Articles, PR 10 (2007)

Another Look at the Poetics of Exile: Pushkin's Reception of Ovid, 1821-24

 David Houston*

 

     In 8 A.D., Publius Ovidius Naso was relegated to the far corner of the Roman Empire to a small city on the Black Sea, where he spent the last ten years of his life. Some 1800 years later, twenty-one-year-old Alexander Pushkin followed him there, again to the fringes of another empire. The two poets had little in common, and because both reconciled themselves to exile in such vastly different ways, any similarities between them seem at first glance coincidental. However, Pushkin’s reading of Ovid’s last collections of elegies—Tristia (12 A.D.) and Epistulae ex Ponto (13 A.D.)—and the legends he heard about Ovid in Moldavia not only find expression in various works spanning 1821–24, but also play an integral role in his larger poetic realization of exile.

     N. Vulikh’s bibliography of “Pushkin and Ovid” scholarship, listing nearly forty works, indicates the surprising amount of attention the topic has received.[1] Despite some inevitable duplication, secondary literature has yielded fascinating approaches to Pushkin’s reception of Ovid, ranging from juxtapositions of Tristia and “To Ovid” to Senderovich’s study on Ovid’s enduring influence on Pushkin’s “monumental elegies.”[2] There have been numerous surveys of the “Pushkin and Antiquity” theme,[3] and Stephanie Sandler’s chapter “Repeating Ovid’s Exile” is one of the cornerstones of English-language scholarship in this area.[4] Yet little has been done to show how the complex overlap of the historical Ovid (that is, the poet whose self-descriptions we know from Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto) and the legendary exile of “Moldavia” (the Ovid of folklore and scholarly speculation) informs Pushkin’s idiosyncratic vision of his poetic forebear and his own exilic representation.[5] And though the topic of voluntary exile (dobrovol´noe izgnanie) has been extensively studied by Iurii Lotman, S. A. Kibal´nik, and many others,[6] discussion inevitably tends to favor Pushkin’s engagement with Byron over Ovid. In the present study, I revisit this instance of cross-cultural influence and Pushkin’s conscious rewriting of the “Pushkin” and “Ovid” personae in “To Ovid” (1821), the introductory stanzas of Eugene Onegin (1823) and The Gypsies (1824).[7] The poetics of exile is hardly new to Pushkin scholarship, but here I specifically have in mind Pushkin’s gradually changing mode of representation with respect to Ovid and his concomitant projection of self. In the works mentioned above, Pushkin’s Ovid becomes less historical and increasingly legendary over time, and Pushkin’s myth of voluntary exile comes to mirror the realities of forced banishment.

     It is possible to say that Pushkin drew from two very different “sources” for his portrait of Ovid. As already mentioned, the first—the historical Ovid—provided factual background and made possible the analogy between the biographies of the two exiled poets.[8] Moreover, what attracted Pushkin to this Ovid was the fact that the latter essentially created a new genre—the exilic elegy—without a literary model to speak of, save his own earlier poetry.[9] In a move revolutionary for Roman poetry, Ovid managed to write both autobiographically and hyperbolically about exile in Tomis; in other words, this was the first time in Roman literature when the poet’s life in exile became the sole subject of his art. For Pushkin, well-aware of the contemporary (1820s) reader’s propensity to associate the lyrical “I” with the poet,[10] the representation of Ovid and self became an experiment in redefining the art/life relationship.

     The second source owes to Pushkin’s three-year residence in Moldavia, where he heard numerous legends about Ovid’s exile and grave.[11] This Ovid of “Moldavia,”[12] the nameless holy man (sviatoi starik) mentioned in The Gypsies, reverses the implications of the first source in that it foregrounds the life (and afterlife) of the poet with minimal reference to the art. The conflation of these two sources results in the Ovid figures we find in “To Ovid,” The Gypsies and Canto I of Eugene Onegin, and simultaneously a Pushkin persona, a foil of sorts to the image of the Roman poet. These two figures do not interact so much as intersect: as the Roman’s life becomes posthumous art, the Russian’s art is brought into contact with the bitter realities of his involuntary exiles.

     If Ovid’s exilic poetry was founded on multiple thematic paradoxes, not the least of which being the desperate need to literally sever his life from his art via an artistic medium,[13] Pushkin’s might be seen as a moderated (but similarly paradoxical) attempt to separate the two, first by placing between them the greatest possible distance, and then by virtually bringing them together. The outcome is something like the “inner contradiction” that Pushkin’s biographer describes, writing that Eugene Onegin

… points in two different directions at the same time. On the one hand, it artlessly invites us to regard the narrative as life, rather than art, by such ingenuous devices as introducing real personages—the author, Kaverin, Vyazemsky—to the characters, or claiming that the author possesses the manuscripts of Lensky’s last poem and of Tatyana’s and Onegin’s letters. Yet at the same time the narration itself is acutely self-conscious: not only does it call attention to its own artificiality with comments on, for example, rhyme and vocabulary, but the very virtuosity with which Pushkin handles the Onegin stanza with its complex rhyme scheme emphasizes its status as art, rather than life. This inner contradiction leaves us, in the end, unsure in our view of the work, sure only that it cannot be read simply as the story of Eugene and Tatyana.[14]

I argue in this paper that the Pushkin-Ovid nexus in “To Ovid” and The Gypsies reflects a shifting mode of representation, resulting in a more or less unrecognizable Ovid in 1824, and simultaneously an exploration of the path from life to art (where factual expulsion in 1820 is rewritten as voluntary exile) and back (where Aleko’s second exile in The Gypsies lines up with Pushkin’s removal to Mikhailovskoe). That these two changes occur at approximately the same time against the backdrop of banishment suggests a deliberate poeticization of experience on Pushkin’s part. Pushkin’s reception of Ovid, in my reading, has broader and previously unacknowledged implications for his poetics of exile. My aim here is simply to illustrate with selected examples one way of approaching this branch of his poetics.

     In “To Ovid,” Pushkin’s depiction of his poetic forebear is a direct reflection of his readings of Tristia and, to a lesser extent, Epistulae ex Ponto. A juxtaposition of the texts of “To Ovid” and Tristiaà la Iyeste and Malein clearly shows the dominance of the historical source in Pushkin’s elegy. Indeed, as Iyeste writes, Pushkin himself counted on his readers’ familiarity with the content of Tristia and their ability to see the connection between his fate and Ovid’s.[15] However, the matter is not so straightforward. Early scholars, such as A. I. Malein, found Pushkin’s knowledge of Tristia cursory (beglym) at best and his command of Latin questionable.[16] Even Iyeste claims that “Pushkin did not use a single exact quotation from Ovid’s work.”[17] Be that as it may, one can say with confidence that Pushkin’s reading of Ovid, whether in French translation or in the original, supplied the primary source material for his elegy. Of greater interest, however, is the emergence of the second source, the legendary Ovid, in this early poem. Thus, rather than trace any historical references back to Ovid’s exilic writings, I will examine some of the instances where Pushkin departs from the historical in favor of the legendary.[18] I hope to show that the dynamics of intersection between the two sources fluctuates, giving preference to the historical Ovid in 1821, but granting the legendary exile privilege of place by 1824.

     “To Ovid” opens with the lyrical “I,” the Pushkin persona, reflecting on the fact that he is now living where Ovid once finished his days in exile:

Овидий, я живу близ тихих берегов,
Которым изгнанных отеческих богов
Ты некогда принес и пепел свой оставил.  (2: 218)[19]

Ovid, I live near the quiet banks, where you once brought your exiled native gods and left your ashes.

The alexandrines and awkward syntax lead us to think this will be a stylistic transposition of Ovid’s elegies. But following some general references to Tristia, we encounter peculiar intrusions into the poem. Describing the “fierce sons of Scythia,” the lyrical “I” declares:

Преграды нет для них:  в волнах они плывут
И по льду звучному бестрепетно идут.
Ты сам (дивись, Назон, дивись судьбе превратной!)
Ты, с юных лет презрев волненье жизни ратной,
Привыкнув розами венчать свои власы

(2: 218, emphasis mine)

There are no limits for them: they sail on the waves and walk without fear on the sonorous ice. You yourself (wonder, Naso, wonder at the turns of fate!), despising the tumult of the warrior’s life from your youngest days, accustomed to crowning your head with roses… 

Echoing Ovid, the narrator relates how the elderly poet must now take up arms against the local barbarians. In the lines just quoted, however, scholars have found certain historical falsities. For instance, Malein points out that “Ovid nowhere speaks of barbarians arriving on ships to attack Tomis.”[20] Regarding line 25, Vulikh, too, reminds us that “the Romans never crowned themselves with roses.”[21] Finally, note the two excised lines originally concluding the poem:

Не славой—участью я равен был тебе.
Но не унизил ввек изменой беззаконной
Ни гордой совести, ни лиры непреклонной
.
(2: 221, emphasis mine)

I was your equal not in glory but in destiny. But I never tainted with lawless treachery either my proud conscience or my unbending lyre.

The poetic liberties here are remnants of Pushkin’s initial ambivalence towards Ovid, partially expressed through the legendary source. By blatantly falsifying Ovid’s account of life in Tomis (“[the Scythians] sail on waves”), taunting him (“you, who were accustomed to crown your hair with roses”), and even suggesting that Ovid had “eternally humiliated his proud conscience” (a reference to Voltaire’s conjecture that Ovid was involved with Augustus’ daughter, Julia), the narrator seeks to evaluate his own worth as voluntary exile vis-à-vis the banished elderly poet.[22] Strangely, this antagonism was almost immediately mollified, as confirmed by the fact that he excised the critical lines,[23] by Ovid’s favorable depiction in The Gypsies and Pushkin’s backtracking in later references to Ovid.[24] Vulikh, citing Pushkin’s 1836 review of Tepliakov’s Frakiiskie elegii, attributes Pushkin’s redactorial decision to his desire not “‘to shine (blistat´) with emotional steadfastness’ at the expense of the persecuted poet.”[25] For reasons not entirely clear,[26] Pushkin after 1821 would refer to Ovid in positive terms.

     These first glimmers of the legendary source in “To Ovid” emerge in more explicit ways as well. As Vulikh intimates, Pushkin’s vision of the historical Roman poet had become more or less permanent by the publication of “To Ovid.” Consequently, Pushkin would begin to use the legendary source more for his artistic ends. To demonstrate this, it would be wise to take a diachronic view of Ovid’s representation in “To Ovid” and The Gypsies. In the former, the lyrical “I” obliquely refers to the carmen et error,[27] the “song” and the “mistake” for which Augustus exiled Ovid:

О други, Августу мольбы мои несите,
Карающую
длань слезами отклоните,
Но если гневный бог досель неумолим... (2: 219, emphasis mine)

Oh friends, take my words to Augustus, deflect his punishing hand with tears, but if the angry god remains implacable…

In The Gypsies, the old gypsy speaks of the Roman poet in similar terms:

Он говорил, что гневный бог
Его карал за преступленье... (4: 187, emphasis mine)

He said an angry godpunished him for his crime…

Malein writes that gnevnyi bog is a direct translation of Ovid’s iratus deus in Tristia I. 2, 12.[28]Compare also the fictive Ovid’s plea to transfer his grave from Tomis in “To Ovid”—“Posledneiu mol´boi smiagchaia rok uzhasnyi, / Priblizh´te khot´ moi grob k Italii prekrasnoi!” (2: 219)(“With these last words soften my terrible fate, / Bring at least my grave to beautiful Italy!”)—to the old gypsy’s retelling of Ovid’s will in The Gypsies:

И завещал он, умирая,
Чтобы на юг перенесли
Его тоскующие кости… (4: 187)

And he instructed as he died that his sorrowful bones be brought to the south.

While both works contain similar historical features,[29] they are presented in rather different circumstances. First, Ovid’s name, which begins “To Ovid,” is never mentioned (actually, it is “forgotten”) in The Gypsies; Augustus, too, is named in “To Ovid,” though in The Gypsies he is simply the “angry god.” In the former, it is precisely the Roman’s elegies which inspire the speaker’s reflections (“Tvoi bezotradnyi plach mesta sii proslavil” [2: 218]), whereas in the latter Aleko guesses the “holy man’s” identity through the few vague references to Ovid’s poems. In other words, the concrete facts of the Roman’s biography experience a sort of erosion in the Southern poema. Moreover, if “To Ovid” is structured around general allusions to the content of Tristia, then The Gypsies contains far more allusions to the legendary source, including the debate over the location of Ovid’s grave, to which I will return later. Suffice it to say here that in “To Ovid,” the plea to transfer the Roman’s grave comes at the end of a series of thematic references to Tristia (e.g., linguistic isolation, the constant threat of raids, Augustus’ implacability, [2: 219]); in The Gypsies, Ovid’s will—“I zaveshchal on, umiraia”—concludes the legend of his life among the barbarians. Perhaps Aleko’s response to the old gypsy’s fable illustrates best how the interweaving of the two sources has begun to favor the legendary:

Так вот судьба твоих сынов,
О Рим, о громкая держава!…
Певец любви, певец богов,
Скажи мне, что такое слава?
Могильный гул, хвалебный глас,
Из рода в роды звук бегущий?
Или под сенью дымной кущи
Цыгана дикого рассказ?
(4: 187, emphasis mine)

Such is the fate of your sons, Oh Rome, oh thunderous power!… Singer of love, singer of the gods, tell me, what is fame? The hum of the grave, the voice of praise, A sound racing from generation to generation? Or is it the tale of a savage gypsy Told beneath the canopy of a smoky tent?

     If “To Ovid” ends with a promise of Ovid’s enduring poetic fame (that is, the sum total of his name and art), in The Gypsies fame has acquired unanticipated meaning and significance. Indeed, this is the point: the fame that Ovid proclaimed secure at the end of Metamorphoses becomes nothing more than the “tale of a savage gypsy” at the world’s end. As the historical source gives way to the legendary, the question—“What is fame?”—is not then “an instance of Aleko’s egotism”[30] but quite apropos.

     Before turning to The Gypsies, I hope to demonstrate that, although the legendary source only begins to wax in “To Ovid,” much of the dynamism of Ovid’s representation—the poetic interweaving of the two sources that we see in the old gypsy’s monologue and Aleko’s response—is already present in the earlier work. To appreciate fully how Pushkin appropriates and reworks the Moldavian legend of Ovid, one must be aware of those instances when Pushkin intentionally perpetuates what he knows to be false.

     In her excellent study, “Istochniki legendy ob Ovidii v ‘tsyganakh’ Pushkina,” E. M. Dvoichenko-Markova provides a detailed treatment of what scholars usually mention only in passing. Dvoichenko-Markova writes that in 1821, Pushkin read an article by P. P. Svin´in, who put forth the hypothesis that Ovid had been exiled to Akkerman—a conclusion that Moldavian chroniclers and Dmitrii Kantemir had also reached.[31] Though Pushkin ridiculed Svin´in’s theory, knowing that Ovid himself speaks of Tomis as his place of banishment in Epistulae ex Ponto,[32] he found much of interest in the article. To quote Liprandi, Svin´in “g[ives] free rein to his imagination” in such passages as this:

Может быть, под сенью сего древнего тополя стояла хижина знаменитого изгнанника; может быть, страдалец отсюда, сидя на этом мшистом камне, обнимал взором зеркальные воды озера и в таинственных тенях, бродящих в сумерках по окружным холмам…[33]

Perhaps under the shade of this ancient poplar tree stood the hut of the famous exile; perhaps the martyr, sitting on this mossy stone, took in from here the reflecting waters of the lake and in the mysterious shadows, wandering in the twilight over the surrounding hills…

I will return to this passage shortly, for Svin´in’s anaphoric speculations likely inspired Pushkin’s own visions near his “Scythian shores.” Yet what primarily interested Pushkin was that Svin´in, in contradistinction to his predecessor Dmitrii Kantemir, reproduced one of the legends circulated about Ovid as they were told in “many Moldavian chronicles”:

Притек с берегов Тибра муж, имеющий нежность младенца и доброту старца. Он непрерывно вздыхает и часто говорит сам с собой; но когда обращает речь свою кому-нибудь—то кажется, мед изливается из уст его.[34]

A man arrived from the Tiber’s shores who had the tenderness of a child and the kindness of an old man. He continually sighs and often speaks to himself; but when he speaks to someone else it sounds like honey flowing from his mouth.

Dvoichenko-Markova notes the parallels between this account of Ovid and the one given by the starik in The Gypsies.

Он был уже летами стар,
Но млад и жив душой незлобной:
[…]

He was already advanced in years, but young and vivacious in his harmless soul.

Не разумел он ничего
И слаб и робок был, как дети;
[…]

He understood nothing, and he was weak and timid like children.

И все несчастный тосковал
Бродя по берегам Дуная,
Да горьки слезы проливал,
[…]

And constantly, miserably he languished, wandering along the banks of the Danube, and pouring out bitter tears.

Имел он песен дивный дар
И голос, шуму вод подобный
[…]

He had the wondrous gift of song, and a voice like the sound of water.

И жил он на брегах Дуная,
Людей рассказами пленяя.[35]

And he lived on the banks of the Danube, enthralling people with his stories. 

     Svin´in’s article has a fascinating history of plagiarism which I will summarize only briefly here.[36] In short, Dvoichenko-Markova concludes that the legend was first recorded by French litterateur J. L. Carra, heavily plagiarized by Svin´in, and read by Pushkin by 1821.[37] Because it is beyond the scope of her study, Dvoichenko-Markova does not explain how an image of Ovid found in Carra’s original—absent from Svin´in in the passage above and evidently unavailable to Pushkin—surfaces in “To Ovid”:

Место, где обитал Овидий, как бы создано, чтобы внушить глубокую печаль: я не мог без волнения взирать вокруг: мне казалось, что я видел тень его, скитающуюся то по озеру, то по холмам и близлежащим лесам.[38]

The place where Ovid lived seemed as though it were created to inspire a deep sadness: I could not look around me without emotion: it seemed to me that I saw his shade wandering at times on the lake and at times in the hills and the nearby woods.

Compare this passage to the following lines from “To Ovid”:

Когда ты в первый раз вверял с недоуменьем
Шаги свои волнам, окованным зимой…
И по льду новому, казалось, предо мной
Скользила тень твоя
, и жалобные звуки
Неслися издали, как томный стон разлуки.  (2: 220, emphasis mine)

When you for the first time entrusted with doubt your feet to the waves that were chained by winter… and along the new ice,it seemed, your shade slid before me, and sorrowful sounds could be heard from far off, like the hollow groan of parting.

Given these similarities, I would argue that Dvoichenko-Markova’s note on the parallels between Carra (via Svin´in) and The Gypsies also holds true in “To Ovid.”[39] Particularly intriguing, however, is the fact that this passage also has historical origins in Tristia III. 10:

I’ve seen the wide sea iced solid, a frozen slippery
   crust holding the under-water still—
not just seen, either:  I’ve walked the solid sea-lanes,
   crunching their surface dryfoot.[40]

Pushkin thus combines two sources—the Roman exile’s testimony and the Bessarabian myth—and creates an image of Ovid both poetic and apocryphal.

     Pushkin found much artistic potential in Svin´in’s article and the Ovidian folklore in Moldavia to say the least, but it is primarily the historical Ovid of Tristia that informs Pushkin’s depiction of his forebear in the 1821 elegy. Against this image of Ovid Pushkin places his own vision of self, one which purposely contradicts his situation in Kishinev: in “To Ovid” the lyrical “I” is a self-willed exile (izgnannik samovol´nyi) rather than a banished poet; he has “visited” (posetil) this southern “country” rather than been sent there. By the time he writes The Gypsies, however, the relationship has become inverted.

     Insofar as the theme of dobrovol´noe izgnanie in Pushkin’s oeuvre has been treated in some detail,[41] I have focused almost exclusively on the image of Ovid rather than of “Pushkin” in Pushkin’s early elegy.  However, it would be appropriate to say a few words on this topic, so integral to The Gypsies, to gain a better understanding of how a crucial transition in Pushkin’s work is realized. S. Kibal´nik’s comments on Ovid’s place in Pushkin’s poetics seem particularly relevant. Kibal´nik argues that the image of Ovid does not “force out [vytesniaet] the Byronic motif of voluntary exile from Pushkin’s poetry but rather is combined with it, facilitating its further development and complication.”[42] He also suggests a certain continuity between voluntary exile and its later transformation into “flight” (pobeg) in Pushkin’s poems of the 1830s—“Pora, moi drug, pora,” “Strannik,” “Ne dai mne bog soiti s uma,” etc.[43] If we qualify the date of this transformation to the mid-1820s, and there is reason to do so,[44] the shift from historical to legendary in terms of Ovid’s representation would seem concurrent with the transition from voluntary exile to flight in Pushkin’s poetry. But before this change could take place, the motif of voluntary exile would have to experience an unraveling. It is a testament to Pushkin’s versatility that he could write a work like The Gypsies which is, if nothing else, a reflection on the nature of forced exile, and simultaneously compose “To the Sea” in which he rewrites his “house arrest … as his voluntary rejection of the high romanticism of Napoleon [and] Byron.”[45] Kibal´nik’s formulation seems for the most part correct, though there is something to be said for the honesty Pushkin shows in The Gypsies. Ovid receives his last prolonged mention in this last of the Southern poems, and Pushkin stands at only one remove from his creation.

     Following the terms of Ovid’s representation that were established in “To Ovid,” The Gypsies is structured around the interweaving of historical and legendary sources, though the latter, as mentioned before, eclipses the former. Ovid’s lament in Tristia III. 3—indeploratum barbara terra teget, or “a barbarian earth shall cover me unmourned”—and the debate over Ovid’s place of exile and death are the sources, historical and legendary respectively, that inform Pushkin’s depiction of his predecessor. Pushkin, playing on Ovid’s fears of dying far from Rome and being forgotten, perhaps took a cue from Svin´in, who writes of Lake Ovid:

Место сие достойно памятника, который поддержал бы предание, могущее без того утратиться.[46]

This place is worthy of a monument that would preserve the legend that might otherwise be lost.

And Vulikh gives us additional background:

Могила с латинской надписью была обнаружена инженером К.  Деволаном в конце XVIII в.; в раскопках якобы принимали участие цыганы; распространились слухи, что здесь погребен поэт Овидий.[47]

A grave with an inscription in Latin was discovered by the engineer K. De Wollant at the end of the 18th century. Gypsies supposedly took part in the excavations, for rumors were spread that the poet Ovid was buried here.

     In The Gypsies, Zemfira tells her lover to meet her “There, beyond the burial mound, above the grave” (4: 197). When Aleko awakens from his nightmare, he leaves the gypsy camp and sees “two shades”: “He hears a whisper nearby—above the desecrated grave” (4: 198). Finally, Aleko accosts them: “Where are you going? Don’t rush—here by the grave is fine for the two of you” (4: 199). This is not to suggest that the two gypsies meet and die at the grave of Ovid,[48] but merely to illustrate that for Pushkin, remembering Ovid invoked certain associations with the historical poet—who hoped to be buried in Rome and not forgotten—and the recent excavations that had spawned the rumors about the Roman’s “Moldavian” grave.  By having the old gypsy forget Ovid’s name—“I once knew but have now forgotten his difficult name” (4: 186)—Pushkin is confirming the fears of his forebear.[49]

     In Roman religion if a person was not buried as prescribed by rite, his manes, or shade, would wander the earth for one hundred years.[50] Ovid himself writes:

A Roman shade will wander among the Sarmatian shadows,
And among the dead spirits of wild men will always linger a guest.[51]

And Senderovich writes that

the shade enters Pushkin’s poetry from the Ovidian context, where it is one of the main characters of his elegiac world.… In Pushkin positive creative realization is always associated with an inspiring shade. Thus it is that the shade becomes a personage in Pushkin’s personal poetic mythology.[52]

Thus, what for Ovid was tantamount to damnation becomes for Pushkin an impetus for poetic creation. Further, with respect to the Ovid figure in The Gypsies, one should note that the Roman poet’s posthumous fame (slavа), albeit now disconnected from his art, has been preserved among the gypsies in a positive way. In Pushkin, Ovid’s fear of dying in a foreign place is compensated in one respect: his fame now passes orally rather than by written texts from “generation to generation.” In essence, Pushkin has made Ovid a gypsy: his fame/shade travels with the nomads along the Euxine coast. What is more, this transition in Pushkin from historical to legendary significance is accomplished in the spirit of Ovidian aesthetics, as a natural metamorphosis.

     Turning to Aleko, let us note some parallels between Pushkin and his voluntary exile[53] in The Gypsies to ascertain the significance of Pushkin’s new self-projection. Let us reiterate, too, that if the motif of voluntary exile is further developed in his poetry,[54] then it is in this work that the motif nearly ceases to be art. As noted by scholars, Aleko’s name invites association with his creator, Aleksander Pushkin. In addition, Trubetskoi writes that Pushkin himself lived in a gypsy camp for a month in 1821; had a brief affair with a gypsy girl, Zemfira; and went in pursuit of Zemfira when she left him.[55] These biographical details help us separate the hero from his author—a particularly necessary task in a work where the art so closely mirrors the life.

     If Ovid represents the positive exile who may have found the gypsies’ “freedom” insufferable but who also “never insulted anyone” and was “loved by all,” Aleko’s tragedy is based on his inability to learn and get used to the gypsies’ life (dikoi dole). In a unique fusion of form and content, the structural peculiarities of The Gypsies dictate this tragedy. The old gypsy’s refrain about the complexities of getting used to the savage life are repeated four times in the poema: the first and fourth are addressed to Aleko, while the second and third are primarily about Ovid. There are two crucial variations on the refrain, the first of which makes a semantic shift from “habit” to “learning.” Compare the old gypsy’s greeting in the beginning—

Будь наш—привыкни к нашей доле,
Бродящей бедности и воле. (4: 180)

Be one of us, grow accustomed to our lot, wandering poverty and freedom.

—to his warning to Aleko and preface to the legend of Ovid:

Но не всегда мила свобода
Тому, кто к неге приучен. (4: 186)

But freedom is not always kind to one used to idle comfort.

Pushkin plays on the etymological relation between “privykat´” and “priuchat´,” as in this context the gypsy equates “getting used to” something (freedom, will, poverty) to “learning” it.[56] We almost believe that Aleko succeeds, living among the gypsies:

Он, прежних лет не помня даже,
К бытью цыганскому привык. (4: 188)

He grew accustomed to the gypsy existence, not even remembering his former life.

But the narrator pulls the rug out from under us. As Lazar´ Fleishman notes, byt´e and privykanie function as semantically oppositional pairs.[57] In the same passage above, Aleko “loves [the gypsies’] poor, sonorous language” (4: 188), but when Zemfira sings he says, “I don’t care for savage songs” (4: 189). And, of course, as the narrator slyly notes, after two years among the gypsies, Aleko is “exactly the same.”[58]

     We find the second variation on the old gypsy’s refrain at the end when, significantly, he tells Aleko, “leave us,” yet it is the gypsies who leave him:

Ты не рожден для дикой доли,
Ты для себя лишь хочешь воли. (4: 201)

You are not born for the savage lot, you want freedom only for yourself.

As the tone progresses from welcome to exhortation to condemnation, “habit” and “birth” become mutually exclusive.[59] We should note Tomashevskii’s point that Aleko is not a voluntary but a “migrant” (pereletnyi) exile who is “pursued by the law.”[60] Aleko thus, like the Pushkin persona of “To Ovid,” only imagines himself a self-willed exile (the rhyme scheme zhelan´e/izgnan´e is not accidental [4: 186]). The exile who is not self-willed cannot overcome the inner contradiction between who he is (by birth) and what he desires to be (through habit). Fate, from which “there is no escape,” is about to make clear Aleko’s true exilic status.

     Word repetition, like the old gypsy’s refrain, reinforces the overarching structure and unity of the work. Blagoi writes that “the portrayal of the gypsy’s camp and life (byt) is maximally compressed.”[61] Even a cursory glance at the text will convince the reader of the poema’s intentionally incantatory quality. For instance, we find words such as shater and cognates of noch-, neb- and most importantly vol- repeated at least three times within the first forty lines.

Как вольность, весел их ночлег (4: 179)

Like willfulness, their lodging is joyful.

Ручной медведь лежит на воле (4: 179)

The tame bear lies at will.

Она привыкла к резвой воле (4: 180)

She was used to playful will.

The incantation breaks slightly during what is, in terms of prosody, the most colorful passage in the work—the legend of Ovid—and immediately resumes after Aleko’s commentary. Pushkin thus compensates Ovid for his fear of linguistic degeneration.[62] The mythic Ovid emerges from the text in what is a vindication of sorts for the Roman poet, whose art and name have been forgotten in this corner of the world. It is only right then that Ovid’s fame for “captivating people with his stories” holds the central place in The Gypsies.[63] This is another interesting reversal on Pushkin’s part: where the historical Ovid quite certainly lacked a “sophisticated audience” for his poems in Tomis,[64] here the nomads’ ancestors are said to have been “captivated” by him. Finally, note that izgnan’e is now rhymed with predan´e (4: 186).  History has become legend.

     This is not the case with Aleko who cannot come to terms with the gypsies’ conception of will/freedom (volia) and is consequently ruined in the paronomastic structure of the text. At first the old gypsy invites Aleko to get used to “wandering poverty and will” (4: 180), and Aleko himself desires self-willed exile (dobrovol´noe izgnan´e [4: 186]). But later Zemfira, weary of her outsider-husband, explains that her “heart asks for freedom” (serdtse voli prosit [4: 191]), and the starik, justifying Zemfira’s adultery,tells Aleko that “here people are free” (zdes´ liudi vol´ny [4: 193]). The rupture between Aleko’s perception of will and its paradoxically elusive ubiquity in the gypsy camp compromises the poetic symmetry of the savage life, dictating the necessary removal of the outsider. As Bethea writes, elaborating on Abram Tertz, “every expression of volia is tethered to its corresponding dolia,”[65] and Aleko’s refusal to follow the gypsies’ code of ethics essentially means that his narrative, unlike that of Ovid and Mariula, ends here. His story has no continuation, no predan´e: as the gypsies depart (and take the Romantic, willed space of banishment with them), they leave Aleko in the empty space of forced exile.

     Pushkin began The Gypsies in January 1824 while in Odessa and finished writing in October 1824 in Mikhailovskoe. In the period between—July 1824—he was forced to relocate to his family estate at Tsar Alexander’s injunction.[66] Towards the end of the poema, the gypsies abandon Aleko. Both creator and hero, as it were, endure a second exile. If Pushkin’s self-projection in “To Ovid” was a far cry from the real state of affairs in 1821, here he brings the life of his artistic persona surprisingly close to his own.[67]

     Up to this point I have focused exclusively on Pushkin’s reception of Ovid during his Southern exile. It would be helpful now to examine Ovid’s own aesthetic project for a broader look at the ways in which Pushkin departs from it. In his study “Ovidii v izgnanii,” Mikhail Gasparov examines several primary motifs of the exilic writings as they emerge from Ovid’s development of a new genre, the exilic elegy. Prefacing his reading of the motifs, Gasparov writes of Ovid’s suffering:

Ovid did not only experience solitude in Tomis—he confirmed it, insisted upon it.… The cult of solitude was a means of self-preservation for him.[68]

But from here Ovid begins to equate exile with death as a way to inform the reader how terrible banishment is:

Death in life is a paradox, and Ovid repeats this image again and again, knowing that this is exactly why the reader will notice and read in it the whole story of solitude’s torments.[69]

This is indeed the impression one takes from reading Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, and it did not register well with Pushkin, as we saw in “To Ovid.” Exile simply was not the crisis for Pushkin it was for Ovid. But there is something else at work here that Pushkin understood. Gasparov writes:

The contrast between the poet’s mortality and the immortality of his works is one of the most ancient themes of poetry; in classical literature from its earliest times poets had the habit of referring to their name in order to preserve it forever. Horace ended his collection of odes with his famous poem about “a monument more permanent than bronze,” and Ovid practically repeated these words verbatim at the end of his Metamorphoses. But in Ovid’s Pontic poems this theme received a new, as yet untried variant. The idea that a poet and his works are not the same was for Ovid one of his justifications in his defense before Augustus: “My poems may have been thoughtless, but my life was pure.” … For this reason it became especially important to Ovid to distinguish the man and the poet in himself—as though they were two persons, for each of whom poetry meant something different.[70]

As exilic art and life coincide for the first time in Roman poetry art, to quote Brodsky, literally becomes “an exercise in dying.”[71] Ovid’s theme of “dying alive” (smert´ zazhivo) and Pushkin’s “voluntary exile” share the same elegiac origin, though the two pursue different ends—if Ovid hopes to win from Augustus a pardon or transfer of residence by insisting that his life was always pure, untainted by the content of his earlier art (all the while depicting his life through his art), then the Pushkin of the early 1820s repeatedly tests the limits of this relationship, consistently demonstrating its inherent asymmetry. Aleko, Onegin, Onegin’s narrator and the Pushkin persona of “To Ovid” all resemble their creator, but not one of them can be called a faithful, autobiographical portrait.[72] What Pushkin saw in Ovid’s final elegies was the potential afforded by exilic space to push the boundaries of truthful representation. But where Ovid plunged headlong into the “death-in-life” elegiac cycle, Pushkin stood back, and over the course of the 1820s elevated personal experience to the level of myth, a practice he continued even through the completion of Eugene Onegin.[73] Though beyond the scope of this paper, I would suggest that Pushkin’s continued exercises in redefining the art/life relationship in his post-1824 poetry may owe more to the influence of Ovid than scholarship has previously acknowledged.[74]

     Eugene Onegin occupies a temporal middle-ground with respect to the transitions I have been describing. Before concluding, it would be wise to examine very briefly the portrayal of “self” and Ovid in the first Canto of Pushkin’s novel in verse for another view of the poetics of exile in its development. In the second stanza, when the narrator introduces Onegin, he mentions that his “hero” was “born on the banks of the Neva,”

Где, может быть, родились вы
Или блистали, мой читатель;
Там некогда гулял и я:
Но вреден север для меня. (6: 6)

Where perhaps you too were born, or dazzled, my reader; I myself once strolled there, but for me the north is dangerous.

Pushkin’s footnote reads: “Written in Bessarabia” (6: 191). Commentators have noted the overt identification with the narrator, but the footnote’s hint to those who knew just how “dangerous” Petersburg would have been to the author make this statement strangely Ovidian. Ovid repeats such claims as this—“The cause (though too familiar to everyone) of my ruin / must not be revealed through testimony of mine”[75]—as often as Pushkin circumvents any mention of his own banishment. Although Ovid purposely overstates his case (only a small group of cognoscenti knew the reason behind his exile),[76] the trope is the same: the private note in the public art is yet another “inner contradiction.”

     In the eighth stanza, we learn that Onegin was a master of seduction, the “Art” for which Ovid finished his days

В Молдавии, в глуши степей,
Вдали Италии своей. (6: 8)

In Moldavia, in the wilderness of the steppes, far from his Italia.

Of course, to assert Ovid died in Moldavia is tantamount to saying Voltaire was born in Gaul.[77] The anachronism, however, is intentional, and Ovid’s space of exile remains a source of fame in Pushkin. By using the more familiar “Moldavia” rather than the historically accurate but obscure Moesia, Pushkin brings Ovid temporally closer to his contemporaries, all too aware of the contradictions as he does so. This Ovid is half-mythic; born in one time-space, he dies in another. Perhaps this is Pushkin’s variation on the Roman’s prophecy: Famaque post cineres major venit, or “fame grows after the ashes.”

 

* * *

 

     Ovid becomes his art to such an extent in Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto that contemporary readers see him only through the prism of his exilic writings. Because there are virtually no records documenting his relegation to Tomis, scholars will likely be divided between those who take the Roman’s songs at face value, and those who altogether dismiss their veracity. Yet Pushkin gives Ovid new life in his works of the 1820s, and the “singer of the gods” plays no small role in the formation of Pushkin’s poetics of exile. In Pushkin poetic biography is still possible, even if the real Ovid is forever lost to us.

 

 


Download:

Houston, David. "Another Look at the Poetics of Exile: Pushkin's Reception of Ovid, 1821 - 24." Pushkin Review, Vol. 10 (2007): 129 - 50.


* This article benefited from the readings and comments of several people. I would like to thank David Bethea, Andrew Reynolds, Catherine O’Neil, Matthew McGarry, Virginia Clark and my two anonymous readers at Pushkin Review. Any mistakes, of course, are my own.

[1] N. Vulikh, “Ovidii,”in Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 2004): 229–30. One should also include Katya Hokanson’s fine study “‘Barbarus hic ego sum’: Pushkin and Ovid on the Pontic Shore,” Pushkin Review 8–9 (2005–06): 61–75.

[2] M. Iyeste, “Zametki k teme ‘Pushkin i Ovidii,’” in Sbornik studencheskikh nauchnykh rabot Tartuskogo universiteta (Tartu, 1967), 171–90; A. I. Malein, “Pushkin i Ovidii (Otryvochnye zamechaniia),” in Pushkin i ego sovremenniki (Petrograd, 1916), 8: 45–66; Savely Senderovich, “Puškin’s Monumental Elegy and Ovid,” Russian Language Journal 45: 151–52 (1991): 57–73. The “monumental elegies” include “Pogaslo dnevnoe svetilo,” “Andrei Shen´e,” and “Vospominanie.” 

[3] D. P. Costello, “Pushkin and Roman Literature,” Oxford Slavonic Papers 11 (1964): 46–55; M. M. Pokrovskii, “Pushkin i antichnost´,” Pushkin: Vremennik pushkinskoi komissii (Moscow: Pushkinskaia komissiia, 1939): 27–56; I. I. Tolstoi, “Pushkin i antichnost´,” Uchenye zapiski (Leningrad: Leningradskii gosudarstvennyi pedagogicheskii institut, 1938): 71–85. 

[4] Stephanie Sandler, Distant Pleasures: Alexander Pushkin and the Writing of Exile (Stanford, CA:  Stanford University Press, 1989), 39–56.

[5] In this respect, Vulikh’s work, which attempts to account for both the historical and the legendary sources, is an exception. See N. Vulikh, “Ovidii—chelovek i poet v interpretatsii Pushkina,” Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (St. Petersburg: Nauka, 1995), 161–67.

[6] S. A. Kibal´nik, “Tema izgnaniia v poezii Pushkina,” in Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (Leningrad: Nauka, 1991), 33–50; Iurii Lotman, Pushkin (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo—SPb, 1995).

[7] Here I am following the line of critics who see Aleko in The Gypsies as a stylized version of Pushkin himself.

[8] Costello, “Pushkin and Roman Literature,” 49.

[9] R. J. Dickinson, “The Tristia: Poetry in Exile,” in Ovid, ed. J. W. Binns (London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), 154–90, esp. 158.

[10] For a detailed treatment of this problem, see Lotman, Pushkin, 56–95.

[11] Vulikh, “Ovidii—chelovek,” 161–62.

[12] One should rather speak of the Roman province Moesia—a fact of which Pushkin was probably aware. See Vulikh, “Ovidii—chelovek.”

[13] If subsequent scholarship is any indication of Ovid’s success in this under­taking, I will simply point out the theory claiming that Ovid was never exiled to begin with, and that Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto were written in the comforts of Rome. See Peter Green’s introduction in Ovid, The Poems of Exile, trans. Green (London: Penguin, 1994), xvii. See also Sandra Bingham, “Life on an Island: A Brief Study of Places of Exile in the First Century AD,” Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History XI (Collection Latomus 272, 2003): 399–400.

[14] T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 394.

[15] Iyeste, “Zametki k teme ‘Pushkin i Ovidii,’” 171.

[16] Malein, “Pushkin i Ovidii,” 46.

[17] Iyeste, “Zametki k teme ‘Pushkin i Ovidii,’” 185.

[18] By which I mean here not only the “Moldavian” Ovid, but also Push­kin’s poetic interpretation, probably informed by unrecorded circulating legends at the time. See below and E. M. Dvoichenko-Markova, “Istochniki legendy ob Ovidii v ‘tsyganakh’ Pushkina,” in Voprosy antichnoi literatury i klassicheskoi filologii (Moscow: Nauka, 1966), 325.

[19] All Pushkin citations are from Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 17 vols. (Leningrad:  AN SSSR, 1937–59). English translations by David Houston and Catherine O’Neil.

[20] Malein, “Pushkin i Ovidii,” 51.

[21] Vulikh, “Ovidii—chelovek,” 164.

[22] In light of these points, Kibal´nik’s suggestion that “To Ovid,” in contradistinc­tion to the earlier “From a Letter to Gnedich,” contains no reproaches against Ovid for his cowardice (malodushie) seems not entirely accurate. See Kibal´nik, “Tema izgnaniia v poezii Pushkina,” 44–45. See also n. 24, below, on Voltaire’s hypothesis of the “lawless betrayal” (izmenoi bezzakonnoi).

[23] Tomashevskii suggests that Pushkin removed the lines so as not to reveal himself. B. V. Tomashevskii, Pushkin (Moscow-Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1956), 1: 542.

[24] See the often-mentioned 1836 review of Tepliakov’s Frakiiskie elegii and Pushkin’s rejection of Voltaire’s hypothesis, in Costello, “Pushkin and Roman Literature,” 51–52.

[25] Vulikh, “Ovidii—chelovek,” 166.

[26] See Costello, “Pushkin and Roman Literature,” 49 for a possible explanation.

[27] See Ovid, II and IV. I of Tristia and II. 9 of Epistulae ex Ponto.

[28] Malein, “Pushkin i Ovidii,” 55.

[29] Vulikh notes that the trope of transferring Ovid’s grave is taken from Tristia III. 3 (“Ovidii—chelovek,” 167).

[30] Sandler, Distant Pleasures, 196.

[31] Dvoichenko-Markova, “Istochniki legendy ob Ovidii,” 322. The article by Svin´in, “Vospominaniia v stepiakh bessarabskikh,” was published in Otechestvennye zapiski (quoted in ibid., 322–23).

[32] And in Tristia, for that matter, though Pushkin in the given context only mentions the later work. See Dvoichenko-Markova, “Istochniki legendy ob Ovidii,” 323.

[33] Ibid., emphasis mine.

[34] Ibid. 

[35] Quoted in ibid., 324.

[36] I refer the interested reader to Dvoichenko-Markova, “Istochniki legendy ob Ovidii,” 325–29.

[37] Ibid., 329.

[38] Quoted in ibid., 326, emphasis mine.

[39] One assumes that if neither Pushkin nor Liprandi could have read Carra at this time the image of Ovid’s wandering shade must have been part of the typology of Ovidian folklore in Bessarabia.

[40] Green, trans., Ovid, The Poems of Exile, 56. See also Malein, “Pushkin i Ovidii,” 56.

[41] See especially Lotman, Pushkin, 65–66, 709; Kibal´nik, “Tema izgnaniia,” 33–34, 42 and passim; and Sandler, Distant Pleasures, 49.

[42] Kibal´nik, “Tema izgnaniia,” 42

[43] Ibid., 50.

[44] For instance, Pushkin’s “plan … with A. N. Vul´f to escape across the Russian border in the guise of Vul´f’s servant” and its artistic transposition in Boris Godunov. David M. Bethea and Sergei Davydov, “Pushkin’s Biography,” The Pushkin Handbook, ed. Bethea (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 9–10. See also Pushkin’s intention to flee Russia by sea in 1824 in Binyon, Pushkin,186.

[45] Bethea and Davydov, “Pushkin’s Biography,” 16.

[46] Quoted in Dvoichenko-Markova, “Istochniki legendy ob Ovidii,” 323, emphasis mine.

[47] Vulikh, “Ovidii—chelovek” 162. Presumably, Vulikh is referring to François Sainte de Wollant (1752–1818).

[48] Formozov writes that during his travels with the Raevskys in 1820 Pushkin saw numerous burial mounds which he later depicted in his Southern poems. A. A.Formozov, “Pushkin i drevnosti iuga Rossii,” in Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (Leningrad: Nauka, 1979), 195.

[49] There also seems to be an allusion to the fact that Ovid’s will—“I zaveshchal on, umiraia, / Chtoby na iug perenesli / Ego toskuiushchie kosti”—has not been executed.

[50] Clyde Pharr, Vergil’s Aeneid: Books I–VI (Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1930), 8.

[51] Quoted in Senderovich, “Pushkin’s Monumental Elegy,” 61.

[52] Ibid., 66.

[53] Here the term “voluntary exile” needs to be qualified in the light of Tomashevskii’s note, which I discuss below.

[54] Kibal´nik “Tema izgnaniia,” 42.

[55] B. A. Trubetskoi,Pushkin v Moldavii (Kishinev: Kartia Moldoveniaske, 1976), 294–96.

[56] See Abram Tertz’s semantic equation of the dolia/volia rhyme-pair in Progulki s Pushkinym (London: Overseas Publishing Interchange, 1975), 48, 51.

[57] Lazar´ Fleishman, “K opisaniiu semantiki ‘tsygan,’” in Ot Pushkina k Pasternaku: Izbrannye raboty po poetike i istorii russkoi literatury (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2006), 31–36. 

[58]Vse tot zhe on” (4: 188). It is curious to note the similarity between this passage and this line in “From a Letter to Gnedich”—“Vse tot zhe ia—kak byl i prezhde” (2: 170)—which incidentally begins with a reference to Ovid.

[59] For more on the function and “variation” of lexemes, see Fleishman, “K opisaniiu semantiki ‘tsygan,’” 31–45.

[60] Tomashevskii, Pushkin, 1: 617.

[61] D. D. Blagoi, Tvorcheskii put´ Pushkina, 1813–1826 (Moscow: AN SSSR, 1950), 346.

[62] See Peter Green’s commentary in Ovid, The Poems of Exile, 252–53.

[63] For a treatment of the equally colorful epic simile, see Michael Wachtel, “Pushkin’s Long Poems and the Epic Impulse,” in The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, ed. Andrew Kahn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006): 78–82.

[64] See Peter Green’s commentary in Ovid, The Poems of Exile, 254.

[65] David Bethea, “How Black was Pushkin? Otherness and Self-Creation,” in Under the Sky of My Africa: Pushkin and Blackness, ed. Catharine Theimer Nepomnyashchy, Nicole Svobodny, and Ludmila A. Trigos (Evanston, IL:  Northwestern University Press, 2006), 131.

[66] See Binyon, Pushkin, 184–87.

[67] Compare, too, the anonymous publication history of “To Ovid” with the overt self-identification here (Aleko, Aleksandr).

[68] M. Gasparov, Ob antichnoi poezii: Poety, poetika, ritorika (St. Petersburg: Azbuka, 2000), 191–245, esp. 213.

[69] Ibid., 215.

[70] Ibid., 229–30, emphasis mine.

[71] Joseph Brodsky, “The Child of Civilization,” in Less Than One: Selected Essays (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), 123.

[72] Binyon writes: “Pushkin’s tastes were not wholly identical with those of Eugene:  ‘I am always glad to note the difference / Between Onegin and myself,’ he remarks, in case some ‘sarcastic reader’ should imagine that, like Byron, he is painting his own portrait” (Pushkin, 79).

[73] Tomashevskii, Pushkin, 1: 543.

[74] Senderovich, “Pushkin’s Monumental Elegy” (69–72) is an interesting example of scholarship that has reconsidered the extent of Ovid’s influence on Pushkin.

[75] Green, trans., Ovid, The Poems of Exile, 82.

[76] Peter Green, “Carmen et Error: πρόφασις and αỉτία in the Matter of Ovid’s Exile,” Classical Antiquity 1: 2 (1982): 207.

[77] For a summary of this problem, see Vulikh, “Ovidii—chelovek,” 162.

Visitors

We have 92 guests and no members online