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The introduction of "The Bronze Horseman" describes Peter the Great staring at the landscape where the Neva River runs into the Baltic Sea. The scene depicts Peter as he contemplates building St. Petersburg, a city built in the spirit of the modernization of Russia as St. Petersburg will be a "window through to Europe." The poem moves ahead 100 years (translated as "century" or "age") and the speaker praises Peter's accomplishment.
Gem of the Northern world, amazing,
From gloomy wood and swamp upsprung,
Had risen, in pride and splendor blazing.
In Part One, the mood of the poem shifts from praise to gloom. The protagonist/hero is Evgeny (Eugene) who is coming home from a party during an autumn rain storm. Evgeny represents the common man and wants nothing more than a happy, simple life. He meditates on how poor he is and supposes his life might be better when he marries Parasha. Meanwhile the storm continues, the waters of the Neva continue to rise, and when daybreak comes, the river overflows into a flood (referring to the actual flood on November 7, 1824). Evgeny climbs onto a statue of a marble lion which is near the Peter the Great statue (aka, The Bronze Horseman). Evgeny waits, wondering if Parasha will survive the flood.
Evgeny goes to Parasha's house and finds nothing. He roams the streets aimlessly in complete despair. Evgeny curses the statue (The Bronze Horseman) and then he senses the statue's head turning. He runs away, hearing the horse galloping after him. Subsequently, Evgeny does not look at the statue whenever he passes. The poem ends with the image of Evgeny, dead, on a desolate island.
Among other things, this poem is about oppositions. It begins with Peter the Great standing on barren land. The poem resumes a century later in St. Petersburg thus shifting from natural, untouched terrain to an industrialized city. Peter gave order to the wildness of nature, but the flood suggests that nature cannot be tamed. Evgeny laments his poor station in life but dreams of something better. He works for the government and is therefore at the mercy of the industrialized world that Peter has created. Evgeny is also at the mercy of nature since his wife-to-be disappears in the flood. This is the ambiguity of the opposition culture/nature as the poem suggests no clear answer about what is better: tradition or progress, nature or industrialization.
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