Pushkin and Antiquity
Ancient Greek and Roman literature accompanied Pushkin all his life, which lasted for 37 years. In various forms Antiquity was always there for him. Each stage of Pushkin’s art saw Antiquity in a different way.
In this paper we would like to offer an analysis of two “Monuments”: one by Horace (his 30th ode from the third book) and one by Pushkin, his famous “Памятник”.
Research of Ancient Greek and Roman sources in the art of Alexander Pushkin started a very long time ago, first in the comments to his works, and later in separate and specific articles and books.
As a young Lyceum student, Pushkin made his acquaintance with Antiquity both directly and, mainly, through French literature. Ovid, who in Pushkin’s early poems was a symbol of erotic poetry; Tibullus, whom Pushkin calls his “Godfather” and who was a founder of the elegy form; Anacreon and Horace, whose poems were read together with Lyceum professors – all those authors melt together within the poetry of young Pushkin into a hedonistic chorus.
Later, in the lyrics of the second period of Pushkin’s life, one can find not only the Epicurean sermon of pleasure, but also a glorification of liberty. Now the young poet’s ideal is Brutus. Emperor Augustus is to Pushkin “sly Augustus”, “deaf idol”, etc. In his letters written from the Southern exile Pushkin calls Tsar Alexander I “Octavius”, and Ovid changes from the symbol of erotic poetry to a symbol of conflict between freedom and the power of the monarch.
The poems written by Pushkin in exile and in the last 10 years of his life include both translations from ancient languages and his own anthological poems.
It seems that in his last years various circumstances made Pushkin remember the poems of Horace: Pushkin was forced to appear at court, he depended on the Tsar materially, and he was disgusted with his compulsive court service . Just as Horace used his weak health as an excuse to be away from Rome, Pushkin pleaded an imaginary illness more than once in order not to be present in the capital – “not for a single feast”, as he put it. Pushkin was always eager to leave St. Petersburg, preferably for the countryside, just as Horace was always dreaming of his Tibur (now Tivoli).
In 1833 Pushkin translates Ode to Maecenas (the First Ode from the First Book of Horace); in 1835, Ode to Pompeius Varro (the Seventh Ode from the Second Book). And finally, his poem with an epigraph ^ , written after Horace, appears in 1836, the last year of the poet’s life.
It is perhaps the most famous poem by Pushkin. It was discovered in his papers after Pushkin’s death by his older friend, also an outstanding Russian poet, Vasily Zhukovsky, and published with the latter’s corrections. The corrections had a very specific goal – to get an obviously antitsarist poem through the censorship. Pushkin never thought of publishing this poem, knowing perfectly well that it would have been out of the question.
This poem by Pushkin, as well as the ode by Horace, has been analyzed for such a long time and in such detail that it seems virtually impossible to find anything new to say about it. However, the variety of opinions voiced calls for some sort of order. One should try and create a synthesis of what has been observed by scholars, comparing the more important conclusions occurring in the vast literature, as a matter of fact of unequal quality.
First, we would like to emphasize that Pushkin’s poem is an ode in its full meaning, and it stems from Horace much more than is generally believed. Some authors point out the proximity of Pushkin’s “Monument” to Derzhavin’s “Monument”, others stress the autobiographical character of Pushkin’s text, or even his complete independence from Horace.
The main arguments supporting our view that this is an ode pure and simple, just like the Horatian ode, are the following:
-The poem is untitled.
-It is full of archaic and obsolete words. This is really a stylistic device showing that Pushkin deliberately imitates the ode form.
-It contains a direct invocation of the Muse.
Pushkin deliberately uses archaic Russian word forms, such as язык (English “tongue”), пиит (English “bard”), the adjective form Александрийский instead of the commonly used Александровский. You must have seen today this famous column in Palace Square, in front of the Hermitage.
Pushkin’s way of describing this column, unlike the words пиит or язык that actually existed in the Russian language, is entirely his own. He made it up himself, wishing to adapt his style to suit the grand and ceremonial form of the Horatian ode.
Some scholars tended to regard this word as deriving from the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Others thought that the poet simply did not wish to contend too openly with the power of the Tsars.
We believe that Pushkin’s reason for choosing this uncommon-sounding word, Александрийский, was his desire to refer the reader directly to the Horatian ode. In the same way, N. Fokkov, another and a later translator of Horace’s Monumentum, used the adjective Дельфический, when the poet asks the Muse to crown him with a Delphic laurel wreath. Pushkin himself, in his turn, used the word Балтические instead of Балтийские for the “Baltic waves”.
As I have mentioned before, the Russian word язык, when used in the sense of ‘nation’, is also obsolete. In the third stanza of the English translation which I asked you to look at, the English tongue is somewhat similar in meaning (‘people speaking the same language’). In the phrase всяк сущий в ней язык the participle (Part. Praes. Act.) сущий (English “existing”) is again an archaic form. Likewise, пиит (English “bard”) in the second stanza is also definitely obsolete. In his other poems Pushkin prefers a contemporary word, поэт (English “poet”).
Incidentally, Pushkin’s poem did not have a title, nor did, in fact, the ode by Horace. The name “Памятник” was added by Zhukovsky, later on, in view of the eventual publication.
Researchers noted the strict agreement of the poem with the canon of the Horatian ode in all its parts: in the “formula of immortality”, “formula of national glory”, and “formula of merits” (terms proposed by Dmitry Yakubovich).
Pushkin’s formula of immortality, however, is much broader than Horace’s. Pushkin says that he will be famous “доколь в подлунном мире / жить будет хоть один пиит” (English: “and my sublunar fame will dwell as long / as there is one last bard alive”). Horace puts it differently: …dum Capitolium / Scandet cum tacita virgine Pontifex, meaning, of course, “while Rome exists”. For Horace, Rome is undoubtedly eternal. But Pushkin’s formula of immortality includes not only his home country but the entire world.
Pushkin’s formula of national glory is also of greater scope than Horace’s, embracing as it does a number of peoples living in the Russian Empire of his time. He even mentions some illiterate races like the Kalmuk and the Tunguz, whereas Horace confines his fame to Rome.
Pushkin’s formula of merits at first seems to be following Horace – in his notebooks we find the such phrases as “в русском языке я музыку обрёл”, “звуки новые для песен я обрел” (English: “I found music in the Russian tongue”), which corresponds exactly to Princeps Aeolium carmen ad Italos / Deduxisse modos. But suddenly he discards these versions and writes: “в мой жестокий век восславил я свободу / и милосердие воспел” (English: “Invoking freedom in an age of fear, / And mercy for the broken soul”). In his rough drafts we find an even more daring line, which has nothing to do with Antiquity: “Что вслед Радищеву восславил я свободу” (“Like
Radishchev, I glorified freedom”). Radishchev was a revolutionary thinker and writer, arrested under Catherine the Great.
As far as we know, researchers have not taken notice of one very important detail. We think that for Horace the word monumentum means not just a statue, but rather a tombstone or gravestone. Thus, he was proud enough to predict that his monumentum sepulcrale would be higher than the highest structures of this kind – the famous Egyptian pyramids, numbered among the Seven Wonders of the world.
It seems that Pushkin was not alone in misunderstanding the Latin text. Some translators of Horace, however, did understand the Roman poet’s idea. Vladimir Krachkovsky, one of his 20th-century translators, writes: “Я мавзолей себе соорудил чудесный! / Он фараоновых превыше пирамид!” (“I have erected a wonderful mausoleum for myself. It is higher than the Pyramids of Pharaohs”).
The line ^ is considered by many Horace commentators to be somewhat obscure and even open to conjecture. In fact, it reflects the idea of a poet’s fame surpassing the fame of the monarch. While Horace expressed it in a guarded way, referring to the long-forgotten Pharaohs of Egypt, Pushkin conveyed a similar idea in a manner much more daring and explicit. For him, his own fame as a poet was higher than the Alexander column, recently erected in honor of Tsar Alexander I, Pushkin’s contemporary. Before publishing Pushkin’s “Monument” Zhukovsky was clever enough to change “Alexander column” to “Napoleon’s column”, alluding to the Vendôme column in Paris. For quite a long time Pushkin’s text read like this, with Zhukovsky’s correction: “Наполеонова столпа”. These very words were engraved on the pedestal of Opekushin’s immensely popular monument to Pushkin in Moscow.
Even though Pushkin, in our opinion, did not interpret Horace’s monumentum as monumentum sepulcrale, and treated it rather as a usual kind of monument that one can see in any city, he must have reacted to the phrase regalis situs, thus emphasizing the controversy between the poet and the Tsar. Pushkin writes: “Вознесся выше я главою непокорной” (English: “Tsar Alexander’s column it exceeds / In splendid insubmissive height”).
At the same time we see in Lomonosov’s and Derzhavin’s versions of “Monumentum” (18th century) just the line “higher than the pyramids” in the analogous position. The pyramids are therefore seen by both Lomonosov and Derzhavin merely as a symbol of height, without any hint of the competition in fame with the monarchs. Most probably neither of these great Russian poets perceived this motif in Horace’s text.
In the first three stanzas of “Памятник” Pushkin on the whole follows Horace, whereas the last stanza, which has provoked most violent debates (Veresayev, Gerschensohn, Nepomniashchy), evidently contradicts the Roman poet’s idea. Horace, after having enumerated his merits, demands that the Muse herself crown him with a wreath of victory made of Delphi laurels. He thus concludes his ode: Et mihi Delphica / Lauro cinge, volens, Melpomene, comam. Like Horace, Derzhavin thinks that he (or, to be more precise, his Muse) deserves the wreath of immortality.
Pushkin, again like Horace, addresses his Muse in the last line, but says exactly the opposite: “не требуя венца” (“not asking for a wreath”). We see here a certain element of competition with a great predecessor, a new step in the thousand-year-old tradition. Pushkin undermines, as it were, Horace’s conclusion. His text combines quotation, variation and argumentation.
Pushkin’s attitude towards the problem of poetical imitation or emulation was best expressed by himself: “One’s talent is not free, and imitation is not a shameless theft or a sign of mental deficiency, but rather a noble belief in one’s own strength, a hope to open new worlds while following in the steps of a genius; or a feeling even more exalted in its humility – a desire to explore one’s model and give it a second life.”