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Fedor Sologub: Made from Moistened Clay


In last years of the Russian nineteenth century, political amelioration was in the air: the reactionary attitudes of Alexander III and Nicholas II were marked by social unrest and repressive measures. To this mix of desperation and modest hopes was added the fin de siècle world-weariness of European culture, with their belief that truths were irrational or knowable only through artistic expression. Symbolism in Russia was relatively mild and philosophic in nature, though nonetheless called 'decadent' by the great mass of the reading public, who did not care for it. Being Russia, that philosophical nature also took on a religious flavour, and in Sologub became markedly Manichean, divided between a universal good and evil. He even invented cosmologies of his own in two volumes published in 1904, some of them deriving from Schopenhauer's pessimism, and some with a more Gnostic view.

To what extent Sologub believed these cosmologies is difficult to say. Primarily, he regarded himself as a poet, and one that until the twentieth century was content to write about nature and her melancholy moods. Unusually for Symbolist poets, Fedor Sologub (1863-1927) did not come from a cultivated family. He was the son of a sadistic peasant maid employed in a St. Petersburg merchant family, and after education at a teacher's seminary, returned to Petersburg as a teacher and later a school inspector. Only the fame of his Gogol-like novel 'The Petty Demon' in 1907, set in provincial Russia, allowed him to earn a living through his pen, but he eventually clashed with the Soviet authorities. In 1921 he and his wife were denied permission to leave Russia. His wife committed suicide. Sologub could not get his own works published after 1923, and had to support himself by translation. He was the permanent President of the Leningrad Writer's Union when he died.

Despite these difficulties, and increasing pessimism, Sologub was a prolific writer, sometimes too prolific, critics complained, and too restricted in his themes, moreover, but the verse was always competent and often a good deal more. The vocabulary was limited, and there was little of the suggestive vagueness that Symbolist poets favoured, but Sologub had a good ear for the music of verse. {1}

fedor sologub translation

The poem was written in 1896, when Sologub was still relatively optimistic about Russia and life in general. It's a pantheistic view, in which Sologub views himself as materially part of the earth and thus naturally in tune with its aims and moods. The main difficulty with this poem is to convey the musicality without over simplifying the content.


Russian Text

Восставил Бог меня из влажной глины...

Восставил Бог меня из влажной глины,
Но от земли не отдалил.
Родныея мне — вершины и долины,
Как я себе, весь мир мне мил.

Когда гляжу на дальния дороги,
Мне кажется, что я на них
Все чувствую колеса, камни, ноги,
Как будто на руках моих.

Гляжу ли я на звонкие потоки, —
Мне кажется, что это мне
Земля несёт живительные соки,
Свои дары моей весне.

August 1, 1896


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Prosodic Analysis of Poem

The poem is written in alternating pentameter and tetrameter rhymed AbAb:

Восста́вил Бог меня́ из вла́жной гли́ны,     5A
Но от земли́ не отдали́л.     4b
Родныея мне — верши́ны и доли́ны,    5A
Как я себе́, весь мир мне мил.     4b

The last line of the third stanza has only three stresses, i.e is 3b.

Previous Translations

Ruverses have two renderings. For reasons that follow, I give the last stanza of each:

1. Maurice Bowra

When I behold a sounding torrent’s course,
It seems to me that it must bring
Earth’s sap to me, and its life-giving force.
And give it to my spring.

2. Paul Selver

When torrents I behold with deep-toned courses,
Methinks that merged amid their power
Earth bears her saps with their restoring forces
Unto my spring-tide, as her dower.

Discussion


As I see it, there are two needs here. The first is to reproduce the musicality of verse, important to all poets, and most particularly to the Symbolists. In this regard, both renderings more or less reproduce the 5454/3 form, but Bowra's third line is a little flat-footed, and Selver's stanza, unfortunately, has many problems: antique diction (methinks), meaning (deep-toned, dower) and feminine rhymes throughout. I won't here set out the various stages of my rendering because they're standard in verse-writing, here in the need for crisply struck sounds. I have left the last line as a tetrameter. If we want to follow the original Russian prosody, we can write 'as vigour of that spring'.

But what is Sologub saying? Very much as the literal translation indicates:

Do I look at the sonorous streams, —
it seems to me that this is for me
the earth bears life-giving juices,
its gifts to my spring.

There are many philosophical problems with this sort of self-perception, but it's not our task as translator to 'correct' them. All we should do, I think, is to keep thought and diction simple, in the way Sologub himself preferred.

English Translation of Sologub's Poem


It was from moistened clay God gave me birth,
but not from that was I set free.
The world of hills and valleys makes the earth,
and, like myself, is dear to me.

When on some far, unwinding road I gaze
it's in myself I understand:
I feel the legs, the wheels and stony ways
as though I held them in my hand.

And with some torrent singing on its course,
it seems to me that it should bring
some flood of earthy life-affirming force
and give me vigour of that spring.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 178-81.