Wild Horses

Claude Rawson

  • ‘The Bronze Horseman’ and Other Poems by Alexander Pushkin, translated by D.M. Thomas
    Penguin, 261 pp, £2.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 14 042309 5
  • Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study by A.D.P. Briggs
    Croom Helm, 257 pp, £14.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 7099 0688 9
  • ‘Choiseul and Talleyrand’: A Historical Novella and Other Poems, with New Verse Translations of Alexander Pushkin by Charles Johnston
    Bodley Head, 88 pp, £5.25, July 1982, ISBN 0 370 30924 3
  • Mozart and Salieri: The Little Tragedies by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Antony Wood
    Angel, 94 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 946162 02 6
  • I have come to greet you by Afanasy Fet, translated by James Greene
    Angel, 71 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 946162 03 4
  • Uncollected Poems by John Betjeman
    Murray, 81 pp, £4.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3969 2
  • Travelling without a Valid Ticket by Howard Sergeant
    Rivelin, 14 pp, £1.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 904524 39 6

The Bronze Horseman of Pushkin’s famous poem is Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg. It was ordered by Catherine the Great (Petro primo Catharina secunda). Modelled on the statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, it was meant to evoke the wise emperor extending a main protectrice. Joseph de Maistre commented that one doesn’t know whether this hand protects or threatens. The statue celebrated Peter’s building of St Petersburg, that symbol of Russia’s Westernisation which Francesco Algarotti called her window on Europe (Pushkin cited Algarotti in a note: Pushkin’s various notes are not fully reproduced in D.M. Thomas’s new translation, nor in Sir Charles Johnston’s of 1981). But ambiguity has always surrounded the statue, along with its imperial subject. The city which stood for a modernised and liberalised Russia was said to have cost a hundred thousand lives in the building, and the intended manifestation of Enlightenment was often seen, in the words of the Polish poet Mickiewicz, as ‘A tribute to a tyrant’s cruel whim’. The Europeanising Tsar retained in some eyes what a student of Mickiewicz and Pushkin has called ‘the traits of an Asiatic despot’.

Mickiewicz’s poem ‘The Monument of Peter the Great’ (part of the ‘Digression’ in his long work, Forefathers’ Eve) is one of Pushkin’s sources. It opens with a scene recalling a conversation between Mickiewicz and a Russian bard (probably Pushkin) near the statue. Pushkin himself was angered by Mickiewicz’s anti-Russian feelings (the story of their troubled friendship is told in a fine study by Waclaw Lednicki), and found the resentments of a Polish patriot hard to swallow. But he also had mixed feelings about the greatness of Peter’s achievement and the tyranny of the Tsar: Johnston described these as a combination ‘of robust, almost jingoistic patriotism with a keen sense for the arrogant ugliness of absolute power’.

Pushkin’s poem begins with an admiring and affectionate account of the city, the only part of the poem allowed by Tsar Nicholas I to be published in Pushkin’s lifetime. But a hint of menace is present in the opening lines:

On a shore washed by the desolate waves, he stood,
Full of high thoughts, and gazed into the distance.

The monumental anonymous ‘he’ suggests both heroic stature and a sinister impassiveness. Pushkin had named Peter in early drafts, but here he foreshadows a kinship with another punitive statue, that of the Commendatore of the Don Juan story (often known by his rank rather than his name), a kinship realised more fully at the end of the poem, when the statue’s victim dies in terror of its gaze.

In Mickiewicz’s poem the Russian bard is made to utter anti-Petrine sentiments, including a damaging contrast with Marcus Aurelius. Pushkin’s own work is less explicit: but the terror of the humble clerk Yevgeni before the remorseless statue is a powerful evocation of imperial indifference to the plight of the poor. Pushkin’s distaste for imperial despotism was compounded by personal as well as political difficulties with his own Tsar, who was engaged in a flirtation with Pushkin’s wife (her flirtations caused him great anguish and were soon to bring about his death in a duel). The clerk Yevgeni, who, as Pushkin points out in the poem, shares a first name with Pushkin’s hero Onegin but has no surname (his anonymity balancing the imposing namelessness of the statued Tsar), has lost his sweetheart Parasha in the great flood of 1824, which swamped the city that Peter had raised from a swamp. This is the precipitating cause of his crazed terror of the statue. Yevgeni has been taken as an allegory of Pushkin himself, and his madness has been compared with Pushkin’s own disturbed state at this time. He wrote the poem ‘Oh Lord, don’t let me go out of my mind’ soon after finishing The Bronze Horseman.

The last part of the poem, dealing with Yevgeni’s terrified flight, has great hallucinatory power: the nearest English equivalent I know of is Mazeppa’s nightmare ride in Byron’s poem. Pushkin was fascinated by the figure of Mazeppa, the nobleman who, after an amorous intrigue, was expelled from Poland into the Ukraine tied to a horse, became Cossack hetman under Peter the Great, and went over to Peter’s enemy Charles XII of Sweden before the Battle of Poltava. Mazeppa was sometimes represented as a fighter for liberty, but Pushkin conceived him, in his Poltava, as a complex study in treachery. He thought Byron, who had dealt with the earlier episode of Mazeppa’s expulsion, hadn’t much knowledge of the historical personage. ‘He was struck only by the picture of a man tied to a wild horse galloping across the steppes.’ But then, this is what excited Pushkin about Byron’s poem: ‘what a burning creation! What a sweeping and rapid brush!’ Perhaps Pushkin was remembering this when he imagined the mental event of the Bronze Horseman galloping after the terrified Yevgeni, a pounding merciless fever of headlong movement. If so, Johnston’s rendering in Talk about the Last Poet is closer to the feeling than Thomas’s blank-verse translation, where the sense is of a heavy thudding nemesis:

And lit by the pale moonlight, stretching out
His hand aloft, the Bronze Horseman rushes
After him on his ponderously galloping mount.

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