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The Genius of the Mot Juste

While the first two members of the holy trinity of post-classical Western  literature, Shakespeare and Dante, either need no translation or are well-served by several, its third member, Pushkin, alas, can only be honored in the breach by those who have no Russian.

One does not have to be Nabokov to discountenance all attempts to translate into English the most famous love poem in the Russian language, Pushkin’s “Ia pomniu chudnoe mgnoven’e” (“I remember the miraculous moment”), published in 1827 and learned by heart––to this day!––by every Russian schoolchild. Here it is untranslated (the truncated title, with asterisks standing for the remainder of her surname, hides its dedicatee, Pushkin’s “whore of Babylon,” Anna Kern):

K***
Я помню чудное мгновенье:
Передо мной явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

В томленьях грусти безмятежной,
В тревогах шумной суеты,
Звучал мне долго голос нежный,
И снились милые черты.

Шли годы. Бурь порыв мятежный
Рассеял прежние мечты,
И я забыл твой голос нежный,
Твои небесные черты.

В глуши, во мраке заточенья
Тянулись тихо дни мои
Без божества, без вдохновенья,
Без слез, без жизни, без любви.

Душе настало пробужденье:
И вот опять явилась ты,
Как мимолетное виденье,
Как гений чистой красоты.

И сердце бьется в упоенье,
И для него воскресли вновь
И божество, и вдохновенье,
И жизнь, и слезы, и любовь.

What is never mentioned in any of the learned commentaries on this poem is the marked status of the word гений (genij ‘genius’), which occurs in the last line of the opening stanza and recurs in the last line of the penultimate. This word, in every European language, has as one of its sub-meanings the definition found in Webster’s Third, viz. “a personification or embodiment esp. of a quality or condition: INCARNATION.” As a borrowing into Russian from Latin via French, the lexeme by the first quarter of the nineteenth century has admittedly achieved the status of a cliché of the diction of romantic poetry. Nonetheless, to a twenty-first century reader this word––in the context of Pushkin’s love lyric––has a special resonance undiminished by its other senses. This is indirectly substantiated by the citation, as the sole example under the fourth and final meaning of the word in the authoritative four-volume Academy dictionary (Словарь русского языка в четырех томах [Moscow, 1981], I: 305: “олицетворение, высшее проявление чего-л.” ‘personification, highest manifestation of something’), of Pushkin’s line from the opening stanza.

Any lover of Russian poetry who does not savor this word in Pushkin’s poem at its first occurrence will automatically run the risk of succumbing to the vulgar judgment that routinely consigns the familiar to the dust bin of the banal. To be convinced of this one need only listen to the music of the verse as SPOKEN––not as sung in the many romansy ‘art songs’ composed to the poem’s words (from Glinka on). Perhaps this is too much to ask of us moderns, saturated as we are by the beat of the humdrum. As Pushkin has Mozart say to Salieri in his nonpareil masterpiece, the closet drama Mozart and Salieri:

Когда бы все так чувствовали силу
Гармонии! Но нет: тогда б не мог
И мир существовать; никто б не стал
Заботиться о нуждах низкой жизни;
Все предались бы вольному исскуству.
Нас мало избранных, счастливцев праздных,
Пренебрегающих презренной пользой,
Единого прекрасного жрецов.
Не правда ль?

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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