Alexander Pushkin and the Irony of Temperality

Aaron Beaver


Pushkin’s 1825 lyric poem “K***” (“Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven´e…”) has been understood almost universally as a poem of recuperation, where cre­ativity and vitality triumph over a temporal existence that threatens both.[1] On such a reading, the poem’s positive surface brings critical exami­nation to a halt, admits no irony, and accords easily with certain prevalent notions of Romantic temporality. It is the contention of this essay that such an interpretive halt is premature, that the poem’s surface conceals an irony at its center. Theorists of irony perennially warn against over­looking its presence: “When irony is a form of witticism, as with the Augustans, ineptitude in grasping it leads to a local and limited misunder­standing. On the other hand, when irony is centrally encoded in an entire work, failure to recognise it produces a radical misinterpretation.”[2] Recognizing the irony of “Ia pomniu…” first of all revaluates the poem itself, so that the recuperation of the vital and creative self expressed in the poem is understood in a larger temporal context which strongly im­plies that loss and oblivion will recur. More generally, recognition of the irony of temporality, in this and related poems, helps situate Pushkin’s lyric poetry with greater precision in the spectrum of Romanticism. And finally, a look at four later poems (by Tiutchev, Blok, and Brodsky) which depend intertextually on Pushkin’s will suggest that the unexamined irony of temporality transfers readily through the history of Russian lyric poetry.


1. Romanticism and Irony

Before discussing Pushkin’s poem, the broad theoretical context for its close reading will be established in two stages: first by sketching the inter­action of Romanticism and irony, then by theorizing the interaction of Romanticism and temporality.

Following Anne K. Mellor, a distinct ironic line of nineteenth-century European Romanticism—in which irony is often “centrally encoded” in a work—may be contrasted with a non-ironic line.[3]Mellor positions her analysis as against Meyer Abrams’s analysis of Romanticism but it may also be set against a cluster of theorists which includes Abrams, Northrop Frye, and René Wellek. For convenience, these two lines of theorized Ro­manticism will be referred to in terms of the worldview that underwrites each: the Neoplatonic (non-ironic) as against the Schlegelian (ironic).

Neoplatonic Romanticism, well characterized by Abrams, Frye, Wel­lek, and others, may be identified not only by its general lack of irony, but by rhetorical loftiness, by encounters with the sublime, by the quest for unity and harmony in the world and with nature, and by the transform­ative power of the imagination over “mere” or mundane experience. Wordsworth articulates Neoplatonic Romanticism’s basic assumption when he writes, “Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea / Which brought us hither.” In a purely philosophical vocabulary, becoming always stands subordinate to being. As Victor Terras notes, “Pushkin has none of the Neoplatonism that is so patent in Romantics like Coleridge, Hölderlin, or Wordsworth.”[4]

By contrast, the Schlegelian line of European Romanticism is marked by a pervasive irony which moderates the emotional tone of the work, re­mains skeptical of loftiness and the sublime, and perceives the transform­ative power of the imagination as potent but limited. Being does not auto­matically trump becoming. In its extreme form, irony may function as an endlessly negating principle—leading to the demonic emptiness that Kierkegaard famously criticized. But this is not a necessary result of Schlegel’s conception of irony; rather, it is an interpretation of Schlegel, one that this essay will not adopt. Schlegelian irony in this essay will sig­nify not a negating principle but an ambiguating or mediating principle. In Wayne Booth’s terms, Schlegel’s irony is unstable but not infinite.

Irony begins, for Schlegel, as an awareness of the breach between be­ing and becoming. The result, at this first stage, is skepticism. Man stands cut off from complete being, unable to attain absolute knowledge: “Think of a finite thing formed in the infinite, and you think of man.”[5] Eichner captures the predicament that arises for Schlegel, or for any artist at­tempting to communicate something of man’s situation in the world: “The Romantic poet … claims to know more than the common man, while knowing enough to realize that his most inspired insight is, like all finite things, wholly inadequate.”[6] The breach of skepticism leads to a realiza­tion: the artist stands in an impossible situation, compelled to express what cannot be expressed.

Schlegel resolves this impossible situation, and overcomes skepticism, via paradox, a phenomenon available in both literature (as an extreme form of wit) and philosophy (as logical contradiction). “Irony,” Schlegel writes, “is the Form of paradox. Paradox is everything that is both good and great.”[7] Ironic expression activates and appropriately embodies para­dox. In irony, Schlegel writes, “everything should be jest and everything should be seriousness, everything innocently open and deeply artificial.… [Irony] contains and excites a feeling of the insoluble conflict between the limited and the unlimited, between the impossibility and the necessity of complete communication.”[8] Eichner elaborates Schlegel’s position, calling irony a “frame of mind” which “enables the artist to combine inspiration and self-criticism, caprice and conscious control, idealism and the knowl­edge that his highest ideals still fall infinitely short of man’s destiny.”[9] Irony as the expression of paradox may be a function of literary “wit” (and Schlegel frequently uses the term “Witze” in place of “irony”), but it is equally the recognition of an openly contradictory position—a statement encoded simultaneously with its own parody.

Not just literary theoreticians, then, but Schlegel specialists have argued, contra Kierkegaard, that Schlegelian Romantic irony is more than simply a negating phenomenon, that in fact “the function of irony does not reside so much in the destruction of creative production, but rather in a mediating position between enthusiasm and scepticism.”[10] D. C. Muecke summarizes: “Romantic Irony is not negative; it does not, for example, negate subjectivity by objectivity, the imaginative by the critical, the emo­tional by the rational. Nor does it steer a middle course between them … Schlegel’s meaning is that irony does not take sides but regards both sides critically.”[11] Irony is an intermediary principle. It moves between and surveys the contradictory sides of any phenomenon.

Schlegel sometimes describes this mediation in other terms: as tran­scendence or agility. Transcendence is an accurate term, if unfortunate in the context of the idealism that underwrites so much of Romanticism. Schlegel’s meaning here is narrow: irony transcends opposites and then “hovers” above them.

There are old and modern poems which breathe, generally in whole and throughout, the divine breath of irony. In these, there lives a real transcendental buffoonery. In their interior [lives] that mood which surveys everything and lifts itself endlessly over all that is limited, even over art, virtue and genius; in their exterior, in their execution [lives] the mimic style of a good common Italian buffo.[12]

This passage is often cited and frequently misconstrued (with the em­phasis given to the “buffoonery” rather than to the transcendence). When Schlegel refers to irony in terms of agility, he is less frequently misunder­stood: “Irony is a clear consciousness of the eternal agility, of the endlessly abundant chaos.”[13] In the absence of an absolute truth to settle into, irony becomes aware of the infinite variety and profusion of phenomena, and settles, as it were, into an unsettled state, moving “agilely” among differ­ences and opposites.

Most consistently, however, Schlegel refers to this intermediating/ transcending agility as “self-restraint” (Selbstbeschränkung), in the sense that one maintains an ironic posture by refraining from committing to either of two opposing principles or positions. In at least three places Schlegel characterizes self-restraint as “divided mind … a result of self-creation and self-destruction.” [14] Consequently, this dialectical movement (never resolving in a synthesis) between “self-creation” and “self-destruction” is often cited as shorthand for Schlegel’s notion of Romantic irony. And it allows a fuller reformulation of a statement made above: via the “divided mind” irony moves between and surveys the contradictory sides of any phenomenon, including itself.

It is this final turn of the principle of irony, against itself, that leads Schlegel to base his definition of (Romantic) poetry on his philosophical notion of (Romantic) irony, so that Romantic irony and Romantic poetry become inseparable:

The Romantic literary form is still in Becoming; indeed this is its actual Being, that it is eternally only becoming, can never be completed.… It alone is unending, as it alone is free; and it rec­ognizes as its first law that the capriciousness of the artist suffers no law above itself. The Romantic literary form is the only one which is more than art and is, as it were, the art of poetry itself: for in a certain sense all poetry is or should be Romantic.[15]

At its widest scope, therefore, one may say that Romantic irony mediates even between Neoplatonic Romantic ideals and a recognition of their im­possibility. Poetry may draw genuine inspiration from, while remaining critical of, these ideals.

Thus Schlegelian Romanticism emerges sharply defined: not as the infinitely negating opposite of Neoplatonic Romanticism but as the “genius and critic” of Neoplatonic Romanticism, that is, as a mediating Romanti­cism, capable of simultaneously portraying and subverting the essential philosophical and aesthetic encounters of Neoplatonic Romanticism—for example, the sublime, the beautiful, the quest for unity and harmony, the transformative power of imagination or memory; in a word, the difficult encounter between being and becoming.


2. Romanticism and Temporality

The philosophical opposition of being and becoming emerges most visibly, perhaps, when the subject-matter of literary Romantic inspiration is tem­porality. Predictably, the opposition between Neoplatonic and Schlegelian Romanticism recurs. There exists a standard, well-discussed Neoplatonic Romanticism of temporality, and there exists also (silently alongside it) a more sophisticated (and less well-discussed) ironic posture which both engages and opposes this temporality—which is creative through it and yet critical of it, in the Schlegelian manner. The latter I will call the irony of temporality.

Georges Poulet has thoroughly analyzed the theoretical temporality of European Neoplatonic Romanticism, along with its predecessors and ante­cedents from Montaigne to Marcel Proust.[16] Poulet’s essentializing de­scription is both influential and representative. He outlines the key tem­poral experiences described by Romantic poets: paramnesia (a perception mistaken for a memory), its inverse (a memory so vivid it is mistaken for the present), and the Neoplatonic nunc stans (a “perfect absorption in the present … so intensely experienced that it seems as if its transience gives way to everlastingness, as if time stands still and becomes eternity”).[17] All three experiences describe temporal disruptions, though the third most clearly leads the Romantic poet to timelessness. And although it is this third experience, of a nunc stans, which is most readily identified as the quintessential temporality of Romanticism, all three depend on the same underlying trope—an action that may be called atomization.[18]

Atomization names a fully realized spatialization of time. Its funda­mental assumption is that time is (or may be conceived to be) comprised of a series of discrete (“atomic”) moments; that although these atom-moments normally flow together in experienced duration, they may also be experienced in isolation. Poulet wants to root his discussion in Roman­tic poets’ experiences of temporality, but even at this root level Poulet’s framework is unstable, for there is a purely conceptual apparatus at work in this “experience” which Poulet does not acknowledge but which the as­sumption of atomization lays bare.[19] Poulet’s atomized temporality is more properly described as conceptual/experiential.

As soon as the conceptual/experiential nature of this framework is rec­ognized, a new Romantic temporal predicament begins to emerge. From the present moment, isolated out of its duration, atom-moments may be conceived to stretch back into the past, and to form up the future into the oncoming present. Human temporality stands against an implicit horizon of infinite historical time, whose scale is sufficient to recontextualize an entire human life (not merely the human moment), emphasizing its rela­tive transience. On the other hand, the atom-moment may be subjectively experienced (under the halo of an attendant emotion, for example), pro­ducing the sensation that time accelerates or decelerates, expanding the moment of becoming into one of being or contracting it toward its van­ishing point.

Atomized temporality thus presents an opportunity or a crisis. Driven to avoid the crisis of transience and seize the opportunity of eternity, the non-ironic Romantic poet attempts a vertical escape from historical time into an eternity born of a profound experience of the moment. “Eternity,” therefore, may be tightly defined as the opening up of the atemporal from within the finite, an overcoming of the finite which is also an overcoming of the infinite. This differs somewhat from Poulet’s less rigorous formula­tion that “paradoxically, [the Romantics] brought Eternity into Time.”[20] Crucially, eternity is sought in and through the moment itself. In other words the apprehension of time in terms of atomized moments supplies both an existential threat and an answer to that threat: atom-moments perceived on a horizontal vector overwhelm, but those same moments perceived vertically, as potentially filled with eternity, may console and inspire.

This points to a second unaddressed assumption behind Poulet’s model of Neoplatonic Romantic temporality: a necessary substitution of qualitative time for quantitative time (which is another way of saying: the suppression of the conceptual mode).[21] As a part of the quantitative whole of historical time (conceived as infinite), the atomized moment is infinitely unimportant. This state persists, as it were, “Poka ne trebuet poeta / K sviashchennoi zhertve Apollon.” Once the poet experiences the qualitative importance of the moment of time, however, it is re-understood so that it now implies that infinite (quantitative) whole but with a newfound perma­nent importance: it is now “infinitely” (in the qualitative sense) important; it is “eternal.” (And to finish the allusion, the poet is now imaginatively free: “Bezhit on, dikii i surovyi, / … Na berega pustynnykh voln.”) The poet endeavors to conceal this shift from the quantitative to the qualitative which underwrites the poem. Secondary criticism tends to follow suit, and too often fails to expose, and explore the implications of, this shift of as­sumption about the possibilities for experiencing temporality. The atom of time may present a quantitative horizon of infinity, but that atom need not be a qualitative insignificance of infinite transience; rather it may con­tain a possible “vertical,” something like an escape hatch or an attic door into an eternal present, the qualitative nunc stans.

Three possible strategies for confronting the dilemma of atomized tem­porality therefore present themselves: the Neoplatonic (positive), the skep­tical (negative), and the ironic (mediating).

For Neoplatonic Romanticism the vertical experience of eternity prom­ises greater truth, more absolute being, and a profounder reality than that of temporal experience. The activity of a creative consciousness, pitched toward a fervor of intense experience or recollection, becomes the Roman­tic poet’s opportunity to leap out of the horizontal moment into the vertical dimension of an experienced eternity. As Poulet describes it, with refer­ence to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic poet achieves this leap by means of the “coadunative” imagination, which changes a “bad” infinity—the horizontal infinity of atomized time—into a “good” infinity vertically contained by the eternal moment.[22] Victor Terras uses other terms to describe the same process: “The Romantic perception of time,” he writes, “is dominated by kairos rather than chronos,” and the aesthetic result resembles “Christian and secular chiliasm, mystic experience during which time has a stop.”[23] In Schlegelian terms, the eternal moment is self-creating but not self-destroying. Neoplatonic Romanticism does not admit irony into this picture. The eternal moment, once attained, is self-sufficient, and the resumption of the passage of time (the moments that follow after the one in which eternity is discovered) does not figure sig­nificantly into the aesthetic/philosophic experience.

A complete refutation of the coadunative strategy would recuperate Kierkegaard’s demonic infinity. On this skeptical account, the only authentic temporality is awareness of human finitude as against an in­human horizon of infinite moments. Language cannot overcome this tem­poral infinity; attempts to do so are gestures, are rhetoric. Paul de Man describes this as the temporality of irony: “irony engenders a temporal sequence of acts of consciousness which is endless.”[24] In other words, an infinite (infinitely unstable, bottomless) irony underwrites his analysis: “The act of irony … reveals the existence of a temporality that is definitely not organic, in that it relates to its source only in terms of distance and difference and allows for no end, for no totality.”[25] Infinity, for de Man, is the temporal form of irony.

Problematically, de Man marshals Schlegel to his cause in order to deem “authentic” only the temporal. When de Man writes that Schlegelian “irony comes closer to the pattern of factual human experience and recap­tures some of the factitiousness of human existence as a succession of isolated moments lived by a divided self,”[26] this is in fact a “strong mis­reading” (a Bloomian “misprision”) of Schlegel. Indeed Schlegel thinks there is something eternal available to human consciousness, and that irony mediates between enthusiasm for and skepticism about this belief, mediates between eternity and infinity, between unity and dissolution in time. “In true irony there must be not only a striving for infinity but the possession of infinity.”[27]

This points to the third option for confronting atomized temporality. For the Schlegelian Romantic, the “authentic” is precisely the intermedi­ating position—an irony of temporality, not a temporality of irony. The atomized temporality of Schlegelian Romanticism is both self-creating (like the Neoplatonic) and self-destroying (like the skeptical). For this line of Romanticism, the poet’s opportunity to experience eternity in the iso­lated moment always remains bound to temporal crisis: the experience of eternity is itself (ironically) transient. The very moment that creates eternity in and of itself at that same moment destroys itself. Timelessness (eternity in the moment) paradoxically gives way again to the passage of time (an infinity of moments). Only irony allows the poet to mediate be­tween these two temporalities. And it is this mediation, operative in Schlegelian Romanticism, which I would term the irony of temporality.

The irony of temporality may now be viewed in its proper configura­tion. Poulet describes half the picture with regard to Romanticism and temporality (and errs whenever he generalizes his claims to “all Roman­tics”). De Man describes the other half of the picture (and errs in claiming authenticity for a skeptical/pessimistic view of temporality that Schlegel did not have). Only irony allows an intermediating point of view, allows a poet to activate both halves of the temporal predicament because a human consciousness has, on this model, access to eternity as well as to tempo­rality. Schlegelian irony in effect pre-deconstructs the temporal predica­ment; there is no need for the critical action of deconstruction after the fact.[28]

The following analysis of “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven´e…” will show that for Pushkin the imagination is neither coadunative nor wholly skeptical; it is precisely ironic. What emerges, therefore, when this imagi­nation contemplates temporality is both eternity and infinity—i.e., the poet’s speaking subject, along with the reader, becomes aware of the irony of temporality.


3. Pushkin’s Ironic Moment

The standard analysis of “Ia pomniu…” requires the “chudnoe mgnoven´e” to be a temporality free of irony. Only then can it be said that Pushkin arrives at the poem’s ending “with a feeling of life’s fullness.”[29] The “won­der” of the poem must be taken literally: “The renascence of wonder is one of the many definitions which have been suggested for Romanticism. ‘Ia pomniu’ is a supreme example in Russian of the wonder-working qualities produced for the heart and pen of a poet by ‘appearances’ of a human incarnation of beauty and inspiration.”[30] Only a sincerely “wondrous moment” enables a reawakening full of the vertical experience of the Absolute that experiential time offers (to a Neoplatonic Romantic); this is the pivotal event in the recuperation of creativity and vitality. The standard interpretation, in other words, begins where Poulet does:

We come here to the essential belief of Coleridge, and moreover of nearly all the Romanticists, the belief in the continued existence of the past, in the wonderful possibilities of its revival. Nothing is lost. All our life, and especially all our childhood, with all our per­ceptions, images and feelings, and whatever ideas we have had, persists in our mind; but as we are living in duration, it is not permitted to us to have anything but rare glimpses, disconnected reminiscences, of this immense treasure stored in a remote place in our soul.[31]

But this kind of Neoplatonic-Romantic foundation describes only the top half of the structure of Pushkin’s poem, its surface configuration. The “wonderful possibilities” of the revival of the past—and of the conse­quences of this revival on the human soul more generally—are certainly present in the poem. The interest of this essay is in exposing the ways in which the possibilities of atemporality and recuperation are anchored by an ironically contrasting picture.

Pushkin ironizes the experiential recuperation of time offered by the wondrous moment; no sooner has the “chudnoe mgnoven´e” reasserted itself outside the bounds of temporality (in eternity) than the quantitative force of temporality (infinity) intrudes. In other words the re-experience of moments of wonder (i.e., full vitality) are eternal-seeming but neverthe­less temporal. They pass. The experience does not lead to a feeling that the human mind is, in these moments, fully capable of a kind of human version of the divine Eternal Present. There is no such thing in Pushkin. These charged eternal moments are precisely “eternal”—in quotation marks. They pass, which undermines their eternity. They occur as Schlegel describes it: “Through [enthusiasm] the feeling of infinity is ad­mittedly very strong and stronger than that of finiteness; but because it does not endure, it is not suitable to restraining thoroughly the constant influence of the lower consciousness.”[32] Moments in Pushkin are not a nunc stans but a nunc fugit or, in more exact keeping with Schlegelian irony, a nunc stans/fugit. Eternity is always experienced in Pushkin’s lyric poetry simultaneously with an experiential/conceptual irony.

The irony of temporality which drives and controls the poem works on two levels. The first is the retroactive irony of “chudnoe.” One should sus­pect the “wondrousness” of this moment from the outset precisely because it is remembered: it is introduced indirectly, from a position of present-tense absence, rather than directly in the past tense, as experience. Nor does the remembrance give way to a lyrical re-presentation of the experi­ence of the moment; rather it is kept at an emotional and narrative dis­tance, and its transience is further highlighted by analogy with “mimolet­noe viden´e.” The temporal and experiential prolongation, in memory, of what was “chudnoe” only partly counterbalances this transience, only begins to compensate for absence: “Zvuchal mne dolgo golos nezhnyi” (and this resonance has ceased).[33] It is precisely Pushkin’s point that all this has been forgotten by the lyric poem’s speaking subject. Therefore a structural, rhythmic, and temporal break follows, all the more powerful for its understatement: “Shli gody.” The first two stanzas of the poem have built to this crucial phrase, where historical time disrupts and fully alters the poem’s mood and meaning. Time conceived as infinite intrudes on the apparently atemporal experience and puts it in question. In a final stroke, Pushkin deploys the poem’s fourth temporally-charged verb, “to forget,” emphasizing the temporal nature of those qualities of the addressee which were named four lines earlier: “I ia zabyl tvoi golos nezhnyi, / Tvoi nebesnye cherty.” At this point, what was “wondrous” about the moment has been resolutely undermined; evanescence trumps “wondrousness,” and the “chudnoe mgnoven´e” already retroactively appears as ironically “wondrous.”

It could be argued that the central temporal statement “shli gody”—in its simplicity and directness—dupes the reader into not registering its full import; its definitiveness resides in its understatement. It should also be pointed out that the temporal (or temporally-haloed) verbs are structur­ally and semantically the strongest verbs in the poem: pomniu, zvuchal, shli, zabyl. The verb iavilas¢ in line two is weak by comparison (essentially synonymous with byla). The verb snilis¢ is weak in context because in the wake of zvuchal, and as a visual restatement of the aural work of zvuchal, it loses force of impact. Rasseial pairs with zabyl in registering the tempo­rality of loss, but arrives as the continuation of a mildly enjambed line (“Bur´ poryv miatezhnyi / Rasseial prezhnie mechty”) and so stands weakly in the middle of that sentence, a position further weakened by the strength of the following verb, zabyl, which heads up and governs a double noun-phrase. It also seems non-accidental that of these verbs only zvuchal (along with its pair, snilis¢) is sensorially temporal (i.e., purely experi­ential); the others are experientially/ conceptually temporal.

The disparity between assertion and meaning not only accords with the tactics of Romantic irony in general but with Pushkin’s practice specifically. Monika Greenleaf (although she does not bring this insight to bear on her analysis of “Ia pomniu…”) describes “an ironic gap between what the speaker thinks he is saying and what the reader has pieced together,” a process she calls “the peculiarly Pushkinian elegy of dramatic self-deception, in which a speaker’s language betrays a knowledge he re­fuses to face consciously.”[34] The ironic gap appears precisely in the semantic distance between “chudnoe” and “ia zabyl.” To read the poem as a self-deceptive record of experience and memory (vis-à-vis the speaking subject, not Pushkin) not only seems reasonable, but explains the poem’s dramatic turn at “shli gody,” a turn about which the standard interpre­tations are conspicuously silent.

The poem’s second, and master, irony is that of the oscillation between gain and loss—an irony of temporality activated by repetition. The poem appears to begin with the full experience of creativity and vitality in the moment, lost over time and recaptured in the final two stanzas, which repeat—verbally and narratively—the crucial ingredients of the initial moment. But such a picture is misleading. In fact the poem begins from a position of present-tense loss, as noted above. Likewise, there is no com­pelling structural reason to take the positive ending as the poem’s point of thematic conclusion. In fact, given the retroactive irony of “chudnoe,” such an endpoint of meaning should be doubted. The poem’s very emphasis on alternation—the much-analyzed linguistic repetitions—strongly implies that loss and oblivion, too, will recur. In other words, absences frame the poem; and once this framing is recognized, the repetitions in the final stanzas (“I bozhestvo, i vdokhnoven´e …”) accrue a strong ironic colora­tion: deity and inspiration and life and tears and love are recuperated, but we may understand this to be a recapture as temporary as the original event. What follows is not merely the silence that follows every poem’s final stanza but a silence suggesting the larger, and permanent, loss of the wondrous moment.

The repetitions in this stanza, like the other repeated words and phrases in the poem, do not in fact constitute absolute repetitions but changed repetitions. They are changed precisely by the addition of irony; they are no longer meant in earnest.[35] Their status as changed repetition is emphasized by grammatical case: in stanza 4 the nouns all occur in the genitive case (in order to state their lack using the preposition bez); in stanza 6 they repeat changed into the nominative case (in order to express their ironic—because temporary—presence). Nothing can be fully recuper­ated, only echoed. Other repetitions in the poem display similar surface variation, calling attention to the differences of repetition (“Zvuchal … golos nezhnyi / zabyl tvoi golos nezhnyi; milye cherty / Tvoi nebesnye cherty”). The only repetition which retains the same verbal structure of its original is the two-and-a-half line statement of the addressee’s appear­ance: “iavilas´ ty, / Kak mimoletnoe viden´e, / Kak genii chistoi krasoty.” Here the difference is minimal: it is the temporal difference alone that distinguishes the two appearances.

Viewed from this angle, one may say that each repetition in the poem is, at the very least, changed by time itself—it occurs later than the original—and that this temporal change introduces the irony. The tem­poral context of each repetition is itself the irony of temporality. As Schlegel notes, “Irony is legitimate alternation, it is more than mere oscillation.”[36] The most significant changed repetition, that of the speak­ing subject’s recuperated vitality, reveals most plainly the Schlegelian irony alternating between the opportunity of eternity and the crisis of infinity. The poem, in other words, exploits the assumptions of temporal atomization. The moment, in its profundity of meaning for the speaking subject, is isolated out of its temporal flow (which is flow toward infinity): the wonder of the original meeting and of the addressee’s beauty (stanza 1) describe a very real experience, which stands out against the otherwise mundane flow of temporal events. In order to convey the immediacy of this experience, the moment is, in the poem’s siuzhet, described before the mundane flow of temporal events which depress the speaker (stanzas 2–4). The re-experience of the addressee’s presence (stanza 5) repeats the original wonder in a new temporal context—after the mundane events of the middle stanzas. The poem suggests, by ending here, the self-creation of eternity, a vertical permanent dimension in the experienced moment (“I serdtse b´etsia v upoen´e…”).[37] But of course the poem’s structure miti­gates against taking this atomization non-ironically. The apparently atemporal moment must be viewed as temporary because it passes, which is the only reason it can recur; because it is itself temporal (temporary). The eternal moment destroys itself. Its repetition is ironic because of this and leads us to read the moment as qualitatively eternal yet embedded in a quantitative temporal infinity. In short, Pushkin gives not only a good structural reason (the changed repetitions) but a good philosophical rea­son (the irony of temporality) for understanding the final stanza as a temporary recuperation. Romantic irony mediates between the temporal creation of the eternal and its destruction in the infinite. It is precisely a repetition of difference (and not a repetition of the same—to use Gilles Deleuze’s terms) which frames the poem and exposes the irony at the poem’s core. Irony underscores the repetition of difference, and the dif­ferences enable the poem’s irony.

In the end, then, memory of the “wondrous moment” provides imper­manent access to the absolute atemporality of eternity for the poem’s speaking subject. The moment is shown to be a fully temporal moment whose experienced eternity passes and is forgotten. If recaptured, this moment is recaptured at a different time, with a changed meaning; it is a different moment, an echo rather than an exact repetition, and it too will pass. The atomization of temporality which underwrites the isolation of this moment is precisely the action that ironizes (enables and destroys) its vertical dimension.

Good reasons (i.e., not authority or the primacy fallacy) underwrite the dominance of the standard, positive, non-ironic interpretation of “Ia pomniu…,” the main one being biographism or what might more speci­fically be called the A. P. Kern factor. The critical lines are fairly clearly drawn on this point. Some commentators (Modzalevskii, Pletnev, Zhir­kova) acknowledge a strong correlation between the poem and the poet’s biography: “In many respects the poem is autobiographical.”[38] A second group of commentators (Stepanov, Shaw, Vickery) acknowledge the con­nection with caveats about taking this biographism too far: “Only hyper­trophy of the biographical method has been a mistake, turning it into an end in itself, when attempts have been made to reconstruct the poet’s psychology or to explain the meaning of the ideas of his works with the help of biographical facts.”[39] All these commentators, however, agree that biographism supports the standard reading of the poem, based on the non-ironic “motif of rebirth, of the heart and of the poetic gift, under the reverential contemplation of feminine beauty.”[40] A clear problem with this reading of the poem, besides the failure to recognize the poem’s central irony, is a pervasive unwillingness to separate Pushkin, the poet, from the poem’s speaking subject, as if they were one and the same at all points. Zhirkova is representative when she describes stanza 5 as: “a description of the awakening of creativity in the poet’s soul, the arrival of inspira­tion.”[41] Even if one could say this was true of Pushkin at the time of the poem’s composition, that is a separate matter which in any case does not warrant this kind of unacknowledged sliding between the two personalities.

Apparently opposed to these critics, a third camp of commentators writes against biographism as the basis of analysis. Veresaev does this cautiously; Beletskii and Tomashevskii do so more aggressively. Yet even their analyses of the poem (and their generally scrupulous separation of poet from speaking subject) depend latently on biographism: not only in the sense of needing biographism to push against, as the negative ground of their argument, but also in the sense that they find the very same pat­tern (moment of vitality; depression and forgetfulness; moment of reawak­ening) which Pushkin’s biography makes almost impossible not to read into the poem. Rejection of the A. P. Kern factor leads these commentators to a meta-poetic reading of “Ia pomniu…”: it becomes a poem about the process of poetic creativity—thus leading directly back to Pushkin himself. Stepanov summarizes: “The ‘awakening’ of the poet’s soul is not only an awakening of his feeling, but at the same time an awakening of creative inspiration.”[42] The pattern of even the anti-biographical analysis cor­responds biographically to the fact that Pushkin, depressed by his exile, wrote this apparently restorative poem. The anti-biographical reading re­mains, at bottom, a variation on the standard story of recuperation. By contrast, an ironic reading of “Ia pomniu…” actually evades the pattern that biographism (or anti-biographism) makes so compelling.

The intertextual presence of Zhukovskii, in the recurrent phrase “genii chistoi krasoty,” has also led commentators to the standard non-ironic reading, even when remaining alert to the role of temporality in Pushkin’s poem. The result is an assertion that conforms (only) with Poulet’s Neoplatonic-Romantic temporal overcoming—i.e., with half of Pushkin’s poem: “The memory of the romantic is as if positioned outside the common temporal flow, it is capable of overcoming any worldly circumstance, is inaccessible to the influence of time, it abides in an achronal condition.”[43] This is manifestly false for “Ia pomniu…,” as the poem pivots precisely on a lapse of memory through (within) time. Such a reading, though it fore­grounds the temporal, overlooks or suppresses the poem’s irony.

The irony of temporality in Pushkin’s poem has also been suppressed by conversion into a less equivocal phenomenon. J. Thomas Shaw converts the ironic paradox of the poem’s temporal problematic into “oxymoron” (more precisely: the rhetorical figure of apophasis): “the double-time structure of the poem—the past in chronological sequence and the past as remembered in the present—leads to an oxymoron: it takes the poem to the point that the poet forgot, and then tells us (and thus poetically re­stores) what he forgot.”[44] Like Shaw, Irene Masing-Delic comes close to acknowledging the ironic dialectic of the poem: “Understanding and accepting the duality of time (as creative memory and meaningless flux) and the duality of his identity (poet and ordinary man), the poet trusts in the principle of alternation, which sometimes puts him above, sometimes below the average man.”[45] But Masing-Delic remains too committed to a one-sided non-ironic Romanticism to see in this “principle of alternation” anything other than a “triumph” of simple Neoplatonic Romantic recovery[46]—though she has very nearly described the transcendental buffoonery of ironic intermediation. The dynamic back-and-forth of Pushkin’s poem (a poem with a noted lack of specificity in its details) is itself the pattern and the point: loss of vitality and creativity will recur, as will experiences of their recuperation.


4. Pushkin, Tiutchev, Blok, Brodsky

Why has Pushkin’s ironic stance in “Ia pomniu…” gone unnoticed? Even critics who are rigorous about defining Pushkin’s Romanticism, such as Victor Terras, tend to simplify the temporal problematic in his poetry to an either/or proposition (either kairos or chronos), leading to reductions such as: “Pushkin’s time concept is ‘classical’ (not different from, say, Derzhavin’s), not ‘Romantic.’”[47] Pushkin’s style may be largely culpable for these either/or reductions about temporality and Romanticism—particu­larly with regard to “Ia pomniu…,” where the surface meaning appears translucent and lacking in irony. The situation is not unlike that with regard to “Ia vas liubil…,” another poem cast in generalized language and lacking in imagery. As Jakobson describes it, “Ia vas liubil…” “intention­ally leaves open the possibility for completely different interpretations of the last verse,” one positive and sincere, another negative to the point of sarcasm.[48] The two interpretations can both stand only if mediated by an ironic authorial voice.

Significantly, “Ia pomniu…” is not an anomaly in Pushkin’s lyric works. The poem closest to “Ia pomniu…” is the 1817 lyric “K nei.” This poem also reads, superficially, as a depiction of the speaking subject’s recuperation of vitality and creativity. However, like “Ia pomniu…,” its structure mitigates against this reading and suggests the irony of temporality. Time in “K nei” does not pattern in repeating/differing mo­ments but simply bears life and youth inevitably toward old age, creative impotence, and death. The poem’s first twelve lines evoke youth in the lyrical mood of Zhukovskii. The poem turns away from this at line 13 with the exclamation “Naprasno!” The next four lines are devoted to the loss of youth, vitality and creativity, and the final twelve lines of the poem depict their sudden resurgence. Here, unlike in “Ia pomniu…”, the presence, loss and resurgence of vitality and creativity are essentially “uncaused”; they wax and wane not from external pressures but from internal cycles, naturally, as a fact of aging. Therefore, the temporality of “K nei” is forward flow only; there is no crucial “moment” at stake, no atomization of temporality.

The refusal of atomization in “K nei” stands as the first clue that Pushkin’s goal is not a Neoplatonic escape from the vicissitudes of destructive unidirectional temporality. He has refused the very basis of this escape. On the other hand, neither does Pushkin resort to the “adop­tion of a nihilistic standpoint in which all art would be destroyed.”[49] The poem remains ambiguous. The immediate overall sense of the final lines suggests recuperation, and the last verb of the poem is the first verb in the present tense (nesu), which seems to leave the losses of the past behind and bear success into the present. But the elegiac mood of the poem as a whole, coupled with the final gesture of the poem (a gesture of resignation, the speaking subject laying down his lyre), seems to retain an awareness of aging, diminishing vitality, an inescapable waning of creativity. The positive ending stands, but mediated. Resurgences and relapses may both be counted on in the future. Ambiguity inheres in the temporality of the poem, and it is precisely Pushkin’s (not the speaking subject’s) ironic stance which simultaneously creates and de-creates the sense of recup­eration, the sense of resisting temporal flow.

In general, Pushkin makes use of Romantic irony, in the Schlegelian sense, from very early in his career. Another poem of 1817, “Ne ugrozhai lenivtsu molodomu…,” exemplifies this. The poem is anti-Byronic (“Bez­vremennoi konchiny ia ne zhdu”) and anti-elegiacally points up the absurdity of lamenting lost youth when one has, in fact, seen only the beginning of life (“Ia zhizni videl lish´ nachalo”). This brief poem depends, for its impact, on the reader recognizing the Romantic conventions that the speaking subject subverts. In turn, this subversion demonstrates the speaker’s own awareness of convention, as he takes the poem through a metatextual turn and breaks down the artificial boundaries of a sincere text, recalling Schlegel’s formulation of irony as “permanent parabasis.”[50]

Showing a similar alignment with Schlegelian Romantic irony, Push­kin’s early poems frequently activate, only to refuse, a Romantic sublime, as “Pogaslo dnevnoe svetilo…” (1820). Confronted with a sweeping land­scape—a foggy sunset at the edge of the sea—Pushkin’s speaking subject discovers no eternal depths of self, no feeling of eternity and fullness, no “exciting and apparently novel moment of heightened or intensified consciousness.”[51] The natural or Kantian sublime fails to emerge. Instead, the speaking subject’s soul, in this presence, in this present, endures a cycle of agitation and calming-down (“Dusha kipit i zamiraet”). He wishes not to recall his past (youth, country, lost loves), and yet the past remains (“prezhnikh serdtsa ran, / Glubokikh ran liubvi, nichto ne izlechilo”). Crucially, the past remains resolutely past; it does not manifest itself in the present except as traces (wounds). Even as the speaking subject turns against the Romantic convention of lamenting lost youth, he uses it as the setup to undermine its value—he refuses to “eternalize” his lost youth; he refuses the action of temporal atomization. The possibility of vertical eternity in the sublime or in memory simply does not emerge.

The embrace of an ecstatic/creative moment without a mitigating Romantic irony is less characteristic of Pushkin than of his contempo­raries such as Zhukovskii and Batiushkov. Here the “genius of pure beauty” is in fact transcendent, in the Neoplatonic sense, and never tran­scended by irony, in the Schlegelian sense. In Zhukovskii’s lyric poems, the past tends to appear as the “milyi gost´, sviatoe Prezhde” (“Pesnia”), and the “genii chistoi krasoty” prompts the exhortation of memory’s non-ironic power over the past: “Vse, chto ot milykh, temnykh, iasnykh / Minuvshikh dnei ia sokhranil” (“Ia Muzu iunuiu, byvalo…”).[52] Inspiration and memory link together in the overcoming of temporality along a ver­tical escape route. The intertextual presence of this “genii chistoi krasoty” licenses much of the nonironic understanding of “Ia pomniu…” by way of Zhukovskii’s nonironic Romantic posture. Pushkin’s conception of the “genius” of inspiration could hardly have been further from this or from Batiushkov’s equally nonironic “genius,” the “pamiat´ serdtsa” which pro­motes his own temporal overcoming: “Ia pomniu golos milykh slov, / Ia pomniu ochi golubye, / Ia pomniu lokony zlatye…” (“Moi genii”).[53]

Pushkin’s own inspiration is, by contrast, temporal and ironic. Instead of temporal overcoming, Pushkin tends, as in “Ia pomniu…,” to depict temporally-bound cycles of inspiration and anti-inspiration, the latter anthropomorphized into an anti-Muse, a “Demon” haunting Pushkin’s speaking subjects as early as 1823 (in a poem bearing that as its title). Similarly, in “Razgovor knigoprodavtsa s poètom” the bookseller, in his final spoken lines, convinces the poet to hand over his new poems in part by noting the cycling nature of inspiration.

The temporal boundedness of creativity, for Pushkin, is typically (if tacitly) discussed with regard only to “Prorok” and “Poèt,” but its presence in fact pervades his lyric poems. “Zemlia i more,” to cite another example roughly contemporaneous with “Ia pomniu…,” presents a speaking subject willfully setting aside the tumult of inspiration because, first of all, crea­tivity is not peaceful, and secondly, because creativity is not sustainable. Being a poet is a vocation for Pushkin, not a life-mode; there exist cycles of downtime between the worries and work of creativity. When the poet is “being” a poet, he may be seen to transcend ordinary reality, as in “Poèt,” but otherwise the poet is perfectly ordinary (even less than ordinary). Roman Struc recognizes the specifically Romantic irony at play here. He notes that it “is revealing that critics have arrived at diametrically oppo­site views of what constitutes Pushkin’s view of the poet… [M]y contention is that Pushkin himself shuttles between those two views and that his ambivalence is part of his attitude,” concluding that “in Pushkin’s lyrical poetry dealing with the poet’s rôle … one can legitimately speak of Romantic irony, at times in the sense formulated by Schlegel.”[54] Struc discusses not only “Prorok” and “Poèt” in this connection, but “Arion” and “Poèt i tolpa”—i.e., the major peaks of Pushkin’s late creative expressions on the (temporal) nature of creativity.

I would extend and specify Struc’s position and say that with regard to Pushkin’s lyric poetry (early and late), one can speak of Romantic irony in Schlegel’s sense most readily when temporality is at issue. In these poems, Pushkin’s speaking subject sees and describes both a creative and a non­creative mode, but it is Pushkin’s master-view, not merely of both modes, but of the temporality of these two modes—the transcendent poetic and the mundane nonpoetic—that is ironic. In short, the irony of temporality underwrites Pushkin’s basic notion of creativity and motivates, at both a philosophical and an aesthetic level, his refusal to commit to either one of the options afforded, the vertical transcendence of creative success or the horizontal anguish of recurring failure.

The irony of temporality, argued here to pervade Pushkin’s lyric poems but that stand most visibly in “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven´e…,” may also be seen in the legacy of later poems, by other poets, which inter­textually engage with Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu….” As a final look at the irony of temporality, I will sketch Pushkin’s influence on four poems by three poets: Tiutchev, Blok and Brodsky.

Tiutchev wrote a pair of poems indebted to “Ia pomniu….” The first, composed between 1834 and 1836, is the untitled “Ia pomniu vremia zolotoe…,” whose first line clearly echoes Pushkin.[55] As with Pushkin’s poem, the biographical facts surrounding Tiutchev’s “Ia pomniu vremia zolotoe…” have tended to mark the beginning and the end of the critical commentary. The poem is dedicated to an early love of Tiutchev’s, the Countess Amalia Maksimilianovna Krüdener, née Lörchenfeld. The two had met in 1822 in Munich, and in 1825 she had married a Russian diplo­mat, Baron A. S. Krüdener.[56] Some twelve to fourteen years later, then, Tiutchev composed this first of two poems to his own “A. K.”

The poem’s structure differs from Pushkin’s and yet does not put Tiutchev in line with the typical Neoplatonic “Ia pomniu” poem. The Neo­platonic tradition finds triumph in poetic memory’s ability to re-presence the past, apparently disobeying the laws of temporality. In Tiutchev’s poem, by contrast, the present tense barely exists, and it functions only as a springboard into the memory. The entire poem after the first two lines conveys the past in the past tense, an implicit acknowledgment of the tem­poral barrier between an event in the past and a present memory of it. The poem is not a Neoplatonic Romantic bringing-to-presence; it is simply an elegy about what has been lost. This emerges clearly in the poem’s final lines: “I sladko zhizni bystrotechnoi / Nad nami proletala ten¢.” Whether this “shadow of transient life” passing above the pair is a present-tense retrojection into the memory or the recuperation of a darker awareness that the speaking subject had had at the time, it contrasts sharply with the careless happiness that pervades the rest of that remembered day and casts an ironic shadow over the poem. Tiutchev does not follow Pushkin in laying bare the Romantic device of temporal atomization, but by his own refusal of it (and the Neoplatonism that it would license), Tiutchev’s pos­ture may be said to retain a mobility about the permanence and transience of this remembered day. This mobility may be a gentler shade of irony than Pushkin’s, but the lineage of Tiutchev’s poem is clearly Pushkinian, clearly ironic-Romantic.

Tiutchev’s second poem to Baroness Krüdener was written in 1870 (some forty-eight years after he originally met her). This is the famous poem “K. B.” (“Ia vstretil vas i vse byloe…”). In 1870 Tiutchev went to Karlsbad for hydropathic treatment and encountered Amalia Krüdener there (with her second husband, Count N. V. Adlerberg). On July 26 the two took a walk together; Tiutchev then returned to his room and wrote the poem.[57] The biographical parallel with Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven´e” is therefore even stronger: a second meeting prompts a poetic reminiscence about the original encounter.

Because of this biographism (overt or latent), Tiutchev’s poem has been treated in its Pushkinian context by several commentators—i.e., on the basis of the standard positive interpretation of Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu….” Pletnev and Masing-Delic are representative; the latter notes that the poet (not the speaking subject!) “is delighted at the possibility to let memory ‘speak,’ bringing about a change from otzhit´ to ozhit´” and sees in the poem “the conquest of memory and the poetic imagination over the indifferent and all-leveling flow of time.”[58] But does Tiutchev’s poem really depict the atemporal (Neoplatonic) triumph of memory and creativity?

First of all, Tiutchev’s poem does not depict the past encounter in any detail, merely the effects of having a shared past with a woman the speak­ing subject meets in the present (stanzas 2–4). He looks upon his addressee’s “sweet features” in the present (and present-tense) and acknowledges the “long-forgotten rapture” of being in her presence. Like the Pushkin poem whose key words (upoen´e, milye cherty) it echoes, Tiutchev’s poem admits the temporal gap (davno zabytym) between past and present—and does not bridge it, except to say that the resonance of the addressee within the speaking subject had not quieted down entirely, a contradiction of the earlier “long-forgotten rapture.” This is the inner­most contradiction in an outwardly spiraling series of temporal contradic­tions. The poem’s central metaphor, of a spring wind intruding in late autumn, represents an allegorical temporal disruption: youth appearing in old age. At this spiral of meaning, it seems that the past (spring/youth) has re-attained presence in the present (autumn/old age) in keeping with Neoplatonic hopes for escaping temporal flow. However, the allegory, barely unfurled, immediately undergoes a dramatic reduction: from dni to chas. Masing-Delic is alert to this, noting that the “duration of the [temporal] triumph may be very short,” yet she reads nothing further—nothing ironic—into this overt paradox. Finally, at the outermost spiral of meaning, the encounter as described betrays an internal conflict, in this way: the present encounter with the addressee is recounted in a past-tense frame (“Ia vstretil vas…”; and concluding the poem, “Tut zhizn´ zagovorila vnov´”), while the effects of the past (and that past itself, insofar as it may be said to be brought to presence in the “gust of wind” and “spirit fullness” of stanza 3) are described in the present-tense center of the poem (“Byvaiut dni… Smotriu na milye cherty”). The tenses that motivate the poem reverse common sense: present for past and past for present.

These layered temporal contradictions in Tiutchev’s poem do not allow for an unambiguously positive interpretation but signal instead the pres­ence of Romantic irony. Tiutchev’s poem unfolds in an ironic mode which demands Schlegelian “agility”: temporality simultaneously creates and destroys itself, both in the grammatical past and present and in the rela­tive past and present of the poem’s described events. What results is an elegy that has ebullience at its center but produces an elaborate twist on the Neoplatonic-Romantic formula of “Ia pomniu,” converting it into a past tense “Ia vspomnil” precisely for the recording of a further-past event (which is then ironically conveyed in the present-tense). Where Pushkin used atomization and the repetition of difference to explode the Neo­platonic “Ia pomniu” formula from within, Tiutchev finds his own means of subverting this convention but arrives at the same paradox, the same irony: temporal escape is inescapably temporal.

Thirty-eight years after Tiutchev wrote “K. B.,” Aleksandr Blok modeled his poem “O doblestiakh, o podvigakh, o slave…” on Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu….” Like Pushkin’s poem, Blok’s creates a verbal frame by the partial repetition of phrases from the first stanza in the last. Like Pushkin’s poem, Blok’s insists on a central forgetting of the beloved (“I ia zabyl prekrasnoe litso”).[59] And like Pushkin’s six-stanza poem, Blok’s six-stanza poem hinges on an abrupt temporal passage described succinctly at the start of stanza three (“Leteli dni”). There, however, the similarities end. Blok’s poem is related entirely in the past tense, and this is telling, for his poem insists unambiguously on temporal breach: the past cannot be recovered. The central attempt at recovery occurs at the structural center of the poem: “I vspomnil ia tebia pred analoem, / I zval tebia, kak molodost¢ svoiu… // Ia zval tebia, no ty ne oglianulas¢.” The past, in the figure of the addressee, literally turns its back on the present: “Ty v sinii plashch pechal¢no zavernulas¢.” Thus the poem’s repetitions of difference in its final stanza (“Uzh ne mechtat´… o slave” and “so stola”) are not only changed by negation but definitively altered by time (they occur later and do not reconnect the past with the present). By insisting one-sidedly on the triumph of temporality, Blok’s poem erases the irony that moved Pushkin’s poem (and Tiutchev’s pair), thereby converting the temporality of irony into a fallen Neoplatonism, a Romantic failure to attain non-ironic temporal overcoming. Blok’s poem stands closer to Zhukovskii than to Pushkin. (As Blok himself noted in his autobiography: “Zhukovskii was my first inspiration.”[60])

Sixty-six years after Blok wrote “O doblestiakh…,” Joseph Brodsky extended the intertextual life of Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu…” in his heavily allusive 1974 cycle of poems “Dvadtsat´ sonetov k Marii Stiuart.”[61] Brod­sky works toward Pushkin by way of Tiutchev’s “K. B.,” which he partially cites in Sonnet 1. Later, in Sonnet 4, Brodsky’s speaking subject makes reference to a woman’s “obshchie cherty” which must, in context, recall the “milye cherty” of both Pushkin’s and Tiutchev’s addressees. Sonnet 4 alludes also to Blok by way of a woman who departs wearing a mackintosh (“ushla … v makintoshe”) much like the beloved in Blok’s poem. Sonnet 1, however, engages its precursor texts most fully and will be the focus here.

Brodsky cites Tiutchev’s “K. B.” (with quotation marks) in lines 10–11 of Sonnet 1, and the reader then retroactively detects Tiutchev in line 4 (“i ozhivish´, kak statuia, sady?”) and more obviously in line 9 (“vstretil Vas”). The master theme of the cycle, exemplified and ironized in Sonnet 1, is art’s tendency to idealize, especially when the creative impulse is memory. Brodsky’s speaking subject sits, in Sonnet 1, in the Jardin du Luxembourg of Paris, where he observes a statue of Mary Queen of Scots. This stirs memories of a Zarah Leander film about the doomed queen, and a kind of layered ekphrasis unfolds from there: Zarah Leander as Mary steps down off-screen, and out of the speaker’s memory, into the present and becomes the statue (described in the poem). Surprisingly, Mary revivifies the garden by this multi-media shift: “dvinesh´sia s ekrana / i ozhivish´, kak statuia, sady?”

At this point, one-third of the way into the sonnet, the power of art seems demonstrated: its life-like depictions may bring life. Time may be overcome. Yet as lines 9–14 unwind their complex syntax, they unwind also a complex meaning, full of self-creating and self-undermining irony:

Где встретил Вас. И в силу этой встречи,
и так как «всe былое ожило
в отжившем сердце», в старое жерло
вложив заряд классической картечи,
я трачу что осталось русской речи
на Bаш анфас и матовые плечи.

The Tiutchev quotation is, on the one hand, in keeping with art’s power to revivify. On the other hand, the quotation marks seem, in light of the whole sonnet, to qualify—to ironize—the earnest half of the Romantic (and ultimately ironic) picture. Brodsky intends the Tiutchev citation to be taken both seriously and ironically. The speaking subject refers to this allusion dismissively (citing Khodasevich in the process) as “classical grapeshot” stuffed into “an old muzzle,” by which he means his mouth (zherlo). The sonnet’s closing couplet, in keeping with genre expectations, reveals the poem’s meaning in summation, and that meaning runs exactly counter to the poem’s beginning: Russian speech is “used up” in the mea­ger description of the statue. This is tantamount to an assertion of artistic impotence, which is to say that the poem’s skeptical conclusion contradicts the ideal creative power expressed in its opening. The speaking subject, in other words, ironically mediates between these two positions, and he navi­gates this complex verbal self-creation/self-destruction by using Tiutchev’s (and Pushkin’s) ironic intermediation. Brodsky, in short, has generalized the irony of temporality into a broader irony of idealization.

The intertextual “afterlife” of Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu…,” then, is reveal­ing. With the exception of Blok, the poets who encode Pushkin’s model tend also to encode the irony of temporality. Blok’s poem veers from Pushkin’s influential paradigm in aligning its meaning exclusively with skepticism and losing, thereby, the irony of temporality. Tiutchev and Brodsky, on the other hand, preserve the irony of temporality. Tiutchev varies Pushkin’s irony, and Brodsky generalizes it (in a manner perfectly in keeping with the Neoplatonic/Schlegelian contours at stake in the earlier poems). But Pushkin, Tiutchev, and Brodsky all deploy the irony of temporality in similar fashion: each of their poems appears to read as positive restoration, yet countervailing ironies signal a latent triumph of transience over eternity. More important than the “outcome” of this aesthetic/philosophical “struggle” between eternity and infinity, however, is the struggle itself: each poem depicts above all the ironic motion of intermediation between idealism (eternity in the moment) and skepticism (a horizon of infinite temporal moments). Both are necessary.

This intermediation also appears in numerous other lyric poems of Pushkin’s which treat the topic of temporality or temporalize the topic of creativity. Pushkin’s ironic temporality supports a wider generalization: that his brand of Romanticism clearly belongs to the ironic, Schlegelian mode of Romanticism. This brand of Romanticism, by its Schlegelian “agility,” resists deconstruction because its intermediation of idealism and skepticism has effectively pre-deconstructed the temporal problematic even as it constructs the problem verbally. In so doing, such poems effort­lessly (and appropriately) blend philosophy and poetry, conception and experience.


Indiana University



Beaver, Aaron. "Alexander Pushkin and the Irony of Temporality." Pushkin Review 8-9 (2005-06): 1-25.

[1] See, for example: B. L. Modzalevskii, “Anna Petrovna Kern,” in Pushkin (St. Petersburg: Izdanie Brokgauz-Efron, 1907), 3: 585–606; B. Tomashevskii, Pushkin (Moscow: Izdatel´stvo AN SSSR, 1961), 2: 73–85; R. V. Pletnev, O lirike A. S. Push­kina (Montreal, 1963), 69–72; A. I. Beletskii, “Iz nabliudenii nad stikhotvornymi tekstami A. S. Pushkina,” in Izbrannye trudy po teorii literatury, ed. N. D. Gudzii (Moscow: Prosveshchenie, 1964), 386–402; Iu. M. Lotman, “Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin: Biografiia pisatelia,” in Pushkin (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 1995), 101, 107; Walter N. Vickery, “Anna Petrovna Kern: Let Us Be More Gallant,” SEEJ 12: 3 (1968): 311–22; J. Thomas Shaw, “Theme and Imagery in Pushkin’s “Ja pomnju chudnoe mgnoven´e,” SEEJ 14: 2 (1970): 135–44; N. A. Zhirkova, “‘Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven´e…’ – shedevr pushkinskoi liriki,” in Pushkin na poroge XXI veka: Provintsial´nyi kontekst, vyp. 3, ed. E. P. Titkov (Arzamas: AGPI, 2001), 61–72.

[2] Lilian Furst, Fictions of Romantic Irony (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984), 29.

[3] Anne K. Mellor, English Romantic Irony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), 5–6. Furst makes an almost identical distinction (Fictions, 227–29).

[4] Victor Terras, “Pushkin and Romanticism,” in Alexander Pushkin: Symposium II (Columbus, OH: Slavica, 1980), 52.

[5] Friedrich Schlegel, Ideen 98, Kritische Friedrich-Schlegel-Ausgabe, vol. 2, ed. Ernst Behler (Munich: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 1967), 266. All translations are mine. Hereafter referred to by volume number as KFSA.

[6] Hans Eichner, Friedrich Schlegel (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970), 72.

[7] Lyceums-Fragment 48, KFSA 2: 153.

[8] Lyceums-Fragment 108, KFSA 2: 160.

[9] Eichner, Schlegel, 71 (italics added).

[10] Ernst Behler and Roman Struc, introduction to Dialogue on Poetry and Literary Aphorisms, by Friedrich Schlegel (University Park: The Pennsylvania State Uni­versity Press, 1968), 40 (italics added). Cf. Eichner, Schlegel, 70; Mellor, Romantic Irony, 5–16; and see next note. Gary J. Handwerk follows Behler and Struc in carefully distinguishing between multiple types of irony outlined in Schlegel’s writings but then upholds Kierkegaard’s critique of Romantic irony precisely on grounds that conflate these distinct types of irony (Irony and Ethics in Narrative: From Schlegel to Lacan [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985], 44–45).

[11] D. C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen & Co., 1969), 200. Muecke reiterates and clarifies his position on 215.

[12] Lyceums-Fragment 42, KFSA 2: 152.

[13] Ideen 69, KFSA 2: 263.

[14] Lyceums-Fragment 37, KFSA 2: 151; Lyceums-Fragment 28, KFSA 2: 149; Athenäums-Fragment 116, KFSA 2: 182–83.

[15] Athenäums-Fragment 116, KFSA 2: 182–83.

[16] Georges Poulet, “Timelessness and Romanticism,” Journal of the History of Ideas 15: 1 (1954): 3–22; and Studies in Human Time, trans. Elliott Coleman (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956).

[17] Poulet, “Timelessness,” 4–6. The citation is from p. 6.

[18] The concept of “atomization” is taken from Aaron Beaver, “Time in the Lyric Poetry of Joseph Brodsky” (PhD diss., University of Chicago, 2003), 65–136.

[19] Poulet, “Timelessness,” 7. I borrow the terms “conceptual” and “experiential” from Staffan Bergston, Time and Eternity: A Study in the Structure and Symbol­ism of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (Stockholm: Svenska Bokförlaget, 1960), 16. The distinction is fundamental to discussions of lyric temporality. Bergston simply seems to make the clearest terminological distinction.

[20] Poulet, “Timelessness,” 7.

[21] Nikolai Berdiaev admits this quantitative-to-qualitative shift openly and in the same work speaks of a “vertical” and “horizontal” axis of temporality, terminology that I have borrowed here; see “O rabstve i svobode cheloveka: Opyt personalisti­cheskoi filosofii,” in Tsarstvo dukha i tsarstvo Kesaria, ed. P. V. Alekseev (Moscow: Respublika, 1995), 157–58.

[22] Poulet, “Timelessness,” 8–10. The coadunative imagination forms the many into the one (converts multiplicity into unity), enabling Neoplatonic Romantic poets to discover infinity in (within) eternity.

[23] Terras, “Pushkin and Romanticism,” 50.

[24] Paul de Man, “The Rhetoric of Temporality,” in Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 220.

[25] Ibid., 222.

[26] Ibid., 226.

[27]KFSA 16, ed. Ernst Behler (München: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 1981), 126 (italics added).

[28] Mellor makes a similar point (Romantic Irony, 5).

[29] Tomashevskii, Pushkin, 2: 75.

[30] Shaw, “Theme and Imagery,” 141.

[31] Poulet, “Timelessness,” 11 (italics added).

[32]KSFA 12, ed. Jean-Jacques Anstett (Munich: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 1964), 396.

[33] All citations of Pushkin’s poems are taken from Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 19 vols. (Moscow: Voskresen´e, 1994–97).

[34] Monika Greenleaf, Pushkin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 78. Greenleaf uses Schlegel and de Man to discuss “Ia pomniu…” in the context of the Romantic trope of frag­mentation, overlapping this essay’s notion of the irony of temporality in suggestive ways, but ultimately Greenleaf’s concern is quite different, as she seeks to isolate the “psychological process of creation” of an “empirical self” as it enacts its lin­guistic predicament of mourning and release, to which she applies Schlegelian irony’s “double or mobile awareness” (48, 49).

[35] In general, the poem’s changed repetitions are inadequately analyzed: their obvious grammatical and temporal differences are ignored (Tomashevskii, Push­kin, 2: 83–84), subordinated to the theme of reawakening (N. L. Stepanov, Lirika Pushkina: Ocherki i etiudy [Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel´, 1959], 342), or treated as benign to a non-ironic analysis of the poem (Michael M. Nayden, “Pushkin’s Lyric Memory,” SEEJ 28: 1 [1984]: 7).

[36] KFSA 18, ed. Ernst Behler (München: Verlag Ferdinand Schöningh, 1963), 77.

[37] Stepanov, similarly, views the word “upoen´e” as a locus of the ideal in the poem (Lirika,341). But his analysis does not account for the non-ideal.

[38] Zhirkova, “Shedevr,” 61.

[39] Stepanov, Lirika,327–28.

[40] Pletnev, O lirike,125.

[41] Zhirkova, “Shedevr,” 65 (italics added).

[42] Stepanov, Lirika, 339 (note the conflation of speaking subject with poet).

[43] A. A. Smirnov, “Romanticheskaia mediatsiia v lirike A. S. Pushkina,” in Pushkin: Sbornik statei (Moscow: Izdatel¢stvo MGU, 1999), 48. Even allowing for the differences between Pushkin and Zhukovskii, as Smirnov, Stepanov, and others do, the intertextual approach highlights a contrast between the real and the ideal, conforming to the standard Neoplatonic story.

[44] Shaw, “Theme and Imagery,” 138.

[45] Irene Masing-Delic, “Three Poems about Two Meetings,” Russian Literature 9 (1975): 43. Cf. A. Chicherin, “O stile pushkinskoi liriki,” in V mire Pushkina: Sbornik statei (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel¢, 1974), 302–35; Smirnov, “Romanti­cheskaia mediatsiia,” 40–50.

[46] “Reunion consists of both a return of memory and the return of the beloved; it is both spiritual and ‘real’” (Masing-Delic, “Three Poems,” 39). “Both [Pushkin’s] ‘K***’ and [Tiutchev’s] ‘K. B.’ end in triumph: in both separation is overcome and the joys of the first meeting in one way or another retrieved” (47).

[47] Terras, “Pushkin and Romanticism,” 52.

[48] Roman Jakobson, “Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry,” in Language in Literature (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 1987), 131.

[49] Muecke, Compass,215.

[50]KFSA 18: 85.

[51] Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psy­chology of Transcendence (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 13.

[52] V. A. Zhukovskii, Sobranie sochinenii v chetyrekh tomakh, vol. 1 (Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel´stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1959–60).

[53] K. N. Batiushkov, Opyty v stikhakh i proze (Moscow: Nauka, 1977), 220.

[54] Roman S. Struc, “Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol: Ironic Modes in Russian Romanticism,” in Romantic Irony, ed. Frederick Garber (Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 1988), 243–44 and 247 respectively.

[55] Citations of Tiutchev’s poems are taken from F. I. Tiutchev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v shesti tomakh, vols. 1–2 (Moscow: Klassika, 2002–03).

[56] Though the biographical information generally agrees from edition to edition, I rely here on Vosem´desiat zvezd iz galaktiki Tiutcheva, ed. Aleksandr Pokidov (Moscow: Poligraf Atel´ePlius, 2003), 271–72.

[57] Pokidov, Vosem´desiat zvezd, 284.

[58] Masing-Delic, “Three Poems,” 43 and 46 respectively. See Pletnev, O lirike, 127–30.

[59] A. A. Blok, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v dvadtsati tomakh, vol. 3 (Mos­cow: Nauka, 1997–2003).

[60] Aleksandr Blok, Sobranie sochinenii v vos¢mi tomakh (Moscow: Gosudarstven­noe izdatel´stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1963), 7: 12.

[61] Iosif Brodskii, Sochineniia Iosifa Brodskogo, ed. G.F. Komarov (St. Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1997), 3: 63–71.