Pyotr Konchalovsky, Pushkin in Mikhailovskoe (1932)
It is no exaggeration to say that translating Pushkin’s prose earlier this year restored my sense of well-being, if not my health. Although I benefited from the salubrious effect of his writing, I couldn’t quite explain it. Then, as if by magic, I found my explanation where I so often do, in the criticism of Prince D. S. Mirsky. This time the source wasn’t Mirsky’s indispensable History of Russian Literature, but a much less masterful volume, which I picked up in London at Any Amount of Books. As Mirsky’s biographer, G. S. Smith, reports, “One of the least well known but most rewarding of [the critic’s] general works on Russian poetry was published as an introduction to a book of translations by the obscure amateur Charles Fillingham Coxwell.” The book is Russian Poems (London: C. W. Daniel, 1929), and though its sweep is admirable — 216 poems by 51 poets, from the 18th century to the 20th — Coxwell’s translations vary greatly in quality. Mirsky’s introduction is the collection’s saving grace.
The essay is written in Mirsky’s usual style, at once curmudgeonly and passionately earnest. His main argument is that the Russian poetic tradition is defined by its concern with the things of this world, “from the ‘matter-of-fact’ and realistic poetry of the Classicists to the social realism of the mid-nineteenth century.” But Mirsky is always alert to nuance; as he writes, “all generalizations are one-sided, and, however characteristic, realism is not the whole of Russian poetry.” Here Mirsky turns to Pushkin, in whom the critic finds “an element which he does not share, to the extent he does his realism, with other Russian poets, and which I do not know what other name to give than perfection.” He goes on:
Perfection is not a thing of degrees, the smaller or greater amount of which makes poetry good or bad. It is a quality that may be absent in the greatest poetry (and is indeed strikingly absent in the greatest of all poets, Shakespeare) while it may be present in relatively minor verse. Nor is it necessarily combined with the kind of poetry that is called classical — good examples of poetry that is perfect without being classical are ’The Ancient Mariner,’ and — very different from this — the Odes of Keats. But Pushkin’s perfection is classical, for it is composed of precision and harmony. His diction is always precise and entirely exempt of all looseness and vagueness. If, for instance, he gives a woman’s kisses the epithet of ‘incisive,’ he means to say that she bites when she kisses; if he makes a Circassian sleep under a ‘wet cloak’ he is prepared to explain that, though wet, it is quite comfortable to sleep in, because being waterproof it is wet only on the outside. It is doubtful if poetry ever approached to precision of verse more than in the work of Pushkin. But precision alone does not constitute Pushkin’s perfection. Its most essential element is harmony, by which I mean firstly a sound-pattern in which the poet answers for every single vowel and consonant, pause and intonation, each of them playing its indispensable part in the effect of the whole; and secondly a harmony of sense — a complete adequacy and consistency of the overtones and associations of all the sense elements of a given phrase, passage or poem.
What Mirsky says of Pushkin’s poetry applies equally to the poet’s prose, and it might partly account for its capacity to heal. Pushkin’s precise, crystalline diction washes over us like pure water, cleansing our wounds; his harmony resets the rhythms of our hearts and minds. But if Pushkin were only clear, only harmonious, he would not be the great poet that he is — he would have no personality. He does, of course, and, as Mirsky writes, “his ultimate personality as a poet is conditioned by an underlying ethical groundwork, a tragic understanding of life that is akin to Shakespeare’s and is not logically deducible from the perfection and harmony of his style.”
In a moving, open-hearted essay published in Cardinal Points in 2010, Stanley Mitchell reflects on all these components of Pushkin’s work and personality, which he came to know intimately while completing his peerless translation of Eugene Onegin:
I saw now a different beauty in Onegin, not just the familiar serenity, light-heartedness and harmony, but the disparity of dark and light, which reminded me of similar contrasts in the music of Mozart and the paintings of Leonardo. The surface sparkle rests ‘upon a base of suffering’ as Nietzsche said of the art of the Apollonian Greeks or, as Pushkin himself noted, upon ‘The heart’s impressions marked in tears.’
Mitchell, who suffered from bipolar disorder, found not only balance in Pushkin’s work, but a means to understand himself. He found a teacher and a friend. This is the real reason Russian speakers — and now, thanks to translators like Stanley Mitchell and Robert Chandler, increasing numbers of English speakers as well — come to Pushkin. I believe the most poignant expression of this intimate bond between Pushkin and his readers is a poem by Georgy Ivanov, which he dictated from his deathbed in 1958. Here is Robert’s translation, which originally appeared in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry:
To Alexander Pushkin
I dearly, dearly long to be with you,
to sit and chat with you, drink tea with you.
You’d do the talking — I would be all ears;
your voice grows ever dearer with the years.
You, too, knew grief and fury and disdain;
you, too, died slowly, slowly and in pain.