from the Russian of Alexander Pushkin
Read ‘Arion’, think ‘Heaney’ suggests Helen Vendler In her review of Electric Light (Irish Times of Mon, Jun 3, 2019) under the heading ‘Heaney the Survivor’: ‘Heaney’s poetry begins, now, to exhibit many elegies both for personal friends and for poets who have been important to him … Marking their disappearance, Heaney, the survivor, adapts a Pushkin’s poem in which Arion (saved from shipwreck by a dolphin) speaks a postlude’.
Heaney presents his own version of the Russian poem.
All is proceeding smoothly – a vessel riding high, every crewman on board fully occupied (all hard at it), some up aloft adjusting for greater speed (up tightening sail), others sweating at the oars (the heave and haul of the rowing benches) – the boat well ballasted (deeply cargoed), of sturdy construction (steady keeled), smooth over the water (our passage silent) – the steersman carefree (buoyant at the helm),
Arion, the professional singer is in ‘what-could-possibly-go-wrong’ mood (took it all for granted) and puts on a performance (sang to the sailors)
Sudden pandemonium! In the ferocity of what transpired (turbulent sudden wind, a maelstrom) the ship and all its hands were lost (helmsman … sailors perished).
Just one survivor (only I), his melodious voice saving him from drowning, is landed gently on the beach by the waves (long sea-swell). Undeterred (sing on), miraculously preserved (mystery to my poet self), alone but unharmed (safe and sound) and sheltered (beneath a rock shelf), he simply moves on (my wet clothes in the sun).
- Arion: Heaney’s version of a Pushkin poem, itself one variant of an original fantastical story by Herodotus: in other variants the world’s greatest lyre player is robbed by the boat crew transporting him; he chooses to commit himself to the sea but sings a song first; in other variants a dolphin appears and carries Arion to the shore;
- Alexander Pushkin 1799-1837: Russian poet, playwright, and novelist of the Romantic era; considered by many to be the greatest Russian poet and the founder of modern Russian literature; born into Russian nobility in Moscow;
- hard at it: fully occupied putting a lot of effort into an activity;
- tighten: take the slack out of;
- heave: draw, tug;
- haul: drag, pull;
- cargoed: heavy with goods/ freight;
- steady: solid;
- keel: full length base timber supporting the structure above;
- buoyant: cheerful, carefree; also punnish idea of ‘afloat’;
- helm: tiller, wheel, steering mechanism;
- take for granted: fail to appreciate a situation;
- turbulent: tempestuous, in turmoil;
- maelstrom: strong whirlpool;
- washed ashore: cast up on the beach:
- sea-swell: full, gently rounded movement of the tide;
- safe and sound: out of harm’s way;
- shelf: flat area;
- spread: lay out (to dry);
A comparable version highlights Heaney’s priority as regards the interpretation and musicality of his own:
A lot of us were on the bark:/Some framed a sail for windy weather,/The others strongly and together/ Moved oars. In silence sunk,/ Keeping a rudder, strong and clever,/ The skipper drove the heavy skiff; /And I — with careless belief I sang for sailors… / But the stiff / Whirl smashed at once the waters’ favour /All dead — the captain and his guard!/
But I, the enigmatic bard,/ Was thrown to the shore alone. / I sing the former anthems yet,/ And dry my mantle, torn and wet,/ In beams of sun under a stone.
- ‘sonnet’ length piece in 3 sentences; variable line length 5-10 syllables; unrhymed; few enjambed lines;
- assonant echoes: ‘boat…row…cargoed… poet…clothes’/ ‘heave…deeply…keeled’/ ‘sailors…maelstrom’/ ‘helmsman…helm…swell…self…shelf…spread…wet’/ ‘wind…still singing…sing…mystery’/ ‘
- alliterative strands: sibilant variants [s/z/sh] at various points; in mid-poem they reflect the movement of the sea-swell; [h] helmsman…helm…who’;
- Heaney is a meticulous craftsman using combinations of vowel and consonant to form a poem that is something to be listened to.
- the music of the poem: fifteen assonant strands are woven into the text; Heaney places them grouped within specific areas to create internal rhymes , or reprises them at intervals or threads them through the text;
- syllables without highlight are largely the unstressed sound as in common, little [ə]
- alliterative effects allow pulses or beats, soothings or hissings or frictions of consonant sound to modify the assonant melodies; this is sonic engineering of the first order;
- a full breakdown of consonant sounds and where in the mouth they are formed is to be found in the Afterthoughts section.