by Alexander Pushkin, 1799-1837
This poem is dated 1828, when the poet was 28 or 29 years old, living for most of the year in St. Petersburg.
Of that year, T.J. Binyon has this to say in his 2002 biography of the poet: "Even without the failure of his marital hopes, the year had been an unhappy one."
In April of that year the Tsar had declared war on Turkey, and patriotic young noblemen like Pushkin were clamoring for commissions in the Imperial army. Pushkin's application was turned down for political reasons. (He had expressed sympathy for the Decembrist revolt of 1825, and was under surveillance by the Tsar's secret police.)
He then asked permission to spend the rest of the year in Paris; this too was thwarted by the authorities.
Those marital hopes had centered on Anna Alekseevna ("Annette") Olenina, youngest daughter of a very senior government official. Pushkin had been courting Annette since late in the previous year. He made his formal proposal in August; it was, says Binyon, "unceremoniously turned down." Pushkin had no property and only an insecure income. He was known as a gambler and a rake, and was politically suspect. This was not the model son-in-law for a highly-placed family.
Pushkin then spent September and October fighting off charges of blasphemy on account of a poem he had written and circulated in 1821: "The Gabrieliad, or the love of the archangel Gabriel for the Virgin Mary."
He consoled himself for these disappointments with reckless gambling, sinking himself ever deeper into debt. At the end of October he left St. Petersburg to stay on a friend's estate in the countryside northwest of Moscow. He flirted with his hostess' daughters, and with the young women of the neighborhood. Binyon:
None of these flirtations, however, engaged him deeply; his heart still belonged to Annette, and he had been deeply wounded by his rejection. For him autumn was always the time of year most conducive to composition; and, despite his other preoccupations, that autumn in St. Petersburg, when the weather had been appallingly bad for weeks on end, had been immensely productive …
Probably "Remembrance" is a product of that dismal autumn in that unhappy year.
In mid-December Pushkin went to Moscow, where he stayed for a month, during which time he met sixteen-year-old Natalya Nikolaevna Goncharov, who was attending her first ball, and whom Pushkin actually did marry two years later. They had four children. The eldest, Mariya, lived to see the Bolshevik Revolution, and is said to have been Tolstoy's model for Anna Karenina.
[Note added later: A friend who a native speaker of Russian kindly offered the following comments on my reading: "You did fairly well. You seemed to struggle with your щ's and ы's (which is to be expected) and your reasons for pronouncing shlezy instead of slezy and poluproznachnaya instead of poluprozrachnaya are a bit of a mystery to me, but otherwise it was a solid performance, considering you are a non-native speaker. You emphasized proper syllables in every word and your intonation and rhythm were generally on point. It was not perfect, but definitely not bad."]
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• Text of the poem
Александр Сергеевич Пушкин
Когда для смертного умолкнет шумный день
И на немые стогны града
Полупрозрачная наляжет ночи тень
И сон, дневных трудов награда,
В то время для меня влачатся в тишине
Часы томительного бденья:
В бездействии ночном живей горят во мне
Змей сердечной угрызенья;
Мечты кипят; в уме, подавленном тоской,
Теснится тяжких дум избыток;
Воспоминание безмолвно предо мной
Свой длинный развивает свиток:
И с отвращением читая жизнь мою,
Я трепещу и проклинаю,
И горько жалуюсь, и горько слëзы лью,
Но строк печальных не смываю.
Dimitri Obolensky's prose translation, from The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (1965).
When the noisy day is stilled for mortal man, and the translucent shadow of night, and sleep, the reward of the day's toil, descend upon the city's wide and silent streets, then hours of tormenting wakefulness drag on for me in silence: in the blankness of night, remorse, like a serpent's bite, burns more fiercely in my heart; fancies seethe; a throng of oppressive thoughts crowds my mind, weighed down by anguish; memory silently unfolds its long scroll before me; and, reading the chronicle of my life with loathing, I tremble and curse, and complain bitterly, and shed bitter tears, yet I do not wash away the sorrowful lines.
Babette Deutsch's verse translation, from the Modern Library's Poems, Prose, and Plays of Pushkin (1936).
When noisy day no more assails the ears of men,
And on the silent city slowly
Night's pallid shadow falls, while after toil again
The wage of sleep repays them wholly —
Then in the hush my hours drag out their dismal course,
No peace my weary vigils bring me:
But through the listless night the serpents of remorse
With piercing fangs more shrewdly sting me;
Obsessed by seething dreams, the over-burdened soul
Can neither bear its pain, nor cure it;
In silence Memory unwinds her lengthy scroll
Before me, and I must endure it.
And loathing it, I read the record of the years,
I curse and tremble like one baited;
For all my bitter groans, for all my bitter tears,
The lines are not obliterated.