Lyrics and shorter poems - some of my translations

1. A Play that Flopped (1809)

As a young boy Pushkin used to write short comedies for performance at home.  When his sister criticized one of these, he responded with this verse (written in French).

Why did The Petty Thief, the play,
get heckled at its première?
Because the author, sad to say,
had thieved it all from Molière.

 

54. TO A PAINTER (1815)

Pushkin, now 16, asks a friend to paint a portrait of a girl he admires.

You child of charm and inspiration,
with fervent soul ignite your art
and ply your paintbrush in elation
to sketch the friend who owns my heart;

depict her innocence divine,
the hopes expressed in her dear face,
her eyes so radiant, so fine,
her smile so full of joy and grace.

About my Hebe’s slender form
show Venus’ girdle gently bound,
and with Albani’s subtle charm
the empress of my soul surround;

and folds of a clear shawl enwreathe
about her palpitating breast,
so that we seem to see her breathe
and show a sigh she’s half-suppressed.

This pure, shy, lovely girl portray –
the one to whom my life I owe;
then, gladly as a lover may,
I shall inscribe her name below.

 

57.  TO MASHA (1816)

Addressed to the eight-year old sister of a close school friend.

Masha yesterday requested:
“Rhyming couplets please compose!
If you do as I’ve suggested
I’ll write you my thanks in prose.”

Shall I shirk your task? Oh no, Miss!
I’ll be quick: time waits for none.
Seven years on, though, what you promised
maybe you’ll not yet have done –

sitting primly with the ladies
(maybe soon to be a wife),
off to join the promenaders
or go dancing – wretched life!

You’ll forget me – well I know it!
So do your part quickly too:
Masha, write and thank your poet
for these rhymes he’s sending you.

 

63.  FOR THE PRINCE OF ORANGE (1816)

In 1815 Prince William of Orange, heir to the Dutch throne, had fought with the Allies against Napoleon at Waterloo.  Now, a year later, he was in St Petersburg to marry the sister of Tsar Alexander I.

Heavy with warfare’s thunderous shade,
Death’s wings long overspread the Earth;
hard use had blunted blood-stained blade;
all round was slaughter, famine, dearth.

It’s over now.  Far-sighted tsars
ensure, for Europe, peace regained.
The scoundrel broke his prison bars,
but now, defeated, he’s rechained.

He looked on Moscow’s streets aflame –
but then the world’s aggressor stumbled;
our emperor of blessèd fame
gained mastery; the tyrant tumbled.

Through sea mists then the foe returned,
reached shore, defiantly rebelled,
took back the throne once overturned…
then fell, was captured and expelled.

Now all’s at peace.  War’s thunderous shade
no longer overspreads the earth;
dimmed is the flash of bloodstained blade;
gone now are slaughter, famine, dearth!

All praise to our young hero true!
For he, with glorious Albion,
did lead his troops at Waterloo
to avenge the Lily of Bourbon.

At his attack the rebel corps
in bloody fray no mercy found;
storm-like, he cleared the mist of war,
and scattered radiant glory round.

There too his youthful blood he shed:
his wound of honour glistens bright.
So, Love, crown his heroic head!
Well has he earned you in the fight.

 

72.  TRUTH (1816)

A poem based on two contradictory ancient sayings about Truth: that Truth was at the bottom of a well; and that Truth was in wine (in vino veritas).

Sages of old have been fixated
on hunting down elusive Truth –
a subject long and loud debated
by know-alls well beyond their youth.
“The naked Truth,” complained these grumblers,
“has somehow fallen down a well.”
Then, gulping water down in tumblers,
“The Truth’s here!” they began to yell.

But someone – and we’re ever grateful –
(Silenus, in near certainty)
their shouts and water found distasteful.
Vexed by their loud futility,
of unseen Truth he left off thinking
and started making wine instead;
then, glassful to the last drop drinking,
“I’ve just discovered Truth!” he said.

 

82.  FOR MORPHEUS (1816)

O Morpheus, god of dreams, till day
grant me relief from love’s distress.
Come, blow my lamp out now, I pray,
and my nocturnal visions bless!
Block from my cheerless recollection
the dreadful pain of those goodbyes;
grant me to see her loving eyes,
and hear her murmurs of affection.
Then, once the dark has taken flight,
your power over vision ended –
oh how I wish my poor wits might
forget love till fresh night’s descended!

 

83.  AN AFFECTIONATE WORD (1816)

The Russian title of this poem is ambiguous: it can mean either ‘A Word for a Dear One’or ‘A Wordfrom a Dear One’.  Pushkin leaves us to decide which he means.

I heard dear Lila sing and play –
how could her music fail to please?
It’s lovelier that fountains’ spray,
than nightingales among the trees,
than lyres at midnight.  Teardrops fell!
“Dear friend,” I said, “I won’t forget
your sad, enchanting songs…”  And yet
one word from her who’s dear as well
enchants me more, breaks Lila’s spell.

 

107.  TO A YOUNG WIDOW (1817)

Lydē, loyal friend, my treasure,
why, as I drift off to sleep
tired but happy from our pleasure,
do I hear you softly weep?
Why, too, burning with desire,
savouring love’s ecstasy,
do I on your cheek descry a
tear you tried to hide from me?
When I speak you disregard me
and the love that I express;
cold your gaze when you regard me,
cold your hand when mine you press.
Dearest friend, beyond all value,
tears for ever shall you shed?
Pointlessly for ever shall you
call your spouse back from the dead?
Death-sleep’s chilly grip, uneasing,
holds its victims: do believe!
Pleasant voice to them’s not pleasing,
cries of grief won’t make them grieve.
Unaware are they of gravestones
strewn with roses, radiant skies,
noisy wakes, the tears of loved ones,
and a girlfriend’s choked goodbyes.
Yes, the friend you still remember
breathed his last – too soon!  One night
he began his final slumber,
nestling by you in delight.
He now rests in blessed contentment.
Wrong to love are we, then?  No!
None will rise up in resentment
from the timeless dark below;
thunderclaps won’t crash above us;
nor will any phantom creep,
vengeful, up on us young lovers,
startling us too soon from sleep.

 

112.  TO A LETTER (1817)

Its words are joy to me!  So when my journey ends,
I want it to be placed against this lifeless breast.
Then maybe, my beloved friends,
maybe my heart will beat afresh.

 

120.  FOR PUSHCHIN’S ALBUM (1817)

Iván Pushchin had been a close friend of Pushkin’s during the whole of their six years at the Lycée.

Whenever you should spot this honest page, dear friend,
scrawled over with my versifying,
recall our Lycée years, these years now soon to end,
source of our comradeship undying.
Remember those brief moments from the very start
of our captivity, six years of isolation,
that nurtured inspiration
enlivening your young heart,
the grief, the joy, dissent and reconciliation,
first pal to share your life, and first girl to adore,
what has been – what will be no more…

  

126b.  A BUSYBODY

A later adaptation of a poem written at school.

“What news is there?”    – “Oh, nothing, true to God.”
– “You must know something. No equivocation!
I’m friend, not foe. For shame!  You’re very odd
to keep withholding any information.
Or are you angry? Tell me then, why so?
You stubborn chap!  One snippet don’t refuse, though.”
– “Be off!  There’s only one thing that I know:
that you’re an idiot. That isn’t news, though!”

 

135.  EPIGRAM ON THE DEATH OF A POET (1817 or before)

‘Cleitus’ was the nickname of a school friend of Pushkin’s whose poetry Pushkin thought little of.

Poor Cleitus won’t see paradise:
his sins could not have been much worse.
May God forget his every vice,
as we’ve forgotten all his verse.