Two Russian poems on old age translated by Robert Chandler

01 February, 2015

ABOUT THE POEM Some kinds of art, such as painting, are experienced all at once. Verbal art forms such as lyric poetry, by contrast, progress in a linear way, and we experience them in time. So time’s turning is built into the very form of the lyric poem, which often then also takes the passing of time—this time, Time with a capital “T”—as its subject.

In these renderings from Russian by the acclaimed translator Robert Chandler, two poets from different centuries—Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky, who lived from 1792 to 1878, and Maria Petrovykh, who lived from 1908 to1979—take stock of life in old age. They look back ruefully at “youthful mysteries and thoughts” and mourn “the fire of the heart fading away.” Yet old age has many consolations too: experience and wisdom bring new rewards, and memory seems to have a brighter glow. And now that age has blurred, in Maria Petrovykh’s unforgettable phrase, “the clear divide between life and death,” the aged soul looks again to the future, just as it did in youth. The close of her poem, somehow both elegiac and nonchalant, sounds the many notes of life’s final rite of passage.

These poems are taken from The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski, and published this month.

Life in Old Age is Like a Worn-out Gown

Prince Pyotr Vyazemsky

Life in old age is like a worn-out gown.

I feel ashamed to wear it, loath to leave it.

We are old brothers, used to one another—

no skilful darns can make us slick and sleek.

As I have aged, just so my gown has aged.

My life’s in tatters; so my gown’s in tatters,

spattered with ink—and yet these inky stains

say more to me than any fine-spun patterns.

They are the offspring of my pen, to which

in days of brilliant joy or clouded sorrow

I trusted youthful mysteries and thoughts,

passed on my fantasies, confessed my story.

My life is scored and wrinkled too; complaints,

laments—all can be read in its bleak scars.

Traces of pain and sorrow can be seen there—

but these dark shadows have their rueful charms.

Shadows bear tales and memories. Our heart’s

response to love still lives in death and loss.

The morning’s freshness and the heat of noon

still live within our mind as darkness falls.

There still are moments when I love my life

with all its pains, its melancholy outcome.

Old veteran with a bullet-ridden cloak,

I treasure and respect my worn-out gown.

The Line of the Horizon

Maria Sergeyevna Petrovykh

It’s just how it is, it’s the way of the ages;

years pass away, and friends pass away

and you suddenly realise the world is changing

and the fire of your heart is fading away.

Once the horizon was sharp as a knife,

a clear frontier between different states,

but now low mist hangs over the earth

—and this gentle cloud is the mercy of fate.

Age, I suppose, with its losses and fears,

age that silently saps our strength,

has blurred with the mist of unspilt tears

that clear divide between life and death.

So many you loved are no longer with you,

yet you chat to them as you always did.

You forget they’re no longer among the living;

that clear frontier is now shrouded in mist.

The same sort of woodland, same sort of field—

You probably won’t even notice the day

you chance to wander across the border,

chatting to someone long passed away.