16 April 2009

Pasternak's 'The Garden of Gethsemane'

Boris Pasternak’s ‘The Garden of Gethsemane’ is another of the ‘Poems of Yuri Zhivago’ taken from his famous novel (once again, I use the translation of Jon Stallworthy and Peter France in Boris Pasternak, Selected Poems [London: Penguin, 1984], pp. 138-9). Speaking of the several poems in the novel that deal with religious themes, Sir Dimitri Obolensky has written (Introduction, The Heritage of Russian Verse, ed. Dimitri Obolensky [Bloomington, IN: Indiana U, 1976], p. lii):

The religious poems are surely the most outstanding of their kind in the Russian language. Deriving much of their subject-matter and some of their phraseology from the Gospels, they combine the simplicity and directness of the language of the New Testament with the dramatic lyricism of the liturgy of the Orthodox Church. They propound the Christian idea of redemption through suffering and the belief that death is overcome by Christ’s resurrection.

Interestingly, Obolensky notes that another of these poems touches—by allusion—on the theme of Christ in Gethsemane. In ‘Hamlet’, the eponymous speaker essentially quotes Mark 14:36 when he says (Selected Poems, p. 125):

Abba, Father, if it be possible
Let this cup pass from me.

But here is the full text of the ‘Gethsemane’ poem (the Russian text of the full Zhivago cycle can be read here):

The Garden of Gethsemane

Indifferently, the glimmer of stars
Lit up the turning in the road.
The road went round the Mount of Olives,
Below it the Kedron flowed.

The meadow suddenly stopped half-way.
The Milky Way went on from there.
The grey and silver olive trees
Were trying to march into thin air.

There was a garden at the meadow’s end.
And leaving the disciples by the wall,
He said: ‘My soul is sorrowful unto death,
Tarry ye here, and watch with Me awhile.’

Without a struggle He renounced
Omnipotence and miracles
As if they had been borrowed things,
And now He was a mortal among mortals.

The night’s far reaches seemed a region
Of nothing and annihilation. All
The universe was uninhabited.
There was no life outside the garden wall.

And looking at those dark abysses,
Empty and endless, bottomless deeps,
He prayed the Father, in a bloody sweat,
To let this cup pass from His lips.

Assuaging mortal agony with prayer,
He left the garden. By the road he found
Disciples, overcome by drowsiness,
Asleep spreadeagled on the ground.

He wakened them: ‘The Lord has deemed you worthy
To live in My time. Is it worthiness
To sleep in the hour when the Son of Man
Must give Himself into the hands of sinners?’

And hardly had He spoken, when a mob
Of slaves, a ragged multitude, appeared
With torches, sowards, and Judas at their head
Shaping a traitor’s kiss behind his beard.

Peter with his sword resisted them
And severed one man’s ear. But then he heard
These words: ‘The sword is no solution.
Put up your blad, man, in its scabbard.

Could not My Father instantly send down
Legions of angels in one thunderous gust?
Before a hair of my head was touched,
My enemies would scatter like the dust.

But now the book of life has reached a page
Most precious and most holy. What the pen
Foretold in Scripture here must be fulfilled.
Let prophecy come to pass. Amen.

The course of centuries is like a parable
And, passing, can catch fire. Now, in the name
Of its dread majesty, I am content
To suffer and descend into the tomb.

I shall descend and on the third day rise,
And as the river rafts float into sight,
Towards My Judgement like a string of barges
The centuries will float out of the night.’

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for publishing this.. I love Pasternak and his poems. I've read them in Bernard Guilbert Guerney's translation, but this translation was new for me. I especially like how the penultimate stanza was worded.