A few months ago at the “Sail of Destiny” festival in Pyatigorsk, Thomas Beavitt gave this impromptu performance of Lermontov’s Смерть поэта (The Bard is Dead!), which was composed on the occasion of the death of Lermontov’s idol Pushkin in a duel.
The poem is important not only as a contemporaneous record of the strength of popular feeling at this pivotal moment in Russian literary history, but also in the sense that it prefigured Lermontov’s own senseless death, also in a duel, at the hands of his former comrade Martynov on 27th July 1841.
The extreme controversy generated by Смерть поэта would result in Lermontov’s immediate elevation to literary prominence and his banishment to the Caucasus following the personal intervention of Tsar Nicholas I and interrogation by Count Alexander Benckendorff, the head of secret police.
Lermontov’s death several years later in Pyatigorsk can be seen as a direct result of this controversy and banishment. Nicholas is said, on hearing the news, to have remarked: “The dog has died a dog’s death!” – although his attitude may have softened, since he later added: “The one who could have taken Pushkin’s place is dead.”
The musical version of the poem, performed here on the 178th anniversary of Lermontov’s death close to the place where he slept his last night, is Beavitt’s own composition. It was the first time he performed it in public in the original Russian entirely from memory. Audience members include a Scottish delegation (Lermontov had Scottish ancestors) and several contemporary members of the Lermontov bloodline.
Video shot and edited by Dmitry Perednya
Beavitt’s English translation of the poem is as follows:
The Bard is Dead!
The bard is dead! – conscience of our age –
Felled by lies and foul canard,
Lead-choked chest that bursts with rage
And lifts, at last, the proud regard
Of one whose soul could not consent
To yield to mean indignity,
Who railed against this world and went
Alone to face eternity!
Eternity! Spare your crocodile tears…
Your empty praise – a surplus choir,
A token of your petty fears:
The order came from much, much higher!
Was it not you who cruelly mocked
The music from his golden lyre,
For entertainment, did concoct
A little, sly, tormenting fire?
Well? Enjoy the show… he burned
Until he could no longer stand beneath
But puttered out, expunged, and earned
His wilted laurel wreath.
His vicious killer, unbelieving,
Dealt the blow, gave not an inch:
Empty heart beat, cool and even;
Gun-hand did not flinch.
Occidental, quelle surprise!
Bequeathed to us by will of fate,
His wealth and rank to cultivate,
Like hundreds of such refugees.
The native customs of our land
Dismissed in terms derogatory;
Ridiculed our national glory;
Misconstrued this blood-soaked story;
And with that he raised his hand!…
And so he was slain and his body taken,
Like the nightingale, whose dulcet songs awaken
The envy and resentment of the deaf.
Exalted them till all tunes were forsaken,
Dumfounded, as was he, by the callous hand of death.
Why, from calm obscurity and artless geniality,
Did he step into the light, the glaring, harsh reality,
To sate a heart of free and ardent passion?
Why did he ever give his hand to rogues and fake princesses?
Why did he never countermand the false words and caresses?
He, who, from an early age, discerned life’s meagre ration…
And so, replacing with a crown of thorns, his wreath,
Intertwined with laurel, they thus contrived – and how! –
Clandestine needles sticking in beneath
That pricked his glorious brow,
Embittering his final hours with stress
And the subtle whispering of cretins…
And so he died – with vain thoughts of redress,
The intimate annoyance of mislaid expectations.
The mellifluous tones of our tragic nation
No more to be pealed
As, taking up his cramped accommodation,
The singer’s lips were sealed.
And you, O arrogant descendants
In whom are amplified the faults of your ancestors,
With slavish heels that trample on the fragments
Isn’t it a jolly game for their malign successors!
A greedy crowd with drooling, gaping maw,
Vapid executioners of freedom, wit and glory!
Cowards, taking refuge in the law,
For you, is truth and justice just a story?
But there is a sacred court, O intimates of vice!
There is an awful trial: there He sits and waits;
There’ll be no church bells chiming to entice;
Thoughts and deeds already known behind those final gates…
Then in vain will you recall the time before the flood,
With hearts already hard:
For you will never wash away the blood,
The righteous blood of the bard!