Early Pasternak.

I’ve been reading Pasternak in chronological order, and it’s quite a culture shock: after steeping myself for so long in the classical elegance of Mandelstam, with his high-culture references and carefully balanced lines, suddenly I’m buffeted by the barbaric yawp and knotty imagery of an utterly different poet. Of course, that fits with the clichéd images of aristocratic Petersburg and low-class Moscow, but there it is. It’s like going from, say, Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony to Ives’s Second; both are great, but the switch will knock the breath out of you.

Let me give some examples of the way Pasternak goes at language like a dog at a bone. One of his favorite devices is repetition. He does it with variation in Метель [The blizzard] (1914/1928), which begins:

В посаде, куда ни одна нога
Не ступала, лишь ворожеи да вьюги
Ступала нога

In a suburb where not a single foot
was set, only sorceresses and snowstorms
set foot

The next stanza starts:

Постой, в посаде, куда ни одна
Нога не ступала, лишь ворожеи
Да вьюги ступала нога

Stop! in a suburb where not a single
foot was set, only sorceresses
and snowstorms set foot

And the fourth stanza begins:

Послушай, в посаде, куда ни одна
Нога не ступала, одни душегубы

Listen! in a suburb where not a single
foot was set, only murderers

The fifth stanza introduces the wonderful line “Не тот это город, и полночь не та” [It’s not the right city, and not the right midnight], and the same line is used to end the whole poem. Who knows how it fits with the rest of the poem, or what it means, but who cares? It’s irresistible!

He goes completely nuts with the repetition at the start of «Я понял жизни цель и чту» (1915):

Я понял жизни цель и чту
Ту цель, как цель, и эта цель –
Признать, что мне невмоготу
Мириться с тем, что есть апрель,

I understand the aim of life, and I honor
that aim as aim, and this aim
is to admit that I can’t bear
to accept that April exists,

It’s over the top, but again, who could resist? (He expresses a similar sentiment in a later poem: “Им, как и мне, невмочь с весною свыкнуться” [They, like me, can’t get used to spring].) I suspect he wanted a rhyme for апрель, цель came to him, and then he started muttering “цель цель цель…” and built a couple of lines around it. The last stanza includes the striking lines

Что в берковец церковный зык,
Что взят звонарь в весовщики,

That the bellowing in the church weighs ten poods [360 lbs],
That the bell-ringer has been taken as a weigher,

Those two lines have four words I had to look up (берковец ‘ten poods’ [apparently from Björkö], зык ‘loud voice or cry,’ звонарь ‘bell-ringer,’ and весовщик ‘weigher; checkweighman’), and he’s clearly working as much with sound as with meaning: “Chto v bérkovets tservkovny zyk, Chto vzyat zvonár’ v vesovshchikí.”

A good example of knotty imagery is from «Двор» [The courtyard] (1916/1928):

Мздой облагает зима, как баскак,
Окна и печи, но стужа в их книгах —
Ханский указ на вощеных брусках
О наложении зимнего ига.

Winter assesses a tribute, like a baskak [Mongol khan’s representative],
on windows and stoves, but the freezing cold in their books
is the khan’s decree [inscribed] on waxed ingots
on the imposition of winter’s yoke.

I get the general idea, but I don’t understand “the freezing cold in their books” (whose books? it’s repeated from an earlier stanza, but I don’t understand it there either).

Rather than leave you with that clotted stanza, I’ll quote one from «Венеция» [Venice] (1913/1928):

Туда, голодные, противясь,
Шли волны, шлёндая с тоски,
И го́ндолы рубили привязь,
Точа о пристань тесаки.

Thither, hungry, resisting,
went the waves, roaming in melancholy,
and the gondolas have cut their painters,
whetting their hatchets on the pier.

It sounds awkward as hell in my literal version, but in the original it’s a miracle of rhythm and alliteration (he has a footnote explaining that he’s using the Italian antepenultimate stress for гондолы rather than the normal Russian penultimate), and in particular “Шли волны, шлёндая с тоски” [shli volny, shlyóndaya s toskí], using the unusual verb шлёндать ‘roam, wander aimlessly, hang around,’ is one of those perfect lines that sinks immediately into your memory and justifies the whole idea of poetry.


  1. That’s why I’m crazy about Pasternak, and far less so about Mandelstam, that raw power of the sound beats the cultural sophistication for me. Alliteration is hard to beat.
    Ханский указ на вощеных брусках
    IMHO is the sound of snow underfoot, of the screeching of compacted snowflakes being crushed. The books belong to the windows or are the window frost patterns … the mystery inscriptions of the crystals. A long forgotten sight, making me nostalgic.

    BTW Language I’m almost done with a certain story I promised to you just 4 years ago, hehe.

  2. Trond Engen says

    The берковец must be the same weight as the Scandinavian skippund “ship pound”. The Russian пуд borrowed form ON is a little odd. In Scandinavian weight the skippund was normally divided into 20 lispund “Livonian pounds”.

  3. Trond Engen says

    Also, The Swedish trading port of Björkö may have been named for its being a Bjarkey rather than for its birches.

  4. that raw power of the sound

    Yeah, it’s really something. Only a born poet could make sounds like that.

  5. Pasternak never wavered when it came to encrusting bits of sense into sound. The piece I like to quote from memory is from 1905:

    «Мин и Риман», —
    На заре
    Переметы перрона,
    И Семеновский полк
    Переводят на Брестскую ветвь.

  6. Well, the events are from 1905; the poem is from 1925-26. (I added Pasternak’s line breaks — hope you don’t mind.)

  7. Georgy Min and Nikolai Riman were officers who helped crush the 1905 uprising, in case anyone was wondering.

  8. Riman = Riemann; I don’t know what kind of name Min is.

  9. This page was linked at the bottom of Min’s wiki article. Apparently it’s Scottish – in which case I’d guess it was Ming, a shortened form of Menzies [ˈmɪŋəs].

  10. Fascinating, thanks!

  11. I just want to thank you for bringing me back to Pasternak. I love all those poets; they are what excite people about Russian. In a couple of days I shall be at the Royal Opera House here in London, ‘Eugene Onegin’ with Bychkov and Khvorostovsky. I saw it at the Bolshoy in 1967. I’m not even attempting to transliterate ‘correctly’.

  12. Thanks for the edits and the insights, Language!! I had barely any Internet connection as I was replying (this text-only site was about the only thing which loaded easily), so I was reaching into my memory instead of the Internet, as well as it can serve 🙂

  13. this text-only site was about the only thing which loaded easily

    Score one for primitivism!

  14. Menzies is pronounced Ming-is, and takes the nickname Ming, as in British politician Menzies (Ming) Campbell.

  15. “Метель“ is an amazing poem, one of Pasternak’s greatest achievements if anybody cared to ask me. My personal favorite among his early poems is “На пароходе” but for some reason, I paid no attention to “Метель” when I first read Pasternak in my late teens.

    Moscow was not seen as low-class at the turn of the 20th century – It was merchant-class, rather: bourgeois and inventive, like Barcelona. Anyway, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Bely came from families of successful artists and/or scholars – a cultured upper-middle-class milieu, to use an understatement. Mandelshtam and the provincials Akhmatova and Kuzmin did not have the privilege of growing up in families where Tolstoy was a house guest.

    BTW I would not call Mandelshtam’s mature poetry classical. Akhmatova’s, perhaps, but not M’s.

  16. Moscow was not seen as low-class at the turn of the 20th century – It was merchant-class, rather

    But to an aristocrat that’s low-class.

    I would not call Mandelshtam’s mature poetry classical.

    I was referencing his poetry of this (pre-Revolution) era, which is classical by any standard.

  17. Jeffry House says

    I know it’s not a poem per se, but I always thought the opening of Doctor Zhivago had a wonderful poetic sound:

    Шли и шли и пели “Вечную память”, и когда останавливались, казалось, что ее по залаженному продолжают петь ноги, лошади, дуновения ветра.

  18. whose books?

    Люди, как море в краю лопарей,
    Льдами щетинится их вдохновенье.

    Lyudi, kak more v krayu loparey,
    L’dami shchetinitsya ikh vdokhnoven’ye.

    ‘People are like the sea in the land of the Sami,/ Their inspiration bristles with ice.’

    I’m guessing, based on this passage (just above the first appearance of ‘their books’), that ‘their’ refers to the people in the passage you quoted as well as here. (The wind sticks to the wall as a bill that says Люди, там ярость сановней моей! ‘People: there’s a rage more distinguished than mine’ as well as both of the quoted passages.)

  19. Thanks, you must be right. Boy, one has to read Pasternak carefully!

  20. LH, I would rather call St. Petersburg imperial, bureaucratic and militaristic. A true aristocrat must feel free to do as he pleases, unbound by a fixed style. By the end of the 19th century, most living Russian aristocrats were of recent vintage or mintage, a fresh service aristocracy of the sword and the inkpot: in contrast to ancient European families, they owed everything to the empire they had served.

    Is this relevant to the question of Mandelshtam’s style? (I agree that “Камень” is classical, even classicist; “Tristia,” less so, despite the title.) According to Georgy Ivanov, the decisive influence was not the general spirit of the imperial capital, but the Great Syndic of the Poets’ Guild, Nikolay Gumilyov.

  21. LH, I would rather call St. Petersburg imperial, bureaucratic and militaristic. A true aristocrat must feel free to do as he pleases, unbound by a fixed style.

    Oh, sure, I was just making a very general comparison, not a detailed sociological analysis.

  22. Just ran across a quote from Dmitry Bykov that captures something essential about P’s poetry:

    Этот заряд счастья и передается читателю, для которого лирика Пастернака — праздничный реестр подарков, фейерверк чудес, водопад восторженных открытий; ни один русский поэт с пушкинских времен (кроме разве Фета – но где Фету до пастернаковских экстазов!) не излучал такой простодушной и чистой радости.

    This charge of happiness is transferred to the reader, for whom Pasternak’s lyrics are a festive register of gifts, fireworks of wonders, a waterfall of enthusiastic discoveries; no Russian poet since Pushkin’s time (except perhaps Fet, but where will you find Pasternak’s ecstasies in Fet?Fet’s ecstasies are no match for Pasternak’s) has radiated such open-hearted, pure joy.

    (I’m not clear about the construction “где Фету до пастернаковских экстазов,” and will welcome explanation of how it works and what exactly it means.)

  23. где Фету до пастернаковских экстазов
    I’d say “Fet is no match for Pasternak as far as P’s ecstasies go.”
    From Ushakov:
    5. кому-чему, с ·инф. (в восклицательном предложении в соединении с “уж” или без него). Не по силам, невозможно (·разг. ). Где старому человеку осилить такую работу! Где уж нам в таких вещах разбираться!

  24. Or:
    F. can’t hold a candle to P.

  25. Thanks, my Russian is now just that little bit better than it was!

  26. gondolas have cut their painters
    Italian antepenultimate stress for гондолы

    Gondolier under stress

    The gondolier, who had been attempting a tricky manoeuvre as he navigated the vessel under a bridge close to the area of St Mark’s Square, also ended up in the water before scrambling to rescue his passengers.

    The gondolier’s manoeuvre under the bridge required the maximum balance of weight onboard, but the passengers reportedly ignored his orders to sit down and instead continued to stand up and take photos, thus tipping the boat over.

    … Venezia Non è Disneyland …


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