Alexander Pushkin


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Alexander Pushkin [Aleksandr Sergeyevich] (1799-1837), “Russia’s Bard” and one of the most important contributors to modern Russian literature wrote the epic 19th century romance Eugene Onegin [Yevgeny or Evgeny Onegin] (1833);


But, as it is, this pied collection
begs your indulgence — it's been spun
from threads both sad and humoristic,
themes popular or idealistic,
products of carefree hours, of fun,
of sleeplessness, faint inspirations,
of powers unripe, or on the wane,
of reason's icy intimations,
and records of a heart in pain.—Dedication

Love passed, the Muse appeared, the weather
of mind got clarity new found;
now free, I once more weave together
emotion, thought, and magic sound.—ch. 1

Moscow... how many strains are fusing
in that one sound, for Russian hearts!
what store of riches it imparts!—ch. 7

Pushkin’s masterpiece Eugene Onegin was first published in its entirety in 1833, though as was common at the time, serially printed between the years 1823 and 1831. Subsequent publications allowed for some revision and additions, the most commonly accepted version from 1837. It is a novel written in iambic tetrameter verse or what is now known as ‘Onegin stanzas’ or ‘Pushkin sonnets’, a style which many contemporary authors have adopted. It differs from Petrarchan or Italian sonnets (hendecasyllable) and William Shakespeare’s sonnet style (iambic pentameter) in that they are not obviously divided into smaller stanzas. The rhyme scheme is “aBaBccDDeFFeGG”, the lower case representing feminine rhymes and upper case masculine.

The dashing hero Eugene and Tatyana became models for many later Russian literary figures. It also follows the lives of Lensky and Tatyana’s sister Olga, while Pushkin famously digresses into myriad topics of autobiographical and philosophical vein. Through his allusions to other major literary works, Pushkin deals with themes of fiction versus real life, unrequited love and rejection while presenting an authentic depiction of 19th century Imperial Russian society. It was adapted for the stage and film, and is still widely read today. In his works Pushkin combined old Slavonic and vernacular speech to harmonious effect appealing to so many of his compatriots, though the lyrical nuance and subtlety of his satire, humour and insightful character developments prove to be a challenge for translators beyond the literal.

A proponent of social reform, Pushkin belonged to an underground revolutionary movement that sometimes interfered with his literary career when many of his poems, plays, and historical works were censored. Although he gained much criticism and caused much controversy in his time and later, he was a friend to many other Russian authors and influenced and inspired the likes of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (1809-1852), Ivan S. Turgenev (1818–1883), Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Maxim Gorky (1868-1936), and Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) who translated and wrote introductions to some of his works, writing of Eugene Onegin;

“Pushkin’s composition is first of all and above all a phenomenon of style, and it is from this flowered rim that I have surveyed its seep of Arcadian country, the serpentine gleam of its imported brooks, the miniature blizzards imprisoned in round crystal, and the many-hued levels of literary parody blending in the melting distance.”

Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin was born into a family of Russian nobility on 6 June 1799 in Moscow, Russia. His historical fiction “The Blackamoor of Peter the Great” is based on his African maternal great grandfather Abram Petrovitch Ganibal (1697-1781). Ganibal was the favored general of Peter the Great, highly proficient in mathematics, engineering, and cryptology and treated as a member of the royal family. Pushkin’s jaded yet proud defense of his ancestry in “My Genealogy” is in response to racial slurs aimed at him by his critics.

Pushkin grew to be a handsome man with dark curly hair and swarthy complexion. First educated by French and Russian tutors at home, his nurse also entertained him with traditional Russian folk tales. In 1811 he entered the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo near St. Petersburg where he studied languages and developed his first appreciation of poetry including that of Lord George Gordon Byron. He was soon writing his own poems and the journal The Messenger of Europe published some of them as early as 1814, when he was fifteen years old. Upon graduation in 1817, he accepted a position with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, moved to St. Petersburg, and for three years enjoyed “Venice of the North’s” society and intellectual life as a young nobleman. He was welcomed into the literary circle, writing and publishing poetry and expressing his liberal views in such works as “Ode To Liberty” and “The Village”. He also turned his pen to critically satirizing various court figures of the day, which drew the Emperor’s outrage and in 1820 he was exiled to the south of Russia.

Pushkin became a Freemason in Kishinev where he lived for three years before moving to Odessa with the help of influential friends. He continued to express his political views against autocracy and supported such causes as the overthrow of the Ottoman Empire in Greece. While frustrated and saddened by his inability to travel freely or openly publish his works, he also saw great beauty in the Caucasus and Crimea regions. Poems from this period include; “The Bandit Brothers” (1821/22), “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” (1822) the first of his Byronic verse tales, “The Gypsies” (1823-1824), “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai” (1824), and his fairy romance adopted from folk tales which was later adapted for the stage as an opera, “Ruslan and Lyudmila” (1820);

A princess pines away in prison,
And a wolf serves her without treason;
A mortar, with a witch in it,
Walks as if having somewhat feet;
There’s King Kashchey, o’er his gold withered;
There’s Russian odour… Russian spirit!
And I there sat: I drank sweet mead,
Saw, near the sea, the green oak, growing,
Under it heard a cat, much-knowing,
Talking me its long stories’ set.
Having recalled one of its stories,
I’ll recite it to the world, glorious…

In 1824 Pushkin moved back to the family estate ‘Miskhaylovskoe’ near Pskov, just a few hours south of St. Petersburg, again living under the watchful eye of the Emperor. Even though he was not in St. Petersburg during the Decembrist Uprising of 1825 when Alexander I died, he was implicated along with other officers and aristocrats who refused to swear allegiance to Tsar Nicholas I. Many of his friends were hanged or exiled for life to Siberia for their involvement though Pushkin was cleared and received a pardon in 1826. In 1825 he had written the historical tragedy drama Boris Godunov;

One day some indefatigable monk
Will find my conscientious, unsigned work;
Like me, he will light up his ikon-lamp
And, shaking from the scroll the age-old dust,
He will transcribe these tales in all their truth. —Father Pimen, prologue
though he was not allowed to publish it until five years later. It was followed by his epic historical romance “Poltava” (1828). In 1831, Pushkin married the strikingly beautiful Natalie Goncharova (1812-1863) with whom he would have four children; Alexander, Grigory, Maria, and Natalia. Their home on Arbat street in Moscow is now a Memorial Museum, lovingly restored in every detail to the lavish splendour of Pushkin’s time.

Pushkin’s dramas Mozart and Salieri and The Stone Guest, based on Don Juan’s life, were both published in 1830. The same year he wrote “The Tale of the Priest and of his Workman Balda”, a humorous look at a miserly priest willing to endure slaps to the forehead for free labour. Around the time of Eugene Onegin’s success, Pushkin made the acquaintance of Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, with whom he would become great friends, mutual supporters to each other in life and their literary careers. Pushkin’s series of short stories Tales By Belkin (1831) was followed by The Golden Cockerel (1833). The same year Pushkin wrote about the St. Petersburg floods of 1824 and homage to Peter the Great, “Bronze Horseman”, “now, city of Peter, stand thou fast, foursquare, like Russia; vaunt thy splendor!” in reference to the colossal equestrian statue dominating Senate Square in St. Petersburg. Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky based operas on Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades (1834) as well as Eugene Onegin. The History of the Pugachev Rebellion (1834) and The Daughter of the Commandant (1836) are two historical works based on the peasant uprising of 1773-1775.

It is said that Tsar Nicholas himself was enamored with Pushkin’s wife Natalie, and set to publicly humiliate Pushkin by bestowing to him the lowest possible title at court where they attended balls, but the insult to Pushkin was too much to endure. His debts to support his wife and children were increasing and his marriage was in jeopardy; anonymous letters claimed that a young baron, French émigré Georges Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthès (1812-1895) was having an affair with Natalie. Pushkin challenged him to a duel and both suffered wounds, Pushkin succumbing to his two days later, on 29 January 1837. (d'Anthès would later marry Pushkin's sister-in-law.) Possibly complicit in the affair, government officials secretly buried Pushkin at night. He now rests beside his mother in the Sviatogorski Monastery Cemetery of Sviatye Gory, Pskov region, Russia. The State Museum of Fine Arts was named in honor of Pushkin in 1937. Alexander Pushkin’s legacy of inspiration and influence in Russia and the world over is still in evidence in 21st century poetry, literature, opera, ballet, music, film, and art.

In 1880 Fyodor Dostoevsky attended the dedication of the Pushkin Monument in Moscow, and Ivan S. Turgenev delivered a speech, in part;

“Art, if one employs this term in the broad sense that includes poetry within its realm, is an art of creation laden with ideals, located at the very core of the life of a people, defining the spiritual and moral shape of that life. … “In a period of a people’s life that bears the designation ‘transitional,’ the task of a thinking individual, of a sincere citizen of his country, is to go forward, despite the dirt and difficulty of the path, to go forward without losing from view even for a moment those fundamental ideals on which the entire existence of the society to which he belongs is built.”

‘Tis time, my friend, ‘tis time!
For rest the heart is aching;
Days follow days in flight, and every day is taking
Fragments of being, while together you and I
Make plans to live. Look, all is dust, and we shall die.

— “Tis time, my friend” (1834)

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2006. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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