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Modern Russian Poetry/Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin

(1799-1837)


Alexander Pushkin was born the last year of the eighteenth century. He died at the age of Byron. Within these thirty-seven years he crowded the activity of a great and authentic initiator in literature.

His mother's grandfather was a Negro (or an Arab) who, the story goes, was bought for Peter the Great at Constantinople for a bottle of rum, and who married a German. His father was descended from an ancient Russian family. The poet, inheritor of these curious strains, was educated chiefly by ineffectual French tutors and an old Russian nurse. At eighteen he graduated from an aristocratic school at Tsarskoe Selo, an indifferent scholar, but a writer with a reputation for light and lewd verse. The next three years he spent at the northern capital, where "all the vices dance upon the knees of folly." He was nominally attached to the Foreign Office, but was chiefly sowing his wild oats. By his liberal velleities and merciless epigrams he stung the authorities to the Countercheck Quarrelsome, and the enfant terrible was shipped south and subsequently to his own estate. During his not too disagreeable southern exile he divided his time with persistent unfaithfulness between the maids and the Muse. Back in Petersburg, in 1826, he was lionized by the ladies and harassed by the censors. At thirty-two he married a girl nearly half his age, with the face of a madonna and the soul of a brainless coquette. To provide for her needs, the poet worked feverishly, and that she might be received at court, he secured a court appointment. Financial cares and domestic worries soon saddened and aged him. He was destroyed by the aristocratic philistines whose good graces he half-unwillingly sought. An intrigue, involving Pushkin's wife and her brother-in-law, Baron Dantes (D'Anthès), resulted in a duel in which the poet was mortally wounded, at the age of thirty-seven.

Pushkin's share of this volume is no indication of his relative significance in the advance of Russian poetry. He is an overshadowing figure, and his work is an essential part of Russia's literary endowment. Yet an anthology which is not primarily concerned with historic values, and which is addressed to a foreign audience, can present but a few of his facets to the reluctant light of a sophisticated intelligence.