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New Year's Night by Mikhail Lermontov

Lermontov's 'The First of January relates to a real incident. On 31st December 1839, the tsar Nicholas 1st gave a ball at St. Petersburg, a New Year's masquerade ball attended by high society and members of his extended family. Lermontov was present, as was Turgenev, who noted how bored the tsar looked, continually being pestered by noted beauties, whatever mask he put on. That observation forms the first part of Lermontov's poem.

In the second part, Lermontov is remembering the simplicity and naturalness of his early life. He dwells on details of the aunt's home where he was brought up, which seem such a contrast to this world of superfluous luxury, insincere and enervating. Finally, in the third part, Lermontov remembers some first love (real or created) and determines not only to quit these false standards but angrily denounce them in his work.

translating Lermontov's New Year's Night

In this poem are combined both Romantic aspects of Lermontov, the visionary and the rhetorical. It is a a difficult poem, with abrupt changes in tone, rhymed hexameters creating problems for English verse translation, and with Lermontov's contempt of fashionable society threatening to become empty bombast.


Russian Text

1-е января

Как часто, пестрою толпою окружен,
Когда передо мной, как будто бы сквозь сон,
‎При шуме музыки и пляски,
При диком шепоте затверженных речей,
Мелькают образы бездушные людей,
‎Приличьем стянутые маски,

Когда касаются холодных рук моих
С небрежной смелостью красавиц городских
‎Давно бестрепетные руки, —
Наружно погружась в их блеск и суету,
Ласкаю я в душе старинную мечту,
‎Погибших лет святые звуки.

И если как-нибудь на миг удастся мне
Забыться, — памятью к недавней старине
‎Лечу я вольной, вольной птицей;
И вижу я себя ребенком, и кругом
Родные всё места: высокий барский дом
‎И сад с разрушенной теплицей;

Зеленой сетью трав подернут спящий пруд,
А за прудом село дымится — и встают
‎Вдали туманы над полями.
В аллею темную вхожу я; сквозь кусты
Глядит вечерний луч, и желтые листы
‎Шумят под робкими шагами.

И странная тоска теснит уж грудь мою;
Я думаю об ней, я плачу и люблю,
‎Люблю мечты моей созданье
С глазами, полными лазурного огня,
С улыбкой розовой, как молодого дня
‎ За рощей первое сиянье.

Так царства дивного всесильный господин —
Я долгие часы просиживал один,
‎И память их жива поныне
Под бурей тягостных сомнений и страстей,
Как свежий островок безвредно средь морей
‎Цветет на влажной их пустыне.

Когда ж, опомнившись, обман я узнаю
И шум толпы людской спугнет мечту мою,
‎На праздник не́званную гостью,
О, как мне хочется смутить веселость их
И дерзко бросить им в глаза железный стих,
‎Облитый горечью и злостью!..



The TTS (text to speech) recording of the first three stanzas:



Analysis

The iambic six-line stanza has this form:

Как ча́сто, пёстрою толпо́ю окружён, 6 a
Когда́ передо мно́й, как бу́дто бы сквозь сон, 6 a
‎При шу́ме му́зыки и пля́ски, 4B
При ди́ком шёпоте затвержённых рече́й, 6C
Мелька́ют о́бразы безду́шные люде́й, 6C
‎Приличьем стя́нутые ма́ски, 4B

Previous Translations

The Internet has a contemporary 'after Lermontov' version of the piece by Jerome Rothenberg & Milos Sovak, but a closer translation is that by Evgeny Bonver (poetryloverspage.com). I give his first two stanzas:

When I often stay a motley crowd in,
When before my eyes, as in an awful dream,
To humming orchestras and dances,
And foolish whispering of speeches learnt by eart,
Flit figures of the people lost of heart,
And masques with a false politeness;

When my hands are touched, by any chance,
With heedless boldness of the city's lass,
By hands without virgin fear, --
Externally involved in their gleam and whim,
I cherish in my heart an old and dear dream,
The sacred sounds of the bygone years.

Peter France's version (interlitq.org) is:

How often, as I stand in the bright crowd,
it all seems like a dream against the loud
cacophony of dancing music
and hissing, whispered speeches learnt by heart;
before my eyes the soulless figures float
cased in the masks of decent fashion.

And as I feel on my cold hands the touch
of brazen hands of city beauties who
have learnt the art of never blushing,
while seeming to admire their busy gleam,
I dwell in secret on an ancient dream,
its sacred sounds now half-forgotten.

Discussion

There are two pressing difficulties. First is the rhetoric that is foreign to contemporary poetry and looks somewhat overdone (given Lermontov's love-hate relationship to fashionable society). It needs to be reigned in a little. Second is the 664664 stanza form. Hexameters are not easily handled in English, the more so when strictly rhymed. My solution has been to vary the rhythm and pausing, allowing some enjambment.

English Translation

First of January

1. How much, surrounded by some motley crowd, I seem
to find a world arranged before me like a dream.
And in this dance and gaiety
there's only whispered speeches that are learned by rote
by wraiths of soulless entities that, note,
wear masks of outward decency.

2. They touch my hands. But cold they seem, the duties
of these bold and all too forward city beauties.
Though tirelessly these hands have led
to vanity's immersion and this brilliant press
of people, still the heart's own dream I'd more caress
in sounds of holy years now dead.

3. It seemed perhaps in some brief, momentary cast
I'd put aside the recent record of the past,
and, like a bird, was free as air
to visit the lands of childhood, and to know because
of that high manor house what rural childhood was,
in that far ruined green-house there.

4. Thick-filled with plants, the sleeping pond there lies,
and from the village fields the wisps of smoke arise
until in far off fog they meet.
Through bushy thickets I take a darkened pathway where
where sun in setting tips the leaves with gold, and there
are noises made by timid feet.

5. Already now an earnest longing fills my breast
with all the cries and declarations love addressed:
what dreams from my creation flow.
I see the eyes so full of azure fire, the smile
so pink and blossoming with day's creation, while
through woods there comes the sun's first glow.

6. So in the kingdom of the one, all-powerful lord
I sit alone in wonder that long hours afford,
but yet the memory still stands.
As after doubt's and passion's great intensity
there's still some island left unnoticed in the sea,
like blooms renewed in desert lands.

7. And then, revived, I'll know where the deception lies,
the noisy gaiety from which my fond dream flies.
Invited to the wrong address,
I soon will disabuse them of this senseless mirth,
and boldly, in their faces, brandish iron verse
here filled with hate and bitterness.