History of Literature

Boris Pasternak



Boris Pasternak


Boris Pasternak

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (Russian: Бори́с Леони́дович Пастерна́к) (February 10 [O.S. January 29] 1890 — May 30, 1960) was a Nobel Prize-winning Russian poet and writer, in the West best known for his epic novel Doctor Zhivago. The novel is a tragedy, whose events span through the last period of Tsarist Russia and early days of Soviet Union, and was first translated and published in Italy in 1957. In Russia, however, Boris Pasternak is most celebrated as a poet. My Sister Life, written in 1917, is arguably the most influential collection of poetry published in Russian language in the 20th century.
Pasternak was born in Moscow on February 10, (Gregorian), 1890 (Julian January 29) into a Jewish family. His father was a prominent painter, Leonid Pasternak, professor at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture and his mother was Rosa (Raitza) Kaufman, a concert pianist. Pasternak was brought up in a highly cosmopolitan atmosphere, and visitors to his home included pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and writer Leo Tolstoy. Inspired by his neighbour Alexander Scriabin, Pasternak resolved to become a composer and entered the Moscow Conservatory. In 1910 he abruptly left the conservatory for the University of Marburg, where he studied under Neo-Kantian philosophers Hermann Cohen and Nicolai Hartmann. Although invited to become a scholar, he decided against making philosophy a profession and returned to Moscow in 1914. His first poetry collection, influenced by Alexander Blok and the Russian Futurists, was published later the same year. Pasternak's early verse cleverly dissimulates his preoccupation with Kant's ideas. Its fabric includes striking alliterations, wild rhythmic combinations, day-to-day vocabulary, and hidden allusions to his favourite poets like Rilke, Lermontov and German Romantic poets. During the First World War , he taught and worked at a chemical factory in Vsevolodovo-Vilve (Perm gubernia, near Perm), which undoubtedly provided him with material for Dr. Zhivago many years later. Unlike many of his relatives and friends, Pasternak did not leave Russia after the revolution. Instead, he was fascinated with the new ideas and possibilities that revolution brought to life.
Pasternak spent the summer of 1917 living in the steppe country near Saratov, where he fell in love. This passion resulted in the collection My Sister Life, which he wrote over a period of three months, but was too embarrassed to publish for four years because of its novel style. When it finally was published in 1921, the book revolutionised Russian poetry. It made Pasternak the model for younger poets, and decisively changed the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam, Marina Tsvetayeva and others. Following My Sister Life, Pasternak produced some hermetic pieces of uneven quality, including his masterpiece - the lyric cycle entitled Rupture (1921). Authors such as Vladimir Mayakovsky, Andrey Bely, and Vladimir Nabokov applauded Pasternak's poems as works of pure, unbridled inspiration. In the late 1920s, he also participated in the much celebrated tripartite correspondence with Rilke and Tsvetayeva.
By the end of the 1920s, Pasternak increasingly felt that his colourful modernist style was at odds with the doctrine of Socialist Realism approved by the Communist party. He attempted to make his poetry more comprehensible to the masses by reworking his earlier pieces and starting two lengthy poems on the Russian Revolution. He also turned to prose and wrote several autobiographical stories, notably The Childhood of Lovers and Safe Conduct.
By 1932, Pasternak had strikingly reshaped his style to make it acceptable to the Soviet public and printed the new collection of poems aptly entitled The Second Birth. Although its Caucasian pieces were as brilliant as the earlier efforts, the book alienated the core of Pasternak's refined audience abroad. He simplified his style even further for his next collection of patriotic verse, Early Trains (1943), which prompted Nabokov to describe Pasternak as a "weeping Bolshevik" and "Emily Dickinson in trousers." During the great purges of the later 1930s, Pasternak became progressively disillusioned with Communist ideals. Reluctant to publish his own poetry, he turned to translating Shakespeare (Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear), Goethe (Faust), Rilke (Requiem für eine Freundin), Paul Verlaine, and Georgian poets. Pasternak's translations of Shakespeare have proved popular with the Russian public because of their colloquial, modernised dialogues, but critics accused him of "pasternakizing" the English playwright. Although he was widely panned for excessive subjectivism, Stalin is said to have crossed Pasternak's name off an arrest list during the purges, saying "Don't touch this cloud dweller."[citation needed]Another version of Stalin's remark, possibly on a separate occasion, is "Leave that Holy Fool alone!" His cousin, Polish poet Leon Pasternak was not so lucky. As a result of his political activities in Poland — writing satirical verses for socialist revolutionary periodicals - he was imprisoned in 1934 in the Bereza Kartuska detention camp.

Several years before the start of the Second World War, Pasternak and his wife settled in Peredelkino, a village for writers several miles from Moscow. He was filled with a love of life that gave his poetry a hopeful tone. This is reflected in the name of his autobiographical hero Zhivago, derived from the Russian word for live. Another famous character, Lara, is said to have been modeled on his mistress, Olga Ivinskaya.As the book was frowned upon by the Soviet authorities, Doctor Zhivago was smuggled abroad by his friend Isaiah Berlin and published in an Italian translation by the Italian publishing house Feltrinelli in 1957. The novel became an instant sensation, and was subsequently translated and published in many non-Soviet bloc countries. In 1958 and 1959, the American edition spent 26 weeks at the top of The New York Times' bestseller list. Although none of his Soviet critics had the chance to read the proscribed novel, some of them publicly demanded, "kick the pig out of our kitchen-garden," i.e., expel Pasternak from the USSR. This led to a jocular Russian saying used to poke fun at illiterate criticism, "I did not read Pasternak, but I condemn him". Doctor Zhivago was eventually published in the USSR in 1988.The screen adaptation, directed by David Lean, was of epic proportions, being toured in the roadshow tradition, and starred Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. Concentrating on the romantic aspects of the tale, it quickly became a worldwide blockbuster, but wasn't released in Russia until near the time of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Pasternak by Yuri Annenkov

Pasternak was named the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. On October 25, two days after hearing that he had won, Pasternak sent the following telegram to the Swedish Academy:

Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed.
However, four days later came another telegram: Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.

The Swedish Academy announced:

This refusal, of course, in no way alters the validity of the award. There remains only for the Academy, however, to announce with regret that the presentation of the Prize cannot take place.


Reading between the lines of Pasternak's second telegram, it is clear he declined the award out of fear that he would be stripped of his citizenship were he to travel to Stockholm to accept it. After struggling a lifetime to avoid leaving Russia, this was not a prospect he welcomed. Despite turning down the Nobel Prize, Soviet officials soured on Pasternak, and he was threatened at the very least with expulsion. However, it appears that the Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, may also have spoken with Khrushchev about this, and Pasternak was not exiled or imprisoned. Despite this, a famous Bill Mauldin cartoon at the time showed Pasternak and another prisoner in Siberia, splitting trees in the snow. In the caption, Pasternak says, "I won the Nobel Prize for literature. What was your crime?" The cartoon won the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning in 1959.The Nobel medal was finally presented to Pasternak's son, Yevgeny, at a ceremony in Stockholm during the Nobel week of December 1989. At the ceremony, the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich played a Bach serenade to honor his deceased countryman.

Pasternak's post-Zhivago poetry probes the universal questions of love, immortality, and reconciliation with God.

Pasternak died of lung cancer on May 30, 1960. Despite only a small notice appearing in the Literary Gazette, thousands of people traveled from Moscow to his funeral in Peredelkino. "Volunteers carried his open coffin to his burial place and those who were present (including the poet Andrey Voznesensky) recited from memory the banned poem 'Hamlet'." The poet and bard Alexander Galich wrote a politically charged song dedicated to his memory.








Doctor Zhivago

Boris Pasternak

Pasternak's epic story of the love affair between Lara and Yuri, set against the historical and geographical vastness of revolutionary Russia, was banned in the USSR from its first publication in Italy until 1988. While Pasternak was silenced by the Soviets, he won extravagant plaudits in the West, receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.
It is a bitter irony that this divergence between Soviet and Western responses to Doctor Zhivago has had such a profound influence on the way that the novel has been read. Pasternak has been caricatured by both the West and the East as a writer who prioritizes a romantic Western concept of individual freedom over the iron cruelties of the socialist state. In fact, rather than being in any simple sense counterrevolutionary, the book is a subtle examination of the ways in which revolutionary ideals can be compromised by the realities of political power. The relationship between Lara and Yuri, one of the most compelling in postwar fiction, grows out of a fascination with the possibilities of revolutionary justice and is closely interwoven with it. The novel is driven by the struggle to achieve a kind of perfect truth, in both personal and political terms, but its drama and pathos are found in the failure of this striving toward the ideal and in the extraordinary difficulty of remaining faithful to a personal, political, or poetic principle.
One of the most striking things about the novel is the Russian landscape itself which emerges with a wonderful spaciousness and an extraordinary beauty. It is from its elegiac encounter with the vast landscape upon which this drama is played out that Doctor Zhivago produces an extraordinary sense of happiness and a sense of the boundlessness of historical and human possibility.












The noise subsides. I walk onto the stage.
I listen closely to the echo of the hum
And, leaning on the doorway, try to gauge
Just what will happen in the age to come.

The twilight of the night has gathered
A thousand opera-glasses pointing at me.
If only you are willing, Abba Father,
I pray to you, please take this cup from me.

I love your plan, so fixed and stubborn
And I agree to play this role.
But, as of now, there is a different drama,
This time, dismiss me, I implore.

The plot is predetermined to proceed,
The outcome of my destiny is sealed.
There's Pharisees, hypocricy and greed.
And life is not a walk across a field.

Translated by Andrey Kneller








Life returned with a cause-the way
Some strange chance once interrupted it.
Just as on that distant summer day,
I am standing in the same old street.

People are the same, and people's worries,
And the sunset's still a fireball,
Just the way death's night once in a hurry
Nailed it to the ancient mansion's wall.

Women, in the same cheap clothes attired,
Are still wearing down their shoes at night.
Afterwards, against the roofing iron
They are by the garrets crucified.

Here is one of them. She looks so weary
As she steps across the threshold, and
Rising from the basement, drab and dreary,
Walks across the courtyard on a slant.

And again I'm ready with excuses,
And again it's all the same to me.
And the neighbour in the backyard pauses,
Then goes out of sight, and leaves us be.


Don't cry, do not purse your lips up,
They're puffy as it is, dear.
Mind you don't break the drying scab
Of smouldering spring fever.

Your hand is on my breast. Let go!
We are like two live wires.
If we aren't careful, we'll be thrown
Together unawares.

The years will pass, you'll marry yet
And you'll forget this squalor.
To be a woman is a feat,
To drive men mad, that's valour.

And as for me, I've been in thrall
For ages-begged like alms,
And worshipped the great miracle
Of woman's neck, back, arms.

Though bound tight, at the end of day,
By the anguished darkness' loop,
I'm ever lured to get away-
I long to break things up.


Translated by Sergei Roy







Black spring! Pick up your pen, and weeping,
Of February, in sobs and ink,
Write poems, while the slush in thunder
Is burning in the black of spring.

Through clanking wheels, through church bells ringing
A hired cab will take you where
The town has ended, where the showers
Are louder still than ink and tears.

Where rooks, like charred pears, from the branches
In thousands break away, and sweep
Into the melting snow, instilling
Dry sadness into eyes that weep.

Beneath - the earth is black in puddles,
The wind with croaking screeches throbs,
And-the more randomly, the surer
Poems are forming out of sobs.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater








I dreamt of autumn in the window's twilight,
And you, a tipsy jesters' throng amidst. '
And like a falcon, having stooped to slaughter,
My heart returned to settle on your wrist.

But time went on, grew old and deaf. Like thawing
Soft ice old silk decayed on easy chairs.
A bloated sunset from the garden painted
The glass with bloody red September tears.

But time grew old and deaf. And you, the loud one,
Quite suddenly were still. This broke a spell.
The dreaming ceased at once, as though in answer
To an abruptly silenced bell.

And I awakened. Dismal as the autumn
The dawn was dark. A stronger wind arose
To chase the racing birchtrees on the skyline,
As from a running cart the streams of straws.

1913, 1928

Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater








I have allowed my family to scatter,
All those who were my dearest to depart,
And once again an age-long loneliness
Comes in to fill all nature and my heart.

Alone this cottage shelters me and you:
The wood is an unpeopled wilderness
And ways and footpaths wear, as in the song.
Weeds almost overgrowing each recess;

And where we sit together by ourselves
The log walls gaze upon us mournfully.
We gave no promise to leap obstacles,
We shall yet face our end with honesty.

At one we'll sit, at three again we'll rise,
My book with me, your sewing in your hand,
Nor with the dawning shall we realize
When all our kissing shall have had an end.

You leaves, more richly and more recklessly
Rustle your dresses, spill yourselves away,
And fill a past day's cup of bitterness
Still higher with the anguish of today!

All this delight, devotion and desire!
We'll fling ourselves into September's riot!
Immure yourself within the autumn's rustle
Entirely: go crazy, or be quiet!

How when you fall into my gentle arms
Enrobed in that silk-tasselled dressing gown
You shake the dress you wear away from you
As only coppices shake their leaves down!-

You are the blessing on my baneful way,
When life has depths worse than disease can reach,
And courage is the only root of beauty,
And it is this that draws us each to each.


Translated by Henry Kamen








I am no more but you live on,
And the wind, whining and complaining,
Is shaking house and forest, straining
Not single fir trees one by one
But the whole wood, all trees together,
With all the distance far and wide,
Like sail-less yachts in stormy weather
When moored within a bay they lie.
And this not out of wanton pride
Or fury bent on aimless wronging,
But to provide a lullaby
For you with words of grief and longing,


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater







Fairy Tale

Once, in times forgotten,
In a fairy place,
Through the steppe, a rider
Made his way apace.

While he sped to battle,
Nearing from the dim
Distance, a dark forest
Rose ahead of him.

Something kept repeating,
Seemed his heart to graze:
Tighten up the saddle,
Fear the watering-place.

But he did not listen.
Heeding but his will,
At full speed he bounded
Up the wooded hill;

Rode into a valley,
Turning from the mound,
Galloped through a meadow,
Skirted higher ground;

Reached a gloomy hollow,
Found a trail to trace
Down the woodland pathway
To the watering-place.

Deaf to voice of warning,
And without remorse,
Down the slope, the rider
Led his thirsty horse.


Where the stream grew shallow,
Winding through the glen,
Eerie flames lit up the
Entrance to a den.

Through thick clouds of crimson
Smoke above the spring,
An uncanny calling
Made the forest ring.

And the rider started,
And with peering eye
Urged his horse in answer
To the haunting cry.

Then he saw the dragon,
And he gripped his lance;
And his horse stood breathless
Fearing to advance.

Thrice around a maiden
Was the serpent wound;
Fire-breathing nostrils
Cast a glare around.

And the dragon's body
Moved his scaly neck,
At her shoulder snaking
Whiplike forth and back.

By that country's custom
Was a young and fair
Captive brought as ransom
To the dragon's lair.

This then was the tribute
That the people owed
To the worm-protection
For a poor abode.

Now the dragon hugged his
Victim in alarm,
And the coils grew tighter
Round her throat and arm.

Skyward looked the horseman
With imploring glance,
And for the impending
Fight he couched his lance.


Tightly closing eyelids.
Heights and cloudy spheres.
Rivers. Waters. Boulders.
Centuries and years.

Helmetless, the wounded
Lies, his life at stake.
With his hooves the charger
Tramples down the snake.

On the sand, together-
Dragon, steed, and lance;
In a swoon the rider,
The maiden-in a trance.

Blue the sky; soft breezes
Tender noon caress.
Who is she? A lady?
Peasant girl? Princess?

Now in joyous wonder
Cannot cease to weep;
Now again abandoned
To unending sleep.

Now, his strength returning,
Opens up his eyes;
Now anew the wounded
Limp and listless lies.

But their hearts are beating.
Waves surge up, die down;
Carry them, and waken,
And in slumber drown.

Tightly closing eyelids.
Heights and cloudy spheres.
Rivers. Waters. Boulders.
Centuries and years.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater








This was its promise, held to faithfully:
The early morning sun came in this way
Until the angle of its saffron beam
Between the curtains and the sofa lay,

And with its ochre heat it spread across
The village houses, and the nearby wood,
Upon my bed and on my dampened pillow
And to the corner where the bookcase stood.

Then I recalled the reason why my pillow
Had been so dampened by those tears that fell-
I'd dreamt I saw you coming one by one
Across the wood to wish me your farewell.

You came in ones and twos, a straggling crowd;
Then suddenly someone mentioned a word:
It was the sixth of August, by Old Style,
And the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

For from Mount Tabor usually this day
There comes a light without a flame to shine,
And autumn draws all eyes upon itself
As clear and unmistaken as a sign.

But you came forward through the tiny, stripped,
The pauperly and trembling alder grove,
Into the graveyard's coppice, russet-red,
Which, like stamped gingerbread, lay there and glowed.

And with the silence of those high treetops
Was neighbour only the imposing sky
And in the echoed crowing of the cocks
The distances and distances rang by:

There in the churchyard underneath the trees,
Like some surveyor from the government
Death gazed on my pale face to estimate
How large a grave would suit my measurement.

All those who stood there could distinctly hear
A quiet voice emerge from where I lay:
The voice was mine, my past; prophetic words
That sounded now, unsullied by decay:

'Farewell, wonder of azure and of gold
Surrounding the Transfiguration's power:
Assuage now with a woman's last caress
The bitterness of my predestined hour!

'Farewell timeless expanse of passing years!
Farewell, woman who flung your challenge steeled
Against the abyss of humiliations:
For it is I who am your battlefield!

'Farewell, you span of open wings outspread,
The voluntary obstinacy of flight,
O figure of the world revealed in speech,
Creative genius, wonder-working might!'


Translated by Henry Kamen







Winter Night

It swept, it swept on all the earth,
At every turning,
A candle on the table flared,
A candle, burning.

Like swarms of midges to a flame
In summer weather,
Snowflakes flew up towards the pane
In flocks together.

Snow moulded arrows, rings and stars
The pane adorning.
A candle on the table shone
A candle, burning.

Entangled shadows spread across
The flickering ceiling,
Entangled arms, entangled legs,
And doom, and feeling.

And with a thud against the floor
Two shoes came falling,
And drops of molten candle wax
Like tears were rolling.

And all was lost in snowy mist,
Grey-white and blurring.
A candle on the table stood,
A candle, burning.

The flame was trembling in the draught;
Heat of temptation,
It lifted up two crossing wings
As of an angel.

All February the snow-storm swept,
Each time returning.
A candle on the table wept,
A candle, burning.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater







White Night

I keep thinking of times that are long past,
Of a house in the Petersburg Quarter.
You had come from the steppeland Kursk Province,
Of a none-too-rich mother the daughter.

You were nice, you had many admirers.
On that distant white night we were sitting
On your window-sill, looking from high on
On the phantom-like scene of the city.

The street-lamps, like gauze butterflies fluttering,
Had been touched by the chill of the morning.
My soft words, as I opened my heart to you,
Matched the slumbering vistas before us.

We were plighted with timid fidelity
To the very same nebulous mystery
As the cityscape spreading unendingly
Far beyond the Neva, through the distances.

In that far-off impregnable wilderness,
Wrapped in springtime twilight ethereal,
Woodland glades and dense thickets were quivering
With mad nightingales' thunderous paeans.

Crazy resonant warbling ran riot,
And the voice of this plain-looking songster
Sowed derangement, ecstatic delight
In the depth of the mesmerised copsewood.

To those parts Night, a barefoot vagabond,
Stole its way along ditches and fences.
From our window-sill, after it tagging,
Was the trail of our cooed confidences.

To the words of this colloquy echoing
In the orchards beyond the tall palings
Spreading branches of apple and cherry trees
Swathed themselves in their pearly-white raiment.

And the trees, like so many pale phantoms,
Waved their farewell, along the road thronging,
To White Night, that all-seeing enchanter,
Who was now to North Regions withdrawing.


Translated by Raissa Bobrova








A man is standing in the hall
His house not recognizing.
Her sudden leaving was a flight,
Herself, maybe, surprising.

The chaos reigning in the room
He does not try to master.
His tears and headache hide in gloom
The extent of his disaster.

His ears are ringing all day long
As though he has been drinking.
And why is it that all the time
Of waves he keeps on thinking?

When frosty window-panes blank out
The world of light and motion,
Despair and grief are doubly like
The desert of the ocean.

She was as dear to him, as close
In all her ways and features,
As is the seashore to the wave,
The ocean to the beaches.

As over rushes, after storm
The swell of water surges,
Into the deepness of his soul
Her memory submerges.

In years of strife, in times which were
Unthinkable to live in,
Upon a wave of destiny
To him she had been driven,

Through countless obstacles, and past
All dangers never-ended,
The wave had carried, carried her,
Till close to him she'd landed.

And now, so suddenly, she'd left.
What power overrode them?
The parting will destroy them both,
The grief bone-deep corrode them.

He looks around him. On the floor
In frantic haste she'd scattered
The contents of the cupboard, scraps
Of stuff, her sewing patterns.

He wanders through deserted rooms
And tidies up for hours;
Till darkness falls he folds away
Her things into the drawers;

And pricks his finger on a pin
In her unfinished sewing,
And sees the whole of her again,
And silent tears come flowing.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater








The snow will dust the roadway,
And load the roofs still more.
I'll stretch my legs a little:
You're there outside the door.

Autumn, not winter coat,
Hat-none, galoshes-none.
You struggle with excitement
Out there all on your own.

Far, far into the darkness
Fences and trees withdraw.
You stand there on the corner,
Under the falling snow.

The water trickles down from
The kerchief that you wear
Into your sleeves, while dewdrops
Shine sparkling in your hair.

And now illumined by
A single strand of light
Are features, kerchief, figure
And coat of autumn cut.

There's wet snow on your lashes
And in your eyes, distress,
And your external image
Is all, all of apiece.

As if an iron point
With truly consummate art,
Dipped into antimony,
Had scribed you on my heart.

Those modest, humble features
Are in it now to stay,
And if the world's cruel-hearted,
That's merely by the way.

And therefore it is doubled,
All this night in snow;
To draw frontiers between us
Is more than I can do.

But who are we and whence,
If, of those years gone by,
Scandal alone remains
And we have ceased to be.


Translated by A lex Miller







Bad Days

When Passion week started and Jesus
Came down to the city, that day
Hosannahs burst out at his entry
And palm leaves were strewn in his way.

But days grow more stern and more stormy.
No love can men's hardness unbend;
Their brows are contemptuously frowning,
And now comes the postscript, the end.

Grey, leaden and heavy, the heavens
Were pressing on treetops and roofs.
The Pharisees, fawning like foxes,
Were secretly searching for proofs.

The lords of the Temple let scoundrels
Pass judgement, and those who at first
Had fervently followed and hailed him,
Now all just as zealously cursed.

The crowd on the neighbouring sector
Was looking inside through the gate.
They jostled, intent on the outcome,
Bewildered and willing to wait.

And whispers and rumours were creeping,
Repeating the dominant theme.
The flight into Egypt, his childhood
Already seemed faint as a dream.

And Jesus remembered the desert,
The days in the wilderness spent,
The tempting with power by Satan,
That lofty, majestic descent.

He thought of the wedding at Cana,
The feast and the miracles; and
How once he had walked on the waters
Through mist to a boat, as on land;

The beggarly crowd in a hovel,
The cellar to which he was led;
How, started, the candle-flame guttered,
When Lazarus rose from the dead...


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater




Mary Magdalene


As soon as night descends, we meet.
Remorse my memories releases.
The demons of the past compete,
And draw and tear my heart to pieces,
Sin, vice and madness and deceit,
When I was slave of men's caprices
And when my dwelling was the street.

The deathly silence is not far;
A few more moments only matter,
Which the Inevitable bar.
But at the edge, before they scatter,
In front of Thee my life I shatter,
As though an alabaster jar.

O what might not have been my fate
By now, my Teacher and my Saviour,
Did not eternity await
Me at the table, as a late
New victim of my past behaviour!

But what can sin now mean to me,
And death, and hell, and sulphur burning,
When, like a graft onto a tree,
I have-for everyone to see-
Grown into being part of Thee
In my immeasurable yearning?

When pressed against my knees I place
Thy precious feet, and weep, despairing,
Perhaps I'm learning to embrace
The cross's rough four-sided face;
And, fainting, all my being sways
Towards Thee, Thy burial preparing.

* * *




Mary Magdalene


People clean their homes before the feast.
Stepping from the bustle of the street
I go down before Thee on my knees
And anoint with myrrh Thy holy feet.

Groping round, I cannot find the shoes
For the tears that well up with my sighs.
My impatient tresses, breaking loose,
Like a pall hang thick before my eyes.

I take up Thy feet onto my lap,
Wash them clean with hot tears from my eyes,
In my hair Thy precious feet I wrap,
And my string of pearls around them tie.

I now see the future in detail,
As if it were stopped in flight by Thee.
Like a raving sibyl, I could tell
What will happen, how it will all be.

In the temple, veils will fall tomorrow,
We shall form a frightened group apart,
And the earth will shake-perhaps from sorrow
And from pity for my tortured heart.

Troops will then reform and march away
To the thud of hoofs and heavy tread,
And the cross will reach towards the sky
Like a water-spout above our heads.

By the cross, I'll fall down on the ground,
I shall bite my lips till I draw blood.
On the cross, your arms will be spread out-
Wide enough to hug the whole wide world.

Who's this for, this glory and this strife?
Who's this for, this torment and this might?
Are there enough souls on earth, and lives?
Are there enough cities, dales and heights?

But three days-such days and nights will pass-
They will fill me with such crushing dread
That I'll see the joyous truth, at last:
I shall know Christ will rise from the dead.


Translated by Avril Pyman







God's World

Thin as hair are the shadows of sunset
When they follow drawn-out every tree.
On the road through the forest the post-girl
Hands a parcel and letters to me.

By the trail of the cats and the foxes,
By the foxes' and by the cats' trail,
I return with a bundle of letters
To the house where my joy will prevail.

Countries, continents, isthmuses, frontiers,
Lakes and mountains, discussions and news,
Children, grown-ups, old folk, adolescents,
Appreciations, reports and reviews.

0 respected and masculine letters!
All of you, none excepted, have brought
A display of intelligent logic
Underneath a dry statement of thought.

Precious, treasured epistles of women!
Why, I also fell down from a cloud.
And eternally now and for ever
To be yours I have solemnly vowed.

Well and you, stamp-collectors, if even
Only one fleeting moment you had
Among us, what a marvellous present
You would find in my sorrowful stead!


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater








The night proceeds and dwindling
Prepares the day's rebirth.
An airman is ascending
Above the sleeping earth.

And almost disappearing
In cloud, a tiny spark,
He now is like a cross-stitch,
A midget laundry-mark.

Beneath him are strange cities,
And heavy traffic-lanes,
And night-clubs, barracks, stokers,
And railways, stations, trains.

The shadow of his wing-span
Falls heavy on the cloud.
Celestial bodies wander
Around him in a crowd.

And there, with frightful listing
Through emptiness, away
Through unknown solar systems
Revolves the Milky Way.

In limitless expanses
Are headlands burning bright.
In basements and in cellars
The stokers work all night.

And underneath a rooftop
In Paris, maybe Mars
Or Venus sees a notice
About a recent farce.

And maybe in an attic
And under ancient slates
A man sits wakeful, working,
He thinks and broods and waits;

He looks upon the planet,
As if the heavenly spheres
Were part of his entrusted
Nocturnal private cares.

Fight off your sleep: be wakeful,
Work on, keep up your pace,
Keep vigil like the pilot,
Like all the stars in space.

Work on, work on, creator-
To sleep would be a crime-
Eternity's own hostage,
And prisoner of Time.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater







In everything I seek to grasp
The fundamental:
The daily choice, the daily task,
The sentimental.

To plumb the essence of the past,
The first foundations,
The crux, the roots, the inmost hearts,
The explanations.

And, puzzling out the weave of fate,
Events observer,
To live, feel, love and meditate
And to discover.

Oh, if my skill did but suffice
After a fashion,
In eight lines I'd anatomize
The parts of passion.

I'd write of sins, forbidden fruit,
Of chance-seized shadows;
Of hasty flight and hot pursuit,
Of palms, of elbows.

Define its laws and origin
In terms judicial,
Repeat the names it glories in,
And the initials.

I'd sinews strain my verse to shape
Like a trim garden:
The limes should blossom down the nape,
A double cordon.

My verse should breathe the fresh-clipped hedge,
Roses and meadows
And mint and new-mown hay and sedge,
The thunder's bellows.

As Chopin once in his etudes
Miraculously conjured
Parks, groves, graves and solitudes-
A living wonder.

The moment of achievement caught
Twixt sport and torment...
A singing bowstring shuddering taut,
A stubborn bow bent.


Translated by Avril Pyman







Autumn Frost

The morning sun shows like a pillar
Of fire through smoke on frosty days.
As on a faulty snap, it cannot
Make out my features in the haze.

The distant trees will hardly see me
Until the sun at last can break
Out of the fog, and flash triumphant
Upon the meadows by the lake.

A passer-by in mist receding
Is recognized when he has passed.
You walk on hoarfrost-covered pathways
As though on mats of plaited bast.

The frost is covered up in gooseflesh,
The air is false like painted cheeks,
The earth is shivering, and sick of
Breathing potato-stalks for weeks.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater








The block of flats loomed towerlike.
Two sweating athletes, human telpher,
Were carrying up narrow stairs,
As though a bell onto a belfry,

As to a stony tableland
The tables of the law, with caution,
A huge and heavy concert-grand,
Above the city's restless ocean.

At last it stands on solid ground,
While deep below the din and clatter
Are damped, as though the town were drowned-
Sunk to the bottom of a legend.

The tenant of the topmost flat
Looks down on earth over the railings,
As if he held it in his hand,
Its lawful ruler, never failing.

Back in the drawing room he starts
To play-not someone else's music,
But his own thought, a new chorale,
The stir of leaves, Hosannas booming.

Improvisations sweep and peal,
Bring night, flames, fire barrels rolling,
Trees under downpour, rumbling wheels,
Life of the streets, fate of the lonely...

Thus Chopin would, at night, instead
Of the outgrown, naive and artless,
Write down on the black fretwork stand
His soaring dream, his new departures.

Or, overtaking in their flight
The world by many generations,
Valkyries shake the city roofs
By thunderous reverberations.

Or through the lovers' tragic fate,
Amidst infernal crash and thunder,
Tchaikovsky harrowed us to tears,
And rent the concert hall asunder.


Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater




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