Tracing the Waters to the Source: Allusions to Deržavin in Dziady and The Bronze Horseman

Clint Walker, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Considerable scholarly attention has been devoted to the relationship between Adam Mickiewicz’s digression (Ustęp) in Dziady and Alexander Puškin’s The Bronze Horseman. Surprisingly, however, an extremely important intertextual source of both works, the poetry of Gavrila Deržavin, has yet to receive the attention it merits. Mickiewicz’s digression contains several allusions to Deržavin’s odes, but the most significant occurs at the end of “Pomnik Piotra Wielkiego”:

Od wieku stoi, skacze, lecz nie spada,
Jako lecąca z granitów kaskada,
Gdy scięta mrozem nad przepaścią zwiśnie—
Lecz skoro słońce swobody zabłyśnie
I wiatr zachodni ogrzeje te państwa,
I cóż się stanie z kaskadą tyraństva? (my emphasis)

When read in a Russian context, the image of a waterfall recalls Deržavin’s “The Waterfall” (“Vodopad”), an ode that Puškin valued highly and that Mickiewicz would undoubtedly have known from his school days. On one level, “The Waterfall” is a celebration of Potemkin’s military exploits; on another, it glorifies the “divine source” of Russian autocracy—specifically, Catherine II as the “mother of waterfalls, or great men.” At the deepest level, however, the poem is a meditation on the all-consuming and relentless flow of time, the river into which all will eventually “fall” and be “smashed to pieces.” Deržavin repeatedly employs the verb “to fall” (past′/upast′), noting, “Will not into this maw fall/ From the throne a car′ and the friend of car′s?”

Mickiewicz “freezes” Deržavin’s image of Russian power, poising it over the edge of a precipice. Instead of Derzavin’s patriotically “pro-Russian” water imagery, Mickiewicz depicts the Russian army as a giant lake with military columns (“little rivers”) that flow into it and drown in its depths. According to Oleszkiewicz’s prediction in “Dzień przed powodzią petersburską 1824,” soon the “frozen waters” of tyranny will thaw, releasing an apocalyptic flood that will “mount the waves,” and rear up like the bronze horseman, “chewing the icy bit.”

This paper will trace the course of Mickiewicz’s water imagery back to its source, showing how he draws off Deržavin’s odes to polemicize with the legitimacy of Russian rule. I will conclude with a brief analysis of Puškin’s own allusions to “The Waterfall” in The Bronze Horseman, suggesting how they might shed light on his enigmatic answer to Mickiewicz.