Learning to love life on the downslope

Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum (All-Russia A. S. Pushkin Museum), St. Petersburg

Alexander Sergeyevich recites his poem before Gavrila Derzhavin during the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum exam on January 8th, 1815. Oil on canvas. Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum (All-Russia A. S. Pushkin Museum), St. Petersburg.

Article Highlights

  • A look at "Elegia," a short poem by Russia's greatest poet, Alexander #Pushkin, by @AronRTTT

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  • For Pushkin, who was notoriously and recklessly brave in duels, the desire to live is far more than the fear of death.

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  • There is no other poem like "Elegia"—filled with the hope that art, work and love make life worth our while even on the downslope.

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How do we know that we have really, truly and irreversibly reached "middle age"? That, as Joseph Brodsky put it, "we have gone over half," no matter what our physical age? On the surface of which cold and hard blade does the notion sink into our hearts? Is it by the hardening of the membranes of our social cells, which suddenly absorb so much more selectively of books and music, ideas and people? Or is it in suddenly knowing people who are dead—more and more every year?

As the living markers of our lives tumble down and become memories, of which we are increasingly sole custodians, what of the piercing sadness of those increasingly frequent mornings when the irretrievably departed faces and places, words and gestures flood the leaky boats of our minds and it's a wonder we manage to launch ourselves to work?

Whatever the symptoms, so much needs to be thought through, adjusted to and coped with, and as always we look to great art for companionship and solace and perhaps even a guideline or two.

In this quest we must not overlook a small gem: "Elegia" (Elegy), a short poem by Russia's greatest poet, Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837).

The key creator of modern literary Russian, Pushkin is the author of such superb long poems as "The Prisoner of Caucasus," "The Gypsies," "The Fountain of Bakhchisaray," "The Bronze Horseman" and, of course, the glorious "novel in verse" "Eugene Onegin." He has also given us the lean prose, golden and translucent like Baltic Sea amber, of "The Captain's Daughter," "The Tales of Belkin" and "The Queen of Spades." He wrote the drama "Boris Godunov," as well as "Mozart and Salieri," "The Miserly Knight," "The Stone Guest" and "A Feast During the Plague," the last four compressed by the enormous weight of Pushkin's talent into the diamonds of one-act "little tragedies."

But to the Russians Pushkin is first and foremost the author of short lyrical poems, many known by heart by every educated Russian. Almost two centuries later, they are still the brightest stars in the firmament of Russian belle-lettres. In Vladimir Nabokov's superb autobiographical novel, "The Gift," the main character "fed on Pushkin" and "inhaled Pushkin." "The reader of Pushkin has the capacity of his lungs enlarged," Nabokov wrote.

Written on Sept. 8, 1830—autumn being Pushkin's favorite season, to which he penned several odes and during which he was often almost inhumanely productive, usually lying in bed till noon, filling a notebook propped on his knees—"Elegia" was created at the very end of the six-year period between 1824 and 1830 in which he wrote his finest lyrical poetry. (In later years Pushkin largely shifted to prose and histories). Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky, the author of the finest one-volume history of Russian literature from the 10th to early 20th century, called these short poems "a body of lyric verse unapproached in Russian and unsurpassed in any poetry." Their beauty, Svyatopolk-Mirsky continued, is austere, largely free from metaphor or imagery—a classic "Greek beauty" that depended so much on what's left unsaid as on what is said, and "on choice of words, on the adequacy of rhythm and intonation," and "on the complex texture of sound—a wonderful alliteratio Pushkiniana, so elusive and so all-conditioning."

The two sestets (six-line stanzas) of "Elegia" are meticulously metered and rhymed. The meter is an iambic pentameter: five rhythmically stressed syllables on each line, with stress on the second syllable. The rhyme scheme is AABBCC, with feminine rhymes (the rhymed syllables are penultimate on the line) alternating with masculine ones at the end of the line.

None of the existing translations is anywhere near the original. So here's my attempt at what Nabokov called a "lexical," or literal translation.

Thirty-one years old at the time—and, by contemporary life expectancy, having gone well "over half"—Pushkin begins with a merciless probing of middle-age angst:

The burnt-out gaiety of reckless years

Lies heavy on me like a bleary hangover.

But, like wine, the sadness of the bygone days

In my soul grows stronger the older it is.

My path is bleak. Labor and sorrow is promised me

By the future's churning sea.

Is this all? Wouldn't, then, death be welcome, or at least, unobjectionable? Not quite.

But I don't want, o my friends, to die;

In the case of Pushkin, who was notoriously and recklessly brave in duels and, at least once, on a battlefield in the Caucasus, the desire to live is far more than the fear of death. There follows a magical line: "Greek," in Svyatopolk-Mirsky's sense of the word, but not only in its laconic austerity but also in its bottomless oracular depth:

I want to live to think and to suffer.

Then, on the reader still despairing over the first stanza, Pushkin bestows what is almost certainly among the shortest and most powerful inventory of life's immutable treasures penned by a poet:

I know there shall be enjoyments for me

Amid sorrows, cares and anxieties:

At times I again will be intoxicated by harmony,

Weep over my fantasy's creation,

And perhaps on my sad sunset

Love will shine its farewell smile.

In the six years he had left to live (Pushkin was mortally wounded in a duel in January 1837), the poet would again unflinchingly confront the reality of the human condition yet continue to hold out the "blessings" still available to him (and us). "There is no happiness on earth yet there is peace and freedom," he wrote in "'Tis time, my friend, 'tis time" (1834). Whether one was subject to the despotism of the czar (in Russia) or the vagaries of the crowd's moods (in Western democracies), one was still able to "admire the divine beauties of Nature and to feel one's soul melt in the glow of man's inspired design" ("From Pindemonte," 1836, translated by Nabokov).

But there would never be another poem like "Elegia"—filled as beautifully with so concentrated a dose of bitter truth, the courage to meet it head-on, and the hope that art, work and love make life worth our while even on the downslope.

Thank you, Alexander Sergeyevich.

Mr. Aron is a resident scholar and director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is "Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991" (Yale University Press, 2012).

 

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