The Bronze Horseman- A masterpiece
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Raged more fiercely, Neva swelled up
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
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
So that even the conquered
elements may make
Their peace with you; let the
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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