When Ruslan and Lyudmila appeared in 1820, it caused a sensation in Russian literature. It also made young Alexander Pushkin’s name and helped make Russian a literary language. Given the fact that Russia had had a written language—and writers—for centuries, that might seem an odd statement, but it was Pushkin whose work demonstrated the range and flexibility of contemporary Russian. Pushkin showed that the language could accommodate formal and informal diction alike, that it was an instrument that could be played in any number of styles.
With its victory over Napoleon Bonaparte, the Russian Empire was an indisputable military and political power on the European scene. Many Russian writers thought, however, that they did not yet have a culture, let alone a literary culture, of their own, and some of them consciously set about to create one. That meant that in Russia, Western literary movements such classicism, sentimentalism, and Romanticism—themselves, by the late eighteenth century, not so neatly divided—were all telescoped into a few decades. A question that faced Russian writers was whether western European literary models were the right models. The question of language was a question of cultural identity. The Slavophile camp looked nostalgically back to a mythic pre-Petrine Slavic past. The Westernizers favored adapting the western European literary legacy. In the arguments over the direction Russian literature was to take, Pushkin came down on the side of the Westernizers; Ruslan and Lyudmila was, in its own lighthearted way, a blow to the cause of the Slavophiles. Who, after this brilliant mock epic, could possibly write a serious Slavic epic?
For all its nearly three thousand lines, its six cantos plus an epilogue, the poem moves along at a sprightly, dancing pace. Pushkin’s choice of iambic tetrameter, a relatively short line, is one reason for this. Another is Pushkin’s particular genius at varying his rhyme scheme to advance or retard the movement. The basic verse form of the poem is an alternating quatrain (abab), but Pushkin also uses enveloping rhyme (abba), occasional couplets, and a five- or six-line...
(The entire section is 895 words.)