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Derzhavin Poems

Derzhavin Poems: Selected poems translated into English as a free pdf ebook, with facing Russian text, notes, biography, references and audio recordings.

Gavril Romanovich Derzhavin (1743-1816) rose from penniless obscurity to the highest offices of state, but is remembered today as Russia's greatest poet before Pushkin. Derzhavin's poetry is powerfully and distinctly his. By force of inspiration, this minor aristocrat completed the hopes of eighteenth century predecessors like Katemír, Trediakovsky and Lomonosov, and lived long enough to hear Pushkin recite his first poems, recognizing a talent that would usher in a new sensibility. Derzhavin is best known for his odes, into which he packed a great deal of elegy, humour and satire. To our ears, the poems are rather high-minded and over-long, but they are also exceptionally accomplished and powerful.

derzhavin poems book cover

Derzhavin's Poetry

The translations in this ebook include the more important odes, namely 'On the Death of Prince Meshchersky' (1779), 'Felitsa' (1782), 'God' (1785), the opening excerpt from 'The Waterfall' (1794), written on the death of Prince Potemkin, and the 'Bullfinch' (1800), which served as a short elegy on the death of his friend, Marshall Suvorov.  Also included are the attractively informal 'Invitation to Dinner', and 'Life at Zvanka'.

A free ebook: translations of Derzhavin poems in pdf format.

Biography



It was Derzhavin far more than Pushkin who created the writer's claim to be the social conscience of Russia. Ironically, the gift came from Derzhavin's marked disabilities, the contrariness that so exasperated contemporaries expecting deference to wealth, social position and court procedures. Hemmed in by a social order to which he did not wholly belong, Derzhavin's own scruples became his lodestone, first in his Pugachev adventures, and increasingly in his writings. His first book, 'The Chitagalai Collection', published anonymously and at his own expense in 1774, followed an unusual order: translations of four of Frederick the Great's odes, then his own poems, plus a dedication to General Bibikov followed by one to the empress Catherine, but was otherwise modest and unassertive. Two important odes followed: 'On the Death of Prince Meshchersky' and 'To Rulers and Judges', the first having the blood-chilling note of great poetry and the second causing some censorship problems. Then came 'Felitsa' in 1782, which portrayed the empress as an exceptionally competent, hard-working and sensible woman.

Derzhavin poems are difficult to translate. Derzhavin mixes styles, the high with the low, but also employs a penetrating depth that subsumes the particular in the immemorial commonplaces of life. The style is markedly individual. It has the archaic diction, semantic inversions and the contorted syntax thought necessary at the time for the higher styles of poetry, but combines these with the more everyday language that Pushkin was to bring to perfection. A simple example is stanza 5 in The Swan:

And all very skin, (I) see, feathery
around waist tight-fitting my
down on breast, back (is) winged
20. swan (is) glossy white

The meaning is clear enough but the Russian is hardly idiomatic. My rendering:

And now I even see my skin
become at waist a feathered sight:
my back is winged, my breast akin
20. to swan's down with its pearly white.

These are literary translations, therefore, where I've tried to capture the poetry, often at the cost of an exact word-for-word rendering. In general, I have aimed for a pleasing translation in traditional English verse, one that conveys Derzhavin's meaning in a style that is typical of the period and faithful to the original stanza shape. The result has been a 'quieter' and smoother rendering than the original. Where a Felitsa snippet is literally:

Or at the feast, I am rich,
Where they give me a feast,
Where the table shines with silver and gold,
Where a thousand different dishes are served:
55. There is a glorious Westphalian ham,
There is good Astrakhan fish,
There is pilaf and pies standing there,

I have written:

Or at a sumptuous banquet hence
that's somehow given in my name,
with gold and silver ornaments
and umpteen tiers of fish and game,
55. good ham as rich Westphalia can
and our fine fish from Astrakan,
no pies or pilaffs go to waste;

For most of Derzhavin's better-known poems there exist several fairly close translations, in books and on the Internet, so that the real need now is literary quality. Faithful and pleasing verse renderings can, of course, be easily obtained if rhyme requirements are dropped, as excellent translations by Evelyn Bristol and Michael Slager show, but that 'shaped and finished authority' is missing: rhyme helps restructure lines for memorability, force and beauty.

Meanings incomplete in the Russian have sometimes been rounded out in the English. I have replaced the Russian feminine rhyme by the English masculine rhyme throughout, and not attempted to convey Dezhavin's full rhetoric and supposed 'errors', an exercise well beyond my powers, even supposing the results would be readable: no equivalent to Derzhavin's rugged style exists in English verse. I have also added a short social history of Russia to Derzhavin's biography, as the poetry needs to be seen in its larger setting.

Derzhavin Poems and Their Achievement

Derzhkin and his contemporaries thought Derzhavin's ode 'The Waterfall' the greatest poem in the Russian language. It is exceptionally long, however, and is for the most part the standard piece, a three-year labour of love to Derzhavin's hero and part patron, Prince Grigory Potemkin: foremost statesman and military leader. I have only given the opening verses, where Derzhavin appears in a different guise, as the keen student of nature, almost the Romantic poet of contemporary Germany or England.

Meaning is often compressed in Derzhavin, even tangled in places, but that semantic density can be further enhanced by rich colour imagery and sound effects. Russian verse subsequently took Pushkin's more mundane and useful route, but Derzhavin's rugged vitality was later of interest to iconoclastic poets like Mandel'stam and Mayakovsky escaping the effete world-weariness of late Silver Age poetry. His work gave orientation and stability in a world beset by revolution and fast-changing styles. Derzhavin was also the first major Russian poet to add everyday, mundane words to the literary mix, though Nekrasov probably found his own way to the practice.

Like many poets, Derzhavin was not a good judge of his own work. Much of his time at Zvanka was taken up with the Anacreonic poems, which show a sane and balanced sensuality, not always harmless, but indulged by his second wife. Worse, Derzhavin never tired of extolling the virtues of his tragedies, though they were not much liked at the time, nor treasured since. So straightforward a character as Derzhavin did not have the reading, balance and detachment needed for literary criticism, and he was often baffled by his contemporaries' single devotion to his odes. Yet it is these of the Derzhavin poems that tower over the two centuries of Russian poetry: rugged, individual and irreplaceable in the world-class literature that Russia was now beginning to produce.

A free ebook: translations of Derzhavin poems in pdf format.

Excerpt (Opening of Felitsa)

Tsarina, wise, omnipotent
and of the Kirghuz-Kaisak race:
one whose powerful mind has bent
to find the path, the faithful trace
5. that Khlor, the young tsarevich 1
may climb the highest mountain’s reach.
Say, you whose rose can have no spine,
whose very virtue is designed
to captivate my heart and mind,
10. say how your counsel would incline.

Felitsa, give me sound instruction
in worldly opulence that’s true,
have the passions find reduction
and in this world be happy too.
15. How admirable is now your voice.
Your son escorts me in this choice.
Alas, my urge to fight but thins
against the vanities of wealth,
and if today I curb myself,
20. tomorrow I’m a slave to whims.

Unlike the mirzas in  your court,
you often go about on foot.
The plainest food is what you’ve sought
where honest fare is simply put.
25. Your hard-won rest is much the same:
you read and write by candle flame.
To us mere mortals from your pen
comes sensible but fervent bliss,
and even cards you choose to miss
30. as I do morn to morn again.

You do not care for masquerades
and to a club are quite unknown:
habit and custom, neither fades,
nor is there dancing by the throne.
35. You do not haunt Parnassus, nor
what séances are practiced for.
No eastern rule is in your gaze,
who traced an honest path, both whole
and modest. So your waking soul
40. but works for other’s useful days.

But I, of course, have slept till noon,
which fumes of pipe and coffee show.
My working day is one long swoon
within whose thoughts chimeras grow.
45. With captives under Persian skies
I arm myself in Turkish guise.
Still dreaming that I am the sultan
I make my piercing look oppress,
or captured by some other dress
50. will slip out quickly for a caftan.