Rose maiden, no I do not quarrel,
With these dear chains, they don’t demean.
The nightingale embushed in laurel,
The sylvan singers’ feathered queen,
Does she not bear the same sweet plight?
Near the proud rose’s beauty dwelling,
And with her tender anthems thrilling
The dusk of a voluptuous night.
Pushkin – Dear Chains
Russia’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin (1799 – 1837) was also an outstanding novelist, short story writer, playwright, and dramatist who is deemed the founder of modern Russian literature. His verse and prose addressed conflicts between personal happiness and duty, the rebellion of loners against the system, and were rife with vigorous life-affirming themes such as the triumph of human goodness over oppression, and of reason over narrow-minded prejudice.
A born aristocrat, Pushkin was a descendant of Abram Gannibal, an African kidnapped and sold into slavery as a child, who ended up in Istanbul and from there was taken to Russia and presented as a gift to Peter the Great. The Tsar adopted Gannibal and raised him in the imperial household as his godson, and he rose to prominence as a general and courtier during the reign of Peter’s daughter Elizabeth – an extraordinary life described in Pushkin’s biographical novel The Negro of Peter the Great.
Precocious, Pushkin published his first poem at age 15 while a student at the elite Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum. While still at the Lyceum, he began his first major work, the romantic poem Ruslan and Ludmilla, which used folkloric Russian themes of an epic hero overcoming numerous obstacles in the course of rescuing his bride. It flouted accepted genre rules by rejecting the traditional Russian style of classic poetry, and by breaking the barriers to the use of colloquial speech in verse. It was violently attacked, but it brought Pushkin fame and cemented his place as an innovator.
By the time he graduated, he was a committed social reformer, which upset the Tsarist authorities and secret police, who placed him under surveillance for the remainder of his life. At age 21, he was exiled from St. Petersburg to southern Russia. In exile, he traveled through Crimea and the Caucasus, and the impressions gained furnished material for his “southern cycle” of romantic poems, such as The Robber Brothers and Prisoner of the Caucasus.
Pushkin’s literary outflow was frequently interrupted by authorities censoring his work and prohibiting or otherwise impeding its publication. Despite officialdom’s ham-handedness, he kept writing. His poetic novel Eugene Onegin revolutionized Russian literature as the first to take contemporary society as its subject matter, and led a wave of realistic Russian novels. Pushkin’s use of the Russian language was both simple and profound, and became the foundation of the style adopted by novelists such as Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev.
In 1837 Pushkin discovered that his brother-in-law had attempted to seduce the poet’s wife. The code of honor of the day compelled Pushkin to challenge the offender to a duel, in which he was fatally wounded. Thus, his life was cut short at the height of his literary career, but the tragic ending was somehow fitting for a man who embodied the Romantic movement.