The gifts of liberty?

Alexander Pushkin wrote this poem in November 1823, shortly after news of Rafael del Riego’s execution reached Odessa. It was first published in Russia in 1866, almost 30 years after Puskin’s death. The translation below is by Nabokov: I copied it from his notes on Eugene Onegin.

Of freedom solitary sower,
early I went, before the star.
With a hand pure and guiltless
into the enslaved furrows
I cast the vivifying seed;
but all I did was lose my time,
well-meaning thoughts and labors.

Graze, placid peoples!
What are to herds the gifts of liberty?
They have to be slaughtered or shorn.
Their heirdom is from race to race
a yoke with jinglers and the whip.

As usual with Pushkin, the poem is more complex than in seems at first glance or in translation. It has an epigraph from the parable of the sower in the Gospels. It is not a straight quotation from the Old Church Slavonic (OCS) text of any of the three Synoptic Gospels but a synthetic OCS sentence with a similar meaning. In plain English, it would be almost identical to Luke 8:5 in the King James version: “A sower went out to sow his seeds.”

The first line ends with the adjective пустынный, which Nabokov translates as “solitary” in my edition and as “eremitic” in another. It is related to the noun пустыня, meaning “desert” but also “wilderness.” Their common root, пуст-, suggests emptiness or void. Wilderness, empty of human habitation, has been the destination of eremitic monks since the third century A. D. Deserts, caves, mountains. In the north and northeast of old Russia, woods.

Vasmer draws a parallel between the Slavonic precursor of пустыня and ἐρημία. However, пустынный is more commonly used to describe natural scenery than humans: it appears again in the first line of The Bronze Horseman (1833) as a modifier to “waves” and is commonly translated as “desolate.”

I’m not sure why Nabokov put “went” for вышел since “went out” or “went forth” would be more in line with the Russian verb, the KJV texts of Luke, Mark and Matthew, and the OCS изыде in the epigraph. The Russian term свобода gets rendered as “freedom” first and “liberty” second – I can try and guess why but can never be certain. I would also use the somewhat old-fashioned “ought to” instead of “have to” and avoided the awkward “their heirdom” by substituting “inheritance.”

T. J. Binyon finds, in his biography of Pushkin, that the poem expresses a newfound cynicism. I only see disillusionment and bitterness. The young Pushkin had a reputation as the author of dangerously Voltairean poems. His readers, mostly land- and serf-owning gentlemen, were still hoping for a transformation of Russia’s autarchy into constitutional monarchy. However, during the early 1820s, Alexander I evolved from the enlightened (potential) reformer of the 1810s into something entirely different, a kind of Metternich on the Neva. Pushkin was exiled to Kishinev, then to Odessa and finally confined to his ancestral manor in the Pskov governorate.

Obviously, it’s a very superficial account: Pushkin’s disappointment cannot be described in terms of mere politics or sociology.

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