Michael Wachtel, A Commentary to Pushkin's Lyric Poetry: 1826-1836.
While the term "commentary" in the title of this book is apt as far as it goes, it does not fully do justice to the innovative and versatile nature of the book's contents. In fact, Wachtel has devised a flexible new genre, capacious and robust enough to offer something of value to every reader of Pushkin: from explications of purely linguistic complexities challenging to the novice, to surveys of prevailing currents in scholarly opinion, and from compendia of little-known textual sources, to original critical insights of his own (he is quite modest about this, yet in fact, his precise attention to Pushkin's verse forms, in particular, is often revealing, as are his terse critical judgments). Wachtel's commentary benefits both from his vast knowledge of the secondary literature on Pushkin and his era, and his ability to muster dense detail concisely; it is inflected throughout by his measured tone and acute intellect.
The book is organized chronologically, with entries on every lyric work written by Pushkin during the decade in question; each entry begins with an overview that may contain relevant biographical or compositional context, a summary of critical debates or citations of notable scholarly approaches, discussions of metrical and rhyming patterns, mention of other works in Pushkin's oeuvre to which the poem in question bears some significant relation, explications of the work's intertextual play with its literary sources in a variety of languages, the evolution of Pushkin's own poetics, and so on. These introductory remarks on each poem are followed by focused commentaries on particular words and lines, and here, too, a wide range of topics is explicated, including lexical and grammatical archaisms and ambiguities, obscure cultural minutiae (including some curious culinary ones; e.g., the beverage zhzhenka [p. 16] and "blue fish" [p. 30]), intertextual echoes, rhetorical devices (zeugma or polysyndeton, anyone?), elusive puns, and much, much more.
The richness of the discussion of "Anchar" (pp. 107-13) is an excellent example of the range and versatility of Wachtel's approach. It begins with the poem's sources: in English poetry well and little known (Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Erasmus Darwin), and in the scientific mystifications of an 18th-century Shakespearean scholar impersonating a Dutch surgeon, not to mention in the linguistic usage of Lomonosov. The "Anchar" entry also includes suggestive discussion of the following topics, among others: the sonal and biographical origins of the noun anchar itself; the role of biblical allusions in both the poem's narrative and its language; the association of the archaic potek ("went") with the imagery of flowing liquids elsewhere in the poem; and the subversive rhyme anchar/tsar' before the censorship demanded that tsar'be changed to kniaz'. Wachtel also, in a single deft sentence, introduces an elegant juxtaposition of the fable contained in this poem with Mdton's Paradise Lost, arguing that "in Pushkin's revision it is obedience [not disobedience, as for Milton] that leads to doom" (p. 112).
Despite a superficial impression one might form that this book is "just" a piecemeal compilation of individual, disconnected tidbits of information (however useful), in fact the whole is even more significant than the sum of its parts. As Wachtel himself states in the book's introduction: "A commentary is not an interpretation, but rather a framework that makes informed interpretation possible. It is not merely literary, but concerns anything in the text that may require elucidation for readers of a later era" (p. xvii). This "anything" is impressively, exhilaratingly expansive in this volume, and rightly so--but more than that: it is deeply principled. As Wachtel points out, the cliched claim for the "simplicity and transparency" of Pushkin's verse is fundamentally misleading, as "Pushkin's poetry is teeming with references to other poets and poems... To an extraordinary extent, [his] own achievement is in rewriting rather than writing" (p. xvii). Wachtel's attention to meaningful subtleties and to the "thickness" of Pushkin's poetic language is in line with Yuri Lotman's observation that "the illusory impression of the 'comprehensibility' of [Pushkin's] work hides from the contemporary reader's awareness a huge number of words, expressions, idioms, names, implications, and quotations that are incomprehensible to him." (1) The work of Soviet scholars such as Lotman and Tomashevsky, as well as of several contemporary Russophone scholars (I. Dobrodomov, B. Gasparov, I. Pd'shchikov, O. Proskurin, M. Shapir, and others) aims to penetrate and illuminate the multilayered complexity of Pushkin's literary art, giving the he to its putative simplicity; Wachtel's book is an invaluable contribution to this ongoing scholarly endeavor, and one that undoubtedly benefits from its author's keen knowledge of Western literary traditions as well as the Russian one.
Nevertheless, a project such as this one, for all its breadth, is bound to betray certain proclivities of its author at the expense of other possible areas of focus. The commentaries throughout the book definitively slant toward Wachtel's strong interest in the meanings of metrical forms, and this is a peculiarity of the volume that many will find to be a great asset (for this reader, for instance, learning that there is only one single instance in Pushkin's oeuvre of unrhymed [blank] iambic tetrameter [p. 38] was fascinating, and there are many more such gems of metrical knowledge embedded throughout the volume). Wachtel does not pretend that his commentaries are exhaustive or that his source lists are complete, and of course, they are far from being so. Indeed, in some respects, his book is already out of date; for instance, the very brief commentary on "Dar naprasnyi, dar sluchainyi" (a mere 14 Unes, p. 82) was written too soon to take into account the complicated biographical and polemical context of this poem which Oleg Proskurin investigates in a publication of 2012. At times it is unclear why certain straightforward lexical items are glossed at all (cf. "stolitsy i dvora--of the capital and the court" on p. 31), and occasionally the translations provided are a bit awkward or misleading, as on this same page "Tomitel'no liubov'iu zamiraia--stopping in torment with love." Nevertheless, such flaws are very minor, and very few in number. This book contains an embarrassment of riches in miniature; one has the sense, in reading it, that the body of information it collates so succinctly is both the indisputable basis for any future discussion of Pushkin's lyrics and the kernel from which untold new discoveries will sprout. Wachtel has done an immense service to the community of Pushkin scholars and Pushkin readers, which is all the more valuable in that it is manifestly a labor both of wisdom and of love.
Alyssa Dinega Gillespie
(1) Iu. M. Lotman, Roman v stikhakh Pushkina "Evgenii Onegin": Spetskurs. Vvodnye lektsii v izuchenie teksta, in his Pushkin: Biografiia pisatelia, Stat 'i i zametki 1960-1990. "Evgenii Onegin": Kommentarii (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 1995), 393.
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|Author:||Gillespie, Alyssa Dinega|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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