You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Russian’ category.

First of all, I draw the attention of readers to a coming event when Robert Chandler will be talking about Velimir Khlebnikov the Russian futurist and reading from his translations of his work (to be included in a forthcoming Penguin anthology of Russian poetry).

The Poetry of Velimir Khlebnikov Wed 12 December 2012 – 7.30pm
Pushkin House, 5a Bloomsbury Square, London WC1A  Tickets: £7, conc. £5

Robert Chandler writes :
“Alongside Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov was the most important of the Russian Futurists. He has much in common with his contemporary, Guillaume Apollinaire. Both were provincials, feted as geniuses when they moved to their country’s capital. Both were close to the most important visual artists of their time. Apollinaire was close to Picasso, Khlebnikov to both Pavel Filonov and Vladimir Tatlin. And both Apollinaire and Khlebnikov wrote apparently simpler, yet still more startling work in their last years; their early technical experimentation is linked to a willingness to follow thoughts and feelings of all kinds wherever they may lead.”
At the same time I draw attention to two new books by the indefatiguable Robert Chandler who seems to be turning out translations from the Russian at the rate Dickens wrote novels.

Platonov1. a new expanded edition of Andrey Platonov’s HAPPY MOSCOW (NYRB Classics).  This includes not only a revised translation of the novel but also four closely related shorter works: an essay, a film script & two stories.

“Moscow Chestnova is a bold and glamorous girl, a beautiful parachutist who grew up with the Revolution. As an orphan, she knew tough times—but things are changing now. Comrade Stalin has proclaimed that “Life has become better! Life has become merrier!” and Moscow herself is poised to join the Soviet elite. But her ambitions are thwarted when a freak accident propels her flaming from the sky. A new, stranger life begins. Moscow drifts from man to man, through dance halls, all-night diners, and laboratories in which the secret of immortality is actively being investigated, exploring the endless avenues and vacant spaces of the great city whose name she bears, looking for happiness, somewhere, still.
Unpublishable during Platonov’s lifetime, Happy Moscow first appeared in Russian only in 1991. This new edition contains not only a revised translation of Happy Moscow but several related works: a screenplay, a prescient essay about ecological catastrophe, and two short stories in which same characters reappear and the reader sees the mind of an extraordinary writer at work.”

2. RUSSIAN MAGIC TALES FROM PUSHKIN TO PLATONOV (Penguin Classics, Dec. 2012).  This is divided equally between oral folk tales, collected by Afanasyev and many other folklorists, and literary versions of folktales by four great writers: Pushkin, Teffi, Bazhov and Platonov.

_________________________

While I am about it I might as well let you know about another reading on   Wednesday 5th December, 8pm onwards

South Bank Poetry Issue 14 launch readings at the Poetry Cafe

Admission is £5.50/£4.50 including a copy of SBP14 worth £3.50, plus refreshements.  Those who have already purchased a copy
pay £2/£1 – bring your copy with you as contributors will be reading their poems in the magazine, plus others. Subscribers get free entry.

“Many of the contributors will be reading, including: Claire Booker, Ruth O’Callaghan, Stuart McKenzie, Bernard Battley, Sarah Lawson,
Rosemary Drescher, Christian Ward, Chris Hardy, Gillie Robic, Michael Wyndham, Kate Wakeling, Susannah Hart, Jim Alderson, Angela
Croft, Will Burns, Laura Hume, Hannah Langworth, Sarah Rookledge and Peter Ebsworth.

Hosted by Peter Ebsworth and Katherine Lockton

Please encourage as many friends as possible to come. Contributors get free entry, but their guests have to pay, although, of course, they also get a copy of the magazine. Also copies of back issues will be on sale.

We look forward to seeing you on what should be a great evening.”

   John Dewey is the author of Mirror of the Soul. A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev (Brimstone Press 2011)    

   Q1. Do you only ever translate from a language you  know well?
   A: Yes (Russian, German, occasionally French).

Q2.
 Do you prefer to read other translations of the piece you are translating?  (a) Before starting  (b) After making a first draft (c) Never ?
A: I avoid this if at all possible, as I prefer to start from scratch and would worry about unconscious plagiarism. It would of course be a different matter if asked to revise an existing translation, but this has never arisen.

Q3.  Do you use a dictionary?  If “Yes”, do you use a foreign language/English dictionary or a dictionary in the source language itself?
A:  Yes, both: Foreign Language-English for quick reference, FL-FL for more obscure points, use of words in context, and so on. Also useful are a thesaurus and (for poetry) a rhyming dictionary.

Q4. Do you show your translation to anyone before sending it off?
A:  No.

Q5. Do you ever translate books or poems you don’t like?  If “Yes”, does this bother you when translating?
A:  Like everyone, I suppose, I prefer to translate things I like and have some sympathy with, but have also undertaken work on a ‘jobbing’ basis as long as the original is not too disagreeable. Recently I did turn down a commission, unable to face the prospect of translating a distressing and evidently autobiographical account of a young girl’s struggle with cancer. 

Q6.  Do you work regular hours or in spurts ‘when you feel like it’?
A: I try to keep to a routine, particularly with longer prose pieces. Having said that, both with poetry and tricky prose passages inspiration often comes away from the desk, while doing something else.

Q7. Do you use stimulants (e.g. coffee, alcohol, drugs) to ‘get started’?
A:  No (unless walking counts as a stimulant: the steady rhythm seems somehow conducive to poetic translation!) 

Q8. Could you give examples of particular difficulties in translating poems or prose from a specific language ? Have you any tips about how to get round these difficulties?
A: Rhymes (especially feminine, i.e. double-syllable ones) are much more abundant in inflected languages such as Russian than in English. Some of the strategies for dealing with this are discussed below (No. 10).

Q9.  Do you see yourself as a ‘literal’ translator or a ‘free’ one?
A: As others have no doubt pointed out before, in many ways this seems a misleading choice. After all, neither a resolutely literal nor a completely free translation would convey much if anything of the spirit of the original. My own aim is to produce a faithful translation: as ‘literal’ as possible, as ‘free’ as necessary, if one insists on putting it in those terms. A possibly more productive question: What would the author have written if his/her native language had been English?

Q10. When translating rhymed poetry, do you try to imitate the rhyme scheme and metre?  (a) always; (b) sometimes; (c) never ?
A: While full of admiration for translators able to convey the spirit of rhymed metrical poetry in English free verse, I personally find it easier to retain a formal framework as far as possible. It seems to me in any case an integral part of the poem’s musicality. Sometimes this can be achieved without sticking blindly to the original scheme,  for instance by substituting half-rhyme (especially for feminine rhymes) or by rhyming only alternate lines.
John Dewey July 2012

Note about the translator and his book :

Mirror of the Soul. A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-73)
 by John Dewey

Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-73) was a contemporary of Pushkin and is widely considered his equal as a lyric poet. This new biography tells the story of a fascinating life and personality as reflected in the poems, presented here in the author’s own verse translations.

  How can the soul its flame impart?
How can another know your heart,
The truths by which you live and die?
A thought, once uttered, is a lie,
The limpid spring defiled, once stirred:
Drink of it, and say not a word.

A paradoxical statement for a poet to make, one might think. Unless, that is, he believes poetry to be uniquely capable of challenging the opaqueness and inadequacy of language alluded to in these lines. Tyutchev’s lyric verse can be read as an intimate diary of his inner life (the ‘mirror of his soul’, in the apt phrase of a contemporary), publication of which he resisted or at best tolerated throughout most of his mature years. It was largely thanks to the persuasion and efforts of others that his work became more widely known.
Tyutchev’s poetry combines emotional intensity with philosophical depth, revealing glimpses of an eternal, unfathomable reality beneath the fleeting world of appearances. His nature lyrics are unsurpassed, as is the remarkable ‘Denisyeva cycle’ charting a tempestuous long-term extramarital relationship.
In his own country his literary status has never been in doubt. He was the favourite poet of Leo Tolstoy, who declared: ‘One cannot live without him.’ For Dostoyevsky he was ‘our great poet’, for Turgenev (who published his first volume of verse) ‘one of our most remarkable poets’. Afanasy Fet considered him ‘one of the greatest lyric poets ever to have existed on this earth’. Yet outside Russia Tyutchev’s name remains curiously unknown.
John Dewey’s biography — the first in English, and one of the most comprehensive to date in any language — provides a long overdue introduction to this major figure, with new verse translations by the author. Written with the general reader in mind, the book also makes important new contributions in the field of Tyutchev studies. For its account of the life it draws on an extensive range of sources, including much previously unpublished archival material. Datings, addressees and circumstances of composition are established for a number of the poems which have hitherto proved problematic in this respect. Tyutchev’s poetry, and his relationship to the major intellectual and political movements of his age, are subjected to detailed analysis and reassessment.

Reviews of Mirror of the Soul:
‘magnificent book … beautifully written and edited. It will be, for a long time, the standard work on Fyodor Tyutchev anywhere in the world’
– Times Literary Supplement
‘This book is not only the first life of Tyutchev in English, it is by far the best and most complete anywhere, including Russia. Dewey’s scholarship is meticulous’
– Literary Review
‘magnificent biography … the clear writing and lively exposition keep the reader fully engaged … a highly informative and richly rewarding volume’
– Slavonic and East European Review
‘Not least impressive are the translations of Tyutchev’s lyrics which … give the non-Russian speaker a real sense of the originals’
– Malcolm Jones, Emeritus Professor of Slavonic Studies, Nottingham University
‘brilliant analysis of the lyric verse … penetrating commentaries on [Tyutchev’s] political writings.’
– Radio Free Europe
‘has convincingly resolved many of the unresolved questions of Tyutchev’s biography … Brimstone Press are to be congratulated on making it available.’
– East-West Review

555 pages, including 17 photographs. Also available as a downloadable e-book.

      Order from Brimstone Press website www.brimstonepress.co.uk Price £20 free p&p; add £3.50 for Europe, £9 for rest of world.   Downloadable e-book: £10.

Other translations by John Dewey have appeared in the series Glas New Russian Writing, among them Boris Yampolsky’s chilling novel of everyday life under Stalin, The Old Arbat, and The Nomadic Soul, a collection of stories by the US-basedwriter Irina Muravyova. His published verse translations include a substantial selection for the 15-volume Complete Works of Pushkin in English, and a version of Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman which was
shortlisted for the John Dryden Translation Prize.          SH

 

Go : now we place gold in your mouth, and we place poppy and honey in your hands. Salve aeternum. — Krasinski

A gold coin in the mouth; hands full of poppy and honey:
these are the final gifts of your earthly businesses.

And don’t let them incinerate me like a Roman:—
I want to taste my sleep in the womb of the earth.

I want to rise again as the spring corn,
circle the ancient track that the stars follow.

In the darkening grave, poppy and honey will rot,
the dead man’s mouth will swallow the gold coin…

But after many, many years of darkness
a stranger will come and dig my skeleton up,

and inside the blackening skull that his spade
smashes, the heavy coin will clang —

and the gold will flash in the midst of bones,
a tiny sun, the imprint of my soul.

Note :  This translation appeared in PN Review, the May-June 2010 issue, which is no.193, published by Michael Schmidt of Carcanet.
Vladislav Khodasevich was born in Moscow in 1886. He wrote this poem in January 1917 when he was working on translations from the Polish, including Krasinski. He left Russia in 1922 and lived with his wife in Berlin but then mostly in Paris. As an émigré he was ignored by the Soviet authorities while he found the Russian expatriate milieu in Paris unsympathetic and often philistine. But he has now become an appreciated poet in Russia. He died in 1939.  (These Notes were supplied by Peter Daniels who gave a presentation of  Khodasevich at the Poetry Café on 29 September.)       Sebastian Hayes

When I was translating Onegin my shrink asked me, as they always do, what I ‘felt’ about it, how I responded to this or that character. I pondered and replied that I felt nothing, that I had only one concern – to get the translation as ‘right’ as possible in terms of style, vocabulary, rhyme and metre. In other words, my task was purely technical. ‘Feeling’ was confined to the intensity of the task. I was retired, but had never worked so hard at anything before. The translation took between seven and eight years. Every stanza was a struggle. With each successful final couplet I’d jump up, crying ‘erquickend!, for some reason choosing the German word. I certainly felt ‘quickened’. The process of translating each stanza resembled a Sisyphean labour except that I was always able in the end to topple the boulder over to the other side. The final couplet did that for me, resolving the complex rhymes of the preceding twelve lines and summing up or puncturing the preceding argument. So we were engaged in a parallel labour. The stanza left an indelible stamp on me. For a long time I could only write poetry using Pushkin’s fourteen lines. These seemed to capture the novel as a whole, capacious enough to include all the moods listed by Pushkin in his Dedication to Pletnyov:

Half-comic and half-melancholic,
Ideal and down-to-earth bucolic,
The careless fruit of leisure times,
Of sleepless nights, light inspirations,
Of immature and withered years,
The intellect’s cold observations,
The heart’s impressions marked in tears.

I think this is why so many English and American poets have tried to repopularize narrative verse by imitating the Onegin stanza.

But these are the exigencies of translation rather than the meaning of the story, although I know the two can’t be separated. As my good shrink remarked, I must have been reacting to the novel unconsciously. I wrote two unfinished accounts of the translation once I had completed it, and there my feelings began to emerge. I am glad therefore to have been invited to write yet another in which I can scrutinize more clearly what I felt. Translation and reading are two distinct activities. I had read Onegin a number of times and thought about it. But translation brings you unusually close to the original and enables you to see the text differently. Hitherto, I had read Pushkin intellectually, influenced by the Marxist critic Georg Lukacs, who saw in the Russian poet the embodiment of the ‘beautiful’. It didn’t need a Marxist to say this, but the ‘beautiful’ wasn’t a category used by Marxist critics. ‘Realism’ was their criterion. Lukacs singled out beauty as an autonomous sphere within a realist aesthetic, locating it in three periods – classical Greece, the Renaissance and the French Revolution, each of which, he argued, benefited from a pause between successive class societies. Pushkin he regarded as a late representative of the French revolutionary epoch in spite of Russia’s persisting feudalism. In the art of the beautiful, Lukacs found the Russian poet superior even to Goethe, master pupil of the Greeks in this age. There is no other kind of beauty for Lukacs but the classical. He ignores or discounts Romantic beauty and Romanticism in general. But here is not the place to pursue his theory further.

I had always been attracted to the ‘beautiful’ and the ‘classical’. I was by nature predisposed to proportion, harmony and balance. The idea that these aesthetic qualities could be married to a materialist philosophy excited me as a young Marxist interested in the arts. From then on Pushkin became my principal object of research.

Translation changed my ideas. I should mention that I suffer from bipolar disorder, which involves the very opposite of harmony, balance and proportion. It is understandable therefore that I should seek them in art. There were several occasions during the translation when I was depressed or manic. When I was depressed I was unable to continue. During one manic phase I came near to destroying the already finished translation and substituting an inferior one. I took the manuscript from one hospital to another, not necessarily working on it, but keeping it as a talisman. I believe that my disablity left no mark on the final version. Pushkin’s precision and clarity steadied me. And both my Penguin editor and my devoted helpmeet Barbara Rosenbaum tested the translation at every step. Angela Livingstone, a former colleague brought more precision to the text. She and I had planned a book on Pushkin of which only a few pages remain extant. We discussed Lukacs’s essay together. Robert Chandler, who encouraged me to submit the first chapter to Penguin, so making the translation possible, suggested some perceptive changes at the final stage. Above all, my thanks go to Barbara, who patiently withstood the blast of my mania and kept the original version safe.

In my retrospective accounts I dwelt not unexpectedly on the suicidal moments in Onegin or what I took to be such. Towards the end of Chapter Two Pushkin writes of his generation:

Meanwhile, enjoy, friends, till it’s ended,
This light existence, every dram!
Its nullity I’ve comprehended
And little bound to it I am.

The concluding stanza of the poem expresses a similar feeling without the bitterness:

Blest who betimes has left life’s revel,
Whose wine-filled glass he has not drained

To these may be added the concluding lines to Chapter Six which, if not articulating a suicidal inclination, conjure a ferocious alienation:

Let not a poet’s soul be frozen,
Made rough and hard, reduced to bone
And finally be turned to stone
In that benumbing world he goes in,
In that intoxicating slough
Where, friends, we bathe together now.

The first quotation reminded me of Keats’s wish ‘to cease upon the midnight with no pain’. In the aftermath of the French Revolution Keats laments the beauty that can no longer ‘keep her lustrous eyes’ (‘Ode to a Nightingale’). The lure of death is common to Romantic poets. Pushkin is held back from the abyss by what he calls his ‘sad mission’, that is his poetic gift, and his desire for posterity.

I feel now that the last stanza of Onegin is not so much an invitation to suicide as an Epicurean appeal to withdraw from the storms of life into congenial company. In the penultimate stanza he thanks his novel for giving him this shelter:
With you I’ve known
The things that every poet covets:
Oblivion, when the tempest buffets,
Sweet talk of friends.

Nor can it be by accident that Pushkin refers in the final stanza to the Persian poet Sadi, who in his poem Bustan celebrated a garden retreat similar to that of Epicurus. Pushkin’s last stanza is a gentle and accepting valediction.

It was natural that I should have been attracted by the dark sides of the novel. But it was a discovery I needed to make, for I was also discovering myself. My depressions impinged several times while I was translating and, costly though they were, led me to a more sombre view of the novel than hitherto. Yet it was not a subjective view. I believe the novel is objectively very pessimistic, and that I had previously approached it with a one-sided theory derived from Lukacs.

He sees Tatiana as the embodiment of beauty. Her fine ‘moral balance’, he says, is rooted in the people. But in the ‘benumbing world’ of St. Petersburg high society she is isolated from the people. Her beloved nurse has died. She is cut off from her adored countryside. She hates her new social milieu, although she adapts to it very well. Her marriage is arranged and her love for Onegin wasted. She is a broken woman who maintains an outward poise, who behaves ‘comme il faut’. Is this the embodiment of beauty? I now began to see Tatiana very differently. Her stoicism evoked compassion, and like Herzen I felt anger for the society that imprisoned and thwarted not only her but Onegin and Lensky too. Like her, they were broken people. Onegin withdraws from a shallow life, and experiences a helpless love too late. Lensky is prevented from realizing his impossible ideals, and sacrifices himself in a futile duel. No wonder Pushkin ends his novel before any further degradation takes place in his hero’s life (though it is witnessed in the fragments of his Journey). Likewise he refrains from following Tatiana any further into her marriage.

Translation brought me closer to the characters. I could never identify with Lensky, whom Pushkin himself nearly destroys in his prediction of the young poet’s philistine future. Nor could I identify with Onegin, but I now saw him as a tragic figure. I saw his frequent yawns not just as symptoms of boredom, but as entrances into a void, perhaps the ‘nullity’ that Pushkin found in his ‘light-headed’ generation. There is nothing metaphysical about Pushkin, yet when Onegin hears ‘the timeless mutter of the soul’ we are carried into a dimension beyond everyday life. The novel is laconic, therefore one has to read slowly to become aware of its depths which are often capped by irony. But the irony differs from the cutting tones of Lermontov or Heine. It does not undermine, but binds oppositions – illusion and reality, past and present, town and country, digressions and narrative, poetry and prose and the contrasting and self-contradictory characters. No single aspect of the novel acquires predominance, yet none is fragmentary. (The fragment was the goal of Romantic Irony.) Not even the most straightforward description (Onegin’s estate, the theatre, the duel etc.) escapes a touch of the ironic. Pushkin’s irony unites the novel, but it is a unity quite different from the ‘epic objectivity’ or ‘totality’ that Lukacs talks about. It is a unity of dissonance. Only nature here is entirely free of irony, providing the chronological canvas of the novel and the source for many of the similes, especially the monitory lines in Chapter Two:

Alas! Each generation must
By Providence’s dispensation
Rise, ripen, fall in quick succession,
Upon life’s furrows

Tatiana of course is most closely involved with nature, enabling her to grow. Neither Lensky nor Onegin grows. I could not only sympathize now, but positively fall in love with her, with her shyness, passion, imagination and waywardness. For Kuchelbecker she was a portrait of Pushkin himself, Pushkin combines dark and light. Pisarev, offended by what he saw as the brilliant triviality of the surface, could not see the depths. Ovsyaniko-Kulikovsky remarked that Onegin could only gain by the removal of the digressions, where the depths of the novel are mostly to be found. I was drawn more and more to the digressions. I had written an essay on them long ago. While translating Onegin I wrote another, which means that I had been thinking consciously about the novel despite my earlier disclaimer. But it was only after I’d finished the translation that I could discover my feelings about the characters. I saw the digressions and the narrative as a counterpoint of bass and treble or a chiaroscuro of depth and surface, longing and light, past and present. The surface depicted what is and what must be, the world to which the characters have to adapt or fall by the wayside. The digressions, like Pushkin’s urge to freedom, expressed unfulfillable desire or mourned an irretrievable past. Although Pushkin as author is at home everywhere in the novel, it seemed to me that the digressions were his true abode. I have in mind the lyrical digressions, not the commentary on the state of the roads or the debate between the ode and the elegy. All the characters leave home. Lensky of course dies, Olga joins her hussar in his regiment, Tatiana marries into an alien milieu, Eugene travels, returning to a hostile St. Petersburg, Pushkin sheds his digressions, bidding farewell to youth and poetry for a literature of prose.

I saw now a different beauty in Onegin, not just the familiar serenity, light-heartedness and harmony, but the disparity of dark and light, which reminded me of similar contrasts in the music of Mozart and the paintings of Leonardo. The surface sparkle rests ‘upon a base of suffering’ as Nietzsche said of the art of the Apollonian Greeks or, as Pushkin himself noted, upon ‘The heart’s impressions marked in tears.’

Before translating Onegin I had regarded my life as a failure because of the bipolar disorder which nearly ruined me. I had managed, as I have indicated, to write a few things about Pushkin, including a critical study, which was first accepted and then turned down by the publisher. This study which I longed to rewrite was superseded by the translation which I completed at the age of 75, earning me high praise. Having gone through Pushkin’s school, I am now much more eager to write poetry than to write about it. I’d rather have written this present piece as a poem. I’ve composed the odd poem since my adolescence, but I never regarded myself seriously as a poet. Pushkin was my only teacher. My translation goes back to a collective project at Essex University in the nineteen-sixties, when Angela Livingstone and I collaborated with our Head of Department, Donald Davie, an established poet, to translate Onegin. The project foundered and the poet died. Many years later I tried my hand at the first stanza and still more years passed until the translation was born. Only here do I recognize myself as a poet. Verse that I had written before or composed after the translation cannot compare with it. Reading it through recently with a small group, I marvelled at some of my lines. But that is not the main point. Since completing the translation, I know that I shall never have to feel a failure again. Repeating Pushkin’s self-congratulation on finishing a piece of work, I said of mine : ‘Well done, you son-of-a-bitch!’        Stanley Mitchell

Note: This moving account of the joys and tribulations of a translator is taken verbatim (with permission) from the author’s website http://www.stosvet.net/12/mitchell/ .           Sebastian Hayes

Subsequent to the recent presentation of Pushkin at the Poetry Café on 23 June (see Events and Meetings) the three translators, Robert Chandler, Stanley Mitchell and Antony Wood,  have offered  the following excerpts  from the work of Russia’s most renowned poet :

‘Poem Addressed to Pushkin’s Decembrist
Friend, Ivan Pushchin’

First friend, friend beyond price,
One morning I blessed fate
When sleigh bells, your sleigh bells
Sang out and filled my lonely home
Lost in its drifts of snow.

May my voice now, please God,
Gladden your soul
In that same way
And lighten your exile
With light from our Lycée’s clear day.

Translated by Robert Chandler

‘From Pindemonte’*

I don’t much care for those resounding rights
That take so many heads to dizzy heights.
I won’t complain. I’ll just admit, the fact is,
The gods debarred me from contending taxes
Or parleying with emperors at loggerheads;
To me it makes no difference whether blockheads
Are hoodwinked by the freedom of the press
Or sharpnosed censorship snuffs out excess.
All this, I have to say, is words, words, words.
To rights of this kind I have grown averse,
Freedom of this kind is to me quite feeble:
Subject to the sovereign or the people –
What does it matter? Let it be.
To owe
Account to no one, serve oneself alone,
And please oneself, and breathe without delivering
One’s conscience, thoughts or neck to power or livery;
To gaze at Nature’s beauty at one’s will,
Feast eyes on works of art, take in one’s fill:
These things are happiness, rights …

1836

*Pushkin’s title pretending that the poem was a translation in order to hoodwink the censors.

Translated by Antony Wood

From Eugene Onegin

[Young Tatiana, romantically in love with Onegin, visits his house in his absence and discovers the real man in his library:]

22

Although, as we’re aware, Onegin
Had long abandoned reading, still
There were some books he’d not forsaken
That earned a place in his goodwill:
The bard of Juan and the Giaour
And two, three novels of the hour,
In which the epoch was displayed
And modern man put on parade
And fairly faithfully depicted:
With his depraved, immoral soul,
Dried up and egotistical,
To dreaming endlessly addicted,
With his embittered, seething mind
To futile enterprise consigned.

23

There were preserved on many pages
The trenchant mark of fingernails,
With them the watchful girl engages
As if she were deciphering spells.
Tatiana saw with trepidation
What thought it was or observation
Had struck Onegin, what they meant,
To which he’d given mute consent.
And in the margins she encountered
His pencil marks by certain lines.
Throughout, his soul was by such signs,
Without his knowing it, expounded,
Whether by cross, by succinct word,
Or question mark, as they occurred.

translated by Stanley Mitchell.

John Dewey spoke on the life and work of Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) who, although one of Russia’s greatest lyric poets, remains unduly neglected outside his native land. Dewey’s book Mirror of the Soul: A Life of the Poet Fyodor Tyutchev, with new translations of the verse, has been written with the aim of bringing this major figure to wider attention in the English-speaking world. It will shortly be published by Brimstone Press (www.brimstonepress.co.uk).

Born into a family of well-to-do landowners, Tyutchev spent his childhood and youth in Moscow. After graduating from Moscow University at the age of 18, he joined the Foreign Service and for the next 22 years lived abroad, serving for most of this time as a diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Munich. Here he immersed himself in western culture, becoming personally acquainted with such figures as Heinrich Heine and Friedrich Schelling and in general absorbing the influences of German Romantic literature and philosophy. One of his best-known ‘philosophical’ poems, ‘Silentium!’, was written in the late 1820s. Tolstoy, a great admirer of Tyutchev’s verse, called this ‘the very model of a poem in which every word is in the right place’.

Be silent: guard your tongue, and keep
All inmost thoughts and feelings deep
Within your heart concealed. There let
Them in their courses rise and set,
Like stars in jewelled night, unheard:
Admire them, and say not a word.

How can the soul its flame impart?
How can another know your heart,
The truths by which you live and die?
A thought, once uttered, is a lie,
The limpid spring defiled, once stirred:
Drink of it, and say not a word.

Make but the inward life your goal –
Seek out that world within your  soul;

Mysterious, magic thoughts are there
Which if the outer din and glare

Intrude, will fade and be not heard:
Drink in their song — and not a word!

Like many Romantic poets (Coleridge included), Tyutchev was encouraged by his reading of Schelling’s philosophy to see the universe as an organic whole, animated by a single undivided life-force. Of the following example of extended metaphor (written on the island of Ischia during a visit to Italy in 1829) one critic has commented: ‘There is perhaps no other poem in world literature in which inanimate and animate nature have been perceived and depicted as a unity in such complete measure’ (adding that only Wordsworth’s ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud…’ and Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ and ‘The Cloud’ can approach it in this respect).

Sea Stallion

Hot-blooded stallion of the sea
With mane of lucent green
Now wild, capricious, running free,
Now placidly serene!
Raised by a tempest far from here

Amidst unending seas,
You learnt from it to shy,
To canter as you please!
I love to see you charge, unchecked
In your imperious force,
When – steaming, tousle-maned and flecked
With foam – you set your course
For land, careering headlong o’er
The brine with joyful neigh,
To dash hooves on the sounding shore
And – vanish into spray!

Tyutchev’s often tempestuous love-life is amply reflected in his verse. As a young man in Munich he fell in love with the beautiful sixteen-year-old Amélie, illegitimate daughter of the Princess von Thurn und Taxis. A never-forgotten incident from the time of their first love, recalled in a poem written many years later, was a visit made by them in the spring of 1824 to the ruins of Donaustauf Castle near Regensburg. Tyutchev was inconsolable when Amélie’s mother later insisted that she marry, not him, but a more ‘suitable’ senior colleague of his at the Russian Embassy. In the poem memories of the idyll are overshadowed by the narrator’s knowledge of subsequent events.

A golden time still haunts my senses,
A promised land from long ago:
We two, alone as shadows lengthened;
The Danube, murmuring below.

And on that hill where, palely gleaming,
A castle watches  over all,
You stood, a fairy princess, leaning
Against a moss-grown granite wall —

With girlish foot so lightly touching
Those ruins of times past – to view
The sun’s long, lingering valediction
From hill and castle, and from you.

A gentle breeze in passing ruffled
Your clothing and caressed your hair,
And from wild apple branches sprinkled
White blossoms on your shoulders fair.

Carefree, you gazed into the distance…
Last rays flashed through the glowing red;
The river sang with added brilliance
From shrouded banks as daylight fled.

And still you watched with joy unclouded
Till all that blissful day be gone,
While overhead the chill dark shadow
Of fleeting life sped gently on.

In 1826, more or less on the rebound from Amélie, he married Eleonore Peterson, a widow four years older than himself with four young sons from her first marriage. Eight years later he began an affair with another young widow, Ernestine von Dörnberg. Eleonore was driven to attempt suicide; in 1838, her health already weakened, she succumbed to a fatal viral infection. Within a year Tyutchev and Ernestine were wed. Whether or not Eleonore’s death had been hastened by his infidelity, he continued to be plagued by feelings of guilt, as is apparent from a poem written many years later.  It evidently recalls a painful incident from their marriage: Eleonore is preparing to destroy letters from him of a personal and intimate nature, while he stands aside, silent and helpless to intervene, overcome by a guilt-stricken impulse to fall upon his knees. Rather as in the preceding poem, Tyutchev’s recollection of the scene is darkened even further by his knowledge of what happened since: the imagery of the ‘departing soul’ and ‘dear shade’ point ahead unmistakably to Eleonore’s death.

To sort a pile of letters, on
The floor she sat, all unregarding,
Like ash from which all heat has gone
Now handling them, and now discarding.

On each familiar leaf she took
Her gaze, so strange and distant, rested:
As a departing soul must look
Upon the shell just now divested…

O, how much life lay buried there,
Life lived and now beyond retrieving –
How many moments of despair,
Of love and joy transformed to grieving!..

I stood unspeaking and apart,
And would have knelt – the impulse filled me –
And more than heavy was my heart,
As if a dear shade’s presence chilled me.

In 1844 Tyutchev and Ernestine returned in Russia. He started a new career as a government censor, a post in which his devotion to the principle of free speech put him continually at loggerheads with his superiors. Although to his contemporaries he seemed the very epitome of a thoroughly Westernised Russian (to the end of his days he is said to have spoken Russian more fluently than Russian), he became an ardent Panslavist, campaigning actively for the unification of all the Slav peoples under Russian hegemony. Most critics from Tolstoy on agree that the large amount of political verse churned out by him in the Panslavist cause is vastly inferior to his purely lyric verse.

Six years after returning to Russia, Tyutchev became entangled in another extramarital affair, this time with a young woman 23 years his junior. Yelena Denisyeva remained his mistress for fourteen years and bore him three children, always convinced that she rather than Ernestine was his ‘true’ wife. The double standards of the time ensured that she suffered social ostracism, while he continued to be feted by court and society, his service career unaffected. Their passionate and often stormy relationship, Yelena’s rejection by society and Tyutchev’s guilt at having ruined her life all found expression in the remarkable ‘Denisyeva cycle’ of poems. As well as conveying something of Yelena’s volatile temperament (it bears the epitaph ‘Mobile comme l’onde’ – ‘mercurial as a wave’), the following poem from the cycle recalls the ‘fateful moment’ of their first intimacy, and through the image of the ring addresses Yelena’s regrets that she could never be formally acknowledged as his lawful wife.

You, my wave upon the ocean,
Creature of caprice and whim,
Whether resting or in motion,
With what wondrous life you brim!

Laughing in the sunlight, flashing
Heaven’s mirrored edifice,
Or in frenzy tossing, thrashing
In the turbulent abyss –

How you charm me with the gentle
Murmur of your love-filled sighs –
Move me with your elemental
Raging, your prophetic cries!

Be you by the rip-tide shaken,
Be your aspect dark or bright,
Yet keep safe what you have taken,
Guard it in your azure night.

To your gentle undulation
Votive offering I made:

Not a ring was my oblation,
Neither emerald nor jade –

In that fateful moment, carried
Onwards by enchantment rare,
In your depths not these I buried,
But my heart, that beats yet there.

In the summer of 1864 Yelena died of tuberculosis. Tyutchev never really recovered from the blow: Yelena’s death had, he said, quite simply ‘broken the spring of [my] life’. Some consolation was found in poetic creation: the ‘Denisyeva cycle’ continued unabated. The eve of the first anniversary of her death found Tyutchev on his way by coach from Moscow to the family estate at Ovstug some 200 miles to the south. At the coaching inn that evening he decided on a brisk stroll along the highway to stretch his legs after long hours in the jolting carriage; no doubt too he wanted to be alone with his thoughts. As he walked, these lines came into his head:

Dusk falls as I tread the lonely highway,
All around is still as night grows near…
Heavy is my heart, my limbs are weary…
Oh, my dearest, can you see me here?

Over me I watch the darkness gather,
Watch day’s last pale gleamings disappear…
In this world we two once lived together:
Dearest angel, can you see me here?

Now a day of memory appalling,
Given to prayer and grief, is drawing near…
From wherever spirits have their dwelling,
Dearest angel, can you see me here?

Ovstug and the surrounding countryside inspired some of the finest of Tyutchev’s later nature poems, including the following:

There comes with autumn’s first appearance
A brief spell full of wonder and delight:
Whole days of crystalline transparence
And evenings luminously bright…

Where once the sickle strode through wheat-ears tumbling
An air of space and emptiness reigns now;
Only a wisp of cobweb, trembling,
Gleams on the idle furrow’s brow.

The empty skies fall still as birds forsake us,
Yet distant still is winter’s first unruly storm,

And, seeping from above, a blueness pure and warm
Is added to the drowsing acres…

This was another of Leo Tolstoy’s favourites. He particularly admired lines 7 – 8, where a few deft strokes (Tolstoy singles out the evocative use of ‘idle’) are sufficient to create a whole picture of rural tranquillity and repose following the hectic activity of the harvest. ‘The art of writing poetry lies in the ability to find such images, and Tyutchev was a great master of that,’ Tolstoy commented.

For all his nationalist rhetoric, Tyutchev’s attitude to his native land remained deeply ambivalent. Until his final years he enjoyed nothing more than returning to his old haunts in the West. In 1859 for instance he spent some six months abroad. Near the end of his stay he wrote to Ernestine from Vevey on Lake Geneva of his horror at the thought of leaving ‘this enchanted spot’, ‘this blessed land’, and of being forced to ‘pass the icy sponge of a St Petersburg winter over these splendours’. Not long afterwards, travelling through Russia’s Baltic provinces on his way home, he composed these lines:  

Familiar sights again… this smoke-grey awning
Where massive, leaden snow-clouds loom,
And in the dull-blue distance, as in mourning,
Dark forests wrapped in autumn gloom…
A drab and silent world too vast to reckon:
All empty, arid, untraversed…
Just here and there, half-glimpsed through bush and bracken,
The glint of ice on water, winter’s first.

No sound, no colour here: all is arrested,
All life extinguished, gone; man here, it seems —

Resigned to fate, his mind numb and exhausted —
Must see himself as if in his own dreams,
And, eyes grown dim in twilight evanescent,
Cannot believe that yesterday he knew

A land where mountains, rainbow-iridescent,
Gaze on themselves in lakes of deepest blue…

In short, Tyutchev was attracted to the ideal rather than the reality of his native land. For him Russia remained a metaphysical concept of perfection, demanding blind, unthinking belief in the face of all evidence to the contrary. That is the message of a brief epigram written towards the end of his life which both in Russia and beyond has acquired the distinction of becoming his most frequently quoted (and often parodied) utterance:

Who would grasp Russia with the mind?
For her no yardstick was created:
Her soul is of a special kind,
By faith alone appreciated.

Archives