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  • A Commentary to Pushkin’s Lyric Poetry: 1826–1836 by Michael Wachtel
  • Alyssa Dinega Gillespie
Michael Wachtel, A Commentary to Pushkin’s Lyric Poetry: 1826–1836. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011. 404 pp. ISBN 978-029928544-9.

While the term “commentary” in the title of this book is apt as far as it goes, it does not fully do justice to the innovative and versatile nature of the book’s contents. In fact, Wachtel has devised a flexible new genre, capacious and robust enough to offer something of value to every reader of Pushkin: from explications of purely linguistic complexities challenging to the novice, to surveys of prevailing currents in scholarly opinion, and from compendia of little-known textual sources, to original critical insights of his own (he is quite modest about this, yet in fact, his precise attention to Pushkin’s verse forms, in particular, is often revealing, as are his terse critical judgments). Wachtel’s commentary benefits both from his vast knowledge of the secondary literature on Pushkin and his era, and his ability to muster dense detail concisely; it is inflected throughout by his measured tone and acute intellect.

The book is organized chronologically, with entries on every lyric work written by Pushkin during the decade in question; each entry begins with an overview that may contain relevant biographical or compositional context, a summary of critical debates or citations of notable scholarly approaches, discussions of metrical and rhyming patterns, mention of other works in Pushkin’s oeuvre to which the poem in question bears some significant relation, explications of the work’s intertextual play with its literary sources in a variety of languages, the evolution of Pushkin’s own poetics, and so on. These introductory remarks on each poem are followed by focused commentaries on particular words and lines, and here, too, a wide range of topics is explicated, including lexical and grammatical archaisms and ambiguities, obscure cultural minutiae (including some curious culinary ones; e.g., the beverage zhzhënka [p. 16] and “blue fish” [p. 30]), intertextual echoes, rhetorical devices (zeugma or polysyndeton, anyone?), elusive puns, and much, much more.

The richness of the discussion of “Anchar” (pp. 107–13) is an excellent example of the range and versatility of Wachtel’s approach. It begins with the poem’s sources: in English poetry well and little known (Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Erasmus Darwin), and in the scientific mystifications of an 18th-century Shakespearean scholar impersonating a Dutch surgeon, not to mention in the linguistic usage of Lomonosov. The “Anchar” entry also includes suggestive discussion of the following topics, among others: the sonal and biographical origins of the noun anchar itself; the role of biblical allusions in both the poem’s narrative and its language; the association of the archaic potek (“went”) with the imagery of flowing liquids elsewhere in the poem; and the subversive rhyme anchar/tsar´ before the censorship [End Page 159] demanded that tsar´ be changed to kniaz´. Wachtel also, in a single deft sentence, introduces an elegant juxtaposition of the fable contained in this poem with Milton’s Paradise Lost, arguing that “in Pushkin’s revision it is obedience [not disobedience, as for Milton] that leads to doom” (p. 112).

Despite a superficial impression one might form that this book is “just” a piecemeal compilation of individual, disconnected tidbits of information (however useful), in fact the whole is even more significant than the sum of its parts. As Wachtel himself states in the book’s introduction: “A commentary is not an interpretation, but rather a framework that makes informed interpretation possible. It is not merely literary, but concerns anything in the text that may require elucidation for readers of a later era” (p. xvii). This “anything” is impressively, exhilaratingly expansive in this volume, and rightly so—but more than that: it is deeply principled. As Wachtel points out, the clichéd claim for the “simplicity and transparency” of Pushkin’s verse is fundamentally misleading, as “Pushkin’s poetry is teeming with references to other poets and poems… To an extraordinary extent, [his] own achievement is in rewriting rather than writing” (p. xvii). Wachtel’s attention to meaningful subtleties and to the...


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