The Bronze Horseman, a masterpiece
Towards end of my last column, I began to discuss the nature and
significance of Pushkin’s shorter lyrical poems. I plan to continue with
that discussion to day. Scholars of Russia literature have told us that
many of Pushkin’s shorter lyrical poems possess a phonetic energy,
acoustic beauty that is largely unsurpassed in Russian literature.
Obviously, much of that does not come through in translations. However,
what does come through in translations makes it plain that Pushkin is an
outstanding poet who displays a remarkable poise of self-assurance. His
control over emotion, his immense compression, and evocative powers are
clearly in evidence in his poetry. Let us consider a few representative
The following poem titled October 19 consists of nearly 20 stanzas.
It displays Pushkin’s indubitable power for evocation of natural scenery
and the deft placing of the poet in that setting. (The translations are
by D.M. Thomas).
The woods have cast their crimson foliage,
The faded field is silvery with frost;
The sun no sooner glimmers than it’s lost
Behind drab hills; the world’s a hermitage.
Burn brightly, pine-logs, in my lonely cell;
And you, wine, friend to chilly autumn days,
Pour into me a comfortable haze,
Brief respite from the torments of my soul.
We observe how Pushkin is able to carefully locate the poet in the
thick of that evoked mood. This is indeed a trait that is frequently
found in his poetry,
Perhaps some friend is driving up by stealth,
Hoping to surprise me; his face will press
Against my window, I’ll rush out, embrace
Him warmly, from the heart, then drink his health
And talk, and laugh away our separation
Till dawn. I drink alone; no one will come;
The friends who crowd around me in this room
Are phantoms born of my imagination.
The same gift of evocation, the communicative power of telling
details, is to be seen in the following poem titled My Nanny, which is a
relatively simple poem.(to be sure, not many critics have selected this
poem for comment). An empathetic imagination breathes through the poem.
It is interesting to note, in this regard, that Pushkin learned a great
deal about Russian folk culture from his nanny.
Companion of my bleak days,
My dove, my frail darling nanny !
Alone in the deep pine-forest
You have waited for me.
By the window of your upstairs room
You sigh like a sentry on watch,
And your knitting-needles move
More slowly in your gnarled hands,
You gaze at the forgotten gate,
At the black, forebodings, cares
Weigh down your breast, each hour,
Now you imagine…
The idea of imagining, it seems to me, is central to both the poems I
have cited. The same reach of imagination and the power of verbal
re-creation are evident in the following poem which is called
Indeed, in all these poems he allows his imagination full rein in the
evocation and exploration of moods. It is evident that all these early
poems of Pushkin that I have cited so far emerge from his distinct
poetic sensibility. One of the astonishing facets of his poetry is his
control of tone; this is indeed a mark of an accomplished poet.
Oh, if it is true that night,
When the living rest,
And from the sky the moonlight
Glides over the grave, -
Oh, if it is true, that then
The quiet graves are empty,
I call your shade, I wait for you;
To me, my friend, come here…here !
Appear. Beloved shade,
As you were before our parting,
Pale, cold, like a winter’s day,
Disfigured by your last illness.
Come, like a distant star,
Like a faint sound, a breath of wind,
Or like a terrible vision,
I don’t care; come here, come here1
Against this backdrop, the poet emphatically states his heart’s
I’m not calling you that I
May learn the secrets of the grave,
Nor because sometimes
I am tormented by doubts…
I want to say, I still love you,
I am still yours; come here, come here.
Admittedly, this is not a deep poem containing profundities of
meaning; the poet has a limited aim in mind – to invoke the memory of
his beloved and re-express his love for her.
One of the most celebrated poems of Pushkin is titled Anna Kern; it
is highly valourised by Russian readers. This is based on a real
experience. In 1819, when Pushkin met Anna Kern for the first time, he
was deeply attracted to her. However, after a while the deep attachment
began to fade and he lost interest in her. However, she had the power to
excite him even after this. These sentiments are given poetic expression
in this poem. The poem moves in three stages. First, his first meeting
her and the rapturous feelings it generated in him are tersely
I remember the moment of wonder
You appeared before me,
Like a momentary vision,
A spirit of pure beauty.
In the oppression of hopeless grief,
In the noisy armless struggle,
Long I heard your tender voice,
Saw in my dreams your face.
In the second stage, we begin to see how with the passage of time he
began to lose interest in her; life moves on. The trope of the turbulent
gusts scattering the dreams is indeed interesting.
But the years passed. The dreams
Were scattered by turbulent gusts,
And I forgot your tender voice,
Your heavenly face.
It is, of course, noteworthy that he still refers to ‘your heavenly
face,’ He may have forgotten her, but the language suggests something
different. In the third stage he happens to meet her again and the old
fascination is re-kindled. This is a carefully constructed poem;
formally two stanzas are given to each of the sections and they are
composed in Pushkin’s favourite iambic tetrameter.
The poem possesses a neatness and precision and the central message
of the poem is transmitted cleanly. What the poet seems to be saying is
that love has the power and potentiality to transform human life and
persuade us to view the world form a more constructive and wholesome
angle of vision.
The repetitions of sound, words, phrases create a readily discernible
pattern in the poem.
The shorter poems of Pushkin possess the same precision and stress on
organisation that we find in the loner narrative poems like The Bronze
Horseman. For example, the following untitled poem, which begins with
the statement, ’for the shores of your distant home you left this alien
land’, vividly illustrates this fact. The poem is written in memory of
Amalia Rizanich who died in Italy having succumbed to tuberculosis. The
poem combines intensity of feeling with a heightened self-awareness and
For the shores of your distant home
You left this alien land;
I shall never forget it – a long time
I wept before you, my hands
Growing cold and numb
Tried to stop you leaving; I
Used every means I could
To prolong the anguish goodbye.
Burt from our bitter embrace
You tore your lips away;
You called me to leave this place
Of dark exile for your own land.
You said. ‘when we meet again
In the shade of olive trees
Beneath a sky that’s always blue
My dearest, we will share our love’s kiss.
He brings the emotions to a heightened mode of awareness and gives
them a specific focus in the following concluding stanza.
But there, alas, where the sky’s
Vault shines with blue radiance,
Where the shadow of olives lies,
On the waters, you have fallen asleep
Forever your beauty, your suffering,
Have vanished in the grave –
But the sweet kiss of our meeting…
I wait for it; you owe it me…
John Bayley who has written so perceptively on Pushkin’s literary
works makes the following insightful comment on this poem. ‘The poem
begins by reproducing the anguished clumsiness of an actual parting,
with a kind of attentive detachment.
In the second stanza it is the imagination which supplies what is
said, and which relieves the expedients of literature the raw confusion
of a real moment, but it does not hide the true and pitiful subterfuges
of leave-taking; that we shall meet again and everything will be
He goes on to make the observation that the simple language of blue
skies is as moving as a popular song, and consequently begins to
generalise a unique experience into that of all lovers. The
Mediterranean is where the lovers meet and the visual image of the
shadow of the olive tree on the water is sufficient to call to mind the
southern landscape in general.
Let me conclude this discussion of shorter poems of Pushkin by
highlighting one of his most successful poems –‘ Autumn’. It is a
fragment of a poem, but extraordinarily powerful. The strength of the
poem lies in the deft way in which the poet combines a relaxed ease with
formal and musical elegance.
There is an invigorating interplay of conversational and eloquence in
the poem; certain critics have referenced the poetry of Yeats and Valery
as displaying the same trait; however, they also argue that Pushkin was
more successful in this attempt at forcing a union between the two.
One striking feature of autumn is the way in which the poet has
succeeded in playing off movement against stillness. This is clearly
evident in the opening stanza.
October’s come – the grove’s already shaking
The last leaves from the naked branches; cold
Has breathed, the road’s becoming frozen, still
The stream runs, babbling, beyond the mill
But on the pond the ice has taken hold;
My neighbors swiftly with his packing s making
For hunting grounds where winter crops are flattened,
And sleeping woods are stirred by baying hounds.
Clearly, we get a sense of heightened life and the way the poet
responds to it in the earlier part of the poem. As the poem unfolds and
reaches its climax this awareness of the physical world, the identifying
with nature, gives way to a focus on the making of a poem. The
transition is indeed fascinating.
I forget the world; and in the sweet
Silence I’m calmed my imagination
Sweetly, and poetry wakes in me; my soul,
Gripped by a lyrical excitement, trembles.
Resounds, as in a dream,
And seeks release at last in fee expression –
And thronging towards me invisible are creations
Familiar friends I did not think to meet.
The thoughts whirl around audaciously in the mind
Airy rhymes are running forth to meet them,
Fingers cry out for a pen, the pen for paper,
A moment – lines and verses freely flow
Alexander Pushkin’s Autumn is a very strong poem that bears testimony
to the poets unquestionable imagination and mastery of craft. This poem
reminds us of other memorable poems dealing with autumn. Let me give two
examples. The first is by Keats titled To Autumn.
To be sure, this is one of the most memorable poems in the English
language. Keats’ talents as a sensitive and reflective poet are in full
display in this text. Indeed, this poem has been acclaimed my many
reputable critics as Keats’ greatest achievement in lyrical poetry.
To Autumn can be usefully described as a valediction, a poem that
focuses on parting. The poem calls attention to the parting of the day,
of the season, from life itself. But this parting is represented not in
dark and somber colours but in a spirit of celebration.
To be continued