Pushkin: Exegi Monumentum (From Russian)

This poem is Pushkin's imitation of Horace's Ode 3.30 (which I have translated here) or, rather more directly, Pushkin's riff on (and in some ways gentle parody of) his elder Derzhavin's Russian imitation of Horace's ode. The Russian text of Pushkin's poem is untitled, and the words Exegi Monumentum used as epigraph. For various reasons, I felt it would work better in English to make Exegi Monumentum the title and give a different epigraph that brought out a different facet of the same idea. I have also gone nuts with the notes to the poem, barreling into digressions and taking a few casual strolls beside the point. The digressions are in blue, for those who wish to be able to skip (or focus on) them.
The original poem is in a metrical and stanzaic form which is found nowhere else in Pushkin's poetry. The stanzas consist of three lines in accentual alexandrines (iambic hexameter with a caesura after the 6th syllable which must bear actual stress), followed by one of iambic tetrameter, with alternating masculine and feminine rhymes.
Pushkin's metrical and formal decisions were never arbitrary. A number of studies have shown that formal and metrical choices were, for Pushkin, semantically and pragmatically motivated. i.e. trochaics are more likely to be found in poems with certain kinds of content or a certain set of moods, and iambics in others, for example. It is therefore significant that this poem's form is unique in Pushkin's corpus and, moreover, occurs in a text which functions in relation to, and imitation of, other poems -mainly Derzhavin's ode (whose form is similar, being in alternating masculine and feminine rhymes but in Derzhavin the alexandrines are maintained throughout.) 
In order to make this poem stand out metrically, musically and rhythmically from what one normally finds in English verse (as the original itself stands out in Pushkin's corpus) I have therefore decided to duplicate the meter of the original Russian as closely as possible, sacrificing only the alternation of masculine and feminine rhymes, even though iambic hexameters  are not commonly employed in English (the usual practice of translators of Russian or French poetry is to transform alexandrines into iambic pentameter,) and formal features such as the post-tonic caesura after the sixth syllable are almost never encountered in any significant quantity in the major works of the English literary tradition. (Hell even translators like Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Dillon in their rendering of Baudelaire's Fleurs du Mal, who frequently turned Baudelaire's alexandrines into iambic hexameters, did not try to duplicate this feature.)

Exegi Monumentum
By A.S. Pushkin

We heard him say, "I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands."
-Mark 14:58

I've reared a monument not built by human hands.
The public path to it cannot be overgrown.
With insubmissive head far loftier it stands
               Than Alexander's columned stone.

No, I shall not all die. My soul in hallowed berth
Of art shall brave decay and from my dust take wing,
And I shall be renowned while on this mortal earth
               A single poet lives to sing.

Tidings of me shall spread through all the realm of Rus
And every tribe in Her shall name me as they speak:
The haughty western Pole, the east's untamed Tungus,
               North Finns and the south steppe's Kalmyk.

And long shall I a man dear to the people be
For how my lyre once quickened kindly sentiment,
I in a tyrant age who sang of liberty,
               And mercy toward fallen men.

To God and his commands pay Thou good heed, O Muse.
To praise and slander both be nonchalant and cool.
Demand no laureate's wreath, think nothing of abuse,
               And never argue with a fool.

The Original:

"Я памятник себе воздвиг..."
А.С. Пушкин

                     Exegi monumentum
Я памятник себе воздвиг нерукотворный,
К нему не заростет народная тропа,
Вознесся выше он главою непокорной
        Александрийского столпа.

Нет, весь я не умру — душа в заветной лире
Мой прах переживет и тленья убежит —
И славен буду я, доколь в подлунном мире
        Жив будет хоть один пиит.

Слух обо мне пройдет по всей Руси великой,
И назовет меня всяк сущий в ней язык,
И гордый внук славян, и финн, и ныне дикой
        Тунгуз, и друг степей калмык.

И долго буду тем любезен я народу,
Что чувства добрые я лирой пробуждал,
Что в мой жестокой век восславил я Свободу
        И милость к падшим призывал.

Веленью божию, о муза, будь послушна,
Обиды не страшась, не требуя венца,
Хвалу и клевету приемли равнодушно,
        И не оспаривай глупца.

The Poem Itself:

Below is a stanza-by-stanza presentation and explanation of the original text (or rather the original text as I understand and experience it) meant for the Russianless yet patient reader.

    Ja pámjatnik sebé vozdvíg nerukotvórnyj
    K nemú ne zarostët naródnaja tropá
    Voznëssja výše on glavóju nepokórnoj
    Aleksandríjskogo stolpá

    I've erected myself a monument made without (human) hands,
    To it the public/people's path cannot be overgrown 
    Its unsubmissive head it raises higher
    Than the Alexandrine/Alexandrian/Alexander's column.

L1 nerukotvórnyj "not made by human hand" is a word that rarely occurs in poetry, and indeed this is the only time in the Pushkinian corpus that it appears. It is ordinarily associated with sacred things. C.f. Mark 14:58 which I have made the epigraph of my English verse-translation, in which Jesus' promise to build a church for humanity is being relayed and misunderstood by one of his slanderers (note the phrasing of the Russian my slýšali kak on govoríl: ja razrušu hram sej rukotvórnyj i čérez tri dnja vozdvígnu drugój, nerukotvórnyj) In the Bible translation that Pushkin would have used, the verb corresponding to "build" in that passage is the same verb found in this poem. On a different note, the word is often used in conjunction with icons, particularly those depicting the face of Jesus.

L2- The point here is that the path is spiritual, not physical, and therefore cannot be overgrown. (Not that people will constantly walk on it.)

Philological digression:

In Pushkin's Russian, and in anti-tsarist usage of the 19th century, the adjective naródnyj "people's" and even more so the noun naród "people" from which it is derived were often used to describe the common masses as opposed, and in relation, to the elite or the monarch to which they are subject. The left-wing terrorist organization that assassinated Tsar Alexander II was called Naródnaja vólja "Will of the People".
More germanely, Svobóda "freedom" and Naróda "of the people" are an extremely common rhyme pair in poems about liberty and the evils of unjust tyrants in this and later periods of Russian literature. Indeed the presence in this poem's fourth stanza of Svobódu "freedom" (accusative case) and naródu "to the people" might well be relevant here too. 
At the end of his poem Mirskaja Vlast' "Secular Power" Pushkin writes: "i čtob ne potesnítj guljájuščih gospód / Puskátj ne velenó sjudá prostój naród"  (To keep it crowd-free for the strolling gentry /The common folk have been forbidden entry )
Interestingly, the adjective naródnyj "people's" used in the Russian actually is the word which in 20th century came to render "people's" in the political sense. The "People's Republic of Marxistan" would be in Russian Marksistánskaja Naródnaja Respúblika, for example, and the Soviets instituted the honorary title of "People's Writer" ("Naródnyj pisátelj") which was awarded to distinguished authors.

L4- This line has been a pain in the Russianist's posterior for many an age. The Russian words here Aleksandríjskogo stolpá are rather tricky. In Russian, Aleksandríjskij actually means "Alexandrian, Of Alexandria." It is possible that this is a gallicism formed from the name Alexander, but the normal way to say "Alexander Column" is Aleksándrovskaja Kolónna. Stolp is an archaic equivalent of the more unaffected Kolónna. This 25 meter high column, a monument to Czar Alexander, was completed in 1834. (Pushkin intentionally absented himself from the capital to avoid having to witness the unveiling ceremonies.) At the time, it was the highest structure in Petersburg, making it an unavoidable subject of comparison, particularly since the Alexander Column was built specifically so as to answer, and be bigger than, the Colonne Vendôme in Paris (erected by Napoleon in his own honor.) European court society being an environment where men were always in competition with one another, the issue of which man's column was biggest would naturally play some sort of role. In any event, if the word really connotes Alexandria, it would suggest the Diocletian Column in Alexandria built in 297, measuring 26 meters (which is one inch longer...I mean one meter taller than Czar Alexander's column.) That said, it is clear that Pushkin's contemporaries were likely to read it as a reference to the Czar. When Zhukovski prepared the first publication of this poem after Pushkin's death, he changed the line to Napoleónova stolpá "than Napoleon's column" i.e. the Colonne Vendôme.

My own theory is that it is all of the above, with the additional referent being metrical. Aleksandrijskij also means "Alexandrine" in a metrical sense. Pushkin was deviating from traditional form by writing every fourth line in iambic tetrameter rather than maintaining the Alexandrine line all throughout.    

    Net, vesj ja ne umrú - duša v savétnoj líre
    Moj prah pereživët i tlénja ubežít -
    I sláven búdu ja, dokólj v podlúnnom míre
    Živ búdet hotj odín piít.

    No, I shall not die entirely - (my) soul in the cherished/sacred/hidden lyre
    Shall outlive my dust and flee/escape corruption/decay
    And I will be renouned/famed whilst in the sublunary world
    So much as one bard/poet is alive

L7- v podlúnnom míre "in the sublunary world, in the world underneath the moon." This is a Gallicism, calqued off of French le monde sublunaire. It refers here to "that which is terrestrial, changeable, timebound instead of timeless," the idea being that the heavenly bodies, of which the moon was ostensibly the nearest to earth, were changeless and eternal - therefore only that which was "under the moon" or sublunar was subject to the entropic phenomena of decay, death, rise and fall.

L8- piít "poet" is highly archaic.

Philological digression:

Piít is an early word for "poet" borrowed from Late Greek ποιητής "poet, maker" (which would have been pronounced either [py'jitis] in Byzantine Greek or [piji'tis] in later Medieval Greek, both of which would yeild piít when borrowed into Slavic.) It was replaced by Poèt, borrowed probably French (from Latin Poēta, which was itself borrowed from the selfsame ποιητής at a time when the latter was pronounced [pojɛ:tɛ:s].) In any case piít possibly under influence from phonetically similar words associated with "singing" seems to have taken on bardic connotations. I asked a Russian "Leaving aside archaism, what if any is the difference in meaning between poèt and piít?" The response was "well, I feel like pijít is more a poet who sings rather than writes." 

There are, as I see it, two ways to read this stanza at face value. Either (a) Pushkin is suggesting that every poet to the last will remember him with admiration or (b) if any poet survives into posterity on the lips of the earthwalkers, it will be him.

Both are at best hyperbolic in a way that shades from grandeur into grandiosity, and may suggest that Pushkin intends some amount of self-deflating irony.
Moreover the fact that Pushkin uses the exclusively poetick dokól' "whilst" (a poetic shortening of the already archaic and high-flown dokóle) rather than the more unaffected (and metrically equivalent) poká also requires some thought. Poká would actually make for better sound-effects in the line. Note the repitition of the /a/ and the /po/ which would have ensued had he written I sláven búdu ja poka v podlúnnom míre. Add to that the fact that piít "poet" is highly archaic (though it may be semantically or formally motivated), and one might say that Pushkin is deliberately trying to give the impression of high bombast that takes itself a bit too seriously.

    Sluh óbo mne projdët po vsej rusí velíkoj
    I nazovët menjá vsjak súščij v nej jazýk,
    I górdyj vnuk slavján, i finn, i nýne díkoj
    Tungúz, i drug stepéj kalmýk

    Word/tidings/rumor of me shall traverse the whole of great Rus
    And every nation/ethnos (tongue) therein shall call/name me
    The haughty scion of the Slavs, the Finn, the yet savage
    Tungus, and -friend of steppes- the Kalmyk

L9- Rusj - an archaic word for Russia.

Philological digression:

 Rus was originally the name of a group of Varangian Norsemen that plundered and exploited the East Slavs as well as Finns, Balts and others in what is today northern Russia, and eventually conquered them and superimposed themselves on them as a ruling class in a conglomeration of city states known as the Rus Khaganate. They were eventually expelled as rulers, with a number of them assimilated linguistically and ethnically by their far more numerous (mostly slavic) subjects, but not before their name Rus had become the new ethnonym of the peoples who had been under their dominion. The name survives also as Ruotsi, the Finnish word for Sweden. This fact does not sit will with a number of Russian nationalist historians and linguists who engage themselves in valiant acts of logical and scholarly gymnastics in order to find a way to derive the Rus ethnonym from "pure" Slavic, rather than admit that a foreign pollutant had so fundamental a role in shaping East Slavic nationhood. It is nonetheless a well-documented form of ethnogenesis. The typology is distinct: the conquerors establish themselves as a ruling class over a given group which may or may not have a pre-existing sense of ethnic belonging, and in so doing cause their various subjects to see themselves with time as an ethnos defined by the conqueror's dominion. Thus they all start defining themselves as "The people under (insert name of conquering group)" and eventually simply the conquering group's name is seen as theirs as well. In Europe this has occurred several times. It is how the French got their name (Romance-speakers ruled by a Frankish elite whose "Frankland" was "Francia" -> France. c.f. German Frankreich) as did the Bulgarians (Slavic-speakers under the dominion of the Turkic-speaking Bulgars who were eventually assimilated by the former), the Greeks for a time in the Middle Ages (the Greek word for "Greek people" until the beginning of the second millennium was Ρωμαίοι Rhōmaíoi "Romans") and possibly the Croatians as well in pre-history, though the specifics are uncertain. 

L10- The normal, and indeed prehistorically original meaning, of jazýk is "tongue, language" but it also had the meaning "ethnos, nation" in earlier Russian (and indeed generally in the earliest surviving attestations of Slavic languages) and could be used, as here, with that meaning with an archaic coloring. Note the translation of "nations" in Matthew 24:14 "And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations." (i propovestsja sie evángelie tsárstvija po vsey vselénnej, vo svidétel'stvo vsem jazykóm.) Pushkin is here clearly playing with both meanings, since he is also referring to the various nations/tongues as performing a speech-act.

Philological digression:

That "tongue, language" is the original meaning can be inferred from the fact that the word descends from Proto-Slavic *jȩzykǔ. This latter is the descendant of Proto-Indo-European *dn̥ǵʰwéh₂swhich also developed into Sanskrit jihvā, Welsh tafod, Persian zabān (from Middle Persian *uzwān), Armenian lezu, Classical Latin lingua (from Old Latin dingua), and our own English tongue - all of which can mean "tongue", though they have varying other possible meanings (the Welsh word, for example, can only refer to the literal bodily tongue and not to language, whereas the Armenian word can refer not only to the literal tongue and to language but also can mean "edge" and -like the Slavic word- is used to mean "ethnos, nation" in Old Armenian.) Whether the agreement in the latter respect between Slavic and Armenian is a shared innovation, a semantic borrowing, a case of independent development or an inheritance of Indo-European semantics that was simply lost by all other IE languages is unknown, at least to me. Anyway, язык appears to have been used regularly, in the earliest attested texts in Slavic languages, with the sense of "Nation" alongside "Language, tongue." It is used, for example, to translate Greek "ethnos" in Old Slavonic. Interestingly, in one of the earliest Slavonic texts, Constantine's prologue to the translation of the Gospels (which is incidentally the earliest extant poem in a Slavic language) the meanings "nation" and "language" are both employed to poetic effect, as in the following passage where all instances of the word ѩзꙑкъ jȩzykǔ "language/nation" are bolded in the translation and in the original Old Slavonic.

Къто можетъ притъче вьсѥ рещи,
обличаѭщѧ без книгъ ѩзꙑкꙑ,
въ съмꙑсльнѣ гласѣ не глаголѭще.
Ни аще вьсѩ ѩзꙑкꙑ ѹмѣѥтъ,
можетъ съказати немощь сихъ.
Обаче своѭ притъчѭ да приставлѭ,
мъногъ ѹмъ въ малѣ рѣчи кажѧ.
Нази бо вьси без книгъ ѩзꙑци
не могѫще сѧ брати без орѫжіꙗ
съ противьникомь дꙋшь нашихъ
готови мѫкꙑ вѣчьнꙑѩ въ плѣнъ.
Иже бо врага, ѩзꙑци, не любите...
Who can tell all the parables
Denouncing nations without their own books
Who do not resort to a sense-making voice?
Even one potent in all tongues
Would lack the power to tell their impotence.
Yet I would add a parable of my own
Condensing much sense into few words
Naked indeed are all those nations without books
Who being without arms cannot fight
The Adversary of our souls
And are ripe for the dungeon of eternal torments.
Therefore, ye nations whose love is not for the enemy...

L11-12- In choosing the nationalities he does, Pushkin is emphasizing the geographical breadth of the Russian empire- the Eastern Tungus, the Southern Kalmyk and the Northern Finn (Finland at the time belonged to Russia after a war in 1808 during which Tsar Alexander swiped it from Sweden.) For this reason I am inclined to see the górdyj vnuk slavján "proud scion/grandson of the Slavs" as a reference not to Slavs in general, but to Poles specifically (Poles were the westernmost Slavic people subject to the Russian Imperium.) Górdyj "proud" is a term with negative associations in Pushkin's usage, and he often uses it to describe the Poles in e.g. his play Boris Godunov . The use of vnuk "nephew, granson, scion, heir" is an instantiation of the trope of fraternal slavic kinship and owed allegiance between Russia and Poland.

    I dólgo búdu tem ljubézen ja naródu
    čto čúvstva dóbryje ja líroj probuždál,
    čto v moj žestókij vek vosslávil ja svobódu
    I mílostj k pádšim prizyvál

    And long shall I be dear to (the) people/nation
    Because with my lyre I woke feelings of good will
    Because in my cruel age I extolled freedom
    And called for kindness to the downfallen

L14- čuvstva dobryje "feelings of good will" may be inspired by an incident with the man upstairs. When Tsar Alexander was trying to figure out what sort of subversive verse was making Pushkin so famous, he was shown the poem Derévnja "The Village" in which Pushkin wrote of the horrors of serfdom, suggesting that the serfs should be freed. Tsar Alexander, who was still in his liberal phase before he turned to the dark side, actually approved. The surviving memoirs and other sources differ on what precisely the Tsar's response was. It was either Faites remercier Pouchkine des bons sentiments que ses vers inspirent, "Have Pushkin thanked for the good feelings his verses inspire" or Remerciez Pouchkine des nobles sentiments qui inspirent ses vers "Thank Pushkin for the noble/kindly feelings which inspire his verses."

L15- philological digression:

A draft version of this stanza includes, in place of this line, the words Čto v sled Radiščevu vosslávil ja svobódu ("That following Radishchev I sang the praises of freedom.") This reference to a banned author would have been doubtless censored, yet it is not altogether clear to me that Pushkin would have left the line as it is had censorship not been an issue. The stanza as it is is certainly stronger. In any case, it is clear from the draft that this line, in draft and in final form, refers to his own early poem Vól'nost': Oda "Liberty: an Ode" (which can be found here in my translation) since Radishchev had also written an ode by that same name.  Pushkin may also have Radishchev's Slóvo o Lomonósove "A Laud for Lomonosov" on his mind (found in the final chapter of his Putešéstvie iz Peterbúrga v Moskvú "Journey From Petersburg to Moscow" a book which was banned by the Tsar's censors and well-known to Pushkin) e.g. the following passage 
Не столп, воздвигнутый над тлением твоим,  сохранит  память твою в дальнейшее потомство. Не камень со иссечением имени  твоего  пренесет славу твою в будущие столетия. Слово твое, живущее присно и вовеки в творениях твоих, слово российского племени, тобою в  языке  нашем обновленное, прелетит в устах народных  за  необозримый  горизонт  столетий. Пускай стихии, свирепствуя сложенно,  разверзнут  земную  хлябь  и  поглотят великолепный сей град, откуда громкое твое пение раздавалося  во  все  концы обширныя  России;  пускай  яростный  некий  завоеватель  истребит  даже  имя любезного твоего отечества сего: но доколе слово российское ударять  будет  слух, ты жив будешь и не умрешь. Если умолкнет  оно,  то  и  слава  твоя  угаснет. О Лестно,  лестно  так  умрети. 
No column raised over thy decaying flesh shall it be that preserves thy memory for distant posterity, no stone with thy name inscribed that bears thy glory forth to future centuries. Thy words, alive evermore in thy creations, the words of the Russian nation which thou hast renewed in our tongue, shall take flight on public lips beyond the boundless horizon of the centuries. Let the mightily raging elements gape an abysmal maw in the earth and swallow up all this magnificent city whence thy ringing song sounded forth unto all ends of Russia's vastness. Yea let some fierce conqueror annihilate even the very name of this thy dear fatherland: but while Russian words yet strike at living ears, thou shalt yet live undying. If it too fall silent, then so shall thy glory be extinguished. O flattery, flattery it were to die thus!

L16- the downfallen are the thwarted Decembrists who had been sent to Siberia for plotting to have a good old revolution against the autocracy of the Tsar.

    Velénju bóžiju O Múza budj poslúšna
    Obídy ne strašásj, ne trébuja vencá
    Hvalú i klevetú priémli ravnodúšno
    I ne ospárivaj glupcá

    To the will of God, O muse, be obedient/heedful
    Fearing no insult/offence, demanding no wreath
    Take praise and slander with equanimity
    And don't contradict/argue with (the) fool. 

This entire stanza is dramatically different in tone and import from the preceding four. From boasting about his fame as the fruit of his labors, the poet has turned to enjoining his Muse to simply not give a rat's eyes about what everybody else thinks and to be humble before God.

One can read this in a variety of ways, the most enduring of them being that Pushkin is parodying the Horatian trope, most relevantly as expressed by Derzhavin but also generally common in European letters (c.f. Ronsard's Sonnet à Hélène or a good half dozen of Shakespeare's sonnets) of boasting about how enduringly remembered one's verse (and by extension the subject of one's verse) will be in ages to come. As Nabokov put it in his Onegin commentary:

In 1836, in one of the most subtle compositions in Russian literary history, Pushkin parodied Derzhavin's Monument stanza by stanza in exactly the same verse form. The first four have an ironic intonation, but under the mask of high mummery Pushkin smuggles in his private truth. The last quatrain is the artist's own grave voice repudiating the mimicked boast. His last line, although ostensibly referring to reviewers, slyly implies that only fools proclaim their immortality.
Notwithstanding the fact that Nabokov seems to have missed the obvious while searching for the subtle (Pushkin's poem is very much not in "exactly the same verse form" as Derzhavin's, since the latter is in hexameters throughout whereas Pushkin shortens every fourth line to a tetrameter), it is true that there are ironic twists throughout the first four stanzas.

We may also perceive a gradual change from hubris (I will not all die) to humility (Obey God, O Muse.) One may I personally see it as a complexification, but not negation, of the preceding stanzas' sentiments. After all, the poet is addressing his muse and enjoining her not to be swayed by or concerned with the vagaries of public or critical taste or what anyone wants or likes, whereas he himself apart from the muse appears aware of his future imperishable fame. 

This may be read as a contrast between the poet's present circumstances (his critical star was waning at the time, and the world around him seemed hostile and inimical) in which he needs to remind himself to be as unimpressed by foolish praise as unfazed by idiotic condemnation, trusting that future generations will come to love him for who he was as a poet.

One might also hazard that he is proud of how famous and publicly beloved he will be, a destiny he will have achieved by making sure his muse remains unconcerned with said fame or public's love, the better to realize the poet's individual potential as craftsman and creator to inscribe his work with a self uncorrupted by the other, a self which will survive death all the more fully in what the poet has wrought. He has won the auctoritas every poet dreams of, triumphing over popular taste by refusing to surrender to it, and in so doing supplanting said taste with the universe of his own genius. By refusing to simply say what the masses want and love to hear, he induces them to to hear and love what he has to say.  

There are many more possibilities that Pushkinists have proposed to make sense of this poem's puzzling weave between hubris and humility, artistic utilitarianism and individualistic art for art's sake, confidence in his legacy and doubt as to whether people will praise him for the right reasons. Some such readings are more tendentious, and some more illuminating than others. Regardless, the fact that the poet seems to be suggesting plausibly a great many things at once, and even in a certain way mocking the reader as s/he tries to get a grip on what's really going on here, is a praiseworthy achievement in and of itself.

No comments:

Post a Comment