Syllabic Verse: Kantemir

Prince Antioch Kantemir in his time — 1708-44 — was probably the most cultured man in Russia. He was born to wealthy nobility, soon became active in court circles and in 1730 was appointed Minister-Resident in London, transferring in 1738 to Paris, where he remained till his death in 1744. He kept up a lively correspondence with French men of letters, and composed, from 1729 to 1739 and for his private satisfaction, a series of well-known satires. Manuscripts circulated among friends, but weren't formerly published until 1762 (though a French edition appeared earlier).

Written in the syllabic verse that was superseded later in the same century, they are nonetheless Russia's first literature of the classical age: consciously realistic and literary. The satires were directed against the enemies of the Enlightenment, against those who supported the old prejudices of Moscow, or displayed the foppishness of the semi-educated Europeanized young nobles. {1-3}

translating Trediakovsky's Verses in Praise of Russia

Though the language is racy and colloquial, considerably less bookish than Lomonosov's, the style was nonetheless antiquated when the satires were published. Even the opening Уме is in the old vocative case, and the писав of line three is the imperfective gerund. {1}

The nine sisters referred to are the nine muses, goddesses and inventors of science, Jupiter and the Memory of their daughter, i.e. Clio, Urania, Euterpe, Eraton, Falia, Melpomene, Terpsichore, Calliope and Polymnia. Crito, used throughout the Satires, is a fictitious character, a man feigning reverence, ignorant and superstitious, who prefers the appearance of the law to the essence of it for his own self-interest. {8}

Russian Text




Уме недозрелый, плод недолгой науки!
Покойся, не понуждай к перу мои руки:
Не писав летящи дни века проводити
Можно, и славу достать, хоть творцом не слыти.
Ведут к ней нетрудные в наш век пути многи,
На которых смелые не запнутся ноги;
Всех неприятнее тот, что босы проклали
Девять сестр. Многи на нем силу потеряли,
Не дошед; нужно на нем потеть и томиться,
10. И в тех трудах всяк тебя как мору чужится,

Смеется, гнушается. Кто над столом гнется,
Пяля на книгу глаза, больших не добьется
Палат, ни расцвеченна марморами саду;
Овцу не прибавит он к отцовскому стаду.
Правда, в нашем молодом монархе надежда
Всходит музам немала; со стыдом невежда
Бежит его. Аполлин славы в нем защиту
Своей не слабу почул, чтяща свою свиту
Видел его самого, и во всем обильно
20. Тщится множить жителей парнасских он сильно.

Но та беда: многие в царе похваляют
За страх то, что в подданном дерзко осуждают.
«Расколы и ереси науки суть дети;
Больше врет, кому далось больше разумети;
Приходит в безбожие, кто над книгой тает, —
Критон с четками в руках ворчит и вздыхает,
И просит, свята душа, с горькими слезами
Смотреть, сколь семя наук вредно между нами:
Дети наши, что пред тем, тихи и покорны,
30. Праотческим шли следом к божией проворны

Службе, с страхом слушая, что сами не знали,
Теперь, к церкви соблазну, библию честь стали;
Толкуют, всему хотят знать повод, причину,
Мало веры подая священному чину;
Потеряли добрый нрав, забыли пить квасу,
Не прибьешь их палкою к соленому мясу;
Уже свечек не кладут, постных дней не знают;
Мирскую в церковных власть руках лишну чают,
Шепча, что тем, что мирской жизни уж отстали,
40 Поместья и вотчины весьма не пристали».

Poem structure

The poem is in syllabic verse, thirteen syllables to the line and nominally rhymed AABBCC, etc. Such verse in Russian usually employs a feminine rhyme. There is also a caesura (/) after the seventh syllable, i.e. a slight pause which should be sounded when the verse is read aloud. {7} The natural stresses of words do not create any regular pattern, however: this is early Russian verse, simply governed by rhyme and syllable count (), but accomplished nonetheless:

Уме́ недозре́лый, плод не/до́лгой нау́ки!   (13) A
Поко́йся, не понужда́й / к пе́ру ́ мои́ ру́ки:   (13) A
Не писав летящи дни / века́ проводити    (13) B
Мо́жно, и сла́ву доста́ть, / хоть творцо́м не слыти.   (13) B
Веду́т к ней нетру́дные в наш / век пути́ многи,   (13) C
На кото́рых сме́лые не / запну́тся ноги́;    (13) C

A TTS (text to speech) recording is:

Other Translations

One, very attractive rendering, mimics English verse of the period:

Prince Antiokh Kantemir. Satire I
On His Mind: On the Scorners of Learning.{4}

Oh Mind, brief Learning’s unripe fruit, be still!
Do not compel my hand to take the quill;
’Tis possible to find some path to fame,
Not writing all one’s days, without the name
Of Author. Many paths, and easy, lead
Thereto today – bold footsteps have no need
To falter. Least agreeable of all
Nine barefoot sisters traced ; for many fall
Before they reach it; one must sweat and pine,
10. And all will shun you like a plague malign,

Mock you, disdain you. He who sits alone
Stares wide-eyed at a book, will never own
Great palaces,

Another, more literal and unrhymed, accompanies an academic paper. {5} It's for illustrative purposes, and shouldn't be judged on a literary basis:

Mind immature, the fruit of short-lived science!
Rest in peace, do not force my hands to pen:
Without writing the flying days of the century spend
It is possible, and to get fame, even if you are not known as a creator.
Many paths that are not difficult in our age lead to it,
On which the brave will not stumble;
The most unpleasant of all is the one that the barefooted cursed
Nine sisters. Many have lost their strength on it,
Did not reach; you need to sweat and languish on it,
10. And in those labors, everyone alienates you like a pestilence,

Laughs, sneers. Who bends over the table
Staring at the book of the eye, big will not achieve
Chambers, nor is the garden adorned with marbles;


Should we translate the Russian as rhymed pentameter couplets, which is natural for the equivalent period in English verse, or attempt the rhymed hexameter, a very much challenging proposition? If our intention is pleasing verse, the pentameter is the obvious choice, provided the shorter measure accommodates the sense adequately. Does it? Comparison of the two renderings above suggest that this is the case. Running the Russian text through a machine translator, gives much the same rendering as the last. More to the point, words and expressions have changed their meaning a little, so we need to consult the notes accompanying the official text. 'Science' in the first line means 'instruction'; Apollo is an allusion to the generosity of Peter II, and so on. {7} I have amended the full version accordingly.

I have suggested in my Trediakovsky page that English syllabic verse is not the answer, and that is even more the case here where a strong verse shaping is needed for satire. That being so, it seems best to simply experiment, and see whether the pentameter or hexameter proves the more useful. Thus:


Let unformed mind — this short-lived science in men —
rest easy; do not force my hand to pen.
Yet write or not, the days fly on the same,
and no creator still may earn a name:
for easy paths will lead you nowadays,
nor need the brave to take more stumbling ways
of plain unpleasantness to naked feet
nine sisters bring. For many faltering here meet
with no success. You need to labour long
10. and hard, though this will put you in the wrong,

earn jibes. But he who hates the writing pad,
or stares at books with fevered eyes, won't add
apartments or the marbled park.


Let mind unformed — this short-lived science in men —
rest easy now and do not force your hand to pen.
Yet, write or not, the century's days haste on the same,
nor name as true creator you may still earn fame:
Many easy paths will lead you nowadays,
nor need the braver souls to take their stumbling ways
through that pronounced unpleasantness to naked feet
nine sisters bring. For many losing strength here, meet
with no success. You need to labour hard and long;
10. though at those efforts all will put you in the wrong,

attracting jibes. But he who hates the writing pad,
or stares at books with fevered eyes, will not much add
to fine apartments or the marbled park.

English Translation

The pentameter gives a tighter and more compact verse. The hexameter gives a more leisurely, sometimes stumbling pace, but with less contrivance and more opportunity to convey the literal meaning properly. There is not much to choose between them otherwise. Both will give a generally pleasing verse, less polished than the Jeannette Eyre rendering above. But, since I have consistently rendered the Russian hexameter by the English hexameter in these web-pages, I'll follow that practice here. The translation of the short Kantemir sample is then:

Though immature my mind — we brief-instructed men —
rest easy now and do not drive my hand to pen.
Though, write or not, the century's days fly on the same,
one may, without a name as author, still earn fame.

Many the easy paths that lead us nowadays,
nor need the brave to falter on their stumbling ways
against those most distasteful, cursed and naked feet nine sisters show. Here many lacking strength must meet with scant success. Yet all must sweat and anguish long, and meet with naked, unadorned, most shaming feet
nine sisters show. Here many, shedding purpose, meet
with scant success. Yet all must sweat and anguish long,
10. though laboured efforts clearly put them in the wrong,
attracting much derision. But he who desk would spurn,
or stare with troubled eyes at books, will scarcely earn
the fine apartment or a marbled park. Take stock:
he may not add a sheep, this man, to father's flock,
but still our monarch promises, with high-flown aim —
while muses rise around — the ignorant with shame —
to be munificent. Apollo gives what's due,
supporting weaknesses, expanding retinue,
as I have noted for myself, thus adding hopes
20. of many soon inhabiting Parnassus slopes.

The trouble is, of course, that in the kingly praise,
they grow as subjects fearful of the censuring phrase,
'find splits and heresies that spring from tutored thought,
though more is plain stupidity that's nowhere taught.
Yet he who gives himself to books finds godless lies —
as Crito, with a rosary, bemoans and sighs.

A holy soul will ask, with bitter tears, how comes
the fruit of knowledge in us to such hurtful sums?
How children, once submissive and in quiet shod,
30. who in their fathers closely trod the ways of God
and in such service therefore knew no fear, now find
the very church and Bible like to soil their mind?

All is but interpretation; they must know cause;
they have no faith at all in sacred rank or laws:
good humour they're bereft of; no kvass seems sweet.
The threatened stick won't keep them to their salted meat.
They don't light candles now, nor know the fasting days,
find weak the power that's put in hands of churches stays.
Has worldly life, they whisper, fallen so behind
40. that lands and patrimonies are but ill designed?'


1. Wachtel, M. The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Poetry (CUP 2004) 17-8.

2. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926/Vintage 1958) 41-2.

3. Bristol, E.B. A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P. 1991) 46-8.

4. Prince Antiokh Kantemir. Satire I. On His Mind: On the Scorners of Learning. Translated By Jeannette Eyre. Slavonic Review)

5. Satires A.D. Cantemir. Issues, style (in English).

6. Antioch Cantemir of satire. Letters (in English)

7. Russian text and accompanying notes (in Russian)

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.