Typical Gemini: On the “Selected Poetry” of Alexander Pushkin

By Sibelan ForresterSeptember 5, 2021

Typical Gemini: On the “Selected Poetry” of Alexander Pushkin

Selected Poetry by Alexander Pushkin

WHAT A TREAT it is to write about a translation of Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799–1837) — like getting invited to rhapsodize about oxygen (“Great stuff!”). He’s our everything, as Russians say, and indeed his DNA is everywhere in Russian literature. Even if you spend most of your time with more recent writers, he’s so important to every subsequent poet writing in Russian that every door back to him stands open. Even that brilliant idol-smashing Futurist Vladimir Mayakovsky, who wanted to toss all his poetic predecessors off “the steamship of modernity,” eventually wrote a thoughtful and intimate poem addressed to Alexander Sergeyevich. Pushkin deeply shaped Russian as it is written, so even his moments of archaism still feel elegant and effective. Who he was is unusually important too, since his African heritage (and what he wrote about it) put openness to the wider world into Russian culture from this formative moment onward — no matter what Dostoyevsky made of Pushkin’s specifically Russian greatness in his famous 1880 speech, when they dedicated the black metal statue in Moscow. Finally, and most vitally, reading Pushkin offers tremendous pleasure: right after shaking one’s head at what a little prick he was, a typical Gemini, one is touched or amused by the next amazing line. We require our students to memorize a poem of his in first-year Russian language class, as precious cultural capital plus good phonetic practice.

Now, imagine making a selection this long and substantial: liv + 280 pages. The translations will benefit from the various ages, moods, topics, and years over which the translator has worked with them. (Full disclosure: I’ve translated only one poem by Pushkin: the 1823 verse missive to his former classmate Filipp Vigel’, in order to ask my students to look at this early evidence of gay life in Russia — Pushkin wasn’t; Vigel’ was.) If I feel jazzed with a hint of intimidation by the reviewing assignment, Pushkin’s translator must feel tremendous weight and responsibility. Some Russian poets may come across decently in the very first rough version, but Pushkin’s essence is largely in the beautiful knitting of the verbal fabric, the effortless-looking demonstration of how the Russian language can do anything you want it to, thank you very much. Here is Anthony Wood on the rack, pulled between the obligation to convey the meaning of these poems and the obligation to honor their verbal texture, to bring off a Herculean feat and make it look easy.

The density of the apparatus in this edition — 54 pages of background and introductory material — underlines that 1) the author is an Important Classic 2) who is offered in translation, which means he needs special accommodations. In fairness, even a natively Anglophone classic is likely to reach us in this way. Too bad that we can’t get the effect of a toddler circle with a lively librarian reading one of Pushkin’s fairy tales in verse (or reciting: in Russia they still memorize poetic favorites) or open the pages of a literary review or walk into a café and hear the poem read. At the same time, a reader of translations actually can get the feeling of newness: this is just one of the things translation makes possible. The biographical, critical, and bibliographical texts that precede the poems themselves are informative and well written, worth attention whether a reader wants to take the tour first or to return to it after sampling the verse. Among other things, Wood mentions a number of excellent scholars on Pushkin who have published in English: Alyssa Gillespie, John Bayley, Michael Wachtel, and others. For a curious reader, or a scholar in another field, this is a helpful and time-saving gesture: hundreds of people have written about Pushkin, and they are not all as good as Wood’s choices.

Putting the lyric poems in chronological order (a principle that Russian Modernist poet Marina Tsvetaeva considered vital for understanding) means that you turn the page and hit “To a Young Beauty Who Has Taken Snuff” (1814). The title itself is funny, and the poem delivers, flirting while giving a nice critique. Now reflect on the fact that Pushkin wrote it when he was 14 years old! No wonder he’s compared to Mozart (down to the tragically early death). Opening with some humor also eases us into the rhyming translations, since the contemporary reader is generally more ready to welcome rhyme in humorous poetry, which can justify the necessary stretching, gymnastics, and cleverness with surprising laughs. Whether we also appreciate cleverness in a serious poem will be tested in the course of the volume.

Selected Poetry raises some issues up front. Wood states that he takes advantage of English poetry’s willingness to welcome a trochaic line into an iambic poem, and he does this a lot; it is less noticeable to readers unused to Russian poetry, which is much fussier than Anglophone poetry about the distinction between the two-foot meters. Differences in pronunciation among various flavors of English (especially Canadian, Scottish, and US versus Australian and British English) can make perfect rhymes appear not so perfect, though since Wood often uses slant rhymes the ones whose exactitude depends on pronunciation do not feel awkward within the overall scheme. This reader is particularly perplexed by the choice in multiple texts to stress the Nevá River in St. Petersburg on the first syllable, making it sound like the English pronunciation (in most regional accents) of “never.” I can’t help it: suddenly I hear Harry Potter asserting that he will never give in to the forces of evil. Maybe Americans too rarely hear the name of the river unless they hear it with the Russian final-syllable stress. And one example not confined to pronunciation — the note at the end of the volume to the very, very famous lyric “To K.,” whose opening line, “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven’e,” Wood renders as “That moment comes to me again,” may also point to a difference between British and other expectations: “The exact English equivalent of Pushkin’s word ‘chudnoe’ would seem overdone here to the present translator, who has preferred to avoid exaggeration, archaism, or cliché (such as ‘wonderful’)…” But what is chudnoe if not wondrous, marvelous, amazing?

In a few places, Wood uses the French or Spanish trick of having two syllables count as one if they present vowels in sequence, which may or may not work for someone reading silently or especially aloud. In the narrative poem The Gypsies, “The unhappy man was always grieving” reads to me like trochaic pentameter, not iambic tetrameter: how are we to know until we have stumbled that we are meant to read “The un” as one syllable? At the same time, Wood helps by giving information about the meters, especially for the narrative poems and fairy tales in verse, pointing out when he will be sticking with the original form. This allows the reader to slip quickly into the expected rhythm — and assures the critic that Wood is doing it all on purpose.

Quibbles aside, this Selected Poetry deserves a wealth of praise. My favorite is “The Poet” (1827), in which the translation does the necessary transformative work that the poem describes: at first the poet is described in unflattering ways and competent but less impressive lines, then Apollo’s call leads up to a magnificent final quatrain — grand vocabulary and archaic syntax that have been earned and that effectively convey the inspired flight from earthbound, ordinary life into nature:

As yet unsummoned by Apollo
For dedicated sacrifice,
The poet is content to follow
Paths of worldly enterprise;
Now the sacred lyre is quiet,
His soul is lost in slumber, cold;
Among the lowly of the world
None more lowly than the poet.
     But when Apollo’s godly word
Touches his attentive senses,
At once the poet’s soul is stirred,
And like a wakened eagle, tenses.
Among the world’s pursuits he yearns,
From everyday affairs he turns,
Before the idol of the crowd
His haughty head will not be bowed;
With countenance wild and stern he goes,
His ear is filled with strange commotion,
He seeks out spacious, singing groves,
The verges of the lonely ocean …

Even if one hasn’t read the original so often that it shimmers behind each translated line, this is a very effective version. This already thick volume doesn’t include the originals (simple to do now with computer fonts, but of course demanding more pages), and there is no index of Russian titles, though the chronological order makes it easy to match each poem with its original. This again tells us who is expected to be using this edition. But students of translation can appropriate it for their own purposes.

Here are just a few examples of Wood’s effective decisions, his control of form and unforced rhyme as well as his feeling for what makes a poem tick in English. In the ode on Liberty (Vol’nost’ in Russian), a text that contributed to Pushkin’s troubles with the oppressive Russian government, Wood chooses “liberty” rather than “freedom” or other possible synonyms, making this longer poem more comfortable in its rhyming as well as mobilizing associations with political rhetoric closer to home. There are a few subtle palindromic moves, as the end of one line mirrors the start of the next, e.g.,: “and aloof / From fools…” Adding the obligatory definite article in English (“the”) often lengthens a Russian line, but in “Demons” (1830) Wood very elegantly leaves out articles in two lines that occur thrice in the poem: “Stormclouds hurry, stormclouds whirl, / Moon plays hide and seek.” “Moon” rather than “The Moon” has the weight of a personal name, making the speaker’s relationship with the heavenly body more intimate, and the game of hide and seek more interesting or troubling. “Mary’s Song” from “A Feast During the Plague” (Pushkin’s free translation from John Wilson’s 1816 verse play The City of the Plague; Byron, Gray, and Scott were not the only British authors to impact his opus) really brings the song back to the Isles with a fresh but traditional folk sound. Pushkin’s longer poem “Autumn” (1833) beautifully intersperses longer and shorter words, avoiding the clunkiness that long sequences of one-syllable words in English can tend to pile on. Another important short poem, “It’s time, my love, it’s time!…” (1834), conveys the complex mood of the original (though I would have left “friend” for the Russian “drug,” even if he was thinking of his wife when he wrote it: “my love” switches the emotional register from the more philosophical, elegantly rendered lines that follow, while “friend” would open a warm and differently tender address to his spouse). Pushkin’s “Horace” poem (with the epigraph “Exegi monumentum” — the Latin remains in the English, as in the original Russian, underlining the importance of Pushkin’s own classical education) is particularly difficult, since it is both beautiful in texture and full of ideas; Wood conveys its dignified assertions admirably.

Each of the longer narrative or folkloric poems receives a helpful little individual introduction, reflecting the greater investment in time it demands of the reader (for who embarks on a long poem without a certain sinking of the heart? — quite unnecessary, in this case). The introductory note to The Bronze Horseman reveals some of the wit that lets Wood handle Pushkin’s humor so dexterously, as he describes the poet Vasily Zhukovsky making an early posthumous edition of the poem acceptable to Tsar Nicholas I “with some emollient rewriting.” In the same long poem, one of Pushkin’s most famous, I notice that the poetaster Count Khvostov receives his proper stress, which is even helpfully marked for the reader. (No “never” here.) The folktales (skazki) in verse, whose realization by Pushkin forever stamped trochaic tetrameter as a folkloric measure, also mix in iambic, except where Wood sticks to trochaic (which he announces).

There are fewer critical comments, though perhaps they would be helpful for a future updated edition. “Bound for your distant homeland” (“Dlia beregov otchizny dal’nei,” 1830) responds to Anglification less gracefully than “Mary’s Song” does — the Common Prayer or ballad meter chosen sheds the eeriness of the original, especially at the end, where Pushkin tells his dead addressee that she still owes him a kiss. Of course ballads may be creepy (“Cold blows the wind to my true love…”), but here the original is emphatically not a folk poem. In the otherwise admirable The Gypsies, Wood has Zemfira declare, “But I shall love him and be true,” versus the original “But I shall be a girlfriend to him” (“No ia emu podrugoi budu”) — which doesn’t promise fidelity, does it? Zemfira is a woman of her word, even when she gets bored of Aleko and tells him so. Perhaps this is another echo of English folk songs, which can identify someone as a “false true love,” but it feels more like selecting a word that will rhyme easily at the expense of characterization. In the volume’s apparatus, the final note to “Autumn,” alas, offers a list of “land-bound” places that includes the famously coasty Scotland and Normandy. Another odd slip occurs in the introductory material, in a note about Pushkin’s descendants: Natalya, his younger daughter, is listed as born in 1836, but then her daughter Sophie (“by her second husband”) is listed as born in 1848, when Natalya would have been 12. Sophie’s daughter is then born in 1896, when her mother would have been 48 by these numbers. Perhaps a reviewer of poetry should not linger over the mathematics, as the note in question does offer intriguing information on the royal connections of Pushkin’s descendants.

I heard or perhaps read somewhere (and of course have forgotten where it was) the opinion that the Penguin translation of any work isn’t always the best version of that work available but is never the worst version available. The English-temperature comment here would be: Wood’s translation is indeed quite far from the worst. As an American, I can say outright that this is a truly valuable edition, both for its scrupulous and often magnificent versions of individual poems and as a worthy general introduction to this poet, who is such a treasure for Russia and for the world.


Sibelan Forrester has published translations of prose and poetry from Russian, Serbian, and Croatian. She is professor of Russian Language and Literature at Swarthmore College.

LARB Contributor

Sibelan Forrester has published translations of prose and poetry from Russian and Croatian, and of prose from Serbian. She is professor of Russian language and literature at Swarthmore College.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!