The Poems of Doctor Zhivago
Translating the Zhivago Cycle
Pasternak's poetic style of various periods remains one of the most challenging to translate. At first sight it might seem that it is the complex earlier verse, based on a multitude of wordplays, that loses most in translation to other languages. Nevertheless, successful versions have been produced at various times by translators such as George Reavey, Robert Lowell, Lydia Pasternak Slater, Eugene Kayden, Peter France and John Stallworthy, who have given us English poetic renderings that in varying degrees balance the elements of "verbal music", rhythm, rhyme structure, and metaphor in Pasternak's early lyrics.
In his later verse, Pasternak consciously cultivated a more transparent poetic idiom, striving towards Pushkinian ideals, and pursuing a new and "unheard-of" simplicity". On the face of it, such writing ought to be more congenial to translation, offering the chance of closer equivalence in English and a clearer impression of the, in many cases, magnificent originals. Surprisingly, however, Pasternak's poetry of the 1930s, and of the World War 2 and postwar period (including the poems of Doctor Zhivago) has remained tantalizingly resistant to the efforts of English translators. There has been no shortage of translators - the above-named have been joined by such as Michael Harari, Donald Davie and Bernard Guilbert Guerney, and the present offerings are a further addition to this body of translated verse. The problem arising is similar to that facing translators of Pushkin, or Akhmatova among the moderns, or which, in the musical world, confronts interpreters of Mozart: the fluency, purity and simplicity of style seem to present so few technical problems, that a banality and blankness of expression can easily result, unwittingly reducing Pasternak to the level of John Betjeman or worse. It is for this reason that many readers and critics continue to prefer the simple prose renderings of the Zhivago poems, published in Max Hayward and Manya Harari's original translation of Doctor Zhivago, to other more elaborate attempts at "poetic" translation. There is also no denying the beauty of Guerney's more recent prose versions published in currently available North American editions of the novel, and which whose graceful and rounded expression offer a near-perfect version of the original's literal meaning, in itself so saturated that it partly compensates for a lack of other poetic qualities in these versions.
Nevertheless, Hayward, Harari, and Guerney notwithstanding, there still remains a temptation to translate the Zhivago poems in a way that reproduces, however partially, more of the elements of Pasternak's later verse style without major semantic concessions or distortions. It is on these grounds that one is bound to reject the versions by Robert Lowell and Donald Davie, which suffer from an inadequate understanding of Russian as well as a too obvious attempt to make "English poetry" out of Pasternak's poems. Clearly, to create fine English verse from a great Russian (or other foreign) original would require a poetic translator no less talented than the original author - but then this would be a new and inimitable work of original creativity, probably removed in spirit from the original as Pasternak's own Russian versions of Shakespeare and Goethe's Faust were. The ideal translation must therefore, in this second respect, be a compromise. Among Pasternak's translators Lydia Pasternak Slater, the poet's own sister, came nearer than most to the spirit of the Russian, producing verses that are, as she claimed, "close in their sound and general pattern to those of the Russian originals". She also sensibly realized the need to cultivate assonance rhyme and avoid the regular chime of alternating rhyme endings that are characteristic even of much modern Russian verse. The main defect of her versions arose probably from her non-native knowledge of English and a tendency to use inversions (of verb and object, noun and adjective) that sometimes gave her lines a dated rather than "modern" appearance.
It is easy, of course, for latecomers to quibble with the work of predecessors. I am well aware that translation is not an exact science, but an evolving, changing, and subjective art form. There can thus be no one single, ideal rendering and the present rhymed and rhythmic versions of the Zhivago cycle are just one contribution to the multiple versions that might partially capture the spirit of the Russian. Anyone familiar with the original Russian is bound to feel disappointed and deprived, and there are some features of even these late and simple poems by Pasternak that are bound to elude translation. The title of the poem "Intoxication" is "Khmel'" in Russian, which both means the state of intoxication and denotes the hop-plant whose fermentation leads to this state; the main conceit of the poem is in fact built around this ambiguity, impossible to reproduce neatly in English. The poem is also one of the weaker items in the cycle. Anna Akhmatova tartly commented that Pasternak should have known better at his age than to write verse of such juvenile eroticism. In other respects, however, the finest nature and religious poems in this cycle are among the best work Pasternak ever produced. Like much of Akhmatova, too, they deserve repeated translation and importation into other linguistic cultures. Hopefully, the nobility of the task may partly compensate for defects in its execution….
The Poems of Doctor Zhivago
Translated by Christopher Barnes
A hush descends, I step out on the boards,
And leaning on the door-frame, I endeavor
To perceive what the future holds in store,
Divining it amidst the distant echoes.
Darkness, thousand-fold, is focused on me
Down the axis of each opera glass.
If it may be, I pray Thee, Abba, Father,
Grant it: let this chalice from me pass.
I love and cherish it, Thy stubborn purpose,
And am content to play my allotted role,
But now another drama is in progress.
I beg Thee, leave me this time uninvolved.
But alas, there is no turning from the road.
The order of the action has been settled.
The Pharisee claims all, and I'm alone.
This life is not a stroll across the meadow.
Sunlight scorches to a seven-fold swelter,
Frenzied life surges from the ravine,
And a thousand labors seethe and prosper
In the hands of strapping milkmaid Spring.
The last snow's traces waste away and sicken
In enfeebled, livid, branching veins,
But life-force fumes and vapors in the cowshed
And health comes bursting from the hayfork tines.
Nights and days and nights - endless succession,
Drubbing droplets of the midday rains,
Trickle of an icicle's anemia,
Bubbling chatter of unsleeping streams!
Doors stand open - stable, cowshed. Pigeons
Pick at oats among the snow. Out there
Breathes the source and author of this life force -
The dung heap with its breath of space and air.
"In Holy Week"
All the world's still wrapped in gloom.
At such an early hour
How many stars - no man can know,
And each like daylight is aglow,
And could it choose, then all the globe
Might well have slept all Easter through
To the chant of psalm and prayer.
Still all the world is wrapped in gloom.
An age must pass till early dawn.
Eternally the square has lain,
Outstretched to the crossing of the roads.
Before the light and warmth return
Must pass a whole millennium.
The earth lies there, exposed, laid bare,
Bereft of its attire
For swinging bells in empty air
In echo to the choir.
And from Maundy Thursday through
Till Holy Saturday
Water eddies swirl and scoop
And etch the banks away.
The woodland too is stripped and bare,
And now, during Christ's Passion,
Like solemn worshippers at prayer,
The pine trees pay attention.
And in a lesser space, in town,
As at a public meeting,
The naked trees all stand and strain
To peer through churchyard railings.
Their gaze is stricken with dismay.
There's reason for such terror -
As gardens flood and fencing breaks
And all the earth's foundations quake,
A God is being buried.
Then light gleams within the altar gates,
Black scarves and candles are held ready,
And tear-stained faces look about,
To welcome the procession.
And as they carry forth the Shroud,
Two birches at the entrance
Are forced to yield and bow them out.
They all process around the church,
Then back along the pavement,
Bringing spring and springtime talk
From open road onto the porch,
With a heady vernal air
And breath of communion wafers.
March throws a scattering of snow
To the cripples on the portico,
As if somebody brought forth
A reliquary and disposed of
All down to the final thread.
The singing lasts until the dawn.
And now that every tear is spent,
The Apostles and the Psalms
Exit and depart, now calm,
Through lamp-lit emptiness.
At midnight man and beast fall dumb
On hearing springtime's revelation:
Once weather clears, then just as soon
Can death itself be overcome
By the power of Resurrection.
Amid visions of eras long past
I see a house in the Petersburg quarter,
And the daughter of steppe-dwelling gentlefolk,
Born in Kursk and now auditing courses.
You're attractive, with many admirers.
And in the pale Petersburg night
The two of us sit at your window
Peering down at the town from on high.
The streetlamps - like moths made of gauze -
Are touched with the morning's first shivers,
And all that I softly recount
Bears the mark of that sleeping far distance.
And the two of us sit in the thrall
Of a shared timid faith in some secret -
Like the outspreading Petersburg scene
Beyond the expanse of the Neva.
And now, on that white night in spring,
In the distance of faraway forests
Nightingales flood each wooded reach
With the peals of their thunderous praises.
The lunatic trillings unfurl,
And the voice of that delicate songster
Awakes a commotion and thrill
In the depths of enraptured forests.
And the night steals away to those places,
Past the fence, like a barefooted vagrant;
In its wake, from the eavesdropping sill
Hangs the trail of our half-heard exchanges.
In those echoes of overheard dialogue,
Across the lath fencing and gardens
The boughs of the apple and cherry
Are decked in their white blossom garments.
And into the street from the orchard
The trees' pallid phantoms come drifting,
As if bidding farewell to the white
Night, and to and all it witnessed.
"Bad Roads in Spring"
The sunset fires were dying down.
Through woodland dense, down muddy cart track
The weary horseman made his way
Toward a distant Urals farmstead.
The tired horse's belly rumbled,
Along the way the ring and splatter
Of hooves were echoed and rebounded
By swirling, chattering springwater.
And when the rider dropped his reins
And slackened pace down to an amble,
Then, near at hand the flood released
The mighty rollick of its thunder.
Sounds of weeping, sounds of mirth,
Crunching rocks and splitting flint stone,
And tree stumps ripped out by the roots
Collapsed into the reeling maelstrom.
Against the blaze of sinking sun,
In boughed recesses, black as charcoal,
The nightingale raved on and on
And beat his sonorous alarm-bell.
And where the willow dipped and trailed
Her widow's veil by the ravine,
Like ancient Robber-Nightingale
On seven oaks he piped his tune.
And what was meant by all this ardor?
A serenade, or some disaster?
And as it raked the forest thickets,
At whom was this trilling grapeshot blasted?
As though to meet some partisan
Patrol, whether on foot or riding,
Surely he'd emerge, that woodland goblin,
Like a jail-breaker from hiding?
Earth and heaven, field and forest -
All caught that intermittent strain
Composed of many measured portions
Of madness, bliss, ordeal, and pain.
Life has returned with just as little reason
As when it was so strangely once curtailed.
I find myself in that same ancient alley,
At the same hour, and on a summer's day.
People are the same, with the same worries,
And the sunset fires have not yet cooled -
Just as once that fatal evening nailed them
Hurriedly to the Manege's wall.
Women of the street in simple outfits
Roam the alleys, wearing out their soles,
Later to be crucified in attics,
Splayed and martyred under iron roofs.
One of them, appearing in a doorway,
Makes her way with weary steps and slow,
Climbs the stairway from the semi-basement,
Then aslant across the yard she goes.
Once more I make ready my excuses,
And again I find myself unmoved.
But her next-door neighbor has departed
Through the alley - we find ourselves alone.
Don't weep. Don't purse your swollen lips.
Don't press those buds together,
You'll crack apart the dried-up scab
Of our last springtime's fever.
And take your hand from off my breast,
We're cables at high tension.
Look out, for we shall meet again,
Whatever our intention.
Years pass, you'll marry, then forget
Your present disarrangement,
For womanhood's a great exploit,
A feat to set men raving.
Before a woman's wondrous hands,
That female spine and shoulders
I pay a servant's homage due,
And yet, however firm the bond
Of nighttime's anguished fetter,
Repulsion's power is no less strong,
The urge to flee still beckons….
"Summer in Town"
Sotto voce exchanges
And with fervor and haste
She gathers her braids
In a sheaf from the nape.
And she peers from beneath
Her combed helmet of hair,
Then flings her head backward
With its plaited coiffure.
Sultry night in the roadway
Now threatens a storm.
And shuffle off home.
Abrupt bursts of thunder
And at the window
Curtains stir in the wind.
Interregnum of stillness -
Yet still broil and swelter -
And the lightnings still rummage
And ransack the heavens.
And when the morning,
Aglow once again,
Dries up the puddles
After showers of rain,
The limes still in blossom -
Those fragrant antiques -
Clench their brows, sullen
From shortage of sleep.
I am no more, but you're alive.
And the wind with plaint and wailing
Sets the woods and villa swaying.
It rocks not only single pines
But all the trees in joint array
And the remote, unbounded skyline -
Like wooden hulls of frigates riding
On the broad surface of the bay.
And this - not out of waywardness,
Nor in a fit of fury blind,
But in life's anguish to seek out
Words to compose your lullaby.
Under willows encircled with ivy
We've sought shelter from wind and from rain.
Round our shoulders we've flung my old raincoat,
And my hands are entwined round your waist.
But I'm wrong! These encircling creepers
Aren't ivy. They're intoxicant hops!
So let's spread the raincoat beneath us,
While the two of us lie down on top…
Currant leaves, rough and hirsute as hessian.
There is laughter and ringing of glass,
And slicing and pickling and peppering,
And cloves marinating in jars.
For a jest the woods hurl all this uproar
Pell-mell down the steep hillside slope,
Where the hazels stand scorched in the sunshine,
Toasted brown in a bonfire glow.
Here the roadway leads down to the hollow,
One feels sad for these dry, broken boughs,
And for autumn, the old rag-and-bone man,
Who swept everything into this trough -
Sad that the world is much simpler
Than smart Alecs seem to suppose,
Sad for the tree grove that's drooping,
Sad that everything comes to a close.
But when all you survey burns to cinders,
And when flakes of autumnal white soot
Drift like gossamer strands through the window,
There's no purpose in any blank looks.
A garden path leads through the fencing,
Then loses its way in the birch.
Household hubbub and laughter ring out, and
From afar their faint echoes return.
"The Wedding Party"
With accordion in tow,
Guests head across the courtyard.
To the young bride's house they go,
All prepared for jollity.
Behind the padded green-baize door
Of the landlord's entrance
Conversation is no more
From one a.m. to seven.
By daybreak all are sound asleep -
Never dare disturb them -
But some folk must take their leave,
So strike the music up again!
Once again the notes come spilling
From the merry squeeze-box,
Hands a-clapping, beads a-twinkle,
Another bout of feasting!
And again, again, again
The lilt of the chastushka
Is heard amid the reveling,
Rousing all the snoozers.
One girl dressed in lily-white
With her hips a-swinging
Like a regal peacock glides
Amid the whoops and singing.
With a flourish of her head
And a right hand flutter,
Proud as a peacock she parades,
Along the pavement strutting.
But suddenly the round-dance stamping
And the verve and racket
Die away, all gone to blazes -
Disappeared like magic.
Now the noisy yard is waking,
Sounds of business chatter
Mix in with the conversations
And the peals of laughter.
Suddenly from off the dovecots
A flock of pigeons rushes
Up into the boundless blue,
A whirl of gray-blue feathers.
As if some waking reveler
Had sent them off in chase
With good wishes to the couple:
Long life and happy days!
And life itself is but an instant,
Nothing but dissolving
Of ourselves in other folk -
A generous gift offering.
Life's just a wedding bursting in
The through the open windows,
Just a ditty, just a dream,
A flock of gray-blue pigeons….
My family all went their ways.
I let my kith and kin depart,
And now familiar solitude
Fills all of nature and my heart.
Now we're at our cabin refuge,
The woods are empty and forlorn,
As in the song, the tracks and pathways
Are choked with grass, half overgrown.
The timbers of the wall keep watch
And sadly fix us with their gaze,
We gave no pledge to fight and conquer,
So let us look death in the face.
From one to three we'll sit at table,
Then you'll embroider, I will read,
And by first light we'll scarce remember
How we kissed ourselves to sleep.
Dead leaves luxuriantly scatter,
Rustle recklessly and play,
And let the cup of bitter bygones
Brim with the anguish of today.
Delight, attraction, and devotion!
Let's melt into September's shrill!
Vanish in autumnal rustling!
Turn crazy - otherwise be still!
Like falling tree-leaves in the coppice,
Your dress is shed and cast away,
And in your silken-tasseled bathrobe
You throw yourself in my embrace.
You're my last joy before the downfall,
When living life is worse than pain,
And beauty springs from acts of daring -
And all this draws us close again…
In a land far away
And in days long ago
Over stubble and steppe
Rode a warrior bold.
From afar he espied
Through the dust of the plain
A dark forest rise up,
But he rode on a-main.
Gnawed at his heart:
"Beware of the water!
Tighten your girth!"
But no heed paid the horseman
And spurred on his mount,
And he galloped full tilt
To the wood on the mound.
With a turn at the barrow
He rode into the vale,
Crossed over the hill
And skirted the glade.
Then into a hollow
With wild animal trail,
Down a path through the wood
To a watering place,
And paying the voice
Of his instinct no heed,
He rode down the ravine
To water his steed.
* * *
Fording the stream,
The knight came to a cave
Whose entrance was lit
By a sulfurous flame,
His vision was clouded
By thick crimson smoke,
But a call of appeal
Rang out through the grove.
The knight gave a start
And spurred on his horse
And rode down the gorge
To answer that voice.
At the sight he beheld
He clenched firmly his lance:
The head and tail of a dragon
With scale-covered flanks.
The flames from its maw
Cast a glow all around,
And round a fair damsel
Its coils had been wound.
And over the shoulder
Of the hapless fair maid,
Like the thong of a whip,
The dragon's neck swayed.
By local tradition
In form of a ransom
Fair girls were delivered
To the lair of the monster.
By paying this tribute
The folk of the region,
While living in hovels,
Could purchase their freedom.
And as it tormented
Its newly won victim,
Round her arm and her throat
The snake slithered and twisted.
In prayer to the heavens
The knight raised his glance
And for the battle
Made ready his lance.
* * *
Eyelids tight closed,
Fords, rivers and streams,
Cloudy height of the heavens,
And ages and years…
The knight fell from the saddle,
Losing his helmet.
With its hooves his proud steed
Meanwhile trampled the serpent.
Then both horse and dragon
Fell dead on the sand:
The rider lay swooning,
The damsel in trance.
Bathed in blue light
Was the vault of the heaven.
Who was she? Tsar's daughter?
Or princess? Or peasant?
Oh, excess of gladness!
Her eyes brimmed and wept,
Then she collapsed
In oblivion and slept.
The knight's strength returned
And then waned once again.
His pulse from such bloodshed
Scarce beat in his veins.
But their hearts were still pounding.
Now maiden, now warrior
Strove to wake up,
Then relapsed into slumber.
Eyelids tight closed,
Fords, rivers and streams.
Cloudy height of the heavens,
And ages and years…
As promised, true to expectation,
From curtain to the sofa spanning,
The early morning sunray cast
Its penetrating slash of saffron.
Blazing ochre was outspread
Over nearby copse and homestead,
My tear-stained pillow, and the bed,
A stretch of wall beyond the bookshelf.
And I recalled the reason why
My pillowslip was lightly dampened:
I dreamed you'd come to say goodbye,
Wending your way among the woodland.
You filed in ones and twos, in streams.
Then suddenly came recollection:
This was the ancient August feast,
This was our Lord's Transfiguration.
This day a flameless radiant light
Is said to issue from Mount Tabor,
And autumn, like a portent bright,
Commands enraptured observation.
You made your way amid the sere
And starkly shimmering alder thicket,
Then through the graveyard's russet leaves,
Ablaze like glowing ginger biscuit.
Aloft, the trees' quiescent crowns
Had solemn heaven for their neighbor,
And distance echoed back the sound
Of roosters' long-drawn ululation.
And there, among the trees and graves
Stood death, to make official survey
And look into my lifeless face
And size my limbs for their interment.
Then, near at hand and heard by all,
A voice spoke, calm and reassuring -
My own prophetic voice of yore,
Intact, untainted by corruption:
"Farewell, Transfiguration's azure
And gold of Savior's Day the Second!
Let gentle female hands caress
Me as the bitter ending beckons.
"Farewell to those uncounted years.
We fain must say goodbye, o woman,
Who braved indignity's abyss!
My heart was witness to your striving.
"Farewell, o span of outstretched wing,
Free flight forever soaring onwards,
World's image manifest in speech,
And artistry, the work of wonders!"
Snow on snow the blizzard blew,
All frontiers enswirling.
A candle on the table stood -
A tallow candle burning.
Like summer midges' swarming flight,
Towards the candle chasing,
The snowflakes eddied to the light,
Converging on the casement.
And on the pane the blizzard hewed
Its arrows, darts and circles.
A candle on the table stood -
A tallow candle burning.
And shadows settled overhead
Upon the illumined ceiling,
Dim forms of crossing arms and legs,
Fate's shadows interlacing.
A pair of shoes slid to the floor
And raised a sudden clatter,
And on her gown the waxen flare
Shed tears that oozed and spattered.
And all was lost in snowy murk,
A pallid, gray-white blurring.
The candle on the table stirred -
A tallow candle burning.
A sudden draught breathed on the flame,
Seductive fires enkindling,
With arms outspread in cruciform
Like two wings of an angel.
All February the blizzard raved,
Yet ever and anon, unchanging,
Candle and table still remained -
A candle ever flaming.
From the doorway, peering in,
He failed to recognize the household.
Her sudden parting was a flight,
Everywhere - the sign of havoc.
Chaos reigned in all the rooms,
Yet through his pounding migraine
And tears, he could not quite take in
The measure of his ruin.
A rushing filled his ears since dawn.
Was he awake, or dreaming?
And why had these oceanic visions
Invaded all his thinking?
When frosted windowpanes eclipsed
The whole of God's creation,
His anguish all the more recalled
Wild waves and desolation.
That woman was so close and dear
In every trait and feature -
Just like the ocean to its shore,
Like surf drawn to the beaches.
Like reed-beds flooded by the surge
That follows on a storm,
In his soul's depth there lay submerged
Her features and her form.
In years of ordeal, times of woe,
Life's trials had no solution,
But from the seabed she was borne
On waves of rolling fortune.
Over countless obstacles,
Past half a hundred dangers,
The cresting wave bore her at last
Home to dry land, her destination.
But now, removed by higher power,
Suddenly she'd gone,
And parting would consume them, sorrow
Gnaw them to the bone.
On her forced departure, he
Looked about him, all around…
Ransacking drawers and closets, she
Had turned the household upside down.
He wandered through the house till dusk,
And packed away the scattered
Scraps of fabric, ends of cloth,
And her dressmaker's patterns.
Then pricking himself upon a pin
In her abandoned sewing,
He saw her suddenly again -
And silent tears came flowing.
When roads are covered white
And roofs weighed down with snow.
I'll find you by the doorway
As I leave for my stroll.
Alone, no hat or overshoes,
You're in your autumn coat,
And stifling excitement,
You munch some melting snow.
As trees and wooden fences
Fade into the gloom,
Alone amid the snowfall
You stand there at the turn.
From your headscarf water
Drips into your sleeves,
And in your hair a dew
Of water droplets gleams.
And illumined by the light
Of one fair lock of hair -
Your figure, face, and kerchief,
And the coat you wear.
Snow moistens your lashes,
There's anguish in your eyes,
And your whole image is
As one - all of a piece.
And with an iron chisel
Dipped in darkest stain,
Upon my heart indelibly
You're printed and engraved.
This heart preserves forever
The meekness of your traits,
So that it's no matter
The world's a cruel place.
And this entire snowy night
We thus divide and share -
To trace a line between us
Is beyond my power.
Yet who are we, whence sprung,
Since out of all these years
Just empty talk remains
When we are gone from here?
"The Star of the Nativity"
It was winter, and chill
Wind blew from the steppe,
And the infant felt cold as he lay in that den
On the slope of the hill.
And as he lay there, the child was kept warm
By the breathing of oxen,
And a haze hung over the manger,
For in that cave they kept beasts from the farm.
Shaking the bedstraw and granules of millet
From their sheepskins,
Gazed from their crag at the expanse of midnight.
Far away, beneath snow lay the burial yard,
Fields, fences, and tombstones,
Snow-drifted cart shafts,
And over the graves stood a sky full of stars.
And nearby, and unseen hitherto and more timid
Than candle-stub glow
In a night-watchman's window,
The star on the roadway to Bethlehem glinted.
It flamed like a hayrick, standing aside
From the heavens and from God,
Like a fire-raiser's flare,
A threshing-floor blaze, or a farmstead on fire.
Like an inferno of haystack or straw,
It soared up aloft and
Amid a whole cosmos
Alarmed at the sight of this new-risen star.
The aurora that glowed, overarching the orb,
Held a message: stargazers
In threesome sped forth
In response to that sign never witnessed before.
In train came their camels, loaded with gifts,
Together with donkeys
Harnessed in series,
Hooves stepping sedately, down from the hills.
And in a strange vision of time's future course
There rose up an image of things yet to come:
The thought of all ages, all dreams, and all worlds,
The future of galleries, museum collections,
Fairyland whimsies, feats of magicians,
All the world's Christmas trees, dream visions of children,
Shimmer of candlelight, chains of crepe paper,
And all the splendor of tinsel and foil…
… Yet wilder, more savage the wind from the plain…
… And all those apples, and all the gold baubles.
Part of the lake was screened by some alders,
But one of its reaches was plain to be seen
Between rookery nests set aloft in the trees.
Those guarding their flocks commanded clear outlook
As donkeys and camels skirted the water:
"Let us go with the others. Let's worship this wonder,"
Said they, drawing their fur coats about them.
The herdsmen they sweltered and trudged through the snow.
Beyond the shelter, across the bright clearing,
Glinting like mica, lay marks of bare feet.
And in the starlight sheepdogs grated and growled
At that crystalline trail with its candlelight gleam.
The frost-bound night was a fairytale picture.
And all the time from the blizzard-blown mound
Invisible strangers kept joining the crowd.
Hugging close to the shepherd and peering around,
The dogs ran, and fretted and feared some affliction.
And through that same country, along the same way,
Came angels processing and merged with the throng.
Incorporeal beings, they were seen by no eye,
But the ground showed their traces wherever they trod.
By the stone at the door of the cave they all gathered.
Dawn broke and the cedars emerged from the gloom.
"Who are you? Whence come you" Maid Mary demanded.
"We are shepherds, messengers of the Lord.
Singing praises and bringing our homage we come."
"But you are so many. Some must wait by the door."
Amid ashen darkness preceding the dawn
Shepherds and herdsmen paced up and down.
Pedestrians and riders groused at each other.
And at the trough where beasts of burden were watered
Donkeys kicked, camels bellowed and snorted.
Daylight was coming, and like flakes of cinder
Dawn swept the last stars from the heavenly vault.
From the numberless crowd just the Magi were admitted
By Maid Mary through the cleft in the rock.
In his manger of oak the Child slept, all radiant
Like a beam of moonlight glimpsed through tree hollow.
Instead of a sheepskin to warm him, the Infant
Had mere lip of donkey and nostril of oxen.
And they stood in the shadows, in the gloom of the barn,
And they whispered, scarce finding the phrases.
All at once, in the dark someone put forth an arm
And motioned the Magi aside from the manger.
One Wise Man turned round, and behold, like a guest at the gateway,
Observing the Maid was the Christmastide star.
You it was who shaped my fate,
And then came times of war and ruin.
And for many a long day
There was no word of you, no sign.
Then, after many moons, again
Your rousing voice once more has called me.
All night I read your Testament
And woke as from a swoon next morning.
And now I long to join the crowd
And morning bustle. I'm prepared
To render the entire world down,
Set all upon their knees in prayer.
Quickly down the stairs I go,
As though for the first time, hastening
Into streets all clad with snow,
To walk the frozen pavements.
People arise in light and warmth,
Drink tea and hurry to the tramway.
All the city is transformed
In minutes and in every aspect.
A blizzard in the gateways knits
Thick gusting flakes into a tissue.
Making haste, folk leave their homes
With plates of food and drink unfinished.
I feel for all of them as though
I'm in their skin and share their fortune.
Like melting snow, I also thaw
And clench my eyebrows like the morning.
With me there are no names for folk,
For stay-at-homes, and trees, and youngsters.
By each and all I'm overwhelmed -
Herein alone thus lies my conquest.
From Bethany He made his way to Jerusalem,
Weighed down by sorrow and plagued by foreboding.
Prickly brushwood and scrub stood scorched on the hill,
Over hovels nearby the smoke hung unstirred.
Hot breathed the air, the reed-beds were still,
And the Dead Sea lay calm, unruffled, inert.
His heart's bitterness vied with that of the Sea,
And He traveled with wayfaring clouds as his fellows
Along dusty roads to the inn in the city
Where His disciples had planned their assembly.
So deeply was He immersed in his pondering,
Waftings of wormwood blew from the fields.
Calm settled. He stood there alone on the scene,
The country lay flat and wrapped in oblivion.
All was confused - the heat and the wilderness,
Sunbaked lizards, and brooklets and springs.
And He saw: not far from that place grew a fig tree
That bore no fruit, only branches and leaves.
And He asked of the tree, "What good do you bring me?
What joy, when you stand there so barren and rigid?
"I hunger and thirst. But fruitless your flower!
An encounter with you is as cheerless as granite.
How offensive you are! How lacking in talent!
Remain as you are until your last hour!"
Then the doomed fig tree was racked by a shudder,
Like levin bolt striking a lightning rod,
And in the next instant was scorched to a cinder.
Had the tree's roots and its branches and leaves
Been granted just one short moment of freedom,
Perhaps nature's laws might have then intervened.
But wonders are wonders, ordained by the Lord.
And when we're perplexed, in the throes of confusion,
Then miracles happen. They strike us unwarned.
How insolent the spring's invasion,
Bursting into Moscow households!
Moths flutter from behind the closet,
Settle and crawl on summer bonnets.
Fur coats are stowed away in cases.
And in the wooden upper stories
Plant-pots stand arrayed, all fragrant
With the bloom of stocks and wallflower,
Rooms inhale the open spaces,
And attics exude dusty aromas.
The street is chatty and familiar
With the moon-eyed window pane,
And the white nights and setting sun
Are bound to meet down by the river.
In corridors one overhears
What's happening in the great out-doors,
And April's casual discussions
With dripping waters of the thaw.
For April knows a thousand histories
Of human sorrow and dejection,
And sunset cools along the fencing,
Spinning out her long-drawn discourse.
The world outside and warmth of home
Contain one blend of fire and terror.
Everywhere the air's unsettled.
And the same twig tracery of willow
And buds' white swelling is on view
At crossroads and on window ledges,
In streets, and in the studio.
So why does the fogged horizon weep?
And why the leaf-mould scent so bitter?
Am I myself not called to keep
The distances from feeling glum,
And earth beyond the city limits
From suffering when all alone?
In early spring, with this in mind,
We meet together, friends and I.
And our soirees are all partings,
Last testaments - our evening parties,
So that a secret stream of heartache
May warm the chilling cold of life.
"The Evil Days"
Not more than a week had passed
Since Jesus rode into the city,
And palm fronds were strewn in His path,
Hosannas resounded in greeting.
Yet each day brought new gloom and fresh menace.
Hearts untouched by love were unmelted,
And eyebrows were clenched in contempt,
And then came the postlude, the ending…
And the yards of the town were oppressed
By skies filled with leaden foreboding,
While Pharisees sought for their proofs
And fawned like vixen before Him.
And sinister powers of the temple
Deferred to the judgment of scoundrels,
And now He was damned with a fervor
No less than the praise that resounded.
And there, in the neighboring gateway,
A throng of spectators now crowded,
And they heaved and surged back and forth
And jostled, awaiting the outcome.
And whispers passed down the streets
And rumors invaded the precincts,
And His childhood now seemed like some dream -
All those tales of His flight into Egypt…
He remembered the grand elevation
Of the wilderness scarp and the mountain
Where He quelled the satanic temptation
And renounced earthly might and a kingdom.
And the feast at a wedding in Cana,
Where the throng was amazed by that wonder,
And the time when, in mist, as though walking
On land, He had trodden the waters.
And the hovel where paupers were gathered,
And the candle-lit stairs He descended,
When the flame in its fright was extinguished
As the dead one was now resurrected.
"The Magdalene" - I
Come night, my demon's there once more -
The ransom due for past offences.
Recollections of debauch
Return to suck my heart like leeches,
Recalling how, fool that I was,
I made my home upon the streets
And was the slave of men's caprices.
Not many minutes now remain
Before the tomb's eternal stillness.
But while these moments are elapsing,
At the nether brink, O Master,
My life before Thee I will shatter
Like a jar of alabaster.
O my Teacher and my Savior,
What would have been my destiny,
Had not eternity expected
My acquiescence every night,
With each fresh customer enticed
Into the web of my profession?
But what now is the sense of sin
And death, and hell and brimstone flame,
When in my grief's immensity
And for all the world to see,
Like a sprout into the stock,
I'm grafted on and grow with Thee?
O Jesu, when I clasp Thy feet,
Supporting them against my knees,
Maybe I'm learning to embrace
The foursquare pillar of Thy Cross,
And, senses failing, I make haste
To prepare Thy body for the grave.
"The Magdalene" - II
Far away from all the bustle,
As people clean their household for the feast,
With anointing oil in a small vessel
I rinse and wash Thy pure and sacred feet.
I fumble vainly for my sandals.
I see nothing. Teardrops blind my eyes,
And my loosened strands of hair
Dangle like a veil before my face.
Jesu, I enfold Thy feet
In my skirt hem, watering them with tears,
I wind them with my string of beads
And wrap them in the burnoose of my braids.
I foresee in finest detail,
As if time's forward progress had been stilled,
And with sibylline foreknowledge
All future happenings can be foretold.
The temple veil will soon be rent,
And we'll foregather, huddled to one side,
The earth will sway beneath our feet -
Perhaps out of compassion for my plight.
Guard formations will regroup,
Mounted patrols will saddle up and ride.
And like a giant cyclone spout
The cross will strain aloft into the sky.
And at the cross's foot I shall
Collapse, benumbed, and biting on my lips.
Too many Thou wilt seem to enfold
With arms spread to the very crossbeam tips.
For whom is so much bounty lavished?
For whom - such torment, pain, such power released?
Are there on earth so many souls
And lives? So many dwellings, groves, and streams?
But three days shall elapse - such days
That cast me in a void, lay me so low,
That during this dread intermission
Toward the Resurrection I shall strain and grow.
Impassive shimmering of distant stars
Illumined the dim turning in the road.
The highway led around the Mount of Olives,
And down below the brook of Kidron flowed.
Cut short by half, the meadowland tailed off.
And there beyond it stretched the Milky Way,
And also straining to escape aloft
Were olive bushes, silvery and gray.
Beyond the meadow lay a garden plot.
And leaving His disciples by the wall.
He said, "My soul is sorrowful unto death.
Wait ye here, and watch with me a while."
Now, without a struggle, He renounced -
Like so many borrowed things, dispensable -
Omnipotence and every work of wonder.
Now He was mortal, like the rest of us.
Night's farthest reaches appeared like a realm
Of nothingness and void, annihilation.
Banished was the universe's vastness;
Gethsemane remained the only habitation.
He gazed into the fathomless abyss -
Emptiness with neither source nor ending -
And sweating drops of blood, He prayed to the Father
That from this deathly cup He be exempted.
Then, taming His mortal agony by prayer,
He left the garden. There, among the roadside
Feather-grasses, the disciples lay,
Sprawled upon the ground and deeply drowsing.
And He aroused them saying, "The Lord ordained
That in my time you live - and yet you slumber.
For the Son of Man the hour has struck.
Into sinners' hands He must surrender."
Scarce had He spoken, suddenly appeared
A horde of slaves, a crowd of vagrants, glint
Of swords and torches, Judas at their head,
A treacherous kiss shaped ready on his lips.
Peter with his sword sought to repel them,
Smiting off one murderer's ear. "Cold steel,"
The Master said, "can never solve a dispute.
Put up thy sword. Return it to its sheath.
"Were it His will, could not the Father send
A host of winged legions to my aid?
Not a hair upon my head would suffer.
My foes would all be scattered without trace.
"But in the Book of Life a page has turned,
More sacred and more precious than all else.
That which is written must now be accomplished.
Amen. So let it therefore come to pass.
"The progress of the ages, like a parable,
In mid course may suddenly take flame,
And faced by that dread grandeur, I'm prepared
To suffer and descend into the grave.
"And from the grave on the third day I'll rise.
Then, like a fleet of barges down the stream,
The centuries will float forth from the night
And make their way before my judgment seat."
© B. Pasternak
© C. Barnes