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Poetry Reading: Alexander Pushkin, Confession; W. H. Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening

(Image: http://good-wallpapers.com/)

By way of celebrating the International Women’s Day, here are recordings I made in English of Alexander Pushkin’s poem, Confession, and of Wystan Hugh Auden, As I Walked Out One Evening. Confession appeared earlier in Russian, recited by Innokenty Smoktunovsky; and for meanings and themes of Auden’s poem, check out these pages: Lavanet.no, Will Green’s blog, and English Department of Southeast University (this one analyses the poem by stanzas).

Russian Winter in Arts: Alexander Pushkin – Devils

Storm-clouds hurtle, storm-clouds hover;
Flying snow is set alight
By the moon whose form they cover;
Blurred the heavens, blurred the night.
On and on our coach advances,
Little bell goes din-din-din…
Round are vast, unknown expanses;
Terror, terror is within.
– Faster, coachman! “Can’t, sir, sorry:
Horses, sir, are nearly dead.
I am blinded, all is blurry,
All snowed up; can’t see ahead.
Sir, I tell you on the level:
We have strayed, we’ve lost the trail.
What can WE do, when a devil
Drives us, whirls us round the vale?
“There, look, there he’s playing, jolly!
Huffing, puffing in my course;
There, you see, into the gully
Pushing the hysteric horse;
Now in front of me his figure
Looms up as a queer mile-mark –
Coming closer, growing bigger,
Sparking, melting in the dark.”
Storm-clouds hurtle, storm-clouds hover;
Flying snow is set alight
By the moon whose form they cover;
Blurred the heavens, blurred the night.
We can’t whirl so any longer!
Suddenly, the bell has ceased,
Horses halted… – Hey, what’s wrong there?
“Who can tell! – a stump? a beast?..”
Blizzard’s raging, blizzard’s crying,
Horses panting, seized by fear;
Far away his shape is flying;
Still in haze the eyeballs glare;
Horses pull us back in motion,
Little bell goes din-din-din…
I behold a strange commotion:
Evil spirits gather in –
Sundry, ugly devils, whirling
In the moonlight’s milky haze:
Swaying, flittering and swirling
Like the leaves in autumn days…
What a crowd! Where are they carried?
What’s the plaintive song I hear?
Is a goblin being buried,
Or a sorceress married there?
Storm-clouds hurtle, storm-clouds hover;
Flying snow is set alight
By the moon whose form they cover;
Blurred the heavens, blurred the night.
Swarms of devils come to rally,
Hurtle in the boundless height;
Howling fills the whitening valley,
Plaintive screeching rends my heart…

Translated by Genia Gurarie

Russian Legacy.com

Russian Winter in Arts: Alexander Pushkin – Winter Road

Through the murk the moon is veering,
Ghost-accompanist of night,
On the melancholy clearings
Pouring melancholy light.
Runs the troika with its dreary
Toneless jangling sleigh-bell on
Over dismal snow’ I’m weary,
Hungry, frozen to the bone.
Coachman in a homely fashion’s
Singing as we flash along;
Now a snatch of mournful passion,
Now a foulmouthed drinking-song.
Not a light shines, not a lonely
Dusky cabin. . . Snow and hush. . .
Streaming past the troika only
Mileposts, striped and motley, rush.
Dismal, dreary. . . But returning
Homewards! And tomorrow, through
Pleasant crackles of the burning
Pine-logs, I shall gaze at you:
Dream, and go on gazing, Nina,
One whole circle of the clock;
Midnight will not come between us,
When we gently turn the lock
On our callers. . . Drowsing maybe,
Coachman’s faded, lost the tune;
Toneless, dreary, goes the sleigh-bell;
Nina, clouds blot out the moon.

Russian Legacy.com

Russian Winter in Arts: Alexander Pushkin – Winter Evening

Storm has set the heavens scowling,
Whirling gusty blizzards wild,
Now they are like beasts a-growling,
Now a-wailing like a child;

Now along the brittle thatches
They will scud with rustling sound,
Now against the window latches
Like belated wanderers pound. 

Our frail hut is glum and sullen,
Dim with twilight and with care.
Why, dear granny, have you fallen
Silent by the window there?

Has the gale’s insistent prodding
Made your drowsing senses numb,
Are you lulled to gentle nodding
By the whirling spindle’s hum?

Let us drink for grief, let’s drown it,
Comrade of my wretched youth,
Where’s the jar? Pour out and down it,
Wine will make us less uncouth.

Sing me of the tomtit hatching
Safe beyond the ocean blue,
Sing about the maiden fetching
Water at the morning dew.

Storm has set the heavens scowling,
Whirling gusty blizzards wild,
Now they sound like beasts a-growling,
Now a-wailing like a child.

Let us drink for grief, let’s drown it,
Comrade of my wretched youth,
Where’s the jar? Pour out and down it,
Wine will make us less uncouth.

Translated by Walter Arndt
Russian Legacy.com

Russian Winter in Arts: Alexander Pushkin – Winter Morning

Cold frost and sunshine: day of wonder!
But you, my friend, are still in slumber –
Wake up, my beauty, time belies:
You dormant eyes, I beg you, broaden
Toward the northerly Aurora,
As though a northern star arise!

Recall last night, the snow was whirling,
Across the sky, the haze was twirling,
The moon, as though a pale dye,
Emerged with yellow through faint clouds.
And there you sat, immersed in doubts,
And now, – just take a look outside:

The snow below the bluish skies,
Like a majestic carpet lies,
And in the light of day it shimmers.
The woods are dusky. Through the frost
The greenish fir-trees are exposed;
And under ice, a river glitters.

The room is lit with amber light.
And bursting, popping in delight
Hot stove still rattles in a fray.
While it is nice to hear its clatter,
Perhaps, we should command to saddle
A fervent mare into the sleight?

And sliding on the morning snow
Dear friend, we’ll let our worries go,
And with the zealous mare we’ll flee.
We’ll visit empty ranges, thence,
The woods, which used to be so dense
And then the shore, so dear to me.

Russian Legacy.com

Confession (Alexander Pushkin by Innokenty Smoktunovsky)

In continuation with various translations of Russian poetry, here is an amazing example of work by Innokenty Smoktunovsky. In 1982 he recorded a TV programme dedicated to Alexander Pushkin, and this particular poem, Confession, is undoubtely one of his best works. The range of emotions he is able to convey in two minutes is overwhelming and confirms his status as one of the best, genuine Russian actors.

The English text (translated by Katharena Eiermann)

Alexander Pushkin, Confession (1828)

I love you, though I rage at it,
Though it is shame and toil misguided,
And to my folly self-derided
Here at your feet I will admit!
It ill befits my years, my station,
Good sense has long been overdue!
And yet, by every indication
Love’s plague has stricken me anew:
You’re out of sight – I fall to yawning;
You’re here – I suffer and feel blue,
And barely keep myself from owning,
Dear elf, how much I care for you!
Why, when your guileless girlish chatter
Drifts from next door your airy tread,
Your rustling dress, my senses scatter
And I completely lose my head.
You smile – I flush with exultation;
You turn away- I’m plunged in gloom,
Your pallid hand is compensation
For a whole day of fancied doom.
When to the frame with artless motion
You bend to cross-stitch, all devotion,
Your eyes and ringlets down-beguiled,
My heart goes out in mute emotion,
Rejoicing in you like a child!
Dare I confess to you my sighing,
How jealously I chafe and balk
When you set forth, defying
Bad weather, on a lengthy walk?
And then your solitary crying,
Those twosome whispers out of sight,
Your carriage to Opochka plying,
And the piano late at night…
Aline! I ask but to be pitied,
I do not dare to plead for love;
Love, for the sins I have committed,
I am perhaps unworthy of.
But make believe! Your gaze, dear elf,
Is fit to conjure with, believe me!
Ah, it is easy to deceive me!…
I long to be deceived myself!.

Alexander Pushkin: Anniversary and Language

A brief story of my discovering Alexander Pushkin and his work, as well as critical notes on the then and now reading habits and the state of language

The role of Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin in the development of the Russian language is similar to that of Dante: both men introduced vernacular to literature. The report from Russia Today gives a very quick idea of Pushkin’s life and legacy.

I wrote about Pushkin before; and on the day when literary world and its Russian-speaking part are celebrating the 210th anniversary of his birth I cannot avoid making a contribution.

Discovery of Alexander Pushkin

My discovery of Alexander Pushkin occurred, as with many a Russian, in childhood. I read “Eugene Onegin” when I was 8. It was my grandma who prompted me. We were watching a TV programme where the high-school students had to answer a question somehow related to Tatiana’s letter. They didn’t know the asnwer; my grandmother did. Although it didn’t matter much, I was amazed and proud, but she was very modest about this: “My dear girl“, she said, “this is “Eugene Onegin” by Pushkin, every educated person must know it“.

Despite my age, I took this phrase to heart. For the next couple of years “Onegin” was my table book. Suffices to say, I made my own life as a student easier by learning all the key passages long before it was mandatory, according to the curriculum. I was fascinated by language and flow of the verses (each stanza is composed in the form of a sonnet or a fourteenliner). Learning those parts by heart was unintentional: it was a direct consequence of falling in love with the novel. When years later I wrote A Poem With No End, I could certainly refer to reading “Onegin” as one of examples of this loving reading.

The Waning Interest

As I went on to discover other poets – first, Romanticists like Byron and Lermontov, then Symbolists (Blok, Rimbaud), Futurists (Mayakovski, Severyanin), Surrealists (Eluard, Prevert) – Pushkin’s glow became less radiant. I couldn’t help agreeing with Mayakovski who co-wrote the Russian Futurist Manifesto that, in order for literature to progress, it was necessary to abandon the classical authority figures. I was beginning to realise that Pushkin wasn’t enough for me, despite l the vastness of his work, the importance of his legacy, and the unquestionable influence on the development of my native language.

The final stroke was made by a critical essay on literary methods published by one Russian critic in the first half of the 20th c.; the essay was kindly lent to me by an Economics lecturer at school. Looking at several writers and analysing their methods, the critic concluded that there were two main methods: observation (narration) and experiment. Of the Russian writers then available for his critical analysis, Alexander Pushkin was an observer, while Nikolai Gogol was an experimentator. Further, observational works tended to age whereas experimental works were, by the very nature of their method, “geared” towards the future. Not only did this explain to me why, for all my love for Pushkin’s work, I had always found Gogol more captivating; but it also pointed the direction for me as a writer.

Image courtesy: studentsbook.net

An encyclopaedia of Russian reading

Since then – 1996/1997 – I didn’t return to Pushkin much. But as my reading and thinking experience has broadened, I also began to think of things we were barely talked to at school or elsewhere. “Onegin” may be a great example here. The fascination for this work is rooted deeply in Russian conscience for a good reason: comparatively speaking, I cannot imagine an Italian who doesn’t rever Divine Comedy. Yet exactly what fascinates us? We tend to follow the critic Belinsky’s description of “Onegin” as “the encyclopaedia of Russian life“, and it is impossible to disagree with this view. However, now and again I find that we’re more captivated by the mundane side of this life, rather than intellectual. For all the adaptation’s shortcomings, Ralph Fiennes perfectly captured this romantic view of Russian life that many a reader of “Onegin” lovingly treasures: balls and parties, popular rites, romantic letters… but what about these two stanzas from the first chapter of the novel?

Latin is just now not in vogue, /
But if the truth I must relate, /
Oneguine knew enough, the rogue /
A mild quotation to translate, /
A little Juvenal to spout, /
With “vale” finish off a note; /
Two verses he could recollect /
Of the Aeneid, but incorrect. /
In history he took no pleasure, /
The dustry chronicles of earth /
For him were but of little worth, /
Yet still of anecdotes a treasure /
Within his memory there lay, /
From Romulus unto our day. /

For empty sound the rascal swore he /
Existence would not make a curse, /
Knew not an iamb from a choree, /
Although we read him heaps of verse. /
Homer, Theocritus, he jeered, /
But Adam Smith to read appeared, /
And at economy was great; /
That is, he could elucidate /
How empires store of wealth unfold, /
How flourish, why and wherefore less /
If the raw product they possess /
The medium is required of gold. /
The father scarcely understands /
His son and mortgages his lands.

Tatiana’s Story

If “Onegin” is the encyclopaedia of Russian life, then we can state, without much ado, that the above two stanzas indicate to us the Russian reading circle of Pushkin’s age. Homer and Theocritus, still read at the time of Pushkin, have been all but forgotten by today’s readers. Then how wide is today’s reading circle? Or is it all but focused on contemporary literature?

Similarly, Pushkin tells us about Tatiana:

Romances pleased her from the first, /
Her all in all did constitute; /
In love adventures she was versed, /
Rousseau and Richardson to boot.

What interests me is how this may affect the reading of Tatiana-Onegin love story. To what extent would it be infused by Tatiana’s reading experience? Rather than painting Onegin as a selfish heartthrob who rejected the young woman, perhaps we could find his behaviour mature and “responsible”, so to say. And could Tatiana’s later rejection of him, despite the mutual affection, be once again a vision of a forlorn forbidden love that had itself embedded in her imagination?

Language Today

What makes Alexander Pushkin important for me today is exactly his place in the Russian literary discourse. I am interested in how we read and understand his work – and you may cue in The Death of the Author, if you like. One point that concerns me a lot is the state of Russian language. On the one hand, thanks to the absence of the Iron Curtain and the omnipresence of the Internet, a huge influx of neologisms is obvious. This is not bad at all, if we consider how many neologisms entered the Russian language in Pushkin’s time and later, thanks to his efforts. On the other hand, there are writers who emulate the style of Alexander Pushkin and his contemporaries, as well as of poets and writers of the Russian Silver Age. So, we have a paradoxical situation of two conflicting tendencies co-existing. We have new words and possibly structures entering the language, yet we also cling to and replicate the styles and structures of the bygone times. The question that remains, however, is: what is happening to the Russian language? Is it developing? Or is it caught in between the above two tendencies?

You can read the translation of “Onegin” by Henry Spalding

Other posts in Literature category

‘Favourite’ Artist or ‘Preferred’ Artist?

A short note about Alexander Pushkin as a favourite artist.

2009 is the 210-th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin‘s birthday. Ten years ago, therefore, Russia and the Russian-speaking world celebrated 200 years since this genuine poet’s birth in 1799. The news reports showed people in the streets being asked to read an extract from any of Pushkin’s poems, there were a plenty of films and TV and radio specials… and when they asked children “who is your favourite poet?” the kids would routinely reply: “Alexander Pushkin“. The kids were some 5-7 year old, and it was then that it struck me: what was the point of that question?

The ‘problem’ with Pushkin is that he is “the sun of the Russian poetry” and simply the best known and much loved Russian poet. Children encounter his verses at the nursery and continue reading his poems and later on, at high school – prose and plays. His works have long been ransacked into citations, and very recently I saw one of my LiveJournal contacts paraphrasing one of Pushkin’s poems. In fact, I paraphrased one of his poems myself many years ago. In short, not only Pushkin is a popular poet, he is a people’s poet.

On the one hand, this proves that art belongs to people. On another hand, this means that people can actually appropriate art to the point that the true legacy or value thereof no longer matters. The downside of the “Pushkin is everything to us” phenomenon is that other poets even posthumously find themselves in his shadow. So, when you ask a child or an adult who their favourite poet is, and they respond ‘Pushkin‘, this tells us nothing about their artistic taste, nor even about the realistic appreciation of Pushkin’s legacy in today’s society. Because his is the household name, he is always a ‘favourite‘. Not to have him as a favourite would be an insult to culture: very much the same as if you said that you didn’t give a damn about Raphael or Mozart.

Favourite vs. Preferred

Even before that pivotal moment in 1999 I was careful about singling out a ‘favourite‘ artist, poet or writer. I have been ever more careful since, and then in 2008 I read the following statement from Manuel Alvarez Bravo:

‘Favorite’ is a word I can’t stand. Everybody says it, but I can’t stand it. I can’t stand it because it is an error of the language. It is a tremendous deprivation of the language. I think one should say ‘preferred’ instead of ‘favorite’. If I am looking at an El Greco, Picasso doesn’t matter to me. If I am looking at a painting of Clemente Orozco or at an engraving of Rembrandt – at that moment I prefer them to all others. And none of this has to do with that word ‘favorite’. Preference is the instantaneous choosing of something that attracts my seeing or hearing. And this phenomenon of instantaneous choosing is exactly the same thing that happens when I am taking photographs” (Manuel Alvarez Bravo: Photographs and Memories (Aperture)).

I thought a lot about this paragraph. In it Alvarez Bravo pins down the difference in languages: the Romanic languages use ‘preferito‘ (Italian), ‘préferé‘ (French) and ‘preferido‘ (Spanish) to designate what is called ‘favourite‘ (British English; ‘favorite‘ in American) or ‘liebling‘ (German) in Germanic languages. In Russian, we say ‘любимый‘ (‘loved’, similar to German). Interestingly, ‘favori‘ and ‘favorito‘ are used in French and Italian, respectively, in relation to sport, and Alvarez Bravo was no doubt aware of this semantic idiosyncrasy. Art is not a sport, however. It is not a ‘Picasso till I die‘ kind of thing. There is no Artist Premier League that could be organised into subdivisions, let alone rely on any valid inclusion criteria. Rather, if we hold that art serves both to unfathom the world and to create the world, then each and every artist that makes his or her way into our lives remains and exists there on equal terms with others, so that when we “look at an El Greco, Picasso doesn’t matter“.

Of course, if we look back at the use of the word ‘favourite‘ we will find the culture of favouritism blooming at the royal courts and in political circles. This culture has now found its new outlet in what can be called ‘social icon-making‘ and often unveils itself in the world of style and fashion where there are ‘style icons‘ and ‘fashion icons‘. The reverse of this medal, however, is ‘social iconoclasm‘. Both are the products of either a blind following of a trend (think of religious bigotry), or an equally blind passion or an affected habit with which we find ourselves supporting football teams, e.g. The latter point is also supported by the fact that both in German and in Russian the equivalent to ‘favourite‘ originates from the word ‘love‘. Indeed, when we speak of ‘love‘ we assume that there is only one object of our affection. It also makes sense to use it in relation to art because we often consider art to be an outlet for our emotions.

Yet in art there can be no singular object of affection; there will inevitably be a few objects or artists that ignite our emotions (and mind, too) differently and for different reasons. One can see why Alvarez Bravo thought that ‘favorite‘ in application to art is a deprivation of the language. Additionally, since ‘favourite‘ is close to ‘loved‘ but is also used in an idiom like ‘to do a favour‘, to say ‘my favourite artist‘ is to have the artistic universe evolve around the figure of yourself as a selector of ‘favourites‘ who may then be knocked off the pedestal, should it be necessary. It makes the man as the builder of his artistic universe a tyrant rather than a Creator. It is impossible not to give a preference (sic) to one artist over another; likewise, it is impossible not to be more passionate about certain men-of-arts, without calling either a “favourite artist”. However, the beauty of art is that it allows you to be a polygamist without any hurt to your conscience.

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