Tragedy and Ethical Evaluation in Pushkin's «Poltava»
Alexander Pushkin’s Poltava concludes with a paean to the subtle traces of human lives a century after their ends. All that “goes on four feet, two feet and three feet … and is most feeble when it walks on four” passes to dust, thereafter existing in this world only as a shade of past events, perhaps exerting a presence in history or legend and then, possibly, in myth. The barely discernible remains of the Swedish king’s camp at Bender, three steps descending into the belly of the earth, say little about his worthiness as Peter’s foe. The field at Poltava and its trees silently memorialize the warriors who fought and died in the battle. A monument built by the labor of hands commemorates the two “martyrs,” Colonel Iskra and the Judge General Kochubei, concealing the deleterious longing for vengeance against Mazepa that motivated their loyalty to Russia. As for the Hetman himself, the final stanza of Poltava claims that:
Забыт Мазепа с давних пор;
Лишь в торжествующей святыне
Раз в год анафемой доныне,
Грозя, гремит о нем собор.
Mazepa had long been forgotten;
Only during solemnities on holy ground,
Annually unto this day, menacing,
The cathedral thunders anathema on him.
The church renews its curse on the Hetman each year to condemn his betrayal of Russia, not his appalling mistreatment and ultimate abandonment of Maria. Her place in cultural memory resembles Mazepa’s; she is paradoxically both forgotten (lost in “impenetrable darkness”) and remembered only in songs about a “sinful maiden” occasionally sung by a blind, aged rhapsodist.
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Reading Pushkin's «Tales of Belkin» through Sainte-Veuve's «Vie, Poésies et Pensées de Joseph Delorme»
It has been widely assumed that Alexander Pushkin’s Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (1831) were inspired by the oeuvre of Sir Walter Scott, and most notably by Scott’s Tales of my Landlord, Collected and Arranged by Jedediah Cleishbotham (1816–19) and The Monastery (1820), both works with which Pushkin is known to have been familiar long before he began writing the Tales. That such a link exists seems inarguable; both D. P. Iakubovich and Sona Stephan Hoisington have convincingly demonstrated resonances between Scott’s work and the Tales, especially in relation to the latter’s preface. Nonetheless, I will argue, readings of this connection have so far proven insufficient, neglecting the importance of the broader manuscrit trouvé tradition—and almost entirely overlooking the important mediating role played by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve’s Vie, poésies et pensées de Joseph Delorme (1829). There is compelling evidence that at the time he was working on the Tales’ preface in late 1830, Pushkin was reading, writing about, and pondering the implications of Sainte-Beuve’s text; indeed, it is well established that Joseph Delorme was the key source for a large part of Pushkin’s literary production of the period. As such, the Tales’ preface may be most fruitfully and most accurately read not as a mere pastiche or spoofing of Scott, but rather as part of a broader dialogue that, while clearly indebted to Scott, is also a direct response to the critical issues brought to Pushkin’s attention by Sainte-Beuve’s Joseph Delorme.
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