Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant. ~Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus), Satires
There are two things that have been known to inspire excellence in creativity. No, they are not the only sources of inspiration. And yet, when a person of the human kind comes face to face with love, or on the other hand adversity, the birth of talent can only be rivalled by despair. Out of despair, creativity emerges barren. But out of hope, and the resilience of the human spirit comes the burst of creative talent.
Take, for example, Alexander Pushkin. Of the Russian poets, none is mentioned by Russians with more reverence than Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin. His work has been set to opera by Mikhail Glinka, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, and Peter Tchaikovsky; his lyrics have been memorized by young school-children throughout the former Soviet Union; and leading poets of the twentieth century, such as Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Alexander Blok, emphasized his impact on their work and lives.
Pushkin was born in Moscow in 1799. His father Sergei descended from boyars (members of the upper stratum of medieval Russian society and state administration.). Pushkin’s mother Nadezhda was the granddaughter of Abram Gannibal, an African slave brought from Africa as a gift for the Russian Tsar Peter I, who favoured him and sent him to Paris for military education.
Pushkin’s parents embraced the lifestyle of the aristocracy, though they could not afford it. Sergei, an adept conversationalist with a vast knowledge of French literature, invited some of Russia’s leading literary figures to the household, including the historian Nikolai Karamzin and poets Konstantin Batyushkov and Vasily Zhukovsky. Pushkin and his sister and brother grew up surrounded by literati.
However, Pushkin’s childhood was unhappy. Pushkin was the least favoured child, perhaps in part because of his African features and awkward manner. Pushkin’s grandmother, Mariya, who was Abram Gannibal’s daughter and his nanny Arina Rodionova, nurtured him emotionally; the latter told him folk tales and entertained him with gossip, and served later as the model for Tatiana’s nanny in Eugene Onegin. As a result, Pushkin took pride in his African heritage, referring to it often in his lyrics.
In 1811 Pushkin’s parents sent him to boarding school, the Lyceum, newly established by Alexander I in a wing of his palace in Tsarskoye Selo. After graduating from the Lyceum, he moved to Petersburg where he lived the ‘artist’s’ life, sleeping late, taking walks, and attending parties in the evenings. Erratic and excitable, he made public scenes at the theatre on several occasions. He frequented houses of prostitutes and had a number of romantic affairs.
He was a member of the literary circle “The Green Lamp,” whose members, including Pushchin and Delvig, were also involved in secret political activities aimed at reform. Pushkin was not invited to join in the secret meetings, but he did write lyrics challenging the tsarist autocracy, including his ode “Freedom”(1817), “Noelles” (1818), and “The Village” (1819). The lyrics caused a stir; Pushkin was ordered to appear before Count Miloradovich, governor-general of St. Petersburg, following which the Tsar sent Pushkin into exile in the form of military service in South Russia under Lieutenant General Inzov.
In exile, Pushkin wrote “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” (1820–1821), “The Bandit Brothers” (1821–1822), and “The Fountain of Bakchisaray” (1821–1823) as well as the scathing, mock-religious “Gavriiliada” (1821). It was also at this time that he began his novel in verse Eugene Onegin (1823–1831).
In 1829 Pushkin met and proposed to Natalia Goncharova, a society beauty. They were formally engaged on May 18, 1830. Pushkin was given permission to publish Boris Godunov. In September 1830 Pushkin went to Boldino in east-central Russia to make wedding arrangements. Because of the outbreak of Asiatic cholera, he was forced to stay three months there. This time was the most productive of his life.
As part of an overall transition from poetry to prose, he wrote the magnificent Tales of Belkin, a collection of stories in taut, swift-moving prose, revolving around mistaken identity and, according to Andrej Kodjak (1979), containing an encoded message concerning the Decembrist uprising.
Other works during this period include his “Little Tragedies” (“The Avaricious Knight,” “Mozart and Salieri,” “The Stone Guest,” and “Feast in the Time of the Plague”), as well as “The Little House in Kolomna,” “The Tale of the Priest and his Workman Balda,” the last chapter of Eugene Onegin, and some of his finest lyrics, including “The Devils.” He married Goncharova in February 1831, shortly after the unexpected death of Delvig, his closest friend after Pushchin.
Pushkin’s marriage to Goncharova proved unhappy. She had little appreciation for his work, and he was unable to finance her extravagant lifestyle. Pushkin was beset with financial worries, and wrote little (including “Tale of the Golden Cockerel”(1834), the cycle of poems “Stone Island” (Kamenny Ostrov, 1836) and his novel The Captain’s Daughter (1836). He published a quarterly journal The Contemporary, which added to his troubles and did not fare well.
Natalia Goncharova loved mingling with the high aristocracy and playing society coquette; her many admirers included the tsar. The flirtation took on more serious tones when Baron Georges Charles d’Anthès, a French exile living in St. Petersburg under the protection of the Dutch ambassador, began to pursue her in earnest. A duel between d’Anthès and Pushkin took place on February 10, 1837. Pushkin, severely wounded, died two days later.
Of Pushkin’s works, Eugene Onegin is the best known in the West, though by no means his sole masterpiece. Written over the course of eight years, it consists of eight chapters, each chapter broken into numbered stanzas in iambic tetrameter. Narrated by a stylized version of Pushkin himself, it portrays a Byronic antihero, Eugene Onegin, a bored society dandy who rejects the sincere and sombre Tatiana. Onegin then flirts casually with Tatiana’s sister Olga, provokes a duel with his friend Vladimir Lensky, a second-rate poet infatuated with Olga, and kills Lensky in the duel. After some travels, Onegin returns to Petersburg to find out that Tatiana has married a wealthy general. He falls in love with her, but she rejects him out of loyalty to her husband. The work holds immense popular and scholarly appeal thanks to the playfulness and perfection of the verse, the layers of confession and commentary, the appeal of the heroine, and the complex element of prophecy of Pushkin’s own death.
So with that, allow me to introduce you to the August 2011 poetry exhibition.
- Blue Sky, Green Grass
- Lord my Woman is Talking
- Old Flames
- Our Neighbour
- Shattered Illusion
- Terminological Inexactitude
- First Time
The topic and genre of the September Poetry Exhibition will be announced at a later date as it will be linked to the Storymoja Hay Festival.
Here’s wishing you a happy, creative week!