. These works constitute an important event in the history of art because before now such expensive materials have never been used to decorate private homes. Nor can one ignore the fact that working on them they require very significant capital, and consequently we should look upon it being sent as a token of approval by which Russia recognized the scale of the idea of the world exhibition.​​ Depletion of the mines and the difficulty of selling such expensive items is likely to permanently stop work on other malachite products, and therefore the samples now being exhibited in the Crystal Palace undoubtedly constitute one of the most memorable and unusual phenomena in the history of industry.

“We also noticed with pleasure the excellent copper from Pashkov’s factory in Orenburg province, and the most splendid sheet metal from Mrs Ponomareva’s factory in the Vyatka province. But especially noteworthy are the excellent products from Mrs Yakovleva’s factory in Ryazan province; they prove that Russia is beginning to successfully make properly for itself the excellent iron the was previously processed only in British factories.

“The Russian government also supplied from its mines several products extracted in large part by officers from the Russian mountain corps in state mines. The advantage undoubtedly belongs to the iron and pig iron from the Olonets, Zlatoust, Kamensky and Kama-Votkinsk plants; through them it is already possible to judge the perfection that Russian plants and factories have reached. No less noteworthy are the excellent examples from the Perm and Bogoslov copper smelting plants – damask steel, production of which was introduced in the Ural and Altai mountain plants, and finally scythes sent from the Artinsk plant.

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This translation by Sarah J. Young is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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