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My Country by Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) is often seen as Russia’s greatest poet after Pushkin, though his life was shorter and his output much more restricted. {1} He introduced a Byronic Romanticism, a greater realism and a strong sense of poetic persona. {2}

Lermontov born to an aristocratic family in Moscow, lost his mother early, and, after the breakup of the family, was brought up as spoiled child by female relatives, who perhaps exacerbated a morbid self-consciousness and touchy vanity. The young man was educated at Moscow University and at an army cadet school in St. Petersburg, graduating as hussar in 1834. His poem ‘Death of a Poet’, denouncing Pushkin’s enemies, won him celebrity but also exile to the Caucasus. A collection of poems appeared in 1840, as did his one novel: ‘The Hero of Our Time’. After a duel with the French ambassador’s son he was again exiled to the Caucasus but now demoted. In the Caucasus Lermontov proved a brave and capable officer, but on leave, in a quite needless duel with a former schoolmate, the 27 year old poet was killed at the first shot. {3}

Lermontov's reputation has varied over time. Mirsky {4} remarked that 'The perfection of Lermontov's style and narrative manner can be appreciated only by those who really know Russian, who feel fine imponderable shades of words and know what has been left out as well as what has been put in.' Nabokov differed: 'The English reader should be aware that Lermontov's prose style in Russian is inelegant, it is dry and drab; it is the tool of an energetic, incredibly gifted, bitterly honest, but definitely inexperienced young man. His Russian is, at times, almost as crude as Stendhal's in French; his similes and metaphors are utterly commonplace, his hackneyed epithets are only redeemed by occasionally being incorrectly used. Repetition of words in descriptive sentences irritates the purist.' {5}

Mirsky {6} has a general observation. The poets of Russia's golden age were all 'makers', i.e. their poetry was not the transcript of experience but a creation out of the material of experience. So was Lermontov's poetry, but it was also (like all real poetry) a transformation, where the poet willed the raw experience to play a larger part than had been the case with his elders. His later work was less aimed at making a thing of beauty, however, as making something with 'a beautiful language of emotions', i.e. something that expressed an inner state of greatness and altogether transcended the originating experience. That seems to me true, and hints at two things. One is why we find today's 'serious poetry' so limited: the emotional realm is altogether neglected. The second is the need for superlative translations: getting the sense right is the least of our tasks.

translating Lermontov's My Country

Lermontov wrote voluminously in childhood, but only from 1836 is the poetry memorable, sometimes very memorable indeed. Lermontov is not easy for non-Russians to appreciate, much depending on the exact phrasing. Many indeed prefer his prose, sometimes called the best Russian ever written. Chekhov thought similarly of ‘Taman’ short story, which he considered Russia's best short story. {5}

Russian Text of My Country

Родина

Люблю отчизну я, но странною любовью!
Не победит её рассудок мой.
Ни слава, купленная кровью,
Ни полный гордого доверия покой,
Ни тёмной старины заветные преданья
Не шевеля́т во мне отрадного мечтанья.
Но я люблю — за что, не знаю сам —
Её степей холодное молчанье,
Её лесов безбрежных колыханье,
Разливы рек её, подобные морям;
Просёлочным путём люблю скакать в телеге
И, взором медленным пронзая но́чи тень,
Встречать по сторонам, вздыхая о ночлеге,
Дрожащие огни печальных деревень;
Люблю дымо́к спалённой жни́вы,
В степи́ ночующий обоз
И на холме средь жёлтой нивы
Чету́ белеющих берёз.
С отрадой, многим незнакомой,
Я вижу полное гумно́,
Избу́, покрытую соломой,
С резными ставнями окно;
И в праздник, вечером росистым,
Смотреть до по́лночи готов
На пляску с топаньем и свистом
Под говор пьяных мужичков.

1841

The TTS (text to speech) recording is:



Analysis

The poem is in iambics, but its structure is unusual:

Люблю́ отчи́зну я, но стра́нною любо́вью! 6A
Не победи́т её рассу́док мой. 5b
Ни сла́ва, ку́пленная кро́вью, 4A
Ни по́лный го́рдого дове́рия поко́й, 5b
Ни тёмной старины́ заве́тные преда́нья 6C
Не шевеля́т во мне отра́дного мечта́нья. 6C

Но я люблю́ — за что, не зна́ю сам — 5d
Её степе́й холо́дное молча́нье, 5e
Её лесо́в безбре́жных колыха́нье, 5e
Разли́вы рек её, подо́бные моря́м; 6d

Просёлочным путём люблю́ скака́ть в теле́ге 6F
И, взо́ром ме́дленным пронза́я но́чи тень, 6g
Встреча́ть по сторона́м, вздыха́я о ночле́ге, 6F
Дрожа́щие огни́ печа́льных дереве́нь; 6g

Люблю́ дымо́к спалённой жни́вы, 4H
В степи́ ночу́ющий обо́з 4i
И на холме́ средь жёлтой ни́вы 4H
Чету́ беле́ющих берёз. 4i

С отра́дой, мно́гим незнако́мой, 4J
Я ви́жу по́лное гумно́, 4k
Избу́, покры́тую соло́мой, 4J
С резны́ми ста́внями окно́; 4k

И в пра́здник, ве́чером роси́стым, 4L
Смотре́ть до по́лночи гото́в 4m
На пля́ску с то́паньем и сви́стом 4L
Под го́вор пья́ных мужичко́в. 4m

Previous Translations

Ruverses have their usual helpful translations. For comparison I give opening lines of versions by Peter France (rather free and not reproducing rhyme or stanza shape):

I love my country, but with a strange love —
stronger than reason!..
Neither the fame that blood can buy,
nor the calm pride of confidence,
nor the time-honoured gifts of ignorant days
can stir my soul with dreams of happiness.

By Yevgeny Bonver (sensible, though rhymes are a little contrived and 'queer' has other connotations):

I love my land, but with a queer passion,
My mind isn't able to absorb it, yet!
Nor glory, purchased by the bloody actions,
Nor peace, in proud confidence inlaid,
Nor sacred sagas of the days of yore
Will stir my pleasant fancies any more.

And by J.S. Phillimore (a little too grandiloquent and now rather dated in diction):

Patriot I am, but in so strange a fashion
No reasons of the mind must rule this passion.
Russia’s blood-purchased glory.
The calm that best her haughty trust beseems.
Her dark and ancient day of hallowed story:
— ’Tis none of these that prompts my happier dreams.

My Country by Lermontov: English Translation

Given that Lermontov’s poetry is fairly conventional, competently turned and often rather plain in style, even conversational, {2} we can bring out the 'fragmentary' nature of this work by writing lines of differing lengths and emphasis, as is the original:

Homeland

I love my country but with a love so strange
my mind is scarce encompassing the claim.
No glories bought of blood's exchange,
nor calm assurance of a haughty name,
nor long-loved legends cut of dark antiquity
can stir me in such ever-welcome reverie.

I love — though why I hardly know myself —
the steppe-lands with their silent chill, the trees
forever swaying in their sturdy health,
and boundless rivers flooded out as wide as seas.

I love to drive a buggy down long country ways
and look out, both sides, through the shadowed night
to find some place to stay, and in that my gaze
find hamlets trembling with a melancholy light.

The smoke the burnt-off stubble leaves,
the trail of caravans at night,
a steppe-land thick with yellow sheaves,
a hill with birches, thin and white.

With gladness not to many known
I see the grain got in, the harvest stored.
A little hut on which the straw is thrown
its window shutters pierced and scored.

On feast days too, when dewy fall
the hours to midnight, when the throngs
of dancers stomp and whistle, call
up riotous peasant drinking songs.

References

1. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926/Vintage 1958) 136-44.
2. Bristol, E. A. History of Russian Poetry (OUP 1991) 129-33.
3. Britannica
4. Mirsky, 163.
5. Wikipedia
6. Mirsky 144-5.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.