Wild Horses

Claude Rawson

  • ‘The Bronze Horseman’ and Other Poems by Alexander Pushkin, translated by D.M. Thomas
    Penguin, 261 pp, £2.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 14 042309 5
  • Alexander Pushkin: A Critical Study by A.D.P. Briggs
    Croom Helm, 257 pp, £14.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 7099 0688 9
  • ‘Choiseul and Talleyrand’: A Historical Novella and Other Poems, with New Verse Translations of Alexander Pushkin by Charles Johnston
    Bodley Head, 88 pp, £5.25, July 1982, ISBN 0 370 30924 3
  • Mozart and Salieri: The Little Tragedies by Alexander Pushkin, translated by Antony Wood
    Angel, 94 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 946162 02 6
  • I have come to greet you by Afanasy Fet, translated by James Greene
    Angel, 71 pp, £5.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 946162 03 4
  • Uncollected Poems by John Betjeman
    Murray, 81 pp, £4.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 7195 3969 2
  • Travelling without a Valid Ticket by Howard Sergeant
    Rivelin, 14 pp, £1.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 904524 39 6

The Bronze Horseman of Pushkin’s famous poem is Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St Petersburg. It was ordered by Catherine the Great (Petro primo Catharina secunda). Modelled on the statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome, it was meant to evoke the wise emperor extending a main protectrice. Joseph de Maistre commented that one doesn’t know whether this hand protects or threatens. The statue celebrated Peter’s building of St Petersburg, that symbol of Russia’s Westernisation which Francesco Algarotti called her window on Europe (Pushkin cited Algarotti in a note: Pushkin’s various notes are not fully reproduced in D.M. Thomas’s new translation, nor in Sir Charles Johnston’s of 1981). But ambiguity has always surrounded the statue, along with its imperial subject. The city which stood for a modernised and liberalised Russia was said to have cost a hundred thousand lives in the building, and the intended manifestation of Enlightenment was often seen, in the words of the Polish poet Mickiewicz, as ‘A tribute to a tyrant’s cruel whim’. The Europeanising Tsar retained in some eyes what a student of Mickiewicz and Pushkin has called ‘the traits of an Asiatic despot’.

Mickiewicz’s poem ‘The Monument of Peter the Great’ (part of the ‘Digression’ in his long work, Forefathers’ Eve) is one of Pushkin’s sources. It opens with a scene recalling a conversation between Mickiewicz and a Russian bard (probably Pushkin) near the statue. Pushkin himself was angered by Mickiewicz’s anti-Russian feelings (the story of their troubled friendship is told in a fine study by Waclaw Lednicki), and found the resentments of a Polish patriot hard to swallow. But he also had mixed feelings about the greatness of Peter’s achievement and the tyranny of the Tsar: Johnston described these as a combination ‘of robust, almost jingoistic patriotism with a keen sense for the arrogant ugliness of absolute power’.

Pushkin’s poem begins with an admiring and affectionate account of the city, the only part of the poem allowed by Tsar Nicholas I to be published in Pushkin’s lifetime. But a hint of menace is present in the opening lines:

On a shore washed by the desolate waves, he stood,
Full of high thoughts, and gazed into the distance.

The monumental anonymous ‘he’ suggests both heroic stature and a sinister impassiveness. Pushkin had named Peter in early drafts, but here he foreshadows a kinship with another punitive statue, that of the Commendatore of the Don Juan story (often known by his rank rather than his name), a kinship realised more fully at the end of the poem, when the statue’s victim dies in terror of its gaze.

In Mickiewicz’s poem the Russian bard is made to utter anti-Petrine sentiments, including a damaging contrast with Marcus Aurelius. Pushkin’s own work is less explicit: but the terror of the humble clerk Yevgeni before the remorseless statue is a powerful evocation of imperial indifference to the plight of the poor. Pushkin’s distaste for imperial despotism was compounded by personal as well as political difficulties with his own Tsar, who was engaged in a flirtation with Pushkin’s wife (her flirtations caused him great anguish and were soon to bring about his death in a duel). The clerk Yevgeni, who, as Pushkin points out in the poem, shares a first name with Pushkin’s hero Onegin but has no surname (his anonymity balancing the imposing namelessness of the statued Tsar), has lost his sweetheart Parasha in the great flood of 1824, which swamped the city that Peter had raised from a swamp. This is the precipitating cause of his crazed terror of the statue. Yevgeni has been taken as an allegory of Pushkin himself, and his madness has been compared with Pushkin’s own disturbed state at this time. He wrote the poem ‘Oh Lord, don’t let me go out of my mind’ soon after finishing The Bronze Horseman.

The last part of the poem, dealing with Yevgeni’s terrified flight, has great hallucinatory power: the nearest English equivalent I know of is Mazeppa’s nightmare ride in Byron’s poem. Pushkin was fascinated by the figure of Mazeppa, the nobleman who, after an amorous intrigue, was expelled from Poland into the Ukraine tied to a horse, became Cossack hetman under Peter the Great, and went over to Peter’s enemy Charles XII of Sweden before the Battle of Poltava. Mazeppa was sometimes represented as a fighter for liberty, but Pushkin conceived him, in his Poltava, as a complex study in treachery. He thought Byron, who had dealt with the earlier episode of Mazeppa’s expulsion, hadn’t much knowledge of the historical personage. ‘He was struck only by the picture of a man tied to a wild horse galloping across the steppes.’ But then, this is what excited Pushkin about Byron’s poem: ‘what a burning creation! What a sweeping and rapid brush!’ Perhaps Pushkin was remembering this when he imagined the mental event of the Bronze Horseman galloping after the terrified Yevgeni, a pounding merciless fever of headlong movement. If so, Johnston’s rendering in Talk about the Last Poet is closer to the feeling than Thomas’s blank-verse translation, where the sense is of a heavy thudding nemesis:

And lit by the pale moonlight, stretching out
His hand aloft, the Bronze Horseman rushes
After him on his ponderously galloping mount.

Thomas’s Horseman is the more statuesque, in some ways an appropriate reversion. The wild gallop of Byron’s Mazeppa yields to the Stone Statue of the Don Juan legend, itself the subject of a ‘little tragedy’ by Pushkin, ‘The Stone Guest’: the two statues, as we are from time to time reminded, most recently by A.D.P. Briggs, were probably related in Pushkin’s mind.

Both translators would seem to have picked up a real element of the original, but neither has achieved a blend of both. Writing on the problems of translating Russian, Thomas says: ‘No English horse gallops like Peter the Great’s ...: kak budto groma grokhotanye, “like a roar of thunder”.’ You might say that Johnston conveyed more gallop and Thomas a more lapidary roar. Thomas’s effect may derive to some extent from his decision to use blank verse, because it seemed ‘fitting that, for this central work of Russian literature, our natural and national English metre, blank verse, should replace Russia’s, the rhymed tetrameter.’ The immediate objective was, however, ‘a literal fidelity in every line’ and this seemed impossible in a parallel English metre: partly, one presumes, because Russian has a greater ‘abundance of rhymes’ (and greater possibilities of masculine-feminine rhyming alternations), and partly because the verbal concentration and the permutability of word-order which are possible in a highly inflected language like Russian enable a shorter line to carry a greater charge of meaning (and perhaps a heavier emotional weight) than is normally achieved by English tetrameters. Thomas says ‘it needed Charles Johnston’s technical virtuosity and poetic tact’ to bring off a close imitation of Russian verse in English, but he is referring to Johnston’s Eugene Onegin and remains silent on the tetrameters of Johnston’s Bronze Horseman.

Johnston’s new book, Choiseul and Talleyrand, includes two further Pushkin poems, ‘Count Nulin’ and ‘Mozart and Salieri’, both of which are also in Thomas’s volume. The latter, one of the ‘little tragedies’, is rightly rendered by both in a form of blank verse, though this time it is Thomas’s which has a lighter (and perhaps also a more simplifying) thrust. It is intermittently variegated, in Salieri’s speeches, by shorter lines of tetrametric tendency. Johnston’s version is in a gnarled blank verse, not closely resembling Pushkin’s style but offering an appropriate English idiom for the subject-matter, with its Browningesque feeling for the energies of strenuous introspection and emotional casuistry in Salieri’s envious and artistically principled soul. The (factually false) story of his poisoning Mozart, though he loves the man and his music, because the carefree ‘genius does not take art seriously enough’, is a Browning subject avant la lettre (the main original poems in Johnston’s new volume, ‘Ammian’ and ‘Choiseul and Talleyrand’, are also Browningesque monologues), and I think Johnston shows the better judgment by going for the heavier metre. Antony Wood, in another new translation of ‘Mozart and Salieri’ offers another blank verse version, which reads easily and agreeably, but seems to me to lack some of the dramatic edge of the others: it is a valuable volume, however, assembling all four ‘little tragedies’ in a very serviceable form.

‘Count Nulin’ was designed by Pushkin as a transposition of Shakespeare’s Rape of Lucrece to the provincial society of Russian landowning families. The idea was to imagine what would have happened ‘if it had occurred to Lucrece to slap Tarquin’s face’. The lady who performs this virtuous gesture is revealed, in a graceful pay-off at the end, to be rather less chaste than the gesture implies. Her husband, who maintains a Beppo-like complaisance as long (and only as long) as he doesn’t know there is something to be complaisant about, is unBeppoed, much as Nulin (meaning Zero) is unTarquined. Pushkin spoke of ‘Count Nulin’ as a tale ‘which is like Beppo’, though the emphatic Briggs tells us the poem contains no wisp or whiff ‘of anything associated with Byronism’.

For this poem, both translators have for once gone for English tetrameter, which Thomas rightly describes as ‘admirably suited to gaiety and humour’ (though we should remember that Byron’s humorous ottava rima stanzas in Beppo and Don Juan are based on a pentameter line, with masculine-feminine alternations, while the tetrametric Mazeppa is powerful in an idiom remote from ‘gaiety’), and here Thomas seems to me to have the advantage over Johnston. Instead of the Byronic witty grace of his Onegin translation, Johnston sometimes falls into a laboured archness:

his face is radiant, his persona
is nicely, pompously serene.

Byron would have enjoyed rhyming ‘persona’ with ‘landowner’ but Thomas’s ‘face ... Shining with pleasant self-esteem’ is surely a fresher rendering of the squire’s physiognomy, and the same might be said of other passages in the two versions. My small acquaintance with Russian does not extend to the subtler nuances, but I suspect that in these and other instances a certain archness is called for, and that Johnston makes it fussy while Thomas tends to iron it out. Readers may find that Thomas offers the better English poem, though both versions have a lot of charm.

Thomas’s volume presents a rich selection of Pushkin’s work and is an apt companion to Johnston’s Onegin, also a Penguin. It has ten longer narrative poems and ‘little tragedies’ (including the bawdy-blasphemous tour de force known as ‘The Gavriliad’, and the Don Juan playlet already mentioned), and over three dozen shorter poems. For some of these Thomas has been particularly successful in finding an appropriate English form. ‘19 October’ is a dignified and elegiac coterie poem, inviting comparison with Yeats’s Gregory elegy, though the poet’s separation from his friends is due to his exile at Mikhailovskoye and not mainly, as in Yeats, to their death. Thomas uses a stanza in some respects reminiscent of Yeats’s, more subdued in tone and more sparing of proud fervours, yet at times achieving a commanding and melancholy elevation whose cadence is that of the great Romantic and post-Romantic masters of English heroic metre. The idiom of ‘Autumn. A Fragment’ is part Keatsian ode, part Yeatsian high informality, finely and appropriately blended. ‘Demons’ is, perhaps less successfully, rendered in a style of Gothic balladry, mingling spooky terror with some funereal jauntiness. ‘The Prophet’, a poem of visionary mutilation, is delivered in a species of driving sub-Blakeian patness:

He tore my fainting lips apart
And, with his right hand steeped in blood,
He armed me with a serpent’s dart;
With his bright sword he split my breast ...

On this showing, Thomas is right to be chary of tight metrical forms, which have a paradoxical way of becoming over-facile. But his opposite reaction, in the famous ‘Anchar’ and elsewhere, is a prosy unrhyming flatness which cries out for the delicate closures of Russian stanzaic forms:

But with a glance of authority
Man sent man to the anchar;
Obediently he set out on his way
And returned at dawn with the poison.

Metronomic renderings like Vladimir Nabokov’s

But man sent man with one proud look
towards the tree, and he was gone,
the humble one, and there he took
the poison and returned at dawn

are an off-putting model. One readily sees why scrupulous users of English would want to shy from it, as James Greene also does in his translations from Afanasy Fet, which Henry Gifford introduces with a monitory subtext of disengagement: ‘Russian poetry even today keeps the formality of structure, the regular positioning of rhyme, and the canonical metres.’ The risk of falsifying this is the ‘problem’ English translators face. It is the price they pay for avoiding the stanzaic kitsch and impoverished embroidery of some earlier versions.

The problem is perhaps especially acute with the notoriously ‘untranslatable’ Pushkin, though Thomas plays this down. His attack on rhyming translatorese includes a telling examination of a stanza from ‘To Anna Kern’ as rendered by Kisch, Newmarch, T.B. Shaw and Bowra. His own version has no difficulty in achieving a more tactful, as well as more literal, fidelity:

I remember the moment of wonder:
You appeared before me,
Like a momentary vision,
A spirit of pure beauty.

But of Pushkin’s simple grace it has little. Line by line it is often efficient, free of solecism, even sensitive, but it lacks any feeling of cumulative design, and, as is likely to happen when design is weak, the individual parts remain unmemorable, even line by line.

Certainly the problem seems to affect the shorter lyrics, whatever metrical solution is adopted, more than the longer works. Reading many of the shorter poems in this book, I found it hard to rouse myself from indifference. When a passage from ‘For the shores of your distant home’ affected me hauntingly, I was shocked to realise that this was because I had first met the lines in the desolating final section of The White Hotel, where, in the bizarre afterworld of ‘The Camp’, Lisa’s dead mother recalls her love-life: ‘I’d quote Pushkin: “When we meet again/In the shade of olive-trees”.’ The poignancy of the lines as rendered came, for me, from their context in Thomas’s novel, where they presumably first appeared, rather than from the Pushkin translation to which they now officially belong.

The White Hotel is soaked with Pushkin associations, and the appearance of the Penguin translation within a year or so of the novel seems to proclaim the kinship: for once, the cover’s ‘by ... the author of The White Hotel’ means more than the usual exploitation of a best-seller’s success. Pushkin, and Pushkin’s fascination with Mozartian and Don Juanic themes, are brooding presences in the novel, sometimes surrealistically transmogrified: the heroine, Lisa Erdman, composes a poem entitled ‘Don Giovanni’, in which psychoneurotic sexual fantasies replace the Don’s stylish seductions, and destruction by fire and flood replace nemesis at the hands of the stone statue. Lisa, a Russian-born half-Jewish opera-singer, sings the part of Tatiana in the opera of Eugene Onegin at a decisive moment in her career, excelling in the letter scene and subsequently composing a personal poem ‘in the form of Tatiana’s letter to Onegin’. Later, in a mass-grave at Babi Yar, registering imperceptible motions of adjustment among the piled corpses, her dying consciousness relays another remembered line: ‘ “The trembling of the sleeping night”, Pushkin called it; only he was referring to the settling of a house.’

The White Hotel is also impregnated with the figure of Freud, whose patient Lisa is (one chapter, ‘Frau Anna G.’, purports to be Freud’s account of her case-history, a brilliant imitation). The fact implies no disengagement from Pushkin, whose imagination is seen by Thomas (in the introduction to The Bronze Horseman and Other Poems) as comparable to Freud’s: Pushkin’s ‘The Bridegroom’, with its ‘sharp realism, touched by the uncanny’, reminds him ‘of Freudian case-studies’. Pushkin’s erotic-blasphemous fantasy, the ‘Gavriliad’ or ‘Gabrieliad’, in which Mary ‘enjoys Satan, Gabriel and God, all in one day: not to mention a little autoerotic pleasure’, exists in a related area of imagination to that of Lisa’s ‘Don Giovanni’, in which the heroine (like Mary, a young Jewess), enjoys a Freudian fantasy of multiple coupling, in which Freud’s son is a central figure: there are some curious sharings of detail in both poems, and Thomas produces for both a blank verse which combines heaving fantasy with a strange vigorous flatness of idiom.

Lisa’s mother died in a hotel fire in the course of a love affair, and the story has a coincidental pertinence to the work of another Russian poet, Afanasy Fet (1820-1892). Fet, born 17 years before Pushkin’s death, and a friend of Tolstoy, lost his sweetheart when she ‘was burned to death in her bed’. He was unable to forget her, and, in the words of the Soviet poet Vinokurov, ‘almost all of Fet’s poetry was addressed to her.’ As late as 1885:

I didn’t have the strength to take my eyes off the departed.
Our secrets lay in ashes, I tried to understand them.
Did the features of your face express forgiveness?
You answered nothing, nothing!

Fet, ‘usually regarded’ as an ‘idyllist’, was described by Tolstoy as a ‘fat, good-natured officer’ with an ‘astounding lyric audacity’. It would be hard to claim that the energy described in Vinokurov’s appreciation (printed as an appendix) comes through vividly in the present selection, translated by James Greene. But there are poems of a darker imagination than the word ‘idyllist’ would suggest: ‘Signs’ and a poem of icily delicate beauty and hard uncompromising loss, ‘Another May Night’.

We do not associate Betjeman with macabre fantasy. His ladies don’t usually burn to death, and if his approximations to bawdiness verge on the bizarre, they are hardly in the style of Pushkin’s ‘Gavriliad’ or the ‘Don Giovanni’ of The White Hotel. But the first poem in Uncollected Poems approaches the mode of the latter in combining love, mutilation and mass-destruction, though its real affinities are with the formulaic black humour which later produced Tom Lehrer’s ‘I hold your hand in mine’ (the hand being all there is to hold), and with Browning’s ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ distantly in the background. It is called ‘1940’ and imagines a bomb scoring a direct hit while the poet or speaker is in the bath:

I called, as I always do, I called to Penelope,
I called to the strong with the petulant call of the weak;
There lay the head and the brown eyes dizzily open,
And the mouth apart but the tongue unable to speak;
There lay the nut-shaped head that I love for ever,
The thin little neck, the turned-up nose and the charms
Of pouting lips and lashes and circling eyebrows;
But where was the body? and where were the legs and arms?

This falls short of Gothic nightmare. Its curious visual force is that of a movie gimmick. The pathology is all surface, cosily imagined in the bath. Betjeman wears all his pathologies in comfort. ‘Archibald’, his teddy-bear preserved from childhood, is a bulwark against a ‘dreadful void’ which is not somehow imagined as very likely:

And if an analyst one day
       Of school of Adler, Jung or Freud
Should take this aged bear away,
       Then, oh my God, the dreadful void!
Its draughty darkness could but be
Eternity, Eternity.

‘Woman Driver’, perhaps a daughter of Joan Hunter Dunn, Mini-owning and Dolcisshod, gives rise to some expected stirrings of desire. The poet envies the harmless pleasures available to the lady’s garments and furnishings (‘What warm upholstery will hold those thighs? ... What pedal feel the Dolcis pressing hard?’). The ‘lovely in the ski-ing pants’ seems far (but how far, after all?) from the corsetings and couplings of white hotels and such.

The chronicler of the poignancy of tatty lives, their affectations and nostalgias, their endearing pretensions and vulnerabilities, the cloying sentiment uncloyingly recorded as sheer human love or human pain: this Betjeman fitfully appears. ‘Interior Decorator’ is an erratic sketchbook assemblage of elderly camp. ‘The Retired Postal Clerk’ opens with de haut en bas mimicry reminiscent of Ford Madox Ford’s attempts to enter the minds of sergeant-majors. It ends with a throb of sentimental patness:

And those last months when she was really bad,
They were the only pleasures that she had.

In between are some moments of classic Betjeman: crushing bereavement, memories of touching happiness derived from small suburban pleasures, and a tawdry pathos of suburban meanness, as the daughter-in-law, invited to move into the widower’s house, replies:

       ‘What I want’s a place to call my own’ –
  She meant that she could wait till I was dead.

Many of the poems are uncharacteristically vulgarised by a kind of factitious hard finish, as in ‘A Romance’ (a cheap little ballad about a ball at the parvenu end of debutante society, with the best-laid plans of the Cecil-Samuels properly stymied, as people with such names deserve), or in the harsh inverted morality of ‘Thoughts on a Train’.

Howard Sergeant’s Travelling without a Valid Ticket starts a few stations down the line from Betjemania, though its nostalgias are, in places, not unlike. The idea is that his grandfather was a railwayman all his life, and railways, religion, and for that matter life itself, seem to have become metaphors of one another for everyone in sight. The seven poems in this sequence are, it seems, a kind of Seven Ages of Man, with titles like ‘Making the Connection’ and ‘The End of the Line’. The latter is about the old man’s death: ‘I’ve been travelling without a valid ticket ever since.’ And this is the age of the train.