Pushkin’s Sonnets

Michael Wachtel, Princeton University

There has been no shortage of attention to Pushkin’s sonnets, including two recent—and quite good—articles (Pertsov and Vito), there remains a lot to be said. In this talk, I will use as my point of departure the oft-cited (but rarely interpreted) closing lines of Pushkin’s famous sonnet on the sonnet (“Surovyi Dant ne preziral soneta”). Having spent most of the poem surveying the broader European tradition (a technique that, as has been long recognized, goes back to Wordsworth), Pushkin concludes by turning to his friend Del'vig, who not only popularized the sonnet in Russia, but – as Pushkin insists – did so by “forgetting” (“zabyval”) the “holy melodies of hexameter” (“gekzametra sviashchennye napevy”). The opposition Pushkin creates here (which was surely not viewed as such by Del'vig himself) sets up the sonnet as a foil to the hexameter. Pushkin does not spell out the essential differences -- formal (unrhymed vs. rhymed poetry), generic (idyll vs. love poem, metapoetic poem, etc.), and historical (antiquity vs. modernity) – but they undoubtedly influenced his own conception of the sonnet.

The remainder of my talk will be devoted to exploring the implications of this opposition in Pushkin’s own poetic practice: not only regarding the formal qualities of his three acknowledged sonnets (and their alleged defects, cf. Grossman), but also the “recently discovered” sonnet in Boris Godunov (Shaw’s attribution, which I dispute) and finally the vexed relationship of the sonnet to the Onegin stanza (cf. Scherr).


Grossman, L.P. “Poetika russkogo soneta”, in Bor'ba za stil'(Moscow, 1929).
Pertsov, N.V. “Sonetnyi triptikh Pushkina”, Moskovskii Pushkinist V (1998).
Scherr, Barry, “Russkii sonnet”, in Russkii stikh (Moscow, 1996).
Shaw, J. Thomas, Pushkin’s Poetics of the Unexpected (Slavica, 1993).
Vito, Rosella Winternitz De, “I sonetti di Puskin”, in Europa Orientalis, XVIII, 1999.