Translators’ note: On Gavrila Derzhavin and Alexander Pushkin
Gavrila Derzhavin (1743–1816) was one of the major Russian poets of the generation before Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), essentially neoclassical, but with a striking verbal and rhythmic originality. “The River of Time” is his last poem. It was found, untitled, jotted down on a slate that he left on his desk three days before his death. The first letters of the first five lines in Russian are an acrostic spelling out RUINA, meaning “ruin.”
Derzhavin was also a statesman during the reign of Alexander I and as such was asked to take part in a public examination of students at the imperial lycée (lytsei in Russian) at Tsarskoe Selo in 1815. Pushkin was in the first graduating class of the newly founded lycée. Derzhavin, who was seventy-two years old and bored by the academic task, leaped to his feet in astonishment when he heard the fifteen-year-old poet recite his “Memories of Tsarskoe Selo” as part of the examination.
Pushkin wrote a series of four “little tragedies” (as he called them) in the autumn of 1830, the most productive moment of his creative life, when he was quarantined on his estate of Boldino during a cholera epidemic. The two songs we offer here —Mary’s lament and Walsingham’s hymn—are from the fourth and last of the plays, A Feast in a Time of Plague. Pushkin drew his Feast from a play entitled The City of the Plague, by the Scottish writer John Wilson, published in 1816. But while Wilson’s three-act tragedy runs to about 160 pages in print, Pushkin’s is all of eleven pages—a “little tragedy” indeed. Pushkin borrowed a few details from Wilson, but these two songs, which are central to the Feast, are entirely his own.