One of the books I’m reading very slowly, a bit at a time (usually at bedtime), is Yuri Fedosyuk’s Что непонятно у классиков, или Энциклопедия русского быта XIX века [What we don’t understand in the classics, or An encyclopedia of Russian daily life in the nineteenth century] (see LH posts from 2004 and 2013), and I’m now on the section (towards the end of Ch. 12) dealing with train travel and the associated vocabulary. Fedosyuk writes (Russian at the end):
The locomotive was originally called a parokhod [which now means ‘steamship’]. This circumstance still confuses people who listen to Glinka’s well-known “Travel(ing) Song,” written to the lyrics of N.V. Kukolnik:
A column of smoke boils up, the parokhod smokes…
And further on:
And faster, quicker than the will
The train races along in the open field.
The song was written in 1840, when the short railway line between Saint Petersburg and Tsarskoye Selo was already in operation.
Eventually I was able to marvel at the early date of the song (and chuckle at the fact that whoever translated the lyrics here actually renders пароход as “steamship”!), but my first reaction was much like Proust’s when his palate encountered the soaked bit of madeleine: I was plunged into the dark backward and abysm of time.
At the tail end of the ’70s, between the hell of my last years of grad school (borrowing money for a PhD I was never to get and guiltily avoiding my dissertation advisor) and the hell of my first years in New York (whither I followed a woman who immediately dumped me, leaving me alone, bitter, and broke in a cubicle in a basement in Jamaica, Queens, sharing a bathroom with half a dozen Chinese students and forced to stand in the snow on the street to make job-hunting calls from a pay phone), I had a heavenly couple of years living alone in a $25-a-week apartment on Bradley Street in New Haven, working minimum-wage jobs in bookstores and movie theaters and spending all night talking poetry or arguing politics. My dearest friend in those days was a wonderful artist named Lisa Gillham (who hailed from Covington, Kentucky, to which she has long since returned — she recently got a River Cities Historic Preservation Award for the work she’s been doing in her neighborhood of Latonia, and you should all run out and buy her book if you like old pictures of historic towns); we loved a lot of the same music, and she was particularly fond of a record of mine that collected a bunch of songs sung by the Red Army Chorus (it must have been one of these, but after all these years I have no idea which). It had “Polyushko-polye” (YouTube) and “Oi ty rozh'” (YouTube) and “V put’” (YouTube), all of which I sing in the shower to this day, and a bunch of others that have receded into dark corners of my long-term memory, including the Glinka. Suddenly, seeing those tongue-twisting words (it takes a bit of work to get “shibche voli poezd mchitsya v chistom pole” right) I was back in New Haven, listening with my friend to the record I eventually gave her because she loved it so much. Ah, youth! Ah, Alexandrov Ensemble!
Fedosyuk’s original Russian:
Паровоз поначалу назывался… пароходом. Это обстоятельство до сих пор смущает слушателей знаменитой «Попутной песни» М.И. Глинки, написанной на слова Н.В. Кукольника:
Дым столбом – кипит, дымится
И быстрее, шибче воли,
Поезд мчится в чистом поле.
Песня сочинена в 1840 году, когда уже действовала короткая железнодорожная линия между Петербургом и Царским Селом.