Lyrics and shorter poems - Volume 1

Pushkin has well over 700 shorter poems to his name.  Normally, of course, they are in Russian, but occasionally he composed in French.  He wrote them from his childhood and early schooldays to near his death at the age of 37.  They extend from deeply felt expressions of love and friendship, joy and pain, through acute and sensitive reflections on life, through polished and entertaining society verse, to jokes, invectives, and epigrams; they include verse epistles, ballads, stories, descriptive pieces, and songs; they cover, as well as personal and social matters, political, historical, philosophical and religious subjects; and they embrace not only purely original work but adaptations, imitations and parodies, not only of Russian literature and folklore but also of poetry from the Greco-Roman world, from modern Europe, and even from the orient.

Pushkin had some poems published during his lifetime.  Many he left unpublished for various reasons – because they would not pass the censorship, because they were personally sensitive, because they were of limited public interest, or simply because he was not yet satisfied with them; these were collected from his papers or those of others after his death and published in later years.

Many of the poems are autobiographical and illuminate Pushkin’s personal and social life and his emotional development, from ebullient boyhood, through impetuous youth and more measured maturity, into the regrets and frustrations of middle age.  But in trying to trace Pushkin’s life and true feelings from his poetry one must tread carefully.  Often the dating of the poems is conjectural.  Also, for understandable reasons, Pushkin often disguised the real addressees or targets of his poems behind pseudonyms or anonymity.

The poems in this volume, which cover only Pushkin’s childhood and years at the imperial Lycée at Tsárskoye Seló, are arranged in broad chronological order of composition, so far as that can be ascertained.    Some of Pushkin’s early poetry was written to order for school exercises, or for informal competitions, or as demonstration pieces in imitation or parody of other writers, not necessarily to express his own innermost feelings at that time.  Even when, for example, a real woman was the original inspiration for a love poem, the facts may have crystallised into something more abstract and generalised by the time Pushkin came to writing it down.  So the extraction of autobiography from subjective memory, creative inspiration and pure artifice must often  be a matter of deduction, intuition and conjecture.

Nevertheless, the poems contain many references to Pushkin’s real-life contemporaries and predecessors and to contemporary and historical events.  They refer copiously also to Russian and European (especially French) literature and classical mythology.   I have tried to explain these references in the Index of Names and in the notes on individual poems.  And to help fit the poems, whether autobiographical or not, into the framework of Pushkin’s life, a short biography of Pushkin is provided at the back of the volume.

As editor my intention has been to present Pushkin’s poems, whether translated by myself or others, in a clear and natural modern English, unobscured by archaic or obsolete “poetic” language (unless the context requires).  This, I believe, is truest to Pushkin’s own normally direct and informal style, as well as being most accessible to today’s English reader.

Pushkin habitually rhymes all his lines.  Fully rhymed English translations are problematical, however.  It is much harder to find natural rhymes in English than in Russian.  Because of this it is difficult to avoid the struggle for English rhymes distorting the meaning of Pushkin’s original text and forcing the English into unnatural phraseology.  Despite this, the translators in the present volume have striven to produce faithful and fluent versions that in most cases still replicate Pushkin’s rhyme schemes.  Witty epigrams will lose their pointedness without rhyme; and unrhymed translations of song-like poems written in regular stanzaic form will not do justice to the formal beauty of Pushkin’s originals.  In a minority of cases, however, – some narrative or epistolary verse, for example, where poetic form is less important than subject matter – I have judged that Pushkin’s intentions will best be realised for the English reader in unrhymed verse, in the manner of my translation of Ruslán and Lyudmíla.

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