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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Isabel Florence Hapgood (1850–1928)
 
FOREIGNERS who begin their acquaintance with the modern Russian novelists, the generation of the “sixties,” and with no preliminary knowledge of Russian literature in the eighteenth century, will find it difficult to appreciate in due measure the services which Pushkin rendered to both language and literature. Pushkin may be said to have completed the task begun by Lomonosov: of molding into an exquisite instrument, fitted for every service of poetry and prose, the hitherto unwieldy, uncouth forms of the language. That glory in a measure, therefore, he shares with Lomonosov. In the realm for which Russian modern literature holds the palm,—simplicity, realism, absolute fidelity to life,—Pushkin was the forerunner of the great men whose names are synonyms for those qualities. In this domain he should share the fame of the acknowledged father of the school, Gogol. He was the first Russian writer to wage battle against the mock classicism of France which then ruled Europe, and against the translations and servile copies of foreign literature to which almost every writer who preceded him had been wholly devoted. He placed Russian literature firmly on Russian soil; utilizing her rich national traditions, sentiments, and life, in a manner which is as full of life and truth as it is of the highest art.  1
  His powers were due possibly to the mixture of blood, added to a richly endowed nature. His early education most assuredly was not adapted to produce anything new, national, or profound. His father was the scion of a noble family, whose ancestors had occupied positions of importance under the father of Peter the Great, in the seventeenth century. His mother was the granddaughter of Abram Hannibal, the famous godchild and favorite of Peter the Great, of whom Pushkin wrote in ‘Peter the Great’s Arab.’ Hannibal was in reality a negro. He was captured on the shores of Africa, and sent to Constantinople as a slave. The Russian Ambassador bought him and sent him to Peter the Great, who had him baptized. Later on, when Hannibal’s brother came to St. Petersburg to ransom him, Peter refused to part with his friend. Peter sent him, at the age of eighteen, to France for his education; and on his return to Russia, kept him constantly beside him. During the reign of the Empress Anna, Hannibal, as the personal enemy of Biron, was banished to Siberia; but he soon returned in secret, and hid himself on his estate until the accession to the throne of the Empress Elizabeth, who loaded him with favors. His son, Pushkin’s grandfather, was a distinguished general of Katherine II.’s time, and died shortly after the poet’s birth, which occurred on June 7th, 1799. Though Pushkin had blue eyes, a very fair skin, and in youth very light hair, his lips and the whole cast of his countenance betrayed the negro blood. His father, on retiring from the military service, settled in Moscow, and became a thorough exemplar of the gallicized Russian,—pleasure-loving, wholly devoted to society and amusement,—of which there were but too many instances in the Russia of that epoch. French was the language of the family, and of Alexander Sergyéevitch’s education. His mother, who aimed at making of him a brilliant society man, on the pattern of his father, took him as a little boy everywhere with her in society, and he was well acquainted with the literary men of the time; Moscow being as yet the center of that life. As a child he was neither clever nor studious, but he was an omnivorous reader. Had he been receptive, his French tutors would undoubtedly have deprived Russia of incalculable treasures.  2
  At the age of ten he began to write amateur plays and imitations of French verse, all in French. At the age of twelve he was placed in the famous Lyceum of Tzarskoe Selo, then just opened; and it was the wise rule of that institution which saved him for his country. The aim of this Lyceum, which succeeded in turning out many distinguished men for its country’s service, was to develop the individual powers of the pupil—especially in the line of independence and morals—to the highest degree. A great deal of liberty was allowed the boys out of school, and they used it for literary purposes; publishing several manuscript journals, and devoting their evenings to the intellectual amusement of story-telling. Under these auspices, Pushkin began to write in Russian, beginning with biting epigrams. At the public examination in 1815, he aroused the enthusiastic admiration of the aged poet Derzhavin by his wonderful facility and mastery of poetic forms, though there was very little originality of thought in his poem. Karamzin the historian, and Zhukovsky the poet, also divined the lad’s wonderful gifts; and the latter soon began to submit his poems to Pushkin for the judgment of the boy’s wonderfully developed taste. The admiration of the great literary lights at last convinced his parents that dissatisfaction with his school reports as to diligence and the acquisition of general knowledge must be set aside for pride in his future greatness. The important points about his poetry at this epoch were the marvelous variety of subject and the astonishing delicacy with which he imitated various poetical forms and yielded to varying poetical moods. But at this very time, before he left the Lyceum, he had entered on the new path: he had begun to write his romantic-fantastic poem, ‘Ruslan and Liudmila,’ in which, for the first time in history, Russian poetry dealt with strictly national themes, on native soil, expressed in a free, natural, narrative style, which was utterly opposed to the prevailing rhetorical school, both in irregularity of movement and diversions from the theme. This no doubt was the fruit of his child’s-fondness for popular tales, which his maternal grandmother had told him; and the startled critics were at a loss what to say when it was published later on in 1820.  3
  Pushkin’s talent, added to his birth and family connections, gave him immediate access to the gayest society of St. Petersburg, when he left the Lyceum; and he plunged so wildly into dissipation that many were seriously alarmed as to the possible effect on his literary future. Intoxicated by his gifts and admiration, he openly and sharply attacked, in clever epigrams, everybody and everything which did not please him. At last he was called to account by the governor of the city, and frankly furnished copies, from memory, of all the offensive couplets. Touched by this, the governor confined his punishment to measures which proved the salvation of the poet, in a literary sense. He was transferred from the ministry of Foreign Affairs (into which the students of the Lyceum all graduated) and sent to southern Russia, provided with traveling expenses, and given a suitable rank in another department of the service; and all possible precautions were taken to administer the lesson without injuring his feelings or dignity. During this period, between 1820 and 1824, he lived chiefly in the south,—first in Kishineff, then in Odessa; made a trip to the Caucasus, whose impressions are recorded in his ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus’; visited the Crimea, which resulted in the rendition of the Tatar idyl in ‘The Fountain of Baktchisarai’; and strolled for a time with the gypsies, imbibing ideas which he put into ‘The Gypsies.’ During this period he fell greatly under the influence of Byron, as the portions of ‘Evgenie Onyegin’ written in Odessa, as well as the poems just mentioned, and short lyric pieces like ‘The Nereid,’ plainly show. This influence ceased, however, in 1824, after which there is hardly a trace of it; the poet’s return to the north being coincident with his return to his true national subjects and style, which he developed with increased power, and never again abandoned. The manner in which he was returned to the place and material which suited his talent is as amusing as it is instructive. He did not get on well with his chief in Odessa, Count M. S. Vorontzoff, whom he displeased by his mode of life, his sharp utterances, and his heedlessness of public opinion. The end came when Pushkin launched his epigram on Vorontzoff: “Half my-lord, half trader, half wise man and half dunce; half rascal—but there are hopes of his becoming a whole one yet.” Count Vorontzoff dealt as gently as possible with his intractable subordinate, and made a curious report to the government, with the object of not prejudicing the authorities against him. “There are many people here,” ran the official document,—“and at the bathing season their number is greatly augmented,—who, being enthusiastic admirers of Pushkin’s poetry, display their sympathy by exaggerated laudations, and thereby render him an inimical service; since they contribute to obscure his mind, and enhance his opinion of himself as a great author, while in reality he is only a weak imitator of a not very respectable model—Lord Byron.” The Count wound up by suggesting that only in some other government could less dangerous society, and the leisure for perfecting his rising talent, be assured to the young poet. As he had been guilty of another indiscretion at this precise moment, he was retired from the service, and ordered to live on the estate of Mikhailovskoe, Pskoff government, which belonged to his parents. His father was invited by the local authorities to undertake his surveillance, in order to obviate the appointment of any other superintendent; but he exercised his office in such an intolerably oppressive manner—as though his son were a criminal of the deepest dye—that Pushkin appealed to the poet Zhukovsky, who was powerful at court, to free him from this persecution. Thanks to Zhukovsky’s intervention, matters were improved; the elder Pushkin withdrew in disgust from the estate, leaving his son to the care of the Marshal of Nobility, and to the peace of mind which he required for his work. His solitude was fruitful. Through the influence and folk-tales of his famous old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, he became more and more imbued with the spirit of his native land, more zealous in his studies of it, more enthusiastic in the artistic prosecution of his true vocation. He called listening to his nurse “making up for the defects in his accursed education,”—meaning thereby the French influence. All the folk-tales which he published were derived from Arina Rodionovna, and his study of Shakespeare, undertaken at this time, finally freed him from the influence of Byron.  4
  He lived at Mikhailovskoe until the autumn of 1826, writing with fully matured talents, in the style which constitutes his chief merit. Harmony of versification which has never since been approached, except in a measure by Lermontov; vivid delineation of character; simple but wonderfully truthful description of everyday life, which all Russian writers had scorned down to that time,—such are Pushkin’s indestructible claims to immortality. In the autumn of 1826 he was summoned to Moscow, to an interview with the Emperor Nikolas I., who thereafter undertook to be the censor of the poet’s writings. This return to the society and dissipations of the capitals, in which the greater part of his remaining life was spent, acted as a whole unfavorably on his talent. Nevertheless, he wrote many fine things during his occasional retreats to the country, including ‘Boris Godunov,’ which marked an epoch in Russian dramatic literature and historical treatment; ‘Poltava’; and a mass of shorter pieces.  5
  Early in 1831 he married Natalya Nikolaevna Gontcharoff, and what we may designate as his prose period began. He and his family were loaded with Imperial favors, pensions, and honors. But his own taste for aristocratic society, and lavish expenditure, coincided but too well with the thoughtless demands of his young and beautiful wife, who was a reigning belle. Anxiety about money haunted the poet during the brief remainder of his life; his father, whom he generously tried to aid, ungratefully accused him of dishonesty; debts accumulated; all inclination to write poetry fled before these disheartening facts, and he plunged into the study of historical documents in the State Archives, to which he was allowed access. This study resulted in ‘The History of Pugatcheff’s Rebellion’; and in his celebrated story from the same period (Katherine II.), ‘The Captain’s Daughter,’ in which he, almost simultaneously with Gogol, laid the firm foundations of the modern, the true Russian school. In 1836 Petersburg society began to gossip about the lovely Madame Pushkin; and Baron George Hekkeren-Dantes, natural son of the minister from Holland to the Russian court, and a boastful officer in the Chevalier Guards, began to persecute her with his attentions. Pushkin, though he entirely absolved his wife from blame in the matter, felt compelled to challenge Dantes to a duel, because of the anonymous letters sent to him and his relatives. Dantes averted the duel by marrying Pushkin’s sister, which offered an apparent excuse for his previous attentions. Nevertheless the gossip continued; Pushkin refused to receive his brother-in-law, and the latter, abetted by his father, persisted in their persecution of Madame Pushkin. At last Pushkin challenged the elder Hekkeren to a duel; the younger Hekkeren (Dantes) adopted the quarrel, and the duel resulted in the death of Pushkin (at St. Petersburg, January 29th, 1837). So great was public indignation against Dantes, that the authorities feared a riot at the poet’s funeral, and a catastrophe to the Hekkerens. Accordingly the funeral was appointed to take place in secret, by night, and guards were stationed to insure safety. The Emperor assigned 150.000 rubles for the payment of the poet’s debts and the publication of his works, and bestowed a generous pension on his family.  6
  Pushkin cannot be regarded as having derived from abroad his inspiration to turn Russian literature into a new path, in spite of the admitted influence of Lord Byron and his later assiduous study of foreign writers. All the Continental literatures were striving to free themselves from the bonds of servitude to French pseudo-classicism by working out their several national themes; and that was the course which Pushkin instinctively adopted while still a schoolboy, in ‘Ruslan and Liudmila.’ Moreover, he was the first man who fully realized for Russians the poetic ideal, in his absolute freedom of relations to society and his own work, and in his character and temperament. For all these things, and for his appeal to their national sentiments, his fellow-countrymen adored him. The element of romanticism which complicated his realism in no wise hindered, but rather increased this adoration; though there came a time when it was considered rather blameworthy to read his poetry. But his incomparable union of inward force with beauty and elegance of outward expression was universally recognized by the name of “the Pushkin style of poetry.” The special direction in which Pushkin surpasses all other Russian poets is in his marvelously harmonious blending of truth, beauty, delicate appreciation of the fundamental characteristics of the national life, unsurpassed clearness in setting them forth, with a simplicity which enhances but does not exclude the most satisfying completeness. Unfortunately for foreigners, it is impossible to reproduce the melody of his versification; and he suffers accordingly, as all poets must suffer, in any attempt to render his work into another language. It is unlikely that his work as a whole will ever be accessible to foreigners; though in all directions—lyrical pieces, historical and dramatic fragments, prose tales, and correspondence—it is invaluable to the student of the Russian literary movement in this century. ‘Ruslan and Liudmila’ was used as the libretto for an opera by Glinka, and Dargomishsky made a similar use of the dramatic fragment ‘The Water Nymph’ (‘Rusalka’). Both operas are still included in the repertory of the Imperial Russian Theatre.  7
  ‘Evgenie Onyegin’ is rightly regarded as Pushkin’s greatest work. The fact that it was written at intervals, during the period from 1822 to 1829, affords us an opportunity to watch the poet’s growth from the days when he was willing to pose, in literature and life, as “the Russian Byron,” to the epoch, which he herein inaugurated, of vigorous nationality in thought and expression. Evgenie begins as the Byronic young society man, recalled from his city dissipations and pleasures to the country by his father’s death. Here he lives, for a long time avoiding all contact with his neighbors, whose social experiences and culture are not on the level of his sympathies. Vladimir Lensky, a young poet, the son of one of these landed gentry families, returns from abroad, and a friendship of congenial minds and tastes springs up between him and Onyegin. Lensky has long been betrothed to Olga Larin, and induces Onyegin to call upon her family with him. Olga’s elder sister, Tatyana, immediately falls in love with Onyegin, and writes him a letter which is a famous literary piece. Onyegin preaches her a fatherly sermon, and the incident remains unknown to every one except themselves and Tatyana’s rather dull old nurse. Shortly afterwards, Lensky persuades Onyegin to go to the Latins on the occasion of Tatyana’s Name-day festival. Onyegin, for the sake of keeping up appearances in that gossipy country district, yields and goes. He is placed, at dinner, directly opposite to Tatyana, by the innocent machinations of her family; and finds the situation so embarrassing that he determines, in dull wrath, to revenge himself on the perfectly innocent Lensky by flirting with Olga, who is to become Lensky’s wife within a fortnight. Olga, a pretty but weak-natured girl, accepts his attentions at dinner, and the dance which follows, with such interest that Lensky sends Onyegin a challenge to fight a duel. Onyegin, appalled at the results of his momentary unjust anger, would gladly withdraw and apologize, were it not that Lensky has chosen as the bearer of his challenge a local fire-eater and tattler who would misrepresent his motives. Accordingly he accepts—and Lensky falls under his bullet. He then goes off on his travels; Olga soon consoles herself with a handsome officer, and goes with him to his regiment shortly after their marriage. Tatyana, who is of a reserved, intense character, pines under these conditions, refuses all offers of marriage, and is at last, by the advice of friends, taken to Moscow for the winter. There, as a wall-flower at her first ball, she captivates a prince from St. Petersburg, who is also a general, and of high social importance. She obeys the desire of her parents, and marries him. When Onyegin returns to the capital a couple of years later, he finds, to his intense astonishment, that the little country girl whom he has patronized, rejected, almost scorned, is one of the great ladies of the court and society. He falls madly in love with her, in his turn, but receives not the slightest sign of friendship from her. Driven to despair by her cold indifference, he writes her three letters, to which she does not reply; and then, entering her boudoir unexpectedly through the carelessness of her servants, he finds her reading his letter, in tears. To his confession of love, she replies that she loves him still, but will be true to her kind and noble husband. Tatyana, with her reserved power, her frank, deep expression of her passion, her fidelity in love and duty, is regarded as one of the noblest and most profoundly faithful pictures of the genuine Russian woman to be found in Russian literature, as Onyegin, Lensky, and Olga are also considered typical in their several ways,—Onyegin ranking almost on a level with Tatyana in sympathy, quite on a level as a type. Tschaikovsky has used ‘Evgenie Onyegin’ for an opera, which is a favorite in Russia.  8
  Pushkin’s other epoch-making work, ‘Boris Godunov,’ is a drama of the period which immediately followed the death of Ivan the Terrible’s son, Feodor, and the ensuing troublous time. Boris Godunov, brother to Tzar Feodor’s wife, and favorite of the late Ivan the Terrible, has had the latter’s youngest son, Dmitry, murdered, and is bent on seizing the throne. He forces the nobles, ecclesiastics, and populace of Moscow to entreat his acceptance of that coveted throne with tears. He reigns. In the Chudov (Miracles) Monastery, which stands near the Tzar’s palace in the Kremlin, a young monk conceives the project of representing himself as the dead Tzarevitch Dmitry, escaped from his murderers, and of wresting the throne from the “usurper.” The idea is suggested to him by his conversation with an aged monk (who has written the Chronicles and seen the murdered Dmitry), wherein he learns that his age corresponds to that which Dmitry would have attained, and deplores his own lack of stirring adventure before he immured himself in the monastery. This Grigory Otrepieff, the first of the many Pretenders who racked Russia with suffering in their claims to be the dead Tzarevitch, makes good his escape to Poland; wins the support of the King and nobles, who do not believe in him, but grasp eagerly at the pretext to harass their ancient enemy; and eventually reigns for a short time in Moscow. To his betrothed, Marina Mnishek, the ambitious daughter of one of his noble Polish supporters, he confesses the falsity of his claims. Godunov and his children naturally suffer at the hands of the fickle multitude which had besought him to rule over them; but this is hinted at, not shown, in the piece. This drama is not only of the greatest interest in itself, and as an absolute novelty,—the foundation of a style in Russian dramatic writing,—but also as showing the genesis of Count Alexei K. Tolstoy’s famous ‘Dramatic Trilogy’ from the same historical epoch written forty years later.  9
 
 
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