In England and Russia, Shakespeare and Pushkin are the two great writers, the national writers. There has never been any doubt about that; nor has any change in literary fashion or in cultural attitudes done anything to alter what has always been taken for granted. In one sense this is the equivalent in literature of the tradition of kingship or of tsardom in the national politics: the icon of the country’s special version of sovereignty. It may even be the case that where no such unifying tradition existed, as it did not exist in Germany and Italy, the national writer assumes an even greater cultural and spiritual importance, as do Goethe in Germany and Dante in Italy. And it may well be of significance also that in democratic America the requirement of such an absolute cultural figurehead has never been felt or recognized. America has its own great writers, whose status remains, as it were, permanently unchallenged, but they live together in the national pantheon on honorably equal terms.
Why this should be so could well be an interesting cultural question on which the personal qualities visible in Pushkin and Shakespeare, seen as human beings rather than as great poets, could possibly have some bearing. Both of them contradict any conventional image of kingship and authority. Unlike Dante or Goethe they have the status of ordinary people. Their works do not draw attention to themselves. They are democrats before their time. More important, they have the status of cultural universality, whereas Goethe could never be anything other than the great German writer, as is Dante the great Italian. In Goethe’s own lifetime German writers were speaking of unser Shakespeare—our Shakespeare—by which term they were not claiming Germanhood for Shakespeare, but recognizing that his influence was beginning to transcend all national boundaries. Shakespeare had become a universal human possession.
In his famous speech on the fiftieth anniversary of Pushkin’s birth, Dostoevsky claimed much the same sort of thing, alleging that Pushkin’s genius both understood other peoples and stood for everybody all over the world, not just Russia and for Russians. Equally famously, the poet Alexander Blok detached Pushkin outright from the repressive tradition of Russian history and from what Blok called its “somber roll call” of gloomy despots and executioners. Among these Pushkin was “the one bright name.”
Universality then: and by implication a universality joining the pair—Pushkin and Shakespeare—by reason of the inherently dramatic nature of their work. A poet-dramatist does not live in himself, as Byron claimed, rather unconvincingly in his own case, but becomes, in Byron’s words, a “portion of that around him.” He is timeless; he belongs to new worlds and old, becoming or revealing all places and all people.
It was Coleridge who made the most illuminating distinction between types of literary genius. One draws the world into itself: the other is a Proteus who himself assumes every shape that the outside world can offer. Both Shakespeare …