Good Physics vs. Brave Poetry

Yevgeny Slivkin, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

(How A. Mickiewicz "walked" in front of A. S. Pushkin: a remark to the dispute over St. Petersburg.)

The Bronze Horseman by A. Pushkin has been fairly interpreted as author's polemic reply to the humiliating depiction of Russian life and the Russian capital which A. Mickiewicz gives in his "Digression" to Forefathers' Eve (Part Three). This polemic of two great poets is usually seen by scholars in its historical and political aspects. All the ideological and philosophical underpinnings of the poets' stances have been thoroughly studied.

In my paper I dwell on a peculiarity of Pushkin's reply to Mickiewicz that I believe has been overlooked in scholarly works. I think this peculiarity can provide us with a better understanding of Pushkin's perception of the spiritual substantiality of St. Petersburg. Analyzing the first representation of St. Petersburg in "Digression" ( poem "The Suburbs of the Capital"), I observe that before leading the reader to the city's gate Mickiewicz describes the optical illusion of "cities" formed in the sky by the "smoke from the numberless chimneys" of the Russian capital. I try to prove by the method of formal textual analysis that Pushkin's St. Petersburg, as depicted in the introduction to The Bronze Horseman, assumes the basic features of Mickiewicz's unreal cities and thus Pushkin turns the mobile illusion described by Mickiewicz into stable reality. The falling of the optical illusion upon the earth at the moment St. Petersburg is about to be destroyed by the Neva in Mickiewicz's "Digression" (poem "The Flood") calls to mind Pushkin's note # 5 to his "Imitation of the Koran" (1824): "The earth is motionless--the vaults of heaven,/ Creator, are supported by you,/ May they not fall upon the earth and the waters,/ And may they not crush us." The note says: "bad physics but what brave poetry!"

I argue that it is Pushkin the "physicist" who, in note # 3 to The Bronze Horseman, provides the following explanation of Mickiewicz's description of the day of the flood: "... his picture is not precise. There was no snow and the Neva was not covered with ice." I suggest that this note, which may at first seem pedantic, is in fact essential to Pushkin's rejection of Mickiewicz's image of the statue of Peter the Great as "the frozen waterfall of tyranny" in "Digression" (poem "The Statue of Peter the Great"). This may be seen further in the use of the word xlad (cold) which frequently appears in the draft versions of The Bronze Horseman to describe the statue of Peter the Great, but which Pushkin eliminates in the final version.

I conclude that Pushkin constitutes his polemic with Mickiewicz according to the "theory of relativity" which he lays open in his poem of 1825: "Motion does not exist, said the bearded sage./ The other sage did not utter a word--he just started walking in front of the first sage;/ He could not object to him more strongly;/ Everyone praised his cunning reply./ Well, gentlemen, this curious episode/ Reminds me of another example:/ The sun walks in front of us every day,/ Yet obstinate Galileo was right." Pushkin assumes the role of "obstinate Galileo" in his dispute with Mickiewicz and allows his "good physics" to counter "brave poetry" of the Polish romanticist.