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Rescued from Banality: The Miraculous Word

Poems written many years or centuries ago routinely reflect the diction and the rhetorical values of their own time, no matter how up-to-date the language may sound. (Russian is much more conservative in this respect than is English.) Occasionally, what was a poetic cliché at the time of writing can be refurbished in a contemporary reading simply because its banality has faded in the interim. This is the case with one word in particular––viz. the second word, гений ‘genius’, in the last line of the opening stanza––in what is undoubtedly Pushkin’s most famous lyric poem (the full phrase is гений чистой красоты ‘genius of pure beauty’):

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

В томленьях грусти безнадежной
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.
1825

(NB: all English translations typically change or omit ‘genius’, by which they unwittingly destroy the meaning not only of the line but of the whole poem.)

The use of the word genius by Pushkin in the meaning (as given in the Oxford English Dictionary Online) of “the quasi-mythologic personification of something immaterial (e.g. of a virtue, a custom, an institution), esp. as portrayed in painting or sculpture. Hence transf. a person or thing fit to be taken as an embodied type of (some abstract idea)” was taken over from French génie into the quotidian poetic vocabulary of Russian in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the nomenclature of Russian Romanticism, this word lost its freshness through repeated use but is here rescued from banality, recovering a semantic miraculousness via its very obsolescence.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

[Author’s note: After writing this post I discovered that I had duplicated an earlier one, but so what? Pushkin’s verse is never far from my consciousness. Some readers of this blog have occasionally asked me how I get my ideas for posts, and in this case I am especially happy to oblige. As I was walking up Broadway on Manhattan’s Upper West Side after exiting a restaurant where I normally have pancakes early Sunday morning, for some reason I started declaiming this poem out loud, there being no one else in my vicinity. As I reached the word and the phrase in question, I once again realized their special poetic value and thought immediately of my late wife, Marianne, whom they invariably resurrect, and of whom I think every day of my life. MS]

 

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