“Another minute – and my verse will freely flow…”

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(Excerpt from the article published in Literaturnaya Gazeta, No. 8, 10th February 1937)

Pavel Antokol’sky

Monotonous and mad

Like young life’s whirl, the noisy

Whirl of the waltz revolves,

Pair after pair flicks by.

Pushkin placed a plastic image of a three-quarter dance, its dizzying, poignant motif in the simplest stanza of iambic tetrameter. And right there, ten lines later, in the next stanza of Eugene Onegin is the galloping tempo of the mazurka.

There the mazurka sounds. Time was,

When the mazurka’s thunder dinned,

In a huge ballroom everything vibrated,

The parquetry cracked under heel…

Manuscript of A. S. Pushkin’s draft with drawings (Tatyana, Pushkin’s self-portrait) for Chapter II of the novel Eugene Onegin (fig. dated 1823–1824)

Volumes of research have been written about the technique Pushkin used in his poetry. Its analysis is fascinating and can teach you a lot. But we are interested in something else. We have before us such a degree of mastery of the material, thought and feeling, when suggestions about training, “harmony” verified by “algebra” may not arise. Before us is the result, perfection, so-called simplicity. To understand and appreciate this simplicity, you need to know the road leading to it. Where are the roots of Pushkin’s crushing sincerity, his freedom of intonation, power over language, volatile and intense energy? What does explain his rapid growth? By the age of twenty, it was clear that he was ahead of both his peers and literary teachers. Is everything attributable to genius – a vague and unaccountable quality?

We can clearly imagine the young Pushkin and his nature as lively, sociable, and open to all passions, both high and low. We know his early friendships, the influence of these friendships on the emerging consciousness of the young man. We know the stacks of books he read, the randomly and abruptly mastered culture of the Enlightenment Age. He boldly navigated among all these ancient, French and Russian famous names. He had an unmistakable taste. Since his first experiments, he loved to juxtapose the high with the low, the ode with the epigram, classical mythology with Voltairian irony. He dealt with all popular poetic genres in his own way. He processed everything quickly and greedily, chewed through any abstract scholasticism with strong teeth and again demanded information, material, fuel – ideas, impressions, disputes. He immediately behaved like a master in poetry in order to organise it anew and in an exemplary manner.

A demon possessed

My games, leisure;

He followed me everywhere

And whispered wonderful sounds,

And my head was full of

Heavy, fiery disease…

A heavy fiery disease… are we satisfied with such definition of creative fever, is it understandable? Yes, it suits us. Yes, it is clear. Creativity is not easy; it is as painful as any birth. The harder, the more fiery this birth is, the higher the poet grows.

But what were Pushkin’s own efforts aimed at, what did he look for to apply his energy to, what did he want in his years of growth? Effective will, goals set for him consciously or semi-consciously – this is what interests us primarily.

The first lines of the manuscript of Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman

At the age of twenty-three, he wrote in his diary: “Only a revolutionary head like Mar(at) and Pestel can love Russia the way a writer can only love its language. Everything must be creative in this Russia and in this Russian language.” This is the program of a revolutionary artist. We know that it is not accidental for Pushkin and to what extent. To expand the limits of expressiveness of language, to make language a direct and flexible instrument of thought and feeling, to break linguistic clichés, to drive out of speech what is dilapidated, dead, superficial, to get as close as possible to folk speech – we encounter these conscious, consistent efforts of Pushkin at every step, in all areas of his activities, almost from the very beginning. This is truly his passion, the passion of a revolutionary artist. In his passion, he was intolerant, demanding, and principled, like in nothing else.

This passion can be found even in his notes made in the margins of other people’s books. It is well known how traditionalists among bureaucracy, and not only them, greeted his search for language. Kachenovsky’s notorious review of Ruslan and Lyudmila expresses the views of a very significant part of secular and bureaucratic society. And, of course, it was not just a matter of observing salon decorum. Kachenovsky was frightened by the invasion of the “Nobility Assembly” by an unexpected guest, a “prankster” in a peasant’s coat and bast shoes, who suddenly shouted in a loud voice: “Hello, guys!” It’s strange to us today that the noble guard saw such a social danger in Ruslan and Lyudmila. But it is important that this is exactly how, similar to Kachenovsky, many people perceived Pushkin’s appearance after hearing his poetic speech. They imagined a guest in a peasant’s coat behind Pushkin, or maybe even worse – someone in Pugachev’s sheepskin coat.

Your voice, dear girl, produces the sounds

Of your native songs with savage perfection.

This is how the chairman addresses the girl in A Feast in Time of Plague. Mary begins to sing. From her song you can also guess her voice – not very strong, but high and clear, almost impersonal in terms of timbre. It vibrates only because Mary sings. Such a voice always seems to be sealed into the landscape. It is a natural phenomenon, like the sound of the forest, the wind, the surf. This is how Pushkin imagined Ovid’s voice, “a voice like the sound of waters.” And the content of the song – whether it is joyful or sad, whether its words are in any language of the world – is always the same content. It is HUMAN focused.

There is something familiar

In the coachman’s drawn-out songs:

Maybe the sound of wild parties,

Or a sorrow to touch the heart.

Both in the song of the London abandoned girl and in the song of the serf coachman there is one “savage perfection”. They are also related to the beauty from whom Pushkin heard a lot of “songs of sad Georgia.” Pushkin was always drawn to these folk and pure voices with irresistible force. He himself also communicated with them – perhaps, first of all, through his fairy tales, and among them the brilliant Kalmyk one that Pugachev tells. This is a fairy tale about an eagle view, steppe freedom. Such freedom must be obtained once in a lifetime, at least at the cost of life. This fairy tale is repeated by Pushkin in newer and newer modulations. The prisoner heard about this from the eagle: “We are free birds. It’s time, brother, it’s time.”

It is not true that this “freedom” is conventional and decorative, that it passed to Pushkin from Byron’s corsairs, from Chateaubriand’s savages, from any other book romance. That’s wrong. Pushkin’s entire southern exile speaks of something else. The gypsy camp is his life experience. He knew the robber Kirdzhali and admired him. Even Dubrovsky and Shvabrin-Shvanchich are the unlived possibilities of his short and dangerous life. This man did not tell much about himself. However, he didn’t do much too. But he carried within himself, in a hidden form, unrealised opportunities that he endowed with others. And if he had lived an indoor life, this would not have been even mentioned. But his life was far from simple!

How often the leaden snow plain stretched out before him as the path of noble and bureaucratic melancholy. “Only striped versts come across alone…” It was the leaden expanse of the empire, an endless icy casemate. He considered himself doomed to travel along all Russian roads, and knew that the journey would end in accidental death. He was liberated only by creativity and the insane, exorbitant, greedy longing for freedom inherent in his creativity.

Onegin, Godunov and The Bronze Horseman are the three main results of his life. They are almost legends for us. This is an epic detached from its creator – there is such depth and freedom behind it. Pushkin is more visible and palpable in something else, less monumental – and most clearly in his lyrics and fairy tales. Fairy tales are his utopia, his dream of the future of humanity. Pushkin’s fairy tales are the world in which the sea is always blue, fish and birds are golden, and girls are rosy. This is the world of childhood and the first touch with art, at least through a box of coloured pencils. The world seen for the first time with eyes without tears or squint. The outlines and colours really catch your eye. The horizon is not bathed in blue airy perspective, but is just as relief and plastic as the foreground. This is how the naive geniuses and artists of the Middle Ages saw the world, with their motley, patterned, intricate texture, like life itself. And this is the same “savage perfection” as in Mary’s song.

The attitude towards Pushkin determined many things in the nineteenth century in Russia. Poets, people like Herzen and Chernyshevsky, and thousands of ordinary readers measured themselves, their youth, their attitude towards their homeland and the revolution by Pushkin. There is no need for us to enter into competition with the past. Pushkin is ours, and only ours – by right, which does not require proof, by the birthright of our creative and popular culture. But we know that Pushkin had existed, and exists, in time, and this only makes him more precious to us.

Our love for Pushkin is love for the history of our native country, for its passionate and courageous language, for its songs and blizzards, for the fresh October cold, for the ringing heat of summer afternoons, for the Russian rivers, forests and roads. Our love for Pushkin is everyone’s love for their work; it is the fever of sleepless labour, the impatience of builders who know that the dream is close to fulfilment, who know that every bold dream will come true. Our love for Pushkin is our love for children, their schooling and vacation. They enter life with a light step. Let us wish them a happy meeting with Pushkin!

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