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Review: Half-Light & Other Poems, by Yevgeny Baratynsky

Elysium on Earth

For decades, in the absence of inspired translations, it was nearly impossible to convince Anglophone readers of Alexander Pushkin's genius. One could make all the claims one wanted, but there was simply no way to prove them. Slowly but surely, the case for Pushkin improved. The poet's defenders can now muster hard evidence, including Stanley Mitchell's sparkling recreation of Eugene Onegin (2008). But how much worse the situation has been for Pushkin's brilliant contemporaries. Konstantin Batyushkov (1787 - 1855), Pyotr Vyazemsky (1792 - 1878), and Yevgeny Baratynsky (1800 - 1844) remain virtually unknown outside Russia. One hopes that Peter France's sensitive and graceful translations of Baratynsky, whom he compares to Giacomo Leopardi in both spirit and stature, will finally win Pushkin's most original and accomplished peer an appreciative readership in the Anglophone world.

Baratynsky, for his part, was prepared to wait. A brief lyric of 1828 expresses and demonstrates the modesty of his aspirations and the austerity of his vision:

My talent is pitiful, my voice not loud,
but l am living; somewhere in the world
someone looks kindly on my life; far off
a distant fellow-man will read my words
and find my being; and, who knows, my soul
will raise an echo in his soul, and I
who found a friend in my own time,
will find a reader in posterity.

... Pushkin famously praised Baratynsky as the only poet in his circle who 'thinks', and Baratynsky's work is often described as 'philosophical'. As France suggests in his eloquent introduction, however, 'philosophical' should not be taken to mean coldly rational, abounding in profound, fixed ideas. What strikes one most about Baratynsky is the immediacy of his thought.

In the poet's greatest collection, Half-light, the reader sees and feels Baratynsky thinking, often painfully and reluctantly ('Thought, yet more thought!'). By the time of its release in 1842, this kind of meditative poetry was out of fashion; though happily married, he had lived an intellec tually isolated life for a number of years, finding solace in his craft:

In the dark sleep of lifelessness,
amid the world's sepulchral cold,
the poet finds some joy, sweet rhyme,
in your caress, in you alone!
You, like the faithful dove, bring back
a green branch to the waiting ark
and place it in his eager hand;
you only with your echoing voice
give inspiration a human face
and bring his dream to land.

('Rhyme')

Baratynsky died in 1844 in Naples, and France's selection ends with an ecstatic ode to the 'Steam ship' (1844), written at sea, in which the poet proclaims: 'Tomorrow I see Elysium on earth!' This Whitmanesque celebration of modern existence is tragic; it comes at the very close of Baratynsky's life, a glimmer of optimism that contrasts sharply with the bleak perspective of his earlier years.

... Neglected for decades, Baratynsky was important to both Akhmatova and Brodsky. ... This was the prize, the living thoughts of an uncommon mind. Peter France's masterful translations now allow Anglophone readers to encounter that mind for themselves.