An Outline of Russian Literature
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“Leave us, proud man,” he says to Aleko. “We are a wild people; we have no laws, we torture not, neither do we punish; we have no use for blood or groans; we will not live with a man of blood. Thou wast not made for the wild life. For thyself alone thou claimest licence; we are shy and good-natured; thou art evil-minded and presumptuous. Farewell, and peace be with thee!”
The charm of the poem lies in the descriptions of the gypsy camp and the gypsy life, the snatches of gypsy song, and the characterization of the gypsies, especially of the women. It is not surprising the poem was popular; it breathes a spell, and the reading of it conjures up before one the wandering life, the camp-fire, the soft speech and the song; and makes one long to go off with “the raggle-taggle gypsies O!”
Byron’s influence soon gave way to that of Shakespeare, who opened a still larger field of vision to the Russian poet. In 1825 he writes: “Quel homme que ce Shakespeare! Je n’en reviens pas. Comme Byron le tragique est mesquin devant lui! Ce Byron qui n’a jamais con?u qu’un seul caract?re et c’est le sien … ce Byron donc a partag? entre ses personages tel et tel trait de son caract?re: son orgeuil ? l’un, sa haine ? l’autre, sa m?lancolie au troisi?me, etc., et c’est ainsi d’un caract?re plein, sombre et ?nergique, il a fait plusieurs caract?res insignifiants; ce n’est pas l? de la trag?die. On a encore une manie. Quand on a con?u un caract?re, tout ce qu’on lui fait dire, m?me les choses les plus ?tranges, en porte essentiellement l’empreinte, comme les p?dants et les marins dans les vieux romans de Fielding. Voyez le haineux de Byron … et l?-dessus lisez Shakespeare. Il ne craint jamais de compromettre son personage, il le fait parler avec tout l’abandon de la vie, car il est s?r en temps et lieu, de lui faire trouver le langage de son caract?re. Vous me demanderez: votre trag?die est-elle une trag?die de caract?re ou de costume? J’ai choisi le genre le plus ais?, mais j’ai t?ch? de les unir tous deux. J’?cris et je pense. La plupart des sc?nes ne demandent que du raisonnement; quand j’arrive ? une sc?ne qui demande de l’inspiration, j’attends ou je passe dessus.”
I quote this letter because it throws light, firstly, on Pushkin’s matured opinion of Byron, and, secondly, on his methods of work; for, like Leonardo da Vinci, he formed the habit, which he here describes, of leaving unwritten passages where inspiration was needed, until he felt the moment of bien ?tre when inspiration came; and this not only in writing his tragedy, but henceforward in everything that he wrote, as his note-books testify.
The subject-matter of Boris Godunov was based on Karamzin’s history: it deals with the dramatic episode of the Russian Perkin Warbeck, the false Demetrius who pretended to be the murdered son of Ivan the Terrible. The play is constructed on the model of Shakespeare’s chronicle plays, but in a still more disjointed fashion, without a definite beginning or end: when Mussorgsky made an opera out of it, the action was concentrated into definite acts; for, as it stands, it is not a play, but a series of scenes.Pushkin had not the power of conceiving and executing a drama which should move round one idea to an inevitable close. He had not the gift of dramatic architectonics, and still less that of stage carpentry. On the other hand, the scenes, whether they be tragic and poetical, or scenes of common life, are as vivid as any in Shakespeare; the characters are all alive, and they speak a language which is at the same time ancient, living, and convincing.
In saying that Pushkin lacks the gift of stage architectonics and stage carpentry, it is not merely meant that he lacked the gift of arranging acts that would suit the stage, or that of imagining stage effects. His whole play is not conceived as a drama; a subject from which a drama might be written is taken, but the drama is left unwritten. We see Boris Godunov on the throne, which he has unlawfully usurped; we know he feels remorse; he tells us so in monologues; we see his soul stripped before us, bound upon a wheel of fire, and we watch the wheel revolve; and that is all the moral and spiritual action that the part contains; he is static and not dynamic, he never has to make up his mind; his will never has to encounter the shock of another will during the whole play. Neither does the chronicle centre round the Pretender. It is true that we see the idea of impersonating the Tsarevitch dawning in his mind; and it is also true that in one scene with his Polish love, Marina, we see him dynamically moving in a dramatic situation. She loves him because she thinks he is the son of an anointed King. He loves her too much to deceive her, and tells her the truth. She then says she will have nothing of him; and then he rises from defeat and shame to the height of the situation, becomes great, and, not unlike Browning’s Sludge, says: “Although I am an impostor, I am born to be a King all the same; I am one of Nature’s Kings; and I defy you to oust me from the situation. Tell every one what I have told you. Nobody will believe you.” And Marina is conquered once more by his conduct and bearing.
This scene is sheer drama; it is the conflict of two wills and two souls. But there the matter ends. The kaleidoscope is shaken, and we are shown a series of different patterns, in which the heroine plays no part at all, and in which the hero only makes a momentary appearance. The fact is there is neither hero nor heroine in the play. It is not a play, but a chronicle; and it would be foolish to blame Pushkin for not accomplishing what he never attempted. As a chronicle, a series of detached scenes, it is supremely successful. There are certain scenes which attain to sublimity: for instance, that in the cell of the monastery, where the monk is finishing his chronicle; and the monologue in which Boris speaks his remorse, and his dying speech to his son. The verse in these scenes is sealed with the mark of that God-gifted ease and high seriousness, which belong only to the inspired great. They are Shakespearean, not because they imitate Shakespeare, but because they attain to heights of imaginative truth to which Shakespeare rises more often than any other poet; and the language in these scenes has a simplicity, an inevitableness, an absence of all conscious effort and of all visible art and artifice, a closeness of utterance combined with a width of suggestion which belong only to the greatest artists, to the Greeks, to Shakespeare, to Dante.
Boris Godunov was not published until January 1, 1831, and passed, with one exception, absolutely unnoticed by the critics. Like so many great works, it came before its time; and it was not until years afterwards that the merits of this masterpiece were understood and appreciated.
In 1826 Pushkin’s banishment to the country came to an end; in that year he was allowed to go to Moscow, and in 1827 to St. Petersburg. In 1826 his poems appeared in one volume, and the second canto of Onegin (the first had appeared in 1825). In 1827 The Gypsies, and the third canto of Onegin; in 1828 the fourth, fifth, and sixth cantos of Onegin; in 1829 Graf Nulin, an admirably told Conte such as Maupassant might have written, of a deceived husband and a wife who, finding herself in the situation of Lucretia, gives the would-be Tarquin a box on the ears, but succeeds, nevertheless, in being unfaithful with some one else – the Cottage of Kolomna is another story in the same vein – and in the same year Poltava.
This poem was written in one month, in St. Petersburg. The subject is Mazepa, with whom the daughter of his hereditary enemy, Kochubey, whom he afterwards tortures and kills, falls in love. But it is in reality the epic of Peter the Great.33
In 1829 Pushkin made a second journey to the Caucasus, the result of which was a harvest of lyrics. On his return to St. Petersburg he sketched the plan of another epic poem, Galub, dealing with the Caucasus, but this remained a fragment.
In 1831 he finished the eighth and last canto of Onegin. Originally there were nine cantos, but when the work was published one of the cantos dealing with Onegin’s travels was left out as being irrelevant. Pushkin had worked at this poem since 1823. It was Byron’s Beppo which gave him the idea of writing a poem on modern life; but here again, he made of the idea something quite different from any of Byron’s work. Onegin is a novel. Eugene Onegin is the name of the hero. It is, moreover, the first Russian novel; and as a novel it has never been surpassed. It is as real as Tolstoy, as finished in workmanship and construction as Turgenev. It is a realistic novel; not realistic in the sense that Zola’s work was mis-called realistic, but realistic in the sense that Miss Austen is realistic. The hero is the average man about St. Petersburg; his father, a worthy public servant, lives honourably on debts and gives three balls a year. Onegin is brought up, not too strictly, by “Monsieur l’Abb?”; he goes out in the world clothed by a London tailor, fluent in French, and able to dance the Mazurka.
Onegin can touch on every subject, can hold his tongue when the conversation becomes too serious, and make epigrams. He knows enough Latin to construe an epitaph, to talk about Juvenal, and put “Vale!” at the end of his letters, and he can remember two lines of the ?neid. He is severe on Homer and Theocritus, but has read Adam Smith. The only art in which he is proficient is the ars amandi as taught by Ovid. He is a patron of the ballet; he goes to balls; he eats beef-steaks and pat? de foie gras. In spite of all this – perhaps because of it – he suffers from spleen, like Childe Harold, the author says. His father dies, leaving a lot of debts behind him, but a dying uncle summons him to the country; and when he gets there he finds his uncle dead, and himself the inheritor of the estate. In the country, he is just as much bored as he was in St. Petersburg. A new neighbour arrives in the shape of Lensky, a young man fresh from Germany, an enthusiast and a poet, and full of Kant, Schiller, and the German writers. Lensky introduces Onegin to the neighbouring family, by name Larin, consisting of a widow and two daughters. Lensky is in love with the younger daughter, Olga, who is simple, fresh, blue-eyed, with a round face, as Onegin says, like the foolish moon. The elder sister, Tatiana, is less pretty; shy and dreamy, she conceals under her retiring and wistful ways a clean-cut character and a strong will.
Tatiana is as real as any of Miss Austen’s heroines; as alive as Fielding’s Sophia Western, and as charming as any of George Meredith’s women; as sensible as Portia, as resolute as Juliet. Turgenev, with all his magic, and Tolstoy, with all his command over the colours of life, never created a truer, more radiant, and more typically Russian woman. She is the type of all that is best in the Russian woman; that is to say, of all that is best in Russia; and it is a type taken straight from life, and not from fairy-land – a type that exists as much to-day as it did in the days of Pushkin. She is the first of that long gallery of Russian women which Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky have given us, and which are the most precious jewels of Russian literature, because they reflect the crowning glory of Russian life. Tatiana falls in love with Onegin at first sight. She writes to him and confesses her love, and in all the love poetry of the world there is nothing more touching and more simple than this confession. It is perfect. If Pushkin had written this and this alone, his place among poets would be unique and different from that of all other poets.
Possibly some people may think that there are finer achievements in the love poetry of the world; but nothing is so futile and so impertinent as giving marks to the great poets, as if they were passing an examination. If a thing is as good as possible in itself, what is the use of saying that it is less good or better than something else, which is as good as possible in itself also. Nevertheless, placed beside any of the great confessions of love in poetry – Francesca’s story in the Inferno, Romeo and Juliet’s leavetaking, Ph?dre’s declaration, Don Juan Tenorio’s letter – the beauty of Tatiana’s confession would not be diminished by the juxtaposition. Of the rest of Pushkin’s work at its best and highest, of the finest passages of Boris Godunov, for instance, you can say: This is magnificent, but there are dramatic passages in other works of other poets on the same lines and as fine; but in Tatiana’s letter Pushkin has created something unique, which has no parallel, because only a Russian could have written it, and of Russians, only he. It is a piece of poetry as pure as a crystal, as spontaneous as a blackbird’s song.
Onegin tells Tatiana he is not worthy of her, that he is not made for love and marriage; that he would cease to love her at once; that he feels for her like a brother, or perhaps a little more tenderly. It then falls out that Onegin, by flirting with Olga at a ball, makes Lensky jealous. They fight a duel, and Lensky is killed. Onegin is obliged to leave the neighbourhood, and spends years in travel. Tatiana remains true to her first love; but she is taken by her relatives to Moscow, and consents at last under their pressure to marry a rich man of great position. In St. Petersburg, Onegin meets her again. Tatiana has become a great lady, but all her old charm is there. Onegin now falls violently in love with her; but she, although she frankly confesses that she still loves him, tells him that it is too late; she has married another, and she means to remain true to him. And there the story ends.
Onegin is, perhaps, Pushkin’s most characteristic work; it is undoubtedly the best known and the most popular; like Hamlet, it is all quotations. Pushkin in his Onegin succeeded in doing what Shelley urged Byron to do – to create something new and in accordance with the spirit of the age, which should at the same time be beautiful. He did more than this. He succeeded in creating for Russia a poem that was purely national, and in giving his country a classic, a model both in construction, matter, form, and inspiration for future generations. Perhaps the greatest quality of this poem is its vividness. Pushkin himself speaks, in taking leave, of having seen the unfettered march of his novel in a magic prism. This is just the impression that the poem gives; the scenes are as clear as the shapes in a crystal; nothing is blurred; there are no hesitating notes, nothing ? peu pr?s; every stroke comes off; the nail is hit on the head every time, only so easily that you do not notice the strokes, and all labour escapes notice. Apart from this the poem is amusing; it arrests the attention as a story, and it delights the intelligence with its wit, its digressions, and its brilliance. It is as witty as Don Juan and as consummately expressed as Pope; and when the occasion demands it, the style passes in easy transition to serious or tender tones. Onegin has been compared to Byron’s Don Juan. There is this likeness, that both poems deal with contemporary life, and in both poems the poets pass from grave to gay, from severe to lively, and often interrupt the narrative to apostrophize the reader. But there the likeness ends. On the other hand, there is a vast difference. Onegin contains no adventures. It is a story of everyday life. Moreover, it is an organic whole: so well constructed that it fits into a stage libretto – Tchaikovsky made an opera out of it – without difficulty. There is another difference – a difference which applies to Pushkin and Byron in general. There is no unevenness in Pushkin; his work, as far as craft is concerned, is always on the same high level. You can admire the whole, or cut off any single passage and it will still remain admirable; whereas Byron must be taken as a whole or not at all – the reason being that Pushkin was an impeccable artist in form and expression, and that Byron was not.
In the winter of 1832 Pushkin sought a new field, the field of historical research; and by the beginning of 1833 he had not only collected all the materials for a history of Pugachev, the Cossack who headed a rising in the reign of Catherine II; but his literary activity was so great that he had also written the rough sketch of a long story in prose dealing with the same subject, The Captain’s Daughter, another prose story of considerable length, Dubrovsky, and portions of a drama, Rusalka, The Water Nymph, which was never finished. Besides Boris Godunov and the Rusalka, Pushkin wrote a certain number of dramatic scenes, or short dramas in one or more scenes. Of these, one, The Feast in the Time of Plague, is taken from the English of John Wilson (The City of the Plague), with original additions. In Mozart and Salieri we see the contrast between the genius which does what it must and the talent which does what it can. The story is based on the unfounded anecdote that Mozart was poisoned by Salieri out of envy. This dramatic and beautifully written episode has been set to music as it stands by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The Covetous Knight, which bears the superscription, “From the tragi-comedy of Chenstone” – an unknown English original – tells of the conflict between a Harpagon and his son: the delineation of the miser’s imaginative passion for his treasures is, both in conception and execution, in Pushkin’s finest manner. This scene has been recently set to music by Rakhmaninov. The Guest of Stone, the story of Don Juan and the statua gentilissima del gran Commendatore, makes Don Juan life. A scene from Faust between Faust and Mephistopheles is original and not of great interest; Angelo is the story of Measure for Measure told as a narrative with two scenes in dialogue. Rusalka, The Water Maid, is taken from the genuine and not the sham province of national legend, and it is tantalizing that this poetic fragment remained a fragment.
Pushkin’s prose is in some respects as remarkable as his verse. Here, too, he proved a pioneer. Dubrovsky is the story of a young officer whose father is ousted, like Naboth, from his small estate by his neighbour, a rich and greedy landed proprietor, becomes a highway robber so as to revenge himself, and introduces himself into the family of his enemy as a French master, but forgoes his revenge because he falls in love with his enemy’s daughter. In this extremely vivid story he anticipates Gogol in his lifelike pictures of country life. The Captain’s Daughter is equally vivid; the rebel Pugachev has nothing stagey or melodramatic about him, nothing of Harrison Ainsworth. Of his shorter stories, such as The Blizzard, The Pistol Shot, The Lady-Peasant, the most entertaining, and certainly the most popular, is The Queen of Spades, which was so admirably translated by M?rim?e, and formed the subject of one of Tchaikovsky’s most successful operas. As an artistic work The Egyptian Nights, written in 1828, is the most interesting, and ranks among Pushkin’s masterpieces. It tells of an Italian improvisatore who, at a party in St. Petersburg, improvises verses on Cleopatra and her lovers. The story is written to lead up to this poem, which gives a gorgeous picture of the pagan world, and is another example of Pushkin’s miraculous power of assimilation. Pushkin’s prose has the same limpidity and ease as his verse; the characters have the same vitality and reality as those in his poems and dramatic scenes, and had he lived longer he might have become a great novelist. As it is, he furnished Gogol (whose acquaintance he made in 1832) with the subject of two of his masterpieces —Dead Souls and The Revisor.
The province of Russian folk-lore and legend from which Pushkin took the idea of Rusalka was to furnish him with a great deal of rich material. It was in 1831 that in friendly rivalry with Zhukovsky he wrote his first long fairy-tale, imitating the Russian popular style, The Tale of Tsar Saltan. Up till now he had written only a few ballads in the popular style. This fairy-tale was a brilliant success as a pastiche; but it was a pastiche and not quite the real thing, as cleverness kept breaking in, and a touch of epigram here and there, which indeed makes it delightful reading. He followed it by another in the comic vein, The Tale of the Pope and his Man Balda, and by two more M?rchen, The Dead Tsaritsa and The Golden Cock; but it was not until two years later that he wrote his masterpiece in this vein, The Story of the Fisherman and the Fish. It is the same story as Grimm’s tale of the Fisherman’s wife who wished to be King, Emperor, and then Pope, and finally lost all by her vaulting ambition. The tale is written in unrhymed rhythmical, indeed scarcely rhythmical, lines; all trace of art is concealed; it is a tale such as might have been handed down by oral tradition in some obscure village out of the remotest past; it has the real Volkston; the good-nature and simplicity and unobtrusive humour of a real fairy-tale. The subjects of all these stories were told to Pushkin by his nurse, Anna Rodionovna, who also furnished him with the subject of his ballad, The Bridegroom. In Pushkin’s note-books there are seven fairy-tales taken down hurriedly from the words of his nurse; and most likely all that he wrote dealing with the life of the people came from the same source. Pushkin called Anna Rodionovna his last teacher, and said that he was indebted to her for counteracting the effects of his first French education.
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