Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin – age 217 as of June 6, 2016 – lives in the hearts of many Russians for almost as many reasons as he has poems. Not only is his writing beautiful and clever – it was also responsible for making Russian sound like a language made for poetry at a time when French was all the rage. Pushkin’s lyricism, wit, and rediscovery of the beauty of Russian – not to mention a few words of his own invention – earned him a place next to religious icons on many a Russian’s wall.
On top of all that, Pushkin has got a line for almost every occasion. So, in honor of his birthday, here are poems (or excerpts of poems) you can whip out to help you make your way through six very different situations.
1. To whine about doing something you don’t want to do
Eugene Onegin is Pushkin’s magnum opus: a novel in verse, an epic of love and death, referred to by literary critic and Pushkin’s contemporary, Vissarion Belinsky, as an “encyclopedia of Russian society.” Its opening lines are among the most memorized in Russian letters.
“My uncle is a man of honour,
When in good earnest he fell ill,
He won respect by his demeanour
And found the role he best could fill.
Let others profit by his lesson,
But, oh my god, what desolation
To tend a sick man day and night
And not to venture from his sight!
What shameful cunning to be cheerful
With someone who is halfway dead,
To prop up pillows by his head,
To bring him medicine, looking tearful,
To sigh – while inwardly you think:
When will the devil let him sink?”
«Мой дядя самых честных правил,
Когда не в шутку занемог,
Он уважать себя заставил
И лучше выдумать не мог.
Его пример другим наука;
Но, боже мой, какая скука
С больным сидеть и день и ночь,
Не отходя ни шагу прочь!
Какое низкое коварство
Ему подушки поправлять,
Печально подносить лекарство,
Вздыхать и думать про себя:
Когда же черт возьмет тебя!»
2. To face a stressful situation
The title character of Pushkin’s verse drama Boris Godunov finagled his way to the throne after the death of Ivan the Terrible’s feeble-minded heir in 1591. By the time of the play’s drama a decade later, though, Godunov is having a tense time running Russia:
Ah! Heavy art thou, cap of Monomakh!
Ох, тяжела ты, шапка Мономаха!
His exclamation to his headgear – referring to the imperial crown – is Russia’s answer to Shakespeare’s “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” (Henry IV, Part II). But it’s not just for monarchs: use this phrase anytime your responsibilities seem like too much to bear.
3. To cope with hallucinations
"The Bronze Horseman" starts out with a young man’s poetic waffling about whether or not to get married, and ends up (spoiler alert!) with a horrifying flood, St. Petersburg’s municipal incompetence facing the damage, and the protagonist’s grief over his lost lady love bringing a statue of Peter the Great to life.
And after him, astride his bounding
steed, the Horseman, hand held high,
outstretched beneath the moonlit sky,
followed; and all night long, no matter
whither the poor madman bent
his steps, with heavy echoing clatter
after him the Horseman went.
За ним несется Всадник Медный
На звонко-скачущем коне;
И во всю ночь безумец бедный,
Куда стопы ни обращал,
За ним повсюду Всадник Медный
С тяжелым топотом скакал.
Next time you’re hallucinating, count your blessings if you don’t have an equestrian tsar on your tail.
4. To teach Russian learners formal vs. informal
For folks studying Russian, figuring out who’s a “Вы” (folks in positions of authority or older than you) and who’s a “Ты” (friends, family, and people your age or younger) can take a lot of trial and error. These days it’s a matter of memorization and maybe a few awkward exchanges. In Pushkin’s day, when a man and a woman switched from formal (“you”) to informal (“thou”) it could mean the budding of romance. Or, in the case of this poem’s speaker, being too shy to take a hint.
She substituted, by a chance,
For empty “you” – the gentle “thou”;
And all my happy dreams, at once,
In loving heart again resound.
In bliss and silence do I stay,
Unable to maintain my role:
“Oh, how sweet you are!” I say –
“How I love thee!” says my soul.
Пустое вы сердечным ты
Она, обмолвясь, заменила
И все счастливые мечты
В душе влюбленной возбудила.
Пред ней задумчиво стою,
Свести очей с нее нет силы;
И говорю ей: Как вы милы!
И мыслю: как тебя люблю!
5. To impress naughty schoolboys
14-year-old Pushkin wrote “The Monk” while a student at the famous Lyceum at Tsarskoe Selo. At that point, the kid destined to be Russia’s greatest poet cared less about his future and more about entertaining his friends with bawdy poems. This one shows how the devil attempts to seduce a monk by showing him a woman’s skirt.
“What’s that I see, or am I merely dreaming?”
Exclaimed the monk, who froze in place and paled,
“How can this be?...” He tried to speak, but failed,
And froze in awe before the skirt of white,
Dumbfounded, blushing, trembling with fright.
Against sweet passion’s fire the sole defense,
The shroud that shields a lover’s recompense,
And serves to cover up such sweet delights,
Oh skirt! You are the one I now beseech,
To you I hereby dedicate this speech.
May love inspire all that my pen writes!
«Что вижу я!.. иль это только сон?—
Вскричал монах, остолбенев, бледнея.—
Как! это что?..» — и, продолжать не смея,
Как вкопанный, пред белой юбкой стал,
Молчал, краснел, смущался, трепетал.
Огню любви единственна преграда,
Любовника сладчайшая награда
И прелестей единственный покров,
О юбка! речь к тебе я обращаю,
Строки сии тебе я посвящаю,
Одушеви перо мое, любовь!
6. To celebrate (or scorn) your friends
Pushkin’s take on “Friendship” isn’t the rosy view you’d find on a Hallmark card. Kind of makes you wonder how he really felt about his Lyceum buddies, once they finished giggling over the monk and his skirt.
What's friendship? The hangover's languid burn,
restless talk of being spurned,
swapping vanity, slacking
or the shame of a patron’s backing.
Что дружба? Легкий пыл похмелья,
Обиды вольный разговор,
Обмен тщеславия, безделья
Иль покровительства позор.
This is only a tiny smattering of Pushkin’s countless poems, and that’s not even including his stories, dramas, elegies, and many a work that defies genre. Whether or not these are situations you find yourself facing on a daily basis, they're bound to bring Russians a rare smile. You never know when a line or two of verse can save the day.
Eugene Onegin. Trans. Stanley Mitchell. Penguin Classics, 2008. 7.
Евгений Онегин. Собрание сочинений в 10 томах. Т. 4, Москва, ГИХЛ, 1959-62. 10.
Борис Годунов. Собрание сочинений в 10 томах. Т. 4. 249.
“The Bronze Horseman,” Trans. Antony Wood. Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinksi (eds.), The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. 99-100.
“Медный всадник: Петербургская повесть.” Собрание сочинений в 10 томах. Т. 3. 298.
“Thou and You.” Translated by Evgeny Bonver. poetryloverspage.com.
“Ты и вы.” Собрание сочинений в 10 томах. T. 2. 207.
“The Monk”/“Монах”appeared in the article “Young Pushkin” by Tamara Eidelman in Russian Life July/Aug 2013. Translation by Nora Favorov.
“Дружба.” Собрание сочинений в 10 томах. T. 2. 46.
English translations from “Boris Godunov” and “Friendship” by author.
Poetry, The Russian Riddle, and What Both Have to Do with International Politics
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