An Outline of Russian Literature
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In 1833 he finished a poem called The Brazen Horseman, the story of a man who loses his beloved in the great floods in St. Petersburg in 1834, and going mad, imagines that he is pursued by Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great. The poem contains a magnificent description of St. Petersburg. During the last years of his life, he was engaged in collecting materials for a history of Peter the Great. His power of production had never run dry from the moment he left school, although his actual work was interrupted from time to time by distractions and the society of his friends.
All the important larger works of Pushkin have now been mentioned; but during the whole course of his career he was always pouring out a stream of lyrics and occasional pieces, many of which are among the most beautiful things he wrote. His variety and the width of his range are astonishing. Some of them have a grace and perfection such as we find in the Greek anthology; others – “Recollections,” for instance, in which in the sleepless hours of the night the poet sees pass before him the blotted scroll of his past deeds, which he is powerless with all the tears in the world to wash out – have the intensity of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This poem, for instance, has the same depth of feeling as “Tired with all these, for restful death I cry,” or “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.” Or he will write an elegy as tender as Tennyson; or he will draw a picture of a sledge in a snow-storm, and give you the plunge of the bewildered horses, the whirling demons of the storm, the bells ringing on the quiet spaces of snow, in intoxicating rhythms which E. A. Poe would have envied; or again he will write a description of the Caucasus in eleven short lines, close in expression and vast in suggestion, such as “The Monastery on Kazbek”; or he will bring before you the smell of the autumn morning, and the hoofs ringing out on the half-frozen earth; or he will write a patriotic poem, such as To the Slanderers of Russia, fraught with patriotic indignation without being offensive; in this poem Pushkin paints an inspired picture of Russia: “Will not,” he says, “from Perm to the Caucasus, from Finland’s chill rocks to the flaming Colchis, from the shaken Kremlin to the unshaken walls of China, glistening with its bristling steel, the Russian earth arise?” Or he will write a prayer, as lordly in utterance and as humble in spirit as one of the old Latin hymns; or a love-poem as tender as Musset and as playful as Heine: he will translate you the spirit of Horace and the spirit of Mickiewicz the Pole; he will secure the restraint of Andr? Ch?nier, and the impetuous gallop of Byron.
Perhaps the most characteristic of Pushkin’s poems is the poem which expresses his view of life in the elegy —
But the greatest of his short poems is probably “The Prophet.” This is a tremendous poem, and reaches a height to which Pushkin only attained once. It is Miltonic in conception and Dantesque in expression; the syllables ring out in pure concent, like blasts from a silver clarion. It is, as it were, the Pillars of Hercules of the Russian language. Nothing finer as sound could ever be compounded with Russian vowels and consonants; nothing could be more perfectly planned, or present, in so small a vehicle, so large a vision to the imagination. Even a rough prose translation will give some idea of the imaginative splendour of the poem —
“My spirit was weary, and I was athirst, and I was astray in the dark wilderness. And the Seraphim with six wings appeared to me at the crossing of the ways: And he touched my eyelids, and his fingers were as soft as sleep: and like the eyes of an eagle that is frightened my prophetic eyes were awakened. He touched my ears and he filled them with noise and with sound: and I heard the Heavens shuddering and the flight of the angels in the height, and the moving of the beasts that are under the waters, and the noise of the growth of the branches in the valley. He bent down over me and he looked upon my lips; and he tore out my sinful tongue, and he took away that which is idle and that which is evil with his right hand, and his right hand was dabbled with blood; and he set there in its stead, between my perishing lips, the tongue of a wise serpent. And he clove my breast asunder with a sword, and he plucked out my trembling heart, and in my cloven breast he set a burning coal of fire. Like a corpse in the desert I lay, and the voice of God called and said unto me, ‘Prophet, arise, and take heed, and hear; be filled with My will, and go forth over the sea and over the land and set light with My word to the hearts of the people.’”
In 1837 came the catastrophe which brought about Pushkin’s death. It was caused by the clash of evil tongues engaged in frivolous gossip, and Pushkin’s own susceptible and violent temperament. A guardsman, Heckeren-Dantes, had been flirting with his wife. Pushkin received an anonymous letter, and being wrongly convinced that Heckeren-Dantes was the author of it, wrote him a violent letter which made a duel inevitable. A duel was fought on the 27th of February, 1837, and Pushkin was mortally wounded. Such was his frenzy of rage that, after lying wounded and unconscious in the snow, on regaining consciousness, he insisted on going on with the duel, and fired another shot, giving a great cry of joy when he saw that he had wounded his adversary. It was only a slight wound in the hand. It was not until he reached home that his anger passed away. He died on the 29th of February, after forty-five hours of excruciating suffering, heroically borne; he forgave his enemies; he wished no one to avenge him; he received the last sacraments; and he expressed feelings of loyalty and gratitude to his sovereign. He was thirty-seven years and eight months old.
Pushkin’s career falls naturally into two divisions: his life until he was thirty, and his life after he was thirty. Pushkin began his career with liberal aspirations, and he disappointed some in the loyalty to the throne, the Church, the autocracy, and the established order of things which he manifested later; in turning to religion; in remaining in the Government service; in writing patriotic poems; in holding the position of Gentleman of the Bed Chamber at Court; in being, in fact, what is called a reactionary. But it would be a mistake to imagine that Pushkin was a Lost Leader who abandoned the cause of liberty for a handful of silver and a riband to stick in his coat. The liberal aspirations of Pushkin’s youth were the very air that the whole of the aristocratic youth of that day breathed. Pushkin could not escape being influenced by it; but he was no more a rebel then, than he was a reactionary afterwards, when again the very air which the whole of educated society breathed was conservative and nationalistic. It may be a pity that it was so; but so it was. There was no liberal atmosphere in the reign of Nicholas I, and the radical effervescence of the Decembrists was destroyed by the Decembrists’ premature action. It is no good making a revolution if you have nothing to make it with. The Decembrists were in the same position as the educated ?lite of one regiment at Versailles would have been, had it attempted to destroy the French monarchy in the days of Louis XIV. The Decembrists by their premature action put the clock of Russian political progress back for years. The result was that men of impulse, aspiration, talent and originality had in the reign of Nicholas to seek an outlet for their feelings elsewhere than in politics, because politics then were simply non-existent.
But apart from this, even if the opportunities had been there, it may be doubted whether Pushkin would have taken them. He was not born with a passion to reform the world. He was neither a rebel nor a reformer; neither a liberal nor a conservative; he was a democrat in his love for the whole of the Russian people; he was a patriot in his love of his country. He resembled Goethe rather than Socrates, or Shelley, or Byron; although, in his love of his country and in every other respect, his fiery temperament both in itself and in its expression was far removed from Goethe’s Olympian calm. He was like Goethe in his attitude towards society, and the attitude of the social and official world towards him resembles the attitude of Weimar towards Goethe.
During the first part of his career he gave himself up to pleasure, passion, and self-indulgence; after he was thirty he turned his mind to more serious things. It would not be exact to say he became deeply religious, because he was religious by nature, and he soon discarded a fleeting phase of scepticism; but in spite of this he was a victim of amour-propre; and he wavered between contempt of the society around him and a petty resentment against it which took the shape of scathing and sometimes cruel epigrams. It was this dangerous amour-propre, the fact of his being not only passion’s slave, but petty passion’s slave, which made him a victim of frivolous gossip and led to the final catastrophe.
“In Pushkin,” says Soloviev, the philosopher, “according to his own testimony there were two different and separate beings: the inspired priest of Apollo, and the most frivolous of all the frivolous children of the world.” It was the first Pushkin – the inspired priest – who predominated in the latter part of his life; but who was unable to expel altogether the second Pushkin, the frivolous Weltkind, who was prone to be exasperated by the society in which he lived, and when exasperated was dangerous. There is one fact, however, which accounts for much. The more serious Pushkin’s turn of thought grew, the more objective, purer, and stronger his work became, the less it was appreciated; for the public which delighted in the comparatively inferior work of his youth was not yet ready for his more mature work. What pleased the public were the dazzling colours, the sensuous and sometimes libidinous images of his early poems; the romantic atmosphere; especially anything that was artificial in them. They had not yet eyes to appreciate the noble lines, nor ears to appreciate the simpler and more majestic harmonies of his later work. Thus it was that they passed Boris Godunov by, and were disappointed in the later cantos of Onegin. This was, of course, discouraging. Nevertheless, it is laughable to rank Pushkin amongst the misunderstood, among the Shelleys, the Millets, of Literature and Art; or to talk of his sad fate. To talk of him as one of the victims of literature is merely to depreciate him.
He was exiled. Yes: but to the Caucasus, which gave him inspiration: to his own country home, which gave him leisure. He was censored. Yes: but the Emperor undertook to do the work himself. Had he lived in England, society – as was proved in the case of Byron – would have been a far severer censor of his morals and the extravagance of his youth, than the Russian Government. Besides which, he won instantaneous fame, and in the society in which he moved he was surrounded by a band not only of devoted but distinguished admirers, amongst whom were some of the highest names in Russian literature – Karamzin, Zhukovsky, Gogol.
Pushkin is Russia’s national poet, the Peter the Great of poetry, who out of foreign material created something new, national and Russian, and left imperishable models for future generations. The chief characteristic of his genius is its universality. There appeared to be nothing he could not understand nor assimilate. And it is just this all-embracing humanity – Dostoyevsky calls him ??????????? – this capacity for understanding everything and everybody, which makes him so profoundly Russian. He is a poet of everyday life: a realistic poet, and above all things a lyrical poet. He is not a dramatist, and as an epic writer, though he can mould a bas-relief and produce a noble fragment, he cannot set crowds in motion. He revealed to the Russians the beauty of their landscape and the poetry of their people; and they, with ears full of pompous diction, and eyes full of rococo and romantic stage properties, did not understand what he was doing: but they understood later. For a time he fought against the stream, and all in vain; and then he gave himself up to the great current, which took him all too soon to the open sea.
He set free the Russian language from the bondage of the conventional; and all his life he was still learning to become more and more intimate with the savour and smell of the people’s language. Like Peter the Great, he spent his whole life in apprenticeship, and his whole energies in craftsmanship. He was a great artist; his style is perspicuous, plastic, and pure; there is never a blurred outline, never a smear, never a halting phrase or a hesitating note. His concrete images are, as it were, transparent, like Donne’s description of the woman whose
His diction is the inseparable skin of the thought. You seem to hear him thinking. He was gifted with divine ease and unpremeditated spontaneity. His soul was sincere, noble, and open; he was frivolous, a child of the world and of his century; but if he was worldly, he was human; he was a citizen as well as a child of the world; and it is that which makes him the greatest of Russian poets.
His career was unromantic; he was rooted to the earth; an aristocrat by birth, an official by profession, a lover of society by taste. At the same time, he sought and served beauty, strenuously and faithfully; he was perhaps too faithful a servant of Apollo; too exclusive a lover of the beautiful. In his work you find none of the piteous cries, no beauty of soaring and bleeding wings as in Shelley, nor the sound of rebellious sobs as in Musset; no tempest of defiant challenge, no lightnings of divine derision, as in Byron; his is neither the martyrdom of a fighting Heine, that “brave soldier in the war of the liberation of humanity,” nor the agonized passion of a suffering Catullus. He never descended into Hell. Every great man is either an artist or a fighter; and often poets of genius, Byron and Heine for instance, are more pre-eminently fighters than they are artists. Pushkin was an artist, and not a fighter. And this is what makes even his love-poems cold in comparison with those of other poets. Although he was the first to make notable what was called the romantic movement; and although at the beginning of his career he handled romantic subjects in a more or less romantic way, he was fundamentally a classicist – a classicist as much in the common-sense and realism and solidity of his conceptions and ideas, as in the perspicuity and finish of his impeccable form. And he soon cast aside even the vehicles and clothes of romanticism, and exclusively followed reality. “He strove with none, for none was worth his strife.” And when his artistic ideals were misunderstood and depreciated, he retired into himself and wrote to please himself only; but in the inner court of the Temple of Beauty into which he retired he created imperishable things; for he loved nature, he loved art, he loved his country, and he expressed that love in matchless song.
For years, Russian criticism was either neglectful of his work or unjust towards it; for his serene music and harmonious design left the generations which came after him, who were tossed on a tempest of social problems and political aspirations, cold; but in 1881, when Dostoyevsky unveiled Pushkin’s memorial at Moscow, the homage which he paid to the dead poet voiced the unanimous feeling of the whole of Russia. His work is beyond the reach of critics, whether favourable or unfavourable, for it lives in the hearts of his countrymen, and chiefly upon the lips of the young.