LESSON 4 The Golden Age: Aleksandr Pushkin

Study Notes

The Golden Age of Russian Poetry

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 of English.

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 Gypsies."

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 important novel.

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 29, 1837.

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 period described.

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

"The Stationmaster," (sometimes translated as "The Postmaster") from The Tales of Belkin. Hint: It will be a good idea to read the "Editor's Foreword" to the Tales of Belkin. It might also be beneficial to read one or more of the other stories in the collection. "The Shot" and "Mistress Into Maid" are especially rewarding.

"The Queen of Spades"

Supplemental Reading

Auty and Obolensky, An Introduction to Russian Languageand Literature, pp. 133 -147

Debreczeny, The Other Pushkin

Moser, The Russian Short Story (section on Pushkin)

Shaw, J. T., "The Conclusion of Pushkin's 'Queen of Spades'" (in the appendix to the printed version of these materials)

Terras, Handbook of Russian Literature (article on Pushkin)

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 narration?

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 narrative?

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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