Pushkin: Ode to Liberty (From Russian)

This poem was, at the time of writing, held to be subversive and revolutionary in Russia. It had a talismanic significance for many a young revolutionary. Manuscript copies of it were often confiscated upon arrest. One, for example, was among the "disloyal writings possessed by officers of the Kiev Grenadier Regiment." This, (and another poem called "In the Country" where Pushkin condemned in scandalously honest terms the squalor and inhumanity that serfs endured) managed to royally piss off Tsar Alexander I, whom I would call a witless jackass but for the fact that I prefer to reserve that title for those jackasses, such as Tsar Nicholas II, whose witlessness was truly beyond measure.

Tsar Alexander's reaction to the popularity of this poem was that "Pushkin must be exiled". Capo d'Istrias, an autocracy-addict boasting the brownest nose of all the Tsar's groveling acolytes, wrote in his capacity as head of the Foreign Office :

"Некоторые поэтические произведения, а в особенности Ода на свободу, привлекли внимание правительства на г. Пушкина. Среди великих красот замысла и слога это последнее стихотворение свидетельствует об опасных началах, почерпнутых в современной школе, или, лучше сказать, в системе анархии, недобросовестно именуемой системой прав человека, свободы и независимости народов"
"Some pieces of verse and most of all an ode to liberty directed the government's attentions toward Mr. Pushkin. Among the greatest beauties of conception and style this latter piece gives evidence of dangerous principles drawn from the ideas of our age, or, more precisely, that system of anarchy dishonestly called the system of human rights, of freedom and the independence of nations."
In truth, though, the poem is obviously far from revolutionary. Rather, the ideas it expresses, drawn heavily from Montesquieu, are those of conservative liberalism, defending monarchy as long as the monarch, no less than his subjects, is bound by the law and respects it. One may, however, note the way in which it draws on the Marseillaise, a song which quickly became a republican revolutionary anthem in Russia among those who knew French, and had developed an immunity to that masochistic fetish for political strongmen which seems to lie at the core of Russian history. Echoes of that song can be found a few places e.g. in stanza 2, line 6 (compare Tremblez, Tyrans et vous perfides…)

The poem is also interesting from a developmental point of view. Alongside archaisms, one finds expressions drawn from the living speech of the age. These two were to become wondrously harmonized by Pushkin in his later work. Here, the contrast is quite stark. I have endeavored to show this in my translation


Ode to Liberty
By Alexander Pushkin
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Russian

Listless Cytheran princess1, sing
No more! Begone out of my view!
But you, great scourge of prince and king,
Proud Muse of Freedom, where are you?
Come rip my laurels off. Bring stones
And crush this coddled lyre. Let me
Sing to the world of Liberty
And shame the scum that sit on thrones.

Reveal to me the noble path
Where that exalted Gaul2 once strode,
When you in storied days of wrath
Inspired in him a dauntless Ode.
Now, flighty Fortune's favored knaves,
Tremble, O Tyrants of the Earth!
But ye: take heed now, know your worth
And rise as men, O fallen slaves!

I cannot cast my gaze but see
A body flayed, an ankle chained,
The useless tears of Slavery,
The Law perverted and profaned.
Yea, everywhere iniquitous
Power in the fog of superstition
Ascends: Vainglory's fateful passion,
And Serfdom's gruesome genius.

Heavy on every sovereign head
There lies a People's misery,
Save where the mighty Law is wed
Firmly with holy Liberty,
Where their hard shield is spread for all,
Where in a Nation's faithful hand
Among mere equals in the land
The sword can equitably fall3

To smite transgression from on high
With one blow, righteously severe
In fingers uncorrupted by
Ravenous avarice or fear.
O Monarchs, ye are crowned by will
And law of Man, not Nature's hand.
Though ye above the people stand,
Eternal Law stands higher still.

But woe betide the commonweal
Where it is blithely slumbering,
Where Law itself is forced to kneel
Before the People, or the King.
Here is the Man: witness he bears
To his forebears’ infamous error
And in the storm of recent Terror
Laid down kingly neck for theirs.

King Louis to his death ascends4
In sight of hushed posterity,
His crownless, beaten head he bends:
Blood for the block of perfidy.
The Law is mute, the People too.
And down the criminal axe-blade flies
And lo! A ghastly purple5 lies
Upon a Gaul enslaved anew.

You autocratic psychopath,6
You and your throne do I despise!
I watch your doom, your children's death
With cruel and jubilating eyes.
Upon your forehead they descry
The People’s mark of true damnation.
Stain of the world, shame of creation,
Reproach on earth to God on high!

When on the dark Neva the star
Of midnight makes the water gleam,
When carefree eyelids near and far
Are overwhelmed with peaceful dream,
The poet, roused with intellect,
Sees the lone tyrant's statue loom
Grimly asleep amid the gloom,
The palace now a derelict,7

And Clio's8 awesome call he hears
Behind those awesome walls of power.
Vivid before his sight appears
The foul Caligula's last hour.
In stars and ribbons he espies
Assassins drunk with wine and spite
Approaching, furtive in the night
With wolfish hearts and brazen eyes.

And silent stands the faithless guard,
The drawbridge downed without alarm,
The gate in dark of night unbarred
By treason’s mercenary arm.
O shame! O terror of our time!
Those Janissary beasts burst in9
And slash, the Criminal Sovereign
Is slaughtered by unholy crime.

Henceforward, Monarchs, learn ye well:
No punishment, no accolade,
No altar and no dungeon cell
Can be your steadfast barricade.
The first bowed head must be your own
Beneath Law's trusty canopy,
Then Peoples' life and liberty
Forevermore shall guard your throne.

Notes:

1 I.e. Venus Aphrodite, associated in antiquity with the Ionian island of Cythera. The line, in my English as in Pushkin's Russian, has a surfeit of soft sibillants (tsitery slabaya tsaritsa) adding a sound-component to the denigration of Aphrodite as feeble.

2The identity of this "exalted Gaul" is one of the many quarrels with which scholars of Pushkinian minutiae have masturbatorily busied themselves. Possibilities range from Nabokov's suggestion of the minor poet Ponce Denis Ecouchard Le Brun, to the sadly underrated (by modern critics) poet André Chénier who died on the guillotine at the age of 31, to Jacques de Molay- last grand master of the Knights Templar. For a variety of reasons Chénier seems the most likely, or rather, the only likely choice. But obviously this is a question of interest to historians and the appreciator of poetry doesn't, or at least shouldn't, give one flying fuck.

3 C.f. Guillaume Thomas Raynal's Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes where he writes:

La loi n'est rien, si ce n'est pas un glaive qui se promène indistinctement sur toutes les têtes, et qui abat ce qui s'élève au-dessus du plan horizontal sur lequel il se meut. La loi ne commande à personne ou commande à tous. Devant la loi, ainsi que devant Dieu, tous sont égaux.
The law is nothing, unless it be a sword passing indiscriminately over all heads, and smiting all that rise above the horizontal plane in which it moves. The law governs none, or governs all. Before the Law as before God, all are equal

4King Louis XVI, guillotined in 1793 during the reign of Terror.

5i.e. Napoleonic purple.

6 i.e. Napoleon. Yeah, I know, "psychopath" wasn't a word in the early 19th century. But then, I'm not pretending to be a ghostly Pushkin, am I?

7 The Tyrant here referred to is Tsar Paul I, father of the then-current Tsar Alexander I. The poem was written in the Turgenevs' apartment which looked out across the canal at the Mikhailovsky Castle, the scene of Paul's assassination in 1801- an event envisioned in the subsequent two stanzas.
In Pushkin's time, Paul was considered and depicted as a royal psychopath who ignored the will of his subjects. Later scholarship, based on among others the accounts of various ambassadors who had the displeasure of his company, has revised this image to one of an ineffective, unfocused yet not *entirely* evil doofus who lacked the resolve and discipline needed to turn his good intentions into reality and whose paranoid fear of a French-style revolution lead him to suspect treason on the part of any man who didn't bow low enough and any maid of honor who refused him entry into her vagina. Sir Charles Whitworth, the English ambassador at the time, wrote of him He will advert to every motive which offended vanity can conceive.

8- Clio: the muse of History.

9 Janissaries: i.e. assassins fierce and ruthless as Turkish troops.


The Original:

Беги, сокройся от очей,
Цитеры слабая царица!
Где ты, где ты, гроза царей,
Свободы гордая певица? —
Приди, сорви с меня венок,
Разбей изнеженную лиру…
Хочу воспеть Свободу миру,
На тронах поразить порок.

Открой мне благородный след
Того возвышенного галла,
Кому сама средь славных бед
Ты гимны смелые внушала.
Питомцы ветреной Судьбы,
Тираны мира! трепещите!
А вы, мужайтесь и внемлите,
Восстаньте, падшие рабы!

Увы! куда ни брошу взор —
Везде бичи, везде железы,
Законов гибельный позор,
Неволи немощные слезы;
Везде неправедная Власть
В сгущенной мгле предрассуждений
Воссела — Рабства грозный Гений
И Славы роковая страсть.

Лишь там над царскою главой
Народов не легло страданье,
Где крепко с Вольностью святой
Законов мощных сочетанье;
Где всем простерт их твердый щит,
Где сжатый верными руками
Граждан над равными главами
Их меч без выбора скользит

И преступленье с высока
Сражает праведным размахом;
Где не подкупна их рука
Ни алчной скупостью, ни страхом.
Владыки! вам венец и трон
Дает Закон — а не природа;
Стоите выше вы народа,
Но вечный выше вас Закон.

И горе, горе племенам,
Где дремлет он неосторожно,
Где иль народу иль царям
Законом властвовать возможно!
Тебя в свидетели зову,
О мученик ошибок славных,
За предков в шуме бурь недавных
Сложивший царскую главу.

Восходит к смерти Людовик
В виду безмолвного потомства,
Главой развенчанной приник
К кровавой плахе Вероломства.
Молчит Закон — народ молчит,
Падет преступная секира…..
И се — злодейская порфира
На галлах скованных лежит.

Самовластительный Злодей!
Тебя, твой трон я ненавижу,
Твою погибель, смерть детей
С жестокой радостию вижу.
Читают на твоем челе
Печать проклятия народы,
Ты ужас мира, стыд природы,
Упрек ты богу на земле.

Когда на мрачную Неву
Звезда полуночи сверкает,
И беззаботную главу
Спокойный сон отягощает,
Глядит задумчивый певец
На грозно спящий средь тумана
Пустынный памятник тирана,
Забвенью брошенный дворец —

И слышит Клии страшный глас
За сими страшными стенами,
Калигуллы последний час
Он видит живо пред очами,
Он видит — в лентах и звездах,
Вином и злобой упоенны
Идут убийцы потаенны,
На лицах дерзость, в сердце страх.

Молчит неверный часовой,
Опущен молча мост подъемный,
Врата отверсты в тьме ночной
Рукой предательства наемной….
О стыд! о ужас наших дней!
Как звери, вторглись янычары!…
Падут бесславные удары…
Погиб увенчанный злодей.

И днесь учитесь, о цари:
Ни наказанья, ни награды,
Ни кров темниц, ни алтари
Не верные для вас ограды.
Склонитесь первые главой
Под сень надежную Закона,
И станут вечной стражей трона
Народов вольность и покой.

9 comments:

  1. Wow its amazing! This is amazing blog ever.

    Translation Company

    ReplyDelete
  2. please translate it also. 

    family dollar

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great Post! This blog is ever amazing. Thanks

    Adventure

    awesome post........

    ReplyDelete
  4. You are very talented! The pronunciation of each language is perfect! and the translations themselves are so beautiful))

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thank you.

    I should note that it usually takes several re-recordings to get the pronunciation right. I'm rather compulsive about that: if a single consonant is off, if I notice a vowel slightly improperly articulated, I can't help but rerecord it.

    ReplyDelete
  6. then you are very patient too)))

    ReplyDelete
  7. I very much like this Ode and your versatile translation. I would like to publish it in my edited LAW ANIMATED WORLD (see my blog: http://lawanimatedworld.blogspot.com/ ) in the last page (poetry page). Hope you will have no objection. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Mallikarjuna SharmaJune 15, 2012 at 8:52 AM

    I liked this Ode to Liberty and your versatile translation very much. I would like to publish it in my edited LAW ANIMATED WORLD, in the last page (poetry page). Please visit our weblog: http://lawanimatedworld.blogspot.com/ to know more about our journal. Hope you will have no objection to my publishing the same in our journal. Please reply to mksharma55@gmail.com at the earliest. Thanks.

    ReplyDelete

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