More Pushkin: “The day’s luminary has died out….”

I enjoyed recording and commenting on Alexander Pushkin’s poem “To the Poet” yesterday, so I will do the same with another favorite, “The day’s luminary has died out.” Recording it was a bit like Living in Oblivion; again and again, something went wrong, and I thought I might end up retaking it into infinity. I was on the verge of completing a good recording when my cat jumped on the desk and started playing noisily with paper clips. Finally I recorded it from start to finish.

Pushkin wrote this poem in 1820, when traveling by ship across the Black Sea. It is full of sea and memory; it has to do with seeing a shore in the distance and recalling past friends, sensual encounters, betrayals, vices, wounds. The speaker calls on the sail and the sea–for the sake of voyage, then for the sake of memory, and finally in order to forget.

I could not find an acceptable translation online, so I translated it literally for the purposes of this post. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to preserve the indentation in WordPress (I can do it in HTML, but it disappears here), so the English translation will appear without indentation. For the Russian, I scanned the text as an image so that I could display it properly.

When looking for a translation, I came upon Andrew Kahn’s commentary on the poem: “Pushkin wished to inject enough personal detail to satisfy the demand for autobiographical disclosure that travels with the Romantic persona. With the familiar topoi of premature ageing”–

Stop right there! With all due respect to Kahn, I find this interpretation limiting. I heard this kind of thing in graduate school. It has been fashionable to view Pushkin as a self-fashioner, acutely aware of the poetic trends and capable of playing with them cleverly. There’s an element of truth to this, but as a dominant interpretation, it misses something. Yes, Pushkin is aware of Romantic tendencies; yes, he plays with them, and cleverly, too. But he also makes them come to life. How does he do this?

Look at the poem. Its shape suggests the ocean, with shorter and taller waves, and irregular lapses between them. There is a refrain–“Rumble, rumble, obedient sail, / Morose ocean, stir up under me” (“Shumi, shumi, poslushnoe vetrilo, / Volnuisia podo mnoi, ugriumyi okean”)–that occurs three times and changes meaning profoundly with the repetitions. The first time, it is literal, as the speaker is sailing over the sea. The second time, the “stirring up” is the excitement of old memory and emotion, a mixture of excitement and regret. The final time, this “stirring up” is the rumbling needed to bury the old pain. I hear those last two lines as something close to a hush.

In poetry, refrains should change meaning, however subtly, with the repetition, or they become tedious–but the changes in this particular poem stand apart. The “stirring up” seems to go deeper down into the water (and into the soul) each time. The first time, it is on the surface, or close; the second time, somewhere in the middle; and the third time, so far down that it can barely be felt.

Also, this refrain is built on word-play. The refrain’s first line, “Шуми, шуми, послушное ветрило” (“Make noise, make noise, obedient sail”) has the word “poslushnoe,” “obedient,” which has the root “slukh-” (“hearing” or “ear”; “slushat'” is “to listen”). Thus in the noise of the sail there is also a sense of listening. In the second line, “Волнуйся подо мной, угрюмый океан” (“Stir up beneath me, sullen ocean”), the word “volnuisia” (“stir up”) suggests “volna,” “wave.” Thus in telling the ocean to stir up, the speaker is telling it to make waves, or, rather, to be itself. All of this gives the sense of an internal conversation.

I will not comment any more on the poem. Here is the Russian (as a picture, with formatting preserved), and here is my recording (in MP3 format).


And here’s my rough English translation (unperfected, just intended to give readers a sense of the poem):

The day’s luminary has fallen into dark;
An evening fog has spread across the sea.
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.
I see a shore from far away,
Enchanted vistas of the land of noon;
With agitation and yearning I strive toward it,
Intoxicated with memory…
And now I feel: the tears are born again;
The soul boils up and then subsides;
A familiar dream flies around me;
I remember the mad love of past years,
And everything I suffered, and all things I hold dear,
The wearying deception of desires and hopes…
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.
Fly, ship, take me to the distant limits
By the stormy whim of the deceptive seas,
Only not to the sorrowful shores
Of my foggy native land,
The country, where with passion’s flame
Feelings for the first time burst in fire,
Where tender muses slipped me secret smiles,
Where, early on, my lost youth
Wilted away in violent wind and rain,
Where light-winged joy showed me its other face
And my cold heart committed itself to pain.
A seeker of new sights and sounds,
I ran from you, paternal lands,
I ran from you who drink the milk of pleasures,
Unlasting friends of my unlasting youth;
And you, mistresses of depraved delusion,
To whom I lovelessly devoted all,
My peace, my fame, my freedom and my soul,
You too have left my mind, unfaithful dames,
Secret intimates of my golden spring,
You too have left my mind… But the old wounds of the heart,
The deep wounds of love, nothing has ever healed…
Rumble, rumble, obedient sail,
Morose ocean, stir up under me.

(August 1820)

Note: I made some minor improvements to the translation since the initial posting, but it is still rough.

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