October 12, 2019

Poems for a Golden Autumn

Poems for a Golden Autumn
Golden Autumn Isaac Levitan (1895)

Autumn is a time of change. Days shorten; summer heat dissipates. Red and yellow creeps over the trees and onto sidewalks. Autumn is full of scenes of decay: fallen leaves decompose, while dirt turns to mud in the rain. However, autumn is also a season of transformation, with its vibrant colors and crisp air. Needless to say, autumn has transfixed the imaginations of classic poets and contemporary musicians alike.

In folk parlance, autumn is often called “золотая осень,” as leaves turn not just red and orange, but also gold. The result is a stunning panoply of colors, as Boris Pasternak described in his poem “Золотая осень”:

Как на выставке картин:
Залы, залы, залы, залы
Вязов, ясеней, осин
В позолоте небывалой.

Like paintings in a gallery,
Hall after hall after hall after hall
Of elms, ash trees, aspens
In fantastic gildings.

Although autumn is often associated with death, Pasternak associates it with the opposite: regeneration. He compares a ring of lime trees to “a wreath upon a bride,” while a grove of birches seems to be covered with “a veil / Bridal and transparent.” Perhaps he took his cue from Pushkin, who saw something beautiful even in autumn’s sometime gloom.

A mournful time of year! Its sad enchantment
flatters my vision with a parting grace —
I love the sumptuous glow of fading nature,
the forests clad in crimson and in gold,
the shady coolness and the wind's dull roaring,
the heavens all shrouded in a billowing mist
and the rare gleams of sun, the early hoarfrosts,
and distant grey-beard winter’s gloomy portents.
(translated by Peter France)

As Pushkin describes, autumn is a period of contrasts. On the one hand, it is full of vivid colors and mists, but on the other hand, especially as the season plods on, it begins to feel more and more like winter. Nevertheless, there is always a glimmer of beauty to be found, as Ivan Bunin illustrates in his picture of an early October morning:

Тишь на деревне. В часовне лампада
‎Меркнет, устало горя.
В трепетный сумрак озябшего сада
Льется со степи волнами прохлада…
‎Медленно рдеет заря.

Stillness in the village. In the chapel, a lamp
Dims, weary of grief.
In the flickering dusk of a frozen garden,
Waves of coolness breathe from the steppe…
Slowly the sun rises.

Autumn dawn
Autumn dawn. / Pixabay

With its contrasts, autumn provides ample fuel for introspection. Although many poets have produced landscape poems about autumn, many others read into autumn metaphors for loneliness or even jadedness. Sergei Yesenin, in a 1918 poem, relates the thoughts of someone who understands the beauties of autumn but struggles to care:

Хорошо бы, на стог улыбаясь,
Мордой месяца сено жевать...
Где ты, где, моя тихая радость,
Все любя, ничего не желать?

It would be nice to smile on a haystack,
To chew on hay like the muzzle of the moon.
Where, where are you, my quiet joy,
Loving all and desiring nothing?

Perhaps Yesenin was inspired by Pushkin in a different way from Pasternak — his narrator, who claims to have forsaken earthly pleasures but finds little meaning in nature, sounds like a twentieth-century Onegin. 

Marina Tsvetayeva was nowhere near as jaded towards autumn, but she too regarded it with some bitterness. In one of her lesser-known poems, she read into the falling leaves of autumn a metaphor for loneliness:

Я думаю (уж никому не по нраву
Ни стан мой, ни весь мой задумчивый вид),
Что явственно желтый, решительно ржавый
Один такой лист на вершине — забыт.

I think how (already no one likes
My figure, face deep in thought)
A strongly yellow, decidedly rusty,
Leaf, there at the crown’s – forgot.
(translator unknown)

The single leaf can stand as an image in its own right, but we might also note that artists are a constant presence in Tsvetayeva’s short poem. In the first stanza, she compares the wind sweeping up leaves to an artist finishing a painting, while in the second, she herself appears as the poem’s narrator. It’s not just leaves that are blown away and forgotten; in the ebbs and flows of forces beyond their control, an individual artist may end up swept onto some hill, alone.

Rainy autumn
Нахмурилось (1896), Stanislav Zhukovsky.

Introspection about autumn didn’t die with Tsvetayeva. On the contrary, it lives on in that most contemporary of genres, Russian rock music. One of Russia’s best-known rock songs centers around the reflectiveness that autumn changes bring. (It’s so famous that the Bank of St. Petersburg turned its opening line into an ad campaign.)

Что такое осень? Это небо,
Плачущее небо под ногами.
В лужах разлетаются птицы с облаками.
Осень, я давно с тобою не был.

What is autumn? It’s sky,
The crying sky beneath our feet.
In the puddles, birds and clouds are flying away.
Autumn, I haven’t been with you in a while.

Starting with this Pushkin-like description of autumn, the lyrics fade into a troubled tone. “Autumn,” the narrator inquires in the third verse, “will we struggle, will we reach an answer — What will happen with our Motherland and us?” The band DDT premiered this song in 1991, when the Soviet Union’s fate was truly uncertain. Even though the song is fairly recent, there is something folk-like about how it perceives autumn to hold wisdom about the future.

This is neither the first nor the last song Russian rock musicians have made about autumn. In 1990, DDT bid the recently deceased Viktor Tsoi farewell with another autumn-themed song, “В последнюю осень.” Autumn in this song is inextricable from death, whether it be Tsoi’s or Pushkin’s. And yet, as with Bunin’s poem, there is hope that the deceased will be remembered.

Уходят в последнюю осень поэты,
И их не вернуть — заколочены ставни.
Остались дожди и замерзшее лето,
Осталась любовь и ожившие камни.

Poets leave in the final autumn,
Never to return — the shutters are boarded up.
What remains is rain and the frozen-over summer;
What remains is love and stones brought back to life.

No matter how cold the darkest hour, no matter how weary you are, there is hope. Even in the bitterest autumn, you can find beauty.

October birches
Октябрь — пейзаж берез (1883), Efim Volkov.


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