Catherine O’Neil


The present new translation of Pushkin’s drama The Water-Nymph (Rusalka, 1829–32) by James Falen is a welcome addition to Falen’s growing corpus of Pushkin translations. This lively rendering preserves Pushkin’s meter and conveys the Russian poet’s brilliance and concision in natural and flowing English. The meter of the original and the transla­tion is one natural to English—the unrhymed iambic pentameter that Pushkin learned from Shakespeare and adopted to such perfection for Russian versification—and Falen’s poetic execution does the best job of any English version to date in making this extraordinary piece accessible to the non-Russian speaking student of Pushkin.

A new and usable translation of The Water-Nymph is important to Russian literature for several reasons. First of all, the play—often called a dramatic fragment, although its fragmentary nature has been dis­puted—complements many other essential works by Pushkin. In particu­lar, it is a companion to the Little Tragedies and resonates especially with “The Stone Guest” in its treatment of supernatural retribution wrought on a nobleman who seduces and then abandons a young woman.[1] The Water-Nymph is moreover Pushkin’s last complete dramatic work, and should necessarily be taken into account in any study of the poet’s drama, along with Boris Godunov (1825, published 1830) and the Little Tragedies (1830). Pushkin’s remaining dramatic fragments are indeed too fragmen­tary to treat as completed works (Vadim, Scenes from Chivalrous Times, and the other, even smaller, fragments); The Water-Nymph, seemingly un­finished, unpublished in Pushkin’s lifetime (like “The Stone Guest”), nonetheless demands inclusion in any serious account of Pushkin’s cre­ative development. The drama was first conceived in 1826, during Pushkin’s exile at Mikhailovskoe, but Pushkin began working on it only in 1829. This chronology places it at an important point in the poet’s de­velopment as a dramatist: that is, it was begun before the Little Tragedies were written, and before Boris Godunov was published. Its first stage of composition corresponds to a time when Pushkin was working on his prefaces to Boris Godunov and reconsidering the demands of the stage and the achievements of Shakespeare (Retsepter, 266). At this time he wrote the scene “A Palace Chamber” and the beginning of the scene “The Dnieper. Night” (the Prince’s first monologue and the songs of the water-nymphs). The last time Pushkin turns to The Water-Nymph is 1832, when he rewrites what he had already completed, rearranging and dis­carding large parts of it. On the last page of this “clean” manuscript we find the outline for the entire play (Rassadin, 248): “The miller and his daughter. The wedding. The Princess and her nurse. The Water-Nymphs. The Prince, the old man and the Little Water-Nymph. The Hunters.” Apart from the last scene indicated here, this outline corresponds to the drama as it exists today, and one may only speculate what the scene “The Hunters” would contain. It is generally thought that the hunters, sent by the Princess, arrive to find the Prince has drowned. However, the dating of this outline cannot be fully established, and indeed Pushkin’s intentions for this final scene were never made clearer than this single cryptic reference. Whatever the case, the final version of Rusalka is con­sidered to be unfinished, and Pushkin never attempted to publish it.

Between these points Pushkin worked on the play in 1830, when he wrote a different version of the scene “A Palace Chamber,” longer and in a trochaic (folk) meter. In the later version of this scene (already in iambic pentameter), Pushkin at one stage had included lines showing that the Princess and her nurse already know about the Prince’s history with the miller’s daughter. This fragment ends with the Princess’s poignant obser­vation: “If he has abandoned a woman in the past he may do the same to me” (Uzhe odnu liubil on da pokinul / Tak i menia pokinut¢ mozhet on [Tomashevskii, 481]). In addition, the wedding scene was longer and in­cluded the appearance of the drowned girl’s ghost, shrouded and dripping water, walking across the stage. The scenes Pushkin omitted are as in­triguing as those he preserved, and his self-censorship indicates a signifi­cant shift in focus from the plight of the neglected Princess to that of the Prince and the Rusalka (a shift that a later work on this same theme, “Ianysh-korelevich,” would seem to confirm). However, we may only specu­late on these points since Pushkin leaves us no more on the matter than the version we have here.

The Water-Nymph resonates with many other works by Pushkin, starting with, as we have noted, “The Stone Guest.” Indeed, the two are mentioned together as early as 1826, in the notes of S. P. Shevyrev, as works Pushkin is planning to write (Tomashevskii, 512). One can imme­diately note that the characterization of the Prince is very close to that of Don Guan in the little tragedy. Yet The Water-Nymph also shares with Pushkin’s 1824 poema The Gypsies and his 1830 short story “The Stationmaster” the theme of a nobleman seducing a girl from a lower class, his “procuring” her from her too-loving father, who ultimately is too weak to protect her. The play is an important treatment of folkloric themes by Pushkin and stands out for its utter lack of irony or parody, a consistent feature of his verse folktales. Many of the psychological motifs of the play are taken by Pushkin from traditional Russian folksongs (Slonimskii, 405–10).

The Water-Nymph is thought to have biographical significance for Pushkin as well. It was in 1826 that he got a peasant woman, Ol′ga Kalashnikova, pregnant and made efforts to care for her child and place her in a family. Pushkin’s correspondence with Viazemskii on this matter and second-hand accounts from his brother Lev attest to his guilty feelings, his fear of “retribution,” and, significantly, a type of “business” arrange­ment with the girl’s father. The timing of the initial drafts of Rusalka cor­responds with this stage in Pushkin’s life (Tarkova, 144–49).

The heroine herself is an interesting point in the development of Pushkinian women: we expect her to be the victimized young girl, yet she becomes a powerful sexual force after her transformation into the water-nymph, thus guaranteeing the Prince’s enduring fascination with her. This kind of shift was seen in chapter 8 of Eugene Onegin, where Tat′iana reappears transformed from the awkward girl of the early part of the novel into a poised and intimidating society hostess. Thus the Rusalka may be placed with other Pushkinian heroines after 1830—the mature Tat′iana and Kleopatra of Egyptian Nights and “We Spent the Evening at the Dacha” (1835)—as formidable and alluring feminine forces. The Prince’s suffering can be and has been seen as a proof of his “guilty conscience” (Retsepter, Akhmatova), yet it also can be seen as evi­dence that he is unable to overcome his love for the abandoned woman. Such an ambiguity is also found in “The Stone Guest,” where we are asked to believe that Don Guan’s love for Dona Anna is true and endur­ing and also that his guilty feelings about the “poor Ineza” allow him to ac­cept the justice of retribution, despite what we know of his philandering and fickle character (Akhmatova, 188–89).

Echoes with other Pushkinian texts include the 1833 lyric “God grant I don’t go mad” (“Ne dai mne bog soiti s uma”), which contains similar sentiments to those expressed by the Prince when he meets the old miller in the scene “The Dnieper. Night.” The last scene in Poltava (1828), in which Mazepa encounters the romantically deranged Maria after the bat­tle, also provides an interesting point of comparison with this drama, since Maria’s madness is imbued with folkloric imagery that is associated with the Dnieper river and Ukraine. In addition, as in his other dramatic works—or dramatic moments in non-dramatic works—Pushkin uses changing names for his characters in The Water-Nymph: the miller is re­ferred to as “the Miller,” “Father,” and, finally, “Old Man”; his daughter is “Daughter,” “She,” “Rusalka,” and, once, “the Mistress”; the Prince is al­ternately “the Prince” and, in the parting scene with the miller’s daugh­ter, “He.” A similar shift occurs in Boris Godunov with the character of the imposter Grigorii, who is known as “Grigorii,” “the False Dimitrii,” “the Imposter,” and even “Dimitrii.” In every case the label has some signifi­cance for the psychological situation at the moment. The changing names for the miller strengthen his resemblance to Zemfira’s father in The Gypsies, who is likewise identified by his social group (the Gypsy), and his age (Old Man). In addition, in Poltava there is a dramatic encounter be­tween Maria and her mother in which they are referred to not by name but by their relationship, “Mother” and “Daughter.”

The story of The Water-Nymph is itself an old one, and can be found in the sentimental operatic story by Krasnopol′skii, Dneprovskaia rusalka (1804, thought to be one of Pushkin’s sources). The motif of the simple girl seduced and abandoned by a nobleman is of course well within the tradition of Nikolai Karamzin’s “Poor Liza,” the Ophelia story of Hamlet, and La Motte Fouqué’s ballad Undine (1825), which was translated into Russian by Vasilii Zhukovskii in the period 1831–36, thus corresponding to The Water-Nymph and Pushkin’s verse folktales (1833). (Pushkin and Zhukovskii worked very closely together in these years, so Pushkin certainly knew about Undina from its inception.) Pushkin takes a tired plot line and turns it into a psychological study of character, in this case a study of both the faithless nobleman and the girl herself. In this regard Rusalka has a larger influence than Pushkin’s work alone, and can be read as a preface of sorts to Lev Tolstoi’s unfinished story “The Devil” (1890), his novel Resurrection (1899), and Ivan Bunin’s short story “Dark Alleys” (1938), to name but a few.

Nor are the themes of The Water-Nymph limited to this one piece in Pushkin’s work: Pushkin wrote a ballad on the Slavic folkloric “Rusalka” as early as 1819 (first published in 1826), which tells of a monk who is seduced and murdered by an enchanting water-nymph. He then pub­lished a lyric fragment called “Rusalka,” also in 1826, which is considered to be an early draft of the play (Tomashevskii, 477–78). In both these earlier pieces, Pushkin dwells on the sexuality and danger of the water-nymph and her effect on the mortal man who becomes her victim. After “completing” the drama The Water-Nymph, Pushkin returned to the theme in 1834, when he wrote his “adaptations” of Mérimée’s Songs of the Western Slavs: the song about “Ianysh-korelevich” tells a very similar story to that of The Water-Nymph and is, significantly, one of the three poems in the cycle that is entirely original to Pushkin. The “drowned maiden” theme is known elsewhere in Russian and Slavic folklore as well, particularly in the story of Stenka Razin; Pushkin had written a cycle about Razin in 1826 that was never published because the censor would not pass it. This is, once again, the year his lyric on the “Dneprskaia rusalka” appeared. Marina Tsvetaeva, also very interested in Stenka Razin, strongly associated this legend with Pushkin’s The Water-Nymph.

In a dramatic sense, The Water-Nymph contains many Shakespearean echoes which come out clearly in Dr. Falen’s translation. Some are very close parallels: the miller’s daughter’s disjointed speech when she has realized that the Prince is leaving her is like Cleopatra’s reproach to Antony in act 1, scene 3 of Antony and Cleopatra; the discus­sion about the Prince’s obligations and excuses for not staying with her are like the parting scene between Laertes and Ophelia in act 1, scene 2 of Hamlet; the scene between the Princess and the nurse recalls Romeo and Juliet, as well as Pushkin’s own parallel scenes in Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin. The Shakespeare play that perhaps best resonates with The Water-Nymph is Macbeth. For example, the water-nymphs wait­ing for the Prince in the fourth scene are very reminiscent of the witches in Macbeth—so much so indeed that Dr. Falen has been prevailed upon by this impertinent reader to render their opening lines in couplets rather than alternating rhymes, as Pushkin has it, thus echoing the witches’ first lines more explicitly: “By the pricking of my thumbs / Something wicked this way comes.” Moreoever, the disrupted wedding ceremony re­calls the banquet scene in Macbeth in which the ghost of the murdered Banquo appears to its conscience-stricken host. It can be argued that Pushkin’s original version of this scene, in which the girl’s ghost is seen walking across the stage, bore a more pronounced resemblance to the banquet scene in Macbeth. Therefore Pushkin’s alteration to it has inter­esting implications from the point of view of his dramatic development and sensibility. Other Shakespearean echoes include the miller, who in his madness resembles both Lear and blind Gloucester in King Lear, and the theme of madness in Pushkin’s play in general recalls that motif in Macbeth and Hamlet (Retsepter, 243–50).

The Water-Nymph is a masterfully polished fragment and marks the height of Pushkin’s dramatic talent. It is to be hoped that this transla­tion will not only provide a useful scholarly tool for students and teachers of Russian literature, but will tempt students to stage the play as well. Rendering Pushkin’s drama into good and usable English can only ex­pand the Russian poet’s audience in the English-speaking world. Falen’s translations are sure to help non-Russians make sense of the much-re­peated claim that Pushkin is Russia’s Shakespeare—and for this alone we are extremely grateful.

Further Reading

  • Akhmatova, A. A. “‘Kamennyi gost′’ Pushkina.” In Sochinenia, 3: 182–91. Paris: YMCA Press, 1983.
  • Berkovskii, N. Ia. “‘Rusalka,’ liricheskaia tragediia Pushkina.” In Stati o literature, 357–403. Moscow-Leningrad: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel′stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1962.
  • Bondi, S. “Dramaturgiia Pushkina.” In O Pushkine, 166–238. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1978.
  • Rassadin, S. B. “Eshche ne iasno razlichal.” In Dramaturg Pushkin, 248–96. Moscow: Iskusstvo, 1977.
  • Retsepter, V. E. “‘Vysokaia tragediia’ (‘Rusalka’ i dramaticheskaia reforma Pushkina).” Moskovskii pushkinist 4 (1997): 233–77.
  • Slonimskii, A. “Rabota nad fol′klorom.” In Masterstvo Pushkina, 385–410. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel¢stvo khudozhestvennoi literatury, 1959.
  • Tarkova, N. A. and M. A. Tsiavlovskii. Letopis zhizni i tvorchestva Aleksandra Pushkina v chetyrekh tomakh. Tom vtoroi: 1825–1828. Moscow: Slovo, 1999.
  • Tomashevskii, B. V., Kommentarii. In A. S. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v desiati tomakh, vol. 5. Leningrad: 1978.


University of Denver

O'Neil, Catherine.  "Introduction to The Water-Nymph."  Pushkin Review 04 (2001): 103 - 08. <>.

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[1] “The Little Tragedies” have also been translated by Falen. They have appeared in earlier issues of the Pushkin Review and in the Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin, vol. 6 (Norfolk: Milner and Co. Ltd., 1999).