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Puskin's The Prophet


The Prophet is one of Alexander Pushkin's more impressive poems, and has been much translated into other languages. The poem was written in 1826, and its biblical language alludes to the abortive coup of the Decemberists, with whose modernizing ideals Pushkin was much in sympathy.

alexander pushkin prophet translation

The coup was put down savagely, however, and its ring-leaders executed. The Pushkin poem is broadly modelled on Isaiah 6 and employed many words from old Slavonic Russian, making for a somber ode. {1} How to best convey these features is discussed here.

Russian Text

Пророк

Духовной жаждою томим,
В пустыне мрачной я влачился, —
И шестикрылый серафим
На перепутье мне явился.
Перстами легкими как сон
Моих зениц коснулся он.
Отверзлись вещие зеницы,
Как у испуганной орлицы.
Моих ушей коснулся он, —
И их наполнил шум и звон:
И внял я неба содроганье,
И горний ангелов полет,
И гад морских подводный ход,
И дольней лозы прозябанье.
И он к устам моим приник,
И вырвал грешный мой язык,
И празднословный и лукавый,
И жало мудрыя змеи
В уста замершие мои
Вложил десницею кровавой.
И он мне грудь рассек мечом,
И сердце трепетное вынул,
И угль, пылающий огнем,
Во грудь отверстую водвинул.
Как труп в пустыне я лежал,
И бога глас ко мне воззвал:
«Восстань, пророк, и виждь, и внемли,
Исполнись волею моей,
И, обходя моря и земли,
Глаголом жги сердца людей».




The TTS Audio Recording is:

Poem Analysis

The poem is in simple iambic tetrameters, written without stanza breaks, but tightly rhymed in the Russian fashion as: a B a B c c D D e e F g g F h h I j j I k L k L m m N o N o. These 2 and 4 line groupings add emphasis to the narrative. There are three points of interest: distortions of sense created by close rhyme patterns, the solemn tone achieve with old Slavonic words, and what the imagery means. We start with the imagery and the general sense of the poem:

The poem was written 1826, immediately after the abortive Decemberist coup of the previous year. Happily, Pushkin had been exiled to Mikhaylovskoye in the Psov area at the time, and couldn't physically take part in the attempt to replace the absolutist government by a constitutional monarchy, but his connections and sympathies were well known. For Pushkin and liberal sentiment, the savage suppression was indeed a parting of the ways, a lost opportunity to avert autocratic rule (and thus the horrors of social upheavals that led to the Soviet Revolution). That being the case, the crossroad in line 4 of the poem is obviously significant.

One: here is how I'd read the poem, set out line by line:

1. Pushkin's thirst for social justice
2. though living in a contemporary desert.
3. Pushkin sees one of the fiery six-winged beings attendant upon Jehovah in Isaiah's vision (Isaiah 6)
4. The seraph (which means 'burning' in Hebrew) stood at the crossroads of the past and future.

5. The seraph lightly touched the poet's eyes as dreams do.
6. The touch changed the poet's sight or vision
7. but gave it the far and penetrating sight of the eagle
8. and also prophecy.

9. He also touched the poet's ears
10. which were then filled with foreboding sounds.

11. Prophecy gave the poet sight through the troubled heavens (up)
12. He could see the angels in their flight (insubstantial heavenly things).
13. He could see monsters in the ocean deeps (down)
14. He could see how vegetative (slow) is the vine (also useful, intoxicating, or slow growth, i.e. across time? Interpretations vary)

15. The seraph took the poet's mouth and removed
16. his sinful words.
17. He replaced the poet's lies and craftiness
18. with words of the wise serpent (in the garden of Eden.)
19. Where the poet's lip's were frozen (i.e. unable to speak)
20. he instigated action from (God's) blood-drenched right hand.

21. With a sword the seraph cut the poet's breast
22. and removed his ineffective (trembling) heart.
23. He took a burning coal and pressed
24. it into the hole left, i.e. he energized the poet's emotions.

25. Though this should have left the poet lying dead in the desert
26. in fact God commanded him

27. to be His prophet and speak
28. His will to all
29. across lands and seas, that His word
30. burned bright in the hearts of men, or that the sinful hearts of men be destroyed. (I think the former but most translators the second.)

Two: Slavonic words, especially expressive here because Pushkin was the leader in removing them from Russian verse

The genre is an ode, a solemn poem, indicated by the many Old Slavonisms and biblical overtones, often employed as metaphors. Extended examples are 'with a spiritual thirst', 'I listened to the sky shudder', 'he came to my mouth and tore out my sinful tongue', 'coal, blazing with fire', 'in the chest of the hole', 'with a word burn the hearts of people'. The shorter examples include 'six-winged seraphim', 'angel flight', 'sinful tongue, 'idle and evil, 'fingers light as a dream, 'like a corpse in the desert I lay'. For the biblical imagery note the ecclesiastical and Old Church vocabulary. 'seraphim', 'right hand', 'voice of God', 'prophet', 'see' and 'hear'. {1}

Three: Questions of rhyme, and semantic distortions through their use in translation, we should defer until we look at specific attempts in previous translations.

Previous Translations

Ruverses have eight renderings, which are well worth examining. In fact we should always look to see what's been done before, to learn from predecessor's productions, and to ensure that our version does indeed improve on that work. Anything less and we are wasting the reader's time.

Contemporary foreign 'verse' needs to be translated into contemporary styles, which are generally a modified prose, but the rest, overwhelmingly written in traditional styles, overwhelmingly need traditional English verse styles. In this there are several factors: fidelity to the full meaning, the aesthetic aspects of verse, and that indefinable sensitivity to connotations, syllable texture and phrasing that we call poetry. Taking the Ruverse contributions in turn, just the opening four lines:

1. Dmitrii Obolensky

Tormented by spiritual thirst
I dragged myself through a somber desert.
And a six-winged seraph
appeared to me at the crossing of the ways.

No rhymes, a free verse approach with lines of unequal length: not unpleasant but lacking the compact force of the Russian. A few wrong notes, e.g: the commonplace' given to idle talk' or over-literal 'shuddering of the heavens'

2. Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky

I dragged my flesh through desert gloom,
Tormented by the spirit's yearning,
And saw a six-winged Seraph loom
Upon the footpath's barren turning.

Decent verse but many problems with the rhymes, particularly the feminine rhyme, which causes many departures from the strict sense, without corresponding felicities: e.g. 'yearning'/'turning' and 'gloom'/'loom' here but generally throughout the poem. Deserts are not really gloomy, moreover, and Pushkin doesn't suggest they are. Dragging 'flesh through desert gloom' is distinctly odd.

3. Irina Zheleznova

My lonely heart athirst, I trod
A barren waste when, so 'twas fated,
A winged seraph 'fore me stood:
Where crossed the desert roads he waited.

Zheleznova produced many such translations in difficult working conditions, but this is now a rather dated translation. It also wanders a bit from the sense in 'Of angels' wings, I heard the vine / Push through the earth and skyward climb'.

4. Philip Nikolayev

When, pained with spiritual thirst,
I trudged across a gloomy desert,
I came upon a six-winged seraph
Who stood before me on my path.

A rather heavy free verse but compact and effective. Departs from (or adds to) the sense in places, and the 'sting' in the last line ('Sting people in their hearts with words.') has been borrowed from line 18. The diction is a little too contemporary for the period: e.g. 'placing a slab of coal in flames' in line 23

5. Ted Hughes

Crazed by my soul’s thirst
Through a dark land I staggered,
And a six-winged seraph
Halted me at a crossroads.

An energetic unrhymed free verse that unfortunately conveys nothing of the original's solemn tone, nor the significance of the imagery. The contemporary diction can rather add to what Pushkin wrote: e.g. 'The huge wingbeat of angels / The submarine migration of sea-reptiles'.

6. Maurice Baring

With fainting soul athirst for Grace,
I wandered in a desert place,
And at the crossing of the ways
I saw a sixfold Seraph blaze;

A famous rendering, much anthologized. Superb verse but some inversion of rhyme schemes: e.g. aa bb here rather than aBaB. Also the odd digression to meet the rhyme: 'And all its lies and idle rust/thrust'

7. Rupert Moreton

We’re mired by thirst for sacred things –
Through gloomy desert did I wander,
And then the seraph with six wings
To me appeared at crossroads yonder.

A fully-rhymed version but with many contrived feminine rhymes: 'wander/yonder', 'heaven's shiver/The valley’s vineyards’ windblown quiver', pay attention/contention'

8. Yevgeny Bonver

Longing for spiritual springs,
I dragged myself through desert sands...
An angel with three pairs of wings
Arrived to me at cross of lands;

A graceful version but the rhythm a little uncertain, rather too many cliches or poeticisms like 'With fingers so light and slim', and contrived rhymes that destroy the seriousness of the piece: 'He touched my ears in movement, single,/ And they were filled with noise and jingle'. Word choice is the main problem.

9. A.Z. Foreman

My spirit was athirst for grace.
I wandered in a darkling land
And at a crossing of the ways
Beheld a six-wing'd Seraph stand.

Adequately rhymed and a conscious try at biblical solemnity in the last four lines. The phrasing is sometimes rather lame, however: 'He touched my ears, and noise and sound/ Poured into me from all around/' and the word choice not always a happy one: 'The creep of beasts below in the seas,/The seep of sap in valley trees'.

In summary, versions 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 and 9 follow the sense adequately, with versions 3, 4, and 5 a little less so. All versions but 5 make some attempt to convey the solemn nature of the poem.

English Translation: First Draft

It's often a good idea produce a quick draft, leaving improvements to a final version when the poem can be seen in toto:

Tormented with a holy thirst
I dragged myself through desert days.
A six-winged seraph there coerced
my looking to the crossing ways.

5. And on my eyes, as dreams are light,
he laid his fingers, touched my sight,
when, like a startled eagle’s eye,
they widened into prophecy.
He touched my ears and they were drowned
10. at once with dark and ringing sound.

In Heaven’s commotions I could see
the flights of angels passing by,
how deep in oceans sea-beasts lie,
how slow the sap is through the tree.

15. He took my mouth and from it wrung
the sayings of my sinful tongue.
For lies and craftiness he planned
to have the wise snake place its sting:
and to my frozen lips he’d bring
20. the right side on his bloodied hand.

Then with a sword he cut my breast
and took from it my trembling heart.
He took a burning coal and pressed
into the hole he’d rent apart.

When like a desert corpse I’d be,
the voice of God rang out to me:
'Arise, my prophet and be heard,
send forth my will and let it span
the lands and oceans, that my word
with fire lay waste the heart of man.'

English Translation: Second Draft

There is clearly a lot wrong with this, most notably the infelicities, the borrowings from Baring, the literally correct first line that produces 'coerced' and a line following that misses the Russian meaning. And what about the last line? Versions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 8 think God's word burns i.e. wastes the heart of men. Versions 1 and 7 think God's word sets the human heart alight, i.e. illuminates and envigorates it. Which is correct? If Pushkin was following scripture {2} then God's word lays waste the land until the people convert to His word, but the coal of 23-4 also cleanses man's lips. In fact the whole poem (excepting line 1-4 and 7) is modelled on Isaiah {2} though condensed and with Pushkin's own thoughts added (lines 1-4 and 7).

Against the majority opinion, however, I'm going to opt for the second meaning, largely because the poem doesn't make much sense otherwise. Why would Pushkin hope to lay waste to an unthinking Russia by commenting on the Decemberists injustices? So:

The Prophet

With soul aweary of its lies
I went in thirst through desert ways.
I saw a six-winged seraph rise
from the crossroads of my gaze.

5. He brushed my eyes, as dreams are light,
and with his fingers purged my sight
which, like a startled eagle’s eye,
could open wide and prophecy.
He touched my ears and they were drowned
10. with coming hard and ringing sound.

In Heaven’s commotions I could see
the throngs of angels passing by,
great monsters that in oceans lie,
how slow the growth in vine could be.

15. He took my mouth and from it wrung
the sayings of my sinful tongue.
From lies and craftiness he planned
to have the serpent draw its sting,
to my unmoving lips he’d bring
20. the blood-red power of his right hand.

Then with a sword he cut my breast
and from it tore my trembling heart.
He took a burning coal and pressed
it deep within that empty part.

To me, a corpse in desert lands,
the voice of God gave His commands:
'See, my prophet, and be heard.
Perform my will and let it span
all lands and oceans, that my word
cast fire into the heart of man.'

References and Resources

1. Анализ стихотворения «Пророк» Пушкина. Brief analysis in Russian

2. Isaiah 6 Bible Gateway.