Jakov Polonsky: Blind Preacher

Jacov Polonsky (1819-98) came from the minor gentry, and after graduating from Moscow University, held various bureaucratic positions in Odessa and Tiflis. Here he published his first collections of poems. From 1851 he lived in St. Petersburg, where he contributed to, and sometimes edited, various well-known literary magazines. Between 1860 and 1896 he served in the office of censorship of foreign literature.

Polensky was a Romantic poet, but also rather pessimistic and backward-looking. He lost his own religious convictions early, became a liberal in politics, but missed the religious support enjoyed, as he saw it, by earlier periods. He also wrote plays in verse and prose, novels, essays and memoirs, none of which seem to have lasted.

Polonsky travelled widely in later years, and many poems have an exotic setting, in Finland, Persia and the Mediterranean world. Most have a clear message, moreover, too didactically presented at times, but Polonsky didn't fit into contemporary literary movements, neither belonging to the civic school or in any way anticipating the Symbolists poets of Russia's Silver Age. He was and remains simply of himself, individual and uncompromising. {1}

jacob polonsky translation from blind preacher

Polonsky is best known for poems in exotic settings, often wild and disordered, in which his vivid pen-sketches stand out as quite unlike those of his contemporaries, or Russian literature generally. Most characters face misfortune of some sort, but meet it manfully. Polonsky's world is one lit by good and evil, from which God's divinity has been withdrawn, leaving it a rather confused, sad and empty place.

Russian Text


Был вечер; в одежде, измятой ветрами,
Пустынной тропою шел Бэда слепой;
На мальчика он опирался рукой,
По камням ступая босыми ногами,–
И было все глухо и дико кругом,
Одни только сосны росли вековые,
Одни только скалы торчали седые,
Косматым и влажным одетые мхом.

Но мальчик устал; ягод свежих отведать,
Иль просто слепца он хотел обмануть:
«Старик! – он сказал,– я пойду отдохнуть;
А ты, если хочешь, начни проповедать:
С вершин увидали тебя пастухи...
Какие-то старцы стоят на дороге...
Вон жены с детьми! говори им о боге,
О сыне, распятом за наши грехи».

И старца лицо просияло мгновенно;
Как ключ, пробивающий каменный слой,
Из уст его бледных живою волной
Высокая речь потекла вдохновенно –
Без веры таких не бывает речей!..
Казалось – слепцу в славе небо являлось;
Дрожащая к небу рука поднималась,
И слезы текли из потухших очей.

Но вот уж сгорела заря золотая
И месяца бледный луч в горы проник,
В ущелье повеяла сырость ночная,
И вот, проповедуя, слышит старик –
Зовет его мальчик, смеясь и толкая:
«Довольно!.. пойдем!.. никого уже нет!»
Замолк грустно старец, главой поникая.
Но только замолк он – от края до края:
«Аминь!» – ему грянули камни в ответ.

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Prosodic Analysis of Poem

The poem is written in amphibrachic tetrameters, each stanza rhymed AbbAacDDc. The last stanza has nine lines and is rhymed AbAbAccAc.

Был ве́чер; в оде́жде, измя́той ветра́ми, u – u u – u u – u u - u
Пусты́нной тропо́ю шёл Бэда слепо́й; u – u u – u u – u u -
На ма́льчика он опира́лся руко́й, u – u u – u u – u u -
По камня́м ступа́я босы́ми нога́ми, u u – u – u u – u u - u
И бы́ло всё глу́хо и ди́ко круго́м, u – u u – u u – u u -
Одни́ то́лько со́сны росли́ вековы́е, u – - u – u u – u u -u
Одни́ то́лько ска́лы торча́ли седы́е, u – - u – u u – u u -u
Косма́тым и вла́жным оде́тые мхом. u – u u – u u – u u -

Previous Translations

Bowra's 'A Book of Russian Verse' has a good rendering by J.S. Phillimore. {2} I give his first stanza:

Upon a lonely road at shut of day
Bede, the blind preacher, leaning on a lad
To stay his steps, barefoot ― what clothes he had
Fluttering loose in the breeze ― took his rough way.
More grisly grew the inhuman wild, and blank:
Nothing but here a pink-trunk, ages old,
There a grey boulder jutting from the mould,
Bearded with shaggy moss and lichens dank.

English Translation of Polonsky's Poem

The original is in amphibrachics, and Phillimore has accordingly written a varied iambic pentameter, which seems a good policy with a meter foreign to English verse. We start with a rough draft, to establish sense and rhyme schemes:

Wind-buffeted, and anything but neat,
Bede, the blind preacher, stumbled on his way;
leaning, boy-led, towards the end of day
stepping on stones beneath his naked feet.
Ragged and wild was the way across,
for centuries the pines had stood in disarray;
the rocks around protruded, sharp and grey,
also shaggy, wet and clothed with moss.

The boy is tired, there were berries perhaps to reach,
or, plain malicious, he wanted to deceive.
’Old man,’ he said, ‘it’s here I’ll take my leave.
I have to rest, but you may want to preach.’
Shepherds have seen us from the mountain side,
and elders, also, along this roadside plod,
wives and children. Speak to them of God,
and of His Son, for our sins crucified.

Then instantly the elder’s face lit up
as though a spring pierced through a rocky layer,
his pale lips moved to murmuring inward prayer,
then words which on such inspiration sup.
Without real faith, there’s nothing truthful said,
but to the blind man now sky flamed in glory,
and with his hand held up, finished the story,
and from extinguished eyes the thick tears bled.

But now the day’s bright gold has dimmed its glare,
and mistiness surrounds the mountain steeps;
the damp air of the night now folds and creeps,
while he, though preaching still, becomes aware
of that boy shouting, laughing once again.
‘Enough, old man,’ he cries, ‘there’s no one here!’
The man fell silent, hung his head: the glen,
as though from end to end the rocks could hear,
burst out with their response: a loud ‘Amen”.

Contrived rhymes are the real problem here, notably disarray/grey, up/sup and again/glen/Amen. We have also added 'anything but neat' to meet the rhyme with 'feet'. Correcting these, bringing the rendering closer to the Russian, and polishing the verse a little, we get:

The coarse wind plucking at his clothes, he went,
the blind man, Bede, with evening close at hand.
He lent upon on a boy, who helps him stand
or stumble with bare feet, his strength near spent.
He finds at last an awkward path across
the ancient pines that rose to block his way,
with bluffs of rocks projecting, rough and grey,
in places shaggy, wet and clothed with moss.

The boy is tired, saw berries in his reach,
or, just malicious, wanted to deceive.
’Old man,’ he said, ‘I'll briefly take my leave.
I have to rest, but you may want to preach.
Shepherds have watched us from the mountain side,
and elders, also, along this roadside plod.
There's wives and children. Speak to them of God,
and of His Son, for our sins crucified.'

The old man's face then brightened instantly,
as though a spring pierced through a rocky layer,
his pale lips moved to mutter some mute prayer,
then inspiration added to his ringing plea.
Without real faith, there’s nothing left to tell,
but now the blind man felt the Heavens cry:
his trembling hand was pointed at the sky,
and from extinguished eyes the thick tears fell.

The bright day’s gold has largely dimmed its glare,
and mistiness fills out the mountain steeps;
downwards the damp air of the evening creeps,
as he, though preaching on, becomes aware
of someone laughing, shouting through the glen,
‘Old man, enough. Come on, there's no one here!’
The man falls silent, hangs his head, and then,
as though the rocks would burst out loud and clear,
from end to end now echoing, came ‘Amen'.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 145-47.

2. Bowra, C.M., A book of Russian Verse (Macmillan, 1947) 61-2.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.