Oriental Pushkin: "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" and later poems

Questions for Reading

Roger Clarke has supplied a useful and economically worded biography of Pushkin along with some historical details, which I have included for your reading pleasure and information. If you have questions about any of this, let me know. (Some of the names will recur in future readings.) (As will Pushkin himself.) "A Prisoner in the Caucasus" has also been translated as "Captive of the Caucasus"; the original title, "Кавказский пленник," means literally "Caucasian Captive/Prisoner."


1. The original work is a poem, though Clarke has decided to give us only parts of the original in poetic form. (Note the one section, "The Circassian song," which he renders in verse, pp. 143-44. It's not as if he can't do it! And a lot of the prose phrasing is very poetic in its effect.) What is the effect of reading a poem that has been translated as prose? How does it compare to reading "The Fountain of Bakhchisarai," last week?

2. If you have read Byron, what traces of his heroes do you see here? (If you have't read Byron: his heroes tended to be prematurely blighted by tragic experience in an unfeeling, artificial society. They would travel into more "primitive" parts of the world, hoping to escape their pasts and perhaps even return to Real Experience, but no matter where they went it was all the same... - The hero of Pushkin's most famous work, the long "novel in verse" Eugene Onegin, has definite Byronic tendencies, and the poema's heroine Tatiana eventually realizes that he is a sort of parody.) What is the result of mixing the (failed) love story into the other elements of this work?

3. The characters in the poem have no names, just ethnic identifiers or descriptions. How does that impact your reactions as a reader?

4. What do you say about the ethnographic elements of the poem? The obligatory descriptions of spectacular natural scenery? - the likes of which you will not see in continental Russia.

5. On p. 143: "The saddles horses seethed; all the men of the village were ready to go raiding; and the fierce horde of born fighters streamed down from the hills like a river and galloped along the banks of the Kubán to exact the rewards of violence." The word "horde" is not in the original: the part I just cited would be (crudely translated):

                  They run, they shout;

The copper/bronze bridles rattle.

Burkas show lack, weapons flash,

The saddles horses seethe,

The whole aul is prepared for a raid,

And the wild pupils of the battlefield

Like a river surged from the hills

And they gallop along the banks of the Kuban

To collect forceful/violent tributes.

This isn't meant to second-guess the translator - but given the origin of the word "horde," it's a striking and perhaps insensitive word choice. Another question: what's the effect of presenting the Circassians as born raiders and fighters, who are going after those peaceful Cossacks? (You'd never guess that the Cossacks here are essentially part of the Russian army - irregulars.)

6. The Epilogue also involves a lot of very interesting elements: first, the poet asserts that the goddess (Muse?) who insires his poetry has put on a Circassian costume. What is her relationship to a real Circassian woman - and how does her masquerade relate to his poem? Second: note the descriptions of war and generals, p. 147: "his coming, like the black death,/ brought havoc and destruction to the mountain tribes..." (says Pushkin approvingly).

7. And, almost at the end, particularly worthy of attention: "Like the Mongol hordes,/ the mountain folk of the Caucasus/ will not stay true to their ancestral ways:/ they'll forget the call of hungry conflict/ and put aside the arrows of war." In fact, it could be that the mountain folk of the Caucasus are NOT like the Mongol hordes: the high mountains and difficult terrain would have protected them largely from the Mongol invasion, and their languages often are not Turkic. (Any very mountainous region tends to harbor a great deal of linguistic diversity.)



(with apologies for the occasional typographical errors!)

1. How are these different from the two long poems we have just read?

2. I note that "Stamboul the giaour glorifies" also presents the difference between peopel of the lowlands and people of the mountains - to the detriment of the former.

3. These poems are chosen because they have been so handsomely translated by Martin Bidney, an Emeritus Professor of Russian. Dr. Bidney feels it's essential to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter of the originals. He is also very good at conveying the high-style, formal vocabulary that Pushkin sometimes uses, which is so appropriate to verse that has anything to do with religion. How much of an extra demand does the poetry place on you as a reader?

4. Many Russian readers have wanted to interpret "The Prophet," one of Pushkin's very best-known short poems, as describing an Old Testament prophet. What do you think? (The "Imitations of the Koran," which follow, are harder to assign to a different religious tradition.)

 5. Have you encountered any of the plots in these poems before?

6. Something to consider: might Pushkin's own African heritage, of which he was extremely proud, impact his attitude towards Islam and its religious and poetic traditions?