Pushkin and Песни западных славян (Songs of the Western Slavs)

2023-02-08 @Literature

Let’s address Pushkin’s Песни западных славян (1833-5), the sixteen short-poem cycle paying tribute to the Balkan folklore that so moved me as of late. Speaking of the title, I haven’t seen mention of any English translation, and rather than the word for word, how about this majestic flair: The vision of Thomas II and other poems.

Though the notion of translating this work … inspires even further gripe to what I normally bear.

For Pushkin already translates (better keep to adapts) eleven of the sixteen poems from Prosper Mérimée’s La Guzla, ou Choix de poesies illyriques, recueillies dans la Dalmatie, la Bosnie, La Croatie et the'Herzegowine (The Guzla, or a Selection of Illyric Poems Collected in Dalmatia, Bosnia, Croatia and Herzegovina), 1827. Mérimée, in turn, translates/adapts the pseudonymous (and invented) bard Hyacinthe Maglanovic.

Another five songs (poems, ballads, what you will) Pushkin adapts more directly from Vuk Karadziž’s (1787-1864) Serbian Folk Songs, whose effort Mérimée also leveraged.

(Ancient Illyria coincides with the modern Croatia, for the record: also the setting of Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night.)

All considered, I was mighty taken by the poem cycle, however much Pushkin sacrifices his usual lyricism for the exactness of the original: the irony notwithstanding. Much of it owes less to the poetry and more to the subject matter.

Within a fairly compact framework, I was unaccustomed to find the mixture of history, barbarism, battle proceedings, treachery, the macabre, the occult and the exotic, and in such potent concentration.

Pushkin specializes in the antique and the exotic. And though encountered in the longer poems, the fairy tales in verse and some of the shorter lyric (ie Черная Шаль, Делибаш), the Western Slavs packs tremendous dosage.

The spirit of it I can only juxtapose next to some medieval battle poems, or the older west-saxon Brunanburg or Maldon, or the sensational Beowulf (though of epic scope). Or perhaps the Yonger Edda Scandinavian poem cycle and the source for much Norse mythology.

Anyway, I was mighty impressed by the evocative panorama.

For the curious, I give a brief rundown, sparing the narrative:

  1. Видение короля (Mérimée, La Vision de Thomas II) - a harrowing ‘vision’ poem (common throughout the medieval tradition) for the impressionable mind. Note: Бусурмяне ~ gentiles/disbelievers.

  2. Янко Марнавич (Mérimée, La Flamme de Perrussich) - a symbolic poem of lamentation and regret.

  3. Битва у Зеницы-Великой (Mérimée, Le combat de Zenitza-Velika) - a battle poem in the likes of the old anglo-saxon.

  4. Феодор и Елена (Mérimée, La belle Hélène) - mini-tragedy and a dark fairy tale. Elements of Jewish occultism and witchcraft.

  5. Влах в Венеции (Mérimée, Le Morlaque à Venice) - lamentation/wailing poem rich in metaphors.

  6. Гайдук Хризич (Mérimée, Les braves Heiduques) - a brooding account of sacrifice. Somewhat in character of the Ugolino story.

  7. Похоронная песня Иакинфа Маглановича (Mérimée, Chant de Mort) - a rhymed burial song/chant, a tribute to Hyacinthe Maglanovic.

  8. Марко Якубович (Mérimée, Constantin Yacoubovich) - a vampire tale and one of my favourites of the lot. Malory-esque dryness. Hilarious language and metaphors. Note: вампир ~ вурдалак ~ упырь.

  9. Бонапарт и черногорцы (Mérimée, Les Monténégrins) - a light ballad and short battle sketch.

  10. Соловей (Karadziž, Mérimée) - a reworking of the Serbian song.

  11. Песня о Георгии Чёрном - A brutal balin/bard tale and a tragedy.

  12. Воевода Милош (Karadziž) - a fragmentary tale, or better yet, a snapshot from Вука Караджичa Жизнь и подвиги князя Милоша Обреновича (1825) и устные рассказы.

  13. Вурдалак (Mérimée, Jeannot) - rhymed lyric, more vampirism, one of the more strictly charming of the lot.

  14. Сестра и братья (Karadziž) - a very dark fairy tale of treachery, disbelief, cruelty, sacrifice. Something that even holds ground with Ovid.

  15. Яныш Королевич (?) - a mystification, an unfinished translation of but the first part of a fairy tale which Pushkin later adapts into the (still) unfinished drama Русалка (Russalka).

  16. Конь (Mérimée, Le Cheval de Thomas II) - rhymed lyric, antique register, deceptively dark, what you would consider a ‘beast tale’ per the medieval tradition.

There you have it. Phenomenal.

Questions, comments? Connect.