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.]


  1. David Marjanović says

    My grandpa once got to hear the Russian version. He knew what it was, didn’t understand a word, and said he didn’t need to – it sounds perfect.
    And then my dad said he had heard Serbian hero songs translated to Russian. He laughed – it sounds way too soft.
    BTW, the original at your link has “in Walde” instead of “im Walde”. A typo that manages to make the article disappear.

  2. I like to use the Goethe poem as an example to people who believe that German consists solely of barked orders, and I use it as a spoken lullaby for my grandson, mixed in with lots of songs, to be sure.
    But Lermontov flying in memory reminds me of old Boyan the vates, flying like the eagle up to the clouds and letting loose his ten falcon fingers on a flock of swans, the strings of his . Did Lermontov know the Igor Tale (he could have, as far as the dates are concerned), or are both writers drawing on a common source of associations between poets and birds?

  3. The tree ever rustling overhead, and the voice ever singing of love, both eternally listened to by the Sleeping One, are a direct allusion to another German classic, Heine’s:
    Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
    Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
    Sie singt von lauter Liebe –
    Ich hör es sogar im Traum.

  4. In quoting lyric poetry, there’s a tendency to highlight the soppiness and suppress the rest. Heine calls the child by its name (Ger. loc.), where Goethe left it to the imagination. The full Heine:

    Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht,
    Das Leben ist der schwüle Tag.
    Es dunkelt schon, mich schläfert,
    Der Tag hat mich müd gemacht.
    Über mein Bett erhebt sich ein Baum,
    Drin singt die junge Nachtigall;
    Sie singt von lauter Liebe,
    Ich hör es sogar im Traum.

    Which is to say:

    Death, that is the cool of night,
    Life is the sultry day.
    Darkness falls, sleep comes on me,
    The day has tired me out.
    …[nightinggale, love etc]…

  5. I am always interested to discover that a quote distorts the meaning in its original context, not just with lyric poetry. Of course the “distorted meaning” is sociologically faultless, having every right to exist in addition to the original. What interests me is to find that Ancient Authors were not as banal and polyannish as fragmentary quotes often make them seem. Bowdlerization is bad enough, trivialization is worse.
    Take mens sana in corpore sano, for example. The English WiPe on this expression has only this to offer:

    Traditional commentators believe that Juvenal’s intention was to teach his fellow Roman citizens that in the main, their prayers for such things as long life are misguided. That the gods had provided man with virtues which he then lists for them.
    Over time and separated from its context, the phrase has come to have a range of meanings. It can be construed to mean that only a healthy body can produce or sustain a healthy mind. Its most general usage is to express the hierarchy of needs: with physical and mental health at the root.

    “Hierarchy of needs”, for Pete’s sake. The German WiPe has this (via GT amended):

    The phrase is an abbreviated quote from the satires of the Roman poet Juvenal:
           Satires 10 , 356 : Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano.
           “You should pray for a healthy body is a healthy mind.”
    Juvenal’s actual intention was to castigate those of his Roman compatriots who turned with foolish prayers and supplications to the gods. Praying, he says, should at most be directed to obtaining physical and mental health. Mens sana in corpore sano is thus to be understood only in relation to the meaning and content of petitions and prayers. He was not, as a satirist, claiming that a healthy mind can exist only in a healthy body, but rather – since he had often experienced the opposite – that it would be desirable if things were like that. Juvenal ( 60-127 AD) was satirizing the sports idols of his time. In his opinion, their intellectual abilities fell far behind their physical ones.

    Not being an expert on Juvenal and his times, I naturally am in no position to judge which of these articles, if either, represents Juvenal’s intentions more accurately. I simply prefer the version that presents him as being something else, and more, than a purveyor of modern health slogans. This is the lectio difficilior, since in the common acceptation there is no news under the sun, right ?

  6. Juvenal ( 60-127 AD) was satirizing the sports idols of his time. In his opinion, their intellectual abilities fell far behind their physical ones.
    Indeed nothing new under the sun …

  7. For heaven’s sake, my quote wasn’t meant to convey the grand total of meaning (whatever it means). And I’m stunned to hear accusations that I “distorted Heine”. All I was trying to do was to expound on LH’s “Hamlet in reverse” observation.
    Of course Lermontov’s Road Alone has parallels to Heine’s first stanza too in its sentiments of being tired of life and enraptured by the Night and of longing to fall asleep, forever. But Lermontov develops the theme quite differently, quite beautifully; Lermontov’s Night is a real serene, starry night where Heine’s is but a terse symbol. In any case the question, for me, was narrowly about the Oak and the Voice of Love and the Listener.

  8. You mustn’t mind Stu; he’s always looking for ways to subvert the narrative. And your discussion of L. and Heine is quite convincing.

  9. (my own half-assed rendering, pretty true as to rhyme scheme, meter, and sense, but not poetry)
    All along the hilltops is peace,
    In all of the treetops,
    You can hear scarcely a peep.
    The birds fall silent,
    Silent in the forest.
    Wait a bit, wait a bit,
    Soon enough you, too, will sleep.

  10. John Cowan, I used to use this occasionally as a lullaby, too — sung, not spoken — because I knew it first as a Schubert song.

  11. David Marjanović says

    The English WiPe on this expression has only this to offer:

    What the vertical gene transfer. I thought it was common knowledge that Juvenal was satirizing athletes. Someone please fix it, I don’t have a citable source at hand. I just complained in the talk section, though.

    than a purveyor of modern health slogans

    More like early-20th-century fascistoid health slogans.

    my own half-assed rendering, pretty true as to rhyme scheme, meter, and sense, but not poetry

    …or meaning. I’ve never seen Gipfel applied to a mere hilltop; it’s a mountaintop. Wouldn’t fit the meter, though.

  12. He was not, as a satirist, claiming that a healthy mind can exist only in a healthy body, but rather – since he had often experienced the opposite – that it would be desirable if things were like that.
    That would be terrible! Who would want only people blessed with good health to think clearly?
    Juvenal ( 60-127 AD) was satirizing the sports idols of his time. In his opinion, their intellectual abilities fell far behind their physical ones.
    Sharp fellow, that one. I wonder if Lebron James is as good a novelist as a basketball player after all.

  13. marie-lucie says

    mens sana in corpore sano
    I didn’t know where this came from, or the context, but I have only seen it quoted as referring to the ideal person, healthy in both mind and body. Nothing about someone healthy in just one of these characteristics, or about the primacy of one over the other.

  14. Dmitry: Sorry if you took offense, I did not mean to give any. I just thought that quoting only the second stanza of that short, two-stanza poem distorts its meaning.
    I have read a fair amount of Heine, though not his poetry apart from, say, Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen. I did not know the poem from which you quoted, but found what you did quote, all by itself, to be soppy and not at all like Heine.
    So I looked up the poem and found the other stanza, which rounds out the picture. I did a similar thing with mens sana.

  15. I’ve never seen Gipfel applied to a mere hilltop; it’s a mountaintop.
    empty, the top of a hill is die Spitze des Hügels or die Hügelspitze.

  16. That is, Gipfel is more “peak” than “top”. However, as “Silver Hill Peak” shows, certain hills can be said to have peaks, and of course you can in all propriety talk about mountaintops. A particularly pointy Gipfel can be called a Bergspitze. Nevertheless, you wouldn’t call the top of a hill a Gipfel.
    So, subject to various provisos of actual usage, the distinction Gipfel/Spitze is pretty much the distinction peak/top.

  17. Not to be confused with this Gipfel. I guess a croissant does resemble a mountain range.

  18. Juvenal might have satirised sports idols, but that’s not what he’s doing in the phrase mens sana in corpore sano. In fact, he’s saying those are among the few genuinely desirable things. The Tenth Satire is about the “Vanity of Human Wishes” and he’s warning you you should be careful what you pray for, because you just might get it and then you’ll be in trouble. Don’t pray for wealth, because you’ll become the victim of robbers and tyrants. Don’t pray for political power, because great men rarely die in their beds. The same goes for military glory. Don’t pray to be beautiful, because the beautiful frequently get the wrong sort of attention. Don’t pray to be a famous orator, because Demosthenes and Cicero came to a sticky end. Don’t pray for a long life, because you’ll spend your declining years decrepit, senile and unloved.
    You should stick with the gifts the gods give you, because they know best. If you must pray, then pray for a sound mind in a sound body (orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano). You can also pray for courage, a mind that does not fear death and one that prefers toughing it out to luxury.

  19. Juvenal mocks sports idols early on in the same satire in a glancing reference to Milo of Croton, a famous wrestler. Milo supposedly tried to try his strength by tearing a tree apart, got wedged in a fissure in the trunk and was devoured by a passing pack of wolves:
    viribus ille
    confisus periit admirandisque lacertis
    So Juvenal’s saying, don’t pray for pumped-up superstrength. But physical and mental health (mens sana in corpore sano) is a good thing.

  20. Well, Sir, your explanation knocks both WiPe articles out of the ring. I had in the meantime read the tenth satire, and was primed for this better account.
    To a large extent, praying has today been superceded by access to medical care. Perhaps “if you must pray, then pray for a sound mind in a sound body” could be modernized as “if you must go to the doctor, then go for a checkup, not to get your face lifted”.

  21. marie-lucie says

    Thank you for the exegesis, Sir J!
    Also, I had heard of Milo, but not about his gruesome end.

  22. Your translations are very good, I think, even for the hasty ones.
    A friend of mine, having re-read A Hero of Our Time recently, nearly forty years after school, sent me a desperate note: How is it possible that they made us read this complex, multi-layered work when we were just 15? Criminal.
    I agreed, and I also thought, even though they, Pushkin and Lemontov, marked a peak of the Golden Age of poetry, they also both introduced the golden age of prose. But with a difference. There is light, the happy ringing of the bells in Pushkin, whatever he touches. Lermontov had introduced the dark side, the strand that had never since left Russian literary tradition (feeble exceptions like Chernyshevsky not counted, and even Tolstoy is more of the dark than the light) all the way through C19 and C20. Not perhaps until Akunin.

  23. Every Russian schoolkid learns (not by heart, though) Lermontov’s “Borodino” and “Death of the Poet” before anything else. Both amount to little more than versification and basically teach you that poetry is something with rhyme sounding like “bum-bum-bum”. Sorry.

  24. Yeah, that’s a terrible way to introduce kids to poetry.

  25. marie-lucie says

    Mes chers amis, quand je mourrai,
    My dear friends, when I die,

    Plantez un saule au cimetière;
    Plant a willow in the graveyard;

    J’aime son feuillage éploré,
    I like its weepy foliage,

    La pâleur m’en est douce et chère,
    whose paleness is soft and dear to me,

    Et son ombre sera légère
    And its shade will be but a light weight

    A la terre où je dormirai.
    over the earth where I will sleep.

    Alfred de Musset

  26. marie-lucie says

    Ø : I knew it first as a Schubert song.

    Me too.

    Gipfel: Although my German is quite rusty (and has always been much more passive than active), I always interpreted Gipfel as a mountain summit, which appears to touch the sky. You would not get a feeling of heavenly repose just from the top of a hill.

  27. David Marjanović says

    Yes, mountaintop first and foremost… but… there isn’t a word for hilltop…

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