The Poets’ Niche
By Mark Sconce
A Passion for Pushkin (1799-1837)
This month’s featured poet is Alexander Pushkin, Russia’s most famous bard and a man for whom I have enormous respect and brotherly love. My passion for Pushkin began 17 years ago on a freezing February morning in Moscow when Tamara, my guide, showed me his statue, ghostly and mysterious through the refracting hoarfrost. And then I saw them—flowers placed reverently on the pedestal just as they have been placed every single day since the statue was unveiled June 6th, 1880!
Not all of me will die, for through my art, I know,
My soul shall long outlive my mortal body’s death,
And I shall be renowned while on this earth below
At least one poet still draws breath.*
Pushkin’s popularity and exalted status are accorded partly because he touches people’s hearts through his graceful poetry and partly because subsequent great Russian writers—Gogol, Turgenyev, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy among many others—acknowledged their debt to another Russian genius. Pushkin changed the course of Russian literature forever by fashioning a literary language where before there was only High Church Slavonic and colloquial street talk. The upper crust of course spoke French.
His most illustrious work is Eugene Onegin, a novel-in-verse made up of nearly 390 stanzas, each stanza containing 14 lines and of a very particular rhyming pattern throughout. It took Pushkin over eight years to compose it. For a taste of its drama, read aloud this Onegin stanza about a pistol dual over a beautiful woman where the poet loses.
And what would be your own reaction
If with your pistol you’d struck down
A youthful friend for some infraction:
A bold reply, too blunt a frown,
Some bagatelle when you’d been drinking;
Or what if he himself, not thinking,
Had called you out in fiery pride?
Well, tell me: what would you…inside
Be thinking of …or merely feeling,
Were your good friend before you now,
Stretched out with death upon his brow,
His blood by slow degrees congealing,
Too deaf and still to make reply
To your repeated, desperate cry?
How eerie, how uncanny that Pushkin himself, age 37, should die of a pistol wound received during a duel over Russia’s most beautiful woman, namely, his wife Natalia. And who knew that the “soul of Mother Russia” was part black on his mother’s side tracing to an ancestor from Eritrea, North Africa? Yes, the Pushkin saga is compelling. We only have room here to sample a few of his most famous lyric poems--his “lyric wealth,” observed a fellow poet. Keeping then my readership’s core interests in mind, I have selected one about love and one about death.
My voice for thee, my love, with languorous caresses
Disturbs the solemn peace the midnight dark possesses.
Beside this couch of mine a mournful candle glows,
And, welling up, my verse in rippling murmurs flows;
It flows in streams of love, its music wholly thine,
And in the dark thine eyes are sparkling over mine.
They look at me and smile—and, oh, the sounds I hear:
“My sweet and tender friend…my love… my dear, my dear.”
And yet I love,
On autumn eaves, when silence reigns above,
To visit some ancestral village keep,
Where all the dead in solemn stillness sleep;
Where every simple marker has a home,
And in the dark no pallid robbers roam;
Where only some old villager comes by
To greet the mossy stones with prayer and sigh.
In place of petty pyramids and vases,
Of noseless Angels and disheveled Graces,
A spreading oak looms high above the graves
And, rustling, stirs…
*The inspired translations used in this piece are those of my good friend Professor Emeritus Jim Falen, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, widely regarded as Pushkin’s most faithful English translator. Rhyme, meter, meaning—Jim Falen has it all.