The Sail


One white and lonely sail out there,
amidst fog and the ocean’s blue.
What does it seek in distant lands?
What’s amiss in the land it knew?

Waves leap up into whistling wind;
the tall mast bends; the rigging creaks.
This isn’t a flight from trouble—
contentment is not what he seeks.

Splashing spray is brighter than sky,
when sunshine pours from above.
But he, rebellious, seeks the storm,
as if in the storm there were love.

Mikhail Lermontov
Translated by Frank Beck

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) made his name at the age of 23 with a poem about the tragic death of Pushkin in a duel. Lermontov was part Russian and part Scot, the descendant of George Learmont, a Scottish officer who joined the Russian army in the 1600s.

Lermontov's poem was an outraged cry against the code of conduct that had led to Pushkin's death, yet Lermontov himself died the same way, challenged by a friend he had offended with his cutting remarks. The early deaths of these two poets made them legendary figures--much like Shelley and Keats in the English tradition.

Russian speakers read Lermontov's prose--in particular A Hero of Our Time--as well as his poetry. Like much Russian verse, the poetry is difficult to translate, because its meaning is conveyed largely through the use of rhyme. English has far fewer rhyming possibilities than Russian does, so whether Russian rhymes can be reproduced in English is largely a matter of luck.

Lermontov in 1837


















Boris Pasternak's "My Sister Life," written during Russia's 
tumultuous year of 1917, is dedicated to Lermontov. "What was he to me, in the summer of 1917?" Paternak later wrote. "The personification of creative adventure and discovery--the principle of everyday, free, poetical statement."

That dedication forms a link between Russian Romanticism and Russian Modernism, as if "The Wasteland" has somehow been dedicated to Shelley or Keats. (The image at the top is a detail from "Seascape," a 1910 painting by Nikolai Dubovskoy.)


"Tiflis" (Tblisi), painted by Lermontov at the age of 23 in 1837

Rilke's ode to autumn


Lord, it is time. The summer was so great.
Now lay your shadow across the sundials,
And let the winds of the field run free.

Tell the last of the grapes to ripen:
give them two more days of southern warmth,
urge them to completion, and then chase
one final sweetness into the heavy vines.

He who has no home now will never have one.
He who is alone will be that way a long time.
He’ll lie awake and read and write long letters,
and, up and down along the avenues,
will wander anxiously, when brown leaves scatter.

Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by Frank Beck

At the end of August 1902, Rilke left his wife Clara Westhoff and their infant daughter Ruth in Munich and went to Paris to work on a monograph about Rodin. He found a room in a small hotel in the rue Toullier, near the Sorbonne, which seemed to promise "thinking, rest, solitude, everything I longed for."

Rilke spent his days wondering through Rodin's studio, taking notes and talking with the artist. At 27, Rilke had doubts about his writing, and it thrilled him to see the 62-year-old sculptor so confidently and diligently at work. The nights, however, were lonely (Clara didn't join her husband until early October), and out of that loneliness, on September 21, he wrote "Herbsttag" ("Autumn Day").

I've tried to reproduce Rilke's economical German, which contains few adjectives, uses only one metaphor ("chase/the one final sweetness") and moves briskly, presenting four separate scenes in just 12 lines. It has deservedly become one of Rilke's most widely anthologized and translated poems.

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr groß.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren laß die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,
dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Süße in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben
und wird in den Alleen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.


Rue Toullier in the 5th arrondisement is a more prosperous street today

The first song history gives us



While you live, be joyful;
grief must know its measure.
The span of life is brief;
time will claim its treasure.

Listen to the only song to come down to us from Ancient Greece, and consider its message. Known as the Seikilos Epitaph, its words and accompanying musical notation were inscribed on a tombstone discovered in 1883 near Aiden, in what is now Turkey.

The song was written by someone known to us only as Seikilos and dedicated to Euterpe, thought to be his wife. Archeologists believe that the tombstone was made about the time of Jesus.


Generally, I believe that songs and poems should preserve the meter of the original, if possible. Here, however, I've been loyal to our tradition of rhyming epitaphs. 
This song about the transience of life is the only musical composition from that era to survive. Does Fate have the heart of a poet?


Here is the original poem, in Classical Greek:

Ὅσον ζῇς φαίνου
μηδὲν ὅλως σὺ λυποῦ
πρὸς ὀλίγον ἐστὶ τὸ ζῆν
τὸ τέλος ὁ χρόνος  παιτεῖ

transliterated in the Roman alphabet:

Hoson zēis phainou
mēden holōs sy lypou
pros oligon esti to zēn
to telos ho chronos apaitei

and in a literal translation from the Greek:

While you live, dance and sing;
grieve not and be joyful.
For a lifetime is too short,
and time bears death's prize away.

Translation by Frank Beck, 2015
(Fresco from the Tomb of the Leopards, Tarquinia, Italy)