Translating Lomonosov: Evening Meditation

Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765) was both the father of Russian literature and a scientist of the first order, holding simultaneously the position of court poet to the empress Elizabeth and Professor of Chemistry at the Academy of Sciences. He brought Russian versification into line with European lines, wrote the first Russian poems that deserve the title great, and also made important advances in the pure and applied sciences, notably in geology, geography, chemistry and astronomy.

The polymath was born into the family of peasant fishermen near Archangel, contrived admission into the Slavian-Greco-Latin Academy in Moscow, and was sent to study mining at the universities of Marburg and Freiberg. He married in 1741, returned to Russia, was appointed Professor of Chemistry in 1745, becoming instrumental in founding Moscow University in 1755. He also found time in an extraordinarily productive life to write the first Russian grammar (1755) and an influential essay on the use of Church Slavonic in Russian verse (1757). Eventually the work and opposition from German Academics overtaxed even his resources, and Lomonosov’s last years were marred by drink and mental exhaustion.

Lomonosov is famous for his odes, which typically celebrated anniversaries, name days, Russian achievements and occasionally military victories. Most odes are dedicated to the Empress Elizabeth, but he also wrote odes for Ivan IV, Peter III, the Grand Duke Paul and one for the empress Catherine (who later removed him). The most enduring are the sacred odes that glorify nature and the power of God. The style is often grandiloquent, with features of the baroque, but most poems end peacefully, in a quiet faith in the future.

translating Lomonosov's Evening Meditation

The poem here, ‘An Evening Meditation on God’s Greatness on the Occasion of the Great Northern Lights’ combines scientific curiosity with religious awe. It is a famous and popular piece, as is its companion ‘Morning Meditation on God’s Greatness’.

Lomonosov managed to reconcile Church Slavonic and colloquial Russian in theory and his own work. Church Slavonic was to be divided into five layers of formality, and these blended appropriately into three styles: high, middle and low. Odes were written in the high style, epistles in the middle style and comedies in the low style. Many foreign words that were popular in Russia at the time were to be excluded. This sounds rather artificial but the system worked fairly well for poets until Karamsin (1766-1826) and Pushkin (1799-1837) popularized a more flexible middle style. Lomonosov himself used all three styles in a remarkably wide range of work from humorous pieces, translations from the classics, laudatory odes and two tragedies in verse: Tamira and Selim and Demofont. He even wrote an extended treatise in verse: Letters on the Use of Glass, well known and still quite readable.

Evening Meditation: Russian Text

The Russian is:

Вечернее размышление о божием величестве при случае великаго северного сияния

1. Лице свое скрывает день;
Поля покрыла мрачна ночь;
Взошла на горы черна тень;
Лучи от нас склонились прочь;
Открылась бездна звезд полна;
Звездам числа нет, бездне дна.

2. Песчинка как в морских волнах,
Как мала искра в вечном льде,
Как в сильном вихре тонкий прах,
В свирепом как перо огне,
Так я, в сей бездне углублен,
Теряюсь, мысльми утомлен!

3. Уста премудрых нам гласят:
Там разных множество светов;
Несчетны солнца там горят,
Народы там и круг веков:
Для общей славы божества
Там равна сила естества.

4. Но где ж, натура, твой закон?
С полночных стран встает заря!
Не солнце ль ставит там свой трон?
Не льдисты ль мещут огнь моря?
Се хладный пламень нас покрыл!
Се в ночь на землю день вступил!

5. О вы, которых быстрый зрак
Пронзает в книгу вечных прав,
Которым малый вещи знак
Являет естества устав,
Вам путь известен всех планет,-
Скажите, что нас так мятет?

6. Что зыблет ясный ночью луч?
Что тонкий пламень в твердь разит?
Как молния без грозных туч
Стремится от земли в зенит?
Как может быть, чтоб мерзлый пар
Среди зимы рождал пожар?

7. Там спорит жирна мгла с водой;
Иль солнечны лучи блестят,
Склонясь сквозь воздух к нам густой;
Иль тучных гор верхи горят;
Иль в море дуть престал зефир,
И гладки волны бьют в эфир.

8. Сомнений полон ваш ответ
О том, что окрест ближних мест.
Скажите ж, коль пространен свет?
И что малейших дале звезд?
Несведом тварей вам конец?
Скажите ж, коль велик творец?

Poem structure

The poem is written in tetrameters, a little irregular but rhymed aBaBcc:

Лице́ своё скрыва́ет день; 4a
По́ля покры́ла мрачна́ ночь; 3B
Взошла́ на го́ры черна́ тень; 4a
Лучи́ от нас склони́лись прочь; 3B
Откры́лась бе́здна звёзд полна́; 4c
Звёздам чи́сла нет, бе́здне дна. 4c

A TTS Audio Recording of the poem:

English Translation

An Evening Meditation on God’s Grandeur, Occasioned by the Great Northern Lights

In His face is hid the day.
The fields are gloomy-streaked with grey,
and on the hills the shadowed ray
of sunlight fades and steals away:
and stars, innumerable, mark
the depths of an abyssal dark.

As sand into the breakers cast,
or spark within eternal frost,
as feather in the furnace blast,
or dust into a tempest tossed:
In this abyss I am found
lost in ways that thoughts confound.

The wise may speak of worlds unknown
and doubtless ruled by different lights:
countless are the suns they own,
their peoples, what their centuries write:
all those deities proclaim
the glory in that Nature’s name.

What is the purpose of those laws,
when dawn is midnight over there,
when sun enthroned on icy shores
can fling such brightness in the air?
Behold how cool a light brings birth
of daylight on the darkened earth.

You know the planets, all their ways,
and all that book-bound learning brings,
can look beyond the deepest gaze
and so into the smallest things:
tell me now, entire and whole,
what still perplexes in the soul?

What makes such clear displays of light,
their thin flames folded out of sight?
For no great thunderstorms at night
sustain forever that great height.
How can such cold and clouded flare
arise from frozen winter air?

First a fat, watery haze
then wide and, like the sunlight, bright.
It bends into a fiery blaze
and touches the mountain tops with light,
and then like waves across the ocean
is stilled a moment in its motion.

When savants entertain some doubt
of knowing all within their sight,
and cannot tell how rays reach out
from stars beyond that glimmering light,
time comes for all: we say ‘Amen’.
How great is our Creator then!

References and Resources

1. Mirsky, D.S. A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926/ Vintage Books 1958)43-7.

2. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 52-7.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.