"Barbarus hic ego sum": Pushkin and Ovid on the Pontic Shore
The dilemma of the literary exile is the writer’s awareness of the need both to point out his distance from home and yet also continue a literary presence there. How does Pushkin’s attempt to make readers aware of his absence and yet create a powerful literary presence compare to Ovid’s, and what does it tell us about exile and readership? The poet must always reckon with a virtual self, as Ovid writes to his Roman audience in Tristia:
And treasure the name of your Naso, thus far his sole unexiled portion,
And love it; the Scythian Pontus holds all the rest of him.
Ovid, exiled to Tomis on the shores of the Black Sea, was both inspiration and cautionary tale to Pushkin. Exiled personally by his autocrat, Augustus, just as Pushkin was, but at the peak of his career, famous in Rome and the Roman Empire, Ovid was sent to the edge of the known world. Fated never to leave Tomis, although he begged continuously all through his exile for some softening of his punishment, Ovid felt himself to be amongst complete barbarians in frigid, uncivilized, and militarily contested territory, and he labored to keep his name and situation fresh to his many friends and allies in the capital. Pushkin, exiled almost two millennia later to approximately the same place, but as a young man, finds Bessarabia—not exactly Tomis but in close proximity to it—to be quite a different place than Ovid complained of: warm compared to Russia, south rather than north, near the center of the Greek uprising rather than on the edge of the known world. Nonetheless he felt a keen kinship to Ovid, employing Ovidian imagery to describe his sojourn, complaining of such things as the lack of booksellers in Kishinev and using the terminology of desert and wasteland. Boris Gasparov draws attention to these same tropes as a Dantean motif rather than Ovidian: the motif of a contemporary poet/exile in the “gloomy desert” (mrachnaia pustynia) who meets the “shade of the antique poet.” This occurs in Pushkin’s poems on Ovid, as well as The Gypsies (Tsygany), Eugene Onegin, and others.
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