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   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).

 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 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



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 (

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.