Pushkin's Shifting Poetics: Deceptive Subtexts in "Domik v Kolomne"

Brian Horowitz


“Domik v Kolomne” (known hereafter as “Domik”), Pushkin’s narrative poem of 1833, is connected with the shift in the poet’s poetics from his early period to the post-1830s. In his article “Put´ Pushkina k proze,” Boris Eikhenbaum describes some features of this shift, especially Push­kin’s own and other contemporary writers’ changed attitudes toward lyric poetry and their awakening interest in developing a Russian literary lan­guage that could be used in fictional prose genres.[1] Similar features of a shift in poetics can be seen in characterization and plot. For example, dur­ing the 1830s, Pushkin depicted a new kind of literary hero not identified with the Romantic poet, set his stories and poems in urban locations, and substituted what one would refer to as the familiar and quotidian for the former exotic themes and heroic actions. A description of these changes can be found in studies by Vladislav Khodasevich, Boris Tomashevskii, V. Vatsuro, and Brian Horowitz.[2] These scholars note that Pushkin’s new aesthetics of the 1830s features attacks against the past, including mock­ery of earlier Romantic attitudes and poetic conventions, such as the “inti­mate” relationship between author and reader.

In my analysis of “Domik,” I tie my argument to Eikhenbaum’s claim that:

можно с уверенностью утвердить, что проза Пушкина явилась как переход от стиха и что поэтому она должна отличаться особыми признаками, которые, с одной стороны, резко отделяют ее от специфических свойств стихотворной речи, а с другой – находятся в связи с той ее деформацией, которая наблюдается в <Графе Нулине>, <Евгении Онегине>, <Домике в Коломне>.[3]

Like Eikhenbaum, I consider generic and poetic deformations in “Domik” as indicative of a new aesthetics of the 1830s. In this context “Domik” is fascinating because, while Pushkin employs many of the devices of his earlier works, he gives them a negative assessment. Furthermore, Push­kin provides inter-textual contexts for the poem in which he refers to other works of Russian and European literature, but these references are also subordinated to the general ideological and aesthetic reevaluation that I will outline below.

My reading of “Domik” is predicated on the acknowledgement of pre-existing literary conventions and a social and literary background against which the poem should be read. The poem presupposes an idea of the Ro­mantic poet consciously cultivated by Pushkin. This image was produced by Pushkin starting in his earliest works and was fostered by a conven­tional relationship between author and reader. In such works as Bakhchi­saraiskii fontan, Tsygany, and Pushkin’s early lyric poetry readers ex­pected to be provided with semantically rich biographical allusions that provided the key to the poem’s meaning. Therefore, readers were equipped with a pre-existing awareness of the poet’s literary oeuvre, gossip about the poet, and aspects of his “real”—as opposed to “fictional”—biography.[4] In this paradigm the poet generates meaning by juxtaposing the meanings in the text with references to other texts and material from life experience he shares with readers. In fact, according to Iurii Lotman, at least until the mid-1820s readers explicated Pushkin’s lyric poems by seeking bio­graphical information from the poet’s private letters.[5] Although Pushkin extensively explored other genres besides lyric poetry during the second half of the 1820s, he did not fully repudiate the author-reader relationship cultivated earlier. According to D. Blagoi, Pushkin’s concern with reader expectations was apparently so strong that even in 1828 he added the lyric “Dedication” to “Poltava” in order to give readers a biographical sub­text for the poem.[6]

It is not in itself a revelation that Pushkin masterfully placed within his texts hints about how readers should read “Domik” and how different kinds of readings lead to differing interpretations. In fact, it could be argued that the poem’s genre, the mock epic, deflates any serious theme.[7]Nevertheless, such a claim does not explain the ambiguity of the poem. After all, some mock epics are more or less clear in their purpose, for ex­ample Apuleius’ The Golden Ass or Chateaubriand’s “Vaivert.” What makes “Domik” extraordinary is the way that Pushkin deflates various readings, offering possibilities, but confirming none. This is a change from earlier years in which the poet consciously linked himself with his hero and tried to create in the minds of his readers a romantic aura by crafting his own literary biography. In “Domik,” in contrast, Pushkin tantalizingly suggests such links, but does not confirm them. Although the poem has occupied numerous critics, none have considered the poem as a manifesta­tion of the author’s conscious play with his reader.[8] Moreover, none view this poem as part of Pushkin’s new poetics of the 1830s. Nevertheless, clearly the deflation of Romanticism, the image of the Romantic poet, and the Romantic landscape is connected with Pushkin’s “path to prose.” To demonstrate how the poem consciously obfuscates meaning, I will use cir­cumstantial evidence, readings of variants and a close analysis of the poem.


Pushkin’s intention to obfuscate his text can be seen by examining those parts which the poet removed between the time he wrote the work in the fall of 1830 and published the poem in 1833.[9] In versions before publica­tion the “meaning” of the poem was rather clear. In the variants Pushkin articulated his view of the independence of the poet in the context of a con­crete polemic which occurred among Pushkin and the writers of Moskov­skii telegraf and Severnaia pchela. Defending the right of literature to serve entirely an aesthetic purpose, Pushkin rejected demands that the poet provide an uplifting moral or political message. In one of the earliest variants of the poem a stanza from the introduction summarizes the message:

Пока сердито требуют журналы
Чтоб я воспел победы россиян
И написал скорее мадригалы
На бой или на бегство персиян,
А русские Камиллы, Аннибалы
Вперед идут………………….[10]

In 1833 Pushkin removed the majority of those stanzas dealing with the polemic, leaving only eight dealing with meta-literary issues. Deducing Pushkin’s motives, the scholar Modest Gofman states that those excised stanzas “which characterized the life and war of Russian journalism of 1830 had become to a certain extent out of date and inappropriate in 1833.”[11] Therefore, “Pushkin had to sacrifice many of the octaves and abridge ‘Domik v Kolomne.’”[12] He shortened the poem to 37 stanzas by cutting down the polemical introduction and reducing the anecdotal story, but he left unchanged the ironic conclusion. The meaning of the published version, I think it is fair to say, became far more ambiguous. The number of critics who have been baffled by this poem, starting with Vissarion Belinskii, who claimed it was a “joke created by the hand of a great master,” epitomizes the difficulties readers have had in making sense of the final published version.[13]

Although the poem became difficult to understand, Pushkin actually left a large number of tempting literary allusions that appear to function in the Romantic semantic system,—that is, they appear to serve as a guide to decipher the poem’s murky meaning. When one examines these subtexts, however, one discovers that none can serve as an absolute se­mantic key. For this reason, the poem’s ending may act as a genuine, al­beit sarcastic, expression of the poet’s credo that no absolute meaning is available in the poem:

Вот вам мораль: по мненью моему,
Кухарку даром нанимать опасно;
Кто ж родился мужчиною, тому
Рядиться в юбку странно и напрасно:
Когда–нибудь придется же ему
Брить бороду себе, что несогласно
С природой дамской… Больше ничего
Не выжмешь из рассказа моего.

The ironic tonality of the final stanza reflects a distance between the ap­parent message that no further meaning can be “extracted” and the se­mantic depth that readers feel in the poem. Despite his feigned claims to the contrary, Pushkin patently did not want his reader to remain satisfied with this superficial explanation, but instead egged him on. The disjoint­edness and apparent disorder of this very suggestive poem, its confound­ing resistance to interpretation, only increase the reader’s appetite for dis­covering a hidden message.

The main attempts to discover a definite meaning in the poem revolve around interpretations of its subtexts. I will analyze the most important of these, showing how they actually reflect kinds of reading the author ap­parently hoped to elicit.


In his meta-literary introduction, Pushkin plays with the reader’s expecta­tions. Although he obviously wanted readers to consider the introduction as a confession of his poetic credo, Pushkin actually mocks the conventions of meta-literature, since he does not apply the postulates he so enthusias­tically advocates. For example, although he criticized his favored verse measure, iambic tetrameter, and by analogy his novel Evgenii Onegin, which he finished in 1830 (“Chetyrekhstopnyi iamb mne nadoel / Im pi­shet vsiakii. Mal´chikam v zabavu / Pora b ego ostavit´”), Pushkin actually never considered giving it up. In fact, he employed iambic tetrameter in “Besy,” “Moia rodoslovnaia,” and “Dlia beregov otchizny dal´noi,” all writ­ten in 1830, and continued to use it two years later in his unfinished auto­biographical poem, “Ezerskii,” and three years later in his masterpiece Mednyi vsadnik. Not serious about boycotting the form, his aim was clearly to play with the reader’s knowledge about the poet’s preference for four-foot iambs, especially in the context of this poem written in ottava rima.

Furthermore, Pushkin’s statement that when using iambic penta­meter (ottava rima was traditionally transposed into Russian using iambic pentameter) he loves to place a caesura after the fourth syllable is also ignored. Not only does Pushkin skip the caesura, but he unabashedly mocks the entire statement by breaking the caesura with the word “tse­zura” (“Liubliu tsezuru na vtoroi stope”). Pushkin similarly ridicules his claims about using verbs, conjunctions, and adverbs in rhymes by not using them (only 14 times in 240 lines):

Вы знаете, что рифмой наглагольной
Гнушаемся мы. Почему? Спрошу.
К чему? скажите; уж и так мы голы.
Отныне в рифмы буду брать глаголы.

Allusions to his attitude toward poetry and the literary market em­bodied in his parody of classical symbols of poetry add to the ambiguity and uncertainty. Although readers are made aware of the poet’s dissatis­faction at his having to sell his talent for money—“I tabor svoi s klassi­cheskikh vershinok / Perenesli my na tolkuchii rynok”—that idea is not confirmed by the text. In fact, the parodic description—Pegasus is de­scribed as “old” and “toothless,” Parnassus has gone to seed and the muses are depicted as old women who no longer “tempt our breed”—seems to mock the poet’s allegiance to the classical forms. Even the stanza’s ending with its apparent negation of the market is ambiguous, since the next stanza begins with the unappealing muse being invited to leave in a carriage: “Usiad´sia, muza; ruchki v rukava, / Pod lavku nozhki! Ne vertis´, rezvushka!” Such meta-literary discussions, according to the Romantic interpretive code, are meant to be taken seriously, but by dis­regarding his own postulates, using a mocking intonation and treating such ideas with levity, he undercuts the function of these references as illuminating signifiers and underscores their self-referential value as statements of mystification.

When we move to an analysis of the plot of the narrative tale, we en­counter a similar undercutting of the reader’s expectations of finding meaning in the manifold allusions the poet has inserted in the text. For example, it seems clear that Pushkin wanted his readers to attempt to connect the story of Parasha and Mavrushka with the ideas in the meta-literary section. By beginning the narrative tale in the middle of a stanza, Pushkin brusquely and consciously joins the two parts (line 3 of stanza IX: “Teper´ nachnem. – Zhila-byla vdova”). In addition, the allusion to gender in the introduction seems to hint at a connection:

Ну, женские и мужские слоги!
Благославясь, попробуем: слушай!
Равняйтесь, вытягивайте ноги
И по три вряд в октаву заезжай!
Не бойтесь, мы не будем слишком строги;
Держись вольней и только не плошай,
А там уже привыкнем, слава богу,
И выедем на ровную дорогу.

What is the connection here? Masculine and feminine syllables are lit­erary forms useful in making rhymes, but gender in language is quite different from human gender, even the gender of fictional characters. While this stanza clearly alludes to debates about the kinds of rhyme in the Russian octave, it is difficult to imagine that the ironic address to his words has a serious meaning. The poet’s encouraging imperatives—“So keep in step! / Dress up your ranks, yourselves keep time unheeded”[14]—appear to mock any earnest attempt to read a profound message into these lines which at first glance had seemed to explain the connection be­tween the tale and the preceding meta-literary commentary.

Although the meta-literary section may be impenetrable, the narrative tale strikes one reader as more comprehensible.[15] But is that really the case? The anecdotal narrative describes a sexual liaison between a young girl and her hussar lover who, dressed as a woman, has been hired as a cook in the heroine’s house. Just as in the meta-literary section, here Pushkin provides a plethora of allusions, although none of them ulti­mately offers an absolutely satisfying explanation of the events in the poem.[16] I will turn to an analysis of some of these allusions below.

By featuring an impoverished noblewoman as his hero, urban Peters­burg as his setting, and an indiscreet sexual alliance as his theme, Push­kin connects “Domik” to several other Russian texts: V. Maikov’s Elisei, ili razdrazhennyi Vakkh (1771), V. Kapnist’s Iabeda (1798), I. F. Bogdan­ovich’s “Dushen´ka” (1783), Nikolai Karamzin’s “Bednaia Liza” (1792), and Mikhail Chulkov’s Prigozhaia povarikha (1770).[17] Although intertextual allusions often acknowledge a literary debt and shed light on the juxta­posed texts, here allusions only raise unresolvable questions concerning the relationship between earlier works in the Russian literary tradition and “Domik.”

For example, when comparing “Domik” with two texts which have a great number of common traits, “Bednaia Liza” and Prigozhaia povarikha, one can find little which satisfactorily elucidates Pushkin’s poem. In his characterization of the house, the widowed mother, and the daughter, Pushkin clearly borrows from “Bednaia Liza.” Pushkin writes:

[…] Жила–была вдова
Тому лет восемь, бедная старушка,
C одною дочерью. У Покрова
Стояла их смиренная лачужка
За самой будкой […]

Karamzin’s earlier text reads:

В этой хижине лет за тридцать перед сим жила прекрасная, любезная Лиза с старушкою, матерью своею.[18]

Also very similar are the descriptions of the two heroines. Pushkin de­scribes his Parasha this way:

Параша (так звалась красотка наша)
Умела мыть и гладить, шить и плесть;
Всем домом правила одна Параша,
Поручено ей было счету весть.

Karamzin portrays his Liza in a similar fashion, by listing her abilities:

– Одна Лиза, не щадя своей нежной молодости, не щадя редкой красоты своей, трудилась день и ночь – ткала холсты, вязала чулки, весною рвала цветы, а летом брала ягоды – и продавала их в Москве.[19]

The stylistic parallels are quite noticeable. Both passages introduce a home, a widow, and show off an attractive daughter of marriageable age by listing the daughter’s many domestic talents. The works, taken in their entirety, reveal two other very close parallels: a family that has become impoverished and an improper liaison between a daughter and a male figure. Although “Bednaia Liza” is written in prose and “Domik” in verse, the works share several similarities. Since Pushkin’s diction stays close to Karamzin’s original, he presumably intended this reference to be palpable to the reader.

The other work which closely resembles Pushkin’s poem is Mikhail Chulkov’s Prigozhaia povarikha. In this case the main parallel is trans­vestism to secure a means for sexual contact, but there are other similar­ities as well: Martona, Chulkov’s protagonist, is known as a cook (povar­ikha) and Pushkin’s poem, of course, features the character of a cook, with the similar name Mavra. In “Domik” the author says Mavra ran away never to be found again and did not take any money or valuables. In Chul­kov’s novel Martona’s male friend (also unnamed and without a clear identity) dresses as a woman—like Pushkin’s Mavra—to commit an illicit act. In this case, they do steal money and jewels. This subtext, although not mentioned in the poem, was quite likely known if not to the reader, at least to Pushkin, since he has Parasha’s mother run home on New Year’s Eve in the middle of church services exactly because she fears Mavra is a thief: “Ne vzdumala l´ ona nas obokrast´ / Da uliznut’? Vot budem my s obnovkoi / Dlia prazdnika!”

What, then, is the relation between these two references and the poem’s meaning? Although intertextual allusions usually contribute to a clarification of texts, in “Domik” the allusions only deepen the ambiguity. On the one hand, one cannot escape the feeling that Pushkin parodies “Bednaia Liza,” since, while the theme of illicit sexuality is shared, “Domik” ends without tragedy and death; the reader is even meant to laugh at the lack of levity displayed by the author writing about such is­sues. Because of the closeness to Prigozhaia povarikha, it appears that Pushkin may be taking Chulkov as a positive model. After all, Chulkov successfully managed to write a prose novel with humor and without the heavy hand of didacticism.[20] Nevertheless, one has to note that Pushkin leaves his reader to guess whether Parasha is a Liza or a Martona, a charming victim of love or a willful conspirator of an illicit passion? Push­kin seemingly refrains from consistently carrying through either view. Parasha is described both as a charming singer of rare beauty and a sly temptress. Yet because Parasha has some of both characteristics, Pushkin leaves it to the reader to decide Parasha’s place vis-à-vis her Russian precedents.[21]

Clear and obvious allusions to earlier comic poems also complicate any interpretation. “Domik” is undoubtedly linked to Lord Byron’s “Beppo” (1818), Alfred de Musset’s “Namouna” (1832), and Barry Cornwall’s poems written in ottava rima: “Diego de Montilla,” “Gypsies,” “The Flood of Thes­saly,” and “The Genealogists: A Fragment.”[22] Despite the external similar­ities of “Domik” with these poems, N. Iakovlev insists that the essential prototype for Pushkin was Byron’s “Beppo.” An analysis of “Beppo” and “Domik” reveals many similarities in genre, form, plot, and tone.[23] Both poems are written in ottava rima, both feature a comic story and both are characterized by the narrator’s ironic language, which competes with the narrative story for the reader’s attention. Just like Pushkin in “Domik,” in “Beppo” Byron often uses authorial digression, interrupting the narrative plot by discussing his views about politics, social mores, national customs, and history. Similarly, the plot of “Beppo” is characterized by sexual indis­cretion, although the author undermines the expectation of sexual rivalry by having the rival turn out to be the heroine’s husband.

Yet the differences between “Beppo” and “Domik” are also significant. “Beppo” is composed of 99 stanzas and with this extra space Byron has room to describe his heroes extensively and provide information about their past and present situations. Furthermore, although Byron sharpens the reader’s suspense in concealing the identity of the Turk who stares at Laura, he ends his story by disclosing the Turk’s identity (Laura’s hus­band), giving the narrative a strong resolution. As if that were not enough, Byron even provides readers with an epilogue of sorts, explaining what happened to the characters in the years following the events described in the poem (stanzas 98–99). In contrast, the characters of “Domik” are less fully drawn and Pushkin does not give a smooth, convincing resolution to the plot; the narrator of “Domik” says that Mavra ran away and nothing has been heard of him:

[…] но Маврушки
С тех пор как не было, – простыл и след!
Ушла, не взяв в уплату ни полушки
И не успев наделать важных бед.

Clearly, if “Beppo” is the direct model for “Domik,” Pushkin disregarded as much as he borrowed. Nevertheless, in asking the reader to consider the allusions, Pushkin increased the layers of meaning and permitted his readers to compare and juxtapose texts, to weigh the value of subtexts as an aid in interpreting the poem.

Clearly the image of Romantic liaisons and illicit relationships links “Domik” generally to the European Romantic tradition. But by inserting biographical facts into the poem, Pushkin played with stylistic norms of an earlier period when readers openly identified the narrator with the au­thor himself. The connection is established through the deliberate coinci­dence of time: the frame in which the events in the poem occur coincides with the poet’s own biography. The earlier time in Petersburg, which the narrator remembers, alludes to the years 1817–20 when Pushkin really lived in Kolomna, while the later time refers to Pushkin’s return after 1827. The theme of sexual impropriety also seems vaguely connected with the poet’s biography, since we know that exactly in 1830 Pushkin was ago­nizing over his decision to marry or remain a bachelor. The poem, there­fore, seems to ask to be interpreted as Pushkin’s personal confession of his feelings about these two periods, since the poet describes the difficulties of his present life in 1830 by contrasting his present with a nostalgic, better past.[24]

In order for this interpretation to work, however, the reader must identify the narrator with the poet Pushkin. It would appear that Pushkin would like us to conclude that they are the same person, especially in the meta-literary section, when the poet appears as author. The narrator uses the first-person singular, speaking as the poet: “Chetyrekhstopnyi iamb mne nadoel” or “ia by sovladel / S troinym sozvuchiem. Pushchus´ na slavu.” At other times, however, the narrator is not the same as the poet Pushkin, since the poet-narrator was himself interested in Parasha; he saw her through the window of her house and at church. Still, the narra­tor seems to have omniscient knowledge about what happens to Parasha in her home, where she stands when she sings, what she does during the day, what she says to her mother when she brings Mavra home. But this same narrator is himself often uncertain about significant facts. For instance, the narrator does not know what has happened to Parasha or her mother during his extended absence from the capital. The narrator also does not know the identity of Mavra. Moreover, the narrator lays bare the device, so to say, since he pokes fun at his ignorance, claiming not to know if Parasha blushed when her mother told her about seeing Mavra shaving. He reports: “Parasha zakrasnelas´ ili net, / Skazat´ vam ne umeiu.” This passage is mere pretense, since the narrator knows just as well as we do that Mavra was Parasha’s lover. In the narrator’s feigned ignorance there is obviously a play on who knows what and who could know what. In this situation the narrator’s lapses not only summon ambi­guity, but also appear as ironic commentary on the reader’s expectation that the narrator and the poet are the same person.

Although the author gives the reader the impression that the bio­graphical subtext is the key to the poem, in fact knowledge of Pushkin’s biography offers no conclusive meaning. The distance between the narra­tor and the poet-lyric hero precludes any positive correlation between the poem’s narrator and Pushkin. While Pushkin inserts signs that the circumstantial facts in the story refer to his own biography, he gives no certain proof. Instead he offers seductive clues which turn out to be fraught with uncertainty and illegitimacy. It appears that Pushkin is playing with the conventions of a biographical subtext, leaving the reader guessing where fiction and life begin and end.

The form of the poem is itself a powerful allusion which Pushkin knew would elicit diverse associations on the part of the reader.[25] Readers of Pushkin’s time would inevitably think of the Roman poet Ovid when Pushkin attached to his poem an epigraph from Metamorphoses: “Modo vir, modo femina” (Now woman and now man). Although the parallel is striking and serves as a bridge between the poem’s form and its content, when one examines the quotation from Ovid, one runs into a barrier. When publishing “Domik” in 1833 Pushkin dropped the epigraph, deciding that it did not belong. Instead he used it later as the epigraph for the “For­ward to the Notes of N. A. Durova” (1836). Looking more closely, one no­tices that the quotation comes from Metamorphoses (IV, 280): “naturae iure novato / Ambiguus fuerit modo vir, modo femina Sithon,”[26] and that Ovid speaks about a mythical person called Sithon who, following special laws of nature, changed now into a man, now into a woman. But the trail of answers ends there, since Pushkin did not explain the meaning of the epigraph in the poem or in any personal correspondence.[27]

The octave also directed Pushkin’s readers, especially his friends, to an important allusion concerning literary debates about epic poetry during the 1820s.[28] In Pushkin’s usage the octave has eight lines with alternating rhymes followed by a couplet employing a different rhyme: aBaBaBcc / DeDeDeFF. In this way, each stanza begins with a new rhyme and there are no more than two lines in a row having the same rhyme. Iurii Tyn­ianov claims that Pushkin’s use of the octave refers to an article written by the poet’s colleague and friend Pavel Katenin which came out in the journal Syn otechestva in 1822 and was aimed in part against Vasilii Zhu­kovskii. In that article Katenin declared the superiority of the octave and denounced the Alexandrine as an inappropriate meter for translating the epic into Russian.[29] Katenin also argued against Zhukovskii’s conception of the octave, in which the latter argued that for the sake of facility every stanza should begin with a feminine rhyme. Katenin claimed that such practice would bring about a collision between the two lines with feminine endings occurring at the end and beginning of every stanza. It would be better to alternate the octaves; those stanzas ending with feminine rhymes should begin with masculine rhymes and vice-versa. In addition, Katenin modified the form, considering the triple alternating rhymes too demanding and therefore he substituted the scheme: aBaBccDD eFeFggHH. It should be mentioned that Katenin’s suggestion hardly caught on with anyone. In fact, the octave found few Russian enthusiasts.

One wonders why Pushkin would draw our attention to a literary de­bate which by 1833 had little relevance. Iurii Tynianov claims that from 1828–32 Pushkin and Katenin were engaged in literary polemics and that Katenin’s works during the period were written with an arrière pensée, namely the competition with Pushkin for the place of Russia’s first poet and a warning to Pushkin about the correct political path. Connected with this polemic is Katenin’s poem, “Staraia byl´,” which he sent to Pushkin in 1828 and which, according to Tynianov, has important allegorical mean­ing. The poem, set at the time of the Kievan Prince Vladimir, actually refers to contemporary Russian life, and the competition between a young Greek castrato and a Russian voevoda stands for the competition between Pushkin and Katenin. In the poem, Katenin concedes to Pushkin the title of first poet, alluding also to his collaboration with the tsar. The inferior Russian gives up without competing and is offered a chalice as a consola­tion. Later the Russian shows his courage at the end of the poem by using the chalice to make a toast: “v pamiat´ ikh iunosti dnei / I Khrabrogo v pamiat´ chestnuiu.” The Russian’s words actually make an allusion to the Decembrists in general and to the poet Ryleev in particular. They also represent Katenin’s view of the correct political attitude of the poet: defi­ance against the autocrat.[30]

Although Pushkin answered Katenin in his Malen´kie tragedii and particularly in “Mozart and Salieri,” in which Mozart supposedly repre­sents Pushkin and Salieri—Katenin, the polemic with Katenin is also present in “Domik.” Pushkin, in what appears a gesture of “solidarity” with Katenin, puts into practice what Katenin had suggested eight years earlier. He manages to create a long work using the octave, although not an epic, but a comic poem. While it is difficult to say what exactly Pushkin had in mind here, clearly he mocked Katenin by weaving a comic poem from the cloth Katenin had reserved for the epic. Very likely Pushkin wanted to show that the relationship between form and content was arbi­trary at least to the writer who can shape any form to suit his purposes. Moreover, by using such a highbrow form for “low” themes, Pushkin again critiqued Romantic poetics, which represented the poet and poetry as obli­gated to serve higher religious, prophetic, or heroic purposes. At the same time, it is not impossible that there was a personal polemic involved. By using the unwieldy verse form and using the more difficult triple rhymes, Pushkin was perhaps asserting his superiority over Katenin and his right to the title of Russia’s first poet, an honor he risked losing by 1830.[31]


I think it is possible to speak of a new poetics of obfuscation that finds adaptation in Pushkin’s poetry of the 1830s. One can see such an aes­thetics realized in many works. A few easy examples might include the verses “Ne dai mne bog soiti s uma,” “Exegi Monumentum,” the tale in verse, Mednyi Vsadnik, or such prose stories as the Belkin cycle. I think one is entitled to say that such works emphasize semantic ambiguity. Be­sides semantic confusion, one can also see in the poetics of the 1830s a break with and repudiation of Pushkin’s earlier poetics. In “Domik” there is clearly a mockery of the self-image of the Romantic poet, the Romantic romance story, and the view that poetry should be limited only to the treatment of high, lofty, and moral issues.

“Domik” can be viewed as one of the signposts in Pushkin’s “path to prose,” a path that was not only characterized by the use of prosaic forms and language, but also new landscapes, characters, and a general anti-Romantic attitude. In his use of deceptive subtexts and mockery of the conventions of the reader-author relationship, parody of Romantic themes, and reader expectations, “Domik” embodies the shift in literary norms and values that characterized Pushkin in the 1830s.


Tulane University



Horowitz, Brian. "Pushkin's Shifting Poetics: Deceptive Subtexts in 'Domik v Kolomne.'" Pushkin Review 8-9 (2005-06): 45-60.

[1] B. Eikhenbaum, “Put´ Pushkina k proze” (1923), in O proze, o poezii (Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1986), 29–44.

[2] V. Khodasevich, “Peterburgskie povesti Pushkina” (1914), in Pushkin i poety ego vremeni, 3 vols. (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Slavic Specialties, 1999), 1: 16–39; B. Tomashevskii, “Istorizm Pushkina,” in Pushkin, 2 vols., 2nd ed. (Moscow: Khudo­zhestvennaia literatura, 1961), 2: 154–99; V. E. Vatsuro and V. V. Pugachev, “Pushkin i obshchestvenno-literaturnoe dvizhenie v period posledekabr´skoi reak­tsii: Situatsiia 1825–1837 godov,” in Pushkin: Itogi i problemy izucheniia (Moscow-Leningrad: Nauka, 1966), 198–236; B. Horowitz, “A. S. Pushkin’s Self-Projection in the 1830s: ‘Letters to His Wife,’” Pushkin Journal 3 (2000): 65–80.

[3] Eikhenbaum, “Put´ Pushkina,” 44.

[4] The second stanza of Evgenii Onegin typifies the extent of knowledge the author presupposed readers brought to their reading: “Так думал молодой повеса, / Летя в пыли на почтовых, / Всевышней волею Завеса / Наследник всех своих родных. / Друзья Людмилы и Руслана! / С героем моего романа / Без предисловий, сей же час / Позвольте познакомить вас. / Онегин, добpый мой приятель, / Родился на брегах Невы, / Где, может быть, родились вы / Или блистали, мой читатель; / Там некогда гулял и я: / Но вреден север для меня.” Iu. Lotman affirms this idea, writing: “Evgenii Onegin was a work of this new type, one which demanded a dif­ferent conception of the reader concerning the relations between author and his text.” Lotman, “Posviashchenie ‘Poltavy’ (Adresat, tekst, funktsiia),” in Pushkin, ed. Lotman and B. F. Egorov (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 1995), 262. Unless otherwise indicated, all translations from Russian are my own.

[5] In the early 1820s Pushkin exploited reader expectation that his poems could be explicated by comparing them to his “private” letters. Lotman asserts that “Push­kin used personal letters in the later period to encourage readers to seek refer­ences to the biographical subtext of one or another poem in the same way that silences and ellipses in texts written during the southern period were meant not to hide the intimate feelings of the author, but to fix attention on them” (ibid., 260).

[6] D. D. Blagoi, Tvorcheskii put´ Pushkina (1826–1830) (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel´, 1967), 330–34.

[7] This point was raised by one of the Pushkin Review’s anonymous readers of this article.

[8] Among the best known studies of “Domik” are Jurij Semjonow, “Das Haüschen in Kolomna,” in Der Poetischen Erbschaft A. S. Pushkins: Text, Interpretation und Literatur-Historischer Kommentar (Uppsala: Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, 1965); M. Kharlap, “Polemicheskii smysl ‘Domika v Kolome,’” Izvestiia Akademii Nauk SSSR, Seriia literatury i iazyka 39 (1980): 219–29; N. V. Fridman, “Zagadka ‘Domika v Kolomne,’” Izvestiia Akademii Nauk SSSR, Seriia literatury i iazyka 44: 5 (1985): 445–48; M. L. Gasparov and V. M. Smirin, “Evgenii Onegin i ‘Domik v Kolomne’: Parodiia i samoparodiia u Pushkina,” in Tynianovskii sbornik: Vtorye Tynianovskie chteniia (Riga: Znanie, 1986), 254–64; Michael Finke, “The Aesopic Meaning of Pushkin’s ‘Domik v Kolomne,’” Russian Literature Journal 43: 144 (1989): 199–229, reprinted in Metapoesis: The Russian Tradition from Pushkin to Chekhov (Durham, NC: Duke University Press), 1995.

[9] The poem was finished on October 9, 1830 during the first Boldino Autumn. It was published in 1833 in the almanac Novosel´e, part 1, and appeared without changes in the second part of the collection Poemy i povesti in 1835.

[10] A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochineniiv 17-i tomakh (Leningrad: Akademiia Nauk SSSR, 1937–59), 4: 371. Other excised stanzas also reflect the polemic and Pushkin’s view that the poet should be free to choose his own themes. See Pushkin, PSS, 4: 371–86.

[11] M. Gofman, “Istoriia sozdaniia i teksta ‘Domik v Kolomne,’” in Pushkin, Domik v Kolomne (Moscow: Atenei, 1922), 100.

[12] Ibid., 31. Gofman believes, however, that the published poem remained a state­ment of the poet’s credo of poetic independence: “The narrative poem did not cease being an expression of Pushkin’s poetic credo and perhaps became superior in its poetic unity and concentration, as its polemical tone became doubtlessly less noticeable” (ibid.).

[13] V. G. Belinskii, “Stat´i o Pushkine,” Sobranie sochinenii v trekh tomakh (Mos­cow: Gos. izd-vo Khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1948), 3: 505.

[14] For the English translation of “Domik” I have used William Harkins’ version in Alexander Pushkin, Three Comic Poems (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1977).

[15] Glen Worthy, “Gender Poetics and the Structure of Pushkin’s ‘Little House in Kolomna,’” Elementa 3(1997): 271–90.

[16] The absence of authorial command over meaning has enticed at least one scholar to suggest an allusion to Renaissance plays or the Fabliaux tales that involve the supposition that a man can easily be taken for a woman or vice-versa. Nevertheless, such a reading tends to lean toward a political interpretation and depends too heavily on the imaginative contributions of the critic. For example, Michael Finke even names prototypes for the characters and sees the little house as a metaphor for the Winter Palace: “[w]e can suspect that the little house is a metaphoric substitution for the Winter Palace of Nicholas I (which, incidentally, is three-storied). In this set of correspondences, the weak-eyed widow would stand in a position parallel to that of the czar himself” (Finke, “Aesopic Meaning,” 72).

[17] Because the hero of “Domik” is an urban declassée, several important scholars, notably Boris Eikhenbaum, have connected the poem to Pushkin’s “path to prose.” See Eikhenbaum, “Put´ Pushkina.” Scholars such as Boris Tomashevskii connect the hero of “Domik” with the problem of the poet’s free choice of hero. This citation, often brought forth from the unfinished poem “Ezerskii,” is relevant: “Скажите: экий вздор, иль bravo, / Иль не скажите ничего – / Я в том стою – имел я право / Избрать соседа моего / В герои повести смиренной, / Хоть человек он не военной, / Не второклассный Дон Жуан, / Не демон – даже не цыган, / А просто гражданин столичный, / Каких встречаем всюду тьму / Ни по лицу, ни по уму / От нашей братьи неотличный, / Довольно смирный и простой, / А впрочем, малый деловой” (Pushkin, PSS, 4: 347–48).

[18] N. M. Karamzin, “Bednaia Liza,” in Izbrannye sochineniia, 2 vols. (Moscow-Leningrad: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1964), 1: 607.

[19] Ibid.

[20] In his article on Chulkov’s novel J. G. Garrard writes, “It is no exaggeration to say … that The Comely Cook stands out from the prose fiction of this period as ‘the unique work of art in the eighteenth century.’ In some ways Chulkov’s situation was similar to that of the seventeenth-century writer Paul Scarron; in fact his novel, Le Roman comique (1650–57), translated into Russian in 1763, had a con­siderable influence upon Chulkov’s earlier prose. Both men were writing at a time when prose fiction was scorned by proponents of ‘high’ literature. Both were innovators in reacting against the romances and in attempting to bring prose down to earth.” Garrard, “Narrative Technique in Chulkov’s Prigozhaia povar­ikha,” Slavic Review 27: 4 (December 1968): 554–63; esp. 554.

[21] Pushkin’s association of Parasha with the muses is also confusing. Parasha’s lovely songs and her melancholic demeanor contradict the aggressive “man-watching” that she does from her window. The positive attributes which the narra­tor gives Parasha, offered as a contrast to those possessed by the Countess, which are recognized by society—“Blazhennee stokrat ee byla, / Chitatel´, novaia zna­komka vasha, / Prostaia, dobraia moia Parasha”—appear incongruous in light of the story’s denouement. Perhaps Parasha is a parody of the many innocent young ladies from Russian literature, or perhaps her figure mocks the haughty self-perception of aristocratic women (as in “Domik”), or perhaps she symbolizes something else completely. Nevertheless, one can only say conclusively that what Parasha is intended to signify is not clear and the author’s irony, rather than any serious message, appears to surround his heroine.

[22] Valerii Briusov interpreted “Domik” as a formal experiment, an attempt to create in Russia the “humorous poem” popularized in France by Alfred de Musset and in England by Lord Byron; V. Briusov, Moi Pushkin: Stat´i, issledovaniia, nabliudeniia (Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo, 1929), 56. N. Iakovlev has written a very convincing article linking “Domik” with Barry Cornwall’s “Diego de Montilla” and “Gypsies.” N. Iakovlev, “Poslednii literaturnyi sobesednik Pushkina (Bari Kornuol´),” Pushkin i ego sovremenniki 28 (Petrograd, 1917): 5–28. Iakovlev discounts “Domik’s” connection with Namouna and emphasizes the link with “Beppo”: “But the general structure and tone of these poems [Cornwall’s], in spite of the direct allusions shown above, does not leave any doubt that the model for Barry Cornwall was after all exactly Byron, the creator of poems of this type” (Iakovlev, “Poslednii sobesednik,” 14).

[23] The question of Pushkin’s relation to Byron is an enormous problem, too large to treat here. In his monograph, Viktor Zhirmunskii investigates this question in de­tail. V. Zhirmunskii, Bairon i Pushkin: Iz istorii romanticheskoi poemy (Leningrad: Akademiia, 1924).

[24] M. O. Gershenzon argued that the meaning of the poem relates exactly to Pushkin’s own feelings about the two periods of his life. Gershenzon, “Domik v Kolomne,” in Mudrost´ Pushkina (Moscow: Knigoizdatel´stvo pisatelei, 1919), 138–51; esp. 141.

[25] It is notable that Pushkin does break the ottava rima form at a climactic point in the story: stanza 36, the “cook’s” escape. J. Thomas Shaw points out that in this stanza the stanzaic form is broken: “The old woman discovers the disguised ‘cook’ shaving; then the ‘cook’ jumps ‘across the old woman’ (cherez starukhu) over an omitted line (and the final, nonexistent, endword of the large rhyme set). Then the poem, ignoring the missing line, continues the masculine-feminine rhyme alterna­tion, with no nonrhymed endwords, and ends with a brief description of reactions (or nonreactions) of those who remain—the old woman and her daughter—and a facetious ‘moral.’ Thus there is a ‘completed’ nonfulfillment in rhyming expecta­tions at a climactic (or anti-climactic) moment of the action in both Count Nulin and The Little House in Kolomna: in each poem, the ‘hero’ suddenly departs, and the end of the poem focuses on the heroine while giving a tongue-in-cheek ‘moral.’” J. Thomas Shaw, Pushkin’s Poetics of the Unexpected: The Nonrhymed Lines in the Rhymed Poetry and the Rhymed Lines in the Nonrhymed Poetry (Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1993), 291.

[26] “Nor will I tell how once Sithon, the natural laws reversed, lived of changing sex, now woman and now man.” Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Frank Justus Miller, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 1: 199.

[27] The psychoanalytic critic Ivan Ermakov articulated a theory in which the epi­graph epitomizes his conception of the poem. According to Ermakov, Pushkin, con­cerned about his marriage, wondered if he was a “real man” or was more “wom­anish.” He expressed his turbulent and anxious feelings not only in the images of the poem, but also in the poem’s structure. The rhyme alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes is a symbol of the two sides of Pushkin’s personality. These two sides especially become manifest in 1830 when the poet decided to change his life and marry. Ermakov describes Pushkin’s psychological dilemma this way: “What am I, a man or a woman? Am I marrying a woman or being married by a man? Will they take me into a household or am I taking myself?… Do I want to receive freely, hire a maid, or am I capable of deserving a wife; do I understand the whole significance of my step? Am I a page or an adult man?” Ermakov, Etiudy po psikhologii tvorchestva A. S. Pushkina (Moscow, 1923; repr., Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1980), 22.

[28] Tynianov believed this subtext to be crucial in understanding the poem. See Arkhaisty i novatory (Leningrad: Priboi, 1929; repr., Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1985), 168–77.

[29] Katenin wrote, “The Alexandrine verse has its own merits and it is excellently capable of expressing passions and everything suitable for declamations.… But in it there is an unavoidable deficiency—monotony—and therefore it is hardly proper for such a long work as is the epic.” Quoted in Tynianov, Arkhaisty i novatory, 122. In an unpublished variant of “The Little House in Kolomna” Pushkin makes reference to the alexandrine, writing, “Но возратиться все ж я не хочу / К четырехстопным ямбам, мере низкой / С гекзаметром никак я не сучу: / Он мне не в мочь. А стиx александрийский?… / Уж не его ль себе я залучу?”

[30] Those interested in the interrelation between “Staraia byl´” and “Domik” should consult Michael Finke’s article cited earlier (“Aesopian Meaning”).

[31] In “Domik” the narrator brags of his poetic talent: “Я хотел / Давным давно приняться за октаву. / А в самом деле: я бы совладел / С тройным созвучием. Пущусь нa славу. / Ведь рифмы запросто со мной живут; / Две придут сами, третью приведут.”