Saturday, 12 July 2014

Pushkin's Contemporaries

A short post celebrating the work of Pushkin's literary contemporaries, who helped to shape and inspire his writings, featuring new translations specially created for Trinity's Russian poetry evenings.

Vasily Zhukovsky (1783 - 1852)

Oh silent sea, oh azure sea,
I'm spellbound by your depths.
You live, you breathe with turbid love,
With thoughts that never rest.
Oh silent sea, oh azure sea,
Reveal to me deep mysteries:
What moves your boundless breast?
How breathes your labouring chest?
Do the far-off shining heavens
Draw you from your earthly strife,
When, filled with sweet and secret life,
You bask in their radiant presence?
Their azure brightness floods your face,
You burn with the rising and setting sun,
The clouds are gold in your embrace,
The glittering stars and you are one.
And when the dark clouds gather round
To steal the heavenly glow,
Your waves rise up, wild howls resound,
To shatter your gloomy foe...
The darkened clouds disperse away,
But filled with past alarm,
You long raise waves of anxiety - 
And returning heaven's shining charm
Cannot bring you peace complete,
Your calm appearance is deceit.
Your deep abyss hides turbulent fevers
For love of the heavens, the ocean quivers.

Apart from his influence as a leading poet - shown by his poem 'The Sea' above and his lyrics to the national anthem of tsarist Russia - Zhukovsky was a famously skilled literary translator, bringing the work of West European writers to Russian readers from Homer's epic 'Odyssey' to leading German Romantics, crucially influencing the forms of modern Russian literature in its early development. Mentored by the famous Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin, Vasily Zhukovsky himself became tutor to the future tsar, Alexander II. He may have helped to instill the liberal ideals that inspired Alexander to abolish the institution of serfdom and earn the nickname of 'Liberator', and he certainly used his influence at court to protect and serve as patron to edgier talents like Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov and Alexander Herzen, even helping to buy the Ukrainian nationalist poet and icon Taras Shevchenko out of serfdom. Although the name of Zhukovsky is not very familiar outside of Russia, and his works rarely translated, it is no exaggeration to say that the Golden Age of Russian literature would not have been what it was without him.

Alexander Griboyedov (1795 - 1829)

Into what circles I'm driven by fate?
Circles of hell where my tormentors wait
To victimise me! ostracize me! Storytellers!
Gossiping traitors to love as well as
Ungainly connoisseurs, cunning laymen,
Malicious aged men and women
Grown stale on a diet of schemes and lies.
You brand me a madman with your loud cries!
You're right: he'll come through fire who
When staying just a day with you,
Breathing air with people of your kind
Would not be driven from his mind!
Away from Moscow! Out of these parts!
I seek a place for outraged hearts!
I'll go around the world in search
Get me a coach! Get me a coach!

Poet, composer, officer of a Hussar regiment and diplomatic envoy to Georgia and Persia, Alexander Griboyedov is today remembered as the author of the satirical verse comedy Woe from Wit. A snapshot of the tensions in Russia before the Decembrist Uprising of 1825 (a failed rebellion by mainly aristocratic advocates of democratic reform against the totalitarian tsarist regime), it shows the conservative, anti-reformist Famusov, the social-climbing hypocrite Molchalin and the liberal Anglophile Repetilov as typical types of Russian society at the time. Against all of them, the hero Chatsky is a sarcastic, disaffected cynic who would himself become the model for the 'superfluous man' type of Russian Romanticism. Banned by the censors in 1823, the play circulated freely in unauthorised manuscript copies (like a form of tsarist Samizdat') influencing later works like Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Griboyedov saw his play staged only once, in an unofficial production by the garrison of Yerevan, Armenia, before he himself was murdered in an uprising against the Russian embassy in Tehran, Persia (now Iran). Mikhail Lermontov's decision to end 'A Hero of Our Time' by reporting his hero Pechorin's death on his way to Persia may be seen as a nod to Griboyedov, creator of Chatsky, the original hero of his time, played above by well-known Russian actor Oleg Menshikov (Burnt by the Sun, The Barber of Siberia).

Click here for an article about Pushkin and the musical salon culture of the Golden Age.

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