Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) “the Proteus of fire and blood”
Poet, dramatist, novelist, and short-story writer, Pushkin is to Russia as Shakespeare is to England and Goethe to Germany. He was born at Moscow, on the 26th of May 1799. His family, on the paternal side, was one of the most ancient and distinguished in the empire which entitled him to noble birth status. In 1811, Pushkin obtained admission into the Imperial Lyceum of Tsárskoë Seló, giving him an education equal to that provided by the French Lycee or Oxford. Students of the Lyceum were almost always youths of the most distinguished families among the Russian nobility, those that were selected were also the most promising based on perceived intellect. This institution was modeled on the plan of those lycées which conferred upon its pupils a preparatory encyclopedic of knowledge followed by the academic specialty curriculum of a university so that students were ready to begin their careers in any of the arms of government. The close and intimate friendships formed in the Lyceum, like those in American institutions (affectionately called “the old boys club”) remained close to Pushkin throughout his life. The six years at the Lyceum (1811-1817) was a clear match for his need for constant activity to feed his tendency toward abstraction, neither of which lent themselves to that of the high quality student except he was already receiving praise for his poetry. Most Russians were fascinated by all that was French in this respect Pushkin was no exception and throughout his school years he was referred to a “Frenchy”. He entertained his audiences with epistles, epigrams, descriptive, satirical all in the style typical of the period, the ancreontic eighteenth-century, with mostly four stress iambic lines. Here is his Reason and Love, written in 1814:
What do we need to know about events in Russia that spawned this great poet? Under Tsar Peter the Great (1672-1725) Russia established itself with a new capital at St. Petersburg dubbed “the window looking into Europe”. He also simplified the Russian alphabet, created the first Russian newspaper; appointed ambassadors to London and Paris, adopted a national language; and created a library which was one of the largest in the world. These were the circumstances under which Russian writers began imitating French and English classical literature especially Zhukovsky who in 1802 translated Gray’s Elegy and Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon to the delight of his student Pushkin.
Pushkin wrote “Peter was undoubtedly a revolutionary by God’s grace…the tremendous revolution achieved by his autocratic power abolished the old system of life, and European influences spread all over Russia. Russia entered Europe like a launched ship, accompanied by the noise of axes and firing guns…” There were three possibilities if this enlightenment was to be sustained in Russia: first, it could become a mirror of the European model, second go its own way on a different path, or third embrace a synthesis of the West and East. Russia chose the third; a European model with a Russian spirit; a model which flourished even after the defeat of Napoleon and until the revolution. Dostoevsky had much good to say of Pushkin “Emphatically I say that there has never been a poet like Pushkin, a poet with his universal sympathy, his extraordinary depth, and miraculous reincarnation of his spirit in the spirit of other nations…he is a phenomenon, a prophetic phenomenon, because in his poetry he expressed the national spirit of our future…”
Pushkin’s verse falls into three distinct styles (although believe there only two): the first was an Italian/French with the publication of Ruslan, the second or Southern romantic Byronic followed the “disillusioned hero” story line, and the last quashed the idealist in favor of the narratives and verse novels in distinctive Russian realism and objectivism. There was overlapping – the changes were not clearly defined. For example The Gypsies began as a Byronic tale but ran into difficulty when it became apparent that the reader had to decide whether the hero was a true romantic or simply a soppy, vapid sentimentalist. The elements of his first poems embrace the aristocrat of the 18th century with all of the required wit, gaiety, and amorous engagements. Then Pushkin tuned into real life in Russia and when the effects of the French Revolution swept across Europe and the Holy Alliance was set in place, At that point he put one foot into the bourgeois-liberal spirit of protest as Russia moved from “a feudal agricultural system to a bourgeois-capitalistic system.” “During the Napoleonic wars a great many Russian officers had lived abroad. They came back to Russia after the Congress of Vienna in 1815, teeming with new ideas and new ideals. They took life seriously, and were called by Pushkin the Puritans of the North. Their aim was culture and the public welfare. They were not revolutionaries; on the contrary, they were anxious to co-operate with the Government. They formed for their purpose a society, in imitation of the German Tugendbund, called The Society of Welfare: its aims were philanthropic, educational, and economic. It consisted chiefly of officers of the Guard, and its headquarters were at St. Petersburg. All this was known and approved of by the Emperor. But when the Government became reactionary, this peaceful progressive movement changed its character. The Society of Welfare was closed in 1821, and its place was taken by two new societies, which, instead of being political, were social and revolutionary. The success of the revolutionary movements in Spain and in Italy encouraged these societies to follow their example. After the death of Alexander I in 1825 they became the “Decembrists”. Their movement was attacked one hundred and twenty-five of the conspirators were condemned. Five were hanged. The effect of the movement on literature was far-reaching. Philosophy took the lead over politics, and liberalism became romanticism. Out of this romantic movement came the springtide of Russian poetry, in which, “for the first time, the soul of the Russian people found adequate expression.” In poetry Pushkin wrote:
When Pushkin began a series of poetic attacks to express their disappointment with “the Tsardom” – such writings did not escape notice by the aristocracy and when members of the so-called Decembrist movement began to disappear into jails Pushkin decided that politics and propaganda poetry would lead to death and destruction - as a budding poet there was place for neither in his life, not yet anyway. A recent biography writes that “Pushkin kept a close eye on book sales, royalties, and the impact of censorship on his popularity.” Kahn
Pushkin had clearly established his preference for “wine, women, and song” the “song” of course was his poetry. So when he was transferred to a civil service post in South Russia, by suggestion or by force, he wasted no time, to the Caucasus he went. Strangely enough this change perfectly suited him – peace and tranquility – time for reflection. Yet still within sights and sounds of Kishnev to feed his bohemian happy-go-lucky, tendency to gamble nature. It was here he left behind his charming renaissance verse and began his second “romantic southern cycle” or “Byronic Period”. Prisoner of the Caucasus and The Gypsies are in the style of Byron.
Pushkin was the first Russian to produce a work in every literary genre but also in the style of every Western poet of the time. We see in the romanticism of Byron’s Lines in an Album - Pushkin’s To a Flower; and the pathos of this verse of Heine.
in Pushkin’s The Angel:
And even his K moryu (To the Sea) with a salutation to Napoleon at St. Helena, and to Byron (“he was your bard O sea”) was taken from the playbook of Childe Harold - Farewell. He offers this farewell to Odessa and South Russia, an event which he viewed as “imposed restraint”, it signals the end his romantic period and the iambic meter, the most popular meter in lyric poetry.
The Miltonic The Prophet is viewed by most critics (Brewster et al) as his tour de force of short poems:
The epic poem The Fountain of Bakhchisarai was written in five-stress iambics. It is a description of a visit to a ruined palace haunted by a spirit:
Pushkin was the first Russian to produce examples of work in almost every major literary genre. His Little Tragedies were written in “speakers verse” a la Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure they might even be described as miniature “tabloid plays.” He used traditional human motives as a focus for his characters so in The Miser Knight the central theme is avarice a la Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice or Moliere’s L’Avare. For The Stone Guest the driving force is carnal lust. In Mozart and Salieri it is envy. This last one was based on the rumor that Mozart had been poisoned by Salieri – Pushkin gave a case for the difference between genius and talent. He founded The Contemporary a first Russian literary journal. Eugen Onegin published in 1833 is a verse novel in his own fourteen line stanza. His most famous historical tragedy is Boris Godonov written in blank verse. Pushkin wrote two outstanding ballads; the first The Black Shawl and The Outcast. The Black Shawl was written in unrhymed couplets: the story line reads like a Greek tragedy.
Our first characteristic is transient, versatile, mutable, eclectic.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“The Gipsies have something in common with Wordsworth’s Leechgatherer…He (Pushkin) had Don Juan and Tristram Shandy before him when writing Eugeny Onegin.” Bayley
“his works are very numerous, and as diverse in their form as in their spirit; he is sometimes a romantic, sometimes a legendary, sometimes an epic, sometimes a satiric, and sometimes a dramatic.”
In folk-tales most of his themes were taken either from the Brothers Grimm or Washington Irving. Le Coq D’or from Irving’s the legend of the Arab astrologer in The Alhambra. The Tale of the Dead Princess was a take-off on Grimm’s Snow White.
“Pushkin could think and speak as a pagan, a Christian, a medieval knight, a Renaissance man, a votary of Voltaire and a disciple of Rousseau”. Lavrin
“A once charming poet who has become a literary Prometheus able to breathe life into literary corpses who would otherwise remain corpses.” Shalikov
In Comparative Literature (1965) the article The Case re-opened discusses the similarity between Shenstone’s didactic poem Economy and Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight.
Here we have another study:
As in The Ancient Mariner:
Or from Hyperion:
“The notion of The Metamorphoses appealing in any case to Pushkin’s protean genius, could have been the catalyst which precipitated the novel form of The Gypsies…” Bayley
“…as he had Don Juan and Tristram Shandy before him when writing Evgeny Onegin.” Bayley
“Bulgarim attacked Pushkin as a ‘French versifier’ who copied Byron without understanding him.” Bayley
Our second characteristic is bon vivant, sybaritic, hedonistic, romantic.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“There is a striking difference between the almost touchingly inflammable womaniser that Pushkin was in real life and his self-control on the subject in his art…with self-indulgencer there can be no pornography.” On Eugene Onegin. J. Bayley
“His soul is a veritable Aeolian harp. No sooner does the wind begin to blow than his soul is filled with music.
“such lamental behavior clashes with the sublime gift he received from nature.” Nikitenko on his gambling
“He is in love with love rather than with women.” Lavrin
“In Pushkin,” says Soloviev, the philosopher, “according to his own testimony there were two different and separate beings: the inspired priest of Apollo, and the most frivolous of all the frivolous children of the world.”
The more serious Pushkin’s turn of thought grew, the more objective, purer, and stronger his work became, the less it was appreciated; for the public which delighted in the comparatively inferior work of his youth was not yet ready for his more mature work. What pleased the public were the dazzling colours, the sensuous and sometimes libidinous images of his early poems; the romantic atmosphere; especially anything that was artificial in them.”
Our third characteristic is simplistic, clarity, beauty.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“…the singer was stirred by this trustfulness of birdie, all the more beautiful because unconscious, and accordingly celebrates it in lines of well-night unapproachable tenderness, grace, and beauty” Panin
“He was a poet whose lyrics sang themselves.” Panin
“He is a poet of everyday life: a realistic poet, and above all things a lyrical poet. He is not a dramatist, and as an epic writer, though he can mould a bas-relief and produce a noble fragment, he cannot set crowds in motion. He revealed to the Russians the beauty of their landscape and the poetry of their people…” Baring
“And when his artistic ideals were misunderstood and depreciated, he retired into himself and wrote to please himself only; but in the inner court of the Temple of Beauty into which he retired he created imperishable things; for he loved nature, he loved art, he loved his country, and he expressed that love in matchless song.” Baring
Our fourth characteristic is detachment, spiritual pauper, one-eyed.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“Byron, who was sick at heart himself, could only impart disease not health…moreover he had besides his gift of song the element of moral indignation against corrupt surroundings. Pushkin had not every this redeeming feature.” Panin
“Boris Goudonov is not a drama, with a central idea struggling in the breast of the poet…but merely a series of well-painted pictures, and painted not for the soul but only for the eye.” Panin
“To Pushkin to his poetic ideal bore the same relation to his practical life that the Sunday religion of the business-man bears to his Monday life.
Hence Pushkin’s life is barren as a source of inspiration towards what life ought to be; but it is richly fruitful as a terrifying warning against what life ought not to be.” Panin
We close with this elegy:
And yet another short lyric:
Yes, it is true that Pushkin’s reputation rests in his poetry whereas the best in Russian literature lies in the field of the long novel. But think of this; when the “not yet famous” Russian musicians sought inspiration, they ignored Lermontov, Chekhov, Turkenev and for sure, Tolstoy and his repetitive, preoccupied, probing, sentence-structure. Today in any of the world’s music halls, schools, and conservatories, and at any moment you can hear excerpts of Pushkin in Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla (1834); Dargomizysky’s The Stone Guest (1837); Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin (1879); Rimsky Korsakov’s L’ Coq D’or (1834); Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov (1868); or Borodin’s Prince Igor (1890).