"Scorn not the sonnet": Pushkin and Wordsworth (1).
Pushkin first encountered Wordsworth's sonnet in the pirated 1828 Paris edition of his Poetical Works published by the brothers John Anthony and William Galignani, presumably based on the first English collected edition of 1827, in which "Scorn not the Sonnet ..." first appeared. (Pushkin also had in his library the Paris editions in English of, e.g., Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats; Crabbe; Hazlitt; Washington Irving; Thomas Moore; Walter Scott; and Southey [Wolff, 495, 497, 503, 504, 510, 517, 518].) We quote Wordsworth's sonnet here from the Galignani "piracy," which Wordsworth ruefully acknowledged "is printed with admirable accuracy, I have not noticed a single error that I am not myself answerable for" (Moorman, 550 note):
Scorn not the Sonnet; Critic, you have frowned. Mindless of its just honours;--with this Key Shakspeare unlocked his heart; the melody Of this small Lute gave ease to Petrarch's wound; A thousand times this Pipe did Tasso sound; Camoens soothed with it an Exile's grief; The Sonnet glittered a gay myrtle Leaf Amid the cypress with which Dante crowned His visionary brow: a glow-worm Lamp, It cheered mild Spenser, called from Faery-land To struggle through dark ways; and, when a damp Fell round the path of Milton. in his hand The Thing became a Trumpet; whence he blew Soul-animating strains--alas, too few! (Wordsworth, 119)
In 1803, the English Annual Review had dismissed sonnets as "at best ... but stiff difficult trifles, and surely more remote from the simplicity which they often affect than any other class of poems in our language" (Havens, 521-22). In this sonnet Wordsworth refutes such critics, along with Samuel Johnson, who characterized Milton as "a genius" who "never learned the art of doing little things with grace" (Hill, 4:305). Similarly, in 1793, George Steevens rejected the sonnets from his edition of William Shakespeare because, he said, the "strongest act of Parliament that could be framed, would fail to compel readers into their service" (Havens, 480-81). And dismissing the sonnets of Edmund Spenser in 1798, Nathan Drake wrote "the critic will recognise many of the trifling conceits of the Italian, but find little to recompense the trouble of research" (Havens, 481).
In "Scorn not the sonnet ..." Wordsworth regards the form as a vehicle for either public or private themes. Milton for him exemplifies the "public" sonneteer, while private themes preoccupy the other poets he lists, all of whom drew solace from the sonnet as either exiles or lovers (or both) (Johnson, 39). His omitting the great French sonnet writers, Du Bellay, Marot, or Ronsard, would be inexplicable except that, as William Hazlitt noted in The Spirit of the Age, Wordsworth "condemns all French writers (as well of poetry as prose) in the lump" (Howe, 11:93). Wordsworth himself, in his sonnet "Great men [Milton and some of his contemporaries] have been among us ...," says,
... France, "tis strange, Hath brought forth no such souls as we had then. No master spirit, no determined road; But equally a want of books and men! (De Selincourt & Darbishire, 3:116-17)
Still, in his vindication of the sonnet Wordsworth marshalled a distinguished array of continental poets, Petrarch, Torquato Tasso, Camoes, and Dante, alongside the British Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton, the last revered by Wordsworth as the preeminent creator of sonnets springing from "the strife/That animates the scenes of public life" (Wordsworth, 125). In an earlier sonnet, "London, 1802," a despairing Wordsworth had invoked Milton as national admonisher and prophet:
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour: England hath need of thee: she is a fen Of stagnant waters; ... Thy soul was like a Star.... (Wordsworth, 145)
The octave of Wordsworth's "Scorn not the Sonnet ..." is one of his favourite variants of the Italian sonnet octave, in which the second quatrain, instead of repeating the rhymes of the first, introduces a new rhyme in lines 6 and 7, thus: abba acca. Wordsworth, in a bow to Milton, here makes use of enjambment, permitting his octave to run over into the sestet (which rhymes de de ff). When he declares that in Milton's hand the sonnet "became a trumpet," he alludes to Book VI of Paradise Lost, in which a sounding trumpet summons the angelic host and then sends it into battle against Lucifer and his band of rebel angels. In his closing tribute, Wordsworth says that Milton, like the archangels of the army of God in the war in Heaven, summons the powers of good to do battle against the forces of evil--religious, political, and military oppression--with a sounding trumpet: such sonnets, for example, as XII ("I did but prompt the age to quit their clogs"), XV ("On the Lord General Fairfax at the Siege of Colchester"), XVI ("To the Lord General Cromwell"), and XVIII ("On the Late Massacre in Piemont").
The trumpet call of Milton's public sonnets is the last, climactic, metaphor among several in "Scorn not the Sonnet ..." The others relate, respectively, to each of the "private" sonneteers mentioned: a key that the incomparable Shakespeare used to unlock his heart; a lute which gave comfort to a disconsolate Petrarch after his Laura's death; a pipe whose melody solaced a near-mad Tasso in confinement and a grieving Camoes in exile; a myrtle leaf, the emblem of Dante's love for Beatrice, which served to brighten the cypress crown of mourning worn by that supreme poet; and a glow-worm lamp retrieved by Spenser from the land of faerie to light his way as an English civil servant in an ungovernable Ireland.
Through more than 500 sonnets, Wordsworth helped reestablish respectability and integrity to the form. Still, in 1876, in his "House," Robert Browning objected strenuously to the typically confessional nature of the sonnet, with specific reference to Wordsworth's "Scorn not the Sonnet ..." and its tribute to Shakespeare. Although he had himself written at least one sonnet (Scudder, 11), the young Browning, humiliated by the critical reaction to his confessional longer poem, "Pauline"--John Stuart Mill, in a note passed on to Browning, said of the anonymous author, "With considerable poetic powers, the writer seems to me possessed with a more intense and morbid self-consciousness than I ever knew in any sane human being" (DeVane,. 46)--vowed that his poetry from then on would be "dramatic in principle, and so many utterances of so many imaginary persons, not mine" (DeVane, 47). "House" opens with the question, "Shall I sonnet-sing you about myself? ... 'Unlock my heart with a sonnet-key?'" Then, in reply to the irate sonnet-lover or bardolater who quotes Wordsworth back at him, the poet replies: "'With this same key/Shakespeare unlocked his heart," once more !'/"Did Shakespeare? If so, the less Shakespeare he!" (Smalley, 45051). Browning had read closely and remembered well Wordsworth's sonnet on the sonnet.
While the sonnet thus had had a long, if at times rocky, history in English literature, this was not the case in Russian literature. The first appeared in Russia during the eighteenth century when Vasily Kirillovich Trediakovsky translated a sonnet from the French. The four sonnets of Trediakovsky's contemporary, Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov, better known as the father of Russian drama, are markedly superior to Trediakovsky's, but Pushkin's friend Baron Anton Antonovich Delvig was "the first significant Russian sonnetist" (R[annit], 439; Terras, 130). And Pushkin himself played a large role in establishing the sonnet form in Russian literature. According to Aleksis Rannit, "Pushkin left us three sonnets in all [excluding the 'Elegy' (Elegiya)], not one of which can be termed correct and complete from the point of view of classical 'laws;' they were: 'Poet! Do Not Value the People's Love' (Poet! Ne dorozhi lyuboviyu narodnoi), 'Not a Great Number of Paintings by Old Masters' (Ne mnozhestvom kanin starinnykh masterov), and 'Stem Dante' (Surovyi Dant), this last a variant of Wordsworth's 'Scorn Not the Sonnet.' Nevertheless, it was then, at the beginning of the 19th century [i. e., 1830], that the preliminary rule for the Russian sonnet was fixed: a sonnet is written only in iambs, usually in pentameter or hexameter, rarely in three- or four-foot iambic lines." (439)
The rhyme scheme of Pushkin's iambic pentameter "Sonnet" ("Stem Dante") reveals his willingness to bend the rules in order to achieve flexibility: abab cbcb ddb dbd. Our translation follows:
Sonnet. Scorn not the sonnet, critic. Wordsworth. [In English] Stern Dante did not despise the sonnet; Into it Petrarch poured out the ardor of love; Its play the creator of Macbeth loved; With it Camoes clothed his sorrowful thought. Even in our days it captivates the poet: Wordsworth chose it as an instrument, When far from the vain world He depicts nature's ideal. Under the shadow of the mountains of distant Tavrida The singer of Lithuania in its constrained measure His dreams he in an instant enclosed. Here the maidens did not yet know it, When for it even Delvig forgot The sacred melodies of the hexameter. (Pushkin, 3:214) (2)
Though Pushkin is faithful to the spirit and substance of Wordsworth's sonnet, his poem is not a translation; it is an original creation of a master poet. Even in the subtitle there is a subtle creative revision. Whereas Wordsworth's first clause is addressed to his general public of readers, with his focus narrowing to the "Critic" only in the second clause, Pushkin brings the obtuse critic front and centre immediately by changing Wordsworth's semicolon into a comma. In his most conspicuous departure from the original, Pushkin, in the body of his own spare but powerful sonnet on the great sonneteers, quietly drops every one of Wordsworth's effective, but perhaps to Pushkin overly florid, metaphors. Moreover, Pushkin at will revises Wordsworth's list of the great sonnet writers. Wordsworth first names Shakespeare; then he lists, in order, Petrarch, Tasso, Dante, and Spenser; and, finally and most conspicuously, Milton. To make way for Wordsworth himself, as well as for Adam Mickiewicz and Anton Delvig, Pushkin omits the names of Tasso, Spenser, and Milton. Pushkin"s list includes, first, Dante, then, in order, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Camoes, Wordsworth, Mickiewicz, and Delvig. While Wordsworth begins and ends with English poets, it is noteworthy that Pushkin, with the exception of Shakespeare, presents his international roster of poets in chronological order and, like Wordsworth before him, by implication places himself at the culmination of the long evolutionary development of sonnet writers.
Though Dante is fifth among Wordsworth's seven worthies, the tribute to him occupies the greater part of three lines and is exceeded in length only by Wordsworth's treatment of Milton. Pushkin grants Dante the honour of being primus inter pares but replaces Wordsworth's ornate two-and-a-half-line filigree of myrtle leaf and cypress with a one-line understated sentence devoted to him: "Stem Dante did not despise the sonnet." Pushkin places Petrarch before Shakespeare in his ordering, while paying the customary tribute to Petrarch's love sonnets. Elsewhere, however, after referring to a poem of his own that he would not wish to publish because "many places refer to one woman, with whom I was for a very long time very stupidly in love," he declares that "Petrarch's role does not appeal to me" (Pushkin, 13:67). (3) Pushkin in fact believed that Petrarch's great achievement was that he, like Mikhail Vasilievich Lomonosov in Russia, was the founder of his country's literature (Wolff, 208).
Pushkin pays homage to the Shakespeare of the sonnets, but, unlike Wordsworth, who finds it supererogatory to mention Shakespeare's towering achievement in the theatre, Pushkin relishes the seeming paradox that the incomparable tragic dramatist, "the creator of Macbeth," loved the "play" (igra) of the sonnet. In his own tragedy Boris Godunov (1825), Pushkin had created a hero in the mold of Macbeth, one who exhibited "Macbeth's visionary guilt and despair" (Wolff, 105). While Boris Godunov was in progress, Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky forwarded to Pushkin advice from his brother-in-law Nikolai Mikhailovich Karamzin: "He says that in drawing the character of Boris you must bear in mind a wild contradiction between piety and criminal passions.... This contradiction is dramatic" (Pushkin, 13:24). (4) Pushkin replied that Karamzin's comment "has been very useful to me. I had been looking at Boris from the political point of view, without observing his poetic side" (Pushkin, 13:227; Cited in Shaw, 1:254-55.). There were, then, good reasons why in 1830 Pushkin would be thinking of Shakespeare as "the creator of Macbeth."
Pushkin here omits Tasso, Wordsworth's third-named master of the sonnet, but elsewhere repeatedly brackets him with Ariosto (Pushkin, 13:177-80), (5) and at least once with Homer: while scolding his friend Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky, the preeminent Russian literary translator, for wasting his time with minor authors, Pushkin says, "Tasso, Ariosto, and Homer are one thing, and the songs of [Friedrich von] Matthison and the deformed tales of [Thomas] Moore are another" (Pushkin, 13:40). (6) It is possible, though, that Pushkin's omission of Tasso as a sonneteer reflects the sort of doubt suggested by C. P. Brand, who implicitly raises questions about Tasso's sincerity in his sonnets by suggesting that "the considerable number of the recipients of his love sonnets is evidence that he never loved any of them seriously. Certainly his letters betray no signs of the man in love ..." (Brand, 37).
Before turning to his three great contemporary masters of the sonnet, the Englishman Wordsworth, the Pole Mickiewicz, and the Russian Delvig, Pushkin devotes a line to Camoes, as he has done with the other great sonneteers of the past, Dante, Petrarch, and Shakespeare. In referring to Camoes's "sorrowful thought" he follows Wordsworth, who speaks of "an exile's grief." In order to make room for the three great masters of the sonnet among his contemporaries Pushkin further omits from Wordsworth's list both Edmund Spenser (though elsewhere he named Spenser, with Milton and Shakespeare, as an Englishman deserving to be ranked with Dante, Ariosto, and Calderon [Wolff, 128]) and John Milton (though Tatiana Wolff warmly praises "the extraordinary percipience of his short comment on Milton's character in his review of Chateaubriand's translation of Paradise Lost," in which he has "proved able to sum up the quality of the man" [Wolff, 486]).
In "Stern Dante" Pushkin honours Wordsworth as Wordsworth had honoured Milton, as a master of the sonnet devoted to public themes. For Wordsworth the sonnet is figuratively Milton's "Trumpet," just as it is Petrarch's "Lute" and Tasso's "Pipe," but for Pushkin the sonnet is literally Wordsworth's "instrument." (7) Wordsworth is to Pushkin what Milton is to Wordsworth. The public centre of Wordsworth's sonnet is John Milton, Britain's political and moral conscience during the turbulent years of the Civil War, Interregnum, and Restoration; the public centre of Pushkin's sonnet is William Wordsworth, Britain's prophet of a still vital nature besieged by a brutal and grasping industrialized world. The primary reference in Wordsworth's sonnet is to another of his sonnets, "London, 1802," with its desperate appeal to Milton; Pushkin's reference is to Wordsworth's sonnet "The World Is Too Much With Us," the instrument Wordsworth uses to help preserve intact the powers of the national and individual imagination against the onslaught of Pushkin's "vain world" of utilitarianism and laissez faire:
The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers: Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon! (Wordsworth, 117-18)
In his variation upon Wordsworth's sonnet Pushkin pays Wordsworth the supreme compliment: he implicitly recognizes him as the Milton of his generation.
The French sonneteers are as conspicuous by their absence in Pushkin's sonnet as in Wordsworth's, for Pushkin often shares Wordsworth's distaste for French literature. In one jotting he says, "French literature is perverted. ... Its stupid versification--timid, pale language--always on leading strings." Elsewhere in an abandoned draft he asserts, "Not one of the French poets dared to take an independent stand, not one, as Milton had, forswore the plaudits of his contemporaries.... They are not, and never were, inspired by a disinterested love of art or beauty. A despicable race!" (Wolff, 47, 359) (8) With the omission of Tasso, Spenser, and Milton, Pushkin finds room "Within the Sonnet's scanty plot of ground" to honour, along with Wordsworth, two other distinguished contemporary sonneteers, both Slavs: Adam Mickiewicz, a Pole, and Anton Delvig, a Russian.
Adam Mickiewicz, Poland's national poet, was born in 1798 in Lithuania, for many years a Duchy in Poland but after 1795 a province of the Russian empire. Mickiewicz in effect was born in exile, and he became doubly an exile when the authorities deported him to Russia as a dangerous Polish nationalist. In Russia, allowed relative freedom of movement and association, he became a friend of Pushkin and seized the opportunity to travel in the Crimea: "under the shadow of the mountains of distant Tavrida [ancient Tauris]," in Pushkin's phrasing. Mickiewicz's Crimean Sonnets (Sonety Krymskie) were the astonishing result of that sojourn. "[T]he Crimea with its mysterious alternations of darkness and light, peaks and abysses, stoma and calm.... provided a mirror in which the poet [,"a solitary wanderer,"] could see reflected the inner drama of his own psyche ..." (Welsh, 48, 51, 53). In the cycle of eighteen sonnets Mickiewicz is in considerable part concerned with the timeless "problem of what is permanent and what merely transient in human existence":
Still great, now the domain of the Girajs is deserted. On porches and vestibules where Pashas knelt, In the council-chambers, the thrones of power and the abodes of love, Now hops the locust, winds the serpent. ... Where are you now--love, power, glory? You should have survived forever, the fountain quickly flows. O shame! You have all passed by, yet the fountain remains. (Mickiewicz, 1:264) (9)
Thus, in the Crimean Sonnets, Pushkin's "singer of Lithuania" "enclosed his dreams" in the "constrained measure" of the sonnet. Only a few years later, after Pushkin's pointless death in a duel with Georges D'Anthes, with whom Pushkin's wife had been carrying on a flirtation, Mickiewicz, as Ernest J. Simmons notes, "sent an open challenge [to a duel] to D'Anthes, eager to avenge his friend" (Simmons, 437).
The Crimean Sonnets, in translation, became very popular in Russia. Three of them appeared in Severnye Tsvety (Struve, 107), an almanac published by Pushkin's closest school friend, Anton Delvig, the last of the three great contemporary sonneteers named in Pushkin's "Stern Dante." According to Victor Tetras, Delvig "wrote some of the best sonnets in the language, in particular two sonnets of 1823 whose subject is poetry, 'Inspiration' and 'To N. M. Yazykov'" (Terras, 218). Both of these sonnets have the Italianate rhyme scheme abbaabba in the octave and cddccd in the sestet, and both are in iambic pentameter. In the first ("Vdokhnovenie"), Delvig treats the theme of the poet as a being apart--a theme Pushkin made into the cult of the poet--and concludes with the sestet,
And despised, driven from people, Wandering alone beneath the heavens, He speaks with future ages; He places honor higher than all honors, He takes vengeance on calumny with his glory And shares immortality with the gods.
In "N. M. Yazykovu" the sestet emphatically introduces Pushkin (as well as Pushkin's friend Evgenii Abramovich Baratynsky, the author of "Feasts") and depicts Delvig's perception of his own lifelong influence on the greater poet:
I came to love Pushkin as a child, With him I shared both sadness and delight, And as the first I heard his singing And for myself I blessed the gods. The singer of "Feasts" I introduced to the muse And as a reward I take pride in their glory. (Delvig, 47-49)
On hearing of Delvig's death in January 1831, not long after the publication of "Stern Dante," Pushkin said, "... nobody in the world was closer to me than Delvig" (Pushkin, 14:147; Shaw, 2:455). Pushkin, then, proposes his two close friends, Mickiewicz and Delvig, with Wordsworth, as contemporary candidates for inclusion in the pantheon of masters of the sonnet alongside Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Camoes. And Pushkin doubly honours Wordsworth by implicitly identifying him as the Milton of his (and Pushkin's) day as well as making him primus inter pares in the contemporary trio of distinguished European poets.
Steeping himself in Wordsworth's poetry when his three sonnets and the "Elegy" were written in 1830, Pushkin reveals Wordsworth's influence throughout. Indeed, even the feeblest of them, the iambic hexameter "Madonna" ("Not a Great Number of Paintings by Old Masters"), rhyming abba abab ced ede, though not overtly Wordsworthian, betrays a possible influence. In this sonnet, which, it has been assumed, refers to his fiancee, Natalia Goncharova, the poet declares that he has never had a desire to decorate his home with paintings by old masters, for gaping visitors to ogle while listening to pompous "connoisseurs" pronounce judgment. Rather, he has longed to be the perpetual viewer of one particular picture, which J. Thomas Shaw has associated with Perugino's "Madonna and Child" (Shaw, 2:466):
Of one: that at me from the canvas, as from the clouds, The purest one and our divine Savior-- She with grandeur, he with reason in his eyes-- Would gaze, the meek ones, in glory and in rays of light.... (Pushkin. 3:224)
In a letter to his fiancee, written in French and dated July 30, 1830, Pushkin gallantly associates the Virgin in the painting with his betrothed (Pushkin, 14:104). (10) More gallantly still, in the sonnet's concluding tercet he says, in words that would prove to be highly ironic after Natalia's scandalous and--to Pushkin--fatal flirtation with D'Anthes,
My wishes were fulfilled. The Creator Granted you to me, you, my Madonna, The purest model of the purest charm. (Pushkin, 3:224)
One of Wordsworth's sonnets in his "Ecclesiastical Sketches," which Pushkin would have had before him in the Galignani edition, is entitled "The Virgin":
... Thy Image falls to earth. Yet some, I ween, Not unforgiven the suppliant knee might bend, As to a visible Power, in which did blend All that was mixed and reconciled in Thee Of mother's love with maiden purity, Of high with low, celestial with terrene! (Wordsworth, 180)
The reverent gravity of this sonnet (in iambic pentameter and rhyming abba acca dee ffd), which reflects the ambivalence toward "graven images" of a devout Protestant contemplating the iconoclasm of the Reformation, obviously contrasts with the slick hyperbole of Pushkin's secularized "Madonna." While the actual content of Pushkin's "Madonna" was not influenced by "The Virgin," his choice of the sonnet form for treating the subject may well have been influenced by Wordsworth's sonnet. ("Madonna," incidentally, appears, in Pushkin's autograph, in the album of a man, one Yu. N. Bartenev [Pushkin, 3:1210]; its facile metrics and diction do seem more suited to album verse than to a private love poem dedicated to his fiancee. Its authenticity is further undermined by Ernest J. Simmons's statement that an "acquaintance" remarked that it "had actually been written for another woman" .) However, Pushkin's third sonnet, "To the Poet" ("Poet! Do Not Value the People's Love"), in iambic hexameter and rhyming abab abba ccd eed, provides an obvious instance of his likely indebtedness to Wordsworth.
As early as 1826 in "The Prophet" ("Prorok") Pushkin had appropriated and expanded the theme and imagery of the Book of Isaiah in claiming for himself and, by implication, true poets everywhere, the standing of Old Testament prophets, who, though themselves examples of errant humanity, spoke with inspired authority when they spoke as messengers of the divine. In a vision of Isaiah one of the seraphim attendant upon God, "having a live coal in his hand," "laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged" (Isaiah 6:6-7, AV). In Pushkin's "The Prophet" the seraph lays "his fingers on my eyes" and awakens the poet's "prophetic eyes"; places his fingers "Upon my ears ... / And sound rose--stormy swell on swell"; replaces "my sinful tongue" with "the wise serpent's tongue"; and replaces the poet's heart with "a coal of living fire." Thereupon, the stricken poet-prophet hears "the voice of God" admonishing him to "Arise ... / And burn men's hearts with this, my Word" (Pushkin, 3:30-31). (11) Ernest J. Simmons says of "The Prophet" that it "is simply an extraordinarily brilliant representation of a biblical theme, and nothing more" (225). However, Simmons and Victor Terras to the contrary notwithstanding, (12) the poem is in fact something much more: it is about "the role of the poet in society" (Vickery, 168). It is Pushkin's personal statement, made in all earnestness, of the moral and spiritual mission of the poet as prophet, with a recognition of the agonies endured and the human frailties overcome in the exercise of divine powers. In its "notion of the poet as the divinely inspired vates" (Yarmolinsky, 23) it reflects Shelley's "Defence of Poetry," written a few years earlier. Although the Galignani edition of Shelley's poetry (in a single volume with Coleridge's and Keats's) was in Pushkin's library, (13) it is highly unlikely that he would have seen the English poet's essay, with its exalted conception of the poet:
Poets ... were called, in the earlier epochs of the world, legislators, or prophets: a poet essentially comprises and unites both these characters.... A poet participates in the eternal, the infinite, and the one.... The persons in whom this power resides, may often as far as regards many portions of their nature, have little apparent correspondence with that spirit of good of which they are the ministers. But even whilst they deny and abjure, they are yet compelled to serve, the Power which is seated upon the throne of their own soul ... Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. (Shelley, 31, 32, 79, 80)
In Pushkin's "The Poet" ("Poet," 1827) the more conventional metaphor of Greek classical myth replaces the imagery of Old Testament prophecy that misled some readers of "The Prophet." Once again Pushkin takes up the Shelleyan theme, this time describing a somnolent poet, '"mid the worthless of this world / More worthless still," being suddenly galvanized by the divine summons of Apollo, god of poetry and prophecy:
... once Apollo's call divine Reaches the poet's eager ear, Like an eagle roused and taking wing, The poet wakened soars in flight.
In the end, Pushkin moves from Greek myth to Wordsworthian nature, and his poet, "alien to the world's vain joys," "Flees to the shore, the lonely waves, / Flees to the pathless, soughing woods" (Pushkin, 3:65). (14)
In his sonnet "To the Poet" ("Poetu," 1830) Pushkin, fresh from his reading of Wordsworth, once again takes up the theme of the sacred mission of the divinely inspired poet in a fallen and quotidian world. The poet-artist must be "firm, serene, and somber." Truly he is an emperor, and the rewards for "the noble deed" of creation must come from within himself. At all costs the poet must avoid the temptation to stoop to the "judgement of the fool," or court the "rapturous praise" of the masses, or be intimidated by the laughter or scorn of the "cold crowd." For he is the best and most severe judge of his own work:
Are you satisfied with it. exacting artist? Satisfied? Then let the crowd abuse it And spit on the altar where your fire burns. And in puerile playfulness shake your tripod. (Pushkin, 3:223)
The poet, like the priestess at Delphi, is the oracle through which Apollo speaks to mortals; like that priestess he is seated on a tripod, and like her he tends the sacred fire. Again Pushkin portrays the poet as divinely inspired. However, in this sonnet, composed within the context of his reading of Wordsworth, he does not speak of the poet's sometime human frailty, as he did in the earlier poems. Pushkin now reserves his wrath for the benighted crowd. (Simmons notes that "hostile critics were ready to pounce upon everything he printed" [Simmons, 325].) The poet is admonished to be imperturbable, serene, unswerving, and dedicated.
Two poems on the vocation of the poet in the Galignani edition of Wordsworth that would have caught Pushkin's eye present just such a figure. Wordsworth, like Pushkin, addresses the "Poet" in the first one, a little piece consisting of eleven lines of blank verse, later expanded to sixteen lines and placed at the head of collected editions of his poetry "to serve as a sort of Preface" (De Selincourt, 1:1, 317): "If Thou indeed derive thy light from Heaven, Shine, Poet, in thy place, and be content!" The star that shines from the zenith, Wordsworth continues, "Is yet of no diviner origin, / No purer essence" than a star viewed through leafless winter trees or "One that burns, / Like an untended watch-fire," on some dark mountain ridge (Wordsworth, 232). The theme, which Pushkin must have found comforting in view of the struggles of his poets, is that the poet, in whatever station he may find himself, can rest content in the assurance that his is a divine calling.
In the second poem, a sonnet on the pains and rewards of being a poet, Wordsworth begins with a quotation from William Cowper's The Task: "There is a pleasure in poetic pains/Which only Poets know;--'t was rightly said...." "Rightly said," Wordsworth explains, because the Muses would not otherwise be able to entice anyone into attempting to create poetry. Even when "the malice of one luckless word / Pursues" the poet "to the social board,"
Haunts him belated on the silent plains! Yet he repines not, if his thought stand clear At last of hindrance and obscurity, Fresh as the Star that crowns the brow of Morn.... (Wordsworth, 120)
One is tempted to conclude that Pushkin's appeal "To the Poet" to ignore the uproar of the crowd and to be true to his own best critical judgement is an affirmation of Wordsworth's more restrained observations, in these two poems, on the true poet's serene and unswerving dedication to his craft in the face of thoughtless or malicious criticism.
Pushkin's finest poem among his 1830 sonnets or near-sonnets is the "Elegy" ("Elegiya"), translated here in its entirety:
The dying merriment of reckless years Is hard for me as a dim hangover. But, like wine--the sorrow of bygone days is In my soul the older, the stronger. My way is sad. I am promised labour and woe By the agitated sea of the future. But I do not want, o friends, to die; I want to live, in order to think and to suffer; And I know, I will have delights Among the sorrows, cares, and troubles: Now and then I will again get intoxicated on harmony, Over the product of my imagination I will gush tears, And perhaps--on my sad sunset Love will flash a farewell smile. (Pushkin, 3:228)
Pushkin's "Elegy," an especially daring experiment in the sonnet form, consists of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter rhyming in couplets: aabbcc ddeeffgg, with its sestet preceding its octave. It may perhaps be read in the context of Wordsworth's "Elegiac Stanzas, Suggested by a Picture of Peele Castle, in a Storm, Painted by Sir George Beaumont," which would have attracted Pushkin's attention in the Galignani edition. Wordsworth wrote "Elegiac Stanzas" a year after his brother, John, died at sea and after viewing his friend Beaumont's painting for the first time. One centre of interest in the painting, in addition to the castle itself, is a ship caught in the storm off the Lancashire coast:
... This Work ... I blame not, but commend; This sea in anger, and that dismal shore ... That Hulk which labours in the deadly swell .... And this huge Castle, standing here sublime, I love to see the look with which it braves, Cased in the unfeeling armour of old time, The lightning, the fierce wind, and trampling waves. Farewell, farewell the heart that lives alone, Housed in a dream, at distance from the Kind! Such happiness, wherever it be known, Is to be pitied; for 'tis surely blind. But welcome fortitude, and patient cheer, And frequent sights of what is to be borne! Such sights, or worse, as are before me here.-- Not without hope we suffer and we mourn. (Wordsworth, 247)
Both Pushkin's and Wordsworth's elegies relinquish the "dying merriment of reckless years," the "blind" "happiness" of a youthful heart "housed in a dream," in order to embrace "sorrows, cares, and troubles," "fortitude, and patient cheer." Pushkin speaks of "the agitated sea of the future"; Wordsworth of "This sea in anger." Pushkin "want[s] to live, in order to think and to suffer." Wordsworth asserts, "Not without hope we suffer and we mourn." These are persuasive pieces of evidence that Pushkin wrote his "Elegy," and that we should read it, within the context of his reading Of Wordsworth. There is, however, one significant difference in the two poets' outlooks that may say much about their respective natures as men and poets: Pushkin expects that "Now and then I will again get intoxicated on harmony" and hopes that "perhaps--on my sad sunset / Love will flash a farewell smile." On these matters Wordsworth remains stoically silent.
It seems clear that Pushkin read Wordsworth's sonnets in the original English with close attention and was deeply affected by them. In addition to the obvious and self-confessed parallel of "Stern Dante," Pushkin's other sonnets can be shown through close comparisons to have been influenced by Wordsworth's poems, even in the absence of conspicuous identities. Pushkin's clear debt to Wordsworth adds an interesting ripple to the wide circle of Wordsworth's international influence, (15) and, without having read and assimilated Wordsworth, Pushkin might never have tried his hand at writing sonnets. Russian--and world--literature would have been the poorer.
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KENNETH H. OBER
The University of Illinois
WARREN U. OBER
The University of Waterloo
(1) This article is reprinted here by kind permission of the editors of The Wordsworth Circle, where it first appeared in The Wordsworth Circle, 34 (2003):119-26. Some material omitted in the printed version in the Wordsworth Circle has been restored here.
(2) Dated 1830 in MS. First published, by Pushkin, in Moskovskij Vestnik, 1830, no. 8, p. 315.
(3) Letter to L. S. Pushkin, August 25, 1823. Cited in Wolff, 69.
(4) Cited in Wolff, 158. Wolff goes on to say, "It is the same clash of conscience and criminal violence that makes the character of Macbeth so interesting."
(5) E.g., in a letter to Bestuzhev, dated late May or early June, 1825. Translation in Wolff, 146, 147.
(6) Letter to N. I. Gnedich dated June 27, 1822. Translation in Shaw, 1:94.
(7) Orudie, "instrument," is an implement, technological tool, etc.; not a musical instrument.
(8) In fairness to all concerned, however, it should be noted that Pushkin's assessments were not always so negative. He says, e.g., "How amazing was the sudden appearance among all the general mediocrity of French poetry, the lack of true criticism and the vacillations of opinion, and among the general lowering of taste, of a crowd of truly great writers, throwing such lustre over the end of the seventeenth century[:] ... Corneille, Pascal, Bossuet and Fenelon, Boileau, Racine, Moliere and La Fontaine" (Wolff, 354).
(9) "Sonnet VI." Translation in Welsh, 53.
(10) "... je m'en console en passant des heures entieres devant une madone blonde qui vous ressemble comme deux gouttes d'eau..." Cited in Shaw, 2:423.
(11) Translation by Babette Deutsch in Yarmolinsky, 62.
(12) Terras too insists that "The Prophet" "must not be read as related to the poet's condition" (Terras, 184).
(13) See Wolff, 495.
(14) Translation in Vickery, 174.
(15) For our discussion of a set of Soviet Russian translations of Wordsworth, see our "Samuil Marshak's Translations of Wordsworth's 'Lucy" Poems."
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|Title Annotation:||Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, William Wordsworth|
|Author:||Ober, Kenneth H.; Ober, Warren U.|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2005|
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