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.”