At the beginning of the nineteenth century, after long preparatory work following the darkness of the medieval ages, and after more or less successful attempts to build up friendly relations with the Occident, Russia, at last found itself enjoying an ingress of culture: Russian literature, art, drama and the sciences were established.
The most beautifully fragrant and valued flower that sprang from this newly formed culture was Alexander Pushkin. Handicapped by his inheritance of the dull, awkward style of Lomonossov and Derzhavin, Pushkin came forward with a live, flexible tongue, and the Russian language has hardly changed since his day.
Pushkin was the creator of literary Russian, without which there would be neither a Russian literature nor the great national writers, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and others.
No other Russian poet achieved his "music" of verse. In Pushkin's description of the battle of Poltava, we sense the turbulent, sharp staccato; in his love scenes we are charmed with the captivating beauty of the languid, expressive legato. This is music. The listener is rendered breathless by the elegance of its rhythm and the colorful harmony produced by the alternation of vowels and consonants, the skilful use of separate words and phrases, which, in their turn, contribute an effect of heavenly melody.
Such divine material was needed to inspire the Russian composers. The best Russian songs, called "romances," numbering over a hundred, were composed on Pushkin's verse; and the greatest operas, more than twenty in all, were inspired by his dramatic creations. Among them are such transcendent masterpieces as Ruslan and Ludmilla by Glinka; The Mermaid, and The Stone Guest by Dragomyzhsky; Boris Godunoff by Mussorgsky; Czar Saltan and The Golden Cockerel by Rymsky-Korsakoff; Eugene Onyegin and The Queen of Spades by Tchaikovsky; The Gypsies by Rachmaninoff; and many others. Thus Pushkin entered history as the inspirer if not the creator of Russian music.
The types which Pushkin created are immortal. In Eugene Onyegin we find the tender, pathetic Tatiana, and Eugene himself, with his restless, early tired-out soul. There is Boris Godunoff, for ever tormented by the rackings of his conscience; the conniving, cunning Shuysky; Peter the Great and the monarchial swing of his mighty nature, in Poltava; the ingenious brigand Pugatchov. All these convex types are as protuberant as the face of a newly-embossed medal. Having once become familiar with them it is impossible to forget. Who could obliterate from his memory the insane miller in The Mermaid; the jealous Aleko from The Gypsies; the envious Salieri; the Stingy Knight, and the passionate, fickle Don Juan?
Such types could be created only by the imagination of a poet endowed with exceptional dramatic genius. In fact Pushkin was not only a poet, but a great dramatist and the founder of Russia's contemporary theater. Had he written nothing but his Boris Godunoff, he might, for that alone, have been pronounced the "Shakespeare of Russia," because no one else but Shakespeare could coin these vivid types, analysed with such psychological finesse; and no one could portray them in such true historical perspective as did Pushkin in this superlative drama. The Russian theater, having succeeded in attaining its present high standard, owes its development to the poet who in this immortal creation laid its foundation.
Pushkin understood the peculiarities and beauty of the Russian folk-language as no other writer of his age knew them. Not in vain did he spend years studying the quaint expressions from his old nurse (Arina Rodionovna, a peasant woman), and from the wafer-bakers who supplied the Moscow churches with their wares. No other poet was able to approach and understand the spirit and style of the Russian folk-lore, as Pushkin exhibited it in his poetic fables, The Golden Cockerel, The Fisherman and the Little Fish, and The Czar Saltan.
He did not confine himself to the folk-poetry of Great-Russia alone. He embraced in his creativeness all the nationalities which comprised the population of the vast Russian Empire: he paid tribute to Polish poetry with his poetic translations of Mitzkyevich; Ukraina, Crimea and Caucasus served him as locales for many magnificent dramatic and lyric poems; many poems were inspired by the beauty of Georgia and Armenia; and an entire cycle of songs was dedicated to the Western Slavs.
It was as though he had found a mystic key to the hidden secret place of Russia's poetry; using it to open the treasure coffers of the West-European poetry and folk-lore. He understood better than any other foreigner the poetic charm of Andre Chenier; and we find many of Pushkin's brilliant poems in French.
He wrote many splendid transcriptions of Byron, who, incidentally, played an important part in the psychological substratum of Pushkin's genius. We find Italian sonnets; also translations from the ancient Greek, in which the serene Hellenic spirit of Sappho and Anacreon blinds us with its brilliance. We also find among his creations transcriptions of Persian poets with all the ardor of Hafiz and the limitless wisdom of the Koran.
A typically Russian poet, Pushkin was at the same time a genuine literary cosmopolite. He is a son of world-wide humanity, "Homo Universalis," a man who gives one the impression of having experienced, essayed and understood everything about him. In one breath he glorified great deeds of heroism, love, self-denial, and depicted the very basest sides of human nature, the depth of vice and vile passions. As a bard of love he has no equal in Russian literature. His lyre sang with equal magnificence of heroic, tender and domestic loves. He poetized the love of passion, the erotic ecstasy, with the boldness and candidness of the ancient Hellenes.
Even his laughter was Hellenic: the laughter of carefree, merry, sunny ancient Greece. His wit was one of the most prominent characteristic stamps of his genius, and was dreaded by his contemporaries. Woe to him who happened to become the target of his epigrams!
Pushkin lived in the darkest epoch of the Russian Empire. He labored in an atmosphere of flagrant oppression from a tyrannical power. Yet, exposing himself to persecution, abuse and banishment, he sang of liberty and ardently dreamed of the day when serfdom would exist no longer, and all men would be free and happy:
The people's love for me will flourish and endure
Because my golden lyre evoked their tender thought.
I dared, in ruthless age, oppression to abjure
And mercy for the downcast sought.
1. As this year marks the centenary of Alexander Pushkin's death, we are glad to include an article on the great Russian poet, by Dr. Alexis Kail, Co-founder and former Director of the National Conservatory of Music in St. Petersburg. — Eds. (return to text)
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