Christmas; the themes are exhausted.
Yet there is always room
on the heart for another
snowflake to reveal a pattern.
Love knocks with such frosted fingers.
I look out. In the shadow
of so vast a God I shiver, unable
to detect the child for the whiteness.
by R. S. Thomas
from No Truce with the Furies (1995)
I am a man now.
Pass your hand over my brow,
You can feel the place where the brains grow.
I am like a tree,
From my top boughs I can see
The footprints that led up to me.
There is blood in my veins
That has run clear of the stain
Contracted in so many loins.
Why, then, are my hands red
With the blood of so many dead?
Is this where I was misled?
Why are my hands this way
That they will not do as I say?
Does no God hear when I pray?
I have nowhere to go.
The swift satellites show
The clock of my whole being is slow.
It is too late to start
For destinations not of the heart.
I must stay here with my hurt.
by R. S. Thomas
from Tares (1961)
It’s time my friends, it’s time. We long for peace
of heart. But days chase days and every hour
gone by means one less hour to come. We live
our lives, dear friend, in hope of life, then die.
There is no happiness on earth, but peace
exists, and freedom too. Tired slave, I dream
of flight, of taking refuge in some far-
off home of quiet joys and honest labour.
by Александр Сергеевич Пушкин (Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin)
a.k.a. Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin
translated by Robert Chandler
Oh, to hell with this storm, damn this snow and hail –
pounding on the rooftop, driving in white nails!
But me – I’m not frightened, and I know my fate:
my wastrel heart has nailed me to you – nailed us tight!
by Сергей Александрович Есенин (Sergei Alexandrovich Yesenin)
a.k.a. Sergey Yesenin / Esenin
translated by Boris Dralyuk
No, I’m not Byron, I’m unknown;
I am, like him, a chosen one,
an exile hounded by this world –
only I bear a Russian soul.
An early start, an early end –
little indeed will I complete;
within my heart, as in a sea,
lie shattered hopes – a sunken load.
Grim ocean, tell me, who can glean
your deepest secrets? Who can speak
my thoughts to the unheeding crowd?
I… God… or will they die unheard?
by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)
translated by Boris Dralyuk
Fun fact: Of course the opening line of this poem refers to Lord Byron. George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), known as Lord Byron, was a British nobleman, poet, peer, politician, and leading figure in the Romantic movement. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential. Among his best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as well as the short lyric poem “She Walks in Beauty”.
Lermontov compares himself to Byron as both endure exile – however Byron’s, unlike Lermontov’s, was by choice. Perhaps more interesting to note is that Byron exiled himself to escape his fame in Britain while, in contrast, Lermontov fears he will die before his verse is recognised. Both became infamous but their reaction to it was very different.
Comparing both you wonder how sincere Lermontov is in this comparison and his voiced concerns of his verse being left unknown considering his poem Death of the Poet, its final part written impromptu, in the course of several minutes, was spread around by Rayevsky and caused uproar. The last 16 lines of it, explicitly addressed to the inner circles at the court, all but accused the powerful “pillars” of Russian high-society of complicity in Pushkin’s death. The poem portrayed that society as a cabal of self-interested venomous wretches “huddling about the throne in a greedy throng”, “the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory” about to suffer the apocalyptic judgment of God. The poem propelled Lermontov to an unprecedented level of fame. Zhukovsky hailed the “new powerful talent“; popular opinion greeted him as “Pushkin’s heir“. Hardly a man who is doomed to have his thoughts unheeded by the crowd.
Perhaps, in his favour, we might reflect he is confessing to being unable to endure his sudden fame caused by his controversial poem, as Byron had gleefully revelled in for his own works and indeed lifestyle, and is somewhat regretful and fearful it would only be for ‘Death of a Poet‘ he would be remembered and none of his other works. Of course we now know him as a Russian Romantic writer, poet and painter, sometimes called “the poet of the Caucasus“, the most important Russian poet after Alexander Pushkin’s death in 1837 and the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism. His influence on later Russian literature is still felt in modern times, not only through his poetry, but also through his prose, which founded the tradition of the Russian psychological novel.
Clouds that whiten in a dome of blue
and twisted trees sharply delineated,
the dust aglow, each shadow elongated
and phantoms that pass through the heart anew.
Why was the tale so brief? I cannot say.
Was there a second half I didn’t know?
In pale skies the clouds dissolve away
and night roams through the blackened tree below.
That man, the bench he sits on in the dusk
are growing heavier and more grotesque…
Don’t move! For as carnations start to shine
and leafy bushes melt and intertwine,
the poet shakes away his uniform
of tired bronze and prings on the lawn.
by Иннокентий Фёдорович Анненский (Innokenty Fyodorovich Annensky)
translated by Peter Oram
Fun fact: Annensky is thinking of a statue of Pushkin in the Lycee Garden in Tsarkoye Selo.
My hero bares his nerves along my wrist
That rules from wrist to shoulder,
Unpacks the head that, like a sleepy ghost,
Leans on my mortal ruler,
The proud spine spurning turn and twist.
And these poor nerves so wired to the skull
Ache on the lovelorn paper
I hug to love with my unruly scrawl
That utters all love hunger
And tells the page the empty ill.
My hero bares my side and sees his heart
Tread; like a naked Venus,
The beach of flesh, and wind her bloodred plait;
Stripping my loin of promise,
He promises a secret heat.
He holds the wire from this box of nerves
Praising the mortal error
Of birth and death, the two sad knaves of thieves,
And the hunger’s emperor;
He pulls that chain, the cistern moves.
by Dylan Thomas
from 18 Poems
Fun fact: People speculate that this poem is about teenage mastrubation in the solitude of the toilet ever on the verge of being discovered. Meanwhile others think it’s about his writing pen… well up until the latter half.