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Traveling Domestics: The Penates and the Poet in Pushkin's Lyric Verse

From: Pushkin Review
Volume 15, 2012
pp. 27-51 | 10.1353/pnr.2012.0006

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Иль жаль мне труда, молчаливого спутника ночи, Друга Авроры златой, друга пенатов святых?

— A. S. Pushkin

There are a number of references to the Classical figures of the ancient Roman household gods, the Penates, throughout Pushkin's poetic oeuvre. Often paired with the Lares, the Penates hold a central place in the European literary and cultural tradition as symbols of home, in both its physical and emotional incarnations, and as representatives of homeland. Gods of the domestic hearth and of the state, the Penates of ruined Troy are a critical presence in Virgil's Aeneid, where they legitimize the formation of the new Roman state. As symbols, the Penates encapsulate a complex meaning that is at once private and communal.

While Classical symbols and allusions necessarily lay at the core of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European literature, the image of the Penates occupies a special place in the Russian Classical and Neoclassical contexts, and particularly in Pushkin's work. Pushkin's engagement with Classicism has been the subject of extensive commentary, but the discrete significance of the Penates in his lyric poetry has been overlooked. Their presence in key instances is linked to important aspects of his lyric persona, and it signifies the importance of writing—or poeticizing—as a figurative home ground for the peripatetic poet. Pushkin's poeticization of domestic yearnings in the 1820s and 30s is well known. That the Penates as metonyms of home would have personal relevance for a poet who at times struggled to find a domestic center for himself and who suffered exile, house arrest, and a difficult marriage seems hardly surprising. The Penates play an idiosyncratic and complex role in Pushkin's verse, one that engages with notions of domesticity but that is also tied to the acts of poetic labor and creativity. As I will argue, Pushkin's personalization of the Penates is not without historical precedent, but in his work the symbol acquires new and complex meaning, one that sheds new light on the poet's relationship to the act of writing.

The Penates appear twelve times in Pushkin's work, including in the text of Eugene Onegin. Many of these references do little more than support the Classical edifice of these poems, but in four separate, yet related places, the image of the Penates proves to be central to the poem in question and signals a connection between creativity—or the act of creation—and shelter for the poet. The examples to be considered here are the 1815 "The Dreamer" ("Mechtatel´"), "Yet One More High, Solemn Song" ("Eshche odnoi vysokoi vazhnoi pesni")—Pushkin's 1829-30 translation of a fragment of the English Lake Poet Robert Southey's 1797 poem "Hymn to the Penates"—the short 1830 poem "The Work" ("Trud"), and, finally, the use of an image from Southey's "Hymn to the Penates" in one of the stanzas removed from the fragmentary appendix to Eugene Onegin, "Onegin's Journey," composed between 1825 and 1830. The manifestations of the Penates in these instances are quite distinct, ranging from a parodic association with Horatian leisure in "The Dreamer" to a sanctified position in the stoic short poem "The Work." Yet, despite the differing metric and stylistic contexts, these four instances are linked by a common thematic thread: the Penates are of central importance to the poems and are connected to motifs of home, travel, and writing. In these works, the Penates serve a richly layered purpose as audience for the poet and his act of creation, as projection of the poet himself and his work, and as symbol of the "home" the poet finds in writing, or the home that travels with him—elements of a chronotope that I will call the "poet at home."

What did the Penates represent in Pushkin's work? What special resonance did they have, both as an expression of individual poetic identity and as a reflection of his Russian identity? Before discussing the poems, I will briefly consider some of the complexities of the Penates as a literary symbol.

The Penates and the Ambiguities of Home

The Penates—or "inner ones"—were ancient Roman deities believed to oversee the well-being of the family. The name derives from penus, the pantry or storeroom, and...



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