O, the country! O, Russia!
~ 1 ~
Our bored Yevgeny’s place of leisure
Was in fact a fine estate,
Where lovers of life’s simple pleasure
Would thank the heavens for their fate.
The manor house was quite secluded,
Screened by the hills when storms intruded,
Beside a river. On every side,
Stretched the pastures far and wide,
Golden cornfields, flowery meadows,
Here a village, there another,
Cattle grazing in the clover,
Parkland, overgrown, soft shadows
Deepening the garden’s shade,
Where the pensive dryads played.
~ 2 ~
The stately pile was nobly planned
As such fine mansions ought to be,
Firmly founded on the land,
With all the taste we used to see.
Every salon high and handsome,
Damask in the drawing-room,
Ancestral portraits stretched for miles,
Stoves shone with ceramic tiles.
All this is out of fashion now,
Though why it is, who can say,
Yet none of it, the whole display
Moved our hero, I’ll allow,
An ancient house or one new-born
Both of them would make him yawn.
~ 3 ~
In that room, where the aged fellow
For forty years had berated
His housekeeper, gazed out the window,
Killed the flies, and rusticated,
That simple stall, with oaken floors
Settee and table, chests of drawers,
And not the least ink-stain around,
Onegin searched the cupboards, found
In one a ledger taken hostage,
In another home-made brandy,
A stoneware jug of cider handy,
An Almanack, of year eight vintage:
The old man had no time to look
At any more demanding book.
~ 4 ~
Alone amongst his new possessions,
Simply to pass the time away
Yevgeny took, in dreamy sessions,
To running things the modern way;
A prophet in the wilderness,
He scrapped the old corvée, no less,
And substituted light quit-rent,
The serfs applauded his intent.
His calculating neighbour though,
Was not enamoured, thought him mad
Saw nothing good, predicted bad,
While others sneered at the show,
But one and all, in truth, agree
He’s a menace in the first degree.
~ 5 ~
At first the neighbours visited,
But as, at the back porch, was saddled
His stallion, a Don thoroughbred,
And he then rapidly skedaddled,
Once he heard, near his abode,
Their carriage wheels, briskly rode,
They took offence, and once offended
The brief acquaintances were ended.
‘The man’s a lunatic, a boor,
A mason, and forever drinking,
Wine by the bottle, never blinking,
Won’t kiss the ladies’ hands, what’s more
Says yes and no, but never sir
Or madam’ so they all concur.
~ 6 ~
Meanwhile another landowner
Newly arrived on his estate,
His neighbour, caused an equal stir,
For reasons that I’ll indicate.
Vladimir Lensky, is the man
Handsome, young, a Kantian,
Whose soul was formed in Göttingen,
A friend of truth: a poet then.
From misty Germany he brought
The fruits of learning’s golden tree,
His fervent dreams of liberty,
Ardent and eccentric thought,
Eloquence to inspire the bolder,
And dark hair hanging to his shoulder.
~ 7 ~
Un-blighted by the world’s cold malice,
His generous spirit still could bless
With warmth a comrade’s manly kiss,
Or a young girl’s shy caress.
At heart a simple innocent,
To whom hope her brightness lent,
In life’s fresh glow, he still could find
Enchantment, with an unspoiled mind.
He sweetened with delightful dreams
The doubts that stirred in his soul
Life was a riddle, and its goal
A puzzle that seduced, it seems.
Over it he’d rack his brains,
Seeking miracles, for his pains.
~ 8 ~
In kindred souls too he believed,
That somewhere there was another,
Who longing to unite them, grieved
For him alone, the eternal lover;
Trusted also his friends were there
Ready to save his honour, share
His prison, loyal, prepared to fly
To his defence should slander lie;
That there existed chosen vessels,
Holy friends of the human race
Immortals clasped in fate’s embrace,
Who with radiant light would wrestle,
One day, to illuminate and bless
A future world with their caress.
~ 9 ~
Compassion, and indignation,
A pure devotion to the good
The bitter-sweet lure of ambition,
From the start, had fired his blood.
The world he wandered with his lyre,
Imbued with true poetic fire,
Under Goethe’s, Schiller’s skies,
They the masters, to his eyes.
Blessed with skill, the Muses’ art
He never managed to disgrace,
In his songs kept pride of place,
For the passions of the heart;
Moments of grave sublimity,
The charms of sweet simplicity.
~ 10 ~
He sang of love, to love subjected,
Clear and serene his tune,
As a girl’s thoughts, unaffected,
A child’s slumber, or the moon,
Sailing the untroubled skies,
Queen of mysteries and sighs.
He sang of parting and of sorrows,
Misty climes, and vague tomorrows,
Of roses in some high romance;
Sang of all the far-off lands
Where on quiet desert strands,
His living tears obscured his glance;
At eighteen years he had the power,
To sing of life’s dry withered flower.
~ 11 ~
In that rural wilderness, Yevgeny
Alone, to Lensky’s taste inclined.
The pleasures of the local gentry
Not such as to engage his mind.
The young man fled their noisy chatter,
Their solid grasp of every matter,
Concerning harvesting, or wine,
Their family, or the hounds, no shine
There of wit, true conversation,
The glow of the poetic flame,
No flavour of the social game,
No sentiment to temper reason,
While the babble of their wives,
Was dross enough for many lives.
~ 12 ~
Lensky, wealthy and good-looking,
Was thought something of a catch;
Thus the country view of hooking
Any fish to make a match;
Marry their daughter, was the plan,
To this half-Russian gentleman.
The talk turns with quiet persistence
To a bachelor’s sad existence,
When he shows, with the samovar,
And Dunya sits to pour the tea,
Before, to prompt her minstrelsy,
They bring on the poor child’s guitar,
And then she squeaks (Oh Lord, above!)
‘Come to my golden chamber, love!’
~ 13 ~
But Lensky, lacking the desire
To bear the marriage-yoke as yet,
Wished sincerely to acquire
Onegin’s friendship, so they met.
No two men were less the same
Like stone and water, ice and flame,
Prose and poetry, in intent.
At first they seemed indifferent
To each other, but liking grew,
They rode together every day,
Until, such good friends were they
They were one instead of two.
So people (I openly confess)
Make friends, from sheer idleness.
~ 14 ~
Friendship like that’s to us unknown,
Our minds are full of prejudice,
We think the others noughts, alone
Ourselves the integer in this.
We all possess Napoleon’s features;
The millions of two-legged creatures
Are only instruments and tools;
Emotion’s only fit for fools.
Eugene more tolerant than most,
Though he knew the human race,
And as a rule despised each face,
Yet (as all rules exceptions boast)
Some he liked and placed apart,
Valued feelings, with empty heart.
~ 15 ~
He heard our Lensky with a smile,
The poet’s bold impassioned speech,
His mind, still malleable the while,
His gaze inspired: how he could preach! –
All this fresh to Onegin, till
The sarcastic and the chill
Words upon his lips were still.
He thought: what folly to work ill
With such ephemeral happiness,
Its doomed despite my interdiction,
Let him but breathe the passing fiction,
Believe all things are for the best:
Youth is a fever, let’s forgive
Its madness and its rage to live.
~ 16 ~
Between them every disputation
Sparked a deeper train of thought,
The histories of every nation,
Good and evil, what science taught,
The prejudices of the ages,
The secrets of the grave, the pages
Of life itself and destiny,
Were all their constant study.
The poet burning with opinion
Recited, as in reverie,
Bits of Northern poetry
Yevgeny heard with condescension,
Listening with tolerance,
Though they seemed devoid of sense.
~ 17 ~
But most of all they talked of passions,
My two youthful hermits there;
Having escaped those stormy regions
Onegin spoke of them with care,
Dispassionately gave a sigh;
Happy the one who has passed by,
Happier he who never knew them,
Who has cooled love’s agitation
With parting, vengeance with a word,
He who yawns away his life
With his relations and his wife,
Finding all jealousy absurd –
Whose capital he’s proved able
To keep from the gambling table.
~ 18 ~
When to the flag we have gathered
Of rationality and peace,
When passions’ flames have wavered,
When their unbridled stirrings cease,
Their violence seems ridiculous
And all their echoes false to us,
We still tremble, being sober,
To hear the tale told by another,
The history of the passing gale,
That even now can stir us so,
Just as at wars of long ago
The veteran is stirred, grows pale,
And in his hut, with a will,
Listens to the young bloods still.
~ 19 ~
Besides, the enthusiasm of youth
Could never yet conceal a thing,
Love, or hate, it shouts the truth,
Of every joy and suffering.
Considering himself, so placed,
As a veteran, solemn faced,
Onegin heard the poet’s confession.
He gave heart and soul expression,
Ingenuous, trusting, earnestly
Telling the story of his ardour,
His youthful love, warm and tender,
Swiftly apprising Yevgeny
Of all that sentimental stew
That to us is nothing new.
~ 20 ~
Oh, he had loved as in our age
One loves no longer; one alone
Possessed of the poet’s finer rage,
Is doomed to feel such love, and moan:
Always the one pure constant dream,
Ever desire’s habitual stream,
Ever habitual pain and grief,
That distance, quencher of belief,
Nor long years of separation,
Nor hours given to the Muse,
Nor foreign beauties, foreign views,
Nor study, nor loud celebration,
Could alter Lensky’s loyal soul,
His virgin fire a living coal.
~ 21 ~
When but a boy his heart was captured,
Never having felt love’s blade,
By Olga, and as one enraptured
He watched her as she sang and played.
Under the oak-trees’ sheltering boughs,
They exchanged their childish vows,
Their fathers saw them marrying,
Considered it a certain thing.
Under her parent’s gaze she grew
Filled with grace and innocence,
Humbly living out existence,
A lily in the morning dew,
A flower in deepest grass, alone,
To bee and butterfly unknown.
~ 22 ~
Olga was the first to stir
In him the poet’s exaltation,
His first pipings were of her,
Thoughts of her his inspiration.
Oh, farewell now, the golden days!
He sought the forest’s shadowy ways,
Solitude, silence, dark of night,
And the moon’s celestial light,
The moon, a lamp in the sky,
To which we dedicated then
Our wanderings and again
Our secret balm, a tear, a sigh…
Yet now we only see in her
A street-light, though inferior.
~ 23 ~
Always humble, always truthful,
Always smiling as the dawn,
Like the poet’s life as simple,
Sweet as the kiss of love, that’s born
Of sky-blue eyes, a heavenly blue,
Flaxen hair, all gleaming, too,
Voice, manner, slender waist,
Such was Olga…you can paste
Her description here from any
Novel that you choose to read,
A charming portrait, yes, indeed,
One I adored, but now it bores me.
Reader, I’ll enhance the vista,
Let me describe her elder sister.
~ 24 ~
Her sister’s name was…Tatyana,
Here’s the first use of it made
In romance, the first time ever
It’s been willingly displayed.
Why not? It has a pleasant sound,
Although inseparable I’ve found
From memories of long ago,
And the servants’ quarters! No,
It’s true we don’t possess good taste,
In the names that we rehearse
(To say nothing of our verse),
Enlightenment has been a waste
In our regard, has left us blessed
By affectation – not the rest.
~ 25 ~
So, she is called Tatyana.
Not a beauty like her sister,
Lacking rosy cheeks, the manner,
To attract a passing lover.
Melancholy, wild, retiring,
Like a doe seen in a clearing,
Fleeing at the sign of danger,
To her family a stranger.
She never took to caressing
Her father, mother, not her way
To delight in childish play,
With the others, sweetly dancing.
But often to the window glued
She’d sit all day in solitude.
~ 26 ~
Her dearest friend was reverie,
From the cradle, the slow stream
Of placid dull rusticity
Enriched by meditative dream.
Her tender fingers never held
A needle, never once excelled,
Her head above the silk inclined,
In working something she’d designed.
Early, the will to rule appears,
The child with her obedient doll,
Prepares herself for protocol,
For social worlds beyond her years,
Repeating to it solemnly
What mother preaches constantly.
~ 27 ~
But even in her earliest days
Tatyana had no doll to nurse,
News from town, the latest craze,
She never chose to rehearse.
Childhood mischief, petty glories
Were not her forte; horror stories
Were what gave her most delight,
Told in winter, late at night.
And when nurse had collected
Olga’s little friends to play,
At tag in the meadows, say,
Tatyana such things rejected;
Their laughter noisy, tedious,
Their raucous games so frivolous.
~ 28 ~
On her balcony, alone,
She loved to greet the break of day,
When the light has barely shown,
As the stars’ choir fades away,
And the edge of earth grows brightly,
While, herald of the morning, lightly
Stirs the breeze, brings on the morn,
As the half-light turns to dawn.
In winter when the shades of night
Still hold half the world in thrall,
And lost in misty moonlight all
The East is indolently white,
At the same hour’s sweet caress,
By candle-light she’d rise and dress.
~ 29 ~
From the first she craved romances,
Her great delight, she loved them so,
Whatever chapter most entrances,
In Richardson or in Rousseau.
Her father saw no harm in reading,
A decent sort, though yet conceding
His taste was of a former age.
And since he never read a page,
He thought them quite innocuous,
And never bothered for a moment
About the volume’s true content,
That slept beneath her pillow thus.
His wife was quite another one,
Since she was mad for Richardson.
~ 30 ~
Richardson she loved quite madly,
Though not indeed that she was one,
To read him, nor preferred really
To his Lovelace, Grandison,
But she had heard of them a dozen
Times from her dear Moscow cousin,
Long ago, Princess Alina,
When, betrothed, she had seen her,
Betrothed though against her will:
She was sighing for another,
Who pleased her very soul, a lover,
Of whom she could not get her fill,
Her Grandison, adept at cards,
A dandy, ensign in the Guards.
~ 31 ~
Like him she wore the latest fashion,
Like him her dress was elegant.
But regardless of such passion,
They wed her, without her consent.
Her prudent husband, swiftly left
For his estate, where she, bereft,
(Though he thought that country life
Would soon settle his new wife)
With God knows who for neighbour,
Wept violently in her sorrow,
Looked for a divorce tomorrow,
Then plunged into domestic labour.
Habit brought her quiet content,
Habit joy’s surrogate, heaven sent.
~ 32 ~
Habit soothed her agony,
Nothing else could end her grief,
Until a fresh discovery
Consoled her and brought relief.
In their hours of work and leisure
She quietly took her husband’s measure,
With that secret, gave her dictat,
And ruled him like an autocrat.
All went smoothly from that day,
Pickled mushrooms for the winter,
Kept the books, and shaved the hair
Of levied serfs, bathed Saturday,
Beat the servant girls and cursed,
And never asked her husband first.
~ 33 ~
Time was when she would write, in blood,
In the album of some sweet friend,
Call Praskovya, Pauline, and would
Her sing-song voice in gossip blend,
Pinched her waist with tight laces,
Used the nasal ‘n’ in places
Where French sounds were de rigeur,
But in the end came to prefer
Life without albums, waists, Pauline,
Books of sentimental verse,
All forgotten, and rehearse
Names like Akulka, not Céline.
And wore, her last defences down,
A mob-cap and a quilted gown.
~ 34 ~
Yet her spouse loved her dearly,
Let her pursue her own sweet way,
Trusted her himself, quite clearly,
And dined with her déshabillé.
Peacefully their lives progress,
Sometimes they receive as guests,
Some decent neighbouring family
Plain, devoid of ceremony.
They’ll grumble, swap the latest gossip,
Laugh at whatever tickles them,
Hours roll on, and then, again,
Olga’s here with tea to sip,
Then supper, bedtime, by and by,
The hour when all must say goodbye.
~ 35 ~
They held to, in their peaceful state,
Traditions of the ages past,
So on Shrove Tuesday always ate
Russian pancakes, and they’d fast
Twice a year, loved Christmas carols,
Folksongs, and the wedding chorals,
At Whitsuntide, their tears they’d shed
On the flowers, their eyes quite red,
When through the thanksgiving Mass,
The congregation sit and yawn,
Their sentiments were re-born.
Like fresh air they loved their kvass,
And at the table, dinner served,
Due rank and custom they observed.
~ 36 ~
And so grew old, like all things mortal,
The husband was the first to pass
Through the grave’s gloomy portal,
Wore the funeral crown at last.
Now he rested from his labours,
And was wept for by his neighbours,
By his children and his wife.
He’d led a good and simple life,
And died just before his dinner.
Where his honoured dust now lies
His epitaph discreetly sighs:
Dimitry Larin, a poor sinner,
God’s servant and a brigadier,
Beneath this stone, rests quietly here.
~ 37 ~
Returning to his home, young Lensky
Went to pay his fond respects,
At his neighbour’s grave, and truly
Paid tribute with a tear. ‘Who’s next?
Alas, poor Yorick!’ he lamented,
‘In his arms I played, contented,
When I was but a little boy,
Took his old medal for a toy!
He hoped Olga and I would wed,
Even now I hear him say,
‘Shall I live to see that day?’
And full of grief that he was dead,
Lensky, for a funeral
Elegy penned a madrigal.
~ 38 ~
Then too, with fervent weeping,
He sat down and wrote another,
Honouring, where they lay sleeping,
Both his father and his mother…
Alas! From life’s dark furrows rise
The human harvest to our eyes,
Rise and ripen, briefly nourished,
Where they fall, others flourish…
So our heedless race today
Grows recklessly and fills the room,
Pushes its grandsires to the tomb.
We too, we too, the same old way;
Our grandchildren think it no crime
To crowd us out before our time!
~ 39 ~
So, enjoy the fleeting hour
Of this fickle life, my friends!
I count myself free of its power,
Know its worth, and how it ends.
I’m blind to all its illusion,
Yet within my heart’s confusion,
Distant hopes will sometimes start:
It would be painful to depart
Leaving not a trace behind.
I live, I write but not for praise;
But only, it seems, from my days
To leave a name for fate to find,
That one line in the memory
May speak, like a fond friend, of me.
~ 40 ~
My verse may touch someone’s heart,
Some stanza, preserved by fate,
Some fragment of my precious art,
Saved from Lethe’s darkened spate.
Perhaps too (oh, flattering hope!)
Some fool may yet achieve a trope,
Pronouncing: ‘He was a poet!’
Even though he cannot know it,
While pointing out my famous bust.
But you, disciple of the Muse,
Receive my thanks, and grateful dues,
Who keep my pyramid from rust,
Whose kind hand will smooth like down,
The ageing laurels of my crown!