I was writing a different post, but yesterday someone broke into our house and stole assorted things, including my laptop. Farewell, my Sony Vaio, we had some good times. After adversity, one seeks distraction. I went straight to one of the most beautiful poems in the Russian language, Afanasii Fet's "Shëpot, robkoe dykhanie" (1850).
Fet (1820-1892) is known for writing delicate, indirect, suggestive verse. For much of his career, he was a target of satire and invective because his writing typically avoided overtly political subject matter. Theodor Adorno, however, once pointed out that a reader can measure a poem's success by the thoroughness with which it negates the horrible, messy, ugly world in which we live. And I'm pretty much in need of some negating at the moment. Here's the poem:
Шепот, робкое дыханье.
Серебро и колыханье
Свет ночной, ночные тени,
Тени без конца,
Ряд волшебных изменений
В дымных тучках пурпур розы,
И лобзания, и слезы,
И заря, заря!..
* * * * * * *
Shëpot, robkoe dykhanie.
Serebro i kolkhanie
Svet nochnoi, nochnye teni,
Teni bez kontsa,
Riad volshebnykh izmenenii
V dymnykh tuchkakh purpur rozy,
I lobzaniia, i slëzy,
I zaria, zaria! . .
* * * * * * *
A whisper, timid breathing.
A nightingale's trill,
The silver and the rocking
Of a drowsy rill.
Night's light, night's shades,
Shades without cease,
A series of magic changes
In a dear face,
In smoky clouds a rose's purple,
An amber's sheen,
And kissing, and tears,
And dawn, dawn . . !
My translation gives a sense of the original's rhythm and rhymes, but I haven't tried to reproduce them exactly. I've read too much Anglo-American modernist verse, I'm afraid. Concision, precision, and short heavily stressed lines: I've fed Fet through a Poundian mangle.
Still, even if just by looking at the transliteration, you can gain a sense of the sound patterns. There's abundant alliteration (solov'ia, serebro, sonnogo, svet); assonance (svet, volshebnykh, teni, izemenenii); and consonance (rozy, lobzaniia, slëzy, zaria). The overall effect is a bit incantatory, as words either repeat exactly ("teni / Teni," "zaria, zaria") or seem to morph into one another (treli > teni > izmenenii).
The poem also lacks verbs. True, Russian generally omits forms of the verb "to be" in the present tense, so one could imagine sticking "there is" and "are" various places in the translation to make it grammatically correct English, but Fet's occasional verb-free poems are deliberate exercises in pushing syntax to the breaking point. This lyric is an impressionistic catalog of observations. Commas and periods and the word and behave less like logical and grammatical organizers of thoughts than signposts that guide the course and pace of the speaker's observations.
The poem's genre, of course, is the aubade, a song that ambivalently greets the dawn. We view the mandatory happy-sad lovers who have passed an intimate evening ("whisper, timid breathing") discovering the delights of each other's bodies ("magic changes / In a dear face"). Now, though, daybreak approaches and the outside world impinges on their senses, via sound ("a drowsy rill") and sight (the "purple" and "amber" colors that tinge the clouds, heralding sunrise). They kiss and cry both, since their time together must now come to an end.
Fet does not describe the lovers. We are given no clue about their appearance, their past, or their future. They could be Romeo and Juliet. One could be a soldier about to go to war, or a criminal facing the gallows. The author doesn't care. He is truly a lyric not a narrative poet. He seeks to evoke the moment itself, the threshold instant when night becomes day and a couple must separate. He wants to convey the magic and the melancholy of bliss attained--on the cusp of being lost. As Wallace Stevens suggests in "Idea of Order at Key West," a thing becomes "acutest at its vanishing."
"Shëpot, robkoe dykhanie" belongs to a hoary variety of verse that dates back to medieval Provence. Twelfth-century troubadors would have no trouble understanding it. Other than the language itself, the only particularizing touch might be the mention of "otblesk iantar'ia," "amber's sheen." The Baltic Sea area has been known as a source of jewelry-grade amber since Antiquity. And Saint Petersburg, the Russian imperial capital, is located on an arm of the Baltic. But such associations are peripheral to the poem's effect. They serve primarily as a trace of the geographical and historical specifics that Fet has otherwise rigorously excluded from his composition.
Is the poem apolitical? It depends on what you mean by politics. One could say that the poem models for us a variety of loss that has been purified from acquisitiveness. The unnamed impersonal lovers learn the value of togetherness once it is framed by, hemmed in by, the reality of an impending separation (and by extension, death). The lovers' bodies are not objectified, made subject to a voracious gaze. The speaker directs our attention to the changes in a "dear" person's facial expressions. Egocentric pleasure is muted in favor of taking pleasure in giving another pleasure. These lovers do not fear the loss of an object, a bright-and-shiny commodity. Their tears are shed over the severing of a human tie.
One could continue in this vein. Talk about the poem itself as a kind of liminal intermediate space that gives pleasure to author and reader. Its sensuous delights are heightened by the brevity of the lyric. Desire freed from the mechanisms of the market. Etc.
I am uncomforably aware that such a line of interpretation would be legible as a self-directed homily. Care not for thy laptop and thy irrecoverable files, but live like the flowers of the field and rejoice in being-with-others until the scythe comes for thee.
But still. I feel sick to the stomach and keep discovering new ways that the burglars violated our privacy and abused our property. Fet's poem gives me something to think about, something to recite, that doesn't involve the Police Incident Report.
My undergraduate mentor, Helen Vendler, once said that the purpose of poetry is to console us when we suffer and when we face the reality of death. How does it do so? Because it reminds us that beauty still exists? That others, too, are in pain? Is consolation a good thing anyway? It sounds depressingly akin to the closure that the news media seek to impose on any tale of tragedy. Closure is narrative, and it is a lie. Suffering is lyrical, and it occurs dawn after dawn, i zaria, zaria.