Maurice Baring.

An Outline of Russian Literature





Griboyedov, the author of Gore ot Uma, a writer of a very different order, although not a Decembrist himself, is a product of that period. His comedy still remains the unsurpassed masterpiece of Russian comedy, and can be compared with Beaumarchais Figaro and Sheridans School for Scandal.

Griboyedov was a Foreign Office official, and he was murdered when Minister Plenipotentiary at Teheran, on January 30, 1829. He conceived the plot of his play in 1816, and read aloud some scenes in St. Petersburg in 1823-24. They caused a sensation in literary circles, and the play began to circulate rapidly in MSS. Two fragments of the drama were published in one of the almanacs, which then took the place of literary reviews. But beyond this, Griboyedov could neither get his play printed nor acted. Thousands of copies circulated in MSS., but the play was not produced on the stage until 1831, and then much mutilated; and it was not printed until 1833.

Gore ot Uma is written in verse, in iambics of varying length, like Krylovs fables. The unities are preserved. The action takes place in one day and in the same house that of Famusov, an elderly gentleman of the Moscow upper class holding a Government appointment. He is a widower and has one daughter, Sophia, whose sensibility is greater than her sense; and the play opens on a scene where the father discovers her talking to his secretary, Molchalin, and says he will stand no nonsense. Presently, the friend of Sophias childhood, Chatsky, arrives after a three years absence abroad; Chatsky is a young man of independent ideas whose misfortune it is to be clever. He notices that Sophia receives him coldly, and later on he perceives that she is in love with Molchalin, a wonderfully drawn type, the perfect climber, time-server and place-seeker, and the incarnation of convention, who does not care a rap for Sophia. Chatsky declaims to Famusov his contempt for modern Moscow, for the slavish worship by society of all that is foreign, for its idolatry of fashion and official rank, its hollowness and its convention. Famusov, the incarnation of respectable conventionality, does not understand one word of what he is saying.

At an evening party given at Famusovs house, Chatsky is determined to find out whom Sophia loves. He decides it is Molchalin, and lets fall a few biting sarcasms about him to Sophia; and Sophia, to pay him back for his sarcasm, lets it be understood by one of the guests that he is mad. The half-spoken hint spreads like lightning; and the spreading of the news is depicted in a series of inimitable scenes. Chatsky enters while the subject is being discussed, and delivers a long tirade on the folly of Moscow society, which only confirms the suspicions of the guests; and he finds when he gets to the end of his speech that he is speaking to an empty room.

In the fourth act we see the guests leaving the house after the party. Chatsky is waiting for his carriage.

Sophia appears on the staircase and calls Molchalin. Chatsky, hearing her voice, hides behind a pillar. Liza, Sophias maid, comes to fetch Molchalin, and knocks at his door. Molchalin comes out, and not knowing that Sophia or Chatsky are within hearing, makes love to Liza and tells her that he only loves Sophia out of duty. Then Sophia appears, having heard everything. Molchalin falls on his knees to her: she is quite inexorable. Chatsky comes forward and begins to speak his mind when all is interrupted by the arrival of Famusov, who speaks his. Chatsky shakes the dust of the house and of Moscow off his feet, and Sophia is left without Chatsky and without Molchalin.

The Gore ot Uma is a masterpiece of satire rather than a masterpiece of dramatic comedy. That is to say that, as a satire of the Moscow society of the day and of the society of yesterday, and of to-morrow, it is immortal, and forms a complete work: but as a comedy it does not. Almost every scene separately is perfect in itself, but dramatically it does not group itself round one central idea or one mainspring of action. Judged from the point of view of dramatic propriety, the behaviour of the hero is wildly improbable throughout; there is no reason for the spectator to think he should be in love with Sophia; if he is, there is no reason for him to behave as he does; if a man behaved like that, declaiming at an evening party long speeches on the decay of the times, the most frivolous of societies would be justified in thinking him mad.

Pushkin hit on the weak point of the play as a play when he wrote: In The Misfortune of being Clever the question arises, Who is clever? and the answer is Griboyedov. Chatsky is an honourable young man who has lived for a long time with a clever man (that is to say with Griboyedov), and learnt his clever sarcasms; but to whom does he say them? To Famusov, to the old ladies at the party. This is unforgivable, because the first sign of a clever man is to know at once whom he is dealing with.

But what makes the work a masterpiece is the naturalness of the characters, the dialogue, the comedy of the scenes which represent Moscow society. It is extraordinary that on so small a scale, in four short acts, Griboyedov should have succeeded in giving so complete a picture of Moscow society, and should have given the dialogue, in spite of its being in verse, the stamp of conversational familiarity. The portraits are all full-length portraits, and when the play is produced now, the rendering of each part raises as much discussion in Russia as a revival of one of Sheridans comedies in England.

As for the style, nearly three-quarters of the play has passed into the Russian language. It is forcible, concise, bitingly sarcastic, it is as neat and dry as W. S. Gilbert, as elegant as La Fontaine, as clear as an icicle, and as clean as the thrust of a sword. But perhaps the crowning merit of this immortal satire is its originality. It is a product of Russian life and Russian genius, and as yet it is without a rival.

Outside the current of politics and political aspirations, there appeared during this same epoch a poet who exercised a considerable influence over Russian literature, and who devoted himself exclusively to poetry. This was Basil Zhukovsky (1783-1852). He opened the door of Russian literature on the fields of German and English poetry. The first poem he published in 1802 was a translation of Grays Elegy; this, and an imitation of B?rgers Leonore, which affected all Slav literatures, brought him fame. Later, he translated Schillers Maid of Orleans, his ballads, some of the lyrics of Uhland, Goethe, Hebbel, and a great quantity of other foreign poems. His translations were faithful, but in spite of this he gave them the stamp of his own dreamy personality. He was made tutor to the Tsarevitch Alexander afterwards Alexander II, and for a time his production ceased; but when this task was finished, he braced himself in his old age to translate The Odyssey, and this translation appeared in 1848-50. In this work he obeyed the first great law of translation, Thou shalt not turn a good poem into a bad one. He produced a beautiful work; but he also did what all other translators of Homer have done; he took the Homer out and left the Zhukovsky, and with it something sentimental, elegiac, and didactic.

Zhukovskys greatest service to Russian literature consisted in his exploding the superstition that the literature of France was the only literature that counted, and introducing literary Russia to the poets of England and Germany rather than of France. But apart from this, he is the first and best translator in European literature, for what Krylov did with some of La Fontaines fables, he did for all the literature he touched he re-created it in Russian, and made it his own. In his translation of Grays Elegy, for instance, he not only translates the poets meaning into musical verse, but he conveys the intangible atmosphere of dreamy landscape, and the poignant accent which makes that poem the natural language of grief. It is characteristic of him that, thirty-seven years after he translated the poem, he visited Stoke Poges, re-read Grays Elegy there, and made another translation, which is still more faithful than the first.

The Russian language was by this time purified from all outward excrescences, released from the bondage of convention and the pseudo-classical, open to all outside influences, and only waiting, like a ready-tuned instrument, on which Krylov and Zhukovsky had already sounded sweet notes and deep tones, and which Karamzin had proved to be a magnificent vehicle for musical and perspicuous prose, for a poet of genius to come and sound it from its lowest note to the top of its compass, for there was indeed much music and excellent voice to be plucked from it. At the appointed hour the man came. It was Pushkin. He arrived at a time when a battle of words was raging between the so-called classical and romantic schools. The pseudo-classical, with all its mythological machinery and conventional apparatus, was totally alien to Russia, and a direct and slavish imitation of the French. On the other hand, the utmost confusion reigned as to what constituted romanticism. To each single writer it meant a different thing: Enfon?ez Racine, and the unities, in one case; or ghosts, ballads, legends, local colour in another; or the defiance of morality and society in another. Zhukovsky, in introducing German romanticism into Russia, paved the way for its death, and for the death of all exotic fashions and models; for he paved the way for Pushkin to render the whole quarrel obsolete by creating models of his own and by founding a national literature.

Pushkin was born on May 26, 1799, at Moscow. He was of ancient lineage, and inherited African negro blood on his mothers side, his mothers grandmother being the daughter of Peter the Greats negro, Hannibal. Until he was nine years old, he did not show signs of any unusual precocity; but from then onwards he was seized with a passion for reading which lasted all his life. He read Plutarchs Lives, the Iliad and the Odyssey in a translation. He then devoured all the French books he found in his fathers library. Pushkin was gifted with a photographic memory, which retained what he read immediately and permanently. His first efforts at writing were in French, comedies, which he performed himself to an audience of his sisters. He went to school in 1812 at the Lyceum of Tsarskoe Selo, a suburb of St. Petersburg. His school career was not brilliant, and his leaving certificate qualifies his achievements as mediocre, even in Russian. But during the six years he spent at the Lyceum, he continued to read voraciously. His favourite poet at this time was Voltaire. He began to write verse, first in French and then in Russian; some of it was printed in 1814 and 1815 in reviews, and in 1815 he declaimed his Recollections of Tsarskoe Selo in public at the Lyceum examination, in the presence of Derzhavin the poet.

The poems which he wrote at school afterwards formed part of his collected works. In these poems, consisting for the greater part of anacreontics and epistles, although they are immature, and imitative, partly of contemporary authors such as Derzhavin and Zhukovsky, and partly of the French anacreontic school of poets, such as Voltaire, Gresset and Parny, the sound of a new voice was unmistakable. Indeed, not only his contemporaries, but the foremost representatives of the Russian literature of that day, Derzhavin, Karamzin and Zhukovsky, made no mistake about it. They greeted the first notes of this new lyre with enthusiasm. Zhukovsky used to visit the boy poet at school and read out his verse to him. Derzhavin was enthusiastic over the recitation of his Recollections of Tsarskoe Selo. Thus fame came to Pushkin as easily as the gift of writing verse. He had lisped in numbers, and as soon as he began to speak in them, his contemporaries immediately recognized and hailed the new voice. He did not wake up and find himself famous like Byron, but he walked into the Hall of Fame as naturally as a young heir steps into his lawful inheritance. If we compare Pushkins school-boy poetry with Byrons Hours of Idleness, it is easy to understand how this came about. In the Hours of Idleness there is, perhaps, only one poem which would hold out hopes of serious promise; and the most discerning critics would have been justified in being careful before venturing to stake any great hopes on so slender a hint. But in Pushkins early verse, although the subject-matter is borrowed, and the style is still irregular and careless, it is none the less obvious that it flows from the pen of the author without effort or strain; and besides this, certain coins of genuine poetry ring out, bearing the image and superscription of a new mint, the mint of Pushkin.

When the first of his poems to attract the attention of a larger audience, Ruslan and Ludmila, was published, in 1820, it was greeted with enthusiasm by the public; but it had already won the suffrages of that circle which counted most, that is to say, the leading men of letters of the day, who had heard it read out in MSS. For as soon as Pushkin left school and stepped into the world, he was received into the literary circle of the day on equal terms. After he had read aloud the first cantos of Ruslan and Ludmila at Zhukovskys literary evenings, Zhukovsky gave him his portrait with this inscription: To the pupil, from his defeated master; and Batyushkov, a poet who, after having been influenced, like Pushkin, by Voltaire and Parny, had gone back to the classics, Horace and Tibullus, and had introduced the classic anacreontic school of poetry into Russia, was astonished to find a young man of the world outplaying him without any trouble on the same lyre, and exclaimed, Oh! how well the rascal has started writing!

The publication of Ruslan and Ludmila sealed Pushkins reputation definitely, as far as the general public was concerned, although some of the professional critics treated the poem with severity. The subject of the poem was a Russian fairy-tale, and the critics blamed the poet for having recourse to what they called Russian folk-lore, which they considered to be unworthy of the poetic muse. One review complained that Pushkins choice of subject was like introducing a bearded unkempt peasant into a drawing-room, while others blamed him for dealing with national stuff in a flippant spirit. But the curious thing is that, while the critics blamed him for his choice of subject, and his friends and the public defended him for it, quoting all sorts of precedents, the poem has absolutely nothing in common, either in its spirit, style or characterization, with native Russian folk-lore and fairy-tales. Much later on in his career, Pushkin was to show what he could do with Russian folk-lore. But Ruslan and Ludmila, which, as far as its form is concerned, has a certain superficial resemblance to Ariosto, is in reality the result of the French influence, under which Pushkin had been ever since his cradle, and which in this poem blazes into the sky like a rocket, and bursts into a shower of sparks, never to return again.

There is no passion in the poem and no irony, but it is young, fresh, full of sensuous, not to say sensual images, interruptions, digressions, and flippant epigrams. Pushkin wondered afterwards that nobody noticed the coldness of the poem; the truth was that the eyes of the public were dazzled by the fresh sensuous images, and their ears were taken captive by the new voice: for the importance of the poem lies in this that the new voice which the literary pundits had already recognized in the Lyceum of Tsarskoe Selo was now speaking to the whole world, and all Russia became aware that a young man was among them with mouth of gold and morning in his eyes. Ruslan and Ludmila has just the same sensuous richness, fresh music and fundamental coldness as Marlowes Hero and Leander. After finishing the poem, Pushkin added a magnificent and moving Epilogue, written from the Caucasus in the year of its publication (1820); and when the second edition was published in 1828, he added a Prologue in his finest manner which tells of Russian fairy-land.

After leaving school in 1817, until 1820, Pushkin plunged into the gay life of St. Petersburg. He wanted to be a Hussar, but his father could not afford it. In default he became a Foreign Office official; but he did not take this profession seriously. He consorted with the political youth and young Liberals of the day; he scattered stinging epigrams and satirical epistles broadcast. He sympathized with the Decembrists, but took no part in their conspiracy. He would probably have ended by doing so; but, luckily for Russian literature, he was transferred in 1820 from the Foreign Office to the Chancery of General Inzov in the South of Russia; and from 1820 to 1826 he lived first at Kishinev, then at Odessa, and finally in his own home at Pskov. This enforced banishment was of the greatest possible service to the poet; it took him away from the whirl and distractions of St. Petersburg; it prevented him from being compromised in the drama of the Decembrists; it ripened and matured his poetical genius; it provided him, since it was now that he visited the Caucasus and the Crimea for the first time, with new subject-matter.

During this period he learnt Italian and English, and came under the influence of Andr? Ch?nier and Byron. Andr? Ch?niers influence is strongly felt in a series of lyrics in imitation of the classics; but these lyrics were altogether different from the anacreontics of his boyhood. Byrons influence is first manifested in a long poem The Prisoner of the Caucasus. It is Byronic in the temperament of the hero, who talks in the strain of the earlier Childe Harold; he is young, but feels old; tired of life, he seeks for consolation in the loneliness of nature in the Caucasus. He is taken prisoner by mountain tribesmen, and set free by a girl who drowns herself on account of her unrequited love. Pushkin said later that the poem was immature, but that there were verses in it that came from his heart. There is one element in the poem which is by no means immature, and that is the picture of the Caucasus, which is executed with much reality and simplicity. Pushkin annexed the Caucasus to Russian poetry. The Crimea inspired him with another tale, also Byronic in some respects, The Fountain of Baghchi-Sarai, which tells of a Tartar Khan and his Christian slave, who is murdered out of jealousy by a former favourite, herself drowned by the orders of the Khan. Here again the descriptions are amazing, and Pushkin draws out a new stop of rich and voluptuous music.

In speaking of the influence of Byron over Pushkin it is necessary to discriminate. Byron helped Pushkin to discover himself; Byron revealed to him his own powers, showed him the way out of the French garden where he had been dwelling, and acted as a guide to fresh woods and pastures new. But what Pushkin took from the new provinces to which the example of Byron led him was entirely different from what Byron sought there. Again, the methods and workmanship of the two poets were radically different. Pushkin is never imitative of Byron; but Byron opened his eyes to a new world, and indeed did for him what Chapmans Homer did for Keats. It frequently happens that when a poet is deeply struck by the work of another poet he feels a desire to write something himself, but something different. Thus Pushkins mental intercourse with Byron had the effect of bracing the talent of the Russian poet and spurring him on to the conquest of new worlds.

Pushkins six years banishment to his own country had the effect of revealing to him the reality and seriousness of his vocation as a poet, and the range and strength of his gifts. It was during this period that besides the works already mentioned he wrote some of his finest lyrics, The Conversation between the Bookseller and the Poetperhaps the most perfect of his shorter poems it contains four lines to have written which Turgenev said he would have burnt the whole of his works a larger poem called The Gypsies; his dramatic chronicle Boris Godunov, and the beginning of his masterpiece Onegin; several ballads, including The Sage Oleg, and an unfinished romance, the Robber Brothers.

Not only is the richness of his output during this period remarkable, but the variety and the high level of art maintained in all the different styles which he attempted and mastered. The Gypsies (1827), which was received with greater favour by the public than any of his poems, either earlier or later, is the story of a disappointed man, Aleko, who leaves the world and takes refuge with gypsies. A tragically ironical situation is the result. The anarchic nature of the Byronic misanthrope brings tragedy into the peaceful life of the people, who are lawless because they need no laws. Aleko loves and marries the gypsy Zemfira, but after a time she tires of him, and loves a young gypsy. Aleko surprises them and kills them both. Then Zemfiras father banishes him from the gypsies camp. He, too, had been deceived. When his wife Mariula had been untrue and had left him, he had attempted no vengeance, but had brought up her daughter.





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