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The rightful place of Yevgeny Baratynsky

Posted by Ciara Boardman, 5th March 2018

Half-Light and Other Poems is a collection of seminal works by Russian poet Yevgeny Baratynsky, translated into English - for the first time in regards to the titular Half-Light collection - by Peter France. France is an expert on French and Russian literature and literary translation who has previously translated works by Gennady Aygi and Vladimir Mayakovsky and edited the Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation and the Oxford History of Literary Translation in English. With Half-Light, France turns his attention to one of the forgotten members of what has become known as the Pleiades of the Golden Age, a group of esteemed St. Petersburg poets whose ranks included Aleksandr Pushkin. According to France, Baratynsky has remained in literary 'purgatory' since his death in 1844, a state from which France wishes to revive him, and return him to his rightful place among Russia's literary greats.

From this collection, it certainly seems that Baratynsky's life and work were comparable to those of his contemporaries - his biography reads like a novel of exile and redemption, and of finding meaning through philosophy, as many great writers did during his period. Baratynsky came from a noble family which had fallen from favour; as an individual, he fell even further after stealing from a fellow student in St. Petersburg. While he would eventually return to favour, even being able to call Prince Pyotr Andreevich Vyazemsky a friend, his exile led him to travel Europe, taking him to Finland, France, Italy and Germany, interacting with Romanticism and German philosophy. The influence this had on his work can be seen in how he combines the impersonal tone typical of the 18th century with the more Romantic themes of selfhood and real, personal reactions to the events which had an impact on his life. For example, in the opening poem of Half-Light, addressed to the Prince, Baratynsky states his intention to recall the memories of his past exactly as they were, filled with both 'inward strife' and 'exalted love'. The deeply personal nature of the poems is again revealed in those he dedicated to Pushkin, a close friend, 'Autumn' and 'Novinskoe', the former of which demonstrates the pain felt after the death of a friend, but from a certain distance, as he uses the allegory of the encroaching winter to symbolise his pain. A broader Romantic influence can be seen in his references to antiquity in 'Rhyme', 'Achilles', and 'The Last Poet', while the influence of French Romantic Rousseau is visible in his staunch refusal to present himself in a more favourable light, seen in 'The Admission'. While Baratynsky may have striven to use an impersonal tone in his poems, the collection France has bought together paints a very solid picture of a man deeply affected by his experiences in life.

Regarding the technicality of the translations, France has clearly put a lot of thought into how best to present these poems to a modern audience. In his introduction to the collection he refers to Jill Higg's earlier translations of Baratynsky, and her dedication to maintaining the original meter and rhyme of the poems. France chooses a different method, opting for 'close' over direct translations, with the main goal of evoking the same sentiments in a modern reader as would have existed for Baratynsky's contemporaries. While I cannot comment on the extent to which France may have adjusted the language or structure of the originals, I can say with certainty that he achieved his main goal. From knowing nothing of Baratynsky before picking up this collection, I put it down with the feeling that not only would I from now on hold his work in great esteem, but I understood and could empathise with the inner workings of this 19th century poet.