February 15, 2006 by AK
Fyodor Tyutchev is customarily ranked half a notch below Pushkin and Lermontov in the Russian literary tradition — along with Afanasy Fet (Foeth), the last of the Golden Age of Russian poetry. Ask the wise, and you may hear that Tyutchev was a great mind taking the line from Pascal, which I do not doubt. I have tried to come up with a somewhat rhythmicized translation of a Tyutchev poem that shocked me when I heard it (never having paid attention to its printed text) and continues to be one of the most piercing among the Russian poems I am familiar with.
The clock’s inexorable strokes,
Night’s wearisome narration!
A language strange alike to all
And clear to everyone like conscience.
Has any of us listened without grief
‘Mid universal silence
To the muffled plaints of time,
The oracular, the parting voice?
So we imagine: the orphaned world
Has fallen to unswerving doom,
And we, in strife, by all of nature
Have been abandoned to ourselves:
And our life is standing there before us,
Ghost-like, upon the edge of the Earth,
And paling into gloomy distance
With our companions and our age,
And a new and youthful breed
Has risen beneath the sun,
And we, friends, and our times, have been
Long covered with oblivion.
It is but seldom, in a mournful rite
Performed at midnight’s hour,
The funerary voice of iron
Sometimes weeps for us.
It might be a better idea to link the original “voice of metal” to “the iron tongue of midnight” to parallel the link to Derzhavin’s On the Death of Prince Meschersky, which begins with “Speech of time! Ring of metal!” referring to time as measured by the striking clock.