Posted by: gdevi | January 26, 2014

English 404 The Bronze Horseman Notes

English 404

Dr. Devi

Pushkin, The Bronze Horseman Study Notes

Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman (1833) addresses the catastrophic flooding of the Neva river in 1824 that decimated (the pre-revolutionary) capital city of St. Petersburg and resulted in the death of approximately 10, 000 people according to historical records. Tsar Peter 1 built Petersburg on the bogland at the Gulf of Finland in Russia’s northwestern border as a challenge to the Swedes, and also to gain access to western Europe. Tsar Peter wanted to modernize Russia, and free it from its medieval ethos. St. Petersburg was Peter’s ambitious route to immortalize Russia as a great power in the eyes of the world, and to make an immortal monument to himself. Petersburg has seen approximately 350 floods since its founding by Peter the Great in the 19th century.

Here are a few images of the 1824 flood:

Though Pushkin wrote The Bronze Horseman in 1833, it was published only after his death in 1837, due to its politically controversial views. While the poem itself exposes the failed vanity of the imperial plan, and the terror and loss struck in the hearts of the common man in the character of Yevgeny, Pushkin’s treatment of the themes is rather ambivalent. Yevgeny dies a mad man, while the imperial city goes on with its life, its history assured in the fantastical bronze horseman, Peter’s statue, that comes to life to chase and terrorize Yevgeny. Peter’s statue–the Bronze Horseman — crushes Yevgeny. Pushkin’s treatment of the power of the state and the insignificance of the common man in the eyes of the state is uncompromising. But his moral vision seems cynical and pessimistic. Even though Nature’s might temporarily destroyed Petersburg, human ambition and will moves on. Yevgeny’s death is nothing. Pushkin’s critics have found this conclusion existentially futile and pessimistic. But then again, look at Hurricane Katrina and what it did to the folks down in New Orleans.

Here are some points to keep in mind as you read through the poem:

Prologue: The Prologue opens with Peter at the shores of Neva looking across towards Sweden and thinking out loud on building a magnificent city in the bogland.

“Here, Swede, beware –soon by our labor

Here a new city shall be wrought,

Defiance to the haughty neighbor.

Here we at Nature’s own behest

Shall break a window to the West.”

The Prologue continues with the narrator describing the opulent capital, St. Petersburg, in all its opulence and military might and splendor. Pay particular attention to the similes Pushkin uses to describe the city, the river etc. Our readings all center around St. Petersburg in one way or the other. How is this city portrayed? What values are associated with the city?

The Prologue ends with the narrator telling us about a tale with “horrors ever fresh and near us.”

Part One

In the first part of the poem, we are introduced to the young man Yevgeny, who does not have a surname, has no family, or claim to history or fame. Pushkin makes it a point to say this to us. He is poor and has nothing. He wants to marry Parasha, the young girl that he loves, who is equally poor and lives in a hut across the town. How does Pushkin present Yevgeny to us? What motivates Yevgeny to be the kind of person he is?

Part One then moves to the splendid description of the flooding of Neva. Pay particular attention to the descriptive and narrative strategies Pushkin uses to convey the enormity of destruction unleashed by the flood. The flood is personified in several places. What are these personifications?

At the height of the flood, Yevgeny climbs the statue of a lion and stays there. From the height, he sees the destruction of the city, and he fears that Parasha’s hut will also be destroyed:  “all within sight/  was an unending watery blight.”

Part One ends with an oblique description of the Bronze Horseman–the statue of Peter–that “towered immobile, undefeated” over the watery grave of the city. Why show us the Bronze Horseman here and now?

When you read Part One, pay particular attention to the perspective on the flood. What aspects of the flood does Pushkin focus on?

Part Two

Part Two opens with the cresting of Neva, and Yevgeny finding a ferryman who takes him to Parasha’s street. Yevgeny’s fears are confirmed. Parasha’s hut is gone, and everyone is dead. Yevgeny starts to laugh madly. Why does Yevgeny burst out into laughter at the site of the destruction? How does Pushkin show us Yevgeny’s changing state of mind?

Part Two then moves on to the “recovery” efforts of the city. How does Pushkin present these efforts? How is Yevgeny different from all those who are eager to “open cellar, vault, and store/ robbed by Neva the night before/ the sooner to surcharge their neighbor/ for their grave loss.” How does Pushkin show us Yevgeny’s slow descent into homelessness and madness? In some ways, Yevgeny typifies those who lose everything in disasters, and will never recover.

Pay particular attention to the central event in part Two. Yevgeny’s encounter with the statue of Peter the great, the Bronze Horseman. What happens in this encounter? How does Pushkin blend realism and fantasy? How does the image of the bronze horseman pursuing Yevgeny work as a supernatural  image? Another 19th century author who used a similar trope is Washington Irving, with his character the Headless Horseman who chases Ichabod Crane in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. How does the Bronze Horseman function as a source of horror or madness in this section? How does Pushkin show us the disintegration of Yevgeny’s mind?

Part Two ends with fishermen discovering Yevgeny’s torn and tattered body flung out of Neva onto an island. How do you understand and interpret this resolution? How does Pushkin resolve the themes that he brings up– the tension between the state and the individual, mortality and immortality, human ambition and nature’s indifference?

Here is a poem you can keep in mind when you read The Bronze Horseman, Emily Dickinson’s “Apparently with no surprise”:

Apparently with no surprise,
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play,
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on.
The sun proceeds unmoved,
To measure off another day,
For an approving God.


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