The Bronze Horseman- a masterpiece
Last week, I discussed the obvious strengths and seductive power of
Alexander Pushkin's shorter lyrical poems. To day I wish to shine a
light on his narrative poems, Eugene Onegn and the Bronze Horseman in
particular. Eugene Onegin is the work that is most closely associated
with Pushkin. Indeed, it was his favorite work. He described it as
‘novel in verse’ and spent over eight years working on it. Eugene Origin
has had a profound impact on the growth of Russian fiction, and the
novels and short stories of writers as diverse as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,
Gogol and Turgenev bear ample testimony to this fact.
The distinguished Russian poet Anna Akhmatova once said that, ‘Most
of Dostoevsky’s characters are aged Pushkin’s heroes.’ Indeed, it has
attained the status of a classic in Russian literature.
Eugene Onegin is a long narrative poem that consists of eight cantos;
it runs to 360-odd stanzas. It is made up of five and a half thousand
lines of verse.
While the narrative line of this poem is unquestionably important,
the various digressions and commentaries of the author that are
highlighted as the story unfolds are as equally important to a proper
understanding of this fictional text in verse.
In terms of the protagonist of the story, it introduced a new type of
character - the alienated young man - and many later writers were quick
to project and examine this character type in their works of fiction.
In terms of style and technique, Russian scholars who are well-versed
in the Russian language tell us that the entire text is marked by a
certain creative freedom and an impulse towards innovative
This poem is an unmistakably Russian work bearing as it des the power
of the Russian literary tradition as well as reflecting the contours of
Russian social structures. Some have referred to it as an ‘encyclopedia
of Russian life.’
Commenting on this poem, John Bayley makes the following apposite
‘It is dense with wit, comment, and observation, but it is also
leisurely, exploratory, partaking both of the nature of a prose novel
(Tristram Shandy was one of Pushkin’s models) and of brilliant
experiments in a graceful and complex stanza form. Pushkin succeeds in
doing two apparently incompatible things; delighting the reader with the
brio and virtuosity of his verse patterns, and at the same time
directing the reader’s attention through them – as if they were a clear
window – into the world of the novel, its events and characters.’
The events that comprise the narrative of Eugene Onegin take place in
the early 1820s; this was the period of Pushkin’s young manhood, when he
was examining and absorbing sensitively the world around him.
The events unfold in St.Petersburg, Moscow as well as the countryside
.As the narrative begins, we are presented with a picture of the
protagonist paying a visit to his dying uncle in the country.
We are then shown how he received an academic and mundane education
representing the type of playboy familiar to St.Petersburg society. We
see how he is immersed in hectic rounds of pleasure and entertainment,
and the deepening of his disenchantment with that life and consequently
resolving to retreat into his country estate that he inherited from his
While in the country estate, he is attracted to a family of a squire.
Tatyana is the elder daughter of this family. She is coy, unworldly and
bookish; she is attracted to Eugene and falls in live with him; she
writes him a letter expressing her deep love for him. It is an alluring
piece of writing; she candidly expresses her emotions and begs for his
sympathetic consideration of her feelings for him .It is evident that
Eugene is touched by this letter, but he does not respond. Eugene does
not want to deceive her, but at the same time his mental make-up does
not permit him to get involved in an emotional relationship.
Consequently, he decides to advice her, making it clear that for him the
days of emotional relationships are gone.
Lensky is Eugene’s new neighbour. They become friends, but in
temperament and outlook are very different from each other. Lensky is an
aspiring poet who is deeply attached to German idealism. Olga is
Tatyana’s sister, and she falls in love with him; she becomes betrothed
to him. During a social get together, Eugene, partly to tease Lensky,
playfully flirts with Olga; Lensky being the callow and impulsive young
man he is, takes offense. He is upset by this turn of events and
challenges Eugene to a duel. Eugene is, of course, a seasoned duelist
and decides to accept Lensky’s challenge. In the duel, Lensky is killed.
This tragedy has a profound impact on all concerned. Eugene resolves to
leave the countryside in utter remorse and overcome by self-accusatory
The narrative now focuses on Tatyana; grief-stricken, she pays a
visit to Eugene’s abandoned manor; she is naturally attracted to his
library. Her family, in the mean time, has found a suitable partner for
her in Moscow; he is a middle-aged dignitary. Eugene returns to St
Petersburg many years after the duel.
He attends a ball there, and he is deeply attracted to her poised and
elegant woman who is the hostess. She is none other than Tatyana. He is
uncontrollably attracted to her and the mental frame that had guided him
so far seemed to have immediately evaporated. He begs her to end her
current marriage and become his wife. Tatyana candidly expresses her
love for him but refuses to renounce her marriage or betray her husband.
As one commentator remarked, ‘this ends the story of a love out of
phase and twice rejected, so curiously alien both to romanticism and to
the new sensibility; and here the author wryly abandons his inadequate
hero, the moody companion of his most creative years.’ Eugene Onegin
became a prototype for later writers of Russian fiction.
Many commentators on Russian literature have claimed that Eugene
Onegin can be justly regarded as the first modern Russian novel and that
it had a palpable impact on the forward movement of the Russian novel.
The works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Lermontov, Goncharov, in
their different ways, bear testimony to this fact. As a discerning
critic pointed out, the antithesis between a disenchanted and
disoriented, though indubitably gifted and sophisticated man and an
earnest, honest, sweet-tempered young girl haunted the Russian literary
imagination for many years.
Eugene Onegin, it should be noted, is a novel in verse – this mean
that the poetry is extremely important and functional .and also the role
of the author within the narrative discourse deserves careful
consideration. He, in point of fact, plays three distinct and
First, he is the sanctioned narrator of the poem who is in control of
the organization of it. Second, he is depicted as an acquaintance of the
protagonist with all the suggestions f an incomplete understanding of
Eugene. Third, he is presented as a character in the poem. This
interplay of the three distinct roles issues in the establishment of
diverse levels of poetic apprehension in the poem.
As we read this novel in verse, it is important to bear in mind the
fact that the poetic texture of Eugene Onegin consists of narrative
description and digression. In this regard, this poem reminds us of Lord
Byron’s Don Juan as well as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. What we
find in Pushkin’s long narrative poem, then, is not only the display of
narrative energy but also the deft shifting of mood and focus and tone.
The narrative displays another layer of complexity in that the poet
is unafraid to comment, as he progresses, on the very poetic technique
and the rhetorical registers he ha sought to highlight. While Eugene
Onegin, in many ways, brings to mind Byron’s Don Juan, it has to be
pointed out that the former displays a great measure of self-discipline
and precision which add so immeasurably to the impact of the poem.
The poem announces its self-discipline through that precision of
language. The poem contains many elements - narration, description,
reflection, commentary – but at the end the poet is able to sustain a
unifying vision that allows the integrative energies to triumph.
The poem, in its very opening stanza, plunges into the thick off the
narration. In Eugene Onegin as in the Bronze Horseman, the narrative
impulse is unmistakably present.
Now that he is in grave condition
My uncle, decorous old dunce,
Has won respectful recognition;
And done the perfect thing for once.
His action be a guide to others;
But what a bore, I ask you, brothers,
To tend a patient night and day
And venture not a step away;
Is there hypocrisy more glaring
Than to amuse one all but dead,
Shake up the pillow for his head.
Does him with melancholy being,
And think behind a public sigh;
Deuce take you, step on t and die
And Pushkin builds on this narrative energy maintaining the
unflagging interest of the reader through quick-paced and artful
To be continued