“Poet! do not cling to popular affection….”

So begins Alexander Pushkin’s sonnet “To a Poet” (which could also be translated “To the Poet”). The gist of the poem is clear: don’t cherish popular opinion or affection; live alone; enjoy the freedom of integrity. But what makes the poem memorable is the sternness and liberty of the language. I have been thinking about how this sternness and liberty go together. The liberty is hard won and all too easily surrendered–especially through careless language. Here there is nothing careless.

I recorded and uploaded the poem so that anyone can  hear how it sounds–in my reading, at least. (I found an online recording by someone else, but it has an awful rock beat in the background.)

This sonnet has a rhyme scheme of ABAB ABBA CCD EED. The C rhyme has the same vowel sound as B, and D rhymes obliquely with A. Thus the final sestet carries sonic hints of the first two stanzas–as well as interesting word associations and contrasts: for example, “narodnoi” (popular), “kholodnoi” (cold), “svobodnoi” (free), “blagorodnyi” (noble), “khudozhnik” (artist), and “trenozhnik” (tripod).

The first stanza can be translated literally as follows:

Poet! do not cling to popular affection.*
The temporary noise of ecstatic praises will pass;
You will hear the fool’s judgment, the laugh of the cold crowd,
But you must remain firm, calm, and morose.

In Russian, it’s much more majestic and severe:

Поэт! не дорожи любовию народной.
Восторженных похвал пройдет минутный шум;
Услышишь суд глупца и смех толпы холодной,
Но ты останься тверд, спокоен и угрюм.

It’s in a slow-paced iambic hexameter, with word ordering that English does not allow (e.g., in the second line, “Of the ecstatic praises will pass the momentary noise”). The last word “угрюм” (“ugrium, ” “morose”) stresses the seriousness of the matter. This is no pleasant conversation-piece.

In the second stanza, the emphasis shifts to the poet’s internal liberty, once he has established the conditions for it. The language is gentler and more whimsical, with repetition of the word for “free”:

You are a tsar; live alone. By way of the free road
Go wherever your free mind draws you,
Perfecting the fruits of your beloved thoughts,
Not asking  any rewards for your noble feat.

In Russian, you can hear the stanza’s fluidity:

Ты царь: живи один. Дорогою свободной
Иди, куда влечет тебя свободный ум,
Усовершенствуя плоды любимых дум,
Не требуя наград за подвиг благородный.

Then the final sestet reflects the first two stanzas in a kind of skewed symmetry. The first tercet continues to refer to the artist and his work; then the final three lines, like the first four, return to the crowd and its judgments, contrasted with the poet’s work. In Russian:

Они в самом тебе. Ты сам свой высший суд;
Всех строже оценить умеешь ты свой труд.
Ты им доволен ли, взыскательный художник?

Доволен? Так пускай толпа его бранит
И плюет на алтарь, где твой огонь горит,
И в детской резвости колеблет твой треножник.

And in an literal English translation:

They are inside you. You are your highest judge;
More strictly than anyone can you appraise your work.
Are you satisfied with it, exacting artist?

Satisfied? Then let the crowd treat it harshly
And spit on the altar, where your fire burns
And your tripod oscillates with childlike friskiness.

This translation does not come close to capturing the last two lines: the plosive of sound of “plyuyet” (“spits”) and the tripod wavering through friskiness. To me, everything builds to that final line, which is as strange as it is vivid.

As I was reciting the sonnet this morning, I heard the combination of liberty and severity in the sounds themselves. The poem is didactic but goes far beyond its overt lesson; one comes close to that tripod and feels it wavering–not out of hesitation, but out of vitality.

*Note: I have been dissatisfied with my literal translation of the first line. I changed it to “Poet! do not cling to popular affection”–which, though not literally exact, feels much less awkward than the previous “Poet! do not cherish the love of the people.”

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14 Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. I only use English. I wish I had heard this advice a million years ago, that praise and critique are but ‘noise. A work of art will live for itself.

    Reply
  2. Hi, i just read the translation in the Everyman’s Book of a Russian Poets and much prefer yours above. Still not sure what the tripod is that is mentioned?

    Reply
  3. Thank you, Riz Din. I am dissatisfied with my translation (even though it is supposed to be literal, not poetic). The first line doesn’t come across as I’d like it; it seems a bit stilted and not altogether clear. It would sound more natural as “Poet! Don’t depend on the people’s affection,” but then it loses much of the meaning and tone. Pushkin uses the word “love” (“liubov'”) to underscore its transience. I recognize that “the love of the people” is ambiguous; but “the people’s love” doesn’t quite work, either.

    Reply
    • A clearer translation of the first line might be: “Poet! do not cherish popularity.” It isn’t literal any more, nor does it have the cadence or solemnity of the original–but at least it isn’t ambiguous.

      For cadence and solemnity, the following might be better: “Poet! do not cherish popular affection.” (For the latter, you’d need a caesura after “cherish.”)

      “Affection” is weaker than “love”–but every translation of this line (that I can think of so far) is unsatisfactory in some way.

      Reply
      • Update: I changed the translation of the first line to “Poet! do not cling to popular affection.” (See the note at the end of the post.)

      • Selena

         /  November 23, 2016

        A great literal translation of the poem! Thank you for sharing it! I like the way you changed the first line, trying to avoid “excessive literalism” in your translation. In that first line “Поэт! не дорожи любовию народной”, Pushkin probably means, «Poet! Do not look for fame and approvement of the crowd”, since it corresponds to the second line, “Восторженных похвал пройдет минутный шум“ , which means that “such fame is fleeting and those people from the crowd who readily praised you today even forget your name tomorrow”.

      • Thank you, Selena, for this insightful and interesting comment. Yes, the second line influences the meaning of the first. That is an important point in poetry translation overall: each line (and word, for that matter) has a relation to the rest of the poem and should be translated with that relation in mind. (It’s good also to provide notes that discuss allusions and difficulties.)

      • Selena

         /  November 24, 2016

        Thank you, Diana, for your interest to Russian classical poetry and your original interpretation of Pushkin’s works! I was amazed when reading your point about the feeling of vitality, which could be perceived by a reader of the poem, trying to grasp the meaning of the passage about the author’s tripod mentioned in the final stanza. It was so amazing because it goes far beyond of the canonical interpretation of the poem, if following the majority of sources related to literary criticism. Thank you for this original view!

        As far as I understand this bit, the last tercet might be easily paraphrased as, “If you’re mostly satisfied with the fruits of your works then it’s no matter that “the crowd treat[s] it harshly and [the crowd] spit[s] on the altar, where your fire burns and eventually, [the crowd] will be the basic cause of your tripod oscillations.” The poet is referring to the altar (as a central point in the Russian Orthodox church) meaning by this that special place where his/her blessed poetic fire burns. The altar and the tripod with the blessed fire might be interpreted like symbols of the poet’s beliefs here. “Spitting on the altar with the blessed fire” might mean disproving the poet’s beliefs about what the sense of its poetic works is (as it mainly does not correspond to the crowd’s “childish” point of view) or declaring them as false at least. Pushkin forewarns that the crowd will always strive to shake the poet’s certainty about the meaning of its own works, being a cause of the author’s tripod oscillations.

        Your unexpected remark about “tripod’s wavering – not out of hesitation, but out of vitality” is brilliant! It implies another subtle nuance, which might be felt by a reader among the multitude of others. Thank you!

      • Selena

         /  November 25, 2016

        Thank you for the opportunity to listen to the audio record with your original rendition of the poem. A great interpretation, indeed! If you’re interested, here is a couple of links where you could find a lot of professional audio records with artistic interpretation of Pushkin’s works, which were read by great Russian dramatic actors. If you’d like, you could download those audio files free or just listened to them online.

        http://plus-music.org/%D0%BF%D1%83%D1%88%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%BD+%D0%BF%D0%BE%D1%8D%D1%82

        http://www.chistylist.ru/poet/stihotvoreniya/pushkin-a-s

        Hopefully this helps. 🙂

  4. Selena

     /  November 25, 2016

    Thank you for the opportunity to listen to the audio record with your original rendition of the poem. A great interpretation, indeed! If you’re interested, here is a couple of links where you could find a lot of professional audio records with artistic interpretation of Pushkin’s works, which were read by great Russian dramatic actors. If you’d like, you could download those audio files free or just listened to them online.

    http://plus-music.org/%D0%BF%D1%83%D1%88%D0%BA%D0%B8%D0%BD+%D0%BF%D0%BE%D1%8D%D1%82

    http://www.chistylist.ru/poet/stihotvoreniya/pushkin-a-s

    Hopefully this helps. 🙂

    Reply
  5. Selena

     /  November 25, 2016

    Thank you for the opportunity to listen to the audio record with your original rendition of the poem. A great interpretation, indeed! If you’re interested, I could send your way a couple of links where you could find a lot of professional audio records with artistic interpretation of Pushkin’s works, which were read by great Russian dramatic actors. If you’d like, you could download those audio files free or just listened to them online.

    Reply
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