Pushkin, a consoling angel guards Russian hearts

Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin (1799-1837) is revered by Russians as their national bard and greatest literary genius.  In critic Apollon Grigoriev’s famous phrase, “Pushkin is our all.” To Gogol, “Pushkin is an extraordinary phenomenon, perhaps the only true expression of the essential Russian spirit”; to Dostoyevsky, Pushkin was “the height of artistic perfection.”   Pushkin is the “Prophet” of Russian literature; his phrases permeate the Russian language as Shakespeare’s do English. Yet,  even though Pushkin’s works “represent the absolute pinnacle of brilliance in all Russian literary art” and though Russians revere Pushkin much as English-speakers do Shakespeare or German-speakers Goethe, Pushkin remains relatively unappreciated in the West, at least in comparison with his literary heirs.

The primary barrier to enjoyment of Pushkin in the West has been the absence of proper verse translations.  Pushkin’s majestic lightness is not easily conveyed. Too often Pushkin’s poems, so easy and magnificent in the original, come out even in good English translations with an incongruously comic effect derived from their being forced into verse by translators who are scholars first and foremost, and poets—if at all— a long way second.  Even the most felicitous results can sound at best like Cole Porter or W.S. Gilbert — but nothing remotely like Pushkin in Russia.  Many scholars, intimidated above all by Nabokov, have given up, and chosen to translate Pushkin with bald, prosaic literality.  

Nabokov introduced his rendering of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin by saying: “to my ideal of literalism I sacrificed everything (elegance, euphony, clarity, good taste, modern usage, and even grammar)…” Alas, an entirely literal approach to translating Pushkin yields a lifeless specimen—neatly pinned, perhaps, to a label in a glass case by the master lepidopterist— but with none of the ineffable grace and beauty of a butterfly in flight. 
To grasp Pushkin one must hear his musicality.  His genius in its sublimity is properly compared to Mozart’s: miraculous, prodigious feats of creativity, wrought with seemingly effortless grace, evocative power, warmth, wit, passion, sheer musicality, inventive rhythmic swing, and playfulness — and all imbued with a certain divine purity, a wisdom born of innocence, a childlike, direct, sweet, natural, vigorous, limpid clarity — often, alas, all the more mysteriously difficult to translate for its seeming simplicity.  Can you imagine trying to describe Mozart only in words?

If only everyone so felt the power
Of harmony! But no! For then indeed
The world could not exist. No one would think
To bother for the lowly needs of living;
We’d all just lose ourselves in free creation.
So we’re but few, we chosen happy idlers,
Who, of mere use neglectful and disdainful,
Are high priests of the One, the Beautiful.

These words, from Mozart’s last speech in Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri, the forerunner to Shaffer’s Amadeus, speak of the lonely relationship between a creative genius and the world around him. Pushkin insisted on the sacred independence of the artist: “art’s purpose is not to produce profit, but to create beauty.”  Yet beauty is truly useful, for it is truly healing.  The Pythagoreans, it is said, used to cure the sick with poetry, believing in the unique healing virtues of certain verses of the Odyssey and Iliad when read aloud in the proper way. Pushkin was the Russian language’s high priest of the Pythagorean doctrine of the One, the Beautiful. Like Homer, Pushkin derived indescribable power and dramatic effect as much from the sound—as from the sense—of his words, from their lilt, their swing, their magical incantation: their spell.  

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