“The sun’s lowering rays slant askew…” – A. Fet

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 5/?

When I first considered doing a Golden Age and Romantic series as well as the Silver Age one, my first thought was, “That means translating Afanasy Fet.” Often called Russia’s finest lyric poet, he is shamefully unknown in the West. 

Afanasy Fet (1820-1892) had much of his career shaped by his early struggle for legitimacy. His German mother had left her husband to marry a Russian landlord, but when their son Afanasy was fourteen, their marriage was judged void and Afanasy had to change his name from Shenshin to Foeth, that of his mother’s first husband — even as Johann Foeth, back in Darmstadt, refused to acknowledge the boy as a son. Although he escaped being considered officially an illegitimate child (which would have been far worse for his social standing), he was very depressed at this brand on his identity, and it may have set the course for suicidal thoughts for much of his life. While at German boarding school, he started to write poetry, and continued throughout army service. He made a name as Fet (a possible typo for Fёt, the way Russian would transliterate Foeth), a name that he hated.

This poem, written when he was already an established landowner, showcases his tremendous lyric gifts and powers of observation.Yet even here, there is a hint at a desire for self-destruction in the third verse that grows more and more ominous the more I look at it.

***

The sun’s lowering rays slant askew;
By the edge of the colour-spread skies
Vapour streams shake and shudder the blue.
O, you wood in your dense leafy guise,
Spread your arms so I may embrace you.

So your sigh, like the ocean’s cold sting
Would hit my heated breast and my face,
So sweet breath to my throat, too, I’d bring,
Let me sip with my lips and my gaze
By your roots at a cool crystal spring.

So I’d vanish in this sea of blue,
Drown in these scented shades that comprise
Your grand rafters that darken all hue,
O, you wood in your dense leafy guise,
Spread your arms so I may embrace you.

Afanasy Fet, 1863; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.

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