As an accompaniment to my Long March through early-19th-century Russian prose, I’ve been reading through the collected poetry of Lermontov and increasingly realizing what a great poet he was. I mean, of course he was a Great Poet, we all know that, he’s taught right along with Pushkin, and as soon as beginning students are judged ready for poetry they’re fed the standard anthology pieces like Ангел/The Angel and И скучно и грустно/Bored and sad. But back when I was in Russian class I knew a lot less about Russian, poetry, and life; now, some decades on, I can see his excellences more clearly, and I thought I’d share with you my recent discovery of some suggestive parallels in three poems of 1840-1841 (the year he died—what a stupid, destructive institution dueling was!).
As much as I enjoy running into old friends in the Collected Works, it’s even better to make new ones, and I was hit hard by “Как часто, пестрою толпою окружен” [How often, surrounded by a motley crowd]. It wasn’t the framing section that got to me, a complaint about soulless people and their meaningless talk (the poem, dated January 1, was apparently conceived during a hectic New Year’s Eve masquerade at the Assembly of the Nobility), but the central two and a half stanzas that I will translate here (from “Наружно погружась в их блеск и суету” to “Шумят под робкими шагами”; the Russian text is at the link):
Outwardly immersed in their brilliance and bustle,
I cherish in my soul an ancient dream,
The sacred sounds of perished years.
And if somehow for a moment I succeed
In sinking into a reverie, I fly in memory to the ancient times
Of not so long ago, like a free, free bird,
And see myself as a child; and all around
Are my native places: the high manor,
And the garden with its ruined greenhouse;
The sleeping pond is covered by a green net of grass,
And past the pond, smoke rises from a village—and in the distance
Mists rise over fields.
I enter a dark avenue; between the bushes
Appears an evening ray, and yellow leaves
Rustle beneath my shy footsteps.
It sounds like nothing in my half-baked attempt at a hasty translation, but you’ll have to take my word for it that the Russian is magical. The unexpected repetition in “вольной, вольной” [vol’noi, vol’noi, ‘free, free’] slows you down abruptly, like a swiftly applied brake pedal; the assonances chime in Вдали туманы [vdalí tumany, ‘in the distance mists’] and В аллею темную [v alleyu tyómnuyu, ‘into a dark avenue’]; and you can hear the rustling in the final quoted line, Шумят под робкими шагами [shumyát pod róbkimi shagami]. But even in clumsy translation you can sense the emotional force of the passage, the insistent intermingling of ruin, darkness, and foreboding with the superficially joyous return to the lieux d’enfance.
This is distilled in Lermontov’s well-known free translation (or version, if you will) of one of the most perfect lyric poems ever written, Goethe’s Wandrers Nachtlied II (“Über allen Gipfeln/ Ist Ruh”), whose twenty-four words sink instantly into the memory of anyone who knows even a little German and stay for life. Lermontov’s poem has only twenty-two words, but even so manages to seriously distort the original; it says “Mountain tops sleep in nighttime darkness, quiet valleys are full of fresh haze; the road is not dusty, the leaves do not tremble… Wait a little, you too will rest,” and of course Goethe has no quiet valleys, with or without haze, and no roads, with or without dust, whereas he does have birds which Lermontov omits. Never mind, it’s a pretty little thing and is much memorized (or used to be). You can see why Lermontov wanted to write it, but I suspect it did not satisfy him. It was too silent.
The following year (the last of his life), he combined the themes in one of his finest and most mysterious poems (one that meant a lot to Mandelstam, among others), Выхожу один я на дорогу/I go out on the road alone. You have there the road, the night, the sleeping earth, the longing for surcease: “Я б хотел забыться и заснуть!” [I would like to sink into a reverie (literally “forget myself”) and sleep!]. But, and this is crucial, “не тем холодным сном могилы” [not the cold sleep of the grave]; he wants to hear things, voices singing of love and, as the last line says, “Тёмный дуб склонялся и шумел” [A dark oak would lean over (me) and rustle]. It’s Hamlet’s quandary in reverse; Hamlet wanted to die, to sleep, but without dreaming, while Lermontov (or his poetic persona) wants to sleep, to dream, but not to die and leave the sounds of earth behind.
Addendum. Coincidentally, my Long March has brought me to Lermontov’s own great contribution to Russian prose, Герой нашего времени (A Hero of Our Time), and early on I encountered a passage that makes an interesting parallel to those cited above (I’ve lazily used the English translation from here):
Кругом было тихо, так тихо, что по жужжанию комара можно было следить за его полетом. Налево чернело глубокое ущелье; за ним и впереди нас темно-синие вершины гор, изрытые морщинами, покрытые слоями снега, рисовались на бледном небосклоне, еще сохранявшем последний отблеск зари. На темном небе начинали мелькать звезды, и странно, мне показалось, что оно гораздо выше, чем у нас на севере. По обеим сторонам дороги торчали голые, черные камни; кой-где из-под снега выглядывали кустарники, но ни один сухой листок не шевелился, и весело было слышать среди этого мертвого сна природы фырканье усталой почтовой тройки и неровное побрякиванье русского колокольчика.
[It was quiet all around, so quiet that you could trace the flight of a mosquito by its buzz. A deep gorge yawned black to the left. Beyond it and ahead of us the dark blue mountain peaks wrinkled with gorges and gullies and topped by layers of snow loomed against the pale horizon that still retained the last glimmer of twilight. Stars began to twinkle in the dark sky, and, strangely enough, it seemed that they were far higher here than in our northern sky in Russia. On both sides of the road naked black boulders jutted up from the ground, and here and there some shrubs peeped from under the snow. Not a single dead leaf rustled, and it was pleasant to hear in the midst of this lifeless sleepiness of nature the snorting of the tired stage coach horses and the uneven tinkling of the Russian carriage bells.]