After Lermontov: A Bicentenary Celebration

After Lermontov: A Bicentenary Celebration

by Mikhail Lermontov

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Bursting into print with an impassioned poem on the death of Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov attracted unfavorable attention from the authorities while enjoying a high reputation in literary circles and beyond. He was of Scottish descent, and this bilingual volume celebrates him with new translations by 14 translator-poets, mostly Scottish. Although Lermontov declared


Bursting into print with an impassioned poem on the death of Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov attracted unfavorable attention from the authorities while enjoying a high reputation in literary circles and beyond. He was of Scottish descent, and this bilingual volume celebrates him with new translations by 14 translator-poets, mostly Scottish. Although Lermontov declared in one poem that he was “not Byron,” he was greatly influenced by his reading of Byron and of Walter Scott. Having served in the Caucasus and taken part in dangerous engagements against the Chechens, like Pushkin he died in a duel of dubious legality. Published to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Mikhail Lermontov's birth, this book celebrates and showcases not only a great Russian writer, but also his Scottish heritage and the wealth of talent among the poets and translators of the United Kingdom and beyond.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[Mikhail Lermontov is] a poet of immense lyric intensity.” —Joseph Brodsky, winner, 1987 Nobel Prize for Literature

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After Lermontov

Translations for the Bicentenary

By Peter France, Robyn Marsack

Carcanet Press Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Peter France
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84777-537-5


    The Demon: An Eastern Tale
    (Part I, 1–9)


    A mournful demon, outcast spirit,
    Flew high above the sinful earth,
    And in a multitude the memories
    Of better days came swarming forth;
    Of those days when in radiant halls
    He shone, a perfect child of light,
    And when the fiery comet, racing
    Across the heavens would love to hail him,
    Exchanging smiles of fond delight,
    When through wreaths of mist eternal,
    Thirsty for knowledge, he had traced
    The paths of caravans that wandered
    Across the vast celestial wastes;
    When he had still known love and faith,
    Blessed first-born of creation!
    To evil and to doubt a stranger,
    His mind untroubled by the round
    Of fruitless ages without number;
    And more – and so much more, besides
    That it still pained him to remember.


    The outcast had long roamed this world,
    Which seemed to him a hostile desert:
    Age after age had flown by, just
    As minute follows after minute,
    In a monotonous parade.
    Over the wretched world he reigned,
    Sowed evil with a weary heart,
    And nowhere did he meet his equal
    Or find resistance to his art –
    And he grew tired of doing evil.


    Over the Caucasus' steep ridges
    Flew heaven's outcast; down below
    Like a raw diamond, Kazbek glittered,
    White with the everlasting snow,
    And deep beneath it, black with menace,
    Like some great serpent's rocky crevice,
    The Darial wound its tortuous road.
    The Terek, like a lioness bounding,
    Maned with a shaggy crest of white,
    Roared – and the beasts upon the mountain,
    The eagles in the azure heights,
    All heard the message of its waters;
    And golden clouds that made their way
    From southern lands, from far away,
    Followed it as it travelled northwards.
    And crags that clustered in dense throngs
    All heavy with mysterious slumber
    Bent their great heads to look upon
    The gleaming ripples of the river.
    And on the crags the castle towers
    Watched ominously through the mists.
    Like giant sentries, set to guard
    The gateway to the Caucasus.
    Before him, wonderful and wild
    Was all God's earth; but, full of pride,
    He cast a scornful eye about him,
    At everything his God had made,
    And not a shadow of emotion
    Was on his lofty brow betrayed.


    And then beneath him a new vision
    Revealed itself in colours bright;
    A fertile Georgian valley, spreading
    Like a rich carpet, far and wide;
    Abundant land, most happy sight!
    With poplars straight and tall as pillars
    And brightly echoing streams that glide
    On jewelled beds of stones, and bowers
    Of roses, where the nightingales
    Still serenade unheeding beauties
    In the sweet voice of love's delight.
    The sycamore's wide-spreading branches
    Crowned with dense ivy, and the caves
    Where, in the scorching heat of day,
    The timid deer conceal themselves
    The dazzle, life and noise of leaves;
    The chorus of a hundred voices,
    The breathing of a thousand flowers!
    The sensual swelter of the midday;
    And the warm nights that follow, bathed
    In the refreshing dewfall fragrant,
    And stars as bright as eyes, resplendent
    As a young Georgian maiden's gaze;
    But save a feeling of cold envy
    Nature's beauty could arouse
    In the heart of that barren outcast
    No fresh emotion, no fresh powers;
    And everything before his eyes
    He either hated or despised.


    A tall house and a spacious court
    Gudal had built upon the mountain,
    By years of toil and tears of countless
    Humble servants dearly bought;
    At dawn the neighbouring mountains caught
    Its shadow on their craggy slopes
    Hewn from the cliff, a flight of steps
    Led from the corner tower; each day
    Along those steps to the Aragva
    Her head swathed in a snowy veil,
    Princess Tamara to the river
    With water pitcher made her way.


    For long years that bleak house in silence
    Had looked down from the precipice;
    But this day it would host a feast:
    The zurna played and wine was flowing –
    Today the princess would be wed
    And Gudal all his clan had called
    To join the revels. The rooftop terrace
    Was strewn with carpets. There the bride
    Sat with her friends, in song they whiled
    Away the hours. And now, half-hidden
    The sun behind the peaks descends,
    Then clapping out a steady rhythm,
    They start to sing – the young bride stands,
    And with a movement deft and sudden
    She takes her tambourine in hand.
    She circles it above her head
    Then, swiftly as a small bird flitting,
    Darts to one side, then stops her dance
    And now a molten, lustrous glance
    Beneath her jealous lashes glitters;
    And now she arches her dark brow;
    Now makes a sudden, graceful bow
    And light across the carpet, now,
    Her heavenly feet go tripping, gliding;
    And then she smiles a smile so bright,
    So full of innocent delight,
    A moonbeam on the ripples shining
    Soft lifted by the swelling tide,
    Could not compare with that sweet smiling,
    As radiant as youth, or life.


    I swear upon the midnight star
    The sunset and the morning radiance,
    Neither the golden ruler of far
    Persia, nor any earthly Tsar
    Had ever kissed an eye so beauteous
    And, in the southern summer's warmth,
    The fountain in the harem courtyard
    In sparkling streams of dewy water
    Had never bathed so fine a form.
    No mortal hand yet, lightly straying
    Over a sweet brow, idly playing
    Had loosened from its braid such hair;
    Since man from paradise was driven,
    I swear the southern sun had never
    Shone on a beauty half so fair.


    She danced for the last time, in sorrow,
    Alas! She knew that on the morrow
    For her, Gudal's heir and his daughter,
    Spirited child of liberty,
    The sad fate of a slave girl beckoned,
    A foreign land, as yet unreckoned,
    And life in a strange family.
    And her bright face was often shadowed
    By clandestine uncertainty
    And every movement, every gesture
    Was so graceful, so expressive,
    So full of sweet simplicity
    That, had the Demon, flying over,
    Upon her chanced to cast his eye,
    Recalling then his former brothers
    He would have turned away and sighed.


    The demon saw her ... In a moment
    An inexplicable emotion
    Was stirred to life within his heart,
    And his dumb soul, a boundless desert,
    Resounded with a blessed note;
    He once again received the sacred
    Gift of beauty, warmth and love.
    And for some time he watched that precious
    Scene, and all the memories of
    His former joy, in long succession,
    Like star proceeding after star,
    Passing before his eyes he saw.
    By some unseen power fettered
    He felt a pain he had not known.
    Emotion's voice spoke up within him
    As if it spoke in his own tongue.
    Was it a sign of resurrection?
    No words of treacherous seduction
    Could he now find within his mind.
    Forget? Oblivion God denied.
    Besides, he did not want oblivion.

translated by Rose France

    Ossian's Grave

    In the Highlands of Scotland I love,
    Storm clouds curve down on the dark fields and strands,
    With icy grey mist closing in from above –
    Here Ossian's grave still stands.
    In dreams my heart races to be there,
    To deeply breathe in its native air –
    And from this long-forgotten shrine
    Take its second life as mine.

translated by Alan Riach

    Russian Song


    The sky is full of snowflakes flying,
    And on the step a girl stands, sighing,
    Afraid to bring
    The water in;
    And like a priest a prayer intoning,
    Sounds the blizzard's mournful moaning
    And howling.
    And all the while, beside the gate,
    The dog is biting at his chain
    And growling.


    But not that growling, deep and low,
    Nor yet the keening of the snow
    Brightens her stare
    With sudden fear;
    Fresh in the grave her sweetheart lies,
    Paler than snows he will arise
    To go to her:
    Then he will say: 'You played me false'
    And the ring that plights their troth
    He'll show her.

translated by Rose France

    A Wish

    Why am I not a bird – a raven?
    How I'd soar, high into the heavens.
    I'd love nothing more than to be free –
    A black raven of the steppe I'd be.

    Over the grassy seas, I'd fly west,
    My shadow written on emptiness.
    I'd come to the fields and stone towers,
    Where once my forebears flowered.

    In an old castle, shrouded in mist,
    Their ashes lie in forgotten kists.
    In the echoing vault of a great hall,
    The ancestral shield hangs on a wall,

    A rusty sword beside it. I'd brush
    Away their long-held dust with a touch
    Of my wing and I'd make the vaults ring
    With the pluck of a Scottish harp's string.

    But who else would be there to hear it
    In the silence? Oh I more than fear it! –
    That dreams are vain and prayers grate
    Against the harsh stony court of fate.

    The last of the brave warriors melts
    Into alien snows; he too has felt
    The weight of all the world's oceans,
    Deepening between us.

    I was born here, it's true! But I live
    Far from here in my soul. Oh, I'd give
    Everything that's precious up
    To be a raven – a raven of the steppe.

translated by Tom Pow

    'If on a winter's morning'

    If on a winter's morning, when the snow
    Falls thick and soft, and the red dawn
    Peers hesitantly at the hoary steppe,
    You hear the bells ring in the monastery,
    In battle with the blustering wind, the sound
    Is carried by it far across the sky –
    A sweet sound to the traveller on the road:
    Death knell or voice of immortality.

    I love that ringing! To me it is a flower
    Upon a burial mound, a mausoleum
    Unchanged by time. Not fate
    Nor yet the petty trials of men
    Shall have the power to stifle it. All alone,
    The gloomy master of a lofty tower,
    It speaks of all things to the world, and yet
    Is lost to all things, lost to heaven and earth.

translated by Rose France


    An angel flew through deep midnight
    Softly singing a melody;
    Clouds and moon and starry light
    Received that sacred threnody.

    The angel sang of blessed souls
    Inhabiting the groves of heaven
    And the mighty Lord of all
    Praised in song unfeigning.

    A young soul in the angel's arms
    Intended for this realm of tears,
    Enfolded in those wordless strains
    Kept them within him through the years.

    And through the weary days on earth
    This strange yearning never failed
    For all the songs of life and mirth
    Could not usurp its wondrous hold.

translated by Tessa Ransford

    'I don't love you'

    I don't love you; the fevered dream
    Of lust and longing's run its course.
    Your image in my soul still seems
    Alive, but it has lost its force.
    I can't forget, hard though I worked
    At other loves. It's not so odd:
    The abandoned kirk is still a kirk,
    The fallen idol – still a god!

translated by Peter McCarey

    'Not Byron, but, like Byron'

    Not Byron, but, like Byron, I
    Am ostracised and ridiculed.
    Russia is tattooed on my soul.
    A chosen Byronobody,

    I started sooner. I will die too soon.
    Flood tides of genius drown my brain.
    In my soul's ocean wrecked hulks moon,
    Each smuggled hope a smithereen.

    Dark Arctic Ocean, who can plumb
    Your hidden deeps? No voice will call
    Out of my deeps if I stay dumb.
    I'm a god – or nobody at all!

translated by Robert Crawford

    'She does not with disdainful beauty'

    She does not with disdainful beauty
    Seek to entice the lively young,
    Nor does she lead, scornful and haughty,
    Admirers in a sighing throng.
    Nor is her figure truly divine,
    Nor does her breast curve like a wave;
    No one would fall to the ground, enshrine
    Her in his heart, become her slave.
    And yet and yet her every movement,
    Feature, and utterance and smile
    Are redolent of life, so brilliant,
    Simple, and so free from guile.
    While her voice pierces the spirit
    Like a warm touch of days gone by;
    And the heart loves yet suffers to hear it,
    As though it might that love deny.

translated by Anna Crowe


    A single sail a blaze of white
    through haze on a pale blue sea!
    What does it seek on a far-off shore?
    What's left at the harbour quay?

    Wind shrills, waves in a reel,
    The masthead creaks and sways ...
    Alas, no course for happiness,
    Nor flight from that, alas!

    Below, a stream of sapphire light,
    With sun's gold light on the helm ?
    Unruly, though, it invites the storm,
    as if the storm brought calm!

translated by Alexander Hutchison

    'Mute we stood'

    Mute we stood, a silent army,
    Formed to bury our friend.
    Only the chaplain mumbled something,
    Only the autumn blizzard blew –
    While all around, over the sacred grave,
    The shakos sparkled, still in the haze.
    A lancer's hat and a battle-sword
    Lay on the crude coffin,
    And our hearts were hammers, pounding our
    And our eyes were drawn to the earth,
    As if to claw back
    All they'd given it.
    No futile tears stained our faces,
    Only the anguish crushed our souls
    As a farewell fistful of clay
    Clumped downwards, thudding the boards.
    Goodbye, comrade, your span was short.
    A blue-eyed bard you were –
    And yet all you've won is a wooden cross
    And our unforgetting.

translated by Christopher Rush and Anna Kurkina Rush

[Russian Text Not Reproducible in ASCII].


Excerpted from After Lermontov by Peter France, Robyn Marsack. Copyright © 2014 Peter France. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841) is best known to readers as the author of A Hero of Our Time. Bursting into print with an impassioned poem on the death of Pushkin, he continued to attract unfavorable attention from the authorities while enjoying a high reputation in literary circles and beyond. Having served in the Caucasus, and taken part in dangerous engagements against the Chechens, like Pushkin he died in a duel of dubious legality. Peter France is an eminent scholar and translator of modern Russian poetry. He is joint general editor, with Stuart Gillespie of Glasgow University, of the five-volume Oxford History of Literary Translation in English. Robyn Marsack is an editor, critic, and translator, and is director of the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh.

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