Where Are Liberty and Law? Subjectivizing the Naïve in Chénier, Pushkin, and Lermontov

Jonathan Brooks Platt

 

An oft-overlooked element of intertextual poetics is its representational character. Reminiscences of earlier texts position the author as reader and generate the image of a specific reading practice — a representation of reception. Moreover, this metaliterary aspect of intertextuality often interacts with self-reflexive narratives of reception within the text. There are numerous narratives of this kind. For example, the theme of a reader’s seduction by textual fantasies is central to modern literature — from Don Quixote’s chivalric romances to Emma Bovary’s novels. In this essay, I look at the intertextual fate of a different scenario of reception — that of an imprisoned poet, who overhears another prisoner singing in the neighboring cell. While I am primarily interested in the history of this scene in Russian Romanticism, its origins come from Europe, specifically from André Chénier’s ode to “The Young Captive.” Chénier wrote the poem while awaiting execution in Saint Lazare prison in 1794, and in early 1795 his friends had it posthumously published. “The Young Captive” was subsequently reprinted in numerous anthologies, and it became Chénier’s most famous work. By the time the first collection of his poems was published in 1819, Chénier was already something of a legend — as a tragic poet-victim — thanks to “The Young Captive” and a footnote in Genius of Christianity, in which Chateaubriand describes the poet’s last moments before the guillotine. Russian readers who kept up with the news from Paris would surely have known about him well before 1819; indeed, many have argued that Chénier is the “sublime Gaul” (возвышенный Галл) Pushkin refers to in his 1817 ode to “Liberty.”[1] In any case, after 1819 Chénier became a central figure for Russian Romanticism, celebrated as a truly “Greek” classic who remained aloof from the pompous, Roman-inspired neoclassicism that dominated his turbulent times.[2] One finds Russian translations and imitations appearing already in 1819, with Chénier’s idylls and poems written on the model of the Greek anthology particularly influential. The poet’s tragic fate would soon also become part of the Russian canon, after Pushkin wrote his long historical elegy “André Chénier” in the spring of 1825.

The ode to “The Young Captive” has its own special place in Chénier’s Russian reception. As I will argue, this status derives from its association, first, with Pushkin’s historical elegy and, second, with Lermontov and his engagement with Pushkin after the latter’s death in 1837. Lermontov’s own fascination with Chénier is well documented, as scholars have identified a series of references to the French poet — forming a kind of cycle — in works of Lermontov that span the years 1830-39.[3] Many of these poems also contain direct reminiscences of Pushkin’s 1825 elegy, and one of the central texts in the cycle is “Смерть поэта” (The Poet’s Death), where Lermontov links Pushkin to Chénier (under the cover of an association with Vladimir Lensky from Evgeny Onegin): “И он убит — и взят могилой, / Как тот певец, неведомый, но милый, / Добыча ревности глухой, / Воспетый им с такою чудной силой, / Сраженный, как и он, безжалостной рукой.”[4] In what follows, I will argue for the addition of another poem to the cycle, “Сосед” (Neighbor), which Lermontov wrote in 1837 while under arrest for “The Poet’s Death,” and which draws heavily on Chénier’s “The Young Captive.”

My ultimate aim in this essay is to show how Lermontov’s Chénier cycle rereads “The Young Captive” after Pushkin, reinterpreting the original poem’s scene of reception. The stakes in this intertextual chain are quite high, as Chénier’s scene serves the figuration not only of the poet-victim (or, as we shall see, the poet-prophet) but also of the modern political subject as such. The wall dividing the two prisoners also divides two forms of subjectivity, which can be described in the terms of Schiller’s essay “On Naïve and Sentimental Poetry” (published, coincidentally, in the same year as “The Young Captive”). Both texts revolve around a dialectical tension that characterizes the modern or “sentimental” subject’s relation to a lost pre-modern or “naïve” fullness. As Schiller writes:

If you step out of your artificial circle toward the completeness of nature, then it stands before you in its magnificent stillness, in its naïve beauty, in its childlike innocence and simplicity. Dwell at that moment on this image, cultivate this feeling; it is worthy of what is most splendid in your human nature. Do not let it occur to you any longer to want to change places with nature. Instead, take nature up into yourself and strive to wed its unlimited advantages to your own endless prerogatives, and from the marriage of both strive to give birth to something divine.[5]

Schiller knows the divine synthesis of nature and artifice is impossible, but in striving to achieve it, positioning oneself always at the point of greatest tension between the two principles, the modern subject unleashes the energy of an infinite perfectibility. It is the task of modern aesthetics to cultivate this tension — this feeling — in a way that promotes such striving. The lyric poetry of modernity — particularly the elegy — is fundamentally concerned with this tension, but so, arguably, is the modern politics of revolution and constitutional democracy that accompanies the elegy’s rise in the late eighteenth century. As I will argue, Pushkin lays bare this political subtext of Chénier’s scene, but he does so only to undermine it. Lermontov then works to restore — in his own idiosyncratic way — what Pushkin has torn apart.

Chénier’s Song of Life and Zhukovsky’s Erotic Death

“The Young Captive” is marked as a scene of reception from the outset, beginning with a quotation mark. The first seven of the poem’s nine stanzas present the direct speech of an imprisoned girl, lamenting her fate and expressing a passionate desire to live. The girl repeatedly compares her vital impulse to the cycles of nature. Unlike the grapevine, thriving all summer without fear of the wine press that awaits it, the young captive is confronted with the knowledge that she must die before her time. Still, she refuses to fall in spirit: “Qu’un stoïque aux yeux secs vole embrasser la mort, / Moi je pleure et j’espère; au noir souffle du Nord / Je plie et relève ma tête.” And later: “Ô mort! tu peux attendre; éloigne, éloigne-toi; / Va consoler les coeurs que la honte, l’effroi, / Le pâle désespoir dévore.” The entire speech is framed by the line, “Je ne veux point mourir encore,” which ends both the first and seventh stanzas. The final two stanzas then depict the receiving consciousness on the other side of this quoted speech. In the adjoining cell, our lyric subject has been listening to the girl’s lament and “plying” it into “the gentle laws of verse” (“Et secouant le joug de mes jours languissants, / Aux douces lois des vers je pliais les accents / De sa bouche aimable et naïve”).[6]

It is important to note that this is not a two-way act of communication. The girl is speaking to herself, singing her own vitality in the face of a death she does not accept. At one point she even compares herself to Philomela, the raped woman who cannot accuse her attacker because he has cut out her tongue, but who is eventually transformed into a nightingale, famed for the beauty of its song. In a similar way, the girl’s lament appears as the inarticulate, unmediated voicing of vital drive — a connection Chénier highlights through the juxaposition of “voice” and “wishes” (“Ainsi, triste et captif, ma lyre, toutefois / S’éveillait; écoutant ces plaintes, cette voix, / Ces voeux d’une jeune captive”). It is only the male subject — “sad and captive” — whose lyre wakes at the sound of the girl’s voice to shape its “kind and naïve accents” into poetry. Although the subject and the young girl are both imprisoned, their positions are thus clearly distinguished. While she wants only to complete the natural cycle of her life like the unconscious vine, the poet uses the different agricultural image of “shaking off a yoke” to characterize himself. The girl is forced out of nature by awareness of her impending death, while the lyric subject moves back towards nature through his encounter with the girl. The encounter’s erotic tension thus offers the promise (left unfulfilled) of a union of civilization and nature, the laws of verse and the power of the life drive. In the final stanza, Chénier presents the poem itself as a surrogate for this impossible union. Reader-lovers will search out the source of the poem’s beauty, which reminds them so gently of their own mortal finitude: “Ces chants, de ma prison témoins harmonieux, / Feront à quelque amant des loisirs studieux / Chercher quelle fut cette belle: / La grâce décorait son front et ses discours, / Et, comme elle, craindront de voir finir leurs jours / Ceux qui les passeront près d’elle.”[7]

            Chénier’s poem is presented as an ode — marked by its complex but regular strophic structure (aabccb, where the couplets are in hexameter and the third and sixth lines are in tetrameter). However, its tonality shifts rather pointedly towards the elegy in the final two stanzas. Indeed, Charles Millevoye, who wrote one of the most influential elegies for Russian poetry, “La Chute des feuilles” (The Fall of the Leaves, 1811), remarked on the elegiac quality of Chénier’s ode and may have been influenced by it.[8] I will return to the importance of this generic ambiguity for Pushkin and Lermontov. For now, it is interesting that the first major imitation of Chénier’s poem in Russia — Vasily Zhukovsky’s “Узник” (The Prisoner, 1819) — radically alters the poem’s genre, transforming it into a ballad thoroughly cast in a gloomy elegiac mode. Zhukovsky also begins with the quoted speech of the female prisoner, but this lasts only four stanzas, and his primary focus — as the shifted gender in the title suggests — is the receiving consciousness of her male neighbor. Almost nothing remains of Chénier’s central tension between the girl’s naïve vitality and the poet plying it into the laws of verse. The girl’s desire for freedom is marked from the beginning as futile (“напрасно”), and although she laments her early death much like her French predecessor (“Еще мне рано умирать”), there is no note of resistance, only sorrow (“Душа готовилась любить… / И все покинуть, все забыть!”[9]

            The male prisoner is utterly transformed by the girl’s gloomy song. He can think of nothing but her, imagining her beauty in all its detail, matching his own toska (yearning, anguish) to hers, dreaming no longer of freedom, but only of his unseen beloved. After the girl is taken away to be executed, her neighbor is released, but his experience has alienated him from the world. He spends his days silent with bowed head and an obscure fire in his eyes, while in the night he wanders gazing up at a star in the heavens. Here is where his beloved now dwells; here she still speaks to him (“Она к нему приносит весть… / О милом весть и в мир иной / Призванье…”). Finally he dies, and death brings sublime consummation: “Он таял, гаснул и угас… / И мнилось, / Что вдруг пред ним в последний час / Явилось / Все то, чего душа ждала, / И жизнь в улыбке отошла.”[10]

            Thus, from Chénier’s song of life in the face of death, Zhukovsky makes a rather morbid song of death’s own erotic beauty. He reworks Chénier’s dialectic of voice and verse, passion and form, into the elegiac tension between loss and sublimation — effectively reversing the polarity of desire from positive drive to a mournful, negative disturbance. Instead of the sentimental attachment to naïve beauty, Zhukovsky’s drama turns on the infectiousness of melancholy. Both prisoners are torn from the fullness of life, cast into an exilic condition where true freedom is impossible. Indeed, the prison is plainly an allegory for earthly existence — and this is what makes the final bliss of sublimation possible. The earthly temporality of the gloomy song is cruelly interrupted by the girl’s execution (“Раз слышит он: затворов гром, / Рыданье, / Звук цепи, голоса… потом / Молчанье…”).[11] But the prisoner has worked hard to transform her song into a visual image, and his labor is rewarded in the end when his eyes fix upon the star. There is no need for a lover-reader to search out the identity of the girl, because earthly memory is not the medium of sublimation. Instead it is the ecstatic moment of passage into another world outside of time.

            This kind of mystical sentimentalism was already on its way out of style in 1819, when Zhukovsky wrote “The Prisoner,” doubtless in direct response to the publication of Chénier’s collected poems. Petr Vyazemsky mocked the ballad in a letter to Alexander Turgenev, first wondering why the prisoner never made an effort to communicate with the girl (“They would have fallen in love, and I would have killed them in the torments of Tantalus”), and then noting the unnaturalness of the rejection of earthly memory.[12] To Zhukovsky’s lines “Кто след ее забытых дней / Укажет? / Кто знает, где она цвела?” Vyazemsky replies simply: “The criminal courts, the jailors, and prison records.”[13] Both remarks take up the common criticism of Zhukovsky for being vague and unrealistic in his verse. The first remark is also interesting for its travesty of the gloomy elegiac model, suggesting something much more erotically charged. The second is more important for my purposes, however. By calling attention to the reality of the prison in which the encounter occurs, Vyazemsky implicitly raises the issue of Zhukovsky’s indifference to Chénier’s own context—the French revolutionary terror. Chénier makes no direct political claims in “The Young Captive” (many of his other poems do), but Zhukovsky’s description of the young girl’s death still seems rather disingenuous. Is there really no concrete political reason why his prisoners’ longed-for meeting occurs only after death? Did the “creator” really just will it otherwise (“Другой создателем удел / Избранный / Достался узнице младой— / Небесно-тайный, не земной”)?[14]

           

Pushkin and Constituent Power

Pushkin’s historical elegy, “André Chénier,” is explicitly framed as an appropriation (indeed, almost a situationist détournement) of “The Young Captive.” He takes his epigraph from Chénier’s ode, and he also refers to the poem directly in the text. Departing dramatically from Zhukovsky, Pushkin makes politics his central concern, using the epigraph to move Chénier himself into the position of the young girl — singing alone as he waits for execution, while a second poet (appropriating Chénier’s lyre) becomes the medium for the song’s transmission as verse (“Певцу любви, дубрав и мира / Несу надгробные цветы. / Звучит незнаемая лира. / Пою. Мне внемлет он и ты”). Something of Zhukovsky’s ballad does persist, however, since Pushkin also narrativizes his image of the prison, including a depiction of the jailors coming to take Chénier to the scaffold (“Вдруг шум. Пришли, зовут. Они! Надежды нет! / Звучат ключи, замки, запоры”). The poem is composed of two dramatic monologues, both of which are interrupted, the first by Pushkin’s lyric subject (“Но, песни нежные мгновенно прерывая, / Младой певец поник задумчивой главой”), and the second by Chénier himself (“Погибни, голос мой, и ты, о призрак ложный, / Ты, слово, звук пустой… / О, нет! / Умолкни ропот малодушный! / […] / Ты не поник главой послушный”). The second interruption is highly ambivalent, however. When Chénier begins addressing himself, it is the second of three different referents for the second person singular in this monologue — first, poetry (“Ты, слово, звук пустой”), then himself (“Гордись, гордись, певец”), and finally the tyrant Robespierre (“а, ты свирепый зверь / Моей главой играй теперь”). The effect is a palpable fragmentation in Chénier’s discourse. At the same time, the presence of Pushkin’s lyric subject also hovers over this passage, suggesting the potential for an actual dialogic encounter. When Chénier attacks the emptiness of the poetic word, one is inclined to hear Pushkin’s voice in reply, praising Chénier for the political power of his verse (“Ты презрел мощного злодея; / Твой светоч, грозно пламенея, / Жестоким блеском озарил / Совет правителей бесславных…”).[15]

The question of Pushkin’s own identification with Chénier has always been central to interpretations of the poem. Ever since 1826, when several men were arrested for distributing copies of the censored first monologue (recontextualized as Pushkin’s own commentary on the Decembrist uprising), there has been a strong tradition of reading the image of Chénier as a medium for Pushkin. There is much to support such a reading. We know, for example, that Pushkin closely identified his own situation with that of the French poet — exiled in Mikhailovskoe, pleading with the tsar for permission to receive medical treatment in one of the capitals or abroad, and then taking the refusal rather dramatically as a kind of death sentence. When Alexander died unexpectedly in November 1825 (around the time Pushkin was anticipating the publication of his first collection of poems, including “Chénier” as the finale of the elegies section), Pushkin recalled Chénier’s final words in the poem, predicting that Robespierre would be next to fall. Only now Pushkin referred to the words as if they reflected his own intimation about the tsar’s demise: “I am a prophet, honest to god, a prophet! I order ‘André Chénier’ to be published in church script in the name of the Father and the Son etc.”[16] One should also note how Pushkin uses Chénier to signal his movement beyond Byron (whose death in 1824 led many to expect a response from Pushkin) and how Chénier proved a useful model for the artistically conservative Pushkin, who always looked to blend innovation and tradition, the sharpness and novelty of Romantic trends with the harmony and antique air of classicism.[17]

However, Pushkin’s engagement with Chénier is not only about parallels and affinities between the two poets. Equally important is their difference. In examining the poem’s central place in the emergence of what he calls Pushkin’s “prophet myth,” Boris Gasparov relates the summoning of Chénier’s shade to an earlier paradigm, in which Pushkin presents his lyric subject in an encounter with an older poet (Ovid, Homer, Racine, etc.). These encounters — prototypically pictured as a meeting with the older poet’s shade in the wilderness — invariably revolve around a tension not unlike Schiller’s naïve and sentimental poetry distinction. The older poet, characterized as a певец (bard), produces effortless, spontaneous verse that flows like a river or birdsong. However, he is also marked by a certain weakness and vulnerability to power. By contrast, the younger poet — with whom Pushkin identifies — is described as суровый (stern) and strong, hardened by alienation and unrelenting in his poetic mission. Thus, the dedication to “André Chénier,” in which Pushkin turns away from Dante and Byron (both “stern” poets according to his system), represents a choice of difference instead of affinity — much as Schiller recommends — encountering a naïve poet he does not resemble, and with whom he cannot change places.[18]

At the same time, “André Chénier” marks a turning point in the development of Pushkin’s attitude toward this Schillerian distinction between the bard and the stern poet. Along with “Imitations of the Koran,” written in 1824, “André Chénier” is one of his first forays into the description of a new figure — the visionary poet-prophet. The prophet takes the place of the stern, sentimental poet, engaging in a wholly different kind of encounter with the naïve. Instead of the bard, the poet-prophet meets a divine, supernatural force in the wilderness. This encounter is typically marked by sacrificial violence and often a descent into madness. The result, however, is a revelatory vision, as the poet rises from the death-like encounter to “burn the hearts of men with the word,” to quote “Пророк” (The Prophet, 1826).[19]

At first glance, the drama of “André Chénier” appears to be that of a bard driven to the point of becoming a prophet by his impending death. Each interruption forces Chénier to change tack, vacillating between different modes of poetic discourse, never finding a secure position from which to sing. Sublimation seems impossible. All that is left for Chénier is his final prophetic word, addressed to the usurping tyrant. But the prophetic transformation is incomplete, for in Pushkin’s model, the poet must make a radical passage through symbolic death to receive his vision. What he sees is not the vulnerability of the usurper but the truth of power. The fullest exploration of this aspect of the prophet myth comes in The Bronze Horseman, where poor Evgeny descends into madness amid the elemental chaos of the flood, leading him to an encounter with Peter’s statue. When he threatens the statue, it seems a futile, symbolic gesture. But then the statue comes to life. Evgeny has received his sacrificial vision. Suspended between beast and man, life and death (“Ни то ни се, ни житель света, / Ни призрак мертвый”), Evgeny perceives the truth of power as a sublime synthesis of elemental force and unshakeable order.[20] Gasparov defines this vision in terms of a manifestly conservative political stance: “This position excludes the poet from any event that he witnesses and interprets. […] The self-consciousness of the messiah, declaring the advent of a ‘wonderous dawn’ (in politics or in literature) is transformed into the position of the prophet, who observes the endless chain of cataclysms in order to grasp their inner meaning.”[21] Ultimately, this is the position Pushkin takes for himself as the one who — unlike Chénier — has survived the revolutionary turmoil and crossed through symbolic death (his long period of exile) to return as the passive, non-participatory, but visionary prophet.

If “André Chénier” is the foundation on which Pushkin’s prophet myth is constructed, how do its politics reflect his conservative turn? First, by moving Chénier into the position of the young captive, Pushkin creates a striking parallel between the emancipatory impulse of the French Revolution and the indomitable life drive of the singing captive. This move has clear political implications. As Pushkin was well aware, Chénier was a moderate, advocating for a constitutional monarchy, opposing the execution of the king, and arguing as early as 1790 that revolutionary fervor should be curtailed in favor of new institutions and laws.[22] Indeed, if we read “The Young Captive” in the retrospective light of Pushkin’s elegy, an allegorical interpretation becomes available in which the “gentle laws of verse” to which the young girl’s life drive must submit (in order to survive her impending death as memory) are none other than the constitutional legitimacy that Chénier believed alone could ensure the success of the revolution. This reading is further supported by the girl’s description of her desire to live as a “fecund illusion” — a boundless power that does not promise truth but only more power (“Plus vive, plus heureuse…”).[23] The revolutionary impulse must be controlled; the only question is how — in a tyrant’s prison or by gentle laws.

The laws of verse bring no such solace to Chénier in Pushkin’s elegy. On the contrary, he laments the failure of his revolutionary ideals, watching on in dismay as France is consumed by the Terror: “О горе! о безумный сон! / Где вольность и закон? Над нами / Единый властвует топор. / Мы свергнули царей. Убийцу с палачами / Избрали мы в цари. О ужас! о позор!” From this position he makes his first prediction of revenge in the name of liberty:

Но ты придешь опять со мщением и славой, —

И вновь твои враги падут,

Народ, вкусивший раз твой нектар освященный,

Все ищет вновь упиться им,

Как будто Вакхом разъяренный,

Он бродит жаждою томим,

Так — он найдет тебя. Под сению равенства

В объятиях твоих он сладко отдохнет,

Так буря мрачная минет!

But this image is diametrically opposed to Chénier’s own political views. The people are desperate with thirst for another drink of liberty, even though their first bout has ended in chaos and tyranny. In the terms of political philosophy, we can say that their constituent power (potentia) resists the objectifying stability of constituted power (potestas). It wants only to flow forth toward full equality — a state Pushkin likens to sweet sleep in the arms of one’s beloved after an erotic union. The image is also deeply resonant with our knowledge of “The Prophet” and its opening lines — “Духовной жаждою томим / В пустыне мрачной я влачился” — but the parallel ends with this phraseological echo. If the French people would fall into blissful, egalitarian sleep upon drinking the wine of liberty, Pushkin’s prophet is torn apart by his encounter with divine power, rising from sleep to declare its truth. A similar contrast with Pushkin’s prophet myth is also apparent at the end of Chénier’s second monologue, when his prediction of vengeance becomes more personal, targeting Robespierre. Here one should note the repetition of the word ничтожный (insignificant, worthless, futile), which Chénier uses to characterize both his own abandonment of the “sweet life” of erotic and poetic pleasures for politics (“И что ж оставлю я? Забытые следы / Безумной ревности и дерзости ничтожной”) and the stature of Robespierre (“Ты все пигмей, пигмей ничтожный”). We can retrospectively link this repetition with Pushkin’s 1827 lyric “Поэт” (The Poet), in which the poet must flee the empty life of society to answer the Apollonian call to sacrifice (“И меж детей ничтожных мира / Быть может, всех ничтожней он”).[24]

            Taken together, these echoes help explain why Chénier fails to fulfill the role of Pushkinian prophet. First, Chénier’s political position is untenable, since constituent power overruns all attempts to contain it within new democratic institutions. The carefully coordinated tension in “The Young Captive” between the song of life and the laws of verse is entirely dissipated, as the poet is effectively trapped in the same cell as the raging passions of the revolution. Liberty and law are nowhere to be found. Here it is necessary to pay somewhat closer attention to the generic tonalities of the two monologues. The odic celebration of liberty in the first monologue (“Приветствую тебя, мое светило!”) is compromised by the fact of the Terror, leading the poet back to himself and his impending death. As a result Chénier drifts gradually into an elegiac key, urging his friends to preserve his memory (his manuscripts) before trailing off with the mention of “The Young Captive” (“и, может быть, утешен буду я / Любовью; может быть, и Узница моя, / Уныла и бледна, стихам любви внимая…”). The second monologue then moves entirely into the elegiac mode, but again Chénier succumbs to a kind of generic failure. Lamenting the end of his “golden youth” and its hedonic joys (“Как сладко жизнь моя лилась и утекала!”), Chénier departs from the elegiac tradition (which would have him fade into the melancholy beauty of death, redeemed perhaps by the tears of a beloved) to fix upon his fate once again, dismissing the empty words he will leave behind him. The final interruption, in which Chénier addresses himself in the second person, reads like a desperate attempt to rekindle the odic raptures with which he began the first monologue, but which by now seem discredited.[25]

            What is the source of this suffering in Chénier’s poetic discourse? It is Pushkin’s isolation of the French poet, denying him the dialectical tension between naïve and sentimental positions that defined his lyric subjectivity in “The Young Captive.” Without this tension, all Chénier can do is thrash about in vain, offering his prophecies of vengeance. But if the prophecy that liberty will rise again to crush its enemies comes true, the result will only be the dissipation of desire into sleep. The prophecy that Robespierre will fall — which does come true — is also little consolation, since the emptiness of the pygmy tyrant is something that has engulfed Chénier himself. What remains? Only the lyric subject’s receiving consciousness. Masked by a cloak of historicism (the direct quotation of Chénier in the epigraph and the footnotes that follow the poem), Pushkin’s reading strategy is in fact much more aggressive and, ultimately, destructive. The stern poets, Byron and Dante, are left behind, while the bard is tortured between ode and elegy, denied both the power of the former and the sublimation of the latter. The possibilities for subjective desire are wholly undermined. In the end, “André Chénier” reads as a kind of radical ground clearing, preparing the way for the true prophet and his very different form of subjectivity. Naïve, constituent power cannot be bound by law to produce the modern subjectivity of free citizens. Instead, the modern subject encounters the naïve as a violent, elemental force that tears him apart, dragging him out of the living death (of modern life) to witness and declare the truth of an eternal power that no usurper or revolution can unseat.

           

Lermontov’s Visionary Synthesis

Turning now to Lermontov, “The Poet’s Death” can be linked to Pushkin’s “André Chénier” in many ways besides the subtle reference behind the image of Lensky. First, the original version exhibits a similar two-part structure — with a more oratorical, odic passage (attacking those responsible for Pushkin’s death, particularly d’Anthès) followed by an elegiac turn (beginning with the reference to Chénier and ending with the lament: “Замолкли звуки чудных песен, / Не раздаваться им опять: / Приют певца угрюм и тесен, / И на устах его печать”).[26] The poem also contains an interesting version (indeed, an inversion) of Pushkin’s central interruptive device in “André Chénier.” Lermontov famously returned to the poem after ten days — during which his own poetic star was rapidly rising amid debates over Pushkin’s duel — adding the final sixteen-line coda that breaks the “seal” on the original version of the poem, returning to the odic tonality of the first section and calling for justice. The second section and the coda also recall “André Chénier” through the use of variable iambs, while the final prophecy of divine justice (linked to a question of earthly vengeance in the epigraph, which was also added later) recalls Chénier’s prophetic words in Pushkin’s elegy.

            As many have noted, Lermontov’s attitude to Pushkin is rather ambivalent in “The Poet’s Death.”[27] If we follow the parallels listed above and read the poem as a response to (or representation of reading) “André Chénier,” this impression is only heightened, since Lermontov effectively positions Pushkin in the same (feminized) place of passivity and frustration the latter had crafted for Chénier. Lermontov readdresses Chénier’s self-questioning in the second monologue (“Зачем от жизни сей, ленивой и простой, / Я кинулся туда, где ужас роковой”) to question Pushkin (“Зачем от мирных нег и дружбы простодушной / Вступил он в этот свет завистливый и душный”). Only now he updates the image, replacing Chénier’s false revolutionary hopes with the societal emptiness of Pushkin’s “Poet,” referring to the “клеветники ничтожные” that drove him to his death.[28] At the same time, the other side of Pushkin’s split poetic subjectivity — the sacrificial prophet — is also addressed and questioned. Again referring to “The Poet,” Lermontov strips Pushkin of his power, describing his sacrifice as a purely passive victimization.

This victimization appears most clearly in Lermontov’s subtle manipulation of the “bowed head” motif central to “André Chénier,” which potentially sends the reader back to “The Young Captive” and even Zhukovsky’s “Prisoner”:

The Young Captive

…au noir souffle du Nord

Je plie et rеlève ma tête.

 

(… toward the black breath of the North

I bow and raise again my head.)

Aux douces lois des vers je pliais les accents

De sa bouche aimable et naïve…

(I plied the accents of her kind and naïve mouth

Into the gentle laws of verse…)

The Prisoner

Он в людстве сумрачен и тих. […]

Стоит он, голову склоня.

(Among people he is gloomy and quiet […]

He stands with his head bowed.)

Но тихо в сумраке ночей

Он бродит

И с неба темного очей

Не сводит.

(But quietly in the gloom of the nights

He wanders

And he does not take his eyes from

The dark sky.)

André Chénier

Но песни нежные мгновенно прерывая,

Младой певец поник задумчивой главой.

(But, interrupting his tender songs,

The young bard bowed his pensive head.)

 

Умолкни, ропот малодушный!

Гордись и радуйся, поэт:

Ты не поник главой послушной

Перед позором наших лет.

(Silence, cowardly grumbling!

Be proud and rejoice, poet:

You did not bow a submissive head

Before the shame of our age.)

The Poet

В заботах суетного света

Он малодушно погружен.

(In the vain worries of society

He is sunk like a coward.)

К ногам народого кумира

Не клонит гордой головой.

 

(He does not bow his proud head

At the feat of the people’s idol.)

The Poet’s Death

Пал, оклеветанный молвой

С свинцом в груди и жаждой мести,

Поникнув гордой головой!..

(He fell, slandered by the crowd

With a bullet in his chest and thirst for revenge,

His proud head bowed!..)

И, прежный сняв венок, — они венец терновый,

Увитый лаврами, надели на него.

(And, taking off his former wreath, they put on him

A crown of thorns, woven of laurels.)

At the center of this intertextual cluster is an alternation between the head bowed and raised (or unbowed). In Chénier’s “The Young Captive,” the alternation is most complex — the captive bows (plier) her head in the face of death but then raises it again in defiance, only for the lyric subject to bend (plier) it back again into his gentle laws. Zhukovsky’s diurnal metaphor (in which the captive is always gloomy and “crepuscular” [сумрачный]) transforms the alternation into an existential split between alienated social life and a mystic encounter with the eternal. In “The Poet” Pushkin arguably follows Zhukovsky but restores something of Chénier’s defiance, as the head is now raised with the living power of Apollo, resisting the inertia of society and its false idols. But in “André Chénier,” as we have seen, things are not so clear. Chénier also raises his gloomy elegiac head in odic defiance of the usurper. But is his sacrifice truly that of the prophet? Lermontov would seem to give us a firmly negative answer to this question. For there is no raised head at all in “The Poet’s Death” — only a bowed head in a crown of thorns.

However, if we look further into Lermontov’s Chénier cycle, thе motif is in fact much more richly nuanced:

“To ***” (1830/31)

О, полно извинять разврат! […]

Пусть им звучит другая лира,

Но ты остановись, певец,

Златой венец – не твой венец. […]

Ты видел зло, и перед злом

Ты гордым не поник челом.

(O, enough excusing debauchery! […]

Let a different lyre resound for them,

But you, bard, halt,

The wreath of gold is not your wreath. […]

You saw evil, and before evil

You did not bow your proud head.)[29]

“Do not laugh at my prophetic toska…” (1837)

Не смейся над моей пророческой тоскою. […]

Я знал, что голова, любимая тобою,

С твоей груди на плаху перейдет […]

И я паду; и хитрая вражда

С улыбкой очернит мой недоцветший гений;

И я погибну без следа […]

Но я без страха жду довременный конец.

Давно пора мне мир увидеть новый;

Пускай толпа растопчет мой венец:

Венец певца, венец терновый!..

Пускай! Я им не дорожил.

(Do not laugh at my prophetic toska. […]

I knew that this head, beloved by you,

Would go from your breast to the chopping block […]

And I will fall; and with a smile

Cunning enmity will besmirch my unbloomed genius

And I will perish without a trace […]

But I await my early end without fear.

It has long been time for me to see a new world.

Let the crowd trample my crown:

The crown of a bard, a crown of thorns!..

Let them! I never held it dear.)[30]

Sashka (1839)

И кровь с тех пор рекою потекла,

И загремела жадная секира…

И ты, поэт, высокого чела

Не уберег! […]

…Ты прошел кровавый путь

Не отомстив, и творческую грудь

Не стих язвительный, ни смех холодный

Не посетил—и ты погиб бесплодно…

И Франция упала за тобой

К ногам убийц бездушных и ничтожных.

 

(And ever since, blood flowed like a river,

And the pitiful axe clattered down…

And you, poet, you did not keep

Your high brow! […]

…You traveled a bloody path

Without vengeance, and your creative breast

Was not visited by a biting verse

Or a cold laugh—and your death was fruitless…

And France fell after you

At the feet of worthless, soulless murderers.)[31]

  

The first thing worth noticing here is the close semantic (and phonetic) association between bard (певец) and crown (венец) in the Chénier cycle, with the crown of thorns appearing as an elaboration in both “The Poet’s Death” and “Do not laugh at my prophetic toska…” This latter poem also links the crown of thorns to prophecy, but unlike Pushkin, Lermontov makes no distinction between bard and prophet, using both terms to describe Chénier.[32]

The effect here is very similar to Pushkin’s isolation of Chénier in his 1825 elegy, with Pushkin’s prophet now also appearing as a figure of vulnerability to power. This shift is confirmed by Lermontov’s final rejection of the unbowed head image, as it appears in none of the other poems from the cycle. Instead, Lermontov focuses on the image of decapitation.[33] However, the prophetic toska Lermontov attributes to Chénier is very different from Pushkin’s prophecy of liberty prevailing over the usurper. For Lermontov, the prophecy reveals only the impending death of the lyric subject. He knows his sacred head is destined not only for the crown of thorns but also for the guillotine. Indeed, as the passage from Sashka reveals, this will be a death without vengeance. Similarly, as David Powelstock has pointed out, the image of Pushkin’s Christlike martyrdom in “The Poet’s Death” is manifestly lacking in “redemptive force.”[34]

So, if Pushkin isolates Chénier in order to clear a space for his prophet myth, what is the goal of Lermontov’s isolation of Pushkin and Chénier together on the “wrong” (i.e., naïve) side of the prison wall? The first way to approach this question is to examine Lermontov’s version of Pushkin’s interruption motif (originally taken from Zhukovsky’s depiction of the captive’s death). If both Zhukovsky and Pushkin use the interruption to represent the failure of consummation — leaving that task to a second figure (the male prisoner and Pushkin’s lyric subject respectively) — the consummation of Lermontov’s bard-prophet is not blocked in this way. On the one hand, in Sashka and “The Poet’s Death,” he achieves a kind of anti-consummation as the total oblivion of a death that is neither avenged by violence, nor redeemed by poetry (“sealed lips” and “fruitless death”). On the other hand, in “Do not laugh at my prophetic toska…,” this image of oblivion (“I will perish without a trace”) is complemented by fatalistic indifference — what Lermontov calls prophetic toska (“Let them! I never held it dear”). In each case, death comes not as a cruel interruption but as a more or less natural closure, reducing life’s consummation to the revelation of futility. At the same time, each of these poems also contains a second figure—either a beloved or a solitary reader who understands the forgotten poet — confirming the consummated, encircled character of the latter’s death, so distinct from that of Pushkin’s Chénier.

How does Lermontov relate the consummation of the bard-prophet to his own lyric subjectivity? The simplest strategy comes in the appended coda of “The Poet’s Death,” where the lyric subject makes the call of prophetic vengeance himself, appealing to a higher law: “Но есть и божий суд, наперсники разврата! / Есть грозный суд: он ждет; / Он недоступен звону злата / И мысли и дела он знает наперед.”[35] This strategy is closest to Pushkin’s ground clearing for the prophet myth in “André Chénier,” although it takes a significantly more aggressive stance toward the dying bard. If Chénier dies upon uttering his prophetic word (while Pushkin’s true prophet rises from death to speak his), Lermontov’s dead poet falls into an inviolable silence. Prophecy belongs only to the successor. A different strategy appears in “Do not laugh at my prophetic toska…,” where the lyric subject is the dying bard-prophet. Here Lermontov introduces one of the central motifs of all his work — that of a subject seeing his own corpse. The beloved in “Do not laugh…” appears only to set up a phenomenological relation between self and other that the lyric subject paradoxically appropriates for himself. The subject’s prophetic knowledge of his coming decapitation and the trampling of his crown allow him to occupy a position outside himself, conquering fear and preparing for the vision of another world.[36] The fullest realization of this motif comes, of course, in Lermontov’s “Сон” (Dream, 1841), where the dying lyric subject migrates, through a dream within a dream, into the consciousness of the beloved, as she contemplates his corpse. Although “Dream” is not part of the Chénier cycle, its connection to Pushkin’s “Prophet” is well established, and it can also be linked to “The Poet’s Death” through the phrase “с свинцом в груди” (anatomically incorrect in Pushkin’s case but central to Lermontov’s myth of the dying bard-prophet).[37]

The double-sided subjectivity of this peculiarly Lermontovian figure effectively restores the naïve/sentimental dialectic that Pushkin dissipates in “André Chénier.” To show how this works, I turn now to “Neighbor”:

            Кто б ни был ты, печальный мой сосед,

Люблю тебя, как друга юных лет,

Тебя, товарищ мой случайный,

Хотя судьбы коварною игрой

Навеки мы разлучены с тобой

Стеной теперь — а после тайной.

Когда зари румяный полусвет

В окно тюрьмы прощальный свой привет

Мне, умирая, посылает

И, опершись на звучное ружье,

Наш часовой, про старое житье

Мечтая, стоя засыпает, —

Тогда, чело склонив к сырой стене,

Я слушаю — и в мрачной тишине

Твои напевы раздаются.

О чем они — не знаю, но тоской

Исполнены, и звуки чередой,

Как слезы, тихо льются, льются...

И лучших лет надежды и любовь —

В груди моей всё оживает вновь,

И мысли далеко несутся,

И полон ум желаний и страстей,

И кровь кипит — и слезы из очей,

Как звуки, друг за другом льются.[38]

The intertextual link in this poem to Chénier’s ode is quite evident. The scene of two prisoners divided by the adjoining wall of their cells, with one taking comfort from the other’s singing, immediately calls “The Young Captive” to mind. Indeed, Lermontov comes close to reproducing Chénier’s strophic structure — with an identical rhyme scheme and similar alternation in line length (the only difference being the pentameter rather than hexameter couplets). There is also a fair degree of similarity to Zhukovsky’s “Prisoner” with the diurnal markers and the reference to the bowed head — albeit inverted to mark the night of secret communication with the neighbor.[39] A similar inversion appears in the image of a mental and emotional flight into the past — where the prisoner, like the sentry, finds a kind of freedom and renewed life. This retrograde motion can be contrasted with Zhukovsky’s progressive pursuit of consummation — the prisoner does not feel free, even after release, until he rejoins his beloved beyond the threshold of death. However, Lermontov’s most important innovation is his replacement of the erotic tension between the two prisoners with a strong “neighborly” bond. The effect of this shift is to restore the metaliterary aspect of Chénier’s ode (after Zhukovsky’s erasure and Pushkin’s radical détournement), while simultaneously raising it to another level of sophistication. If Chénier’s final two stanzas reduce the proceeding seven to an inarticulate vocalization of desire, transformed into verse by the lyric subject’s gentle laws, Lermontov begins with the subject’s love for his neighbor and ends with a perfect chiasmus of sounds that flow like tears and tears that follow one another like sounds. The power of this image lies in the delicate tension it cultivates between a continuous flow and an articulated sequence. Instead of the submission of voice (and desire) to the law of language, Lermontov positions his lyric subject at a utopian point of synthesis where mediated communication produces an immediacy of feeling.[40]

Lermontov’s “Neighbor” is thus fully invested in the naïve/sentimental dialectic that dominates the European elegy. But, at the same time, he offers a new version of it, where the wandering, exilic subject — Pushkin’s stern poet reborn — gains access to a mystic moment of what Powelstock calls “intimacy” with the other, an almost religious tenderness (or умиленье) that does not dissolve but seemingly confirms the integrity (eternity) of the subject. This is a visionary moment, but, as Powelstock importantly notes, it is not a predictive prophecy but a present moment of revelatory perception — listening to the other beyond the wall.[41] Indeed, this visionary intimacy — which dominates all of the poems from Lermontov’s 1837 guardhouse cycle — is the perfect complement to that of the subject encountering his own corpse in “Dream.” This is a subject position simultaneously inside and outside the self, full with the consummation of death and yet still somehow alive and aware of the world around. In terms of the Schillerian dialectic, it is a subject that knows both naïve immediacy and exilic longing, perhaps anticipating Baudelaire’s definition of the modern as an evanescent flash of the eternal within the transient flow of earthly time.

And yet where are liberty and law?

Here it is worth returning to “The Poet’s Death,” which Stephanie Sandler describes as revealing a peculiar emptiness or superficiality to the law (similar to Powelstock’s point about the poem’s lack of redemptive force).[42] Behind the law that should punish the poet’s murderer — but in all likelihood will not — lies the grim reality of the poet’s violated body. In my view this excluded violence should be related to the tradition of Chénier’s reception in Russia and particularly “The Young Captive.” In Chénier’s ode, as in Zhukovsky’s “Prisoner” and Lermontov’s “Neighbor”, the violence of imprisonment is almost entirely effaced (particularly for Lermontov, for whom execution was never a threat). In each case, the dialectic of the naïve’s subjectivization comes through the sentimental play of affects, holding out hope for sustained desire — be it through submission, sublimation, or some visionary synthesis. Following the political allegory that Pushkin suggests in his response to Chénier, this hope implies an image of freedom and the constituent power of a revolutionary people — a modern people — finding stability as constituted power. However apolitical these three poems may seem on the surface, each upholds and asserts the modern political subject as a legitimate ideal.

Pushkin, by contrast, offers an image of violence laid bare, an image of the naïve that is not “nice” but cruel and powerful beyond the (perhaps entirely illusory) will and agency of modern subjects. The poet encounters this violence and recognizes its power, but this is the limit of his vision. He offers no salvation and certainly no promise of containing this power in “gentle laws.” Instead Pushkin appeals to a divine, unknowable Other, whose inhuman power dissolves both law and liberty at the moment of the prophet’s awakening. Ultimately, this implies a rejection of modernity as so much hubris and illusion, and it is precisely this rejection that Lermontov works to reverse. The contradiction between his scandalous epigraph to “The Poet’s Death” (calling on the tsar to avenge Pushkin) and the coda’s appeal to a higher law of justice hints at the tsar’s impotence, leaving divine law without an earthly representative.[43] Lermontov’s response to this evacuation of power — which is the essence of modern politics — is to proclaim the liberty of a subject that has wholly encircled and internalized the naïve fullness of constituent violence, as if carrying around its own death like a prize. To be sure, this is an ambivalent image, but it is precisely such ambivalence that sustains the dialectic of modernity in its endless striving.

References

Chénier, André. Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Baudoin Frères, 1819).

Gasparov, Boris. Poeticheskii iazyk Pushkina kak fakt istorii russokogo literaturnogo iazyka (St. Peterburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 1999).

Gasparov, Boris. “Russkaia Gretsiia, russkii Rim,” California Slavic Studies 17 (1994): 258-59.

Ginzburg, L. Ia. “K analizu stikhotvoreniia Lermontova ‘Smert’ poeta’. Kogo podozrevaet Lermontov pod slovami: ‘pevets nevedomyi, no milyi’?” Slavia 9.1 (1930): 85-102.

Grechanaia, E. P. “Andre Chen’e v Rossii,” in Andre Chen’e, Sochineniia 1819 (Moscow: Nauka, 1995), 448-50.

Kahn, Andrew. Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 186-97.

Lermontov, Mikhail. Sochineniia v 6 tt. (Moscow-Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1954-57).

Powelstock, David. Becoming Mikhail Lermontov: The Ironies of Romantic Individualism in Nicholas I’s Russia (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005).

Pushkin, Aleksandr. Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tt. (Moscow: GIKhL, 1959-62).

Ram, Harsha. The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 172-73, 202-04.

Sandler, Stephanie. Commemorating Pushkin: Russia’s Myth of a National Poet (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 31.

Sandler, Stephanie. “The Poetics of Authority in Pushkin’s ‘André Chénier’,” Slavic Review 42.2 (1983): 187-203.

Schiller, Friedrich. Essays, ed. Walter Hinderer and Daniel Dahlstrom (New York: Continuum, 1993), 193.

Vol'pert, Larisa. Lermontov i literatura Frantsii (St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2008), 68-85.

Zhukovskii, V. A. Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 20 tt. (Moscow: Iazyki russkoi literatury, 1999-).

 


[1] See E. P. Grechanaia, “Andre Chen’e v Rossii,” in Andre Chen’e, Sochineniia 1819 (Moscow: Nauka, 1995), 448-50.

[2] See Boris Gasparov, “Russkaia Gretsiia, russkii Rim,” California Slavic Studies 17 (1994): 258-59.

[3] Lermontov’s Chénier cycle and the history of its scholarly reconstruction are discussed in Larisa Vol'pert, Lermontov i literatura Frantsii (St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2008), 68-85. The cycle includes “Из Андрея Шенье” (From André Chénier, 1830-31), “К***” (О, полно извинять разврат…) (То *** [O, enough excusing debauchery…], 1830-31), “К***” (Когда твой друг с пророческой тоскою…) (To *** [When with prophetic toska your friend…], written between 1830 and 1832), five lines from “Смерть поэта” (The Poet’s Death, 1837), “Не смейся над моей пророческой тоскою…” (Do not laugh at my prophetic toska…, 1837), and stanzas 79 and 80 of the narrative poem, Сашка (Sashka, 1839).

[4] Mikhail Lermontov, Sochineniia v 6 tt. (Moscow-Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1954-57), 2: 85 (“And he is killed—and taken by the grave, / Like that bard, unknown but dear, / The prey of ignorant zeal, / Of whom he sang with such marvelous power, / Struck down, just like him, by a merciless hand”). Lydia Ginzburg was the first scholar to argue that Lermontov is referring to Chénier here. See L. Ia. Ginzburg, “K analizu stikhotvoreniia Lermontova ‘Smert’ poeta’. Kogo podozrevaet Lermontov pod slovami: ‘pevets nevedomyi, no milyi’?” Slavia 9.1 (1930): 85-102.

[5] Friedrich Schiller, Essays, ed. Walter Hinderer and Daniel Dahlstrom (New York: Continuum, 1993), 193.

[6] André Chénier, Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Baudoin Frères, 1819), 216, 217, 218 (“Let a stoic fly to embrace death without a tear / Me, I cry and hope; toward the black breath of the North / I bow and raise again my head”; “O death! You can wait; get away, away; / Go and console the hearts that shame, fright / And pale despair devour”; “I do not yet want to die”; “And shaking off the yoke of my languishing days, / I plied the accents of her kind and naïve mouth / Into the gentle laws of verse”).

[7] Ibid., 217-218 (“And so, sad and captive, my lyre was nonetheless / Awakening; listening to these moans, this voice / These wishes of a young captive”; “These songs, harmonious witnesses of my prison, / Will make some lover of leisurely studies / Search for who this beauty was: / Grace adorned her brow and her discourse, / And, like her, all will fear seeing their days end / Who pass their days near her”).

[8] Vatsuro ??

[9] V. A. Zhukovskii, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 20 tt. (Moscow: Iazyki russkoi literatury, 1999-), 3: 142 (“It is too soon for me to die”; “Her soul was preparing to love… / Instead she must abandon everything and forget!”)

[10] Ibid., 145-46 (“It brings him news… / News of his beloved and a call / Into another world…”; “He withered, faded, and went out… / And it seemed / That suddenly before him in his final hour / Appeared / Everything his soul had been waiting for, / And his life departed with a smile”).

[11] Ibid., 144 (“Then one day he hears the thunder of locks, / Weeping, / The sound of a chain, voices… then / Silence…”).

[12] Ibid., 372.

[13] Ibid., 145 (“Who will show the trace of her / Forgotten days? / Who knows where she bloomed?”); Ibid., 372.

[14] Ibid., 144 (“Another lot was chosen / By the creator / For the young prisoner— / Mysterious and heavenly, not of this earth”).

[15] Aleksandr Pushkin, Sobranie sochinenii v 10 tt. (Moscow: GIKhL, 1959-62), 2: 80, 85, 83, 84 (“Bard of love, oak groves, and peace, / I bring flowers to your grave / An unknown lyre resounds. / I sing. You and he are listening”; “Suddenly there is noise. They’ve come, they’re calling. It’s them! There is no hope! / The sound of keys, locks, and bolts are heard”; “But, interrupting his tender songs, / The young bard bowed his pensive head”; “Perish, voice of mine, and you, o false specter, / You, word, you empty sound… / O, no! / Silence, cowardly grumbling! / […] / You did not bow a submissive head”; “Be proud, proud, bard; and, you, wild beast / Now play with my head”; “You despised the mighty villain; / The terrible flames of your beacon / Illuminated the council of shameless leaders / With its shining ferocity”). Note the alternating image of the bowed and unbowed head, to which I will return.

[16] Ibid., 678.

[17] The first argument is examined in Stephanie Sandler, “The Poetics of Authority in Pushkin’s ‘André Chénier’,” Slavic Review 42.2 (1983): 187-203; the second, in Andrew Kahn, Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008),186-97.

[18] See Boris Gasparov, Poeticheskii iazyk Pushkina kak fakt istorii russokogo literaturnogo iazyka (St. Peterburg: Akademicheskii proekt, 1999), 213-325.

[19] Pushkin, Sobranie, 2: 150.

[20] Ibid., 3: 296 (“Neither this, nor that, neither an inhabitant of the world, / Nor a dead ghost”).

[21] Gasparov, Poeticheskii iazyk Pushkina, 232.

[22] Pushkin refers to Chénier’s moderate position in the notes to the poem. He also adopted Chénier’s views as his own in the 1817 ode “To Liberty.”

[23] Chénier, Oeuvres complètes, 216 (“more alive, happier”).

[24] Pushkin, Sobranie, 2: 81, 82, 149, 84, 179 (“O sorrow! O mad dream! / Where are liberty and law? Over us / Only the axe has power. / We overthrew the kings [lit., tsars]. We elected / A murderer as king. O horror! O shame!”; “But you will come again with vengeance and glory, / And again your enemies will fall; / The people, having tasted once your sacred nectar, / Forever seeks to drink of it again; / Like one enraged by Bacchus, / They wander, tormented with thirst; / And so – they will find you. Under the shade of equality / In your embraces they will rest sweetly; / And the dark storm will pass!”; “Tormented by spiritual thirst / I dragged my way through a dark desert”; “And what will I leave behind? The forgotten traces / Of mad zeal and futile daring”; “You are just a pygmy, an insignificant pygmy”; “And among the worthless children of the world, / Perhaps he is the most worthless of all”).

[25] Ibid., 81, 83 (“I greet you, my shining star!”; “and, perhaps, I will be consoled / By love; perhaps, my Captive, / Gloomy and pale, hearing my verses of love…”; “How sweetly my life flowed and coursed away!”).

[26] Ibid. (“The sounds of his marvelous songs have fallen silent, / They will not ring out again: / The haven of the bard is gloomy and cramped, / And on his lips there is a seal”).

[27] See, for example, David Powelstock, Becoming Mikhail Lermontov: The Ironies of Romantic Individualism in Nicholas I’s Russia (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005), 185-86.

[28] Pushkin, Sobranie, 2: 83 (“Why did I leave behind this life, lazy and simple, / To thrust myself into that fatal horror”); Lermontov, Sochineniia, 2: 85 (“Why did he leave behind peaceful langor and simple-hearted friendship / To enter this envious and suffocating society”; “worthless slanderers”).

[29] Lermontov, Sochineniia, 1: 279.

[30] Ibid., 2: 96. In the early version of this poem, dated between 1830 and 1832, Lermontov includes a clear reminiscence of Pushkin’s 1825 elegy: “И близок час... и жизнь его потонет / В забвенье, без следа, как звук пустой.” Ibid., 217 (And his hour is near… his life will sink / Into oblivion, without a trace, like an empty sound).

[31] Ibid., 3: 71.

[32] Lermontov also associates the unbowed head image from Pushkin’s “Poet” with the bard in the early lyric “To ***” (O, enough excusing debauchery…).

[33] The decapitation and unbowed head motifs are closely linked in “André Chénier,” and Pushkin clearly associated himself with the image as well. In a letter to Vyazemsky in November 1825, he refers to himself with Chénier’s last words (“Il y avait quelque chose là…” [There was something there…], uttered while pointing to his head), perhaps hinting at the tsar’s refusal to grant him treatment abroad for an aneurysm in his leg. Pushkin, Sobranie, 9: 215. See Gasparov, Poeticheskii iazyk Pushkina, 239-40.

[34] Powelstock, Becoming Mikhial Lermontov, 185.

[35] Lermontov, Sochineniia, 2: 86 (“But there is divine justice, you favorites of debauchery! / There is a terrible justice: it waits; / It cannot be moved by the ringing of gold coins / And it knows your thoughts and deeds in advance”).

[36] One finds the same attitude to untimely death in one of the cycle’s early poems, “From André Chénier”: “Я не снесу стыдом сплетаемый венец / И сам себе сыщу безвременный конец.” Ibid., 1: 313 (“I will not take off this crown woven of shame / And will myself seek out my untimely end”).

[37] Lermontov, Sochineniia, 2: 197 (“with a bullet in my chest”). These connections are most fully explored in Harsha Ram, The Imperial Sublime: A Russian Poetics of Empire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), 172-73, 202-04.

[38] Lermontov, Sochineniia, 2: 91 (“Whoever you are, my sorrowful neighbor, / I love you like a friend from younger years, / You, my chance comrade, / Although the sly game of fate / Has separated us forever / Now by a wall—and afterwards, a secret. // When the ruddy halflight of sunset / Sends its parting greeting through / The prison window to me, dying, / And our sentry, falls asleep standing up / Leaning on his loud weapon, / Dreaming about the old way of life, // Then, bending my brow to the damp wall, / I listen—and in the gloomy quiet / Your songs ring out. / I don’t know what they are about; but they are sung / With toska and the sounds in turn, / Like tears, quietly flow, flow… // And the hope and love of my best years / Is coming to life again all the while in my breast, / And thoughts rush afar, / And my mind is full of desires and passions, / And my blood boils—and the tears from my eyes, / Like sounds, flow one after the other”).  

[39] The final lines of the last two stanzas all echo Zhukovsky’s opening line: “За днями дни идут, идут…” Zhukovskii, PSS, 3: 141 (“Day follows, follows after day…”). It is worth noting that Zhukovsky also uses a six-line strophic structure with alternating line lengths, although the balladic rhythm is manifestly different from Chénier’s ode (as from Lermontov’s “Neighbor”), with two alternating iambic tetrameter and monometer lines followed by a tetrameter couplet.

[40] It is interesting that the return to Chénier in terms of the scene of reception is also a final step in the movement away from his ode’s use of eroticism and sexual difference—a movement Pushkin initiates when he positions Chénier in the “feminine” place of the naïve.

[41] See Powelstock, Becoming Mikhail Lermontov, 197-99 and passim.

[42] See Stephanie Sandler, Commemorating Pushkin: Russia’s Myth of a National Poet (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 31.

[43] For the epigraph, see Lermontov, Sochineniia, 2: 329.

Visitors

We have 93 guests and no members online