Pushkin as Wisdom Poet

Paul Friedrich, University of Chicago

The copious and sometimes over-determined or palimpsestic quality of Pushkin studies has long been proverbial to the point, on the one hand, of graduate students being shunted away from ambitious proposals, to, on the other, of multi-tiered scholarship that eschews engagement with the text in favor of meta-critical comparison of earlier studies. Contrasting with these activities is the incontrovertible and simple fact that Pushkin perdures as basic, often necessary reading for "the Russian," from an engineer taking Eugene Onegin on a vacation, to the many who know much of the oeuvre by heart, to the relatively unlettered souls who get emotional support in times of duress from little volumes of Pushkin (like, for example, Esenin). This popular or across-the-social-board readership derives in part from the charm and music of the lines, in part from the way he is inculcated in school, in part from the vision of a world free of byt.

It is my contention, however, that it also derives from the fact that Pushkin's poems, together with their ludic and learned-parochial components, are replete with ideas about life and how to live it, and how to die. It is this latter aspect that places him in the category of "wisdom poet," defined as a poet whose works often involve aphorism, proverb, and essentializing gist. (This should not be confused with a "philosophical poet" (e.g., Dante, Lucretius), although one poet such as Goethe may be both.) Pushkin shares this category with the Classical poets (e.g., Horace, Ovid) to whom he was conspicuously indebted; however, his stature as a wisdom poet also makes his interestingly comparable, not only to his French and Latin sources, but to the great T'ang poets, Dickinson and Frost, and, indeed, many poets in African and Native American traditions. It is Pushkin's genius and accessibility as a wisdom poet that, as much as anything, accounts for his inspirational significance to Tolstoj and Dostoevskij and "the man in the street" or behind bars. This paper engages with the wisdom aspect of Pushkin's major poems and, to a minor degree, their life in Russian culture. The take, then, will be primarily semantic and philosophical, buttressed by pragmatic and socio-cultural considerations.