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Poetry Translations

This month we have four poems by Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814-1841), translated by Don Mager.

My first language was Russian, so I especially enjoy reading these translations.

I hope you enjoy them as well. - Vera Ignatowitsch

Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov (1814-1841) died in a senseless duel at age 27.  Unique to 19th century Russian writers he produced seminal masterpieces in all three major genres: prose fiction (A Hero of Our Time), drama (Masquerade), and poetry (narratives and short lyrics).  With the death of Pushkin in 1837 at age 23 he assumed the role of his successor with his widely disseminated, although unpublished, eulogy “Death of a Poet” and quickly was acclaimed the second greatest Russian poet.  Besides the short lyrics, Lermontov excelled in poemy—the Russian name for long narrative or reflective poems, first developed fully by Pushkin.  Two of these are judged landmark masterpieces: "Mtsyri" and "The Demon".  Except for "The Demon", much of his poetry is not well known to English readers. - Don Mager

The Angel


          By Mikhail Yu. Lermontov

          Translated by Don Mager


An angel flew through the midnight sky,

     Her song like a quiet sigh;

But the crowd of stars and clouds and moon

     Heard still her holy refrain.


She sang of the bliss of innocent souls

     In the Garden of Eden’s repose;

She sang the praise of God and his greatness,

     A song touched by innocence.


A youthful soul she bore in her arms

     From the world of sorrow and tears;

In the soul of the youth the sound of her song

     Lived on—wordless—but strong.


Long it had suffered the strife of the earth

     Filled with a wonderful thirst;

But the sounds from heaven could never dispel

     The monotonous songs of the world.



This poem, one of Lermontov’s early successes, prefigures the angel’s flight carrying Tamara’s soul in section 15 of the second part of great poema, “The Demon”. - Don Mager



          Михаи́л Ю́р. Ле́рмонтов


По небу полуночи ангел летел,

     И тихую песню он пел;

И месяц, и звезды, и тучи толпой

     Внимали той песне святой.


Он пел о блаженстве безгрешных духов

     Под кущами райских садов;

О боге великом он пел, и хвала

     Его непритворна была.


Он душу младую в объятиях нес

     Для мира печала и слез;

И звук его песни в душе молодой

     Остался — без слов, но живой.


И долго на свете томилась она,

     Желанием чудным полна;

И звуков небес заменить не могли

     Её скучные песни земли.





Ленмонтов, М. Ю. СОБРАНИЕ СОЧИНЕНИЙ В ДВУХ ТОМАХ. [Lermontov, M. Yu.]

The Complete Works in Two Volumes.] Редактор Н. Тронза. Москва: Полиграфресурсы, 2000. [Editor N. Tonza. Moscow: Publisher Resources, 2000]: 1. 356.



          By Mikhail Yu. Lermontov

          Translated by Don Mager


How terrible is life in bondage

Dragging us down in loneliness.

To share a joy is privilege:

But no one likes to share one’s griefs.


Here I’m alone, a Tsar of air,

Constrained by suffering of the heart,

My life is like a dream that bears

My acquiescence to my fate.


The dream returns alluring and gilded,

But still it is the same old dream,

And then I see the lonely graveside,

It waits: so why on earth remain?


No one will be distraught by that,

Instead there will be at my death

More festive sport (I have no doubt)

Than ever happened at my birth . . .






          Михаи́л Ю́р. Ле́рмонтов


Как страшно жизни сей оковы —

Нам в одиночестве влачить.

Делить веселье — все готовы:

Никто не хочет грусть делить.


Один я здесь, как царь воздушный,

Страданья в сердце стеснены,

И вижу, как, судьбе послушно,

Года уходят, будто сны;


И вновь приходят, с позлащенной,

Но той же старою мечтой,

И вижу гроб уединенный,

Он ждет; что ж медлить над землей?


Никто о том не покрушится,

И будут (я уверен в том)

О смерти больше веселиться,

Чем о рождении моем . . .




Ленмонтов, М. Ю. СОБРАНИЕ СОЧИНЕНИЙ В ДВУХ ТОМАХ. [Lermontov, M. Yu.]

The Complete Works in Two Volumes.] Редактор Н. Тронза. Москва: Полиграфресурсы, 2000. [Editor N. Tonza. Moscow: Publisher Resources, 2000 ]: 1. 189.

The Beggar


          By Mikhail Yu. Lermontov

          Translated by Don Mager


At the gate of the holy cloister

Stood a poor man begging for alms,

Scarcely alive and withered

He suffered from hunger and thirst.


He only asked a piece of bread,

His gaze was livid with pain,

But only a stone was laid

Into his outstretched hand.


Likewise, I’ve sought your love

With bitter tears and anguish;

But when my best hopes thrive

Betrayed by you they’re dashed!






           Михаи́л Ю́р. Ле́рмонтов


У врат обители святой

Стоял просящий подаянья

Бедняк иссохший, чуть живой

От глада, жажды и страданья.


Куска лишь хлеба он просил,

И взор являл живую муку,

И кто-то камень положил

В его протянутую руку.


Так я молил твоей любви

С слезами горькими, с тоскою;

Так чувства лучшие мои

Обмануты навек тобою!





Ленмонтов, М. Ю. СОБРАНИЕ СОЧИНЕНИЙ В ДВУХ ТОМАХ. [Lermontov, M. Yu.]

The Complete Works in Two Volumes.] Редактор Н. Тронза. Москва: Полиграфресурсы, 2000. [Editor N. Tonza. Moscow: Publisher Resources, 2000]: 1. 239.

Death of the Poet


               By Mikhail Yu. Lermontov

               Translated by Don Mager


     Revenge, sovereign, revenge!

     I shall fall at your feet:

     Be just and punish the murderer,

     So that in later ages his execution

     As proclaimed by your court

     Will be a precedent to villains.*


The poet is gone! — slave to abuse —

By slanderous rumor he was murdered,

With thirst for revenge, with lead in his breast,

His glorious head’s cast to the ground! . .

The soul of the poet was not brought forth

For the ignominy of degrading claims,

He stood against the world’s filth

As always alone . . . and he is slain!

He’s slain! . . what purpose now are sobs,

The vacuous praise of a useless chorus,

And the pitiful babble of alibis?

The sentence of fate has come to pass!

Did you not snub his ample talents,

Their fearless pure unselfishness,

And did you not for your amusement

Fan dying embers into fires?

What then? be amused . . . — he couldn’t

Bear how he was tormented:

The marvelous light of genius is snuffed,

The proud laurel wreath, faded.

The killer took aim with cold calculation

And shot . . . so fatefully:

His empty heart beat steadily

As he steadied his pistol in his hand.

Is that so amazing?. . from abroad,

Like hundreds of immigrants who seek

To win happiness and earn rank,

He was cast on us as fate contrived;**

Once challenged, he scorned with impudence

The tongue and customs of this country;

He could not tolerate our glory,

Nor at that bloody moment understand

Against what man he raised his hand! . .

     Now he is slain — and lowered in a grave,***

     An unknown singer of songs well loved,

     Victim of the envious,

     He sang with a power wondrous,

And was struck down by a ruthless hand.


Why from the bliss of camaraderie and peace

Did he, a man of free sincerity,

Enter a world so spiteful and crass?

Why did he turn to worthless slanderers,

How could he believe their deceitful words.

     He, who since youth, embraced humanity? . .


And they removed his former wreath, — in place

They put a wreath of thorns and laurel;

     But the hidden barbs

     Pierced his famous brow,

And with cunning whispers of derisive fools,

Poisoned his final moments;

     And so he died — thirsting for vengeance

With secret despair of hopes betrayed.

     The sounds of wonderful songs have ceased,

     The life in them, no longer heard:

     Confined and gloomy is his rest,

     And his lips are sealed.****


     And you, the haughty progeny

Of famous fathers, are famed for scorn,

You whose servile heels tramp down

One aggrieved by taunts of fortune!

You, whose greed fawns upon the throne,

You executioners of Freedom, Genius, Glory!

     Sheltered by the law you stand

     Before the judges’ bench, and truth — silenced! . . .

But justice is of God, you debauchees!

     A terrible judgment awaits you;

     It is impervious to bribes and gold,

It knows beforehand your thoughts and deeds.

Your lies and subterfuges

     Will not protect you then

And your black blood will never stain

     The Poet’s righteous blood!



* The text is from the two volume 2000 Собрание which does not include the epigraph.  The online text at Интернет Библиотека (Internet Library) includes this epigraph, poet not identified. Some texts give these six lines as an initial strophe, not an epigraph, thus implying that the lines are by Lermontov.


** The complicated events and machinations that led to the fatal pistol duel between Pushkin and Baron Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d'Anthès (1812 -1895) have been analyzed in depth by many scholars. d'Anthès was a good-looking French officer in service of the Ambassador from the King of the Netherlands to the Tsar where he rose as a salon celebrity in Petersburg society. He courted Pushkin’s flirtatious wife, Natalia Gonchorova Pushkina (1812-1864), and married her sister, Ekaterina Gonchorova. Pushkin was anonymously taunted for his wife’s unfaithfulness, which eventually led to him challenging d'Anthès to a dual. Both men were wounded and Pushkin succumbed to his wounds two days after the dual. To blame d'Anthès (attached to a foreign embassy) so forcefully, Lermontov risked the attention of the authorities, and Count Alexander von Benckendorff in particular, who as head of the Tsar’s secret police had master-minded Pushkin’s earlier periods of  exile from the capital. There is some evidence that the autocratic Tsar Nicholas I may also have had designs on Pushkin’s wife, but Lermontov is not likely to have known about this. He was not in the Pushkin circle.


*** Context is clear; with this line the “he” shifts from d'Anthès the murderer to Pushkin the victim.


**** The poem as originally circulated ended with this line. On February 7 (old style) a little over a week after the first version, Lermontov added the last sixteen lines with his “curse” on fashionable society. A few copies were circulated and after a brief investigation by the secret police were judged to be “seditious” and Lermontov was sent into exile to serve in the cavalry in the Caucasus.



               Михаи́л Ю́р. Ле́рмонтов


     Отмщенья, государь, отмщенья!

     Паду к ногам твоим:

     Будь справедлив и накажи убийцу,

     Чтоб казнь его в позднейшие века

     Твой правый суд потомству возвестила,

     Чтоб видели злодеи в ней пример.


Погиб поэт! — невольник чести —

Пал, оклеветанный молвой,

С свинцом в груди и жаждой мести,

Поникнув гордой головой! . .

Не вынесла душа поэта

Позора мелочных обид,

Восстал он против мнений света

Один, как прежде . . . и убит!

Убит! . . к чему теперь рыданья,

Пустых похвал ненужный хор

И жалкий лепет оправданья?

Судьбы свершился приговор!

Не вы ль сперва так злобно гнали

Его свободный, смелый дар

И для потехи раздували

Чуть затаившийся пожар?

Что ж? веселитесь... — он мучений

Последних вынести не мог:

Угас, как светоч, дивный гений,

Увял торжественный венок.

Его убийца хладнокровно

Навел удар . . . спасенья нет:

Пустое сердце бьется ровно,

В руке не дрогнул пистолет.

И что за диво? . . издалека,

Подобный сотням беглецов,

На ловлю счастья и чинов

Заброшен к нам по воле рока;

Смеясь, он дерзко презирал

Земли чужой язык и нравы;

Не мог щадить он нашей славы;

Не мог понять в сей миг кровавый,

На что он руку поднимал! . .

     И он убит — и взят могилой,

     Как тот певец, неведомый, но милый,

     Добыча ревности глухой,

     Воспетый им с такою чудной силой,

Сраженный, как и он, безжалостной рукой.


Зачем от мирных нег и дружбы простодушной

Вступил он в этот свет, завистливый и душный

Для сердца вольного и пламенных страстей?

Зачем он руку дал клеветникам ничтожным,

Зачем поверил он словам и ласкам ложным,

     Он, с юных лет постигнувший людей?..


И прежний сняв венок, — они венец терновый,

Увитый лаврами, надели на него:

     Но иглы тайные сурово

     Язвили славное чело;

Отравлены его последние мгновенья

Коварным шепотом насмешливых невежд,

     И умер он — с напрасной жаждой мщенья,

С досадой тайною обманутых надежд.

     Замолкли звуки чудных песен,

     Не раздаваться им опять:

     Приют певца угрюм и тесен,

     И на устах его печать.


     А вы, надменные потомки

Известной подлостью прославленных отцов,

Пятою рабскою поправшие обломки

Игрою счастия обиженных родов!

Вы, жадною толпой стоящие у трона,

Свободы, Гения и Славы палачи!

     Таитесь вы под сению закона,

     Пред вами суд и правда — всё молчи! . .

Но есть и божий суд, наперсники разврата!

     Есть грозный суд: он ждет;

     Он не доступен звону злата,

И мысли и дела он знает наперед.

Тогда напрасно вы прибегнете к злословью:

     Оно вам не поможет вновь,

И вы не смоете всей вашей черной кровью

     Поэта праведную кровь!




Ленмонтов, М. Ю. СОБРАНИЕ СОЧИНЕНИЙ В ДВУХ ТОМАХ. [Lermontov, M. Yu.]

[The Complete Works in Two Volumes.] Редактор Н. Тронза. Москва: Полиграфресурсы, 2000. [Editor N. Tonza. Moscow: Publisher Resources, 2000]

Based on an eye-witness account by the attending physician of the duel that killed Pushkin, circulated hand copies of “Death of the Poet” in Petersburg and Moscow, made Lermontov (age 23) an overnight literary sensation, even though the poem was not cleared by the censors for publication until after Lermontov’s death. Lermontov was a young cadet in training, and even though he had distinguished family connections, he was unknown as a writer. Pushkin was wounded January 27 and died January 29 (old style) and Lermontov probably started the poem the next day. He wrote it in a rush of inspiration. His bold canonization of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin (1799-1837) lambasts the pretensions of fashionable Russia, but by making a hero of Pushkin, Lermontov set himself up for scrutiny by the censors and the secret police. In fact, the poem led to his exile to the Caucasus. Many editions of Lermontov place this poem first, out of chronological order. Don Mager

Don Mager’s chapbooks and volumes of poetry are: To Track the Wounded One, Glosses, That Which is Owed to Death, Borderings, Good Turns and The Elegance of the Ungraspable, Birth Daybook Drive Time, and Russian Riffs. He is retired and lives in Charlotte, NC. He was the Mott University Professor of English at Johnson C. Smith University from 1998-2004 where he served as Dean of the College of Arts and Letters (2005-2011). As well as a number of scholarly articles, he has published over 200 poems and translations from German, Czech and Russian.

Archive of Translations

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