Pointing to the similarities to be found between the poetry of Leopardi and that of Baratynsky the editor of this fine new translation of the early nineteenth century Russian poet suggests that these might include a ‘clear-sighted, bleak vision of man and society’ and an ‘awareness of human fragility and ephemerality’. The sequence ‘Half-Light’ was published in 1842, two years before the poet’s death, and it contained ‘a gathering of poems written since 1834 and presented as a unified whole’; the title is significant since by then the poets of the Golden Age, such as Pushkin, ‘had largely gone out of fashion’. At the same time, however, 1842 saw an imperial decree which seemed to promise a reform, or even an end, of serfdom: ‘timid and abortive though this was, it was greeted at first with enthusiasm’.
There is a haunting seriousness in this Russian poet’s gaze; his ‘sculptor’ sees Galatea buried in stone:
‘Plunging his gaze into the stone,
the artist sees the nymph within,
an ardent flame runs through his veins,
and his heart longs to touch her then.
His desire for her is infinite,
but the sculptor holds himself in check,
unhurrying, deliberate, quiet,
he strips off all the veils that hide
the goddess deep within the rock.’
And, in return for such careful homage, such unfaltering concentration and focus, the spirit within the rock recognises the ‘passion beneath the cool caress’ and responds by leading the artist (‘sage’) ‘to the triumph of voluptuousness’. In Henry James’s late novel, The Tragic Muse, about an aspiring painter who eschews politics for the quiet concentration of the artist, Nick Dormer turns from the lady who has been seeking his love/success and looks round his studio:
‘It was certainly singular, in the light of other matters, that on sitting down in his studio after she had left town Nick should not, as regards the effort to project plastically some beautiful form, have felt more chilled by the absence of a friend who was such an embodiment of beauty. She was away and he missed her and longed for her, and yet without her the place was more filled with what he wanted to find in it. He turned into it with confused feelings, the strongest of which was a sense of release and recreation. It looked blighted and lonely and dusty, and his old studies, as he rummaged them out, struck him even as less inspired than the last time he had ventured to face them. But amid this neglected litter, in the colourless and obstructed light of a high north window which needed washing, he came nearer tasting the possibility of positive happiness: it appeared to him that, as he had said to Julia, he was more in possession of his soul.’
Baratynsky’s artist spends ‘Hours and days and years’…‘in his delicious, dim travail’ as he works carefully to tear the final veil from the ‘guessed-at, wished-for shape’.
The solitude of the artist who works with quiet intensity at full engagement with the outside world is brought into focus in another of these contemplative poems, ‘The Goblet’.
‘Goblet of solitude! You never
give new credence to the cheap
impressions of everyday existence
like some common loving cup;
nobler, richer, you awaken
with a wonder-working might
heavenly dreams or revelations
of regions hidden from our sight.’
Baratynsky recognises the value in removal away from the ‘old sterile distractions, / common passions, social lies’ and heralds the ‘solitary intoxication’ which ‘clears the mist that clouds our eyes.’
The translations read so well. As Peter France puts it in his introduction, ‘I have tried to convey the details of Baratynsky’s meaning, the meaning his poems had for his contemporaries’ and he succeeds in what Yves Bonnefoy asserted when he pointed out that although you cannot translate a poem you can translate poetry.
Ian Brinton 20th September 2015.