Pasternak’s Noir Spring.

Pasternak’s middle period, between the flashy, often incomprehensible genius of the first books and the classic simplicity of the Zhivago poems, tends to be somewhat overlooked, and the 1941 “Peredelkino” group in particular doesn’t get much respect. But there’s some wonderful poetry in it, and I’m especially struck by Опять весна [Spring again], which begins as a noir mystery (suddenly I heard a strange sound…) and continues as a philosophical meditation on the familiar phenomenon of spring being both new and infinitely repeated (Pasternak, of course, studied philosophy as a young man) without ever ceasing to be a splendidly musical poem (it gets muddled and hard to understand for a brief bit in the middle — what the heck is that jacket? — but that’s the Pasternak trademark). I had read it quite a few times, and in fact memorized it, before I realized that the opening three lines are a mutated equivalent of the opening three lines of Dante’s Inferno. At any rate, I thought I’d provide my own literal prose translation, followed by two published poetic ones after the jump.

The train’s gone, the embankment’s black. How am I going to find the road in the dark? I don’t recognize this place at all, even though I was here just a day ago. The clang of iron has died away from the ties. Suddenly — really, what’s this new weirdness? Commotion, gossips’ babbling: what devil’s gotten into them?

Where did I hear these snatches of speech before, maybe sometime last year? Ah, it must have been today, all over again, the stream came out of the grove at night. Just like those times before, the pond swelled up and moved chunks of ice. Truly, this is a new wonder: just as before, again it’s spring.

It’s her, it’s her, it’s her sorcery and wonder, it’s her jacket beyond the willow, shoulders, kerchief, figure and back. It’s the Snow Maiden at the edge of the precipice, it’s for her that the half-mad chatterbox is pouring ceaseless ravings from the bottom of the ravine.

It’s in front of her that the rapids, pouring over obstacles, are sinking in a watery haze, nailed to the slope with hissing by the lamp of the hanging waterfall. Teeth chattering from the cold, it’s the icy stream pouring across the edge into a pond and from the pond into another vessel. The speech of the floodwater is the raving of existence.

I am preempted from even trying a poetic version by the dazzle of the penultimate line: В пруд и из пруда в другую посуду [v prud i iz pruda v druguyu posudu]. But you can see what the professionals have done with it below.

The train has gone. The embankment is black.
How shall I find the road in the dark?
The countryside is unrecognizable,
Though I’ve been absent only twenty-four hours.
The clang of iron has died on the rails.
Suddenly— what is this for a novelty so peculiar?
All the commotion of gossiping chatter
What devil’s got into them?

Where have I heard these fragments of speech
Before on some other occasion last year?
Ah, no doubt, this day once again
A stream has emerged from the thicket at night.
It must be a wier has bulged,
As in former times, and moved the ice along.
Verily, a new miracle this.
As in times gone by, this is spring again.

It is she, it is she.
It is her witchery and wonder.
It is her padded coat behind the willow,
Her shoulders, plait, her gait and back.
It’s the snowmaiden on the brink of the precipice.
It is of her that the ravine from its depths
Pours without cease the hurried delirium
Of a half-crazed chatterbox.

Before her, pouring over the barriers,
Those are the rapids drowning in watery fumes,
By the lamp of the suspended waterfall
Hissingly nailed to the steep.
With teeth chattering from the chill,
That’s the icy stream cascading over the edge
Into a pond and out of the pond into another vessel.
The floodwaters’ speech is the delirium of being.

— George Reavey

Vanished, the train. The embankment, black.
How in the dark shall I find my way?
I don’t recognize this place at all,
Though I’ve only been gone a day.
Echoes of iron have died on the sleepers.
Suddenly, what’s that strange new racket?
All that confusion, chatter and clatter?
What the devil set them at it?

Where did I overhear snatches of this
Speech some time, was it last year?
Why, of course, it’s the stream again
Springing out of the thicket here.
It’s the mill-pond, as before,
Shaking the ice, breaking its chain,
Swelling and swirling. It’s a new wonder.
As in the old days, it’s Spring again.

She is here, she is here.
Magic and miracle are hers,
Hers the quilt jacket beyond the green willow,
Her back and hips, her plait and shoulders.
It’s the Snow Maiden beside the bank,
It’s about her that the crazy chatterbox
Babbles unceasingly in delirium
Tumbling over the gullies’ rocks.

It’s before her that, engulfing barriers,
Rapids are drowning in watery mist,
Nailed by the lamp of the hanging cascade,
Nailed with a hiss to the precipice.
It’s the stream pouring, teeth chattering, numb,
Over the edge and into the pool,
Falling from that to a lower pool,
The speech of Spring flood is living’s delirium.

‎– Jon Stallworthy and ‎Peter France


  1. what the heck is that jacket?
    What jacket? I mean, it is obviously Snow Maiden’s jacket. Why Snow Maiden represents spring, I don’t know.

    And why В пруд и из пруда в другую посуду is a problem? I mean, more problem than the rest? Let me try. Say, “To a pond and from the pond into a different pot”. In Russian, the line is a 4-foot dactyl (with shortened last foot), but there is no need to keep it in English.

  2. What jacket?
    Телогрейка, ватник, gulag jacket or redneck’s jacket, of black color, almost all including nice girls wore it that time

  3. No, no, I know what a телогрейка is, but why is it beyond the willow? What’s it doing there? Maybe it seems natural to you, but it throws me out of the poem for a moment. It was probably suggested to him by чародейство, and it strikes me as another of his “I don’t care how it fits in semantically, it sounds great and I’m using it” moments.

  4. Behind the willow is where the ditch with a raging spring stream is? And it’s getting dark, so he can’t quite make out who’s there in the shadows, just some silhouette, some splotches of country girl’s clothing, now there and now gone? Perhaps an English reader is thrown off course by the English-only equivalency of the Season Spirit and the little stream in the willows?

  5. Perhaps an English reader is thrown off course by the English-only equivalency of the Season Spirit and the little stream in the willows?

    I certainly wasn’t thrown off by that, but your suggestion makes sense, so I’m adopting it.

  6. He never sees what could be her face, or her whole figure, and she’s as fleeting as a Snow-Maiden. A spirit of shifty shadows.
    (The 2nd English translation tries to make her clothing colorful, and the willow, green. Which is certainly ways off. Not only it’s dark, with only the glimmer of a stream’s waterfall shining as a dim lamp, but it’s the season when the willows aren’t green yet)

  7. A Snow Maiden in the season of snow melt. Teetering on the edge. And tl , gr of her jacket is Pasternaks vintage onomatopoeia, the burble

  8. Yeah, I think, I even imagined that there is some melting snow on the willows and on the ground that poet’s always shape-searching eye (he is like the rest of us in this) makes out to be parts of a girl’s (Snow Maiden’s?) clothing.

  9. Yeah, it makes total sense, it just hadn’t occurred to me.

  10. Did the original misspell ‘weir’?

  11. Yup, both editions of Reavey’s translation available on Google Books have it as “wier.” Wierd.

  12. What X. said: the Snow Maiden must die – melt – when spring comes. Compare, for instance, Sologub’s 1908 poem, Zachem vozrastayu?….

    The crazy chatterbox – the stream down below – reminds me of the raging gully in March, one of the Zhivago poems.

  13. You know, I sort of forgot it and had to look it up, but Snow Maiden dies when she jumps over the fire on Kupala night (mid-summer, if someone doesn’t know). She just gets sick after winter is over.

  14. She was doomed: spring was her illness, and she died at the onset of (astronomical) summer. That’s how it was in Mikhail Maksimovich’s version, first published in 1845, which seems the best known and the most influential. On the other hand, symbolists transformed the Snow Maiden beyond recognition, so who knows what Pasternak was referring to.

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