Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy 79 Poems by Alexander Pushkin

The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy

79 Poems by Alexander Pushkin

Translated by Philip Nikolayev

Tiptop Street (NYC) and a&b publishers (Moscow)

New York

ISBN: 979-8-9851762-0-9

213 Pages


Review by Dennis Daly


Most English translations of Alexander Pushkin convey facets of the poet’s singular, Russian genius, but never give the full sense of it. Even Vladimir Nabokov’s attempted literal translation of Eugene Onegin seems to fall flat. One exception to this is Charles Johnson’s impressively formalist translation of Eugene Onegin and other longish Pushkin poems. Now we have another exception, and an extraordinary one at that, Philip Nikolayev’s new bilingual book of selected Pushkin poems, entitled The Star of Dazzling Ecstasy.


Nikolayev’s translations mimic the Russian originals, using English rhyme and meter, to create accurate versions of Pushkin’s pieces. This translator-poet sets up 79 of Pushkin’s lyrical poems in chronological order, brilliantly exhibiting both range and elegance.


Pushkin, largely considered the greatest of all Russian poets, lived a short but eventful life (June 6, 1799 to February 10, 1837). Born into nobility, he pioneered using colloquial speech, rather than the traditional elevated language of Russia’s literary past. From the beginning Pushkin was controversial. He espoused liberal ideals that evolved into revolutionary beliefs. Joining a secret society and publicly reading poems of liberation got Pushkin exiled by Tsar Alexander I.  Later, his poetry and plays would give voice to the budding Decembrist movement that would, in 1825, explode into violent revolt.  Pushkin’s style drew from the romanticism and realism of his era. He died from a bullet to the stomach received during a pistol duel with Georges d’Anthes, a French attaché to the tsarist court and rumored lover of Natalia Goncharova, Pushkin’s wife. The rules of the duel separated the two antagonists by only ten paces. Not surprisingly, the first shot, fired by d’Anthes, hit its mark and mortally wounded Pushkin.


A young Pushkin stakes out his philosophical territory in the collection’s title poem To Chaadaev. Luminous to a fault, Nikolayev charts his way through the piece with simplicity and internal logic. His perfect rhymes drive the passion without intruding on the movement or sense. The poem concludes with an avowal of patriotism and an efficacious last line brandishing a future, eye-opening truth,


We still await in anguished languor

Our festival of sacred freedom

Much in the way that a young lover

Awaits a tryst that’s been agreed on.

While, thus ablaze with liberty,

Our hearts remain alive to honor,

Let’s to our mother-country offer

Our spirit’s full nobility!

Comrade, believe: it will emerge—

The star of dazzling ecstasy;

Russia will wake from her mirage;

On ruins of autocracy

We yet shall see our names writ large.


Mining a story from Herodotus, the 5th century B.C. Greek historian, Pushkin versifies a tale of the poet Arion, a native of Lesbos, the inventor of the dithyramb, and the greatest of all lyre players. The plot of the piece has Arion returning to his home in Corinth by way of ship. On board he is robbed by the crew and given the choice of hurling himself into the sea or being slaughtered once they reach land. Arion decides to leap into the sea, but only after he sings to the crew. All goes as planned and Arion dutifully jumps overboard. Here the story turns fanciful. Arion is rescued by a dolphin and survives. The crew drowns in a storm or (in another variant) faces justice in Corinth. Pushkin decided on a more realistic ending. He kills off the crew in the storm and Arion is washed to shore.


Nikolayev’s translation of Pushkin’s poem Arion moves fast. His use of slant rhyme and off rhyme lowers the tone to near prosaic. His word choices add layers of meaning. For instance, he uses the term, “mystic bard.”  Compare this with an equally formal, but slightly more internalized version by Seamus Heaney (“A mystery to my poet self”). I like both. Here is that section of Arion by Nikolayev in full,


Our helmsman leaned upon the wheel,

Steering us steady on the waves,

And I—filled with a carefree faith—

Sang to the crew… When suddenly

A whirlwind rent the gentle sea…

They perished all, except for me:

The mystic bard was washed ashore


Perhaps my favorite poem in Nikolayev’s collection Pushkin entitles To the Poet, A Sonnet. It’s a wonderfully constructed poem. Nothing fancy, but truth-telling. The didactic wordage carries the reader along with firmness and insistency. Pushkin’s persona shines through with earned authority, directing his words to a legitimate poet (Or, if not, God help him or her.). The poem opens this way,


Poet! Set not too much store by the people’s love.

The noise of accolades will not for long be heard,

You’ll face the idiot’s court, you’ll hear the cold crowd laugh,

Yet you must remain firm, sullen, and unperturbed.


You’re a king: live alone. Follow freely the roads

Along which your free mind impels your seeking feet,

Perfect the precious fruits of your beloved thoughts,

Demanding no rewards for that most noble feat.


In his poem, Verses Composed on a Night of Insomnia, Pushkin delves into the netherworld of sleeplessness. This short poem delivers its message effectively with an apparent effortlessness, much as free verse would. But it also imbues the poetry with an internal elegance, which adds to the mystery and the mayhap. Here is the heart of the poem,


The old Fates’ matronly murmurs

And the heart’s nocturnal tremors,

Life’s like scurrying of mice…

Why must you torment me thus?

What’s your message, tedious mumble?


Nikolayev’s virtuosity not only does justice to Pushkin’s lyrical poems, but he remakes them into intrinsic English poems and masterpieces of translation. Bravo Alexander Pushkin. Bravo Philip Nikolayev.

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