Pushkin's "To Ovid" and Virgil's «Georgics»

Juan Christian Pellicer[*]


The critical ambition to use reception as a means by which to gain new insight cannot invariably be fulfilled, yet it is ever the exceptional cases that prove the matter. I wish to examine what appears to be an extraordinarily pointed allusion to Virgil's Georgics in the final lines of Pushkin's "To Ovid" (1821; published 1823). Allusion to the Georgics is a rare event in Pushkin's work, and critics are generally agreed that Virgil never served Pushkin as a model in the substantial ways that Ovid and Horace sometimes did.[1] I shall consider the empirical evidence that might support or weaken the plausibility of the Virgilian allusion in question. But my concern is mainly to discuss whether the perceived allusion renders the Latin and the Russian passages mutually illuminating—whether it can help us to discern distinctive aspects of Virgil's poem as well as Pushkin's that might otherwise have escaped appreciation.

      Allusions are not objective facts but cognitive events.[2] To the present reader, at any rate, Pushkin’s final lines allude to the conclusion of Virgil’s Georgics (c. 36–29 B.C.), where the Roman poet contrastively relates his own career to the imperial role of Octavian, the future Augustus:

Здесь, лирой северной пустыни оглашая,
Скитался я в те дни, как на брега Дуная
Великодушный грек свободу вызывал,
И ни единый друг мне в мире не внимал;
Но чуждые холмы, поля и рощи сонны,
И музы мирные мне были благосклонны.[3]

Here, sounding the lyre of the northern wilderness,
I wandered in those days, when on the banks of the Danube
The magnanimous Greek called people to freedom.
Not a single friend in the world listened to me
But these alien hills, fields, and sleepy groves
And the peaceful muses wished me well.[4]

Virgil’s final lines are identified as programmatic by their position at the poem’s end. Here, for the first and only time in his oeuvre, the poet refers to himself by name: illo Vergilium. He refers to himself as the poet “who toyed with shepherds’ songs” and sets his poetic “seal” or sphragis on the Georgics by making its final line repeat the first line of the Eclogues. Thus identifying himself as the author of the Eclogues, Virgil introduces the notion of a poetic career to serve as a prospective as well as retrospective framework for the Georgics. He juxtaposes his own career with Caesar’s:

Haec super arvorum cultu pecorumque canebam
et super arboribus, Caesar dum magnus ad altum
fulminat Euphraten bello victorque volentis
per populos dat iura viamque adfectat Olympo.
illo Vergilium me tempore dulcis alebat
Parthenope, studiis florentem ignobilis oti,
carmina qui lusi pastorum audaxque iuventa,
Tityre, te patulae cecini sub tegmine fagi. (IV.559–66)[5]

So much I sang in addition to the care of fields, of cattle, and of trees, while great Caesar thundered in war by deep Euphrates and bestowed a victor’s laws on willing nations, and essayed the path to Heaven. In those days I, Virgil, was nursed by sweet Parthenope [Naples], and rejoiced in the arts of inglorious ease—I who toyed with shepherds’ songs, and, in youth’s boldness, sang of you, Tityrus, under the canopy of a spreading beech. (Loeb, rev. Goold)

In my reading, then, Pushkin’s final lines strikingly allude to Virgil’s closing passage. In fact, Pushkin appears to be imitating Virgil in much the way that Latin poets often strove to imitate their own models, i.e., confrontationally and competitively, in a spirit of emulation. While Pushkin’s rhetoric closely imitates Virgil, the modern scene he presents by this analogy highlights the telling contrasts between his own situation and the Roman poet’s.

      The elements of sameness in trope and situation, then, act as a mordant to capture the elements of difference. Whereas Virgil flourished under the aegis of Augustus, Pushkin finds himself effectively exiled by Tsar Alexander. Whereas Virgil may appear compromised by his otium (freedom, leisure) under imperial patronage, Pushkin celebrates his own independence in the face of imperial censorship and the threat of persecution. Whereas the well-connected northerner Virgil sings of the Italian countryside from his home in the culturally still very Greek city of Naples,[6] the ostracized Russian solitary in his Bessarabian rustication sings “northern” songs—poetry that seeks its home audience in St. Petersburg salons. Whereas Virgil conspicuously announces his own name, Pushkin withholds his. (As things turned out, “To Ovid” had to be published anonymously to get past the censor.)[7] Indeed, might the Virgilian context even lend significance to the fact that the poet’s (suppressed) first name was Alexander?

     For the really telling contrast in Pushkin’s final lines concerns two contemporary Alexanders, on the one hand the Russian tsar, and on the other the Greek insurgent Alexander Ypsilantis (1792–1828). Virgil’s Jovian conqueror thundering in the East—the tsar’s institutional prototype (recalling too that tsar derives from Caesar)—is displaced by Pushkin’s figure of the great-souled Greek Ypsilantis, championing freedom against the Ottomans. Virgil’s Euphrates is replaced by the Danube, where Ypsilantis’s campaigning in 1821 bordered on Ovid’s and Pushkin’s common region of exile: thus Pushkin reverses Virgil’s figure of conquest. The Danube is at once the marker of Ovidian exile (Hister, or the Danube, is named ten times in the Tristia and fifteen in the Letters from Pontus) and, in classical literature, of the boundary between (Roman) civilization and (Scythian) barbarity—an opposition Pushkin ironically reverses as well, associating civilization with Greece. In April 1821, the Greek insurrectionists seemed to Pushkin “the lawful heirs of Homer and Themistocles.”[8] One does not need Virgil to realize that the figure of Ypsilantis is evoked in some kind of opposition to his despotic namesake and imperial counterpart, or that the corrupt inheritance of imperial Rome in the figure of the tsar is seen to be challenged (in addition to the Turks) by the figure of a Greece reborn. But the Virgilian allusion provides an invitation, and what is more, a precise literary context for understanding the reference as a pointed rebuke, implicit though it necessarily is. It is not merely that Ypsilantis may be taken as Tsar Alexander’s opposite, but that he replaces as well as “fulfils” him in the template adopted and altered from Virgil.[9] Perhaps most crucially, this Virgilian template can accommodate a figure of the poet in oppositional exile—a role Pushkin is anxious to inhabit, and one that presents an alternative to Ovid, his main classical counterpart as poet of exile. Virgil provides Pushkin with the most obvious literary model for relating the figure of the poet in his distinctive otium to that of Caesar engaging in his distinctive activity, warfare; but Pushkin distinctively twins his own Caesar figure, so that under the rubric of reproach his Bessarabian otium can be blamed on the Russian Alexander, while in an alternative spirit of defiance Pushkin can link the liberating, creatively subversive aspects of his otium with Octavian’s other counterpart, Alexander Ypsilantis.[10] (As Jostein Børtnes points out, Pushkin’s identification with Ypsilantis operates metonymically, by proximity, as well as metaphorically, by similarity.)[11]

     Pushkin’s bold inversions of Virgil may well be taken as adversarial criticism of the Roman poet’s apparent Augustanism. Forcibly appropriating (and partly inverting) the trope Virgil used to praise Caesar, Pushkin instead celebrates Ypsilantis—an easily comprehensible move in the context of tropes associated with “Augustan” and “anti-Augustan” positions in the competing political vocabularies of St Petersburg in the 1820s.[12] But Pushkin’s “twinned” Augustus figure may also alert us to something more sophisticated in Virgil’s representation of Octavian, as well as in Virgil’s self-representation in relation to Caesar. Virgil’s Caesar, “thundering” like Jupiter himself on the banks of the Euphrates, has been seen as an ambiguous figure in several respects.[13] Monica Gale suggests that the phrasing of “Caesar’s attempt on Olympus” (viam … adfectat Olympo [IV.562]) aligns him not so much with Jupiter as with the Titans Jupiter overthrew.[14] Ypsilantis fits this insurgent role, displacing the figure of Alexander, while he contrasts with Virgil’s Caesar in that, far from “bestowing” or imposing “a victor’s laws on willing nations” (IV.562), Ypsilantis “calls” or summons the oppressed to freedom; more literally he is said to have “evoked” (vyzyval) freedom. Pushkin thus pries apart and polarizes two aspects of Caesar that Virgil strove to fuse together, the imposing and the eliciting (either way, liberating) roles of Octavian’s imperium. Pushkin’s reference to Ypsilantis’s still unachieved mission chimes, however, with Virgil’s anticipation of Caesar’s “attempt” on Olympus, and Pushkin’s stress on the unrealized state of his Greek hero’s aims may serve today to draw further attention to Virgil’s urgent, uncertain sense of hopefulness—the quality that makes the Georgics, in David Fairer’s words, an expectantly “Octavian” rather than a complacently “Augustan” poem.[15] 

     Virgil’s pointed contrast between the “thundering” conqueror of the East, on the one hand, and, on the other, the urbane poet singing serenely of rustic life in privileged otium: is this contrast oppositional and subversive, or is Virgil’s manner instead, as Philip Hardie suggests, “playful and perhaps conciliatory”?[16] Is the relationship between poet and princeps one of antagonism, Monica Gale inquires in a similarly exploratory vein, or rather a relationship of interdependence, in that the public and the private liberties (otii) Virgil celebrates are equally underwritten by Caesar?[17] The ambiguity we observe in Virgil may well affect our reading of Pushkin if we take Pushkin’s defiant tribute to Ypsilantis to represent not only a rebuke to Tsar Alexander, but also an acknowledgment, tinged with amused irony as well as anger, of Pushkin’s own dependence, willy-nilly, on the tsar.

     What, then, of the empirical evidence of Pushkin’s reading that might indicate the plausibility of detecting an allusion to Virgil at the end of his youthful poem “To Ovid?” Modzalevsky’s catalogue of Pushkin’s library does not provide any hard evidence for Pushkin’s reading of Virgil in the 1820s, though it is well known that Pushkin’s engagement with Virgil started very early on.[18] It is as well to admit that an allusion’s persuasiveness, or its claims to interpretative validity, will not be settled by forensics alone. Critics sometimes argue too positivistically, as if allusions were not figures of instability but could be hardened to the consistency of fact by the mere pressure of circumstantial evidence. Still, if one cannot “prove” an allusion in the sense of establishing its objective existence, one can “prove” it in the sense of putting it to a readerly test, not least by gauging its compatibility with other, more prominent and sustained allusive relationships—in this case, obviously, with Ovid. Several scholars have observed Pushkin’s ambivalence, or at any rate his reservations, about Ovid’s role in exile:

Puskhin’s historical elegies struck a wider range of responses [than Batiushkov’s]. Knowing full well that the elegy’s plaintive tone could also convey abject submission to authority, Pushkin chose consciously not to follow the influential example of Ovid, the exiled poet of Augustan Rome. In the poem “Iz pis’ma k Gnedichu” (From a letter to Gnedich) (1821) Pushkin distinguishes the “free voice” of his own pipe which “does not sing flattering hymns of gratitude” to Tsar Alexander from Ovid, who “faint-heartedly dedicated his elegiac lyre” to his “deaf idol” Augustus Caesar.[19]

In “To Ovid,” Pushkin poses as “a severe Slav” in contrast to, though also in sympathy with, Ovid’s attitude of tearful supplication. As Børtnes and others have observed, the abrasive final address to Ovid in Pushkin’s manuscript version—

Не славой – участью я равен был тебе,
Но не унизил ввек изменой беззаконной
Ни гордой совести, ни лиры непреклонной. (PSS 2: 720)

I was like you, not in fame but in our common lot.
But I never humiliated my proud conscience
Or my adamant lyre with any wayward betrayal.[20]

—was canceled in favor of the published version’s more decorous conclusion, quoted above. The published conclusion is ushered in by the deferential line retained from the manuscript version, “Ne slavoi—uchast´iu ia raven byl tebe” (I was like you, not in fame but in our common lot). The daring explicitness of the manuscript couplet that proceeded to undercut this deferential line, then, was replaced by the circumspection of allusive utterance. Why? No doubt prudence accounts for a great deal. But it is precisely the pressures of censorship and the threat of political persecution that give rhetorical force as well as political point to the elliptic, covert language of allusion. The Virgilian allusion allows Pushkin to show not only how he is unlike Virgil, but also how he differs from Ovid. It supplies a literary alternative to the paradigm of Ovidian exile.

     This strikes me as a key reason why “To Ovid” ends on a pastoral note. In place of Pushkin’s absent friends, it is the landscape and the muses that provide response (“Not a single friend in the world listened to me / But these alien hills, fields, and sleepy groves / And the peaceful muses wished me well”). Pushkin is recalling the Eclogues, particularly Virgil’s trope of the responsive landscape (cf. Eclogues I.5, V.62–64, and especially X.8), from the vantage point of the end of the Georgics, just as Virgil there recalls the opening lines of the Eclogues, in which Meliboeus contrasts Tityrus’s otium with his own imminent exile:

Tityre, tu patulae recubans sub tegmine fagi
silvestrem tenui musam meditaris avena:
nos patriae finis et dulcia linquimus arva;
nos patriam fugimus: tu, Tityre, lentus in umbra
formosam resonare doces Amaryllida silvas. (Eclogue I.1–5)

You, Tityrus, lie under the canopy of a spreading beech, wooing the woodland Muse on slender reed, but we are leaving our country’s bounds and sweet fields. We are outcasts from our country; you, Tityrus, at ease beneath the shade, teach the woods to re-echo “fair Amaryllis.”

Pushkin, then, invites us to consider himself as a mixture of Tityrus and Meliboeus. Pushkin’s otium is quite unlike Tityrus’s, which is gratefully owed to a iuvenis traditionally identified as Octavian; but then otium itself is also what distinguishes Pushkin from the exiled Meliboeus. As Pushkin explains in line 55, his own exile is self-chosen—and that of course is what distinguishes him from Ovid too.[21] When Pushkin speaks of “piping [his] freedom’s ditty” in “From a letter to Gnedich,”[22] that pipe and the freedom it not only represents but also mediates are the distinctive metaphors of Virgilian pastoral—tropes that the Virgil of the Georgics seems to have taught Pushkin to appropriate against figures of oppression.

     Even more fundamentally, one might argue, the conclusion of “To Ovid” evokes pastoral because, defining itself against epic, pastoral invokes the poetic career schematized in the rota Vergilii. Pushkin’s pastoral coda provides a generic context for the epic notes of his opening lines, which cast Ovid in the figure of Aeneas when Bessarabia is described as the “quiet shores” to which Ovid once brought his “banished native gods” (1–2, Sandler’s translation). Arguably, Pushkin’s portrayal of Ovid bringing the Roman gods into new lands recalls the first lines of the Aeneid as much as anything in Ovid’s own poetry of exile. Traces of Virgil, and of the genre system Virgil’s oeuvre traditionally implies, may be discerned at key positions throughout Pushkin’s poem. Near his poem’s center, Pushkin lets Ovid “speak for himself”—and ventriloquistically, for Pushkin too[23]—in lines that recall a famous programmatic passage from the Georgics, the so-called “double makarismos” at II.490–94. As in Virgil’s passage, Pushkin’s lines articulate a pair of alternative prayers, each appropriate to one of a pair of mutually opposed outcomes of fate. Pushkin’s Ovid envisions either a return to Rome, alive, to end his exile, or else a posthumous return, for burial. Can Pushkin be said to be recalling Virgil’s juxtaposed prayers for alternative blessings at the turning-point of the Georgics? If so, Pushkin’s notion of the Virgilian career may be said to be shaping his idea of Ovidian exile.

     So far as I can tell, the main Virgilian allusion I have been discussing has not been noticed by scholars. This may be because it has not been recognized—though even the present article cannot be expected to convince all readers—or because it has not appeared striking enough to mention in print. Or perhaps the allusion has been passed by because critical attention has, understandably, been fixed on Ovid. There is a tendency, even in reception studies, to allow a critical focus on a single author, genre, or tradition to imply a corollary view that authors, genres, and traditions are watertight categories. As most scholars realize, however, such watertight categories are illusory. The figure of Virgil is implicated in the figure of Ovid—and, one might add, vice versa.[24] While it would be preposterous to suggest that Pushkin’s poem focuses on Virgil, however, I do hope to have shown that a valuable key to the conclusion of Pushkin’s poem to Ovid may indeed be found in Virgil. I hope it will be allowed, too, that Pushkin’s “imitation in opposition” to Virgil provides, in its boldly contrastive and disjunctive manner, an illuminating context in which to consider the smoother craftsmanship of Virgil’s radical ambiguity—a quality many critics have exalted as a structural principle of his work.


University of Oslo


Download: Pellicer, Juan Christian. "Pushkin's 'To Ovid' and Virgil's Georgics." Pushkin Review 14 (2011): 147-56.

[*] I am indebted to Jostein Børtnes of the University of Bergen for introducing me to Pushkin’s poem in his paper on “Pushkin’s Ovid,” delivered to a seminar for contributors to Romans and Romantics, ed. Charles Martindale et al. (forthcoming, Oslo University Press) in Rome, April 2009. I am grateful to Professor Børtnes and to the editors for having circulated a later draft of his chapter. Warm thanks to Duncan F. Kennedy of the University of Bristol for allowing me to see a draft of his chapter “In the Step(pe)s of Genius: Pushkin’s Ovidian Exile,” in Two Thousand Years of Solitude: Exile After Ovid, ed. Jennifer Ingleheart (forthcoming, Oslo University Press), and to Hjørdis Lynum, reference librarian at the Humanities Library, University of Oslo, as well as to my colleague Audun J. Mørch at the University of Oslo. My profound gratitude is to Timothy Saunders of the University of Tromsø for his generous encouragement and advice.

[1] Katya Hokanson, “‘Barbarus hic ego sum’: Pushkin and Ovid on the Pontic Shore,” Pushkin Review 8–9 (2005–06): 61–75, <http://www.pushkiniana.org> (accessed 12 July 2011); David Houston, “Another Look at the Poetics of Exile: Pushkin’s Reception of Ovid, 1821–24,” Pushkin Review 10 (2007): 129–50, <http://www.pushkiniana.org> (accessed 12 July 2011); Vasily Rudich, “On Pushkin and Virgil,” Arion 10 (2003): 35–53.

[2] Thinking of allusion in terms of “intertextuality” may diminish the implications of authorial intentionality, but it does not quite put the matter of perceived relationship on the standing of objective fact, pace R. O. A. M. Lyne’s fine essay “Vergil’s ‘Aeneid’: Subversion by Intertextuality. Catullus 66.39–40 and Other Examples,” Greece & Rome 41 (1994): 187–204, here 189.

[3] Aleksandr Pushkin, “K Ovidiiu,” in Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 16 tomakh, ed. M. Gor´kii et al. (Moscow: Akademiia nauk SSSR, 1947), 2: 218–21, here 221, http://www.feb-web.ru/feb/pushkin/texts/push17/vol02/y21-218-.htm (accessed 12 July 2011). References to this edition will be consistently abbreviated as PSS followed by the volume and page numbers.

[4] Stephanie Sandler’s translation of “To Ovid,” in Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989), 42–44.

[5] All citations of Virgil are from the Loeb Classical Library edition of his works, ed. and trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, rev. G. P. Goold (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[6] My thanks to Timothy Saunders for reminding me about the Greek legacy of Naples, which Virgil calls by its Greek name, Parthenope. (Of course the name Neapolis, too, is Greek.)

[7] Henri Troyat, Pushkin, trans. Nancy Amphoux (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 199.

[8] Tatiana Wolff, ed. and trans., Pushkin on Literature (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998), 39.

[9] At this point Pushkin was angered by the Russians' reluctance to support the Greeks, though eventually he too grew disillusioned with the Greeks (Troyat, Pushkin, 178–79.

[10] Arguing that “for Pushkin, exile was a challenge to which he rose positively and fruitfully,” Duncan Kennedy observes that “the key study” remains Sandler’s Distant Pleasures.

[11] Børtnes, “Pushkin’s Ovid,” 14.

[12] In his letters from exile Pushkin “often” refers to Alexander I as “August(us).” See Mikhail Gronas, “Pushkin and the Art of the Letter,” in The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, ed. Andrew Kahn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 130–42, here 136. Monika Greenleaf observes that “under Alexander I the Augustan analogy was explicitly encouraged,” especially it seems at the Imperial Lycée Pushkin attended: Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 59. According to Greenleaf, “the Augustus-Alexander parallel” was “standard” in the literary culture of the 1820s (62), and by the 1820s, “the codes of classicism” had been “kidnapped” by revolutionaries and libertarians (61). On the cultivation of Greek classical culture as an alternative to “the imperial code of neoclassicism,” and on “Russian Grecophilia” as a background to Pushkin’s thought, see Greenleaf, Pushkin and Romantic Fashion, 62–69.

[13] See Monica R. Gale, “Poetry and the Backward Glance in Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 133 (2003): 323–52, esp. 324–28.

[14] Ibid., 327.

[15] David Fairer, “Organic Matters: Georgic and Gothic in Eighteenth-Century Britain,” lecture to American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Colorado Springs, 6 April 2002. I am grateful to Professor Fairer for sharing his script.

[16] Philip Hardie, Virgil. Greece & Rome, New Surveys in the Classics, no. 28 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 48.

[17] Gale, "Poetry and the Backward Glance," 325–26.

[18] Pushkin’s youthful poem “Little Town” (1814) mentions Virgil appreciatively as his “companion”; The Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin, ed. Iain Sproat et al., 15 vols. (Downham Market, UK: Milner, 1999–2003), 1: 126. On Pushkin’s later tendency to adopt dismissive attitudes to Virgil as an epic poet, see Rudich, “On Pushkin and Virgil,” 35–36. Rudich cites a draft comment of Pushkin’s confessing that he found studying Virgil at the Lyceum boring (38, 52), but little can be inferred from this unremarkable admission. Pushkin’s knowledge of Virgil appears to have been intimate, to judge only by his adapted quotation of Aeneid II.354 in a letter to Elise Khitrovo of 21 January 1831, quoted in T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2003), 338. Andrew Kahn makes a strong case for many Virgilian intertextualities in Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman (London: Duckworth, 1998). Pushkin’s knowledge of Latin poetry is reviewed and contextualized in Zara Martirosova Torlone, Russia and the Classics: Poetry’s Foreign Muse (London: Duckworth, 2009), 41–43. In later life Pushkin owned a set of French translations of the classics that included Villenave and Charpentier’s translation
of Virgil’s works (Paris, 1832–35) (Wolff, Pushkin on Literature, 491); B. L. Modzalevskii, ed., Biblioteka A. S. Pushkina (St. Petersburg: Akademiia nauk, 1910), 166, cat. entry 639). But to repeat, any kind of evidence of Pushkin’s reading of Virgil in or around 1821 is thin.

[19] Harsha Ram, The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 185–86.

[20] Translation in Sandler, Distant Pleasures, 224 n. 32.

[21] There is a prudential, self-protective element in Pushkin’s insistence that his exile is voluntary. To explicitly accuse the tsar of having exiled him would open him to counter-accusations of seditious libel. On Russian samovol´nyi, which covers “self-willed” and “voluntary,” see Sandler, Distant Pleasures, 49.

[22] Adrian Room's translation in Sproat, et al., eds, The Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin, 2: 46.

[23] Sandler, Distant Pleasures, 46.

[24] See Alessandro Barchiesi and Philip Hardie, “The Ovidian Career Model: Ovid, Gallus, Apuleius, Boccaccio,” in Classical Literary Careers and their Reception, eds. Philip Hardie and Helen Moore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 59–88, esp. 60.


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