The Bronze Horseman (poem)
Alexandre Benois's illustration to the poem (1904).
|Original title||Медный Всадник [Mednyi Vsadnik]|
|Translator||C. E. Turner|
Published in English
The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale (Russian: Медный всадник: Петербургская повесть, literally: "The Copper Horseman") is a narrative poem written by Alexander Pushkin in 1833 about the equestrian statue of Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg. Widely considered to be Pushkin's most successful narrative poem, "The Bronze Horseman" has had a lasting impact on Russian literature. The statue became known as the Bronze Horseman due to the great influence of the poem.
Outline of the poem
The poem is divided into three sections: a shorter introduction (90 lines) and two longer parts (164 and 222 lines). The introduction opens with a mythologized history of the establishment of the city of Saint Petersburg in 1703. In the first two stanzas, Peter the Great stands at the edge of the River Neva and conceives the idea for a city which will threaten the Swedes and open a "window to Europe". The poem describes the area as almost uninhabited: Peter can only see one boat and a handful of dark houses inhabited by Finnish peasants. Saint Petersburg was in fact constructed on territory newly gained from the Swedes in the Great Northern War, and Peter himself chose the site for the founding of a major city because it provided Russia with a corner of access to the Baltic Sea, and thus to the Atlantic and Europe.
The rest of the introduction is in the first person and reads as an ode to the city of the Petersburg. The poet-narrator describes how he loves Petersburg, including the city's "stern, muscular appearance" (l. 44), its landmarks such as the Admiralty (ll. 50–58), and its harsh winters and long summer evenings (ll. 59 - ll. 84). He encourages the city to retain its beauty and strength and stand firm against the waves of the Neva (ll. 85–91).
Part I opens with an image of the Neva growing rough in a storm: the river is "tossing and turning like a sick man in his troubled bed" (ll. 5–6). Against this backdrop, a young poor man in the city, Evgenii, is contemplating his love for a young woman, Parasha, and planning to spend the rest of his life with her (ll. 49–62). Evgenii falls asleep, and the narrative then turns back to the Neva, with a description of how the river floods and destroys much of the city (ll. 72–104). The frightened and desperate Evgenii is left sitting alone on top of two marble lions on Peter's Square, surrounded by water and with the Bronze Horseman statue looking down on him (ll. 125–64).
In Part II, Evgenii finds a ferryman and commands him to row to where Parasha's home used to be (ll. 26 - ll. 56). However, he discovers that her home has been destroyed (ll. 57–60), and falls into a crazed delirium and breaks into laughter (ll. 61–65). For a year, he roams the street as a madman (ll. 89–130), but the following autumn, he is reminded of the night of the storm (ll. 132–133) and the source of his troubles. In a fit of rage, he curses the statue of Peter (ll. 177–179), which brings the statue to life, and Peter begins pursuing Evgenii (ll. 180–196). The narrator does not describe Evgenii's death directly, but the poem closes with the discovery of his corpse in a ruined hut floating on the water (ll. 219–222).
Sources and inspiration
The Bronze Horseman of the title was sculpted by Étienne Maurice Falconet and completed in 1782. Pushkin was not the first to feel the statue's ambiguity: in a travelogue about Petersburg in 1821, the French statesman Joseph de Maistre commented that he did not know "whether Peter's bronze hand protects or threatens".
Pushkin's poem opens with a brief foreword stating that the events he depicted are based on reality. Indeed, Saint Petersburg is often hit by flooding and one particularly severe flood in November 1824 provided the model for this poem.
A number of Russian poets had previously written odes to Peter I: Mikhail Lomonosov wrote "Peter the Great" ["Петр Великий"] in 1756–1761 and Gavrila Derzhavin wrote a 1778 ode "To Peter the Great" ["Петру Великому"]. There was also a literary precedent for poetry describing the city of Petersburg: Pushkin's own footnotes to "The Bronze Horseman" refer to a poem by Pyotr Vyazemsky which includes admiring verses about the city, "Conversation on 7 April 1832" ["Разговор 7 апреля 1832 года"].
Pushkin was fascinated by the historical figure of Peter the Great and had mentioned him in several works before "The Bronze Horseman". Poltava [Полтава] (1828) is an admiring representation of the Tsar in combat with King Charles XII of Sweden and Ivan Mazepa of the Ukrainian Cossacks. The Negro of Peter the Great [Арап Петра Первого] is an unfinished novel about Pushkin's ancestors being brought to Russia from Africa. Pushkin made considerable notes for a history of Peter the Great which show the same ambivalence as "The Bronze Horseman": Pushkin notes "Peter I had no fear of the liberty of the people and the unavoidable consequences of enlightenment... and he held humanity in contempt, perhaps even more so than Napoleon."
Several critics have suggested that the immediate inspiration for "The Bronze Horseman" was the work of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Before beginning work on "The Bronze Horseman", Pushkin had read Mickiewicz's Forefathers' Eve (1823–32), which contains a poem entitled "To My Muscovite Friends", a thinly-veiled attack on Pushkin and Vasily Zhukovsky for their failure to join the radical Decembrist revolt of 1825. Forefather's Eve contains poems where Peter I is described as a despot who created the city because of autocratic whim, and a poem mocks the Falconet statue as looking as though he is about to jump off a precipice. Pushkin's poem can be read in part as a retort to Mickiewicz, although most critics agree that its concerns are much broader than answering a political enemy.
Formally, the poem is an unusual mix of genres: the sections dealing with Tsar Peter are written in a solemn, odic, 18th-century style, while the Evgenii sections are prosaic, playful and, in the latter stages, filled with pathos. This mix of genres is anticipated by the title: "The Bronze Horseman" suggested a grandiose ode, but the subtitle "A Petersburg Tale" leads one to expect an unheroic protagonist Metrically, the entire poem is written in using the four-foot iamb, one of Pushkin's preferred meters, a versatile form which is able to adapt to the changing mood of the poem. The poem has a varied rhyme scheme and stanzas of varying length.
The critic Michael Watchel has suggested that Pushkin intended to produce a national epic in this poem, arguing that the Peter sections have many of the typical features of epic poetry. He points to Pushkin's extensive use of Old Testament language and allusions when describing both the founding of St Petersburg and the flood and argues that they draw heavily on the Book of Genesis. However, he adds that the Evgenii plot runs counter to the epic mode, and praises Pushkin for his "remarkable ability to synthesize diverse materials, styles and genres". He concludes that if the poem is to be labeled a national epic, it is a "highly idiosyncratic" one.
The conflict between Tsar and citizen, or empire and individual, is a key theme of "The Bronze Horseman". Critics differ as to whether Pushkin ultimately sides with Evgenii — the little man — or Peter and historical necessity. The radical 19th-century critic Vissarion Belinsky considered the poem a vindication of Peter's policies, while the writer Dmitri Merezhkovsky thought it a poem of individual protest. The poem's ultimate ambiguity is both captivating and frustrating: as Pushkin's biographer Binyon puts it, Peter is ultimately "beneficent and sinister, suggesting the ambiguous nature of power and the inhumanity which is an inevitable concomitant of imperial greatness". Evgenii's death seems to suggest that historical progress always comes at an ethical price, although the question of whether the ends of progress justify the means is left unanswered. (L. xix) John Bayley reads the poem as a study in Russian autocracy, arguing that the poem reveals "the almost superstitious awe and admiration of Russia for her most dynamic tyrants — a Peter or a Stalin".
A psychoanalytical reading by Daniel Rancour-Laferriere suggests that there is an underlying concern with couvade syndrome or male birthing in the poem. He argues that the passages of the creation of Petersburg resemble the Greek myth of Zeus giving birth to Athena, and suggests that the flood corresponds to the frequent use of water as a metaphor for birth in many cultures. He suggests that the imagery describing Peter and the Neva is gendered: Peter is male and the Neva female.
Pushkin's poem became particularly significant during the Soviet era. Pushkin depicted Peter as a strong leader, so allowing Soviet citizens to praise their own Peter, Joseph Stalin. A poll in Literaturnyi sovremennik in March 1936 reported praise for Pushkin's portrayal of Peter, with comments in favour of how The Bronze Horseman depicted the resolution of the conflict between the personal and the public in favour of the public. This was in keeping with the Stalinist emphasis of how the achievements of Soviet society as a whole were to be extolled over the sufferings of the individual. Soviet thinkers also read deeper meanings into Pushkin's works. Andrei Platonov wrote two essays to commemorate the centenary of Pushkin's death, both published in Literaturnyi kritik. In Pushkin, Our Comrade, Platonov expanded upon his view of Pushkin as a prophet of the later rise of socialism. Pushkin not only 'divined the secret of the people', wrote Platonov, he depicted it the The Bronze Horseman, where the collision between Peter the Great's ruthless quest to build an empire, as expressed in the construction of Saint Petersburg, and Evgenii's quest for personal happiness will eventually come together and be reconciled by the advent of socialism.
Soviet literary critics could however use the poem to subvert those same ideals. In 1937 the Red Archive published a biographical account of Pushkin, written by E. N. Cherniavsky. In it Cherniavsky explained how The Bronze Horseman could be seen as Pushkin's attack on the repressive nature of the autocracy under Tsar Nicholas I. Having opposed the government and suffered his ruin, Evgenii challenges the symbol of Tsarist authority but is destroyed by its terrible, merciless power. Cherniavsky was perhaps also using the analysis to attack the Soviet system under Stalin. By 1937 the Soviet intelligentsia was faced with many of the same issues that Pushkin's society had struggled with under Nicholas I. Cherniavsky set out how Evgenii was a symbol for the downtrodden masses throughout Russia. By challenging the statue, Evgenii was challenging the right of the autocracy to rule over the people. Whilst in keeping with Soviet historiography of the late Tsarist period, Cherniavsky subtly hinted at opposition to the supreme power presently ruling Russia. He assessed the resolution of the conflict between the personal and the public with praise for the triumph of socialism, but couched it in terms that left his work open to interpretation, that while openly praising Soviet advances, he was using Pushkin's poem to criticise the methods by which this was achieved.
Composition and publication
Pushkin wrote "The Bronze Horseman" between October 6 and October 31, 1833 while he was staying on his family's estate at Boldino. Owing to censorship, only the Prologue was allowed to be published during the poet's lifetime. It appeared in 1834 under the title "Petersburg. An extract from a poem" ['"Петербург”. Отрывок из поэмы'] in the journal Library for Reading [Библиотека для чтения].
The poem was first published in full as "The Bronze Horseman" only posthumously in 1837. It was printed in the journal Sovremennik (Современник), which Pushkin had begun a year earlier. Even then, the censor demanded certain important adjustments.
The work has had enormous influence in Russian culture. Dostoyevsky's The Double: A Petersburg Poem [Двойник] (1846) directly engages with "The Bronze Horseman", treating Evgenii's madness as parody. Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg [Петербург] (1913; 1922) uses the Bronze Horseman as a metaphor for the centre of power in the city of Petersburg, which is itself a living entity and the main character of Bely's novel.
The statue itself, which is one of the symbols of Saint Petersburg in much the same way that the Statue of Liberty is a symbol of New York City, is now known as the Bronze Horseman owing to the influence of the poem.
- The Pushkin critic A.D.P. Briggs praises the poem "as the best in the Russian language, and even the best poem written anywhere in the nineteenth century". Briggs, A.D.P.. "Mednyy vsadnik [The Bronze Horseman]". The Literary Encyclopedia. 26 April 2005.accessed 30 November 2008.
- For general comments on the poem's success and influence, see Binyon, T. J. (2002) Pushkin: A Biography. London: Harper Collins, p. 437; Rosenshield, Gary. (2003) Pushkin and the Genres of Madness. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, p. 91; Cornwell, Neil (ed.) (1998), Reference Guide to Russian Literature. London: Taylor and Francis, p. 677.
- Puskhin, A.S. and T.E. Little (ed.) (1974), Mednyi vsadnik / The Bronze Horseman Oxford: Blackwell. p. xi
- Schenker, Alexander M. (2003) The Bronze Horseman: Falconet's Monument to Peter the Great. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 300.
- Lomonosov's ode "Petr Velikii" is available here: http://www.rvb.ru/18vek/lomonosov/01text/01text/07petr/110.htm (in Russian) and Derzhavin's "Petru Velikomu" is available here: http://www.pushkinskijdom.ru/Default.aspx?tabid=5979 (in Russian)
- “Петр I не страшился народной Свободы, неминуемого следствия просвещения, ... и презирал человечество, может быть, более, чем Наполеон.” From Pushkin's 'Zametki po russkoi istorii XVIII veka'. Available here: http://pushkin.niv.ru/pushkin/text/zametki/po-russkoj-istorii-xviii.htm in Russian
- Pushkin's own footnotes refer to Mickiewicz's poem 'Oleskiewicz' which describe the 1824 flood in Petersburg. See also Little, p. xiii; Binyon, pp. 435–6
- Czesław Miłosz (1983). The History of Polish Literature. University of California Press. p. 225. ISBN 978-0-520-04477-7. Retrieved 16 March 2013.
- See Binyon, p. 435; Little, p. xiii; Bayley, John. (1971) Pushkin: A Comparative Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 128
- See V. Ia. Briusov's 1929 essay on "The Bronze Horseman", available here: http://pushkin.niv.ru/pushkin/articles/bryusov/mednyj-vsadnik.htm (in Russian)
- Rosenshield, p. 91
- Little, p. xiv
- Wachtel, Michael. (2006) "Pushkin's long poems and the epic impulse". In The Cambridge Companion to Puskhin, ed. Andrew Kahn. Cambridge: CUP. pp. 83–84.
- Wachtel, p. 86
- Little, p. xix; Bayley, p. 131
- Cited in Banjeree, Maria. (1978) "Pushkin's 'The Bronze Horseman': An Agonistic Vision". Modern Languages Studies, 8, no. 2, Spring. p. 42.
- Binyon, p. 436
- Bayley, p.145
- Rancour-Laferriere, Daniel. "The Couvade of Peter the Great: A Psychoanalytic Aspect of The Bronze Horseman", Pushkin Today, ed. D. Bethea. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, pp. 73–85.
- Petrone. Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades. p. 143.
- Debreczany. ""Zhitie Aleksandra Boldinskogo": Pushkin's Elevation to Sainthood in Soviet Culture". Late Soviet Culture: From Perestroika to Novostroika. pp. 60–1.
- Petrone. Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades. p. 144.
- Little, p. xxi
- Little pp.xx-xxi
- Rosenshield, p. 5
- Cornwell, p. 160
- The Bronze Horseman ed. T.E.Little (Bradda Books, 1974)
- The Bronze Horseman, ed. Michael Basker (Bristol Classical Press, 2000)
- Pushkin's 'Bronze Horseman': Critical Studies in Russian Literature, Andrew Kahn (Bristol Classical Press, 1998)
- Aleksandr Pushkin: A Critical Study'", A.D.P. Briggs (Barnes and Noble, 1982)
- The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, ed. Andrew Kahn (Cambridge University Press, 2006)
- Pushkin: A Biography, T.J. Binyon (Harper Collins, 2002)
- Petrone, Karen (2000). Life Has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin. Indiana University Press. ISBN 0-253-33768-2.
- Debreczany, Paul (1993). ""Zhitie Aleksandra Boldinskogo": Pushkin's Elevation to Sainthood in Soviet Culture". In Lahusen, Thomas & Kuperman, Gene. Late Soviet Culture: From Perestroika to Novostroika. Duke University Press. ISBN 0-8223-1324-3.
- (Russian) The text of The Bronze Horseman at Russian Wikisource
- (Russian) The Bronze Horseman: Russian Text
- (Russian) Listen to Russian version of "The Bronze Horseman", courtesy of Cornell University
- Information about English translations of the poem