Là sotto giorni nubilosi e brevi
Nasce una gente a cui l’morir none dole.
There, where days are cloudy and brief,
Are born a people to whom death brings no pain.
~ 1 ~
Eugene, now Vladimir had left,
Was bored again beyond all measure,
By Olga, though yet not bereft
Entirely of his vengeful pleasure;
Olga too yawns by him, sadly
Glancing round to seek her Lensky,
Tired of this cotillion;
This nightmare whirling, on and on.
At last it’s over, now it’s supper,
Then rooms are found for every guest,
All glad at heart to take their rest,
From the ground floor to the upper,
In attic too. Eugene, instead,
Drives home, preferring his own bed.
~ 2 ~
All’s peaceful; in the parlour, vying
Snore for snore, fat Pustyakov,
By his better half is lying.
Gvozdin, Buyanov, Petushkov,
And Flyanov, toss and turn on chairs,
In the dining room downstairs;
Triquet’s slumbering on the floor,
In shirt and night-cap, by the door;
The girls are stowed with Tatyana,
And with Olga, lost in dream;
But, lighted by Diana’s gleam,
Alone and sad, my darling Tanya,
Sleepless, at the window, stares
At dark fields, mirroring her cares.
~ 3 ~
Onegin’s unexpected presence;
His fleeting glance of tenderness;
His partnering Olga too, what sense
To make of that; her own distress;
All pierced her to the core; and then
Her failure too to comprehend;
And jealousy, you understand,
As if a cold, an icy hand
Had gripped her heart, as if a black
And seething abyss at her feet
Had opened… ‘Yet the death is sweet
He brings’ – she murmurs – ‘and I lack
Strength to complain, I confess,
Though he can’t bring me happiness.’
~ 4 ~
But on, on with my story!
A new face claims our attention.
Five versts from Krasnogorye,
Lensky’s estate, worth a mention,
There lives, and thrives no less,
In the intellectual wilderness,
Zaretsky, once a reprobate,
Gambler-in-chief, an intimate
And sage of inns, a philanderer;
Kind and sober, now, instead,
Father of many, still unwed;
He, as friend in need, you’ll gather,
Even as man of honour, features:
So our age improves us creatures!
~ 5 ~
There was a time when envious faces
Praised his sheer daring; he could hit
An ace of clubs at twenty paces,
And pierce the very heart of it.
Carried away by his brave calling,
He made his name by simply falling:
When far ahead of his battalion,
He toppled from his Kalmuck stallion,
Drunk as an owl, a Frenchman’s prize,
Yet a modern Regulus, the soul
Of honour: ready – it was his goal –
For capture again, should that arise,
As long as, on credit, they’d guarantee,
Three bottles a day, for him, chez Véry.
~ 6 ~
He was the practical joker, ever
Prone to lead a fool about,
By the nose; deceive the clever;
In secret, or with raucous shout;
Though he’d occasionally misfire
And end, himself, in the mire,
As much the victim of his fun,
As any passing simpleton.
He liked debate, to point a moral,
Make a blunt or sharp retort,
At times be silent, then in sport
Cunningly begin a quarrel,
Incite two friends of his to fight,
A duel in the morning light,
~ 7 ~
Or force them to be reconciled,
And earn a luncheon with them both;
Though privately they’d be reviled,
With cruel joke, or lying oath!
Sed alia tempora! With the rest,
(Like love’s young dream, another jest)
Such things belong to youth, now dead.
For my Zaretsky, as I said,
Found refuge from the storm of life,
Beneath his cherries and acacias,
Like Horace, peaceful and sagacious,
Plants cabbages, and free from strife,
Breeds ducks and geese, while at his knee
The children learn their ABC.
~ 8 ~
He was no fool; appreciated
By Yevgeny not for his heart
But for his wit, which he rated,
Finding him sensible, yet smart.
In the past quite frequently
He’d called, was pleasant company;
So morning brought no great surprise
When Zaretsky met his eyes.
Yet, after brief greeting, to begin
The visit, a note he proffered,
Penned by Lensky, and as he offered
The missive gave a caustic grin:
Onegin, without more ado,
At the window, read it through.
~ 9 ~
Politely, without indecision,
In as brief a cartel as was right,
Lensky, coolly, with precision,
Had merely challenged him to fight.
Onegin without hesitating,
Turned to the envoy, mutely waiting,
And spoke as if he scarcely cared,
What might result: ‘Ever prepared.’
At this Zaretsky promptly rose,
Not needing to prolong his stay,
Now anxious to be on his way,
And brought the visit to a close;
Yet left Eugene, alone, dismayed,
Unhappy with the role he’d played.
~ 10 ~
And rightly so: For sitting sternly
In private judgement on his action,
He condemned himself severely:
First: he’d erred in his reaction
To a love both shy and tender,
Mocked what true hearts engender;
Second: the poet might be a fool,
But then at eighteen that’s the rule;
While, holding him in such affection,
Yevgeny should have shown control,
And played a wholly different role,
Not, blown in every direction,
Go seeking quarrels, take offence,
Not as a man of honour, sense.
~ 11 ~
He might have spoken openly,
Instead of bristling from the start,
Endeared himself more readily
To Lensky’s young, receptive heart.
‘But now, too late: the moment’s past…
Besides’ ¬– he thought – ‘the die is cast,
Since that old duellist is vicious,
A trouble-maker, and malicious;
True, contempt should rightly answer
All spiteful gossip, yet his tools
Will slyly whisper, grinning fools…’
And then such things are like a cancer!
For it’s our idol, honour’s mainspring,
Opinion, keeps the whole world turning!
~ 12 ~
At home, impatient, breathing fire,
The poet awaits Eugene’s reply:
Here comes Zaretsky, colour higher,
With solemn look, and sparkling eye.
Now jealousy shows its delight!
He’d feared lest his opponent might
By slight of hand, or by some jest,
Make an escape, shield his breast
From the avenging bullet; now,
Doubt is over, they will fight,
Beside the mill, and at first light,
As soon as daybreak will allow,
Cock their pistols, and let fly,
To hit the head, or break a thigh.
~ 13 ~
Resolved to hate the false, the fickle,
Lensky, blazing with resentment,
Keen to avoid her, before the duel,
Checked the sun, his watch – and went!
Abandoning all true discretion,
He rode in his lover’s direction;
Olga he thought would be dismayed;
At the unexpected move he’d made,
But no! – Down the steps, as ever,
Swiftly, she flew to meet him,
Light as air, ran to greet him,
Buoyant as hope, that soars forever;
In the same lively, carefree way
As she might on any other day.
~ 14 ~
‘Why did you leave so early,’ Olga
Asks him, ‘yesterday? Disturbed,
Silent, he bows his head before her,
In confusion, thoughts perturbed.
Jealousy gone, and anger’s blaze,
Faced with her open, tender gaze,
Faced with her sweet simplicity,
Faced with her soul’s bright clarity! …
He sees, his heart filled with emotion,
At once he’s tortured by remorse,
Sees he is loved, feels the force
Of pure regret, his only notion
To be forgiven; trembles; mute;
His happiness rare, and absolute.
~ 15-17 ~
Now full of grief he lacks the strength
To speak about the night before,
Or to examine her at length,
But broods on what he must ignore:
‘Yet’, he reflects, ‘I must save her’,
Not allow that coarse seducer,
With sighs or flattery, to aspire
To tempt her with his base desire.
The vile and venomous worm
Shall not attack the lily flower,
The bud of life’s fairest hour,
Shall not fade before its term.’
Which translates as: he intends
To see Onegin dead, my friends.
~ 18 ~
If he had known what agony
Burned in my dear Tanya’s heart!
Had Tanya had the power to see
The future by some magic art,
Aware that Lensky and Eugene,
Would meet in the morning, keen
To dispute the entrance to the grave –
Love might have found a way to save
Them both, but no one knew her mind,
No one had divined her passion,
Onegin was silent, in his fashion,
And Tanya alone, in secret, pined;
Perhaps her nurse, if she’d been blessed,
With quicker wits, might have guessed.
~ 19 ~
All evening Lensky was distracted,
Now cheerful, now full of gloom;
As servants of the Muse have acted,
Since time began; so, he’d resume
His seat at the clavichord,
Then play a note or two before,
Turning his troubled gaze on Olga
‘I’m happy, am I not?’ he’d whisper.
It’s late; and time for him to take
His leave, his heart crushed, once more,
He turns to go, and at the door,
It seems to him that it must break,
She gazes earnestly: ‘What’s wrong?’
‘Nothing,’ he answers, and is gone.
~ 20 ~
At home, his pistols are inspected
Then replaced, their case shut tight;
He undresses; a book’s selected,
Schiller, to scan by candlelight.
His sad heart prevents all rest,
By a single thought oppressed:
He seems to see his Olga, bright
In all her beauty, in the night.
Vladimir shuts the book once more,
Then poetry flows from his pen,
Full of love’s foolishness, again
Verse sounds, as he strides the floor,
Like that by Delvig’s muse created,
At dinner, when intoxicated.
~ 21 ~
By chance, I have the lines, unfinished,
They’re here before me, his in truth:
‘Where, oh where have you vanished,
Golden springtime of my youth?
This day to come, what will it bring?
My eyes in vain seek out the thing
That’s veiled in deepest mystery.
No matter: a just fate awaits me.
Whether I fall struck by the power
Of its arrow, or death wings by,
All is well: our moments fly,
Sleep and waking have their hour,
Blessed the day of toil and care,
Blessed the tomb’s darkness there.’
~ 22 ~
‘The morning star will tremble bright,
Then the shining day will dawn,
And I – perhaps, far from the light,
Will know the secrets of death’s bourn;
Lethe will drown all memory
Of the poet, this world forget me,
But you, the beautiful, and dear,
Will you not stop to shed a tear
Over my urn, and think: “He loved,
And in the fierce storm and strife,
All the sad morning of his life,
By me alone his soul was moved!”…?
Friend of my heart, eternal friend,
Come to me, come: yours, to the end!...’
~ 23 ~
His vein then was dark and languid,
(The Romantic style, or so they say,
Though I fail to see what’s romantic
In it: no matter, that’s by the way).
At last near dawn, his weary head
Nodding, he laid it down instead
On the page, on the word ideal,
One with a fashionable feel.
He slept at last, but fitfully,
Yet sleep had barely laid its claim
On him, when he heard his name,
Called by his neighbour, forcefully.
‘Up now, and no procrastinating:
Past six, Onegin will be waiting.’
~ 24 ~
But he’s in error; our Yevgeny
Is sleeping soundly: in the yard,
The night’s shadows thinning swiftly,
The cock-crow hails the morning star;
Onegin slumbers on regardless.
The sun now dispels the darkness,
A brief snow-flurry spirals by,
Eugene continues to lie
In blissful sleep, it’s certain,
The winged god hovers overhead.
At last he stirs, sits up in bed
And pulls aside the curtain;
Looks out, noting it is day,
And high time to be on his way.
~ 25 ~
Hastily he rings; the servant,
Guillot, his French valet, appears;
Slippers, dressing-gown: this instant;
Fresh linen: take time by the ears;
Then Onegin swiftly dresses,
Orders Guillot, since time presses,
To ready himself, have all in place,
And not forget the pistol-case.
The sledge is waiting, at the door,
He’s in, and flying to the mill.
Arrived, asks Guillot if he will
Carry the weapons, as before,
(Lepage’s make, of course) and tie
The horses to the oak nearby.
~ 26 ~
Leaning on the dam-wall, Lensky,
Resolute, impatient, waited,
While, quite the engineer, Zaretsky,
Surveyed it, and pontificated.
Eugene came to apologise,
‘But where on earth,’ with surprise,
Zaretsky asked, ‘is your second?’
In matters of duelling reckoned
A classicist, and pedant both,
He’d not allow a man to die
Just anyhow and let him lie,
But by rule, and he was loath
To deviate from established ways
(A predilection we should praise).
~ 27 ~
‘My second?’ – echoes Yevgeny:
He’s here, my friend, Monsieur Guillot.
That can’t be a problem, surely
Not? Besides I’d have you know,
Though he is unknown to you,
He is a man of honour too.’
Zaretsky bites his lip, crossly,
While Onegin turns to Lensky:
‘Shall we begin?’ ‘Begin, why not?
Vladimir replies. They start
Behind the mill, while there, apart,
Zaretsky establishes what’s what
With the man of honour, and sighs;
The opponents wait, with downcast eyes.
~ 28 ~
Opponents! They’d not long been parted
By this cruel thirst to kill each other.
Not long before, tender-hearted,
Each had acted like a brother,
Sharing pleasures, meals, and thought.
Now hostility had brought
On nightmare, like those ancient feuds
Where in cold blood opposing broods,
In silence, plan each other’s slaughter.
Could they not speak and smile again,
Before blood left its scarlet stain,
Part in kindness, giving quarter? ...
But the world’s scornful expectation
Breeds fear of reconciliation.
~ 29 ~
Pistols gleam, hammers are knocked
On ramrods, and they grate together,
Bullets are loaded, weapons cocked,
Into the pans they sift the powder,
The jagged flints once firmly seated,
Are raised again, the work’s completed.
Behind the stump of a nearby tree
Poor Guillot stands, uneasily,
While Zaretsky measures nicely,
– The duellists remove their cloaks,
Here’s an end to all their jokes --
Thirty two paces, precisely.
Each with a pistol in his hand,
Opposite his friend must stand.
~ 30 ~
‘Now, approach!’ Calm and steady,
Not yet attempting to aim,
They’ve taken four steps already,
Four fatal steps, to kill or maim.
Yevgeny, silently advances,
Raises his pistol slowly, glances;
Five more paces now they take;
Lensky, keen to avoid mistake,
Squints, half-closes his left eye,
A few steps from eternity,
Takes aim now – when, suddenly,
Onegin fires…the clock on high
Strikes for the poet, at the sound,
His weapon spirals to the ground.
~ 31 ~
Pressing his hand to his heart,
Lightly, he falls. His gaze betrays
Not pain, but death. So, at the start,
On a steep slope, in the sun’s rays,
A block of snow will slowly glide,
Then gather momentum in its slide.
Struck by an icy chill, Onegin
Runs to his friend, gazes at him,
Calls out his name…uselessly:
He’s lost: the votary of rhyme,
Has met his fate before his time,
The storm is done, and cruelly,
The flower has faded from the bough,
The altar-fire’s extinguished now.
Motionless, like one dreaming,
Strange his languor, there, at rest;
Blood from his wound is streaming,
The bullet shattering his chest.
A moment since, imagination
Had fired this heart, pure inspiration,
Hope and love and enmity,
A pulse, the blood’s living heat,
Now like some deserted place,
All is silent, shuttered, still,
Windows pale within, that fill
With shadows all its gloomy space,
The lady of the manse has fled.
Where to? God knows. The trail is dead.
~ 33 ~
It’s pleasant with a sharp remark
To infuriate your enemy,
Pleasant to see it hit the mark,
As he lowers horns, stubbornly,
To see, unwillingly, as they pass,
His own features in the glass;
More pleasant still, if he should cry,
My friends, in bending: ‘It is I!’
But the pleasantest thing of all
Is to aim at his pallid face
Across a gentlemanly space,
And anticipate his funeral.
Yet, should you succeed, beware,
There’s very little pleasure there.
~ 34 ~
What if your pistol-shot inflicts
A fatal wound on some young friend,
Whose rash look or sneer conflicts
With your self-image? He may offend
With some nonsense while your drinking,
Issue an angry challenge, thinking
He ought to do so – will your soul
Summon sufficient self-control
To watch him lying on the ground,
In his face the pains of death,
Hearing his last failing breath,
Stiffening, as his friends stand round,
Deaf, voiceless, never to reply,
To your heartfelt, despairing cry?
~ 35 ~
Still clutching his pistol, tightly,
Gripped by feelings of remorse,
Eugene stares down at Lensky,
‘Well?’ says Zaretsky, with force.
‘Killed!’…And with that stark reply,
Onegin shudders, turns, gives a cry
Summons the servant for assistance;
Then, at Zaretsky’s insistence,
They lift the cold body to its bier,
Placing it carefully in the sleigh,
Then carry the dread thing away.
The horses scent the dead, and rear,
Steel bits and traces flecked with foam,
As they fly like arrows towards home.
~ 36 ~
Friends, for the poet now you sorrow,
Killed before his promise bloomed,
Forced to forgo that sweet tomorrow,
Prematurely blighted, doomed!
Where now are the burning passions,
Those high aims ambition fashions,
That pure emotion youth may render,
Thoughts and feelings, noble, tender?
Where is the storm of love’s extremes,
That thirst for truth, toil’s midnight flame,
The fear of error, and of shame,
And you, the bright celestial dreams,
You, phantoms born of reverie,
You, gleams of sacred poetry?
~ 37 ~
Perhaps for glory he was created,
Or to ease the world’s condition,
Perhaps that lyre, to silence fated,
Might have achieved its high mission,
Echoing down the years. The poet
Might have climbed Parnassus yet
Found his place, or, martyred shade,
Into the dark may have conveyed
The holy secret, lost forever,
The power of some life-giving voice
To make the soul of man rejoice,
One that, beyond the grave, never
A hymn can reach, or people’s praise,
Or gratitude from age to age.
~ 38-39 ~
Or alternatively the poet
Might have met the usual fate,
Youth slipped by, years to forget,
The soul’s fire cooling of late.
The Muse he might well have deserted,
Settled, to married life converted,
Deep in the country, far from town,
Worn horns, and a dressing-gown;
And learned life’s bland reality:
At forty suffer from the gout,
Eat, drink, yawn; ill, and stout,
Then prove his own mortality,
Midst swarms of children, lie in bed,
Doctors, and weeping women, dead!
~ 40 ~
Whatever the future might have brought,
Reader, alas, that tender lover,
Young poet of meditative thought,
Fell at a friend’s hand! You’ll discover,
As you leave the village, a place
That inspired soul knew, a space
Where the roots are intertwined
Of two tall pines; where waters wind
Towards the valley down below;
Where the ploughman likes to take
His rest; girl reapers, keen to slake
Their thirst, clink pitchers in the flow;
Where, above shadowy waters blent,
There stands a simple monument.
~ 41 ~
Nearby (when the furrows ooze
With the springtime showers again)
The shepherd, weaving his bast shoes,
Sings of the Volga fishermen;
And the young city lady, down
For the summer, bored with town,
Racing the meadowlands alone
Will halt her horse beside the stone,
Grip the reins, and from her hair
Lifting the gauzy veil may glance
Lightly at the lines, by chance,
Of its inscription, feel pity there,
On reading their sad tale – surprise
A haze of tears to cloud her eyes.
~ 42 ~
Then, across the fields, slowly,
Brooding silently, she’ll ride,
Lost in the depths of reverie,
With Lensky’s fate pre-occupied;
‘And then what became of Olga?
Did she pine for him?’ She’ll wonder;
‘Or did her sorrow vanish swiftly?
And what of her sister, where is she?
And that fugitive from the world,
The smart coquettes’ smart enemy,
The gloomy eccentric, where is he,
Who to his grave the poet hurled?
All in good time, trust me, I’ll try
To supply the details, by and by.
~ 43 ~
But not quite yet. Although I dearly
Love my hero, as before,
And promise you, most sincerely,
I’ll return to him: no more!
Age demands prose for a time,
Age drives away the urchin, rhyme.
And I –with a sigh, I confess –
I now enjoy composing less.
Now, I no longer rush to stain
Scattered reams with flying quill,
Another dream, and one more chill,
Another care, profounder pain,
In the world’s noise, or solitude,
On my troubled mind intrude.
~ 44 ~
I’ve learnt to know another longing,
I’ve learnt the sadness of tomorrow,
In yesterday there is no trusting;
And I lament my former sorrow.
The dream! Where’s sweet elusive truth?
And you (its rhyme forever) youth?
Can it be true, that crown at last
Is now quite withered by the blast?
Can it be true, and not a mere
Conceit of elegiac verse,
(That I’d once happily rehearse)
My springtime’s over, in the sere?
Can it be true there’s no return?
And thirty years the prize I earn?
~ 45 ~
Pale afternoon is here, my heart,
Confess it now, behold: the truth.
Then so be it: in friendship part,
Oh my frivolous lost youth!
My thanks for every sweet refrain,
The torments of the soul, the pain,
The noise, the tempests, and the feast,
For all your gifts, even the least,
My thanks. I took my joy, and more…
Lived you to the full, in riot,
Or in solitude, and quiet;
Enough! Again, my soul is pure;
I travel another road, at last,
Freed from the burdens of the past.
~ 46 ~
Backward, I glance. Farewell the glade,
Where days flowed by so lazily,
Filled with sweet passion, pensive shade,
Long hours of idle reverie!
And you, my youthful inspiration,
Find fresh powers; Imagination,
Rouse the dull mind from sleep,
Visit my humble corner, keep
The poet’s soul from every ill,
Let it not wither, harsh and dry,
Or worse still, freeze and petrify,
In society’s toils that kill,
The muddy pool, my friends, that we
Immerse in, so relentlessly!