Reading Pushkin: Narrative Poetry

As promised I am continuing with my journey through Pushkin’s verse. I was actually looking forward to starting his narrative poetry section, because it felt like a trip down a memory lane. I read most of these for literature class in middle school and junior high. Naturally, because it’d been years upon years since those careless days, I did not remember anything outside a few general plot points. However, as I was discussing it with Ekaterina in my Eugene Onegin post last week, Pushkin’s poetry is incredibly memorable, and once you start reading it, whole passages start floating up in your head. Also, it helped that we were forced to memorize huge chunks out of many of these in school. Ask any Russian if they remember the opening lines to Ruslan and Ludmila (the one about an oak, and a golden chain, and a cat), and they will likely recite at least a few of them.

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Ruslan and Ludmila

This is written in the same vein as old Russian folk tales called “bylinas”. At first I was confused why it wasn’t included in a fairytale section of the book, but then I noticed a few paragraphs of what might be called “inappropriate content” and that kind of explained it. It tells the story of newly wedded hero Ruslan and the beautiful Ludmila celebrating and getting ready for their wedding night, when an evil sorcerer Chernomor breaks into their chamber and sweeps the bride away. Ruslan sets on a journey to return his beloved safely home, but he must do that before his three rivals get to her first.

Okay, when I was reading this at the tender age of ten I did not realize that Ruslan and Ludmila were about to have some sexy time before the kidnapping happened. Oh yeah, and that episode with warrior Ratmir and twelve seductresses – didn’t get that one either apparently! Pow, right in the childhood! As for my favourite scenes I loved the part with the giant talking head. It kind of reminded me of the tale about Svyatogor – the mythical giant knight of Rus who aided Ilya Muromets on his quest. I guess misunderstood friendly giants were a thing in Russian folklore. The funniest part was Pushkin’s description of the dramatic Ludmila. Distraught by her terrible situation she contemplates jumping into the sea, but upon seeing the violent waves just carries on with her walk. Later she promises herself to starve to death to render Chernomor’s kidnapping useless, but changes her mind again when a lavish dinner is presented to her. I chuckled out loud reading Ludmila’s inner monologue. It’s like she wants to act the part of a lady in distress according to tradition, but can’t be really bothered by the actual situation. Probably my favourite story out of all in this section.

The Prisoner of the Caucasus

This one is a short little tale of a Russian man captured by a Cherkess  tribe in the mountains of Caucasus. A young Cherkess woman comes to him every night to bright food and drink, and it is finally revealed that she is in love with him. While sympathizing with her feelings, the hero’s heart already belongs to someone else – someone who doesn’t reciprocates his feelings either. Knowing that her beloved will not change his mind, the girl decides to help him escape, but the deed demands self-sacrifice. This is a very sad story and full of romanticism that Pushkin loves to include in his poems. The main hero is very similar to Eugene Onegin, in a way that he too is disillusioned by the society and seeks refuge in the wild mountains and forests of the south. The striking beauty of Caucasus is relayed perfectly in this poem, making it another favourite of mine.

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The Fountain of Bakhchisaray

I was very confused by this poem, and here’s why. The story is rather simple: Khan Karim captures a beautiful Maria in battle and brings her to his harem. The girl spends her days praying and wishing to join her dead family in heaven. Meanwhile Karim’s former favourite Zarema becomes jealous and threatens the girl to somehow turn the khan away from her if she wants to live. And here is when things get confusing: it is revealed that Maria somehow dies and Zarema is drowned in punishment, while Khan Karim leaves his palace distraught. There is evidence in favour of Maria’s suicide, but then there is this execution of Zarema that throws logic out of the window.

The Gypsies

I like this poem a lot! It has this freedom of the open fields and strength of horses, cheer of a camp fire and wild passion of nomads. In short, a runaway nobleman pursued by the law joins a band of gypsies, where one of the girls claims him to be her “husband”. But soon she tires of him and pursues someone else. Her father tells him to accept a gypsy’s will to be free and follow her heart, but in a jealous rage the man kills the girl. As stated in the finale, the poem is about the conflict between personal freedom and acceptance of same concept in others. The man fails to grasp gypsy culture and marks these people with blood, and for that he is banished from the band.

Count Nulin

This one is a comedic episode about overly amorous Count Nulin visiting a bored countryside wife Natalya. According to the romantic tradition, the hero becomes restless in the night, unable to get the visions of his hostess out of his head, and sneaks into her room to proclaim his feelings. The indisposed Natalya, of course, screams and slaps Nulin silly, sending him fleeing out of her door and her house. A cute little tale to put a smile on anyone’s face.

Poltava

I didn’t really care all that much for Poltava. It is dedicated to the Battle of Poltava and has a faint love story weaved into it. The protagonists do not really evoke any sympathy, instead being sort of anti-heroic. The female heroine betrays her parents and runs away with her lover, but soon has to  choose between her heart and her father’s life. Apparently critics too found the poem inferior to other works of Pushkin. And while it wasn’t a chore to read, it certainly was forgettable.

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The Bronze Horseman

The Bronze Horseman is a widely read poem, so I could recall a few things from it here and there. Again, this is rather an episodic story about a young man whose fiance is killed in a flood. Blaming Peter the Great for building Saint Petersburg so close to the sea, the hero curses at the bronze monument to the emperor. Driven crazy by loss of a loved one, he imagines the great horseman coming to life and chasing him across the city. I can appreciate the poem’s flow and tragic mood, but I can’t say I was blown away by it either. I think I prefer my Pushkin witty and happy, not melancholic.

I think overall the poems progressed from very humorous and light in the beginning to darker and more reflective in Pushkin’s later writing career. That’s an interesting thought to ponder on. Next in my cards are dramas and fairytales, so hopefully I can test out my theory on those. Has anyone else read Pushkin outside of Eugene Onegin and can comment on the mood of his poetry?

10 comments

  1. Nice work! I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never read Ruslan and Ludmila in its enitrety 😦 I really should! The Bronze Horseman is my favourite of all! Such imagery!

  2. I love any works of Pushkin with magic in it! I think you should really read Ruslan and Ludmila, because it does everything a perfect story does, except make you breakfast in the morning. And I totally agree about the imagery in the Horseman – the flood and the midnight chase are fantastic!

  3. After reading Eugene Onegin, I definitely want to read more Pushkin. Thanks for the summaries. They sound like a mix between dramatic and fun, which certainly sounds like Pushkin to me!

  4. I need to find out how many of Pushkin’s works were translated into English… I don’t expect his complete works or anything, but you’d think such an influential writer would be represented well. I mean I see things by Dostoevsky here that I haven’t even heard of. Ever. I hope I raised some interest in Pushkin among the English speakers, and I’m sure you’d like anything else written by him. I will also be reading his prose some day, so there is lots to explore!

  5. I’m really enjoying my second reading of Eugene Onegin in two months, however, I’m finding the different translations very ……… different. In the first translation there was so much emphasis on his ennui and it wasn’t very clear as to why Tatyana could fall for him. With Falen (present translation), I get the feeling that Eugene is bored but he is still doing something. I also feel more of the influence over Tatyana with regard to expectations from other people and can understand why she may view herself in love with him. The semi-conflicting perceptions make me nervous and I know I’m not really getting Pushkin but an example of Pushkin. Sigh! How I envy you for having the ability to read it in the original language!

  6. I enjoyed your thoughtful reviews and the beautiful paintings! Also looking forward to hearing about the fairytales. It’s a shame Pushkin is not better known in the US…everyone here has heard of Dostoyevsky, like you say, and Tolstoy, but that’s about it.

  7. I know what you mean, Cleo! Translated books are never the same as the original. I am experiencing the same the same regrets when I read anything that was originally written in Italian or French. I just wish I knew enough languages to read everything in the original.

    I think Eugene is being misunderstood by many translators. Of course, my ideas are based on my own interpretation, but Pushkin is not that flowery to confuse his intentions. I find Onegin a very sympathetic character. If you think about it, he was just a typical young, rich guy, but never manipulative or malicious. He hated flashy society, because indeed he was bored with it (again, Byron’s influence on Pushkin). You couldn’t really expect him to fall in love with a girl he barely knew just because she happened to have a crush on him. In fact, I think the way he turned her down was very diplomatic. He wasn’t a womanizer who enjoyed breaking young girls’ hearts, or anything. Even his flirtation with Olga was purely to get back at Lensky for tricking him into attending the ball. He was so close to canceling the whole duel thing, but for stupid peer pressure and pride. But I am rambling… it’s just that I’ve read a couple of lines from here and there in English and read some reviews by English-speaking bloggers, and found such a different picture of Onegin from what I believe is depicted in the poem!

  8. Thank you, Marian. I’m glad my notes can be useful to someone! As I finished the book last weekend, I will most likely be writing up the last post sometime this week. So please visit!

  9. I am reading Eugene Onegin now and find it very entertaining and wonderful to read this post and to know there are other gems to read as well. I wonder what that tendency towards melancholy suggests?

    Happy to have come across your blog and reading, wonderful reviews.

  10. HI Claire, I will be discussing more Pushkin in the immediate future, so hopefully it will give you range of his works to choose from. I think some of his melancholy was from the fashion of the time, some from him getting older, and some of course of being heavily persecuted by imperial officials who thought his poetry anti-royalist and overall dangerous. But I am not really a Pushkin scholar, so my guess might not be the most correct. I would love to read his private letters and journals though, but it seems like they are hard to come by. A lot of his private writings were censored in Soviet times when published in book form, because they contained some explicit language and revealing sexual themes. I know one publisher recently reprinted the complete uncensored volume as part of Pushkin’s bibliography set, but I don’t really want to purchase twenty books for the sake of one. 😦 I will be researching more.

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