Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1069
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,...
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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 overwhelming the story itself.
While the story is a model of straightforward simplicity, the poem is a tightly woven web of theme and reference, drawing in multiple historical, philosophical, and social strands so tightly that they are sometimes hard to separate. Pushkin drew on many sources: Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz’s satiric indictment of Peter the Great and his city in his long poem Forefathers’ Eve (1925-1946) is an immediate and important one, as were contemporary accounts of the disastrous flood. Pushkin had long been fascinated with Peter’s life and times and had already written about them in his story of his great-grandfather, The Negro of Peter the Great (1828), and in his narrative poem Poltava (1828). There were personal complications as well. Pushkin’s ancestors had been prominent and influential, but his own financial and social positions were precarious. Czar Nicholas I’s “patronage” was a dubious honor, since it meant that the czar himself was Pushkin’s personal censor. Then there were the Decembrists, conspirators who, in 1825, had attempted a palace coup d’état to overthrow the autocracy and to prevent Nicholas from ascending to the throne. The armed struggle resulting in their surrender took place in Senate Square, in the very shadow of Peter’s statue; a number were hanged, and many more were exiled. Among them were some of Pushkin’s closest friends. Though they are nowhere mentioned in the poem, no reader could fail to make the association between the place, the statue, and the revolt.
While differing in their interpretations of the poem, most commentators at least agree that the pattern is one of polarity, of seemingly irreconcilable opposites juxtaposed. Some of these pairings are specific to Russia, while others are universal: East versus West, the ongoing Russian preoccupation with national identity either inside or outside European culture, and the wisdom of Peter’s forced Westernization of Russia. Peter’s decision to “hack” out a window on Europe was an unresolved question in Pushkin’s time and remains so in the post-Soviet era. That question involves yet other conflicting notions: Moscow versus St. Petersburg, religious tradition versus secular change, the organic versus the artificial. Unresolved, too, is the question of Russia’s traditional preference for the strong hand that will impose order on a vast, chaotic land. What will that order bring, and what is its price? Is the Horseman reining in his steed on the edge of an abyss, or is he urging it on? Pushkin clearly celebrates Peter’s—and Russia’s—greatness in the introduction, but the fate of Evgeny does not bode well for the ordinary citizen, let alone the dissenter. What kind of overlord is it who will not brook even a ragged madman’s muttered threat but descends from his pedestal to chase him down?
The question Pushkin poses about the relationship of the ruler to the ruled goes beyond Russia, as does the question of humankind’s relationship to nature. Here, Peter indeed brings Cosmos out of Chaos, in lines that are deliberately suggestive of the blank formlessness of the world before creation. However, Peter builds in spite of the natural order, not in harmony with it, and his creation is vulnerable to destruction by the very elements he claims to have mastered—a point that his successor Alexander I briefly and poignantly makes before sending troops out to aid victims. At the same time, Alexander is portrayed as rueful, not ridiculous. The poet’s irony is never facile or cheap—only tragic.
Russia versus Europe, state versus citizen, historical destiny versus individual fate, Peter’s grand vision versus Evgeny’s humble daydreams, humankind versus nature—these are some of the opposing principles Pushkin presents. He reconciles them poetically, creating a unified whole, but never resolves them. Just as the statue’s pose is ambiguous, so is Pushkin’s attitude, and it is quite deliberately so.