We all have a favorite poem. It might be a stylish Shakespeare sonnet with talk of anonymous love. Or those with a taste for the epic might prefer Dante’s Inferno or Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. For those who prefer something more local, it might be Banjo Patterson’s The Man from Snowy River.
I have a few favourites. Top of the list has to be the soliloquy from Hamlet, written by Shakespeare to be spoken by Hamlet. It’s the one that famously begins ‘To be or not to be.’ It tackles head-on and with great angst the existential issue of whether or not life is preferable to death. Even as I read it today, or hear the spoken words resounding in my head, it sends shivers down my spine. It is a masterpiece of conciseness and elegance.
Then there is the short poem For Whom the Bell Tolls by John Donne. Wonderful aphorisms about personal moral responsibility burst from every line. No need, though, to shy away from it, because – contrary to what one might expect – it’s not especially preachy. Try the opener ‘No man is an island’ for size. Pity Donne didn’t use gender-inclusive language, but I doubt his contemporaries in the 17th century would have been too concerned.
Then there is the amazing stuff by William Blake, such as ‘Tyger Tyger, burning bright/In the forest of the night/etc.’ Being more metaphorical in nature, it’s not written in such direct language as the above two examples. And it grabs you. Reading Blake is a bit like viewing art by Salvador Dali, or should I perhaps say art by Blake himself. His art is almost as renowned as the words he put on paper.
Here is yet another example I came across only recently. It is by Mikhail Yuryevitch Lermontov, and is called I Go Out on the Road Alone. There are various translations of it from Russian to English, but the one I like best is the one I reproduce below. I cannot find the translator’s name. Unknown and unknowable, he/she would appear to prefer anonymity.
In the original Russian, it rhymes. In English translation it doesn’t, but I think the poem is none the worse for that.
I Go Out on the Road Alone
Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov
Alone I set out on the road; The flinty path is sparkling in the mist; The night is still. The desert harks to God, And star with star converses. The vault is overwhelmed with solemn wonder The earth in cobalt aura sleeps ... Why do I feel so pained and troubled? Why do I harbor hopes, regrets? I see no hope in years to come, Have no regrets for things gone by. All that I seek is peace and freedom! To lose myself in sleep! But not the frozen slumber of the grave ... I'd like eternal sleep to leave My life force dozing in my breast Gently with my breath to rise and fall; By night and day, my hearing would be soothed By voices sweet, singing to me of love. And over me, forever green, A dark oak tree would bend and rustle.
I ask myself, Where have I been all my life that I’ve only recently come across this little gem? Every time I read it, I am transported.
I first encountered it watching a recent doco on SBS called Meeting Gorbachev. Made by film director Werner Herzog, this doco has Herzog himself interviewing Mikhail Gorbachev, the last General Secretary of the USSR, and the man accredited with having presided over the demise of the Soviet Union.
In the interview, Gorbachev comes across as a most amenable person, exuding a great deal of warmth and humanity. He is not in any way like that pathetic paranoiac currently running the Russian Federation like it was his own fiefdom. In a classic of understatement, full of lament, Gorbachev makes it clear that he sees Putin as having thwarted the program he put in place before he resigned. He quotes from the inscription on the gravestone of an unnamed friend: ‘We tried.’
Then, in a most moving moment, he launches into a recitation in Russian of Lermontov’s poem. At the conclusion he pauses, then says softly, Da. Another pause. Then once again, Da.
What can I say?
This is a documentary you should watch.