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"The Heavenly Language of Hellas": Pushkin's Elegiac Distichs.

Translator's Note

In 1829, Pushkin began writing elegiac distichs, an unrhymed couplet form common in Greek and Latin poetry. He continued writing distichs until his death, returning to the form for short periods every 2-3 years and eventually producing the smallish corpus of texts translated here. (I have also included one poem, the free translation "From Xenophanes of Colophon," because it was written in ancient hexameters--a related form-and originally published together with "From Athenaeus.") It is important to note that for Pushkin, the distich always retained its classical "semantic aureole": he used it for stylizations of antiquity, including several direct adaptations of ancient texts, and for poetic content of his own to which he wished to impart a classical ambiance. A significant portion of his work in the form is ekphrastic, describing real or imagined statuary. His most semantically complex and paradoxical repurposing of the distich is no doubt to be found in "Rhyme," a myth of Pushkin's own devising that anachronistically places the birth of rhyme in the ancient world, then tells the story in a pointedly rhymeless form. (1)

The classical elegiac distich consisted of one line of hexameter and one line of pentameter, though the latter is a notorious misnomer that should not be confused with modern uses of the term. The history of the adaptation of quantitative classical meters--i.e., meters based on vowel length, rather than on stress or accent--to syllabo-tonic Russian prosody was complex and frequently contentious; for our purposes, it will suffice to say that by the late 1820s, when Pushkin turned his attention to it, the elegiac distich in Russian took the following form, where--indicates a stressed syllable, and u an unstressed syllable:
Table 1. The Russian elegiac distich

(Foot)                1                     2

Hexameter    | - UU | or | -U      | - UU | or | - U |
  Line

Pentameter   | - UU | or | -U      | - UU | or | - U |
  Line

(Foot)                3                     4

Hexameter    | - UU | or | - U|    | - UU | or | - U |
  Line

Pentameter           --                    UU
  Line

(Foot)                5                     6

Hexameter           - UU                   - U
  Line

Pentameter          - UU                   --
  Line


One thing to point out about this scheme is that unlike most syllabo-tonic meters, it is prescriptive rather than normative: it shows where stressed and unstressed syllables must be, not merely where they can be. Perhaps because of this restriction and the monotony of rhythm it could produce, Russian prosody maintained the possibility of substitutions for the dactyls in the first four feet of the hexameter line, and also, in theory, in the first half of the pentameter line: these feet can be either dactyls or trochees (as shown in my table, where bold print indicates invariable feet). In practice, most Russian poets of the nineteenth century were relatively sparing in their use of trochaic substitutions, especially in the pentameter line, and Pushkin was no exception. He does, however, once (in "On a Statue of a Babki Player") allow himself a substitution in the second half of a pentameter line, which technically speaking is incorrect.

My original intention was to create not equimetrical, but isomorphic translations, transposing Pushkin's distichs into the English-language version of the form. The history of English poetry's assimilation of quantitative classical meters, however, is longer, more convoluted, and perhaps even more contentious than the corresponding Russian process, and the one thing generally agreed upon today is that neither classical hexameters nor the elegiac distich have been successful forms in our literature. Robert Southey (1774-1843) wrote accentual hexameters using a system identical to the Russian one (with trochaic cadences and trochaic substitutions, that is), as can be seen in the following two lines of his much-maligned long poem "A Vision of Judgement": "Thus as I stood, the bell which awhile from its warning had rested, / Sent forth its note again, toll, toll, thro' the silence of evening." Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) experimented along similar lines, composing an unfinished verse missive in hexameters to his friends William and Dorothy Wordsworth: "William, my head and my heart! dear William and dear Dorothea! / You have all in each other; but I am lonely, and want you!" (2) His 1799 translation of Schiller's famous metapoetic distich--as Coleridge calls it, "The Ovidian Elegiac Meter Described and Exemplified"--is also well-known: "In the hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column; / In the pentameter aye falling in melody back" (308). I initially opted for a more spondee-heavy realization of the distich in which the sixth foot of the hexameter line must be a spondee (i.e.,-- --, not--U), and the substitute foot for the dactyls in the first four feet of the line is again a spondee rather than a trochee; these are the guidelines for the distich given in American poet Lewis Turco's The Book of Forms (201). I quickly found, however, that English--or at least my English--is almost as spondee-averse as Russian, and I decided simply to combine the trochaic and spondaic approaches. This means my hexameter cadences can be either spondees or trochees, and the same is theoretically true of my substitutions. There is some justification for this apparent indecision, given that classical hexameters ended in the anceps syllable, which could be either long or short. Moreover, because spondaic substitution in a hexameter line produces three stressed syllables in a row, a virtual impossibility in English versification (one stress is always "demoted"), admitting trochaic substitutions would seem to be a necessary compromise. Overall, though, I used far fewer substitutions than Pushkin, with the result that most of my hexameter lines scan as purely dactylic. My source for the Russian texts is volume three of the sixteen-volume Academy edition of Pushkin's works, which is available online: http://feb-web.ru/feb/pushkin/default.asp. I gratefully acknowledge help from Michael Wachtel, whose chapter on the elegiac distich in The Development of Russian Verse (1998) strongly influenced my understanding of the form, and who was kind enough to look over my translations as well. He bears no responsibility, of course, for remaining errors in form or sense. My wife Cherie Braden also made valuable contributions to my translations.

Kenyon College

References

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1912.

Southey, Robert. "A Vision of Judgement." Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830. Accessed 20 June 2019. http://spenserians.cath. vt.edu/TextRecord.php?textsid=36388.

Turco, Lewis Putnam. The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Including Odd and Invented Forms. Revised and expanded edition. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2012.

Wachtel, Michael. The Development of Russian Verse: Meter and its Meanings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
   [phrase omitted]

   1829

   (While sending a bronze Sphinx)

   Who has transplanted Theocritus' delicate roses to cold snow?
     Tell me, in this age of iron, who saw the golden age shine?
   Name a young Russian, Greek in his soul but by bloodline Germanic;
     That is my riddle for you: solve it, sly Oedipus, now!

   1829

   [phrase omitted]

   1830

   The Work

   This is the moment I've dreamt of: the end to my labor of long
      years.
     Why then this sadness within, secretly tormenting me?
   Now that I've finished my task, do I stand like a workman unwanted,
     Having received his day's wage, wary of all other toil?
   Or does it pain me to part with my silent nocturnal companion,
     Golden Aurora's friend, friend to the gods of my hearth?

   1833

   [phrase omitted].

   1830

   The Statue in Tsarskoe Selo

   Dropping her jug on an outcrop, the maid saw it break on the hard
      stone.
     Frozen in sorrow she sits, holding a pitiful shard.
   Marvelous! water, unceasing, now streams from the jug that was
      broken.
     Water still pours from the jug; still the maid sits in lament.

   1830

   [phrase omitted]

   1830

   About the Translation of the Iliad

   Homer was blind, while his translator, Gnedich the poet, had one
      eye;
     Like the translation he made, he's only gotten halfway.

   1830

   [phrase omitted]

   1830

   Rhyme

   Echo, the nymph, in her sleeplessness wandered the shores of
      Peneus.
     Phoebus, on seeing her, blazed bright with a burning desire.
   She, but a nymph, bore the fruit of the deity's amorous raptures;
     Naiads surrounding her bed, Echo in torment gave birth
   Unto a beautiful daughter. Mnemosyne acted as midwife.
     Lively the maiden grew up, midst all the Muses divine.
   Keen like her mother and ever submissive to memory's strict law,
     Dear to the Muses; on earth, Rhyme is the name she is called.

   1830

   [phrase omitted].

   1830

   The Youth

   Fishermen spread their nets on the desolate shore of the cold sea,
     Father with help from his son. Youth, leave the fisher behind!
   Nets of a different sort lie in store for you, different cares,
      too:
     You'll be a fisher of minds; you will give counsel to tsars.

   1830

   [phrase omitted]

   1830

   220

   On the Translation of the Iliad

   Long-dormant sounds of the heavenly language of Hellas I hear now,
     Humble of soul, and I sense shades of the great elder bard.

   1830

   [phrase omitted]

   1832

   From Xenophanes of Colophon

   Brightly the polished floor shines, and the glass of the goblets is
      sparkling;
   Wreathed are the revelers; one of the guests takes in air with his
      eyes shut,
   Scenting the smoldering incense; another unseals the amphorae,
   Spreading the merry aroma of wine in the distance; the bright, cold
   Water in vessels for serving, the breads shining golden, the amber
   Honey and fresh cheese--everything's ready; the altar adorned with
   Flowers. The choruses sing. But the start of the feast, o my
      friends, must
   Flow with libations, resound with speeches portending good fortune;
   We must beseech the immortals to deem us worthy with pure hearts
   Justice to serve; after all, that way's easier. Now we proceed,
      friends:
   Each will get drunk in his measure. It's no great misfortune to
      come home
   Late in the night and support oneself leaning on servants, but
      praise be
   Given the guest who converses at table with wisdom, and calmly!

   1832

   [phrase omitted]

   1832
   From Athenaeus

   Theon, the famous flutist and leader of choruses, lies here,

     Scirpalus' son; the old man, blind from his years, gave him life
   And was inspired to call his son Theon. At table he gave due
     Honor to Bacchus, and sweet praise to the Muses as well.
   And he gave praise to the handsome young Battalus: traveler, halt
      here!
     Passing this tomb, say aloud: Hail to you, Theon, hello!

   1832

   [phrase omitted]

   1833

   Youth! learn to feast with a modesty; Bacchus's riotous nectar
     Water in sobering streams; mix it with wisdom in speech.

   1833

   [phrase omitted]

   1833

   Wine (Ion of Chios)

   Youthful old man, wicked infant, omnipotent ruler of good heart,
     Our inspiration, our pride, fervent protector of love!

   1833

   [phrase omitted]

   1835

   Bitterly sobbing, the jealous maiden rebuked her young lover;
     Leaning against her, the youth suddenly drifted asleep.
   Promptly the maiden fell silent and tenderly guarded the youth's
      rest,
     Smiling and gazing enthralled, quietly pouring out tears.

   1835

   [phrase omitted]

   1836

   To an Artist

   Happy and sad, I step into your studio, master of hewn stone:
     Plaster with thought you endow, marble submits to your will:
   So many goddesses, heroes, and gods!.. Here stands Zeus,
      Thunder-Hurler,
     There sits a satyr and scowls, playing upon his reed pipe.

   Barclay, who started, Kutuzov, who finished, the generals both
      here.
     Perfect Apollo is here, there we find Niobe's grief...
   Happiness fills me, but still, midst this silent assembly of carved
      gods,
     Sadly I wander, bereft, Delvig no more at my side:
   Ever a friend and advisor to artists, he rests in the dark grave.
     How he'd embrace you for this! He would take pride in your work!

   1836

   [phrase omitted]

   1836

   On a Statue of a Svaika (3) Player

   Beautiful, free of all visible tension and effort, the athlete,
     Slender and graceful but strong, thrills to the speed of the game!
   Here is your equal in skill, discus-thrower! Embrace him in
      friendship;
     After the game he will rest; truly he's earned his repose.

   1836

   [phrase omitted]

   1836

   On a Statue of a Babki (4) Player

   Taking three steps, the youth stopped in midstride and leaned
      forward, his left hand
     Braced on his knee, as his right lifted the bone to take aim.
   Now he is ready to throw ... all you onlookers, step to the side,
      please!
     Don't interfere, but make way; honor this bold Russian game.

   1836


(1) Michael Wachtel, The Development of Russian Verse: Meter and Its Meanings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 186-87.

(2) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poetical Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford: Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1912), 1: 305.

(3) A traditional Russian game in which players attempt to throw the svaika, a piece of iron shaped like a large nail, into the ground inside an iron ring.

(4) A traditional Russian game not unlike skittles, but played with the bones of domesticated animals.
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Author:McGavran, James
Publication:Pushkin Review
Geographic Code:4EXRU
Date:Jan 1, 2019
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