Pushkin: “The Bronze Horseman”
In Pushkin’s poem, “The Bronze Horseman,” symbols of human civilization are brought into violent conflict with symbols of the natural world. At one level, the poem’s tension and energy is derived from the opposition of the epic forces of nature and human history, which seem to work toward conflicting ends. In the opening section of the poem, as Peter the Great contemplates the creation of Saint Petersburg and westward expansion, the lines indicate the presence of nature as a facilitator of human, specifically Russian, destiny: “Here a great city will be wrought /To spite our neighborhood conceited./ From here by Nature we’re destined/ To cut a door to Europe wide,” (Pushkin). Here the central conflict of the poem is established because a proposition has been offered that nature stands in collusion with human destiny, the specific destiny of specific human ambition toward territorial and cultural conquest.
What remains to be seen is whether or not this proposition is, in fact, born out by history, or whether the consequence of such a vision is actually a function of hubris and national chauvinism. Immediately, the “rebuke” of nature is hinted at in the poem’s opening section when the lines: “Where once the Finnish fisherman,/ Sad stepson of the World, alone,/By low riverbanks’ a sand,/ Cast into waters, never known,/His ancient net, now on the place,/ Along the full of people banks,/Cluster the tall and graceful masses” (Pushkin). These lines reveal a subtle, but definite, conflict between humanity and nature. It as though the “people banks” suggests a contorted sense of nature as well as a strange turn of phrase. The vision of a “deserted, wave-swept shore” (Pushkin) has been replaced with a vision of a bank chock-full of people and a great, vast city of riches and indulgences.
In the following section of the poem, when the scene shifts from an historical to a “modern” perspective, the open, bountiful vision of nature and of the sense of possibility adn human destiny is replaced by a brooding sense of pent-up fury, sadness, blackness, and loneliness. As the lines reveal nature in a strained, almost imprisoned role, the tension of the poem increases. Lines such as: “November breathed with fall cold’s harshness” (Pushkin) or “The Neva raved, like the seek raves” (Pushkin) indicate a restrained fury, and a near-insanity which is projected under the clam and rich facade of the city and attributed to the elements forms of nature which have been displaced by human ambition. At this point, a single image of nature has been fixated upon as driving the tension of the poem, as the symbol for the conflict between human ambition and the natural world, and that symbol is the river which lies in “a bed, that has become the restless” (Pushkin). The full force of the conflict is centered, ultimately on the tragedy of human love, which — when the disparate symbols of the poem are brought back into harmony — is seen to have also been savaged like nature by human history, particularly the materialistic ambitions of human history. The great irony is, of course, that the poem’s “hero” who loses his fiancee to the flood is, himself, “luxuruosly” poor and lives on “light” rather than on material wealth.
The prospect of such innocence being wiped out by a flood, by nature’s pent-up fury only serves to reinforce the tragic consequence of the historical ambition toward conquest which was describes in the poem’s opening section. In other words, even the “innocent” will suffer the backlash of nature because nature is ultimately revealed to not be in collusion with a sense of human — or Russian — destiny, or in any sense of human history whatsoever. Rather, the river and all the other elemental aspects of nature stand as cosmic truths which are unmoved by human history. The ultimate irony is that the soul of a man is not wed to a city, but to the earth itself, to nature and to the cosmic “laws” which transcend personal ambition or even personal lassitude and love. In this way, Pushkin’s poem elevates nature above human construct and in doing so generates a deeply romantic epic poem which, if by ironic contrast, continues to promote a sense of the heroic in both humanity and in nature, when the two are seen to be in harmonious rather than oppositional relation.