Lermontov: The Dagger (From Russian)

The Russian depictions of Circassians and other people of the Caucasus in this period in literature (during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus, which was to culminate in the Circassian genocide) were often basically noble-or-bloodthirsty men and beautiful irresistible women (whom Russian officers, by the way, sometimes just couldn't keep their hands off of. I mean, being so hot and all those little Mohammedan minxes were just asking for it, weren't they?) One stock-theme involves the misty-eyed, mute and ever-meek native maiden smitten with the stalwart roving Russian man, displaying all the preposterous sincerity of a Disney-caricatured Pocahontas falling head-between-heels for John Smith. It is so blatantly deployed in this poem by Lermontov that it suggests pure male fantasy, the self-aggrandizing revery of a lonely man easing the pain of exile by getting soused on a heady cocktail of vodka, fetishism and Byron (an acquired taste no doubt.) Fortunately Lermontov's unique blend of tenderness on the one hand and on the other of committed militancy save this poem brilliantly, and directs him toward some realism, with hints of a more complex view of his Circassian subjects than may at first seem apparent. The dagger described in this poem, by the way, does in fact appear to be a Circassian khanjali

The Dagger
By Mikhail Lermontov
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the Russian

My damask dagger with a soul of steel,
I love you! Comrade chill and bright,
Forged by a brooding Georgian for revenge.
A free Circassian honed you for the fight.

A lily-hand brought you to me in parting,

A keepsake of a time too brief
And then for once not blood flowed down your edge
But a light tear: a pearl of grief.

Fixated onto mine, her two black eyes
Filled with a sad mysterious dream
Like your raw steel put to the quavering fire
Were dim one instant, then agleam.

Love's wordless pledge, bestowed as my companion

In travel, give me council to the end.
Yea I will never change, my spirit steeled
Like you, like you, my damask friend.

The Original:

М. Ю. Лермонтов

Люблю тебя, булатный мой кинжал,
Товарищ светлый и холодный.
Задумчивый грузин на месть тебя ковал,
На грозный бой точил черкес свободный.

Лилейная рука тебя мне поднесла
В знак памяти, в минуту расставанья,
И в первый раз не кровь вдоль по тебе текла,
Но светлая слеза — жемчужина страданья.

И черные глаза, остановясь на мне,
Исполненны таинственной печали,
Как сталь твоя при трепетном огне,
То вдруг тускнели, — то сверкали.

Ты дан мне в спутники, любви залог немой,
И страннику в тебе пример не бесполезный:
Да, я не изменюсь и буду тверд душой,
Как ты, как ты, мой друг железный.

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