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Many extol Alexander Pushkin not only as Russia’s greatest poet, but also as one of the most important writers in history to have influenced Russian culture and literature.

During a time when most literature was being written in English and French, Pushkin accentuated the simplicity and beauty of the Russian language, capturing the hearts of his compatriots. In addition, he served as Russia’s historiographer under Tsar Nicholas I. While he was inspired by the structural and stylistic characteristics of European authors, such as Voltaire, Lord Byron, and Shakespeare, Pushkin recast them in a uniquely Russian mold. Unfortunately, because his writing has distinctive rhythmic patterns that are difficult to translate, foreign readers do not have the opportunity, as do native Russian speakers, to appreciate the true power and magnificence of his work.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Aristocratic Upbringing

Pushkin was born in Moscow on May 26, 1799, into an aristocratic family whose noble ancestry could be traced back over six hundred years. As a child, Pushkin was educated informally at home by his nurse, Arina. Arina told him the fairy tales and folk tales he would later incorporate into his writings.

Pushkin was formally educated by private tutors, who borrowed freely from the household’s library—a collection that included many French works—for Pushkin’s lessons. When he was twelve, Pushkin was sent to the Tsarskoe Selo Lyceum near St. Petersburg, a prestigious institution designed to prepare young men of nobility for government posts. There, he read voraciously—especially French literature—and wrote prolifically. Pushkin’s first published poem, ”Recollections of Tsarskoe-Selo,” (1815) was well received by several leading poets. After graduating, Pushkin was given a paid position in St. Petersburg that required little work.

Exile

Alternating between periods of carefree socializing and concentrated writing in St. Petersburg, Pushkin finished his first full-length piece, Ruslan and Lyudmila, in 1820. However, Pushkin was not in St. Petersburg long enough to experience the popular success of his poem, for his all-too-vocal expression of his political views had drawn the attention of officials. Alexander I exiled Pushkin to southern Russia shortly before publication of Ruslan and Lyudmila. For Pushkin, censorship remained a lifelong problem. During his four-year exile, he was productive, writing The Captive of the Caucasus (1822) and The Bakchesarian Fountain: A Tale of the Tauride (1824). These are romantic narrative poems that reflect the influence of Byron, whom Pushkin read during this period.

In the months before leaving Kishinev in 1823, Pushkin began work on his novel in verse and magnum opus, Eugene Onegin, which he would publish serially in chapters, beginning in 1825 and continuing over the next seven years (it was published in full in 1833). Pushkin was able to obtain a transfer in the summer of 1823 to Odessa, where he continued writing Eugene Onegin. In 1824, a letter was intercepted by authorities in which Pushkin expressed a fondness for atheism. Pushkin found himself exiled to his mother’s family estate at Mikhailovskoe, where he stayed until 1826.

Controlled Freedom

After the Decembrist Revolt, which took place in 1825, Pushkin petitioned for his return from exile. Tsar Nicholas I allowed Pushkin to return to Russia and to travel with some degree of (but not total) freedom; he appointed himself Pushkin’s personal censor. During this new stage in Pushkin’s life, he concentrated on writing drama, making efforts that proved to be groundbreaking in Russian theater despite being under strict observation. With the historical play Boris Godunoff, Pushkin hoped to end the influence of the French classical style that had dominated the Russian stage for so long. Although Pushkin completed the play in 1825, censors prevented it from being published until 1831, and it was not performed until 1870, more than thirty years after the author’s death.

During the years after his exile, Pushkin began writing three of the four short dramas most often referred to as the “little” or “miniature” tragedies: The Covetous Knight, Mozart and Salieri, a play based on the supposed rivalry of composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri; and Stone Guest. The fourth, Feast During the Plague, is a translation of an English play. It was during this time that Pushkin finally brought to completion his novel, Eugene Onegin.

Scandal and Death

In February 1831, Pushkin married Nathalia Goncharova, and in May of 1832 she bore his first child, Maria. Nicholas was evidently pleased with Pushkin’s marriage, apparent stability, and dedication to the state. He reinstated Pushkin in state service as a historiographer with a salary and access to state archives. However, as Pushkin’s debts increased, and as more children came, he grew more dependent on favors from Nicholas. Pushkin’s presence (and that of his wife) at society functions was made obligatory by his appointment as a minor court official, an inconsequential position that was intended to humiliate the writer. Soon, gossip about an affair between Nathalia and Baron Georges d’Anthes began to circulate and continued even after d’Anthes married Nathalia’s sister. Attempting to put an end to the scandal, Pushkin met d’Anthes in a duel with pistols. D’Anthes was slightly wounded; Pushkin was mortally wounded and died two days later on January 29, 1837. Mourned as Russia’s national poet, Pushkin was buried in St. Petersburg by Tsar Nicholas I.

Works in Literary Context

French Influence

Much of Pushkin’s early work, including the verse narrative Ruslan and Lyudmila, was based on the folklore he had been exposed to as a child. For example, Ruslan and Lyudmila, the poem that established his reputation, was based on ”Orlando Furioso,” a chivalric poem by Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto. Pushkin’s style during his early career was influenced by the French writers Voltaire, Andre Chenier, and Evariste Parny. According to scholar Yuri Druzhnikov, even the characters’ names in Ruslan and Lyudmila reflect Pushkin’s admiration of Parny: ”where Parny has Aina, Pushkin has Naina; where Parny has Rusla, Pushkin has Ruslan.”

Romantic Roots

During the time of his exile, Pushkin was greatly influenced by Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The Fountain of Bachtshisarai, The Robber-Brother, The Bohemians, and other Pushkin poems all portray strong traces of an intimate acquaintance with Byron. They have a similar form; their heroes and heroines resemble those of Byron’s poems; the gloomy coloring, the mysterious connection between guilt and fate are the same. Though Byron took his subjects from a foreign world, Pushkin took his subjects from places and a society with which he was thoroughly familiar. Consequently, he was able to give them a distinctly local tone and color.

The Pushkin Sonnet

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin shows that Byron’s influence was only temporary. In addition to its pure, expressive language, which is the hallmark of Pushkin’s style, the work features character types that appear frequently in later Russian fiction: the ”superfluous man,” represented by Onegin, and the idealized Russian woman, characterized by Tatiana.

Eugene Onegin was eight years in the making. The very form of the novel indicates Pushkin’s early discomfort with conventional genres, his striving to make his own mark in an original way. First of all he called his work not simply a novel but (and he emphasized this) a ”novel in verse” and termed its sections ”chapters” rather than ”cantos.” While clearly seeking to be innovative, he also showed an awareness of European models.

This new Russian genre, the Onegin stanza, is also known as the Pushkin sonnet. As opposed to the Italian—or Petrarchan—sonnet and the Elizabethan—or Shakespearean—sonnet, the fourteen-line Pushkin sonnet is not obviously divided into smaller stanzas of four or two lines. Furthermore, while Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter, Pushkin wrote his verse-novel in iambic tetrameter. Another distinction the Pushkin sonnet has is an unusual rhyme scheme: aBaBccDDeFFeGG, where lowercase letters represent feminine rhymes (stressed on the next-to-last syllable) and the uppercase represent masculine rhymes (stress on the final syllable). Intellectually combining comedy with seriousness, the Pushkin sonnet is a compelling form that is easy to read and incredibly difficult to write.

A New Direction for Russian Literature

In his prose, Pushkin rejected the literary tradition that considered fiction an inferior genre. Pushkin’s movement away from sentimental fiction of the late eighteenth century signaled a new direction for Russian literature. Scholars note that the realistic scenes and characters in Eugene Onegin provided a model for his nineteenth-century successors, including the notable writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, and Nikolai Gogol. All have acknowledged their debt to Pushkin, whose work continues to influence even the modern Russian novel.

Works in Critical Context

Although Pushkin is rarely read outside his homeland, many critics recognize him as the greatest and most influential Russian writer in history. Scholars attribute this lack of foreign readership to the fact that Pushkin’s style is difficult to translate. For instance, while Pushkin’s combination of vernacular speech and Slavic language appeals to Russian readers, his stylistic qualities and subtlety of characterization and plot development deny translation beyond the literal. Pushkin’s admirers are quick to point out that while foreign readers might not be directly acquainted with his works, almost every Russian composer of note and several European ones have some work based on one of Pushkin’s writings.

Eugene Onegin

Critics agree that Eugene Onegin is Pushkin’s masterpiece, representing, says V. G. Belinsky in Two Hundred Years of Pushkin, ”an encyclopedia of Russian life.” Because of the novel’s literary range and importance, analytical approaches to the work are varied and numerous. Some critics have concentrated on the fundamental symmetries of Eugene Onegin, such as the ironic reversals, parallels in plot, and behavior of the characters. Still others examine the meaning of particular specific events, such as Tania’s disturbing dream after Onegin rejects her.

Many scholars address the motivations of Onegin. Based on what they have interpreted as Pushkin’s disguised critique of Russian social conditions, Soviet critics have promoted the character of Onegin as a conspirator against Tsar Nicholas I. Still other critics have designated Onegin to be an early manifestation of the Russian social type known as the superfluous man, a man alienated by Russian society, who, stifled by social conditions, is prevented from doing anything worthwhile. Less complex are the appraisals of Onegin’s potential for love and his accountability in matters of the heart.

Twentieth-Century Criticism

At the beginning of the twentieth century, critical evaluation of Pushkin’s work focused on his implied negative assessments of character and society. In the later years of the century, interest in Pushkin’s fiction, drama, and narrative poetry remained strong, with more contemporary scholars examining his body of works through a psychoanalytic approach. In doing so, these scholars tend to devote their attention to elements of irony and parody. Additionally, they often evaluate Pushkin’s experiments in narrative structure and technique. Perhaps philosopher and writer Alexander Herzen, whose essay appears in Alexander Pushkin: A Symposium on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth, offers the best critical approach to Pushkin’s writings: ”As soon as he appeared he became necessary, as though Russian literature could never again dispense with him. The other Russian poets are read and admired; Pushkin is in the hands of every civilized Russian, who reads him again and again all his life long.”

References:

  1. Bayley, John. Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971. Debreczeny, Paul. The Other Pushkin: A Study of Pushkin’s Prose Fiction. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1983.
  2. Driver, Sam. Pushkin: Literature and Social Ideas. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
  3. Druzhnikov, Yuri. Uznic Rossii: Po sledam niezvestnogo Pushkina. Orange, Conn.: Antiquary, 1992.
  4. Kodjak, Andrej, and Kiril Taranovsky, eds. Alexander Pushkin: A Symposium on the 175th Anniversary of His Birth. New York: New York University Press, 1976.
  5. Reid, Robert, and Joe Andrew. Two Hundred Years of Pushkin. Vol. 2: Alexander Pushkin: Myth and Monument. Studies in Slavic Literature and Poetics 39. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003.
  6. Vickery, Walter N. Aleksandr Pushkin. New York: Twayne, 1992.
  7. RSNST 225: Madness, Murder, and Mayhem: XlXth-Century Russian Literature. Retrieved May 7, 2008, from http://academics.hamilton.edu/ russian/home/courses/russian225/ Questions225.html.

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