By Heart

Inspired by today’s prompt at The Daily Post

When I saw today’s writing prompt—what’s the first poem that comes to mind if you’re asked to recite a poem from memory—my mind immediately jumped to Russian poetry. (No surprises there.) For my oral exam in second-year Russian, I had to memorize a poem and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s a Pushkin poem called “It’s time, my friend.” Here’s an English translation. (I am uninspired to translate, due to an exhausting day at work!)

It’s time, my friend, it’s time! The peace is craved by hearts…
Days flow after days — each hour departs
A bit of life — and both, you and I,
Plan a long life, but could abruptly die.

The world hasn’t happiness, but there is freedom, peace.
And long have I daydreamed the life of bliss —
And long have planned, a tired slave, the flight
To the removed abode of labor and delight.

Of course, it is so much better in Russian, so here’s the original for those who read the great and mighty Russian language.

Пора, мой друг, пора! покоя сердце просит —
Летят за днями дни, и каждый час уносит
Частичку бытия, а мы с тобой вдвоём
Предполагаем жить, и глядь — как раз — умрём.

На свете счастья нет, но есть покой и воля.
Давно завидная мечтается мне доля —
Давно, усталый раб, замыслил я побег
В обитель дальную трудов и чистых нег.

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Sunday Night Poetry

One of my Russian-speaking friends posted this poem on Facebook earlier this weekend. It’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d post it here. The translation is not mine (I’m rubbish at translating poetry)—I found it here.

The poet is Marina Tsvetaeva and she wrote this after falling in love with her sister’s husband (at least according to what my tutor at Oxford said). The husband was also in love with her (i.e. Marina) but neither of them wanted to cause the sister pain, so I don’t think Marina ever had a relationship with the sister’s husband.

I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.

I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.

With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it –
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.

Original Russian version below for those who are interested.
Continue reading “Sunday Night Poetry”

Tyutchev’s ‘A Spring Storm’

Since it’s May, I cannot resist sharing this Russian poem with you, written by Fyodor Tyutchev. The translation is from here.

Spring Storm

I love a storm in early May
When springtime’s boisterous, firstborn thunder
Over the sky will gaily wander
And growl and roar as though in play.

A peal, another – gleeful, cheering…
Rain, raindust… On the trees, behold!-
The drops hang, each a long pearl earring;
Bright sunshine paints the thin threads gold.

A stream downhill goes rushing reckless,
And in the woods the birds rejoice.
Din. Clamour. Noise. All nature echoes
The thunder’s youthful, merry voice.

You’ll say: ‘Tis laughing, carefree Hebe –
She fed her father’s eagle, and
The Storm Cup brimming with a seething
And bubbling wine dropped from her hand.

Long-time readers may remember that I’m a great admirer of Tyutchev—I wrote about his poem “Cicero” on this blog last August.

Since the translation can never be as good as the original, here’s the original Russian.

ВЕСЕННЯЯ ГРОЗА

Люблю грозу в начале мая,
Когда весенний, первый гром,
Как бы резвяся и играя,
Грохочет в небе голубом.

Гремят раскаты молодые!
Вот дождик брызнул, пыль летит…
Повисли перлы дождевые,
И солнце нити золотит…

С горы бежит поток проворный,
В лесу не молкнет птичий гам,
И гам лесной, и шум нагорный —
Все вторит весело громам…

Ты скажешь: ветреная Геба,
Кормя Зевесова орла,
Громокипящий кубок с неба,
Смеясь, на землю пролила!

Interpretations of Tyutchev’s ‘Cicero’

I’ve been meaning to post about this fabulous Russian poem, “Cicero” by Fyodor Tyutchev, for some time now, but I kept forgetting. I discovered it in a book about Alexander Kolchak that I’m reading right now.

Anyway, here is the poem. The translation is not mine – it’s from here (I modified the line spacing and corrected a spelling error).

The Roman orator spoke out
‘midst civil war and strife:
"Too long I slumbered, and Rome’s night
Has overtaken me upon my journey!"
True! But in parting with Rome’s glory
From the Capitoline heights
You watched in all its grandeur
The setting of her bloody sun! . . .

Blessed are they who sojourned here
In this world’s fateful hours-
For they were summoned by the angels
As guests to a great feast;
They witnessed spectacles majestic,
Were brought into the inner circle,
And, while there, drank immortal life
From heav’n’s own chalice!

Continue reading “Interpretations of Tyutchev’s ‘Cicero’”

Saturday Night Poetry: Pushkin

Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these. That’s sad, as I used to do this nearly every week when I had my old blog.

Tonight’s poem is by Aleksandr Pushkin, the father of Russian literature. It’s called “It’s time, my friend, it’s time!” and it has a very special place in my heart. When I was in second-year Russian over three years ago, I memorized this little poem (in Russian, of course) for an oral exam.

This translation is mine – don’t be too harsh in judging it. I fully admit I am a terrible translator of poetry.

It’s time, my friend, it’s time! the heart demands peace – 
Day by day flies by, and each hour takes away
A small part of existence, but we together
Intend to live, and look – at once – we die.
In the world is no happiness, but there is peace and free will.
Long have I dreamed of another lot –
Long have I, a tired slave, planned an escape
To a faraway abode of labor and pure delights.

Continue reading “Saturday Night Poetry: Pushkin”

Saturday Night Poetry: Mayakovsky, ‘Past one o’clock’

Back in the day, I ran a political blog. It was fun for a while, but then I got tired of it and eventually started a new blog, this fabulous one you’re reading right now. On my old blog, I ran a feature every Saturday called Saturday Night Poetry. I like poetry, especially from random foreign poets, so I’ve decided to restart this feature. Tonight’s poet is Vladimir Mayakovsky, a poet who supported the Bolshevik Revolution, then became disillusioned and committed suicide. Part of this poem was at the end of his suicide note.

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

(English translation from here.)

Continue reading “Saturday Night Poetry: Mayakovsky, ‘Past one o’clock’”

(Depressing) Russian Poetry

We are doing a poetry unit in Russian right now and all the poems are so depressing. We have read some Anna Akhmatova and next week we will read Marina Tsvetaeva’s work. Here is one of my favorite Tsvetaeva poems. The translation is not mine – I found it here and I actually approve of it. (I am exceedingly picky about translations, so I do not give my approval often!)

I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.

I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.

With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it –
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.

The basic background information you need to know to understand this poem is that Tsvetaeva fell in love with her sister’s husband. Nothing happened between them, as far as I know (but she did have other affairs).

Tsvetaeva is one of my favorite poets. Sometimes I think I like her more than I like Akhmatova but to be honest, I like them both equally, in different ways.

Adventures in Russian Literature

The reason why I have not posted at all for a week is I have been happily absorbed in studying Russian literature in the 1920s and 1930s for my essay that was due today. (My tutor loved the essay, by the way, so I’m thrilled.) Though I have read some truly inspiring scholarship on the matter, for every good literary scholar, there also exists a not-so-good one.

One scholar I read whose work was less than stellar was Gleb Struve. In his Russian Literature Under Lenin and Stalin, 1917-1953, his brief section on Mikhail Bulgakov (pp.160-65), my favorite Russian writer, omitted any mention of Bulgakov’s magnum opus, The Master and Margarita. True, The Master and Margarita was not published in the Soviet Union until 1966 (albeit in a censored version), but Bulgakov wrote the work before his death in 1940. It certainly bears the mark of the Stalin era and, I would argue, merits at the very least a passing mention.

Struve also subjects Bulgakov’s The White Guard to unwarranted criticism. He writes (p.160) that:

Bulgakov used to say that of all his works he liked The White Guard best. But its value as literature is not very great. It is written simply, in the realist manner, without any stylistic or compositional refinements. Its interest lies in its subject matter and in the author’s attitude toward his characters.

In response to that, my first thought is whether we have read the same book. The White Guard is a very beautiful book and Bulgakov shows much maturity as a writer, despite the fact that he had not been writing professionally for very long.

The next problem concerns the poor translation of a Russian poem from Jürgen Rühle’s Literature and Revolution: A Critical Study of the Writer and Communism in the Twentieth Century. Overall, I loved the book: it is translated from German (by Jean Steinberg; one must always give credit to translators) and reads beautifully. If it is this well-written in the original, then kudos to Steinberg for her excellent translation. (If it is not this wonderful in the original, then Steinberg is guilty of what Breon Mitchell calls the cardinal sin of literary translation: improving on the original.)

The poem in question is by Sergei Yesenin, who wrote it right before committing suicide. In Rühle’s book, it is written as such:

Farewell, my friend. The time to part has come.
Beloved, whom I held close to me.
Predestined separation makes us both
Aware of promised reunion.
Farewell, my friend. No word. No clasp of hand.
Do not frown, steel yourself.
To die is nothing new,
Yet it is impossible to live in any other way.

Not a terrible translation, but I take issue with the last line. It should read: “But, of course, to live is nothing newer.” (In Russian: Но и жить, конечно, не новей.)

Neither of these issues had anything to do with my essay. Yes, this is what I think about in my spare time.

On Saturday Nights, I Read Russian Poetry

It’s true, my friends. I sometimes go out to dinner with friends, but I always like my dose of Russian poetry after I get back to my room.

I have read this Mayakovsky poem innumerable times. He used a variation of it for his suicide note. Very depressing, yes, but still an excellent poem.

Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.

Continue reading “On Saturday Nights, I Read Russian Poetry”