Poem notes

The Sail

By Mikhail Lermontov

Notes on the translation by Irina Mashinski

Mikhail Lermontov’s work is uneven, but his masterpieces are among the finest poems and translations ever written in Russian. ‘The Sail’ is a poem that many Russian speakers learned by heart as early as kindergarten. Lermontov wrote it when he was only 17, at a time of dramatic change in his life. He had been forced to leave Moscow University and enroll in a military school in St. Petersburg, a place deeply alien to the rebellious nature of this orphan and perpetual misfit. He is between his past and his future, in the eye of life's storm. During a walk along the shore of the Gulf of Finland he sees a sail. 

Белеет парус одинокий
В тумане моря голубом. —
Что́ ищет он в стране далекой?
Что́ кинул он в краю родном? 

Играют волны, ветер свищет,
И мачта гнется и скрипит;
Увы! — он счастия не ищет
И не от счастия бежит! — 

Под ним струя светлей лазури,
Над ним луч солнца золотой: —
А он, мятежный, просит бури,
Как будто в бурях есть покой!

The structure of the poem is symmetric. The first two lines of each stanza depict a seascape: quiet – stormy – quiet again; the last two lines of each stanza are more contemplative. The rhyming is precise. Yet the speaker seems troubled by this calmness and its constraints, perhaps linking it to the rigid structure of the life that awaits him. His imagination rocks the sail, whimsically casting it, in the central stanza, into a storm.

The questions in lines 3 and 4, so relevant to the poet’s life at the time, seem almost childish, but they sound surprisingly fresh and memorable, no matter how many times one recites them. Such is the mystery of Lermontov’s poetry: naïveté is transformed to magic. A translator has to tread cautiously. The poem may appear to be founded on the ‘staples’ of romantic poetry – tempests, masts, a soul’s rebellion – but it resembles nothing but itself. One of its magic features is the absence of an answer, the lack of a vector. Lermontov’s sail is sailing nowhere. The sail (a ‘he’ in the Russian) is wandering aimlessly across the sea of life, searching and not searching, and this aimlessness is, in the end, tragic. The poem inscribes a circle, a voyage from the dead calm in the first stanza to the dead calm in the third. It offers us a romantic illusion of peace, only to proclaim in the final line that there is no peace to be found in storms. Neither in calm nor in storm is there peace. In the last, ambiguous line the circle breaks and the poem opens up, like a wound. However one interprets the last lines, there is clearly no place on this earth for the poet, who will die nine years later.

The poem presents many challenges for translators. Ideally, one should try to create the sounds of a tempest in the middle stanza, try to fill this second stanza with action verbs (all four lines end with verbs in the present tense); try to use anaphora and simple parallel constructions, without enjambments; and try to fill the poem with inner echoes, as well as the fresh smell of the wind and freedom. The most challenging task is to recreate the open-endedness and magical ambiguity of the finale, with its strong masculine ending – to come up with something similar to the last sound of the poem, an accented ‘oi,’ which resembles both a whirlpool and the curl of a gentle wave. The same syllable opens the poem (the endings of lines 1 and 3), but there it stands in an unstressed, feminine position. In the last line, on the other hand, the final ‘oi’ of the familiar but still mysterious word покой (pokoi) reverberates long after the poem ends.

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