Pushkin: The Prophet (From Russian)

This poem, widely considered one of Pushkin's best, uses the archaic (or rather archaizing) heavily slavonicized layers of the Russian language to evoke a solemn biblical atmosphere. Even for a Russian-reader like me, estranged as I am from so much that Church Slavonic represents and who learned his Slavonic not in the church but in the university, the slavonicisms carry extremely powerful weight. Critics have, rightly, seized upon Isaiah 6:2-10 as the inspiration for this poem. Though the imagery and diction draws upon the entirety of the Slavonic Bible e.g. Psalm 63, Ephesians 5:14. I have had to find various ways to deal with this in English. The liturgical is not a register that English has really ever been made to, well, register with this kind of linguistic immediacy. This poem would probably go much better into Modern Greek, or even Arabic, than English. KJV English is not analogically usable to render slavonicism. At least not on its own. The closest equivalent to this kind of language in English poetry is probably the work of expressly religious or - better yet - visionary poets such as  William Blake, though whereas Blake took these themes and ran with them past the ends of the earth and heavens, Pushkin took it, as he took so much else, as a mask through which to speak when the occasion suited him, and which could be discarded when no longer required and no longer capable of palliating his bourgeois boredom. 

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

I went with soul athirst for grace

Amid a darkling desert land,
And at a crossing of the ways
Beheld a six-wing'd Seraph stand.
With fingers light as dream at night
He brushed mine eyes and they grew bright
Opening unto prophecies
Wild as a startled eaglet's eyes.
He touched and filled my mortal ears
With all the sounding of the spheres:
I heard the shudders of the sky,
The sweep of angel hosts on high,
The creep of beasts below in the seas,
The seep of sap in valley trees.
And leaning to my lips he wrung
Thereout my slithering sinful tongue
Of guile and idle caviling;
And with his right hand bloodied wet
In through my wasting lips he set
A Serpent's wise and forkèd sting.
And with his sword he cleft my chest,
And reft my quaking heart out whole,
And thrust inside my sundered breast
A blazing shard of living coal.
There in the desert I lay dead
Until the voice from heaven said:
"Arise O Prophet! Work My will,
Thou that hast now perceived and heard.
On land and sea thy charge fulfill
And burn Man's heart with this My Word."

The Original:

Александр Пушкин

Духовной жаждою томим,
В пустыне мрачной я влачился, —
И шестикрылый серафим
На перепутье мне явился.
Перстами легкими как сон
Моих зениц коснулся он.
Отверзлись вещие зеницы,
Как у испуганной орлицы.
Моих ушей коснулся он, —
И их наполнил шум и звон:
И внял я неба содроганье,
И горний ангелов полет,
И гад морских подводный ход,
И дольней лозы прозябанье.
И он к устам моим приник,
И вырвал грешный мой язык,
И празднословный и лукавый,
И жало мудрыя змеи
В уста замершие мои
Вложил десницею кровавой.
И он мне грудь рассек мечом,
И сердце трепетное вынул,
И угль, пылающий огнем,
Во грудь отверстую водвинул.
Как труп в пустыне я лежал,
И бога глас ко мне воззвал:
«Восстань, пророк, и виждь, и внемли,
Исполнись волею моей,
И, обходя моря и земли,
Глаголом жги сердца людей».


  1. Extraordinary. Three cheers for you and Pushkin!

  2. wow!!! excellent Russian pronunciation! well done))


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