13 April 2009

Pasternak's 'In Holy Week'

Every Holy Week, among other things I reread one of my favourite poems of all time: Boris Pasternak’s ‘In Holy Week’ ('На Страстной', 1946), taken from the final chapter of Doctor Zhivago, ‘Poems of Yuri Zhivago’. There is a translation by Christopher Barnes available online here (and the Russian text can be found here), but I prefer the translation of Jon Stallworthy and Peter France in Boris Pasternak, Selected Poems (London: Penguin, 1984), pp. 125-7. I give it here in full:

In Holy Week

Still darkness, darkness everywhere.
And still so early in the world,
Innumerable stars appear
And each so bright in the night air
That if the earth could count them there,
It would sleep through Easter, lulled
By chanted psalm and chanted prayer.

Still darkness, darkness everywhere.
The world has only just begun
And, like eternity, the square
Lies outstretched to the corner there,
And daybreak will not warm the air
Until a thousand years have run.

Still the earth is bare as bare,
And doesn’t have a thing to wear
For ringing bells in the night air
Or echoing the choir out there.

From Maundy Thursday on,
Right up to Holy Saturday,
The water bores into the banks
And eddies on its way.

The wood is naked, unadorned,
And, for Christ’s Passion, there
It stands, a congregation
Of silent pines at prayer.

But in the little open space
In town, the trees, all bare,
Are gathered before the church
And through its railings stare.

Their gaze is horrorstruck.
And there is the cause of their fear.
The gardens spill as fences break,
The earth’s foundations shake.
God is being buried here.

And they see light at the holy gates,
Low candles that illuminate
Black robes and streaming cheeks—the crowd
That, now emerging, elevates
Christ’s cross and bannered shroud,
And birches at the outer gates
Make way for them and bow.

The procession goes the rounds
Of the monastery bounds
And brings back from the pavement
Spring, a babble of spring sounds,
Air tasting of the sacrament [просфор]
And smelling of the ground.

And March dispenses flakes of snow
To cripples in the portico,
As if somebody who had borne
A reliquary raised the lid
And scattered every shred.

And singing lasts until the dawn,
When, having wept to their hearts’ content,
Gospel and psalm, all passion spent,
More quietly retreat
Along the lamplit street.

But fur and flesh will hold their breath
At midnight, hearing spring’s prediction
That wind and weather change direction,
And death may then be put to death
By the power of Resurrection.


Anonymous said...

Very powerful: the final stanza in particular. Thank you for sharing.

Perhaps we down here need to move Easter to Spring; so many of the hymns, poems and prayers seem to reference Spring, as we enter Autumn and head toward Winter. But I suppose the move to longer and darker nights brings its own imagery.

aaronandbrighid said...

I'm glad you like it, Ian! I love that last stanza too.

And thank you for reminding me of one of my northern hemispheric parochialism. It's easy to forget that not everyone has Easter in the Spring!