Alexander Pushkin’s first verses were written in the style of French classicism and sentimentalism. His models wereVoltaire and Evariste Parny, Gavrila Derzhavin, Zhukovsky, and Batyushkov. He wrote light, voluptuous verses, occasional pieces, and epigrams. Even in his early works, of which the most important is Ruslan and Liudmila, he shows restrained eroticism, always tempered by his classical training, which led him from the very beginning into excellent craftsmanship, brevity, and simplicity.
Wit, humor, and satire
The lively wit, humor, and satire that were evident from the first continued to characterize Pushkin’s work. Ruslan and Liudmila is a mock-epic, and the same strain appears in chapters 1 and 2 of Eugene Onegin. Gabriel, a parody on the Annunciation, which caused Pushkin a great deal of embarrassment with the authorities, has many witty passages, such as Satan’s ensnarement of Adam and Eve by love. Pushkin achieves his humor by the use of parody, not hesitating to use it in dealing with the greatest authors such as Shakespeare and Voltaire, and with his friend and master Zhukovsky. Like Molière, however, he never really offends; his satire and dry irony produce a generally good-natured effect.
Pushkin first became known in St. Petersburg as a writer of liberal verses, and this—coupled with charges of atheism—made him a constant target of the imperial censors. His famous “Vol’nost’: Oda” (“Ode to Freedom”) is severe on Napoleon and condemns the excesses of the French Revolution, yet it reminds monarchs that they must be subservient to the law. In “Derevnya” (“The Countryside”), he longs for the abolition of serfdom, yet looks to the czar for deliverance. Pushkin did not conceal his sympathy for the Decembrists, and in his famous “Vo glubine sibirskikh rud” (“Message to Siberia”), he reminds the exiled revolutionaries that “freedom will once again shine, and brothers give you back your sword.” His later poems address more general issues, and in 1831 during the Polish Uprising, he speaks out clearly in favor of the czar in“Klevetnikam Rossii” (“To the Slanderers of Russia”). Finally, The Bronze Horseman addresses the very complex theme of the individual in conflict with the state.
Heroines and love poetry
Pushkin knew many passions in his brief lifetime, and several women inspired both his life and poetry. Marya Raevskaya became the model for many of his heroines, from the Circassian girl in The Prisoner of the Caucasus to Marya in Poltava. Amalia Riznich, destined to die in Italy, reappears in “Dlya beregov otchizny dal’noy” (“Abandoning an Alien Country”) in 1830. Elisa Vorontsova, the wife of Pushkin’s stern superior in Odessa, was a powerful influence who haunted the poet long after his return to the north. The ring she gave him is immortalized in “Khrani menya, moy talisman” (“Talisman”) and “The Burned Letter,” where the ashes recall her memory. Anna Kern was the inspiration for the almost mystical “Ya pomnyu chudnoye mgnoven’ye” (“I Remember a Wonderful Moment”). Natalya Goncharova, while still Pushkin’s fiancé, likewise assumes a spiritual role in “Madona” (“Madonna”). Pushkin’s love poetry, while passionate, is also delicate and sensitive, and even the most voluptuous evocations concentrate on images such as those of eyes and feet.
In Romantic fashion, Pushkin was one of the first to introduce nature into his works. First inspired by the trip to the south, where the beauty of the Caucasus overwhelmed him, he sees freedom in the wide expanses and steep mountains. Later, on a second trip—as described in “Kavkazsky” (“The Caucasus”)—he evokes the playful rivers, the low clouds and the silver-capped mountains. He feels that the sight of a monastery brings him to the neighborhood of Heaven. The north also has its charms, particularly the Russian winter. There are exquisite verses on winter in the fifth chapter of Eugene Onegin, and in his lyrics about the swirling snowstorm in “Zinniy Vecher” (“Winter Evening”) or the winter road that symbolizes his sad journey through life. Both city and country come alive in the crisp cold of winter in the prologue to The Bronze Horseman.
Despite ever-recurring wit, irony, and gentle sensitivity, Pushkin’s poetry is fundamentally melancholy and often tragic. This dichotomy corresponds to the division of his personality: dissipated yet deep. The southern poems all end tragically, his plays are all tragedies, and Eugene Onegin ends with the death of Lensky and the irremediable disappointment of Tatyana and Onegin. Pushkin frequently writes of the evil and demonic forces of nature (as in Tatyana’s dream), of madness (Eugene in The Bronze Horseman), and of violence (in “Zhenikh,” “The Bridegroom”). A melancholy vein permeates his lyrics as well. Like the Romantics, Pushkin speaks frequently of death, perhaps foreseeing his own. The hour of parting from a loved one, a frequent subject of his lyrics, foreshadows death. As early as 1823, in “Telega zhizni” (“The Wagon of Time”), he sees the old man as the one who calmly awaits eternal sleep. Pushkin’s tragic vision is complicated by the absence of a Christian worldview with a belief in life after death. Unlike Dostoevski, Pushkin writes of unmitigated, not of redemptive, suffering. S. M. Frank, who does admit a spiritual dimension in Pushkin, compares his work to Mozart’s music, which seems gay but is in fact sad. Yet it is this very sadness which puts him in the tradition of Russian literature, anticipating Nikolai Gogol’s “laughter through tears.”
Ruslan and Liudmila
Pushkin’s first major work, Ruslan and Liudmila, was published in 1820. It is now usually placed in a minor category, but it was important at the time as the first expression of the Russian spirit. Witty and ironic, the poem is written in the style of a mock-epic, much in the tradition of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591). It also echoes Voltaire, and the fourth canto parodies Zhukovsky’s “Spyaschaya carevna” (“Twelve Sleeping Maidens”). In fact, the whole plot resembles Zhukovsky’s projected “Vladimir.” It consists of six cantos, a prologue added in 1828, and an epilogue. Pushkin began the poem in 1817 while still in school, and he was already in exile in the south when it was published.
(The entire section is 2730 words.)