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Entries in Pushkin (17)


Pushkin, "Предчувствие"

A work ("Premonition") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

Above me met the clouds anew, 
In silence breeding envious woe. 
That hour will torture me, I know, 
If I a threat therein construe. 
Does second sight betoken fate? 
Should I embrace this vast design
With patience and tenacious brine,
My prideful youth's far-flung estate?

Fatigued am I of restless life, 
Indifferent to the roaring storm: 
Perhaps I can be saved and borne 
To safest pier away from strife ...
Yet premonitions of our end, 
A thankless and most dreaded chime, 
Lead me to hurry one last time, 
And squeeze, my angel, your white hand.

Serene and gentle angel mine,
Forgive me now and speak but soft:
So sad's your tender gaze aloft
That you must hold or fast decline.
Your memories my own shall glaze, 
And fill my weary soul with force,
With pride, with inspiration's course,
And bravery of younger days.


Pushkin, "Поэт"

Another masterpiece ("The Poet") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

Until he hears Apollo's voice
By sacred immolation's fire,                  
The world's vain cares will not inspire      
The poet, burdened against choice.     
By holy harp in silent thrall,                      
His soul will taste but chilling sleep,                    
And from the world's most artless keep,
Perhaps is he the worst of all.          

For only words of root divine                              
Could ever reach his pristine sounds;                 
Entranced, the poet's soul abounds
An eagle waking at a sign.     
No worldly pleasures; no, instead        
So alien to the rabble's talk,       
At icon's feet will he then balk, 
Refuse to bend his haughty head; 
And wild and fierce, he will but flee 
Full of commotion and of sound,
To shores of empty waves aground, 
To oaks still louder than the sea.


Pushkin, "Кто из богов мне возвратил"

A work ("Which god has ever yet restored") by this poet.  You can read the original here.

Which god has ever yet restored  
All those with whom I came to share             
My mud-bound march and vulgar mores,
When Brutus led us in despair, 
And freedom's specter was our lord?  
All those with whom my front line tears           
In bottomless tent cups I drowned,        
And curls tight-wrapped in ivy's sheers  
With Syrian myrrh in embalmed crown?

At war's worst hour will you abide   
That I, poor Quiris fearful, fled
My shield cast down beside my pride,
With vows and prayers in my stead?
How fear reigned whole and how I flew!
But Hermes in a sudden breath 
My world made safe, whence he withdrew
And saved me from most certain death.

But you, O you, first love of mine, 
Again in battle did you rage, 
And then to Rome fate's force would bind  
Your steps to my warm, simple cage. 
Sit now beside my hallowed hearth 
And let us pour.  Do not regret
My wines or perfumes, sweet or tart,
The laurels sit.  Lad, pour us wet!
Here pale restraint will find no place:
Like Scythians wild I wish to drink 
And with a friend so celebrate,
That senses bleed and do not think.


Pushkin, "Истина"

A lesser-known poem ("Truth") by the greatest of all Russian poets. You can read the original here.

Forgotten dregs of human Truth
Long have the wise and worldly sought.
So many readings came to naught
Of wisdom’s mimes, so long in tooth.
“The naked truth,” they called us near,
“In wellspring crawled, and there it sank.”
With friendly tone its dregs they drank,
And shouts most wild: “We’ll find it here!”

Yet someone, (almost old man Strength),
The benefactor of the dead,
Lone witness as we folly wed,
In water drowned and shouts at length,
Abandoned all our ghosts unseen,
First thought of guilt, first thought of wine,
And having drunk the chalice dry,
At bottom Truth then chanced to glean.


Pushkin, "Желание славы"

A work ("The thirst for fame") from the greatest of all Russian poets.  The original can be found here.

While still enthralled in love and bliss,
Upon my knees in wordless kiss,
Before that face thoughts swore was mine,
Do know, my love, for fame I pine.
Do know that I, still young, must toil
In search of poet’s timeless soil:
Against storm’s length, fatigue ignores
The distant hum of praise and bores.

Invective can’t incite alarm,
As tedious glances inflict their harm,
Your gentle hand my head shakes soft:
“Do love and bliss still sail aloft?
“Will you love others just as me?
“Will our love bask eternally?”
You whisper to my silent shame,
On pleasure gorged, I come to frame
A future day of separate fate
Where tears and pain shall us await.

Betrayal, gossip, all falls down,
So suddenly upon my crown ...
A desert nomad – I?  I stand
By lightning struck then darkest sands!
But now new thirst in me appears:
It’s fame I want, so that your ears
May bear my name at every hour,
Your prayers rise amidst my power,
And all shall sound in loudest tones
Of me.  And when your silence moans
In my true voice, you’ll think of fast
Our garden, night, and loving last.


Pushkin, "Воспоминание"

A work ("Remembrance") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

When for the dead a noise-filled day subsides,
Upon the lonesome city squares; 
The night's translucent shadow glares,        
And sleep, reward of daily work, abides;   
For me these hours drag out, a silent drill,   
(Oppressive wakefulness, each one);
In idle night shall burn the sun            
Of my heart's viper gnawing at my will.

Dreams seethe; whereas my mind with yearning knolls,
As thick, unneeded thoughts escape;    
Remembrance wordlessly so waits     
Before me, to unfurl its lengthy scroll.                
And with repulsion shall I read my life,   
Shake, swear, and bitterly complain;
And spill most bitter tears in vain; 
But these, these saddest lines I shall not strike. 


Pushkin, "Поэту"

A work ("To the poet") by this Russian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

O, poet, value not a nation's love:   
Its gushing praise forms but a minute's noise. 
From fools come verdicts; cold crowds mock and shove;  
Yet tranquil must you stay, both firm and pois'd.   

You are a tsar, so live alone.  Walk free, 
Wherever your free mind is drawn to stray. 
Perfect the fruits of chosen thoughts at play, 
And do not seek reward for noblest deed.  

In you, your highest judge, do these thoughts lie:  
No harsher eye upon your work can fall.  
Are you, exacting artist, satisfied?  

Still satisfied?  So let the masses maul,  
And spit upon your altar's burning flame, 
And fell your easel all in impish game.


Pushkin, "О Байроне и о предметах важних"

An essay ("On Byron and important matters") by this Russian poet, on the 225th birthday of this Englishman.  You can read the original here.

The clan of Byrons, one of the oldest in English aristocracy (which, in turn, is the youngest among European aristocracies), descended from the Norman Ralph de Buron (or Biron), an associate of William the Conqueror.  The name of the Byrons is mentioned with honor in English chronicles.  Their family's title was created in 1643.  It is said that Byron valued his noble birth more than his literary works.  A very understandable sentiment!  The lustre of his forebears and the honors which he inherited from them elevated the poet; on the other hand, the fame he himself earned brought him merely petty insults which often humiliated the noble Baron, consigning his name to the mercy of hearsay and rumor. 

Captain Byron, son of the famous admiral and father of the great poet, won illustrious and seductive fame.  He stole the wife of Lord Carmarthen and married her immediately upon her divorce.  Soon thereafter, in 1784, she died, leaving him one daughter.  The following year, in order to right his upset state of affairs, the calculating widower married Miss Gordon, the only daughter and heiress of George Gordon, a Gight landowner.  This marriage was unhappy: 23,500 pounds sterling (587,500 rubles) were squandered in two years, and Lady Byron was left only with her 150 pounds of annual income.  In 1786, husband and wife departed to France and returned to England towards the end of 1787.

On the following January 22, Lady Byron gave birth to her only son, George Gordon Byron.  (Following some family tensions, the Gight heiress was obliged to bestow upon her son the name Gordon).  His leg was harmed during the birth, to which Lord Byron imputed his mother's bashfulness or obstinacy.  The newborn child was christened by Duke Byron and Colonel Duff.

In 1790 Lady Byron left for Aberdeen and her husband pursued her.  For a while they lived together.  But their characters were too irreconcilable, and soon they separated.  Her husband went to France, but not before bilking his poor wife out of the money he needed for his trip.  The following year, 1791, he would die in Valenciennes.

Once, during his short stay in Aberdeen, Captain Byron took in his small son, who ended up spending the night.  The next day, however, he rendered the fidgety child back to his mother and never again invited him over.

Lady Byron was a simple woman, irascible, and, in many respects, reckless.  But the solidity with which she was able to endure poverty did credit to her rules.  She retained only one servant and by 1798, when she accompanied young Byron to his inheritance of an estate in Newstead, her debts had not surpassed 60 pounds sterling.

It is worth noting that Byron never made any mention of the domestic circumstances of his childhood, deeming them mean and debasing.  Young Byron learned to read and write at an Aberdeen school.  He was among the last in his class, gaining greater distinction in games.  According to his coevals' accounts, he was a lively, irascible, and rancorous boy, always ready to fight and avenge some offense.   

A certain Patterson, a rigorous Presbyterian, but a calm and scholarly thinker, was his mentor then, and of him Byron would always have very good memories.

In 1796, Lady Byron took him to the mountains to recover after he had a bout of scarlet fever.  They settled close to Ballater.  The severe beauty of the Scottish natural surroundings made a deep impression upon the lad.  Around that same time, eight-year-old Byron fell in love with Mary Duff.  Seventeen years later, in one of his journals, he described this early love:

"I have been thinking lately a good deal of Mary Duff.  How very odd that I should have been so utterly, devotedly fond of that girl, at an age when I could neither feel passion, nor know the meaning of the word.  And the effect! – My mother used always to rally me about this childish amour; and, at last, many years after, when I was sixteen, she told me one day, 'Oh, Byron, I have had a letter from Edinburgh, from Miss Abercromby, and your old sweetheart Mary Duff is married to a Mr. C.'  And what was my answer?  I really cannot explain or account for my feelings at that moment; but they nearly threw me into convulsions, and alarmed my mother so much, that after I grew better, she generally avoided the subject – to me – and contented herself with telling it to all her acquaintance.  Now, what could this be?  I had never seen her since her mother's faux-pas at Aberdeen had been the cause of her removal to her grandmother's at Banff; we were both the merest children.  I had and have been attached fifty times since that period; yet I recollect all we said to each other, all our caresses, her features, my restlessness, sleeplessness, my tormenting my mother's maid to write for me to her, which she at last did, to quiet me.  Poor Nancy thought I was wild, and, as I could not write for myself, became my secretary.  I remember, too, our walks, and the happiness of sitting by Mary, in the children's apartment, at their house not far from the Plain-stones at Aberdeen, while her lesser sister Helen played with the doll, and we sat gravely making love, in our way.

"How the deuce did all this occur so early?  Where could it originate?  I certainly had no sexual ideas for years afterwards; and yet my misery, my love for that girl were so violent, that I sometimes doubt if I have ever been really attached since.  Be that as it may, hearing of her marriage several years after was like a thunder-stroke – it nearly choked me – to the horror of my mother and the astonishment and almost incredulity of every body.  And it is a phenomenon in my existence (for I was not eight years old) which has puzzled, and will puzzle me to the latest hour of it; and lately, I know not why, the recollection (not the attachment) has recurred as forcibly as ever.  I wonder if she can have the least remembrance of it or me?  Or remember her pitying sister Helen for not having an admirer too?  How very pretty is the perfect image of her in my memory – her brown, dark hair, and hazel eyes; her very dress!  I should be quite grieved to see her now; the reality, however beautiful, would destroy, or at least confuse, the features of the lovely Peri which then existed in her, and still lives in my imagination, at the distance of more than sixteen years.  I am now twenty-five and odd months."

In 1798 old Lord William Byron died in Newstead; four years before him, his own grandson had died in Corsica.  As a result, young George Byron became the sole heir to the wealth and title of his clan.  As a minor he was placed under the guardianship of Lord Carlisle, his distant relative, and, delighted, Lady Byron left Aberdeen that same fall for old Newstead with her eleven-year-old son and her faithful servant Mary Gray.

Lord William, the brother of Admiral Byron, the child's grandfather, was an odd and wretched man.  He once stabbed his cousin and neighbor, William Chaworth.  They fought without witnesses in a bar at candlelight.  The case made a great deal of noise and the House of Lords declared the murderer guilty as charged.  He was, however, freed from punishment and from that time on lived in Newstead where his whims, stinginess, and gloomy character made him the subject of slander and gossip.  The most preposterous rumors circulated as to why he divorced his wife.  It was believed that he once attempted to drown her in a Newstead pond.  

He tried to ruin his properties out of his hatred for his heirs.  His only interlocutors were an old servant and a housekeeper who served another purpose as well.  In addition, the house was filled with crickets, which Lord William fed and raised.  Despite his niggardliness, the old Lord was often in need of money and got it by means often reprehensible to his heirs.  But such a man could not possibly care about these matters.  In this same way he sold Rochdale, his family estate, without having any right to do so (a fact known full well to the buyers, who wished to make a profit before his heirs succeeded in demolishing the illegal sale).

Not once did Lord William get in touch with his young heir, to whom he referred only as the boy who lived in Aberdeen

Lord Byron's first years, spent in impoverished conditions that did not befit his birth and under the watchful eye of an ardent mother who was as reckless in her displays of affection as in her fits of rage, would have a powerful and lasting effect on the rest of his life.  His injured self-esteem and eternal sensitivity bound his heart with the acrimony and irritability that would later become the marks of his character. 

The strange qualities of Lord Byron were partially innate, and partially bestowed.  Moore has justly noted that Byron's character reflected both the virtues and the vices of his ancestors.  On the one hand, we find his daring entrepreneurship, magnanimity, and the nobleness of his sentiments; on the other, his unchecked passions, caprices, and insolent disdain of public opinion.  Doubtless, the memory of Lord William strongly affected the imagination of his successor: he adopted many of his great-uncle's customs and one cannot but concur that Manfred and Lara recall that solitary Newstead baron.

Trivial circumstance, it seems, had just as great an influence on his soul.  At the very minute of his birth, his leg was injured, and Byron would remain lame the rest of his life.  This physical shortcoming also wounded his self-esteem.  Nothing could compare with the fury he felt when Lady Byron once berated him as a "lame brat."  Although a very fine-looking fellow, he imagined himself ugly and shunned the company of those who did not know him well, all because he feared their mocking leers.  This very shortcoming strengthened his desire to distinguish himself in every feat requiring physical strength and agility.     


The Queen of Spades

Those who know me will attest that I am not a gambling man; in any case, not in the conventional sense.  Games of chance, while thrilling and often very complex, lack the profundity of other topics that have absorbed my hours, and their payoff is far less rich because games can be learned by practically anyone of sufficient volition.  They are ultimately apiary tasks writ large, the calculations of a grandmaster or master hustler made perfect through excessive practice but little thought or consideration.  Stories about gamblers and daredevils have enthralled generations for that same reason: anyone can do it, yet only few wish to risk everything for, in the end, nothing better than fifty-fifty odds.  Should we applaud these achievements or lament their pervasiveness?  In competitive societies which promote success through material acquisition, gambling is an easy way for the underprivileged to get a toe in the door (lotteries are the most egregious of these milkings).  Many win, but we all lose.  We lose because those who have less should not be cajoled into spending a portion of their earnings to buck the system; we lose because once a winner is announced he most often feels liberated from society, or liberated enough to pursue the same hollow activities that he has watched the moneyed perform hitherto; we lose because the only entity that consistently profits from these games is the government itself.  Once upon a time, however, the whole practice of gambling among the wealthy and frivolous exuded a certain gallantry and adventure that thankfully has since been shed.  Which brings us to this masterpiece on the mad chase of destiny, one of the great treasures of Western literature.

Our narrator is a certain Tomskii, a man without scruples or hobbies, but with everything that a simple money-loving mind might desire.  He welcomes us to the St. Petersburg social scene and then directs our attention to one quiet character, Germann.  Germann is the "son of a russified German" and content to watch the usual slew of dares and bankruptcies that this stratum of society thinks of as grand entertainment.  The tables fascinate the young engineer but he cannot bring himself to participate.  When asked about his curious restraint, Germann answers as we expect he might:

The game surely interests me; but I am not in a position to sacrifice the necessary in hope of acquiring the superfluous.

Tomskii’s platitudinous conclusion that Germann is "frugal" owing to his German provenance could be dismissed as a rather unfortunate national stereotype along the lines of Russians' being vodka-swilling bear hunters.  The reader is thus presented with the option of accepting Tomskii's assertion as the omniscient truth or as "idle gossip."  And the repetition of Germann's credo of "not sacrificing the necessary in hope of acquiring the superfluous" is somewhat belied by the narrator's observation that Germann is "in his soul a gambler."  Tomskii's generalization might now be interpreted as a selfish method to divert attention from Germann, who is far more complex and uncategorizable than his shallow mentor.  And here is where, in stories of this ilk, a woman must enter the picture.

The woman in question is Lizaveta Ivanovna, a plain name for a plain girl.  She has no suitors and few perspectives from escaping her dreary existence as the lady-in-waiting to a Countess who also happens to be Tomskii's grandmother.  Tomskii lets it slip that his grandmother, an despotic old bat, possesses a secret that will coax the gambler out of Germann.  From her youth in Paris, she knows of an unbeatable card combination that will ever remain as one of the classic lines in Russian literature.  Germann is hooked, and begins correspondence with Lizaveta, culling sweet nothings from the frothy, overwritten German romances on which he was raised.  He tells her everything a woman of her upbringing and ingenuousness has always dreamed of hearing, and given Germann's innate lack of charm, the effects are both predictable and amusing.  From what we know of him from the first two parts of the tale, we might be surprised that Germann would give in to greed; we are even less inclined to do so taking into consideration the judgment of a worthless cad like Tomskii.  Yet it is often the simpletons among us who see through to our very essence.  So Tomskii needn't be right or wrong when he observes early on:

That Germann is a true Romantic; he has the profile of Napoleon and the soul of Mephistopheles.  He has, I fear, at least three crimes on his conscience.

This old chestnut about how many crimes are committed in thought but not in deed is collated with the first line from the sixth and final part of the story: "two unmoving ideas cannot exist within the same moral nature just like two bodies cannot occupy the same space."  Those ideas are our two concepts of Germann.  He may be an engineer, a calculator, and a stingy bore, or he may have been until now, but is his soul indeed that of a rebel, one that obeys few rules and is devoid of sympathy for those who get in his way?  Or has a great calculator finally found a perfectly calculated risk?  Is it coincidence then that the number of his alleged misdeeds matches the number of cards he was promised by a dying Countess?  We may be moving, I fear, into the superfluous.


Pushkin, "Прощание"

A work ("A farewell") by this Russian poet, born two hundred thirteen years ago today.  You can read the original here.

One final time your gentle shape     
In my thoughts I dare to caress;            
And with heart's force these dreams rewake,
In timid, cheerless joy I shake,
And let to me your love regress.  

Our years bring change and then our doom, 
Like everything, so change we both;
For your sweet bard I see you groom'd,
Garbed greyly in sepulchral gloom,
For you a friend lost long ago. 

So distant friend, now please accept, 
From my young heart a last farewell: 
A widowed spouse so now bereft, 
Two friends embrace before they're cleft,
And one retreats to darkest cell. 


Pushkin, "Зимний вечер"

A work ("Winter evening") by this Russian poet.  You can read the original here.

A stormy haze has cloaked the skies,     
In swirling snow it beats and throbs; 
It'll howl and wail, a beast abroad,  
And softly weep just like a child.     
Like fresh-dried straw in sudden pain,    
Upon the feeble roof it'll crack,    
As late-come travelers might rap               
Upon our window's frozen stain.               

Our aged hovel, dark and plain,           
Shall wait in sadness 'til death nears.            
Well then, my old, my sweet, my dear,        
Why sitt'st thou silent by that pane?                       
Or has the storm engaged thy mind, 
My friend, and drowned thy dreams in stone?  
Or dost thou sleep beneath the drone 
Of thine own spindle and its bind?  

Let's drink, dear friend, and never stop,  
From my poor youth forlorn I part;                 
Let's drink from woe, and where's my cup? 
Much gladder soon will be thy heart.     
Sing first a titmouse song or two,            
Of quiet life beyond the sea;          
Sing then a water girl's sweet glee,                 
That lass whose pails each morn ring true.

A stormy haze has cloaked the skies,
In swirling snow it beats and throbs; 
It'll howl and wail, a beast abroad,
Then softly weep just like a child.
Let's drink, dear friend, and never stop,
From my poor youth forlorn I part; 
Let's drink from woe, and where's my cup?
Much gladder soon will be my heart.


Pushkin, "К..."

My rendition of Pushkin's classic poem ("To ...").   You can read the original here

200px-AleksandrPushkin.jpgA wondrous moment I recall:
Before me stood your sweet allure,
Ephem’ral vision to enthrall,
O genius mine of beauty pure.

In hopeless woe, grief without choice,
In boist’rous vanity’s alarm,
Resounded long a gentle voice,
And linger’d long your features’ charm.

Years passed.  Storms’ mutinous noise
Dispell’d the dreams of previous sleep,
And I forgot your gentle voice,
Your features’ heaven–forged deep.

Alone, in gloom’s most still stagnation,
So quietly dragg’d my days in strife,
Bereft of creed, of imagination,
Bereft of tears, of love, of life.

My soul woke from behind this wall:
By me again — your sweet allure,
Ephem’ral vision to enthrall,
O genius mine of beauty pure.

To embliss’d heart’s each palpitation,
Now resurrected with joy so rife,
Arose both creed and imagination,
Anew then tears and love and life.