LESSON 4 The Golden Age: Aleksandr Pushkin
The period from 1820 to about 1835 is known as the "Golden Age"
of Russian poetry. During this time poetry dominated literary art, and a
large number of very good poets were offering their works to the public.
One of your textbooks, Mirsky's History ofRussian Literature, contains
factual and evaluative material on such poets as Zhukovsky, Baratynsky,
Batiushkov, Davydov, Vyazemsky, and Delvig. The works of these writers provided
the period with poetic depth and breadth; however, each of them knew and
acknowledged the genius of the greatest poet of the period--Aleksandr Pushkin.
Still today, Pushkin is as revered by Russians as Shakespeare is by speakers
The Golden Age of Russian Poetry
Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837)
Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin was born on May 26, 1799, in Moscow. His father's
family traced its lineage back seven hundred years, to the historical beginnings
ofthe Russian state. The Pushkin family had a history of being at odds with
the established authority. Aleksandr Pushkin shared that fate, both as a
writer and in his personal life. His mother's family wThe Life of Aleksandr
Pushkin (1799-1837)as descended from an Ethiopian prince named IbrahimHannibal.
Prince Hannibal had come to Russia during the reign of Peter the Great,
and in due course he became an important general in the Russian army. So
outstanding was his service to the state that Tsar Peter conferred nobility
on Hannibal and his descendants. From a social point of view, Pushkin's
descent made him a combination of the "old" nobility of family
and the "new" nobility, created by Peter the Great, of service
to the state.
The Pushkin family was of the "gentry" class- landowners who were
of noble privilege but who were not directly connected to the royal court.
The Pushkins, then, moved in the highest circle, but one, of Russian society.
Pushkin's father and uncle were men of letters who had many acquaintances
among the famous writers of the day. Karamzin,
Zhukovsky, Batiushkov, Derzhavin, and other
writers visited the Pushkin house and were familiar figures to the young Aleksandr. He often astonished and flattered these literary guestswith his
ability to repeat, by heart, whole pages of their poetry.
Pushkin was educated at home by private tutors until age twelve. In 1811
he was enrolled in the Lyceum, a newly- founded school for the sons of the
nobility, designed to prepare these young noblemen for careers in government
service. Pushkin was not an outstanding student, but his gift for writing
poetry found encouragement from the many friends he made at the school.
His first published verse appeared in 1814 and was immediately hailed by
Karamzin and Batiushkov for its technical perfection. By the time Pushkin
graduated from the Lyceum, he had already been invited to join "Arzamas,"
a group of the leading writers of the day. Arzamas led the attack on the
diehard proponents of eighteenth-century Neoclassicism and the Lomonosovian
program of the three styles.
After graduating from the Lyceum Pushkin was given aj ob in the civil service.
He ignored his work completely, except on the days when he picked up his
salary. In 1819 he joined a society called "The Green Lamp," whose
purpose was to encourage reform of the Russian political system. In the
spirit of this group he wrote some political poems which, although he didn't
sign them, were traced to his pen. The writing of these poems unfortunately
coincided with a government crackdown on subversive activities, and Pushkin
was arrested and sent into exile in southern Russia.
In the south, Pushkin came into contact with a variety of exotic locales
and peoples. His surroundings, his fascination with the poetry of Lord Byron,
and his vision of himself as the misunderstood outcast of philistine society
combined to produce in him a disposition to Romanticism. He wrote several
Romantic tales in verse in the manner of Byron. These are called the "Southern
Poems" and include "The Prisoner of the Caucasus" and "The
Just as Pushkin's exile was about to end in 1824, a ribald account of the
annunciation story was traced to him, and his exile was extended, this time
at one of his family's estates. This second exile continued until 1826 when
Pushkin was awarded a "full and generous pardon" by the Emperor.
It is quite possible that by being in exile in 1825 Pushkin escaped becoming
involved in the Decembrist revolt (so named because ofthe rally that took
place on December 14, 1825, in St.Petersburg). In any case, the authorities
remained suspicious of him, and part of the Tsar's "generosity"
included a continuing personal interest in Pushkin'swork. This meant that
all of Pushkin's writings had to be submitted to the Tsar's personal representative,
Count Benckendorff (who was also head of the secret police) for approval.
Pushkin's most important work during this period was Eugene Onegin, a novel
in verse, which is widely regarded as his masterpiece and Russia's first
In 1829, Pushkin proposed to and was finally accepted by Natalia Goncharova,
one of the great beauties of the time. They were married in 1830. While
traveling on their honeymoon, the couple was quarantined during an outbreak
of cholera in provincial Russia. During the quarantine, Pushkin wrote his
first notable prose work, The Tales of Belkin.
In 1831, Natalia's beauty attracted royal attention and she began to be
invited to court functions. To justify his wife's frequent presence at the
palace, Pushkin was given a minor (in his opinion, insultingly minor) court
appointment. At the same time, his great popularity as a poet suffered a
brief decline as he turned more and more to writing prose. His story "The
Queen of Spades" appeared in 1833. Thereafter, Pushkin increasingly
focused on writing prose fiction, journalism, and history. He bore as best
he could his declining fame and the insulting situation he faced at court.
In 1836 he received a number of anonymous notes stating that his wife had
taken a young military aide to the court as her lover. Pushkin issued a
challenge to a duel, but he was later mollified. In early 1837, however,
Pushkin's suspicions were again aroused. This time, a duel was fought, and
Pushkin was mortally wounded. He died two days after the duel, on January
Pushkin's Prose Fiction
Pushkin is, by common consent, the greatest Russian poet. However, poetry
is notoriously hard to translate and to appreciate in translation; therefore,
we will read selections from Pushkin's prose instead. His reputation as
a prose writer was for a long time much less distinguished than his reputation
as a poet. However, recognition of and respect for his prose has grown,
particularly over the last forty years or so. As a writer of prose, Pushkin
was especially aware of the work of his contemporaries and predecessors,something
you should keep in mind as you read his stories. For example, the fact that
Pushkin's story "The Shot" begins with two epigraphs having to
do with the subject of duelling suggests that there was a literature of
duelling current at that time, that Pushkin was aware of it, and that his
story needs to be seen in the context of that literary setting in order
to be properly understood.
All of Pushkin's prose fiction was written from 1827 to1836, and can be
divided into two main categories: historical novels and short stories.
His historical novels included The Negro of Peter the Great (based
on the life of Pushkin's black ancestor) and The Captain's Daughter (dealing
with the Pugachov rebellion during the 1770s),
his only finished historical novel. Pushkin's historical fiction is known
for its realistic detail and the typicality of the characters and events
depicted. Pushkin adopts the technique of portraying the interaction of
authentic historic personages with characters of his own devising. His main
concern seems to have been to provide a faithful, living picture of the
Of Pushkin's stories, the most famous are "The Queen of Spades"
and The Tales of Belkin, a collection of five stories. The Tales
of Belkin set the trend, later followed by Gogol and Lermontov, of offering
a group of stories allegedly collected by another from the accounts of various
friends. This method of construction raises the question of why Pushkin
should have wanted to introduce a putative author or authors into his work.
The "Queen of Spades," Pushkin's most respected prose work, is
in the Romantic vein, featuring the use of the fantastic and supernatural.
As with all of Pushkin's prose, however, we need to be aware that Pushkin
was fond of masking his very complex literary persona with an appearance
of directness and simplicity.
Required Reading--Literary Texts
For Further Thought
1. Consider Pushkin's narrative strategy in "TheShot." How many
narrators are there? What value does Pushkin derive from this manner of
Explanation: Narrative strategy is one of the choices an author must make
in presenting the events of the story to the reader. This particular choice
involves the question "Who will tell the story?" The person who
tells the story is called the narrator. Just as in everyday life, we pay
attention not only to what we are told, but also to our estimate of the
person telling it; so too in reading a literary narrative we pay attention
to what sort of person or persons the author has chosen to tell us the story.
How does our impression of the narrator influence our understanding of the
2. What is the textual evidence for a natural explanation of the events
recounted in "The Queen of Spades"? For a supernatural explanation?
Explanation: A "natural" explanation of the events recounted in
this story would maintain that everything that happens, no matter how strange
it seems, can be explained without referring to the activities of supernatural
forces. For example, when Hermann has a vision of the ghost of the old Countess,
we might point out that the text informs us that on the evening of the vision
Hermann had drunk, "contrary to his usual habit," a considerable
quantity of wine.
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