Afanasy Fet (1820-1892) is reputed to be Russia’s greatest lyric poet. Indeed, Osip Mandelshtam has acclaimed him as Russia’s greatest poet. His short lyrics dealt with nature and emotions. Social issues never entered his poems. This was significant because he began writing at a time in Russia when poetry was expected to be engagé. Fet went against the grain from the start and was criticised for his art-for-art’s-sake attitude. Nevertheless, he never deviated from his lyrical style. His books of verse did not sell well, but some important contemporaries like Tolstoy and Berlinsky showed their appreciation.
Fet’s lyric writing was done in two distinct phases. The first phase covered his 13 years in the military (1845-1858). His poetry writing was then interrupted by major life changes just before his 30th birthday: he married (1857), left the army (1858), and bought a remote estate (1860). It wasn’t until 13 years later (1873) that he began to write lyrics again. There was little change in his approach except for a more philosophical angle at times. His writing continued until his death some 20 years later.
There is only one book-length study of Fet’s poetry in English: The Imagination of Spring: The Poetry of Afanasy Fet by Richard F. Gustafson (1966). Fortunately it is a very thorough and informed study. Gustafson describes how Fet “revels in moments of heightened emotional intensity, where he discovers his own unique experience.” (241) The American critic divides Fet’s poetry into three categories: 1. The imagist lyric; 2. The addressed monologue; 3. The poetry of wit. I have focused on imagist lyrics (Fet’s forte) but have also included two addressed monologues.
The nine poems I have translated include some of his most celebrated poems, as well as some lesser known ones. At the end I have included an interesting poem on his relationship with Lev Tolstoy. My translations do not attempt to duplicate the rhymes and prosody, which I consider impossible when translating from Russian to English. Instead, I have tried to stay as faithful as possible to the original words and kept Fet’s line and stanza patterns. Above all, I have reproduced every image he uses—as Vladimir Nabokov has written of translation, the image is sacred. Within these constraints, I try to make the translations as readable as possible.
My first choice is one of Fet’s better-known lyrics. This poem was controversial because it contains no verbs. It’s a catalogue of impressions. Commentators have cited some of Fet’s poems as precursors of the Imagist movement in Britain and the USA at the start of the 20th century.
A whispering, timid breathing,
A nightingale’s warbling,
The silver and the flux
Of a drowsy stream,
Night light, night shadows,
A series of magical changes
Of a dear face,
The purple of a rose in smoky clouds
A sheen of amber,
And kisses, and tears,
And the dawn, the dawn!..
There was also a dark side to Fet. This next poem was written ten years before Baudelaire’s famous spleen poem was published in Les fleurs du Mal. Again the poem starts imagistically.
If only I could read—but my reading
Creeps along so listlessly.
The grey day crawls on lazily,
And on the wall
The clock ticks unbearably
In its tireless language.
My heart gradually grows cold,
And by the overheated fireplace
All those gremlins
Enter my sick head!
In a steaming glass tumbler
My tea is cooling down.
Gradually, thank God,
I fall asleep as if it’s evening…
There is some sadness in this modest lyric with its shocking last line. It is also an example of Fet’s use of an addressed monologue.
What a Cold Autumn!
What a cold autumn!
Put on your shawl and bonnet.
Look: beyond the pines
It’s as if a fire is rising.
Close to you, I always remember
The radiance of an autumn night;
Its phosphorous eyes still shine,
But they no longer warm me.
But the translator of Schopenhauer was generally full of joy, as this famous lyric shows. It’s Fet’s best example of an addressed monologue.
I Have Come to You
I have come to you with greetings,
To say that the sun has risen
And that it is quivering on the leaves
With its fiery light;
To say that the forest has woken--
Everything has woken, every branch,
Every bird has stirred,
Full of springtime thirst;
To say that I have come to you,
As yesterday, again with joy,
That my whole soul is now ready
To serve both happiness and you;
To say that from all around
Gaiety is flowing into me,
That I don’t know what I’ll sing myself--
But only that a song is forming.
This is one of my favorites, a rich poem about meditation.
I’ll Go Along
I’ll go along a familiar path to meet them,
The skies that glow with such a delicate amber sunset--
Imperishable as paradise.
Far off, the fading edge of the world has curled away;
The evening coolness breathes and doesn’t breathe,
And the ripening ears barely sway.
No, I will go no farther: I’ll sit up in readiness
All night, all this night, under the canopy of oaks,
Looking into the face of dawn or along the grey road…
My soul is full again with such youthful
And infinite faith. In this silence
It seems my contented life has granted everything;
My soul asks nothing different of destiny.
My faithful dog has sat down at my feet,
And with a keen ear gently pricked up
Watches a beetle as it slowly crawls along.
But what do I hear?--In similar moments
Sounds resonate from afar, as well as images.
No, to be exact--from afar there reaches me
The impatient pacing of a familiar horse.
Now, some more meditation. This is his finest poem of that genre.
Upon a Haystack
One southern night I lay upon a haystack,
My face toward the firmament,
And the lively and harmonious choir
Shone and quavered all around.
The Earth, mute as in a hazy dream,
Hurtled away into infinity,
And all alone like the first resident of paradise,
I looked night in the face.
Was I rushing toward the midnight abyss,
Or was the assembly of stars rushing toward me?
It seemed as if I was suspended
Above this abyss by a powerful hand.
And with growing despair and confusion
I measured with my gaze the depth
Into which with each moment
I am sinking ever deeper.
Fet’s pessimistic side comes through in this powerful Gothic poem.
I awoke. Yes, the roof of a coffin—I extend
My arms forcefully and call
For help. Yes, I remember those torments
Before death—yes, it was real!--
And without effort, as if it was a cobweb
I split apart the coffin.
And I stood up. How bright this winter light
In the vault’s entrance! Can I doubt it?--
I see snow. There’s no door in the vault.
It’s time to go home. How they’ll be amazed at home!
I’m familiar with this park. I can’t get lost.
But how everything has had time to change!
I hurry. Snowdrifts. A lifeless forest protrudes
With motionless branches into the ether.
Neither footsteps or sounds. All it quiet,
As in the realm of death of an enchanted world
And there’s my house—it’s ruined!
Stunned, I lose heart.
The village sleeps under a snowy shroud,
There’s no open path in the whole steppe.
Yes, that’s how it is: above the distant hills.
I have recognized the church with an ancient bell tower.
Like a frozen traveller in the snow,
It stands out in the cloudless distance.
With the snow there are neither winter birds nor midges.
I have understood it all now: the earth has long grown cold
And dead. For whom do I maintain
The breath in my chest? For whom did the grave
Return me? With what is my consciousness linked?
And what is its calling?
Where to go when there’s no one to embrace
Or when time is lost in space?
Return then, death, hasten to accept
The fateful burden of this final life.
And you, frozen corpse of Earth, fly,
Taking my corpse on the eternal voyage.
Nature was Fet’s muse. This poem gives one his clearest statements on what inspired him.
The voice of the herd rises from the fields;
In the bushes the robins sing,
And a sweet aroma flows
From the whitened apple-trees of the garden.
The flowers gaze with tender melancholy,
Innocently pure, like spring,
Shedding fragrant dust,
The seeds of their rosy fruit.
Sister of the flowers, friend of the rose,
Look me in the eye,
Initiate a life-giving reverie,
Inspire my heart with song.
May 17, 1857
Finally, quite a different poem. Fet became a very close friend of Tolstoy. The great man enthused about Fet’s poems for many years. Then, when his attitude to art changed, he attacked Fet mercilessly. Fet was hurt by this volte face, and wrote a poem about his relationship with Tolstoy. It is a difficult poem to understand without specialist knowledge. I have therefore added footnotes that I have gleaned from two sources.
Mine Was the Madness
Mine was the madness he desired, he who had closed his eyes
To the petals of this rose, the sparkles, the dew;
Mine was the madness he desired, he who had wound
Those flowing tresses into a heavy braid.
Though wicked old age denies all joy,
My lamenting soul, before this decline,
Would fly here like a bee
To get intoxicated, drinking in such an aroma.
Retaining the awareness of happiness in my heart,
I’ll become the live echo of the tumult of life.
This fragrant honey—it’s mine, for me;
For others let it remain melted beeswax!
April 27, 1887
The footnotes are based mainly on Susan Layton’s paper A Hidden Polemic with Leo Tolstoy: Afanasy Fet’s Lyric “Mine was the madness he wanted.” Layton (SL) argues that Fet’s poem is a direct response to Tolstoy’s attacks on his lyric poetry. The attack developed after Tolstoy’s conversion to a Christian philosophy.
Specific Date: Tolstoy had left Moscow on March 31 to escape city life, to work in the fields, and to write. In April he wrote to his wife that he wanted to do “something artistic.” Fet was a confidant of Tolstoy’s wife and would likely have known about this. (SL)
Madness: Tolstoy saw the St. Petersburg literati as inmates of a lunatic asylum for believing they were contributing to enlightenment. Tolstoy had told Fet that his creative “madness” had dried up. (SL) I have used Susan Layton’s translation for the first words of lines 1 and 3.
He: Both the two “he’s” are covered by tot, which is a demonstrative pronoun that refers to an unnamed masculine noun. Thus it could refer to Tolstoy but not specifically.
Desired: Tolstoy had modeled himself as being beyond worldly desire. (SL)
His Eyes: These two words are not in the original, but Fet has used the word for “closed” that is only used with eyes. The clause does not make sense otherwise—you can’t close sparkles and dew (Richard F. Gustafson: “He who closed the folds of this rose, spangles, dew”)
Rose: This was the subject of a harsh attack on a Fet poem where Fet had used a purple rose. Tolstoy had claimed this was a botanical error. In a letter to Fet, Tolstoy had called himself an onion and opposed to Fet as a rose.
Rose and Tresses: Linked in Russian—rosi/kosi. Fet used both a symbols for beauty. (SL)
Braid: Susan Layton refers to Anna Karenina’s hair after her suicide. It was still untouched in “heavy braids.”