Winter Night

Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak in 1958

It snowed and snowed throughout the land,
A ceaseless snowing.
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Like a swarm of gnats in summer

That flock to a light,
Snowflakes flew to the windowpane,
Afloat in the night.

The storm drew arrows on the glass
And circles, growing.
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Up on the ceiling, shadows stirred,

Vivid and fleeting,
But, where hands met and then legs met,
Two fates were meeting.

And, knocked to the floor with a thud,

Two shoes came to rest;
And wax fell as lightly as tears
On folds of a dress.

All disappeared in snowy haze,

Blinding and blowing;
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

The candle shook in a draft, caught

In the chill one brings;
Temptation's heat, like an angel,
Raised its cross-shaped wings.

All February long it snowed,

And time and again
On the table, a candle burned;
A flame was glowing.

Змияя ночь by Boris Pasternak

Translated by Frank Beck

When a poet writes about a snowstorm, we seldom know which storm he or she had in mind. In this case, we do. 
On the evening of February 6, 1947, Moscow pianist Maria Yudina invited a group of friends to hear her play and Boris Pasternak read. Rumor had it that the 57-year-old poet was working on a book of fiction, and there was great curiosity about it.

It snowed so heavily that day that Pasternak worried people wouldn't come; in fact, the car carrying him and his lover, Olga Ivinskaya, got lost repeatedly on the way to Yudina's apartment. Finally, as the car stood idling in the street, Pasternak looked up and saw a lamp flickering in a window. That must be the house, he said, and, strangely enough, he was right. 

The symbolism of a single candle guiding the way, through spiritual darkness as well as through a night in winter, resonated with Pasternak. The following morning, he wrote 'Winter Night', which weaves the imagery of that February evening into the love story that was at the core of his new work. For a time he considered calling it, 'A Candle Burned.' By the time the book was published, a decade later, he had named it Doctor Zhivago.

'Winter Night' eventually took its place as one of the 25 poems that form the final section of the novel, and it is now among the most frequently translated of all 20th-century poems. Anna Pasternak, the writer's grand-niece, describes its genesis in detail in her 2017 book, Lara: The Untold Love Story and The Inspiration for Doctor Zhivago; see the fifth link below.

Autumn Day (Herbsttag)


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, two blocks from the Jardin du Luxembourg, 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/one final sweetness") and moves briskly, presenting three separate scenes in just 12 lines. "Herbsttag" first appeared in the second edition of The Book of Images (Das Buch der Bilder) in 1906. It has 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

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