Academic journal article Pushkin Review

The Poet and His Readers: Three Lyrics and an Unfinished Story of Alexander Pushkin

Academic journal article Pushkin Review

The Poet and His Readers: Three Lyrics and an Unfinished Story of Alexander Pushkin

Article excerpt

Now and then, in the course of events, when the flow of time turns into a muddy torrent and history floods our cellars, earnest people are apt to examine the interrelation between a writer and the national or universal community; and writers themselves begin to worry about their obligations. I am speaking of an abstract type of writer. Those whom we can imagine concretely, especially those on the elderly side, are too vain of their gifts or too reconciled with mediocrity to bother about obligations. They see very clearly, in the middle distance, what fate promises them--the marble nook or the plaster niche. (1)

One of the features of Pushkin's longer works, made famous in Eugene Onegin, are his many asides addressed to his "dear reader." Often delivered as apologies for straying from the plot or clarifications of the narrator's opinion about the matter at hand, they add to our curiosity about the author's relationship with his readers. How does Pushkin envision, accommodate, or avoid his reader? For that matter, how much does this vary from genre to genre or evolve as the poet matures? These questions could occupy volumes and warrant analysis from an array of academic approaches--textual, archival, and sociological to name a few. This paper, first, will attempt to scratch the surface and illustrate some complexities of the question through an analysis of three short lyrics from different periods in the poet's life. Then, it will frame, elaborate upon, and connect its observations in light of "Egyptian Nights," a short, unfinished prose work from the last years of Pushkin's life.

In the three poems which will be discussed, Pushkin expresses a comparable view of the reading public, but each is uniquely colored by the stage of the poet's career during which it was written. In the first, "To Zhukovsky" (1818), the aspiring young poet expresses appreciation for and solidarity with a mentor in poetry. In the second poem chronologically (which, however, will be analyzed third in this study), "Conversation of a Bookseller and Poet" (written in 1824 and first published in 1825 as a forward to the first chapter of Eugene Onegin), the poet announces that he is ready to turn professional by showing, in dialogue form, the interplay of his artistic conscience (poet) with his consciousness of practical and social needs and influences (bookseller). In the third, "Exegi Monumentum," known by its first words "I have erected a monument to myself ..." (written in 1836 and left unpublished during the author's life), the celebrated poet considers his legacy. Thus, each of the poems features a poet's encounter with some form of authority: mentor, publisher, laureate predecessors.

I have opted to consider the poems in a functional, rather than chronological order for the purposes of this study. Therefore, the first section of the paper looks for common themes between the two works most chronologically distant: "To Zhukovsky" and "I have erected..." This highlights language and thoughts that were common to Pushkin in both his earliest and latest periods of poetic production. The second section takes up "Bookseller," which lays out the conflicts in Pushkin's thought on his readers and his poetic calling most plainly. It also serves as a transition to the discussion of the prose work because of its generic innovation and use of a literary double. The third and final section of the article takes up "Egyptian Nights," speculating on the issues raised in the other poems--thematic and biographical--which complicate the work and perhaps prevented its completion.

I

These three lyric poems all express the elevated position of the poet over society and disdain for the bulk of society's readers. In "To Zhukovsky" this opinion is put forth in verse from the point of view of a reader, but, as the poet/reader does not fail to point out, not an ordinary one. Thus we read:

[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (2)

   When visions flash / Before you in the magic haze ! … 
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