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  CARDINAL POINTS: THE CURRENT ISSUE
TWO GOLDEN AGE POEMS
AUTUMN - BY PUSHKIN AND BARATYNSKY
Essay and translation from Russian by Peter France
Print versionSTOSVET PUBLISHING HOUSE
Peter France 



Peter France
   Peter France
    photo by Robin Gillanders


The two poems translated here share a title and were written some four years apart. Aleksandr Pushkin (1799-1837) wrote 'Autumn (a fragment)' in 1833 and it was first published posthumously in 1841. His friend and contemporary Evgeny Baratynsky (1800-1844) composed his elegy of the same name at the beginning of 1837. He was in the middle of composition when he heard of Pushkin's death in a duel, and his letters to the poet Prince Vyazemsky make it clear that the development in his stanza 15 about the disappearance of a star reflects his horror at the indifference with which society received the news of Pushkin's death. It's not clear whether he had read Pushkin's 'Autumn', but it's hard not to see his own poem as a pessimistic response to its wonderfully life-affirming predecessor - a reply to the rhetorical question that ends the fragment, the promising but uncertain 'Where shall we sail to?'
Pushkin is irresistibly attractive, Baratynsky is probably more of an acquired taste. When I first started to read him, he wasn't exactly my type of poet - too bleak, too aloof. Yet I began to feel (the translator's abiding illusion?) that I could find my way into his vision, his voice. I'm not sure now why I was originally drawn to translate his poems. Perhaps at first it was partly the challenge of the new. The article on Baratynsky in Victor Terras's Yale Handbook of Russian Literature quotes Pushkin's remark 'It is high time that Baratynsky finally got the place on the Russian Parnassus that has long belonged to him', notes that this wish has come true in Russia, but concludes: 'Nevertheless, Baratynsky is still little known outside Russia'. And even now, 25 years later, although he figures in anthologies such as Alan Myers's An Age Ago (1988), I think there has only been one short selection of his poems in English, translated by Jill Higgs (2004).
As I read on, translating as I went, I found myself increasingly fascinated by Baratynsky's special tone, disillusioned but visionary, romantic in many of his impulses, but preferring a cool classical approach to poetry, both the contemporary of Byron and the inheritor of the Russian eighteenth-century ode. It seemed to me that if I could convey something of this voice and vision to an English-speaking readership, I would be bringing into our culture a figure as significant as the great Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi, a contemporary of both Pushkin and Baratynsky. Of all European poets, Leopardi is the one who most reminds me of Baratynsky, with his blend of noia (a kind of Baudelairean spleen) and wounded idealism, and with the beautiful clarity and precision of his writing.
Baratynsky was perhaps the first Russian poet to publish a true poetic 'book' - rather than a collection of poems. It is called Sumerki (Twilight) and was published in 1842, two years before he died, and at a time when there seemed to be little audience for his kind of poetry. A selection from my complete translation of Sumerki is being published in the Boston journal Fulcrum, together with an essay and commentaries by Ilya Kutik - and it was Ilya who suggested that it would be good to publish Baratynsky's poems alongside chosen poems of his contemporaries. The longest poem in Sumerki (not included in Fulcrum for reasons of length) is 'Autumn', and this cried out to be published together with Pushkin's fragment.
Pushkin's poem has been translated several times, but I decided to try my hand too, though with misgivings. The danger of a single translator attempting different poets is that of drowning their differences in a uniform translating voice. This is the more the case here, in that both poems are extended personal reflections on what looks like the same topic (though it turns out very differently). What is more, both are cast in a regular stanzaic form (though the stanzas are not the same), and both observe some of the key conventions of classical prosody (iambic lines, a rich rhyming scheme, alternation of masculine and feminine endings). At the same time, quite different voices are heard in the two poems. Pushkin is conversational and witty, but modulates effortlessly into a poetic exultation suggested by the Derzhavin epigraph; Baratynsky is more formal and restrained, moving from idyllic pastoral images to a darkly pessimistic eloquence. Baratynsky is more like Derzhavin than Pushkin, and his poem requires a greater formality from the translator.
But a degree of formality is needed for both poems, I think. While it would be possible to translate either of them without reflecting the stanza pattern of the Russian poem, I can't quite see the point of this. Without going to the lengths of Brodsky, for whom 'verse meters in themselves are kinds of spiritual magnitudes for which [in translation] nothing can be substituted', I do believe that the 'task of the translator' is to point to the essential qualities of the original. In these two autumn poems these essential qualities concern form and structure as well as thought and vision; like Evgeny Onegin (now so well translated by Stanley Mitchell), these are edifices of stanzas, with regular metres and arrangements of rhyme. Within these stanzas, all sorts of things can - and do - go on, but the stanza is there to hold them and give them power.
Of course a translation cannot mirror an original exactly, but it can at least suggest, sometimes by approximation. Thus I have not retained Pushkin's alternation of 13-syllable lines with 12-syllable ones (irregular alexandrines, too long for English), but have tried to suggest it by a basic 11/10 alternation. Baratynsky's 10/9 alternation, on the other hand, I have kept, since it brings a mix of pentameter and tetrameter, which hints appropriately at the classical elegiac form. The rhyme scheme in both poems, ABAB patterns followed by a rhyming couplet, is observed, if only in a pretty approximate manner, with a fair proportion of unrhymed lines and not a few slant rhymes, assonances, etc. - particularly for Pushkin, where they seem to fit the colloquial tone. And what is less usual in English - and something of a gamble, I admit, given the difficulty of feminine endings - I have echoed as precisely as possible the music that comes from the alternation of stressed (masculine) and unstressed (feminine) endings. Pushkin, it will be noticed, has opposing patterns of masculine and feminine rhymes in the odd and even stanzas; this is not an accident, it helps shape the 'feel' of the poem, and it is worth preserving, in order to give some idea of how a 'golden age' elegy or epistle works.




Aleksandr Pushkin


AUTUMN

(a fragment)


"What then does not invade my drowsy mind?" (Derzhavin)

1



October's here already; the grove already
is shaking from bare branches its last leaves;
the breath of autumn begins to ice the roadway,
the stream still rushes gurgling past the mill,
but the mill pond is frozen; my sporting neighbour
hurries off with his pack to the far fields.
The winter corn suffers his boisterous pleasure,
his yelping hounds disturb the forest's slumber.


2



Now is my time. I bear no love for spring:
the floods, the mud, the stink - I feel unhealthy,
my blood ferments, longing chokes heart and mind.
Better harsh winter; then I can feel happy,
I love the snows, and then beneath the moon
the freedom of a sleigh ride, gliding swiftly,
a fresh-faced girl, wrapped in sable furs,
giving your hand a timid, passionate squeeze.




3



And what a joy to race across the mirror
of frozen ponds with sharp steel on your feet!
And the excitement of those winter parties...!
But there's a limit; the snow goes on for weeks
and months, even a bear at length would suffer
from boredom. After all, we can't devote
a life to sleigh rides with these young Armidas
or moping by the stove behind sealed windows.




4



Ah! gorgeous summer, I would love you, but
the heat, the dust, the flies, and the mosquitoes!
You torture us; our souls, once rich, grow flat,
we suffer like the barren fields, drought-stricken,
just longing for some freshness, for a glass -
that one thought fills our minds. We miss old winter,
and having seen her off with cakes and wine,
with ice and ice-cream we recall her reign.




5



People have harsh words for these days of autumn,
but, reader, they are dear to me, I love
their unassuming light, their quiet beauty.
Autumn attracts me like a neglected girl
among her sisters. And, to be quite honest,
she is the only one that warms my heart.
She has her good points; whimsically dreaming
and free from vanity, I find her charms appealing.




6



How can I put it? She perhaps appeals
as sometimes a young sufferer from consumption
catches my eye. Unseen, her death awaits,
and without protest, quietly she sickens;
she cannot sense the yawning of the grave,
but life fades from the lips that still are smiling;
a rosy hue still plays around her eyes,
today she is alive, tomorrow dies.




7



A mournful time of year! Its sad enchantment
flatters my vision with a parting grace -
I love the sumptuous glow of fading nature,
the forests clad in crimson and in gold,
the shady coolness and the wind's dull roaring,
the heavens all shrouded in a billowing mist
and the rare gleams of sun, the early hoarfrosts,
and distant grey-beard winter's gloomy portents.




8



Each autumn's coming makes me bloom anew;
my health is well served by the cold of Russia;
I feel a new love for the old routines,
sleep has its turn, and after it comes hunger;
the blood runs light and cheerful through the veins,
desires flock in - happy again, and youthful,
I'm full of life again - my organism
is like that ( pardon my prosaicism).




9



Tossing his mane, my steed carries his rider
over the open flatlands, and beneath
his glistening hooves he rouses up the echoes
in frozen valleys and cracks the ringing ice.
But then the short day fades, a fire blazes
in the forgotten hearth, now casting a bright flame,
now crumbling slowly, while I sit there reading
or give my drifting thoughts their hour of freedom.




10



And I forget the world, in blissful peace
I am sweetly lulled by my imagination,
and poetry awakens in me then;
my soul, hard pressed by lyric agitation,
trembles, resounds and seeks as if in sleep
to surface finally in free expression -
and I receive a host of guests unseen,
old-time acquaintances, fruits of my dreams,




11



And in my head thoughts spring into existence,
and rhymes dance out to meet them, and the hand
stretches toward the pen, the pen to paper,
and verse comes unimpeded pouring out.
So a ship, motionless in motionless water,
lies dreaming, then suddenly the sailors race
and climb aloft, wind swells the sails, the vessel
moves slowly out, bow cutting through billows,




12



and sails away. Where shall we sail to ...?



Evgeny Baratynsky



AUTUMN



1



September's here! The sun each morning wakes
                  a little later, its rays are colder,
and in the shaky mirror of the lake
                  it glitters tremulous and golden.
Grey vapour shrouds the hilltops, and the dew
                  drenches the flat lands by the river;
The twisted oak twigs show a yellow hue,
                  and the red leaves of aspen shiver;
The birds no longer overflow with life,
the forests and the skies have lost their voice.




2



September's here! The evening of the year
                  is now upon us. Frost at morning
already spreads its silver filigree
                  over the fields and hills, and stormy
Aeolus will awaken from his sleep,
                  driving the flying dust before him,
the wood will toss and roar, its falling leaves
                  will strew the swampy valley bottom,
and clouds will rise to fill the heavenly dome,
and waters will grow dark in froth and foam.




3



Farewell, farewell, you brilliant summer skies!
                  Farewell, farewell to nature's splendour!
The waters gleaming in their golden scales,
                  the woods with their enchanted murmur!
Oh happy dream of transient summer joys!
                  The woodmen's axes are disturbing
the echoes in the emaciated groves,
                  and all too soon the frozen river
will be a mirror for the misty oaks
and hills in their white covering of snow.




4



And now the villagers will find the time
                  to gather in their hard-earned harvest;
Hay in the valley is stacked up into piles,
                  and in the corn the sickle dances.
Over the furrows, once the grain is cleared,
                  sheaves in stooks stand high and gleaming,
or else they trundle past the empty field
                  on loaded carts wearily creaking.
The golden summits of the shining ricks
rise up around the peasants' huddled shacks.




5



The village people celebrate the day!
                  The barns steam merrily, the chatter
of chains awakes the mill-stones from their sleep,
                  and noisily they turn and clatter.
Let the cold come! the farmer has saved up
                  supplies to last him through the winter:
his hut is warm, the bread, the salt, the cup
                  of beer make welcome all who enter;
without a care his family now can eat
the blessed fruit of work in summer's heat.




6



And you, a labourer in the field of life,
                  when you too move into your autumn
and see the blessings of your earthly time
                  spread out abundantly before you;
when the rich acres ploughed by work and cares
                  display the profits of your labours,
rewarding you for all the weary years
                  and you can reap the precious harvest,
gathering the grain of long-considered thought,
tasting the fullness of our human lot, -




7



will you be rich like the farmer with his spade?
                  In hope, like him, the seed you scattered,
and you too bathed in golden dreams that showed
                  your rich rewards far in the future...
Now you behold that day; greet it with pride
                  and count your painful acquisitions!
Alas, your passions, your dreams, your arduous road
                  are buried in scorn, and your condition
is the soul's irresistible disgrace,
the sting of disappointment on your face!




8



Your day has risen; now you can clearly see
                  the arrogance, the gullibility
of youth, and you have plumbed the yawning sea
                  of people's madness and hypocrisy.
You, once enthusiasm's faithful friend,
                  ardently seeking fellow-feeling,
a king of brilliant vapours - in the end
                  you contemplate a sterile thicket
alone with misery; its mortal groan
is barely muffled by your haughty soul.




9



But if your indignation's potent cry,
                  or if a howl of urgent longing
should rise out of the heart's dark misery,
                  solemn and wild amid the thronging
young boys and girls at their capricious games,
                  their bones would shake in fear, the infant
would drop its toys and in the midst of play
                  set up a roar of pain, all gladness
would vanish from its face; humanity
would perish long before death set it free.




10



Be open-handed then; invite them all
                  to join the feast, the whole clanjamfry!
Let them all take their places in the hall
                  around the gold-encrusted table!
What tasty titbits you can offer them!
                  What a display of dishes gleaming
so variously! But they all taste the same
                  and like the grave they make us tremble;
sit there alone, perform the funeral rites
for your soul's worldly, transient delights.




11



Whatever illumination in years to come
                  may take possession of your fancy,
whatever the last vortex of your thoughts
                  and feelings may one day give birth to -
let your triumphant and sarcastic mind
                  suppress your heart's vain tremors
and bridle the unprofitable wind
                  of late laments. Then see the treasure
you will receive, the greatest gift of life,
experience, which binds the soul in ice.




12



Or else, in a life-giving surge of grief,
                  casting aside all earthly visions,
seeing their boundaries, and not far off,
                  a golden land beyond the darkness,
a place of redress, with a heart renewed
                  dreaming dreams of benediction,
and hearing those tumultous voices tuned
                  to hymns of reconciliation,
like harps whose over-lofty harmony
is unintelligible to your human ear, -




13



before a vindicated Providence
                  you will bow down, humble and thankful,
with an unbounded hope and with the sense
                  that you have reached some understanding -
but know, you never will communicate
                  your vision to your fellow-mortals;
their frivolous souls will not appreciate
                  true knowledge in society's bustle;
knowledge of mountain peaks or of the deeps
is not for earth, earth has no place for it.




14



The hurricane goes hurtling through the void,
                  the forest raises up its voice in anger,
the ocean foams and rages and its mad
                  breakers explode against the shingle;
so sometimes the dull rabble's idle minds
                  are woken from their torpid slumber
by the crude voice of commonplace, that finds
                  a sonorous echo in their blether,
but there will be no echo for the word
that dominates the passions of the world.




15



What if a star from heaven disappears
                  into the chasm of nothing, missing
its way, and never finds its place again;
                  another one replaces it unheeding.
One star the less is nothing to the earth,
                  our people are too hard of hearing
to spot the distant howling of its death
                  or see the brightness of a star appearing
new born amid the sisters of the sky
and greeting them with rapturous melody!




16



Winter draws on, and over the bare earth
                  impotence stretches with a shiver,
yet furrows overflow with golden ears,
                  and all the cornfields gaily glitter.
Life and death, want and wealth lie side by side -
                  all the variety of the year that's vanished
is equalised beneath a snowy shroud
                  that hides it in indifferent sameness -
thus all things lie before your eyes henceforth,
but you will reap no harvest from the earth.


Translated from Russian by Peter France                                   



© Copyright:  translation by Peter France
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