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Sunday, 19 May 2013





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The Bronze Horseman- A masterpiece

[Part 4]

One need hardly add that this incident is weighed down by sadness and remorse and thoughtlessness. Here Pushkin is operating so near the border-line of moral confusion, but yet is able to impose a poetic order on it. This was facilitated by the fact that Pushkin is more interested in a morality of suggestion than a morality of postures.

However, Pushkin is able to rescue the moment from its gloominess by the indubitable power of his verbal artistry; indeed, his art of verbal description seems to possess an enviable redemptive power. His words lead us to a more pleasurable domain of experience. Let us consider the following stanza depicting the death of Lensky.

Alexander Pushkin

In silence to his bosom raising
A hand, he took no other breath,
And sank, and fell. Opaquely glazing,
His eyes expressed not pain, but death,
So, gently down the slope subsiding.
His heart with sudden chill congealed,
Onegin flew across and kneeled
Beside the boy….stated….called….no


He is not there. Our youthful friend
Has gone to his untimely end.
Becalmed the storm; by searing cancer
Spring’s lovely blossom withered lies;
The alter fire grows dim and dies

What is interesting about this episode as depicted by Pushkin in his novel in verse is the way in which his powerful poetic imagination rises to the occasion and takes control of it, the verbal artistry undoubtedly displaying its redemptive power. The reader is at a crossroads – the bleakness and the gloominess of the situation on the one hand and the verbal ingenuity and sensitivity with which it is given poetic shape on the other. Here we see the poem’s declaration of itself as the tragic density of being is elevated to a poetic density of being. This is largely because, I contend, that his genius was lyrical. But that lyrical skill is wedded to a precise language capable of echoing gravity.

Literary pursuits

Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin is a novel in verse that we in Sri Lanka can draw on for our own literary pursuits. The art of verse narratives is a part f the Sinhala poetic tradition, as exemplified in works such as Sasadavata, Muvadevdavata, Kavsilumina, Kavyashekaraya and Guttiliaya. In more modern tines there have been verse narratives like Sudosudu, which is based on a poem by Tennyson. Verse narratives in verse based on contemporary experience are a genre that can be fruitfully cultivated and Pushkin’s work can be a useful eye-opener to us. I wish to underscore six points in this regard.

First, Pushkin achieved a superb balance between narrative, description and commentary, one shadowing the other. Second, he fashioned a comfortable style that was precisely attuned to his poetic ambitions. He trusted the intuitions of language as he reached for a deeper reality.

Third he blended poetic inventiveness with self-discipline that Lord Byron – his model – never succeeded in achieving. Fourth, Pushkin had a rare ability to transfigure the visual and invest it with symbolic valences. Fifth, Eugene Onegin manifests a neat structure that incarnates a persuasive rhetorical argument. Sixth, Pushkin was able to re-draw the map of human consciousness by showing how consciousness saw itself. Eugene Onegin, then, is an outstanding poem; however, in my judgment The Bronze Horseman, which I shall discuss next week, is a more accomplished verse narrative; and it is a poem which, we in Sri Lanka, would find particularly engaging.

Today, my focus will be on what I regard as his masterpiece The Bronze Horseman; it is also a narrative in verse. The controlled lyricism, deft organisation, economy of expression and the different levels at which the poetic narrative works contribute hugely to its indubitable success. The eminent literary critic Edmund Wilson who produced, some decades ago, a highly readable prose translation of this poem said that, ‘it would be impossible to reproduce in English the peculiar merit of The Bronze Horseman.

The terseness and the compactness of Pushkin’s style, which constitute one of the chief difficulties of translating him, reach a point in the poem where, as Mirsky says, the words and their combinations are charged to breaking-point with all the weight of meaning they can bear.’ Wilson goes on to say that the two predominant themes of violence, the oppressive domination of the city, made solid in stone and metal, and the liquid force and turbulence of the flood are incarnated in a language of density and energy that are difficult to come by in English.

Portrayal of chaos

Edmund Wilson is of the opinion that ‘this tale in verse is certainly one of the most enlightening things ever written about Russia by a Russian. It is not only in the portrayal of chaos, the resounding accents of power, that Pushkin is comparable to Milton.’ He believes that the protagonist of The Bronze Horseman, the impoverished clerk Evgeny, too, is defying eternal order.

His defiance cannot be understood solely in terms of a theological struggle; it constitutes the dominant theme of the nineteenth-century, namely, the battle waged by the individual against society. What we see in the poem is a clear distance between his life and the State, and that distance can assume threatening forms. In this regard, it is interesting to note that The Bronze Horseman ran into problems with the officialdom and was published only after author’s death.

The subtitle of this poem by Pushkin is ‘a tale of St. Petersburg’. This subtitle adds a certain documentary quality to the poem. Normally, the term tale is associated with prose and to complicate matters the poem operates within a prose framework in that there is an Introduction and Notes at the end.

They serve to give the poem a certain documentary-like credibility and precision. As the narrative of the poem unfolds, we begin to realise that the subtitle, ‘a tale of St Petersburg’ is somewhat ambiguous – it could refer to the story of Petersburg or the story of Evgeny living in Petersburg. Pushkin deepens this ambivalence by investing the tale of Petersburg with mythic associations.

I will explain this aspect later in this column. It is indeed the intention of Pushkin to portray Petersburg not only as the most important city of Russia but also as the sacred centre of the world.

Apart from the enviable evocative power, the careful organisation, the subtle texture, the investment of his cadences with the resonance of music ,and the economy of expression, The Bronze Horseman also manifests a complex layering of meaning, in that it operates at three intersecting levels of narrative discourse – the personal, the social and the mythical. At the personal level, it is the story of the poor clerk Evgeny and his love for Parasha (who is, of course, never shown in the poem) and his desire to settle down into a stable married life (which, unfortunately, does not transpire,) At the social level, The Bronze Horseman depicts the construction of Petersburg by Peter I and the complex relationships that exist between the individual and society, the citizen and the State. Pushkin represents these tensions in his poem with a critical gaze directed towards everyone concerned. It is interesting to observe that the distinguished literary scholar Roman Jakobson called the bronze horseman ‘the citizen’s persecutor’ and Evgeny ‘the victim of the state,’ Pushkin’s special blending of sympathy and cynicism marks this second level of representation.

Narrative discourse

At the third level what we find is the narrative discourse of the poem given a mythical weight and dignity. As the narrative unfurls, the flood, the fury of the storm-god, as well as the power of the statue all take on mythic power. That power emanates from cultural memory. Passages such as the following capture vividly this destructive energy.(Translations are by D.M. Thomas)

All night the Neva rushed
Toward the sea against the storm,
To overcome the madness of the winds.
She could no longer carry on the
By morning, throngs of people on
her banks
Admired the spray, the mountains
and the foam
Of maddened waters. But harried
by the gale
Out of the gulf, the Neva turned back,
Turbulent, and swamped the islands.
The weather
Raged more fiercely, Neva swelled up
and roared,
Bubbling like a cauldron; suddenly
Hurled herself on the city like a beast.
The various striking poetic locutions in this passage, it is evident, carry a mythical charge.

The Bronze Horseman in Pushkin’s celebrated poem references a two-hundred year-old equestrian statue of Peter the Great (1672-1725). It was commissioned by Catherine II and executed by E.M. Falconet, a well-known French sculptor. It is a statue emanating glory and splendor and is generally referred to as the bronze horseman. Pushkin’s poem contributed to the popularization of this appellation. At the same time, it is evident that a certain ambiguity marks the statue.

A commentator asked the following questions: ‘How far is Peter really in control of his mount? Is he about to fall back, recover himself, even soar up into space? Is he urging the steed on or retraining it in the face of some catastrophic hazard?’ Pushkin was always deeply sensitive to these ambiguities and he made the best use of them in his poem. His attitude to Peter the Great is characterised by this ambivalence of feeling and assessment and it adds another layer of complexity to the narrative discourse.

The Bronze Horseman consists of three parts – there is an Introduction and two numbered sections. The Introduction describes the creation of the city of Petersburg by Peter the Great on the banks of river Neva and how it achieved international fame. The author makes use of about eighty lines of poetry to heap praise on Peter the Great for his achievement and as a triumph of the human over nature,

Flaunt your beauty, Peter’s
City, and stand unshakeable
like Russia,
So that even the conquered
elements may make
Their peace with you; let the
Finnish waves
Forget their enmity and ancient
And let them not disturb with spite
Peter’s eternal sleep.

The first section of the poem, after the Introduction, deals with the city in winter with the cold, darkness, piercing wind and against that background the emergence of the character of the protagonist of this narrative poem, Evgeny. He is a poor clerk who has dreams of leading a settled and contented life with his fiancée Parasha. Almost half the lies in this poem are given over to the depiction of the life of Evgeny and underscoring the fact that his life and tragedy have figured prominently in Pushkin’s imagination. As this section concludes we are presented with the terrifying flooding of the city and the helplessness of even the incredibly powerful tsar to anything to mitigate it.

In that dread year the late tsar in
his glory
Still ruled Russia. He came out on to the balcony,
Sad, troubled, and said, ‘tsars cannot master
The divine elements. He sat down and with thoughtful
Sorrowful eyes gazed in the dire disaster;
The squares like lakes; broad rivers of streets
Pouring into them. The palace a sad island.
The tsar spoke – from end to end of the city,
Along streets near and far, a dangerous journey
Through the storm waters, generals set off
To save the people, drowning in their homes.
Sharp contrast

Alexander Pushkin, being the highly gifted craftsman that he was, succeeded in offering a sharp contrast between the Introduction and the first section, in terms of content and tone.

In this section, we begin to see how the angry waters are receding, and how Evgeny happens to meet a ferryman who is kind enough to take him to Parasha’s house. Unfortunately, the house is completely destroyed and washed away; he is overcome by uncontrollable sadness and anger.

The anguish overwhelms him and he loses his capacity for reasoned judgment; he roams the city in a state of semi-derangement. One night he comes face to face with the equestrian statue of Peter the Great – the bronze horseman.

He heaps blame on him for having created this miserable city and threatens the great ruler. Evgeny is agitated by the impression that the statue is gazing at him threateningly.

Evgeny, in panic, flees from the stature and keeps on running, while all night long he seems to be hearing the angry horse following him. It becomes a dark nightmare that he cannot escape from. He dies, and his corpse is washed up on a small island close to Parasha’s destroyed home. This is how Pushkin portraits this troubling episode.

A small island can be seen off-shore. Sometimes
A fisherman out late will moor there with
His net and cook his meager supper. Or
Some civil servant, boating on a Sunday,
Will pay a visit to the barren island.
No grass grows, not a blade. The flood, in sport,
Had driven a ramshackle little house there.
Above the water it had taken root
Like a bush. Last spring a wooden barge
Carried away the wreckage. By the threshold
They found my madman, and on that very spot
For the love of god they buried h cold corpse.

In Pushkin’s poetic narrative, there is a sympathy for the ‘madman; and his travails; that sympathy is, of curse, modulated by an agonised recognition of human limits. Indeed it is a tribute to Pushkin’s ability as a poet that he is able to handle complexities of human situations poetically and self-reflectively drawing the reader into the many-sided nature of the depicted experience.

A distinguishing feature of a great poem is that it can be read with fresh eyes by each new generation. Readers in the twenty-first century are bound to perceive something close to their experiences and anxieties in The Bronze Horseman.

The way millions of people trapped in large cities, subject to the hostile forces oppressing them, offer resistance and yield to irrational anger is reflected in the plight of Evgeny. That sense of abject powerlessness serves to establish a common bond of understanding between nineteenth-century and twenty-first century readers of this poem.

Literary masterpiece

Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman is generally regarded as a literary masterpiece by many discerning literary critics. For example, A.D.P.Briggs is right when he says that, The Bronze Horseman is the most mature, the most serious, the most speculative of all Pushkin’s works.

It is at the same time a tour de force of compactness and harmonisation, introducing and uniting so many disparate notions in such a short space.’

This poem, it seems to me, can inspire us in our attempts at experimenting with verse narration in Sri Lanka. If we take, for example, the classical Sinhala poetic tradition, it becomes evident that verse narratives constituted a very rich and important segment of it. Poems such as the Sasadavatha, Muvadevdavatha, Kavsilumina, Kavyashekharaya, Guttilaya as well as the folk-poems like Yasodaravatha bear testimony to this fact.

There have been attempts, in more modern times, to write verse narratives. The Colombo poets were interested in this genre, but their inadequate language medium as well as the weak narrative conception prevented them from achieving success.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Gunadasa Amarasekera produced narrative poems such as Amal Biso and Gurlu Vatha which attracted the focused attention of informed and cultivated readers. In these poems Amarasekera sought to re-create a symbolic world full of poetic resonances. Askdakava, written some years later, belong to this category, as indeed are poems like Shelley’s Adonais.

It is against this backdrop that we can profitably turn to The Bronze Horseman for inspiration. In this regard, I wish to make eight poets.

First, in his verse narratives, including The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin has been able to blend narrative energy and evocative power of place with a remarkable degree of success. To my mind, this is indeed a feature that should animate any good narrative in verse. In passages such as the following we discern the coming together of narrative energy and the economy of expression that mark his poetry

Get married? Me? why not? it would be hard,
Of course; but then, I’m young and healthy, ready
To toil day and night; somehow or other
I’ll fix myself a hum le, simple shelter
Where Parasha and can live in quiet.
After a year or two I’ll get a job,
And Parasha will bring up our children…..then
We shall begin to live, and thus we’ll go
Hand in hand to the grave, and our grandchildren
Will bury us…

This narrative energy goes hand in hand with an admirable capacity for evocation of time and place as is evidences in passages like the following.

Siege ! assault! The sly waves climb like thieves
Through the windows. Scudding boats smash the panes
With their sterns. hawkers’ trays, fragments of huts,
Beams, roofs, the wares of thrifty trading,
The chattels of pale poverty, bridges swept
Away by the storm, coffins from the buried
Cemetery – all afloat along the streets1

Second, Pushkin combines the personal, social and mythical levels in his narrative discourse with uncanny dexterity. At one level, The Bronze Horseman is the sad story about the unfortunate and impoverished clerk Evgeny.

At a second level it is a social commentary that highlights the conflicts between individual and society, the citizen and the State. At a c third level, it is a mythical representation of birth and death.

What is interesting about Pushkin’s poem is that he is able to blend the three levels seamlessly and cogently; this demanding blending carries complete poetic conviction.

This effort of Pushkin should serve as an object lesson for those of us interested in composing verse narratives in Sinhala Tamil or English based on contemporary experiences.

Third. Pushkin displays an enviable skill in fashioning tropes that serve to push forward and give density to his narrative.

The menacing power of the swollen river and the ensuing flood is brought home to us through powerful and vivid similes and metaphors. The river is likened to a sick man tossing and turning in bed, a spitting cauldron, an unruly wild beast, a marauding army, a blood-thirsty gang rushing out of a hamlet that has been destroyed and strewing the laundered goods on to the streets, an angry and simmering liquid over a burning fire and a war horse retreating from the battlefield. The cumulative effect of these tropes is to energise the narrative and draw us into it.

Fourth, Pushkin has succeeded in investing his narrative discourse in The Bronze Horseman with an allegorical valence. Some Russian critics have asserted that the relationship between Evgeny and Peter the Great in the poem is an allegorical representation of the complicated relationship between Pushkin and Nicholas I. Edmund Wilson has advanced the notion that this poem is an allegorical representation of autocracy and dictatorship ranging from Peter the Great to Joseph Stalin.

Some others have argued that the poem should be read as an allegory of the poor and nameless struggling against the hegemony of the State. It is evident, therefore, that this narrative poem by Pushkin lends itself to diverse but interconnected allegorical readings. A passage such as the following, I believe, illustrates this point.

The poor madman walked around the pedestal
Of the image, and brought wild looks to bear
On the countenance of the lord of half the world.
His breath contracted, his brow was pressed against
The cold railings, his eyes were sealed by mist,
Flames ran through his heart, his blood boiled.
Somberly he stood before the statue;
His teeth clenched, his hands tightened, trembling
His wrath, possessed by a dark power, he whispered;
All right then, wonder-worker, just you wait
And suddenly set off running at breakneck speed.
Master craftsman

Fifth, it has to be recognised that Alexander Pushkin was a master craftsman who succeeded in curbing his expansive enthusiasms through the protocols of disciplined poetic art. That he was able to carry depths of poetic emotion through concisely written poetry is a testament to that ability. He was able to radiate a sovereign mastery of technique in the way he changed his poetic style to match the diverse situations, moods and sensibilities. He employed the same meter throughout but effected subtle variations within to capture the changing moods. For example the glory and the power of Peter the Great that emanates through the sounds and verbal texture at the beginning can be usefully compared with the abrupt, unsteady rhythms that reflect the futilities and anxieties of Evgeny.

The changes in tempo and tone reflect Pushkin’s sure mastery of poetic art. One knowledgeable commentator of Russian literature made the following apposite remark.

‘The whole poem is subdivided into thirty or so short paragraphs – the grand paean addressed to St Petersburg s the longest of them all and it occupies only forty lines of the introduction – but the changes in tempo and tone occurring both within and between them are innumerable. Crises and climaxes multiply in a mercurial procession and all the time the Russian language oscillates between different poles, the archaic and the modern, the poetic and the realistic, the grandiloquent and the down-to-earth, the dignifies and the colloquial, conforming with exact appropriateness to each momentary need.’

Sixth, Alexander Pushkin makes use of thematic juxtapositions to deepen the dramatic power of his narrative and this is vitally connected to his ability to vary the tone and tempo through the resources of his verbal at that I referred to in the earlier paragraph.

For example, he contrasts the majesty of Peter the Great and the wonderful city he built with its history and power with the private and limited dreams of a poor clerk who wants to marry his fiancée and lead a simple life. This thematic juxtaposition opens out to, as the narrative unfolds, into a pointed social critique.

Those of us interested in construction verse narratives full of drama and sense can do no better than follow Pushkin’s example as incarnated in The Bronze Horseman.

Seventh, it is important to examine the way in which Pushkin privileges the art of implication, the power of suggestiveness, in his poetic narrative. There is a glow of maturity surrounding Pushkin’s verbal creations that belies his relatively young age. This glow of maturity, in large measure, I contend, emanates from this penchant for suggestiveness and concise description. Let us consider a representative passage.

Dawn’s light shone over the pale capital
And found no trace of the disaster; loss
Was covered by a purple cloak. And life
Resumed its customary order. People
Walked coldly, impassively, along cleared streets.
Government officials, leaving their night’s shelter,
Went to their jobs. The indomitable tradesman
Opened his cellar looted by the Neva,
Hoping to make good his loss at his neighbor’s expense.
Boats were being hauled away from the courtyards.

This description carries a certain social critique that is fuelled by a wounded moral imagination. However, Pushkin does not resort to extravagance and high-handed moral exhortations. Instead, as is customary with him, he brings out the physical loss and the social and moral implications through concisely fashioned verbal descriptions.

Eighth, the character of Evgeny, who is at the centre of the narrative in The Bronze Horseman and engages the long shadow cast by Peter the Great, merits careful consideration. He is both a particularized historical character as well as a symbol – a symbol of victimhood and oppression. Pushkin portrays his character against the inevitability of its own disappearance. This gives the life and death of Evgeny the requisite poignancy. We perceive that a justified anxiety lies at its source .What is interesting to note about Evgeny is that he has assumed the status, in later times, of a prototype in Russian literature. He came to represent the kind of character who inspired such later Russian writers as Gogol and Dostoevsky to portray characters who are driven to insanity by the sheer oppressive powers unleashed by the city which they inhabit. It is not only the powers of acute observation, which he had in plenty, that enabled Pushkin to depict this powerful clash of individual and city; Pushkin himself was a prey to the hostile influences of Petersburg. Many literary critics have rightly pointed out that there is much of Pushkin in the character of Evgeny.

Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman, in many ways, can serve as an object lesson for us as we move to fashion our own verse narratives with a contemporary resonance. The way he combines the realistic, the symbolic and the mythical deserves our closest attention. Gunadasa Amarasekera has made a persuasive case for adopting a similar approach to modern Sinhala verse narration. The way the historical, symbolic and mythical run together in the reader’s mind as he or she reads The Bronze Horseman is an experience that we should cherish and reflect on.

To be continued


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