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Sprig of Palestine

I was driving down Sunset Boulevard in Beverly Hills and happened to look up to see a very tall palm tree. For some reason, just at that moment, I was reminded of Lermontov’s 1837 poem “Sprig of Palestine” (R Ветка Палестины), which I had once memorized but now only remembered fragments of. This triggered the memory of why my family had chosen Los Angeles to move to from Japan when we immigrated in 1952. My father had seen a photo of a palm tree on a postcard from L. A. and decided while we were still living in Tokyo that our new home in America would be the City of the Angels.

Here is Lermontov’s poem:

Скажи мне, ветка Палестины:
Где ты росла, где ты цвела,
Каких холмов, какой долины
Ты украшением была?

У вод ли чистых Иордана
Востока луч тебя ласкал,
Ночной ли ветр в горах Ливана
Тебя сердито колыхал?

Молитву ль тихую читали,
Иль пели песни старины,
Когда листы твои сплетали
Солима бедные сыны?

И пальма та жива ль поныне?
Все так же ль манит в летний зной
Она прохожего в пустыне
Широколиственной главой?

Или в разлуке безотрадной
Она увяла, как и ты,
И дольний прах ложится жадно
На пожелтевшие листы?..

Поведай: набожной рукою
Кто в этот край тебя занес?
Грустил он часто над тобою?
Хранишь ты след горючих слез?

Иль, божьей рати лучший воин,
Он был с безоблачным челом,
Как ты, всегда небес достоин
Перед людьми и божеством?..

Заботой тайною хранима
Перед иконой золотой,
Стоишь ты, ветвь Ерусалима,
Святыни верный часовой!

Прозрачный сумрак, луч лампады,
Кивот и крест, символ святой…
Все полно мира и отрады
Вокруг тебя и над тобой.

Those who have no Russian will, unfortunately, not be able to appreciate the beauty and consummate skill of this poem. (Alas, there exists no decent translation into English.) Suffice it to say that this chef d’oevre was composed at one sitting on 20 February 1837 (O. S.) when Lermontov came to visit his friend the writer A. N. Murav’ev at the latter’s apartment but found him absent. Murav’ev (to whom the poem is dedicated in the original manuscript copy) relates in his memoirs that Lermontov had “long been waiting for my return and wrote his wonderful verses, which at a sudden inspiration burst out of him (R у него исторглись) in my icon room (R в моей образной) at the sight of the Palestinian palms which I had brought from the East” (A. N. Murav’ev, Znakomstvo s russkimi poètami [Kiev, 1871], p. 24).

I remembered the last stanza in particular, with its archaic stress on the word for symbol in the second line (R симвóл святой ‘sacred symbol’). The linguist and poetic analyst will immediately understand when I say that it is precisely this archaic stress (where modern Russian has initial stress) which gives the entire poem a special flavor by punctuating its religiosity.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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