1902 Encyclopedia > Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin
Russian poet and writer

ALEXANDER PUSHKIN [POUSHKIN] (1799-1837), the most celebrated of Russian poets, was born at Moscow, 7th June 1799. He belonged to an ancient family of boyars, and in a clever poem, many of the sallies of which where too trenchant to pass the censorship, he has sketched some of the more important of his progenitors. A strange ancestor was his maternal great-grandfather, a favourite Negro ennobled by Peter the Great, who bequeathed to him the curly hair of his race and a somewhat darker complexion than falls to the lot of the ordinary Russian.

Alexander Pushkin image

Alexander Pushkin.
Oil on canvas portrait painted by VasilyTropinin in 1827.

In 1811 the poet entered the newly-founded lyceum of Tzarskoe Selo, situated near St Petersburg. To his stay in this college Poushkin has alluded in many of his poems. On quitting the lyceum in 1817 he was attached to the ministry of foreign affairs, and in this year he began the composition of his Ruslan and Ly’udmila, a poem which was completed in 1820. The scene is laid at Kieff, in the time of Vladimir, the "bright sun" of the old Russian legends. Meanwhile Poushkin mixed in all the gayest society of the capital, and it seemed as if he would turn out a mere man of fashion instead of a poet. But an event occurred which, however disastrous it might appear to him at first sight, was fraught with the happiest consequences to his muse. A very daring Ode to Liberty written by him had been circulated in manuscript in St Petersburg. This production having been brought to the notice of the governor, the young author only escaped a journey to Siberia by accepting an official position at Kishineff in Bessarabia, in southern Russia. Here he found himself surrounded by a world of new associations. If we follow the chronological order of his poems, we can trace with what enthusiasm he greeted the ever-changing prospects of the sea and the regions of the Danube and the Crimea. In some elegant lines he sang the Fountain of Bakhchisarai, the old palace of the khans near Simpheropol. This fountain and the legend connected with it he afterwards made the subject of a longer poem.

At this time Poushkin was, or affected to be, overpowered by the Byronic "Weltschmerz." Having visited the baths of the Caucasus for the re-establishment of his health in 1822, he felt the inspiration of its magnificent scenery, and composed his next production of any considerable length, The Prisoner of the Caucasus, narrating the story of the love of a Circassian girl for a youthful Russian officer who has been taken prisoner. This was followed by the Fountain of Bakhchisarai, which tells of the detention of a young Polish captive, a Countess Potocka, in the palace of the khans of the Crimea. About the same time he composed some interesting lines on Ovid, whose place of banishment, Tomi, was not far distant. To his period belongs also the Ode to Napoleon, which is far inferior to the fine poems of Byron and Manzoni, or indeed of Lermontoff, on the same subject. In the Lay concerning the Wise Oleg we see how the influence of Karamzin’s History had led the Russians to take a greater interest in the early records of their country. The next long poem was the Gipsies (Tzuigani), an Oriental tale of love and vengeance, in which Poushkin has admirably delineated these nomads, whose strange mode of life fascinated him. During his stay in southern Russia he allowed himself to get mixed up with the secret societies then rife throughout the country. He also became embroiled with his chief, Count Vorntzoff, who sent him to report upon the damages which had been committed by locusts in the southern part of Bessarabia. Poushkin took this as a premeditated insult, and sent in his resignation; and Count Vorontzoff in his official report requested the Government to remove the poet, "as he was surrounded by a society of political and literary fanatics, whose praises might turn his head and make him believe that he was a great writer, whereas he was only a feeble imitator of Lord Byron, an original not much to be commended." The poet quitted Odessa in 1824, and on leaving wrote a fine Ode to the Sea. Before the close of the year he had returned to his father’s seat at Mikhailovskoe, near Pskoff, where he soon became embroiled with his relatives, but grew more at ease when the veteran, who led the life of reckless expenditure of the old fashioned Russian boyar, betook himself to the capital. The father survived his celebrated son, and it was to him that Zhukovski addressed a pathetic letter, giving him an account of his death. His mother died a year before her son; and Poushkin, when choosing a burial-place for her, marked out a spot for himself and expressed a presentiment that he had not long to live. He had now involved himself in trouble on all sides; for so obnoxious had he become to the authorities even during his retreat in the country that he was put under the supervision of the governor, the marshal of the nobility, and the archimandrite of the neighbouring monastery of Svyatogorski. In his retirement he devoted a great deal of time to the study of the old Russian popular poetry, the builinas, of which he became a great admirer. Recollections of Byron and André Chenier gave the inspiration to some fine lines consecrated to the latter, in which Poushkin appeared more conservative than was his wont, and wrote in a spirit antagonistic to the French Revolution. In 1825 he published his tragedy Boris Godunoff, a bold effort to imitate the style of Shakespeare. Up to this time the tradition of the Russian stage, such as it was, had been French. Plays of all kinds had appeared,ætranslations of Molière, Corneille, and Racine, or adaptations of them, and even glimpses of Shakespeare conveyed through the medium of the paltry versions of Ducis.

In 1825 the unfortunate conspiracy of the Dekabrists broke out, the ostensible aim of which was to defend the claims of the grand-duke Constantine against his brother Nicholas, but the real purpose was to set up a republican form of government in Russia, for which the country was not by any means prepared. Many of the conspirators were personal friends of Poushkin, especially Küchelbecker and Pustchin. The poet himself was to a certain extent compromised, but he succeeded in getting to his house at Mikhailovskoe and burning all the papers which might have been prejudicial to him. He had resolved to go to St Petersburg, possibly to throw in his lot with his friends there, but was stopped by what are considered portents by the Russian people. As soon as he had left the gates of his house he met a priest, and he had not gone a verst before three hares crossed his path. These were such bad omens that there was nothing for him to do, as a genuine Russian and at all times a superstitious man, but to return home at once. Through influential friends he succeeded in making his peace with emperor, to whom he was presented at Moscow soon after his coronation. The story goes Nicholas said to Count Bludoff on the same evening, "I have just been conversing with the most witty man in Russia." In 1828 appeared Polava, a spirited narrative poem, in which the expedition of Charles XII. against Peter and the treachery of the hetman Mazeppa were described. The best part of the poem is the picture of the battle itself, where the colours are laid on very boldly. In 1829 Poushkin again visited the Caucasus, on this occasion accompanying the expedition of Prince Paskewitch. He wrote a pleasing account of the tour; many of the short lyrical pieces suggested by the scenery and associations of his visit are delightful, especially the lines on the Don and the Caucasus. In 1831 Poushkin married Mademoiselle Natalia Goncharoff, and in the following year was again attached to the ministry of foreign affairs, with a salary of 5000 roubles. He now busied himself with an historical work, an account of the revolt of the Cossack Pugacheff, who almost overthrow the empire of Catherine and was executed at Moscow in the latter part of the 18th century. While engaged upon this he wrote The Captain’s Daughter, one of the best of his prose works. In 1832 was completed the poem Eugene Onyegin, in which the author attempted a completely new style, moulding his production upon the lighter sketches of Byron in the Italian manner. The poem is, on the whole, very successful. The metre is graceful and sprightly and well adapter for serio-comic verse. The chapters of Lenski, Onyegin, Tatiana, and Olga are drawn with a vigorous hand, and each is at type. No one can accuse Poushkin of what of nationalism in this poem: it is Russian in every fibre.

In 1837 the poet, who had been growing in literary reputation, fell mortally wounded in a duel with Baron George Heckeren d’Anthés, the adopted son of the Dutch minister then resident at the court of St Petersburg. D’Anthés, a vain and frivolous young man, had married a sister of the poet’s wife. Notwithstanding this he aroused Poushkin’s jealousy by some attentions which he paid Natalia; but the grounds for the poet’s anger, it must be confessed, do not appear very great. Poushkin died, after two days’ suffering, on the afternoon of Friday, 10th February. D’Anthés was tried by court-martial and expelled the country. In the year 1880 a statue of the poet was erected at the Tver Barrier at Moscow, and fêtes were held in his honour, on which occasion many interesting memorials of him were exhibited to his admiring countrymen and a few foreigners who had congregated for the festivities. The poet left four children; his wisdom was afterwards married to an officer in the army named Lanskoi; she died in 1863.

Poushkin remains as yet the greatest poet whom Russia has produced. The most celebrated names before him were those of Lomonosoff and Derzhavin; the former was a composer of merely scholastic verses, and the latter, in spite of great merits, was too much wedded to the pedantries of the classical school. Since Poushkin’s death, Lermontoff and Nekrasoff have appeared, both distinctly writers of genius, but they are confessedly inferior to him. His poetical tales are spirited and full of dramatic power. The influence of Byron is undoubtedly seen in them, but they are not imitations, still less is anything in them plagiarized. ‘Boris Godunoff is a fine tragedy; on the whole Eugene Onyegin must be considered Poushkin’s masterpiece. Here we have a great variety of stylesæsatire, pathos, and humour mixed together. The character-painting is good, and the descriptions of scenery introduced faithful to nature. The poem in many places reminds us of Byron, who himself in his mixture of the pathetic and the humorous was a disciple of the Italian school. Poushkin also wrote a great many lyrical pieces. Interspersed among the poet’s minor works will be found many epigrams, but some of the best composed by him were not so fortunate as to pass the censorship, and must be read in a supplementary volume published at Berlin. As a prose writer Poushkin has considerable merits. Besides his History of the Revolt of Pugacheff, which is perhaps too much of a compilation, he published a small volume of tales under the nom de plume of Ivan Byelkin. These all show considerable dramatic power; the best are the Captain’s Daughter, a tale of the times of Catherine II., the Undertaker, a very ghostly story, which will remind the English reader of some of the tales of Edgar Poe; The Pistol Shot; and The Queen of Spades. Of the letters of Poushkin, which originally were to be found scattered over many magazines and literary journals, a fairly complete collection was published in the new edition of his works which appeared at Moscow under the editorship of M. Yefrimoff. (W. R. M)

The above article was written by: William Richard Morfill, M.A.; Professor of Russian and the other Slavonic languages, Oxford; Curator of the Taylor Institution, Oxford; author of Russia, Slavonic Literature, etc.

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