The Poet and His Readers: Three Lyrics and an Unfinished Story of Alexander Pushkin

Kathleen Manukyan


Now and then, in the course of events,
when the flow of time turns into a muddy
torrent and his­tory floods our cellars,
earnest people are apt to examine the
interrelation between a writer and the
national or universal community; and
writers themselves begin to worry about
their obligations. I am speaking of an
abstract type of writer. Those whom we
can imagine concretely, especially those
on the elderly side, are too vain of
their gifts or too reconciled with
mediocrity to bother about obligations.
They see very clearly, in the middle
distance, what fate promises them—the
marble nook or the plaster niche.[1]


     One of the features of Pushkin’s longer works, made famous in Eugene Onegin, are his many asides addressed to his “dear reader.” Often deliv­ered as apologies for straying from the plot or clarifications of the narra­tor’s opinion about the matter at hand, they add to our curiosity about the author’s relationship with his readers. How does Pushkin envision, accom­modate, or avoid his reader? For that matter, how much does this vary from genre to genre or evolve as the poet matures? These questions could occupy volumes and warrant analysis from an array of academic ap­proaches—textual, archival, and sociological to name a few. This paper, first, will attempt to scratch the surface and illustrate some complexities of the question through an analysis of three short lyrics from different pe­riods in the poet’s life. Then, it will frame, elaborate upon, and connect its observations in light of “Egyptian Nights,” a short, unfinished prose work from the last years of Pushkin’s life.

     In the three poems which will be discussed, Pushkin expresses a com­parable view of the reading public, but each is uniquely colored by the stage of the poet’s career during which it was written. In the first, “To Zhukovsky” (1818), the aspiring young poet expresses appreciation for and solidarity with a mentor in poetry. In the second poem chronologically (which, however, will be analyzed third in this study), “Conversation of a Bookseller and Poet” (written in 1824 and first published in 1825 as a for­ward to the first chapter of Eugene Onegin), the poet announces that he is ready to turn professional by showing, in dialogue form, the interplay of his artistic conscience (poet) with his consciousness of practical and social needs and influences (bookseller). In the third, “Exegi Monumentum,” known by its first words “I have erected a monument to myself...” (written in 1836 and left unpublished during the author’s life), the celebrated poet considers his legacy. Thus, each of the poems features a poet’s encounter with some form of authority: mentor, publisher, laureate predecessors. 

     I have opted to consider the poems in a functional, rather than chron­ological order for the purposes of this study. Therefore, the first section of the paper looks for common themes between the two works most chrono­logically distant: “To Zhukovsky” and “I have erected…” This highlights language and thoughts that were common to Pushkin in both his earliest and latest periods of poetic production. The second section takes up “Book­seller,” which lays out the conflicts in Pushkin’s thought on his readers and his poetic calling most plainly. It also serves as a transition to the dis­cussion of the prose work because of its generic innovation and use of a lit­erary double. The third and final section of the article takes up “Egyptian Nights,” speculating on the issues raised in the other poems—thematic and biographical—which complicate the work and perhaps prevented its completion.



     These three lyric poems all express the elevated position of the poet over society and disdain for the bulk of society’s readers. In “To Zhukovsky” this opinion is put forth in verse from the point of view of a reader, but, as the poet/reader does not fail to point out, not an ordinary one. Thus we read:

Когда сменяются виденья
Перед тобой в волшебной мгле
И быстрый холод вдохновенья
Власы подъемлет на челе, –
Ты прав, творишь ты для немногих,
Не для завистливых судей,
Не для сбирателей убогих
Чужих суждений и вестей,
Но для друзей таланта строгих,
Священной истины друзей.
Не всякого полюбит счастье,
Не все родились для венцов.[2]

When visions flash / Before you in the magic haze / And the brisk coldness of inspiration / Raises the hair on your brow,— / You are right, you create for the select, / Not for the envious critics, / Nor for dull collectors / Of others’ opinions and news, / But for discern­ing friends of talent, / Friends of sacred truth. / Fortune will not love just anyone, / Not all were born for laurel wreaths.[3]

     The words “for the select” are taken from the title of some booklets of German poetry and Russian translations published by Vasily Zhukovsky, the fellow poet to whom the lyric is dedicated. Zhukovsky was the leading Russian poet and founder of the literary society, Arzamas, of which the young Pushkin became a member. In 1820, upon the publication of Ruslan and Liudmila, Zhukovsky famously presented his portrait to Pushkin with the inscription “To the triumphant student from his defeated teacher.” The two remained lifelong friends.

     “To Zhukovsky” reads like a pledge of solidarity from one true poet to another, from one “discerning friend of talent” to another amidst throngs of petty readers.[4] The communion of the two through the act of reading is most vividly expressed in the final lines, continued from above:

Блажен, кто знает сладострастье
Высоких мыслей и стихов!
Кто наслаждение прекрасным
В прекрасный получил удел
И твой восторг уразумел
Восторгом пламенным и ясным.

He’s blessed, who knows the sweet passion / Of lofty thoughts and poems! / Who received delight in the beautiful / As his beautiful fate / And comprehended your rapture / With rapture fiery and clear.

Through repetition of the words prekrasnyi (beautiful) and vostorg (rap­ture) in the final quatrain, the poem shows that the poet (Zhukovsky) and this reader (Pushkin) have not just similarly understood the meaning and beauty of poetry, but they have shared the transcendental experience and sensations of creating verse. Perhaps contributing to this feeling of unity is the form of the poem—whole and symmetrical. The poem, in iambic te­trameter and not separated into stanzas, is constructed of one set of six lines (that which begins with “Ty prav” above), surrounded by four qua­trains, two on each end. The tidy stanzaic construction typifies the ideals of Zhukovsky’s and Pushkin’s poetic circle in the latter’s formative period.[5]

     This shared creative understanding between poet and reader/poet in the work is rooted in their experience of inspiration. Here the key words from the poem are the brisk, cold “vdokhnovenie” and clear, fiery “vostorg,” which both recur so often in Pushkin’s lyrics. Well known to Pushkinists is the definition of these states, which the poet offered in a draft of reactions to two 1824 Küchelbecker articles on Russian poetry. It is this definition that Vladimir Nabokov interpreted as two complementary parts of the English-language concept “inspiration,”

which can be paraphrased as “rapture” and “recapture.” The dif­ference between them is mainly of a climactic kind, the first being hot and brief, the second cool and sustained. The kind alluded to up to now is the pure flame of vostorg, initial rapture, which had no conscious purpose in view but which is all important in linking the breaking up of the old world with the building up of the new one. When the time is ripe and the writer settles down to the ac­tual composing of his book, he will rely on the second serene and steady kind of inspiration, vdokhnovenie, the trusted mate who helps to recapture and reconstruct the world.[6]

     Nabokov assists us here in providing a useful binary definition of the English term “inspiration” and associated terminology for each half. In Pushkin’s own words, the two inspired states are as follows:

Vdokhnovenie? It is the disposition of the soul toward more active reception of sensations, and consequently toward the rapid grasp of ideas, which facilitates their expression.
is necessary in poetry, just as in geometry. The critic confuses vdokhnovenie with vostorg.
     They are not the same; decidedly not: vostorg excludes tran­quility—an essential condition of the beautiful (prekrasnogo). Vos­torg does not imply strength of the mind, of its ability to arrange parts in relation to the whole. Vostorg is short in duration, fleet­ing, therefore without the strength to create truly great perfection (without which there is no lyric poetry).
     Homer is immeasurably higher than Pindar; the ode stands on the lowest steps, not to even speak of the elegy; the tragedy, narra­tive poem, and satire all require more creativity and imagina­tion—ingenious knowledge of nature.
     But there is no plan in the ode and there cannot be; the unified plan of Inferno is already the fruit of high genius. What plan is there in the Olympic odes of Pindar, what plan in “The Waterfall,” Derzhavin’s best work?
     The ode excludes consistent labor, without which there is noth­ing truly great.
is the intense condition of the unified imagination. Vdokhnovenie can be without vostorg, but vostorg without vdokh­novenie does not exist.[7]

     Between italicized definitions above is included Pushkin’s refutation of the merits, even the possibility, of “vostorg without vdokhnovenie,” which his contemporaries find and extol in the odes mentioned. This question, which Pushkin raises here in the mid-1820s, is important in considering the chronologically final of the three poems, “I have erected…,” which was written in the last year of the poet’s life and invokes the traditional ode and one of the personages discussed above: Derzhavin.

     The lyric, with the epigraph “Exegi monumentum,” is modeled after Horace’s ode of that title. Derzhavin had written his own reworking of the poem in his “Monument” of 1795. Following Derzhavin’s death in 1816, a popular tradition of imitations of Derzhavin’s imitation prevailed over the two decades that bring us to 1836, when Pushkin wrote his version.[8] Critics read varying degrees of irony in the poem, especially the first two or three of its five stanzas, which both mimic and distort Horace’s and Derzhavin’s lines.[9] This is true even on the structural level, as Pushkin uses five stanzas like Derzhavin, comprising each of three Alexandrine lines, but, unlike his model, foregoes the Alexandrine for his favorite iam­bic tetrameter in the end of each stanza.

     The ironic interpretation casts doubt on the seriousness with which Pushkin envisions the glorious monument of his opening line, almost a translation of Horace’s. However, in the fourth stanza he does indicate what he hopes to be remembered for:

И долго буду тем любезен я народу,
Что чувства добрые я лирой пробуждал,
Что в мой жестокий век восславил я Свободу
И милость к падшим призывал.[10]

And long will I be beloved by the people for this, / That with the lyre I awakened noble feelings, / That in my harsh age I praised Freedom / And called for mercy for the fallen.

Capitalized “Freedom” as a moral concept in both the political and per­sonal spheres is a frequently recurring and serious theme throughout Pushkin’s poetry. The “fallen” here clearly allude to Pushkin’s exiled De­cembrist friends.[11] Thus we see that by this stanza the irony has fallen away to reveal an honest enumeration of what the poet considers his virtues.

     This logically leads to the question of the poet’s desire for recognition of these virtues, for slava (glory), from the public—an issue with which, judging by his verse, he seems to continually struggle throughout his career. Thus the next and final stanza of the poem is:

Веленью божию, о муза, будь послушна,
Обиды не страшась, не требуя венца,
Хвалу и клевету приемли равнодушно
И не оспоривай глупца.

Be obedient, O muse, to God’s commandment, / Not dreading offence, nor demanding the laurel wreath, / Accept praise and slander indifferently / And do not argue with a fool.

Pushkin’s “Exegi monumentum,” having begun almost identically to his models’, ends with a divergent sentiment. Horace requests of the muse Melpomene his deserved laurel wreath of Apollo. Derzhavin commands his muse to despise those who would despise her and to be crowned with her deserved “dawn of immortality.” Pushkin, on the other hand, prays that the muse not demand the wreath, that she remain impervious to criticism and flattery. Here he seems to reflect on a genuine struggle of his career. He ends the poem commanding her not to challenge a fool; but he must re­member composing works such as “The Poet and the Crowd,” a lyric in dialogue form of 1829, in which the poet engages in heated debate with the chern´(rabble) over the significance of his verse. Note that “To Zhu­kovsky” also includes mention of wreaths, but there they represent glory in the sense of high artistic achievement, not necessarily factoring in the presence or absence of public admiration. This suggests an interaction be­tween these two concepts—artistry and slava—which, in the discussion of “Bookseller,” will emerge as a source of ambiguity in the poet’s thought—one that evolves with time but persistently stays with him through his final days and works.

     Concerning echoes of “To Zhukovsky” in Pushkin’s “I have erected,” we must not overlook a similar suggestion of communion between poet and reader/poet. Pushkin, being now the seasoned poet, writes:

Нет, весь я не умру – душа в заветной лире
Мой прах переживет и тленья убежит –
И славен буду я, доколь в подлунном мире
     Жив будет хоть один пиит.

No, all of me shall not die – my soul in the sacred lyre / Will out­live my ashes and escape decay – / And I will be honored, as long as in the sublunar world / At least one poet remains alive.

Here the existence of one poet who can read his verse with cognizant and deep appreciation, such as he had when reading Zhukovsky, ensures his legacy and begets the immortality of his soul.

     The supposition above—that mutual understanding of each other’s binary “inspiration” is the key to the bond between poets as writers and readers (a communion shown now to wield potential spiritual signifi­cance)—is made nonetheless ambiguous by 1) the individual poet-predecessor intrinsically fixed to Pushkin’s “Monument” (i.e., Gavrila Derzhavin) and the artistic relationship between the two; and 2) the con­sequences of the two poets’ different conceptions of inspiration, as under­stood and articulated by Pushkin himself (see above).

     Ambiguity, indeed, proves to be a central feature in Pushkin’s rela­tionship with Derzhavin and his legacy, or “shade,” as David Bethea has painstakingly and convincingly argued in the second half of his book, Realizing Metaphors. Focusing on three figurative/literary “encounters” with Derzhavin, he shows how the ambiguity persists throughout Push­kin’s life, but transforms as he matures. Concerning “I have erected…,” Bethea writes of a partial retreat back to the frame of mind of their earli­est encounter, with one crucial difference:

The most basic difference between the beginning Pushkin of “Rec­ollections at Tsarskoe Selo” and the concluding Pushkin of “I have erected” is the presence of a lived biography.… There is nothing artificial or purely cerebral about this shaping process; quite the opposite in fact, since Pushkin is including those details that have become illuminated from within his own values, friendships, per­sonal triumphs and failures. Each word in “I have erected” has a literary and at the same time a private, hermetic meaning as, at virtually every level of the poem, Pushkin is reinvoking in some faint way the terms of his first confrontation with Derzhavin.[12]

     As Bethea reminds us in the beginning of his study, it was with Napo­leon, Byron, and the dawn of Romanticism, around the time of Derzhavin’s death in 1816, that a poet’s biography and his works began to be perceived as an integrated and cohesive whole.[13] Boris Tomashevsky first explained the importance of the literary biography as distinct from the factual biog­raphy during the Romantic era: “It is sometimes difficult to decide wheth­er literature recreates phenomena from life or whether the opposite is in fact the case: that the phenomena of life are the result of the penetration of literary clichés into reality.”[14] However, I suggest that for the concerns of the current study, the choice between an interpretive orientation to­ward a more intentional literary biography and an orientation toward a private biography is independent from the core analysis; the issues—wis­doms or anxieties—that arise from the lived biography are of importance to the literary as to the private biographies. These concerns, specially cultivated or not, enter the poetic output.

     I propose that the lived biography may help explain the possibility of communion with a broadened category of poets, including those who, ac­cording to Pushkin’s commentary quoted above, compose by somewhat dif­ferent creative processes (with too much vostorg, too little vdokhnovenie, for instance), such as Derzhavin himself. Between “To Zhukovsky” and “I have erected…” Pushkin has had almost two decades to deliberate on his ideas about the origins of inspiration, the creative process, and the poet’s calling. Indeed he did question and doubt them. Moreover, as Bethea has suggested, the possession of a lived biography surely colored his perspec­tive in the mature stage of his career. Including biography in the total con­cept of the poet allows the interpreter of Pushkin’s poetry to then account for the poet’s stage in life at the time of composition. Greater life experi­ence could very well have had a democratizing influence on the matter of the poet’s bond and who is capable of sharing in it.

     This is perhaps excessive speculation in response to one stanza. But the question will prove relevant in the discussion of the next, chronologi­cally intermediate lyric, “Conversation of a Bookseller and Poet” (written the same year as the Küchelbecker articles quoted above) and, especially, the prose work “Egyptian Nights.” I will attempt to connect most of the ideas discussed through the three lyrics, as well as lend more credibility to this latest postulate.

     Before moving to these works, a summary of the main concepts con­sidered up to this point is in order. Four issues have been examined through these two lyrics from contrasting stages of Pushkin’s life and ca­reer; all concern the poet’s relationship to his readers: 1) the poet’s ele­vated position with respect to the reading public; 2) the significance of the poet-reader communion, likely reliant upon their shared experience of “inspiration”; 3) the desire for deserved slava and/or the struggle to quell that desire; 4) the likelihood that Pushkin’s “lived biography” is a key com­ponent in his evolving approach to the prior three items.


     “Conversation of a Bookseller and Poet” resembles the other two poems in maintaining the gap between poet and public, but shows an attempt on the “poet” character’s part to deny the need for both fame and praise from his readers, and for readers at all. The dialogue begins with the bookseller asking the poet to name the price of his verse. In four monologues the poet reminisces about a time when no payment of any kind played a role in his creative life, then attempts to renounce both glory and love, to declare his independence (Svoboda) from them. The bookseller, a brilliant psychol­ogist (being the poet’s alter-ego), asks shrewd questions that move the dia­logue along from one topic to another. Here I suggest reading the two speakers as an example of a literary double. Alyssa Gillespie has recently argued for the prolificacy of doubles throughout Pushkin’s poetry and prose, and linked them to his thought on his poetic self-identity: “his dou­bles both duplicate and divide a complex ‘original’ that lies not within but just beyond the limits of the text: Pushkin’s own poetic self-image.”[15]

     When the bookseller asks whether there is one woman worth the poet’s inspired verse, we sense he knows the response that will follow. The poet responds by versifying until he exposes his own state of denial. Real­izing the insurmountable power that love can wield, in the end he capitu­lates on all fronts, even to the lowest of worldly concerns—money. The poem, written entirely in iambic tetrameter and mostly in quatrains up to this point, ends in one prose line: “You are entirely right. Here’s my manu­script. We’ll make a deal.”[16]

     Only three years after the publication of “Bookseller” would the dedi­cation of Eugene Onegin come out with the fourth and fifth chapters of the novel in verse. The dedication, addressed to Pushkin’s publisher and friend, Petr Pletnev, reads like a return to the topics of conversation be­gun in “Bookseller”—the words of a poet a bit more experienced, with the irony that typifies Onegin:

Не мысля гордый свет забавить,
Вниманье дружбы возлюбя,
Хотел бы я тебе представить
Залог достойнее тебя,…[17]

Not trying to amuse the proud world, / Having come to love the attention of friendship, / I would have liked to present to you / A pledge worthier of you,…

     With the word “pledge” (zalog), in particular, Pushkin cleverly re­minds us of even the mercantile concerns—poems as merchandise—in addition to the greater questions of inspiration and friendship in poetry. Perhaps most notable, though, is the attention brought to the question of the reader right at the outset of the novel. Throughout the text, the nar­rator addresses an array of readers from varying slices of educated society. The degree of irony served up to each is an interesting and complex topic as the composition of the literate public was undergoing dramatic change during the long period of Eugene Onegin’s composition.[18] The frequency and variety of this direct engagement with the reader in the novel in verse add to the interest of the already compelling work of “Bookseller.” Andrew Kahn has emphasized this in his recent reading of the poem:

It is important to recall the poem’s original purpose as a preface to Pushkin’s new novel. Rejection of commercial motives is decorous because it suggests that the relationship between writer (who is not the vendor-publisher) and reader is one of spiritual affinity rather than commercial exchange, a matter of aesthetic discrimi­nation rather than commercial judgment.… Confidence in such a bond is all important in a text like Evgenii Onegin, where the nar­rator, through direct appeals and autobiography, makes an affin­ity between reader and narrator an active part of the experience of appreciating the text, where the reader is felt to be a part of the creation of the work and a personal confidant. In part, the purpose of the drama of temptation and repudiation is to vouchsafe the in­herent aesthetic integrity of a writer reluctant to sell his inspira­tion. The prefatory display of reluctance is meant to assure the reader of the inherent aesthetic value of the text.[19]

     In Kahn’s reading, then, the poetic bond spoken of above is, ironically, co-opted by the commercial side of the writer, used as a means of enticing a sense of loyalty from the reader of his novel in verse. Returning, how­ever, to the present reading of the text and the beginning of “Bookseller,” let us concentrate on the language of the poem that recalls the lyrics at hand. The poet describes the inspired creative state, “plamennyi vostorg” (fiery rapture), that he recognized in and shared with Zhukovsky in the poem “To Zhukovsky.” (Of course, here vostorg is indeed yoked to the vital vdokhnovenie, the latter already having been mentioned twice in this first of four lengthy monologues in the poet’s voice.) But now the poet is op­posed to degrading the lofty feeling by sharing it:

Тогда, в безмолвии трудов,
Делиться не был я готов
С толпою пламенным восторгом.

Then, in the quiet of labor, / I was not prepared to share / My fiery vostorg with the crowd.

     The sharing of one’s verse with the crowd, the tolpa, however,is hardly the same matter as sharing with the poet/reader of the two lyrics considered above. Just as questions of time and biography/self-identity complicated the identification of the poet/reader, so they complicate the characterization of this “crowd.” The 1820s in Russia were a decade of greatly expanding readership and a dynamic, though unfledged and polar­ized, culture of literary criticism, which served as intermediary between author and public. Paul Debreczeny has found evidence of two divergent attitudes toward the critics on Pushkin’s part. The first of these is closer to that toward which the poet of “Bookseller” seems to strive:

The poet’s primary concern is to define himself through the sound, image, and idea of his poetry, and while this obviously cannot be done in a social vacuum, it is quite possible that the poet’s points of reference lie in ages or societies other than his own. Pushkin, it is certain, had Voltaire or André Chenier or any number of other poets of the past in his mind as an imaginary audience when he was writing poetry.[20]

     Modifying this outlook to account for the realities of publishing in one’s own time and society, Pushkin did express preference for, as he put it, “endorsement by a small number of the select,”[21] or, as Debreczeny ex­plains, “an intimate and intelligently critical circle of friends.”[22]

     Yet evidence shows that, in fact, throughout his life Pushkin showed both sensitivity to public opinion and concern with wider critical review.[23] The work at hand is a case in point of this second of the poet’s attitudes toward his readers. “Bookseller” is itself not simply the outcome of Push­kin’s private brooding at the outset of his professional career, but also a response to critical chatter about the uncommonly high 3,000-ruble honorarium he received for “Fountain of Bakchisarai.”[24]

     Possible sources of this ambivalence in Pushkin’s stance toward both the critics and the public are readily apparent. Debreczeny points out that even were the poet to confine his sensitivities to his small circle of respected colleagues, “such a circle, especially when it includes critics, as Pushkin’s did—Viazemsky, Delvig, Katenin, N. Raevsky—is itself a social force insofar as their approval or disapproval determines the direction of the poet’s work, which in turn may alter the patterns of public taste.”[25] Moreover, as the same scholar has elsewhere[26] described, some of the con­stituents of this very circle and certainly those of Pushkin’s wider reader­ship changed in their reception of him as his career progressed. Thus, while distinctions do exist, we see the difficulty of drawing black lines be­tween various categories of readers across the range from anonymous “public” to trusted friend, and, hence, the corresponding problem of defin­ing the “crowd.”

     Turning from Pushkin’s reception of criticism to his practice of it fur­ther complicates the matter of his relationship with his readers (in the broader sense of the word). In surveying the scholarship on Pushkin-as-critic, Caryl Emerson has found in Pushkin’s critical philosophy that, al­though “only a genuine artist can be a genuine critic,”[27] nonetheless “if a poem failed it was because the poet-craftsman had not put in the neces­sary work, not because language had some indwelling inadequacy that separated intent from execution. If it succeeded, it would be forever—and a critic to appreciate it would always be found.”[28] Even without this back­ground information, though, we can sense some self-conscious trepidation in the vehement rhetorical style of, for instance, the poet’s vilification of slava in his next monologue of “Bookseller”:

Блажен, кто про себя таил
Души высокие созданья
И от людей, как от могил,
Не ждал за чувство воздаянья!
Блажен, кто молча был поэт
И, терном славы не увитый,
Презренной чернию забытый,
Без имени покинул свет!

He’s blessed who keeps for himself / The highest creations of his soul / And from people, as from the grave, / Awaits not reward for his feelings! / He’s blessed who was a reclusive poet / And, not wreathedby thorns of glory, / Forgotten by the contemptible rabble, / Namelessly cast off the world!

     Notice how the language of “To Zhukovsky” is recalled. There the knower of high thoughts and verse is also called blessed[29] in a similar con­struction (see above). In this is a striving for an unreachable ideal—the isolated poet left alone with his muse, almost unaware of the existence of outsiders. This poetic figure appears, not only in these three lyrics, but re­peatedly in Pushkin’s work, perhaps most notably in “Poet” (1827) and “The Poet and the Crowd” (1828). Mikhail Darvin has described him as, “The genuine poet, the ‘pure genius’—it is the anonymous poet, without a name and without glory, casting off entirely any last possibility of commu­nication with the reader.”[30] But, of course, the poet is not anonymous, nor isolated, and he has already betrayed his interest in his readers through the act of composing a lyric on the topic. Furthermore, in the earlier “To Zhukovsky,” Pushkin invokes similar language to describe the poet as blessed even in, perhaps especially in, the context of a shared poetic understanding. One may ask: does this cast doubt on the force of the poet’s rebuff to slava? In fact, the bookseller comes close to asking just this, in­voking Zhukovsky to undercut the poet’s argument:

Лорд Байрон был того же мненья;
Жуковский то же говорил;
Но свет узнал и раскупил
Их сладкозвучные творенья.
И впрям, завиден ваш удел.

Lord Byron was of that opinion also / Zhukovsky said it too; / But the world discovered and bought out / Their mellifluous works. / So frankly, your lot is enviable.

Again we recall “To Zhukovsky” in which the younger and more optimistic poet/reader celebrates the “beautiful fate” (prekrasnyi udel) of poets. The bookseller’s reference to Zhukovsky strikes a double blow to the poet’s repudiation of slava. It not only challenges the feasibility of indifference to slava, but also signifies an insincerity and unoriginality in the idea. Tak­ing this further, Byron’s and Zhukovsky’s placement in the poem suggests that the repudiation of slava as presented here is actually part of the quest for it, an imitation of the masters. Their mention, as the flag bearers of Romanticism, reminds us that, as Tomashevsky has shown, the poet’s creativity does not remain autonomous from his biography, nor does his biography form in isolation.

     Yet the poet only betrays his insecurity in his isolationist ideas ver­bally when the bookseller directs the conversation topic to love. The poet’s objection to romantic love as the object of poetry is that women are incapa­ble of experiencing through verse a communion of the sort described in “To Zhukovsky”:

Стон лиры верной не коснется
Их легкой, ветреной души;
Не чисто в них воображенье:
Не понимает нас оно
И, признак бога, вдохновенье
Для них и чуждо и смешно.

The cry of the genuine lyre does not touch / Their light, capricious souls; / Imagination in them is not pure / It does not understand us / And vdokhnovenie, the sign of God / To them is both alien and laughable.

     When the bookseller asks if there is not one exception to this generali­zation, the poet’s hard persistence in his assertions fades, as if struck by the question. Perhaps his hesitation is linked to the specifically feminine imagined readers of, for instance, the dedication of his early success, Ruslan and Liudmila: “For you, tsaritsa of my soul / For you alone, my beauty / Fable of olden days…”[31]Viacheslav Koshelev, in a study of ad­dresses to the reader in Eugene Onegin, has noted how short-lived that particular imagined reader was in Pushkin’s poetic output; in the four years leading up to the beginning of work on Onegin and to the lyric cur­rently under consideration, the ideal of a feminine reader-beauty who is “free from scientific and political ambitions” and reading only for interest and for the “tremble of love” is lost, replaced with her parody—“sweet ob­jects” who cannot understand the language, nor the feelings of serious poetry.[32] In this regard, his final monologue seems to wax nostalgic, pro­gressing as if in linguistic degrees of uncertainty: from rhetorical ques­tions, to future tense hypothetical situations, to subjunctive clauses. Before long he is relaying a dream of what might have been:

Она одна бы разумела
Стихи неясные мои;
Одна бы в сердце пламенела
Лампадой чистою любви!

She alone would have understood / My unclear poems; / She alone would have flamed in my heart / As a pure icon-lamp of love!

     Despite the feminine subject, we can recognize in this quatrain the same communion of understanding between poet and reader which appeared in the other two lyrics. Thus it appears that in this work too, though he may claim otherwise, the poet cherishes his sensitive reader, though she may be only a memory of a bygone ideal. Despite its tenuous­ness, love has functioned as the catalyst leading to his realization of the impossibility of artistic isolationism and his decline to prose in the last line of the work. Let us now turn ourselves to a prose work that takes po­etry as its subject to show how “Egyptian Nights” restates, integrates, and develops that which has been gleaned from these three lyrics.



     The lyrics discussed thus far all touch on the same dissatisfaction with the reading public at large and need for appreciation and understanding. The latter of these is manifested as both the negative desire for glory and pub­lic recognition and the positive desire for a deep and understanding reader. Yet the chronologically middle poem, “Bookseller,” displays an anxiety and insecurity not found in the other two, perhaps caused by life’s trials and disappointments:

Увы, напрасные желанья!
Она отвергла заклинанья,
Мольбы, тоску души моей:
Земных восторгов излиянья
Как божеству не нужно ей.

Alas, futile wishes! / She repudiated the incantations / The en­treaties, the grief of my soul: / The effusions of earthly raptures [vostorg]/ As to a deity, are of no use to her.

Suddenly, in the last versified line uttered by the poet, this “she” is com­pared to a god and, in something of a role reversal, assumes the deity-like qualities that the would-be poet-recluse has sought to assign to himself alone up until now.

     The story “Egyptian Nights” shows us a different kind of challenger to the solitary poet’s understanding of the creative practice. In the unfin­ished work of 1835, the Russian poet-aristocrat Charsky becomes ac­quainted with and agrees to take under his social wing a ragged, but astonishingly gifted Italian improvisatore who appeals to Charsky for pro­motional help. Many scholars read Charsky as largely autobiographical, as his descriptions are taken (sometimes verbatim) from an autobiographi­cal work that Pushkin wrote in third person, the “Otryvok” of 1830, un­published during the poet’s life.[33] In his encounter with the Italian, Char­sky comes face-to-face with the physical embodiment of many of his con­cerns about the relationship between poet and reader (in the case of the improvisatore, listener) which, as shown in this study, occupied Pushkin’s mind and surfaced in his poetry throughout his creative life.

     Charsky’s and the Italian’s characters are diametrically opposed in al­most every way, but for the purpose of the present analysis, let us exam­ine four categories of divergence in the two poets:

     Social status. Too important to pass over is the fact that Charsky, in keep­ing with his autobiographical origin, is a Russian aristocrat. The Italian is a penniless wanderer, forced to leave his homeland because of unidentified “circumstances.” Pushkin is known to have been preoccupied with the maintenance of the noble status of the Russian poet, especially starting in the mid-1820s as, like the poet of “Bookseller,” he began to see himself as a kind of craftsman selling his product, and as finances eventually became a real concern. His thoughts on the matter, written down in personal cor­respondence, are repeated by Charsky in the first of three chapters of “Egyptian Nights”:[34]

Our poets do not take advantage of aristocratic patronage; our po­ets are themselves gentlemen, and if any Maecenas of ours (the devil take them!) doesn’t know it, then he’s the worse off for it. We haven’t got ragged abbots, whom musicians would pick up off the streets to write a libretto. Our poets do not go by foot from house to house soliciting aid.[35]

     Upon their first meeting,Charsky is affronted at the Italian’s mis­taken suggestion that the local gentlemen support their poets financially. As the Italian makes to leave in embarrassment, Charsky has pity on him and offers to discuss the affairs of the man whom he takes to be a musi­cian. On learning that he is an improvisatore, he regrets his outburst:

“An improvisatore,” cried Charsky, feeling the full harshness of his conduct. “Why didn’t you say earlier that you are an improvisa­tore?” and Charsky pressed his hand with a feeling of sincere regret.[36]

     In moving straight from his imperious proclamations to this regret, acceptance of his bedraggled colleague, and determination to introduce him to society, Charsky has already been led to reexamine an aspect of his self-identity as a poet. As Herman puts it: “The improviser whom he ini­tially reviles comes to be for Charskii an agonizing but inescapable double, a second self whom he abhors but in his admiration cannot escape.”[37] With the breakdown of this outward signifier, the select circle of poets thus ex­pands in the most straightforward and undeniable of ways.

     Professional philosophy. Already hinted at in the excerpts above is a dif­ference in the poets’ approaches to their art as a professional enterprise. From the beginning we learn that Charsky, again reflecting the senti­ments of “Bookseller,” is deeply resentful of the public’s demands on him:

The most bitter, most unbearable of evils for a poet are his status and ranking, which mark him and never fall away from him. The public sees him as their own property; in their opinion, he is born for their use and pleasure.… Should he fall in love, his beauty buys herself an album in the English store and awaits elegies. Should he approach a virtual stranger, to discuss an important matter of business, that one will call over his son and force him to recite somebody’s poems. And the boy treats the poet to his own butch­ered poems. And these are the flowers of his craft![38]

     The Italian, in an inversion of Charsky’s solitary artistic pride, himself openly seeks out an audience and financial compensation. Charsky makes a concerted effort to separate his inner, artistic self from his outward so­cial, even domestic life, and, as his social status allows, conceptualizes neither of these as a “profession.” He furnishes his apartment “like a woman’s bedroom,” hiding any hint of “the muse’s presence” and, likewise, dresses only in the latest fashions to attend parties where “his conversa­tion was of the most vulgar sort and never touched on literature.” As such, Charsky is disturbed when he sees the Italian dressed in a theatrical cos­tume before his salon performance: “All this was very displeasing to Char­sky, for whom it was disagreeable to see a poet in the costume of a passing buffoon.”[39] The Italian has no qualms about advertising and selling his art. Pushkin most pointedly underscores this difference in their characters after the Italian’s first improvisation, which is performed for Charsky as an expression of gratitude for arranging the salon. After briefly discussing the improvisatore’s mystifying source of inspiration, without ritual the Italian turns the conversation to the financial arrangements of the up­coming event, and the final paragraph of the second chapter is:

It was disagreeable to Charsky to suddenly fall from the loftiness of poetry to the clerk’s bench; but he understood well the necessity of supporting oneself and entered into mercantile accounting with the Italian. The Italian in all cases displayed such wild greed, such artless love of profit, that he revolted Charsky, who hurried to leave him in order to not entirely lose the feeling of rapture cre­ated in him by the brilliant improvisation. The preoccupied Italian failed to notice the change and accompanied him along the corri­dor and staircase with deep bows and assurances of his eternal gratitude.[40]

     Form of inspiration. Charsky marvels at the Italian’s instantaneous chan­neling of inspiration during this first improvisation. Pushkin describes the process as observed by both narrator and Charsky:

The Italian’s eyes began to shine, he played a few chords, lifted his head proudly, and fiery verses, the expression of a momentary feeling, harmoniously flew from his mouth…

“Another’s thought hardly reaches your ear and already it becomes your own, as if you had carried, nursed, developed it forever. And so, for you there is no labor, no cooling, none of the anxiety, which comes before inspiration?…”[41]

In reply to Charsky’s question, the improvisatore can only describe “the rush of sensations, the close connection between personal inspiration and another, outer will—it would be futile for me to try to explain it myself.”

     The description of Charsky’s state of inspiration, found in the first chapter, is perhaps less vague:

However, he was a poet, and his passion was insuperable: when that hogwash (that is what he called vdokhnovenie) found him, he would shut up in his office and write from morning to late at night.… One morning Charsky felt that blessed disposition of spir­it, when dreams are clearly drawn before you and you find vivid, unexpected words for the incarnation of your visions, when poems easily fall into place from your pen and sonorous rhythms run to meet your well-ordered thoughts. Charsky was deep in sweet ob­liviousness … and the world, and the opinion of the world, and his own personal caprices did not exist for him. He was writing poetry.[42]

Charsky’s condition corresponds with the definition that Pushkin supplied for vdokhnovenie a decade earlier. Recall the “disposition of the soul to­ward more active reception of sensations, and consequently toward the rapid grasp of ideas, which facilitates their expression.”

     But how can we understand the Italian’s inspiration in terms of the vdokhnovenie-vostorg paradigm? Certainly vostorg, “the intense condition of the unified imagination,” is attested in the creative experience of the improvisatore with his glittering eyes. Before the public improvisation, the Italian seems to physically exhibit vostorg’s“hot” quality, as Nabokov de­scribes it—the “fiery and clear rapture” of which we read in “To Zhukov­sky”: “he shivered as if from fever; his eyes began to shine with a strange flame; he lifted his black hair with his hand, wiped with a handkerchief his high forehead, which was covered with drops of sweat.…”[43] Remember from above Charsky’s astonishment that, along with labor and unease, the Italian’s creative process utterly lacks “cooling.” The cold qualities of in­spiration, the “kholod vdokhnoveniia” (from “To Zhukovsky”), are absent.

     Yet, whereas a decade before Pushkin followed up his claim that vos­torg was“therefore without the strength to create truly great perfection” with a denigration of the Derzhavin odes that he had in mind, here his Charsky has quite the opposite view of the “inspired” (vostorzhennyi)poet. Is the improvisatore a case of the impossible “vostorg bez vdokhnoveniia,” rapture without recapture? Based on the textual evidence available, it may be rash to entirely deny vdokhnovenie in the Italian’s performance.[44] But we may be sure that it is missing many of the indicators of vdokhno­venie. Pushkin’s admiration for Adam Mickiewicz in general and that poet’s improvisation ability in particular are most often recognized as the biographical source for the improvisatore character. Note, for instance, the similarity of the character’s improvisations to Viazemsky’s description of Mickiewicz’s:

His improvised poem, freely and unbridledly, broke forth from his mouth in a sonorous and brilliant stream.… He presently per­formed with a face lit up by the flame of inspiration; something anxious and penetrating was in him.… Zhukovsky and Pushkin, deeply shaken by this volcanic fiery effusion of poetry, were enraptured.[45]

     And yet the fictional improvisatore seems, further still, to represent rapture in an extreme degree of isolation from its other half. We may safely conclude that the two poets of “Egyptian Nights” have significantly different experiences and understandings of inspiration, effectively repre­senting two poles of inspiration. Regardless of their differences, the poets both express awareness of the special union between them as poet and, in this case, poet/listener. We have already seen Charsky’s “Another’s thought hardly reaches your ear and already it becomes your own…” As the Italian assures Charsky that he is happy to perform a private improvi­sation for him, he echoes Pushkin’s preference for the “endorsement of a small number of the select”: “…where could I find a better audience? You are a poet, you understand me better than them, and your quiet encour­agement is dearer to me than a whole storm of applause…”[46] Does this constitute further evidence in a late work of what I have called the “democratizing effect” of time and biography (for surely amongst the com­mon duties of prose is the filling in of a subject’s biographical details[47]) in the question of the poets’ communion? It seems so, and the idea is compel­ling due to the fact that in this case, unlike in the Derzhavin example, the effect crosses social as well as “inspirational” divisions.

     Insofar as we accept Mickiewicz as the principal prototype for the im­provisatore, we may once again call 1825 a year of note, as it was the first year of Mickiewicz’s exile in Russia and of his first acquaintance with his Russian counterpart, hence a time improvisation and its consequences for the poet-reader relationship may have made their first serious impression on Pushkin. Notably, this was also the year Pushkin wrote Boris Godunov (as well as the “Cleopatra” poem, which he inserts into “Egyptian Nights” as the public improvisation before the audience). His other dramatic works, the Little Tragedies, followed. Thus it seems Pushkin, indeed, gained a new interest around this time in the immediate audience (a po­tential evasion of or substitute for the bookseller?) which the dramatic form offers a poet.

     However, in keeping with the pattern, ambiguity is still unavoidable in the question of improvisation. For all their mutual understanding as poets, the Italian still remarks: “So no one, besides the improvisatore him­self, can understand the rush of sensations…”[48] And although it is never addressed in the story, one wonders if ultimately Charsky, too, regards his particular mode of artistry as incomprehensible to outsiders, even those as seemingly affiliated as the improvisatore. Todd seems to suggest that, if finished, the story may have confirmed Charsky’s work habits as the nec­essary path to, if not exactly true inspiration, at least true artistic freedom (the two concepts being shown in “Bookseller” to be associated in some of Pushkin’s thought). In support of this idea, Todd points to Pushkin’s re­view of Voltaire’s correspondence, written in 1836: “The writer’s real place is in his study and, ultimately, only independence and self-esteem can lift us above the trifles of life and the storms of fate.”[49] But, as the scholar notes, this conclusion also does not entirely satisfy, for in the Charsky model the poet is exceedingly constrained by his self-imposed social obli­gations and bitterly self-conscious efforts to conceal his artistic life from the outside world.

     Role of the crowd. Apart from the poet-poet/reader relationship, the other major relationship that this study has focused on is that of the poet and the infamous “crowd.” It has shown some of the complications of trying to pinpoint who this tolpa is precisely (ill-disposed critics? readers at home? etc.) in a given lyric. Perhaps the most consistent motif in the poems was the elevated position of the poet over the masses. In “Egyptian Nights,” however, Pushkin gives us for consideration a concrete audience, which, despite Charsky’s complaints, overall comes across in a surprisingly be­nevolent light. Lavine, in her study of the work, has discovered a related feature of the “tolpa” (here represented by one passerby) in the Italian’s first improvisation (that which so impressed Charsky), calling it an “inver­sion of Pushkin’s 1828 poem ‘The Poet and the Crowd’”:

The improviser does not accuse the crowd of baseness, as the speaker of “Poet i tolpa” does; in fact, an overt belittlement of the mob is absent altogether. Indeed, the Italian’s petty concerns indi­cate that he is part of the crowd. Nor does he posit himself as the righteous one. [50]

     Of course, the exposed, even dependent, relationship of the Italian with the prose crowd, as juxtaposed with Charsky’s striving to shield his artistic life from onlookers, is of essential relevance to this study. The dif­ference in stances should already be clear from the excerpts supplied thus far: Charsky is best characterized by the separation of his artistic practice from society, the Italian by his direct communication with his listeners. To underscore this, consider that the Italian not only composes his verses in front of the audience, but provides for its participation in the process through selection of the themes. In direct opposition to the abstract re­cluse of “Bookseller,” for instance, the improvisatore may be unable to compose at all without an audience. Charsky, who for the private improvi­sation ironically provides the theme “the poet himself chooses the subjects of his songs; the crowd has no right to command his vdokhnovenie,[51] is, in fact, even without his extra efforts, inherently separated from his readers by the intermediaries of space, time, context, and publisher.[52]

     This opposition of separation versus direct communication is at the core of the issues this paper has dealt with. It presents itself as the main conflict leading to the ambiguities we have uncovered in the three lyrics of Pushkin: the “poet” character of these works defines his artistic freedom in terms of separation from some unworthy rank of reader. Yet communi­cation with the reader (whether friend, critic, lover, or posterity) is the in­escapable end of putting verse to paper; it is at the core of his art. Pushkin seems to have struggled with different manifestations of this conflict throughout his career. “Egyptian Nights” begins with the unwanted en­trance of a different kind of poet into Charsky’s quarantined workspace during his precious period of vdokhnovenie. Having defied Charsky’s poet-aristocrat preconception, the stranger moves on to challenge his basic understanding of artistic freedom.

     In his close reading of the second improvisation about Cleopatra as it connects to the prose portion, Herman has found that “love functions as the link between the two poets’ narrative and the Cleopatra narrative. Pushkin’s imagery again returns to the foundation laid eleven years ear­lier by ‘Razgovor.’”[53] He interprets the work as evidence of an irresolvable personal predicament of Pushkin’s literary life in which “learning to love the low” “does nothing less than predict Pushkin’s demise as a writer and human being”[54]—hence the work remained unfinished.

     From this study’s perspective, “Egyptian Nights” does seem linked to a personal literary predicament of self-definition. In our case however, de­claring the diagnosis terminal seems unnecessarily hasty. While the pro­posed irresolvability may indeed explain the fact that the work remained unfinished, the present analysis demonstrates that the conflict had long been present and evolving in the poet’s mind and, if Pushkin had lived longer, may well have undergone further reexamination, perhaps allowing the completion of the work.

     In this investigation we have envisioned: a young euphoric poet, full of confidence in the lofty bond shared with a mentor in poetry; a proud but unsettled poet, struggling to maintain his notion of freedom alongside the professional practice of verse-making; an experienced, humbler poet pray­ing for restraint even as he declares his immortal legacy; and, finally, a poet, set in his ways, confronted by a different breed of pure genius, who challenges his understanding of artistic freedom and literary self-identity. Could a future Pushkin have finished this final work? Would he have, as Todd suggested, discarded the improvisatore’spractice as limiting artistic freedom or would he have concluded that Charsky and the Italian truly do share meaningful common ground? Or would he have finished incon­clusive on the matter, leaving us more characteristic ambiguity? If the improvisatore and Charsky are truly two opposite poles, then they are mu­tually dependent—magnetically drawn together and unable to exist sepa­rately. Perhaps the same is true of the bookseller and poet. They must coexist together in their poetic text and, indeed, in any poem. The ambigu­ities uncovered in the poet’s approach to his readers in all four texts here may reveal the underlying voice of these doubles, each of whom represents varying elements of inspiration and of commerciality. Pushkin had to negotiate these two forces in life and in art, in full consciousness that each choice he makes is ultimately a performance and has the potential to be­come a part of his literary biography. In reviewing these four varying in­carnations of the poet, one wonders if, regardless of the efforts suggested in these works to separate art from the prosaic facts of life, the author himself did see, looking back on the story of his “lived biography,” some­thing of an improvisation in his own life in literature, exposed before the public in every act of publishing.


The Ohio State University

Download: Manukyan, Kathleen. "The Poet and His Readers: Three Lyrics and an Unfinished Story of Alexander Pushkin." Pushkin Review 12-13 (2009-10): 17-43.

[1] Vladimir Nabokov, “The Art of Literature and Commonsense,” in Vladimir Nabo­kov: Lectures on Literature,” ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 371.

[2] Aleksandr Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh (Leningrad: Nauka, 1977–79), 1: 298.

[3] Translation here and elsewhere mine, unless indicated otherwise. All transla­tions are intended to be literal and do not preserve any meter or rhyme from the original Russian poetry.

[4] Recently William Mills Todd examined “To Zhukovsky” in highlighting the “pos­sibilities and limitations of this in-group criticism”; Todd, “Pushkin and Literary Criticism,” in The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin, ed. Andrew Kahn (Cam­bridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 146. Also, Pamela Davis has used the poem as an example of Pushkin’s emphasis on “the innate purity of the artistic im­pulse constantly stressed throughout his early verse” and asks “what sort of con­nection can exist between a muse as pure as this and the concept of the demon.” One of the “demons” that Davis identifies in her study is that of “doubt,” who makes an appearance in “Bookseller.” Surely the issues raised here about Push­kin’s concerns with his readers would contribute to the substance of such a demon as that. Davis, “The Muse and the Demon in the Poetry of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Blok,” in Russian Literature and Its Demons, ed. Pamela Davis (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), 167–213.

[5] See Andrew Kahn’s interesting discussion of the rivalry between the young Pushkin’s “Arzamas” group and the “Symposium of the Amateurs of the Russian Word.” He discusses how, contrary to common conception, the poetic values of the Arzamas group were rooted in Neoclassicism and valued the poetic skill of being original within proper form over pure innovation. Kahn,“Tradition and Original­ity,” in Pushkin’s Lyric Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 15–19.

[6] Nabokov, “The Art of Literature,” 378–79.

[7] Pushkin, PSS 7: 29–30.

[8] David M. Bethea, Realizing Metaphors: Alexander Pushkin and the Life of the Poet (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998), 219.

[9] For an analysis of the poem with respect to its Horatian source, see John Kevin Newman, “Pushkin and Horace: Remarks on ‘Exegi Monumentum’ and ‘Pamyat­nik,’” Neohelicon 3: 1–2 (March 1975): 331–42. Also, in addition to Bethea, see M. P. Alekseev, “Stikhotvorenie Pushkina ‘Ia pamiatnik sebe vozdvig…,’” Pushkin i mirovaia literatura (Leningrad: Nauka, 1987), 200–10; and S. M. Bondi, “Pamiat­nik,” in O Pushkine: Stat´i i issledovaniia (Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1978), 442–76. And, more recently, V. M. Guminskii, “Pushkinskii ‘Pamiatnik’ i goratsiansko-derzhavinskaia ideia bessmertiia poezii,” in Pushkin v XXI veke: Sbornik v chest´ Valentina Semenovicha Nepomniashchego, ed. S. S. Sazonova(Moscow: Russkii mir, 2006), 90–110.

[10] Pushkin, PSS 3: 340.

[11] In an earlier draft the third line from above read, “That, like Radishchev, I praised Freedom” (Chto vsled Radishchevu vosslavil ia Svobodu).

[12] Bethea, Realizing Metaphors, 221–22.

[13] Ibid., 156.

[14] Boris Tomaševskij, “Literature and Biography,” in Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, ed. Ladislav Matejka and Krystyna Pomorska, trans. Herbert Eagle (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1971), 51.

[15] Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, “Doubling and Poetic Self-Image in Pushkin’s ‘The Gypsies,’” Russian Review 68: 3 (July 2009): 456. For an analysis of a “double im­age” of the poet, including an analysis of the related poem “Poet,” see Victor Erlich, The Double Image: Concepts of the Poet in Slavic Literatures (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1964). Boris Gasparov examines the dual (demonic/ sacred) nature of Pushkin’s conception of the Poet in “Funktsii reministsentsii iz Dante v poezii Pushkina,” Russian Literature 14: 4 (1983), 317–49.

[16] “Vy sovershenno pravy. Vot vam moia rukopis´. Uslovimsia.”Pushkin, PSS 2: 174–79.

[17] Pushkin, PSS 5: 7.

[18] For a summary of the categories of readers addressed in Onegin and other in­formative commentary on the subject,see J. Douglas Clayton, Ice and Flame: Aleksandr Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985), 76. Other works on the narrator’s interaction with his “readers” in Eugene Onegin include: V. A. Grekhnev, “Dialog s chitatelem v romane Pushkina ‘Evgenii Onegin,’” Pushkin: Issledovaniia i materialy (Leningrad: AN SSSR, 1979), 9: 100–09. and N. I. Mikhailova, “Iz kommentarii k romanu A. S. Pushkina ‘Evgenii Onegin,’” Problemy sovremennogo pushkinovedeniia (Pskov: Pskovskii gos. ped. institut, 1994), 141–43.

[19] Andrew Kahn, “Genius and the Commerce of Poetry,” in Kahn, Lyric Intelli­gence, 179–80. Kahn perceptively gives cautionary advice on two fronts relevant to the present study: 1) to avoid the “biographical fallacy” often made in readings of the poem—“Any reader of Pushkin’s letters, where he sets out his commercial am­bitions vividly, will know that the speaker’s high-mindedness represents a rhetorical, rather than autobiographical fact” (ibid., 180); and 2) that interpreta­tions of the poem in isolation from Eugene Onegin tend to differ from those that read it as a preface—“But when we understand the poem’s original content and purpose as a preface to the book that Pushkin launched with high commercial hopes, the ‘Conversation’ makes the poet only sound naïve… Ironically, the more the poet stands his ground by refusing to acknowledge commercial values, the greater his value in the eyes of the bookseller and, presumably, the readers of the novel to which it stands as preface” (ibid., 182–83). The present study avoids these two dangers by considering the words of both poet and bookseller as dualistic com­ponents in the author’s thought. While the poem is taken up somewhat detached from the full novel, the present reading concentrates on specific language that echoes that of the earlier “To Zhukovsky” and later “I have erected” and “Egyptian Nights” in order to avoid overreaching.

[20] Paul Debreczeny, “The Reception of Pushkin’s Poetic Works in the 1820s: A Study of the Critic’s Role,” Slavic Review 28: 3 (1969): 394–415, here 408.

[21] Ibid., 408.

[22] Ibid., 410.

[23] See ibid., 410–12.

[24] See P. A. Viazemskii, “O ‘Bakhchisaraiskom fontane’ ne v literaturnom ot­noshenii” and accompanying primechaniia (notes), in Pushkin v prizhiznennoi kri­tike, 1820–1827,ed. V. E. Vatsuro and S. A. Fomichev et al. (St. Petersburg: Gosu­darstvennyi pushkinskii teatral´nyi tsentr, 1996), 189–90, here 408. “Bookseller” has another strong connection to Pushkin’s friend Viazemsky in that the latter wrote a foreword to “Fountain of Bakchisarai,” which Pushkin greatly enjoyed, en­titled “Conversation of a Publisher and Classicist from the Vyborg Side or Vasiliev­sky Island” (“Razgovor mezhdu Izdatelem i Klassikom s Vyborgskoi Storony ili Vasil´evskogo ostrova”), a prose dialogue that praised Pushkin and ridiculed the state of Russian literary criticism.

[25] Debreczeny, “Reception,” 410.

[26] See Paul Debreczeny, The Social Functions of Literature: Alexander Pushkin and Russian Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997), 13–20.

[27] Caryl Emerson, “Pushkin as Critic,” in The Pushkin Handbook, ed. David M. Bethea (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 327.

[28] Ibid., 331.

[29] The concept of the poet-prophet, wholly connected with Pushkin’s status as just such a figure in Russian society, might seem to tie in nicely with what we have already observed in these lyrics as the poet’s self-appointed elevated status with respect to society. However, caution should be observed before assuming that this artistic superiority is equated with moral superiority in Pushkin’s own view. Pamela Davidson has argued that, although some of Pushkin’s work seems to support the idea, his only work juxtaposing the words “poet” and “prophet” “invokes the analogy between poet and prophet only in order to dismantle it”; Davidson, “The Moral Dimension of the Prophetic Ideal: Pushkin and His Readers,” Slavic Review 61: 3 (2002): 490–518, here 500. She quotes the poem “S Gomerom dolgo ty besedoval odin…”: “Ty proklial li, prorok, bessmyslennykh detei,/ Razbil li ty svoi skrizhali?/ O, ty ne proklial nas. Ty liubish´ s vysoty / Skryvat´sia v ten´ doliny maloi, / Ty liubish´ grom nebes, no takzhe vnemlesh´ ty / Zhuzhzhan´iu pchel nad rozoi aloi. / Takov priamoi poet.” Davidson shows Pushkin’s consciousness of the incompatibility of the inspirational requirements of the artist with the moral requirements of the prophet: “In Pushkin’s view, the artist’s paramount need for creative freedom was not easily compatible with the rigorous moral discipline re­quired of the prophetic calling” (ibid., 501). It was only posthumously that Pushkin was raised to prophet-like moral heights with the “first, most general strategy” being “substituting the notion of poetic or artistic integrity for the principle of moral integrity” (ibid., 507).

As a final note, the word blazhen, though most directly translating to “blessed,” in the given context is not as strongly tied to the religious/moral as the English word and could be understood as something closer to “happy.” The con­struction is rather a trope in Russian poetry, used sincerely and ironically by many poets. In Eugene Onegin alone it appears six times.

[30] Mikhail Darvin, “Prodaetsia li vdokhnovenie?” in Pushkinskii sbornik, ed. Irina Surat (Moscow: Tri kvadrata, 2005), 137.

[31] “Dlia vas, dushi moei tsaritsy, / Krasavitsy, dlia vas odnikh / Vremen minuvshikh nebylitsy…” (Pushkin, PSS 4: 7).

[32] V. A Koshelev, “Kto b ni byl ty, o moi chitatel´…,” in Pushkin i drugie: Sbornik statei k 60-letiiu Professora Sergeia Aleksandrovicha Fomicheva, ed. V. A. Koshe­lev (Novgorod: Novgorodskii gosudarstvennyi universitet, 1997), 30–41. The article is of some interest here for its comments on both the points above on the transition from feminine to masculine imagined reader, and also for its discoveries about the particular nature of the “readers” and “critics” that the narrator addresses in Onegin. In the end of his study, Koshelev shows how in Onegin and elsewhere the gulf between real “readers” and “non-readers” is of central narrative and moral importance, and that these select “readers” are apparently few indeed: “… neither ‘lazy people,’ nor ‘lucky devils,’ nor ‘landowners,’ nor ‘heads of the family,’ nor even ‘sensitive ladies’ turn out to be readers. Indeed, before us, in essence, is almost the full list of the main groups of educated Russian society!” (ibid., 40) Thus, ulti­mately, the contradictions that enter into the figure of the female reader essen­tially parallel those of the general reader and the public-at-large.

[33] David Herman, “A Requiem for Aristocratic Art: Pushkin’s ‘Egyptian Nights,’” Russian Review 55: 4 (1996): 661–80, here 663. In addition, several studies have analyzed “Egyptian Nights” in theorizing on questions of Pushkin’s poetic self-identity. Leslie O’Bell finds an expression of frustration with the demands and emptiness of society. See O’Bell, Pushkin’s “Egyptian Nights”: The Biography of a Work (Ann Arbor, MI: Ardis, 1984). Herman has extended his work on the story to find that true devotion to poetry required an embracing of poverty. See “The Call of Poverty: Learning to Love the Low in ‘Egyptian Nights,’” in Poverty of the Imagi­nation: Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature about the Poor (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 36–77.Monika Greenleaf includes commen­tary on the story in her tome on Pushkin’s fragmentariness. See Greenleaf, Push­kin and Romantic Fashion: Fragment, Elegy, Orient, Irony (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).Finally, Alexandra Smith has read the work as Pushkin’s reevaluation of the “hedonistic world-view.” See Smith, “Fictionality, Theatricality, and the Staging of Self: A New Look at Pushkin’s ‘Egyptian Nights,’” The Slavonic and East European Review 84: 3 (2006): 393–418.

[34] See T. J. Binyon, Pushkin: A Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), 179.

[35] Pushkin, PSS 6: 244–57.

[36] Ibid.,6: 248.

[37] Herman, Poverty, 37.

[38] Pushkin, PSS 6: 244.

[39] Ibid.,6: 252.

[40] Ibid., 6: 251.

[41] Ibid., 6: 250–51.

[42] Ibid., 6: 245.

[43] Ibid.,6: 255.

[44] It is worth noting that Kahn includes brief mention of “Egyptian Nights” in his reading of “Bookseller.” He is convinced that the improvisatore is lacking in at least those qualities of a true poet, which the poet character of “Bookseller” and the crowd of the tale endorse: “What the improviser has is a scientific certainty in his own ability to perform; despite that awesome facility for versifying at a level of great technical accomplishment, the authority figures in the tale do not acclaim his output as poetry: he remains an improviser but not a poet. The improviser thrives in displaying his talent to the crowd because he does not require inspira­tion to strike, functioning as he does like a well‐tooled machine. Yet he satisfies the crowd’s definition of what it means to be a poet only because he produces poetry in which a mechanical facility gives proof of, at least, his status, if not of genius. By contrast, the Poet here emphasizes the biographical sources of his work, and the role of nature as inspiration, both of which vouchsafe poetry as a product of genuine emotion and not mere technique” (Kahn, Lyric Intelligence, 182). As, however, we do not have the opportunity to see the crowd’s final verdict (nor assurances that they are an authority), I remain unconvinced on this point. In addition, this study has attempted to show that the question of “inspiration” is more complicated than it is represented here: the improvisatore shows the tell-tale signs of the “rapture” half of the binary.

[45] Quoted in N. V. Izmailov, “Mitskevich v stikhakh Pushkina: K interpretatsii stikhotvoreniia ‘V prokhlade sladostnoi fontanov,’” in Ocherki tvorchestva Push­kina (Leningrad: Nauka, 1975), 141. For a summary of other possible prototypes for the improvisatore’s character and literary source material, see Paul Debre­czeny, The Other Pushkin: A Study of Alexander Pushkin’s Prose Fiction (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1983), 291.

[46] Pushkin, PSS 6: 249.

[47] Regarding Pushkin’s turning to prose, Boris Eikhenbaum pointed out how, un­like later Russian prose writers who reject poetry explicitly, Pushkin’s prose is rooted in his poetry and its associated concerns. “Problemy poetiki Pushkina,” O poezii (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel´, 1969), 32. “Egyptian Nights” is a case in point.

[48] Pushkin, PSS 6: 251.

[49] See William Mills Todd, Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986), 108.

[50] Ludmila Shleyfer Lavine, “Poetry, Prose, and Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights,” in The Slavic and East European Journal 42: 3 (1998): 402–22, here 414.

[51] Pushkin, PSS 6: 249.

[52] See Lavine, “Pushkin’s Egyptian Nights,” 411–12. “The acts of writing and pre­senting his work to the audience are spread out in time and, furthermore, ac­complished through the intermediary publisher. Moreover, the reading public is not gathered, as at a performance, but rather is dispersed. Thus, an immediate theatrical impact is impossible.”

[53] Herman, Poverty, 673.

[54] Ibid., 662.