“Windows steel-gridded, grim faces…” – A. Fet

Russian Golden Age and Romantic poetry translation series, 7/?

Later in his life, now legally Shenshin at last, Afanasy Fet adopted a practice of spending his winters in Moscow and his summers at his manor at a village near Kursk, where he was very inspired by the surroundings. He produced four new volumes of poetry called “Evening Lights”, but others criticized him as his deep lyric poetry with its beauty and pain did not match his appearance as a sober well-to-do landowner, family man, justice of the peace.

This poem is in the first volume.

***

Windows steel-gridded, grim faces so pale,
Hatreds from brother to brother all glare.
I will acknowledge your stone walls, o jail:
The feast of youth had rejoiced once in there.

What has flashed yonder with beauty undying?
Ah, ’tis my spring flower lovely and dear.
How did you stay whole, meek, piteous, drying,
Under the feet of inhuman mobs here?

Joy had been shining, immaculate, pure
When you were dropped by the maid bridal-dressed.
No, I won’t abandon you; safe and secure
Your home and place now will be on my breast.

Afanasy Fet, 1882; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2016.

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“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.