A poet who ranks with William Shakespeare, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Dante Alighieri, Alexander Pushkin virtually created Russian literature. He was not the first Russian writer with talent or even genius, but he was the first (and some might say the only one) of such enormous range and brilliance, for he left models in lyric poetry, long narrative poems (the Russian poèma), drama, and fiction. Translated often but not always well, Pushkin is less known outside his homeland than the writers named above; the clarity and seeming simplicity of his style, its compactness and economy, its combination of unpredictability and inevitability makes him surprisingly difficult to translate. His place in his national literature is unique, and the Russian habit of referring to Pushkin in the present tense is not just literary convention, but rather a sense of him as a living presence, a continuing source of ideas and images. The characters seen in The Bronze Horseman and Evgeny Onegin (1823-1831), for example, have reappeared in various forms and guises in Russian literature ever since their creation, as has the idea of the artificial, “premeditated” city of St. Petersburg first evoked in Pushkin’s poem.
Generally considered Pushkin’s finest work, The Bronze Horseman was written in the autumn of 1833. It was not published until after Pushkin’s death, and even then with some changes to pacify the censors, who, among other things, found the reference to a czar’s statue as an idol disturbing. The work consists of an introduction and an exposition in two parts, a total of 481 lines of iambic tetrameter, freely rhymed. Though the shortest of Pushkin’s serious narrative poems, it varies widely in style, tone, and tempo: Measured and majestic passages with archaic or rhetorical vocabulary (as in parts of the introduction) give way to straightforward conversational speech and even a slightly flippant tone, seen in the choice of Evgeny’s name (familiar and easy because Pushkin had used it in his great verse novel Evgeny Onegin) and his lineage (so similar to Pushkin’s own), for example. The poet varies his rhyme scheme as well as his vocabulary, now speeding the action with couplets, now slowing it with quatrains and longer rhyming units. Violent similes and metaphors dominate in the description of the flood; jagged line breaks and a deliberately jumbled rhyme scheme that has nothing in common with anything preceding it depict Evgeny’s increasing derangement and panic. Pushkin’s deftness at modulating from one tone to another keeps his devices from...
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