Urgent Translation: Feast During the Plague

Translator’s Note

In the late summer of 1830, Alexander Pushkin traveled to Boldino, a town four hundred miles east of Moscow, to settle the business of coming into legal ownership of the family estate which would complete the dowry he needed to marry his betrothed, Natalia Goncharova. Due to an outbreak of cholera, Pushkin was unable to return to the capital as soon as he had hoped: the roads were blocked by quarantine checkpoints or altogether closed by a cordon sanitaire. During three months of what turned out to be the legendarily productive “Boldino autumn,” Pushkin wrote the final chapters of Eugene Onegin as well as a number of other works, including The Tales of Belkin (considered the birth-site of all Russian fiction), and four short verse plays known collectively as “The Little Tragedies,” one of which is Feast During the Plague.

This short play draws on Scottish writer John Wilson’s lengthy drama The City of the Plague, from an 1816 collection of the same title. Wilson, who served for many years as chair of Moral Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh, was a poet in his youth and was friendly with William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, Thomas de Quincey, and Sir Walter Scott. He also wrote voluminous criticism, stories, and novels, primarily for Blackwood’s, a well-known conservative miscellany that often published the British Romantics. So, the original of Feast During the Plague is itself a translation of sorts, from English into Russian; a not uncommon example of a translation, or a very free imitation (and a severe abridgment) that became an acknowledged classic in its new context, outliving its source.

I translated Pushkin’s play in the spring of 1999 to serve as a libretto for an operetta by the émigré Russian composer Sergei Dreznin. I edited and even composed parts of the translation at his piano as he played and sang the melodies I was to accommodate. I saw the operetta performed only once in New York City, staged by Garik Chernyakhovsky (1944-2015), a legendary and much-beloved Moscow theater director who had recently emigrated to New York. I believe it was later performed in Vienna and perhaps elsewhere in Europe.

The peculiar musical circumstances necessitated that I keep close to Pushkin’s iambic blank verse in the speeches as well as the meter and rhyme of the two songs. Two decades later, finding some charm in this earnest early effort and resisting the retrospective urge to move away from the formal approach, I have made only small corrections and, partly thanks to poet Steven Zultanski’s suggestions, a few minor improvements.

Of course, Pushkin’s play has been on the minds of many Russian-speakers in the past month or two, even if they remember only its title, which has over the years come to be used metaphorically for any revelry in dark times. Reading the play, however, it is not so much about having a good time despite the doom that faces us, rather it’s an investigation into the ubiquitous human encounter with mortality, from which arises a condition I’d call hope-in-hopelessness. One might say it’s Shakespearean in its theme, recalling Macbeth’s grim encapsulation of life as a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”—we each have our “hour upon the stage.” The revelers of the “Feast” know they’ll probably die of the plague; several have already lost loved ones. They don’t believe in Christian salvation or an afterlife, or at least they attempt to steel themselves against the thought of the nothingness that lies beyond death’s door.

My reading of the play may be affected by Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, which I re-watched during the first few weeks of NYC’s “shelter-in-place,” as I’m sure many others have in this period. In the film, the crusading knight (played by Max von Sydow) plays a game of chess with Death to stall for more time, hoping for some divine signal that will assure him that there’s something to look forward to, that life isn’t all pointless and cruel. What he sees of his plague-ridden homeland—the side-plot of the torture of the captured “witch” and her eventual burning at the stake, is but one example—does not inspire confidence in the divine, to say the least, nor gives him the “knowledge” he’d hoped to find in order to face death without fear. Conversely, for the young woman who accompanies the two returned crusaders death seems the only hope of being released from a mercilessly senseless existence. Rendered mute and expressionless by the hideous suffering and depravity she has witnessed, she finally speaks at the film’s finale, kneeling before Death, her face contorting into a smile: “It is finished.”

Like the characters of The Seventh Seal, the revelers of Pushkin’s plague are not psychologically drawn in a modern sense; they are “types” as in the commedia dell’arte or other “conventional” (as Meyerhold would say) medieval and renaissance theater. (In fact, though they are more subtly developed, one might say the same of the protagonists of Eugene Onegin who embody the different clichés of the Romantic worldview.) Coming back to my translation of “Feast” after twenty years, I realize that this conventionality—the clichéd speech, the forced archaisms, the formal elements of the verse—was important to maintain for reasons other than its metrical and tonal relation to the music of Dreznin’s operetta. Pushkin’s play is Brechtian in the way most pre-Naturalist theater is; it is allegorical. It faces the audience the way The Seventh Seal’s traveling thespians do, without a fourth wall. It poses a question to the audience (the reader): will you tremble in the face of the plague, seeking shelter in religion, or celebrate its ruinous and all-powerful destruction?

The revelers’ celebration in Pushkin’s play is particularly unsettling because it casts the Plague as sublime. The Chairman’s song—one of Russian literature’s most quoted verses—endows the plague with the “rapture” and “bliss” that one experiences in battlefields, on the high cliff from which one looks into chasms, in the furious power of the ocean. It is a force of Nature that cannot be controlled. (The sublime, destructive power of nature is also central to Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, in which Peter the Great’s rational city cannot tame the river’s irrational floodwaters.)

You could draw a line from the revelers of the “Feast” to the “irresponsible” members of our society who act out against the restrictions of the “social distancing” measures of PAUSE and the like, irreverently flaunting a “come what may” attitude in the face of the pandemic; or, perhaps, align them with the unwittingly accelerationist, “patriot” protestors, who seek a return to business as usual. I would not hasten to such readings of the play, and do not think it’s a call to “feast during the plague.” There is no moral and no conclusion; it ends in confusion. Pushkin does not judge the revelers; they are not plague-deniers. He sees their pain, the burden of their losses, and seems to sympathize with their attempt—as dangerous, unsavory, and misplaced as its manifestation might be—to look death in the face, and to see the pestilence for what it is: an inevitability, the irrational sublime that touches all, nature’s power over us.

Revisiting my translation of this nearly two-hundred-year-old text—composed during one of several nineteenth-century outbreaks of cholera in Russia—has helped me to consider the current pandemic from a historical perspective, as part of a recurring cycle, suggesting that humans will always be vulnerable to nature’s whims, and that our “progress” is ever-sure to bring the wrath of nature upon us. Like the plague, Nature, for Pushkin, is godless: it has no mercy. It therefore mirrors the lack of mercy in our human world, meting out suffering exactly as our “advanced” society already does. This is most poignantly underscored during our own “plague” by the exasperatingly unequal vulnerability of the poor, the “serving” class, and small business and cultural spaces, against a backdrop of the government’s corporate bailouts, developers plowing on with the construction of luxury housing, and financiers profiting off others’ misfortunes. Pushkin’s revelation, bleak as it may be, resides in the understanding that neither the blasphemous bacchanal of the revelers’s fatalism nor the temporary solace of faith offered by the clergyman can begin to answer for—nor ameliorate—the inequity of suffering.

– Matvei Yankelevich

Feast During the Plague

A street. A table set for festivities.
Several men and women feasting.


Most honorable chairman! Let’s remember
A friend and colleague, a man we all knew well.
He, who by jest and witty storytelling,
Sharp observation, cutting repartees,
So acid in their strange and solemn humor,
Enlightened our glum table conversation
And chased away the dark which presently
The plague, our uninvited guest, has cast
Upon our best and brightest brilliant minds.
Two days ago in unison our laughter
Played to his stories. No, it cannot be
That in our merry feasting we forget him,
Old Jackson! That joker! Look now, how empty
His chair stands waiting, as if expecting
Him to return. But he is gone from here
For colder parts, that underground estate . . .
No tongue more eloquent has ever gone
Stone quiet in sepulcher’s cold ashes;
Yet we are many left alive, so there’s
No reason to be sorrowful. And now,
Let’s raise a toast in memory of Jackson,
Let glasses ring and lift our voices higher
As if he were alive.


*******************He was the first
To leave our friendly table. So let us drink
To his honor in silence.


***********************Be it so.

All drink in silence.


Your voice, my dear, brings forth with wild perfection
The hidden beauty of your country song.
Sing, Mary, sing long laments of broken hearts
So we may turn to merriment more madly,
As one who has been torn away by visions
Returns with passion to worldly matters.

MARY (singing)

Once upon a time our village
Was so peaceful to behold:
Every Sunday early morning
Church was filled with young and old.
Our children’s happy voices
From the noisy school sang sweet,
Busy scythe and gleaming sickle
Flickered over fields of  wheat.

Now the church is still and empty,
And the schoolhouse stands forlorn.
Darkness falls upon the forest,
And in vain stands ripe the corn.
House and home are burned and blackened,
Village ruined on the hill.
All is quiet, but the graveyard,
seldom empty, never still.

They cart corpses by the minute,
And the groans of those who live
Call on God their sins to pardon
And eternal rest to give.
Every minute numbers growing,
Shovels work around the clock,
And the graves, they crowd together,
Lined up like a frightened flock.

If my youthful spring is fated,
Destined to an early grave,
You whom I have loved so dearly,
You, to whom my life I gave—
Stay away, I pray, from Jenny,
To her corpse do not come near,
You must never touch her dead lips,
For your own life, pray, have fear.

And then after I am buried,
Go, forget this ghostly town!
Somewhere else you’ll find another
Who will wear the wedding gown.
When, at last, the plague is over,
Visit my poor dust, I pray;
And in heaven faithful Jenny
Will beside her Edmund stay!


Our gratitude, dear melancholy Mary,
Deep thanks for this sad, plaintive threnody.
In bygone days, a plague like ours seems to
Have visited your country’s hills and valleys,
And moaning pitiful laments had sounded
Down brooks and streams, along the shores of rivers,
Which now run peacefully and happy
Throughout your native land’s wild paradise.
That gloomy year when myriad had fallen
Good hearted, proud, pure noble souls—
That year’s dark memory barely left a trace
In some forgotten simple shepherd’s song,
So mournful and so pleasing. No, there is naught
That brings such sadness to our celebration
As the pining sound that echoes in the heart.


Oh, had I never sung outside the cottage
Where I lived with my parents as a child.
Oh, how they loved the voice of their dear Mary.
I hear my own self singing in the old days
Before I stepped across my native threshold.
My voice was sweeter in those days, it was
The golden voice of innocence.


******************************These ditties
Are out of fashion now. But even still
There are some simple spirits quick to soften
At women’s tears and blindly follow them.
She seems quite confident her tear-filled glances
Men cannot resist; if she thought also
A bit about her smile, I’d bet a pound
She would be grinning. Poor Walsingham,
He praises barking northern beauties, that’s why
She tries so hard to whimper. How I hate
The shitty yellow of that Scottish hair!


Shh . . . Listen: I hear the clattering of wheels.

A cart passes, filled with dead bodies. A black man drives it.


What now! Luisa’s fainted. But judging
By her tongue you’d think she had a manly heart.
You see . . . the cruel is weaker than the tender,
And fear inhabits souls tortured by passions.
Some water, Mary, on her face . . . She’s better.


Rest now, dear sister of my shame and sorrow,
Recline upon my breast.

LUISA (coming back to her senses)

************************I had a vision:
As dark as night, a white-eyed, horrid demon.
He beckoned me into his wagon. There
Lay gruesome bodies—and they muttered
A speech unknown, so horrible, so strange.
Please tell me now, was this a dream, a vision?
Or has a hearse passed by?


**************************Come now, Luisa,
Come, lighten up—for this whole street is ours,
A silent haven from the hands of death,
A shelter for wild feasts that stop for no one—
Yet, as you know, that one black wagon holds
The right to travel wherever it may choose—
Our duty is to let it pass! But listen,
Old Walsingham: to put an end to quarrels
And female fainting’s consequences, sing us
A ballad, sing a free and lively ballad,
And none of that tedious Scottish melancholy—
A booming, thunderous, bacchanalian song,
Conceived with frothing chalice in your hand.


There’s none I know. But I will sing a hymn
To you in honor of our guest, the plague—
Last night I wrote it after our parting.
An appetite for rhymes assailed me strangely,
First time in my whole life! Prick up your ears:
My voice is hoarse—the better for the song.


Hymn to the plague! Now hear the chairman sing!
Hymn to the plague! O, wonderful! Hooray!

CHAIRMAN (singing)

When great and mighty winter stirs
And, like a chieftain wrapped in furs,
Upon us sends its shaggy soldiers
Of biting frost and stinging snow,
It’s met with fire’s crackling smolder,
And wintry warmth of feasts aglow.


Her Terrible Majesty, the Plague
Herself does now offensive take,
Rich harvests reaps herself to flatter.
Upon our windows day and night
Her graveyard shovel knocks and clatters . . .
What can be done? How can we fight?


As from the Winter pest we hide
We’ll also lock the Plague outside!
We’ll fires light, we’ll fill our chalice,
And merrily our minds we’ll drown
And, brewing feasts and balls for solace,
We’ll glorify the Plague’s new crown.


There’s rapture in a battle, bliss
Upon the brink of the abyss,
And in the raging ocean’s fury
Midst angry waves and darkness vague,
And in the desert whirlwind’s hurry,
And in the breeze that brings the Plague.


All, all that threatens us with death,
Hides for the mortal in its depth
An inexplicable enchantment—
A promise of eternal life!
He’s lucky who in dire moments
Has tasted of these sweet delights.


We sing your praise, long live the Plague!
We do not fear the darkest grave,
We will not shy from your endeavor!
We’ll drink the maiden’s rosy breath
And clang our foaming cups together—
And both are filled, perhaps . . . with death.

Enter an old clergyman.


What godless feast is this! What godless madmen!
You with your feasting and your ribald singing
Throw insult on the gloomy silence which
Has now been spread by death in all directions!
Amidst the horror of the mournful burials
I pray, amidst pale faces at the graveyard.
And meanwhile your detestable delight
Embarrasses the quiet of the graves
And shakes the trembling earth above dead bodies!
If not for prayers of aged men and youthful
Maidens that bless the common mortal pit,
I would have thought these sounds to be of demons
Tormenting some poor atheistic soul
And dragging it into the pitch with laughter.


Does he not speak of hell with mastery!
Be gone, old man! Get back to where you came from!


Now I beseech you by the sacred blood
Of He who has been crucified to save us:
Break up your monstrous feast if you sincerely
Do hope to meet in heaven up on high
Beloved souls that you have lost on earth.
Break up this feast! Go to your homes!


*************************************Our homes
Are filled with sorrow—youth loves entertainment.


Can it be you? You, Walsingham? The same
Who just three weeks ago I witnessed kneeling,
His mother’s corpse clasped to his sobbing chest,
And howling, beat himself above her gravestone?
Or do you think that now she is not weeping,
Not shedding bitter tears in that high heaven,
From where she sees her only son reveling
At a perverted feast, and hears your voice
Raised in mad, frantic song, pitched high amidst
Both holy prayer and sighing lamentations?
Come, follow me!


******************Why do you now come here
Thus to disturb me? No, I can’t, I must not,
I will not follow you. What keeps me here?
These memories, this hopeless desperation,
The knowledge of my lawless, evil ways;
I’m kept here by the horror of my home
That greets me with a silence, dead and empty,
The novelty of these wild entertainments,
And by the loving poison of this chalice.
(Forgive me, lord!) I linger for her kiss,
The love of this delightful, ruined creature . . .
Nor could my mother’s ghost call me from here.
But it’s too late. I hear your warning voice,
The voice that calls me. I thank you for your efforts
To save my soul . . . Now, go in peace, believer;
But damned to hell be he who follows you!


Bravo! Bravo! Well-spoken, worthy chairman!
You’ve got your sermon now! Be gone! Be gone!


Matilda’s saintly spirit summons you.

CHAIRMAN (rising)

Swear to me now to leave it in the grave,
Lift up your pale and withered hand and promise
To never speak that heaven-silenced name.
O, that a wall of darkness hid this sight
From her immortal eyes! She, my beloved,
Once thought my spirit pure, and proud, and free,
And my embrace was paradise to her.

But now? Oh, holy child of light! I see you—
I see you there, where my far-fallen soul
Can never hope to soar.


***********************Look, he’s a madman!
He’s talking to his wife, dead and buried!


Come, come my son.


*********************For God’s sake, holy father,
Leave me be!


**************Almighty God, have mercy!
Farewell, my son.

He exits. The feast continues.
The chairman remains, sunken in deep thought.


Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1937), is considered to be Russia’s Shakespeare, originator of the modern Russian literary language. Though he is thought of foremost as a poet, he wrote innovative works in all genres—dramas, novels, stories, lyric and epic poems, and even fairy tales. Among the most well-known works are the novel in verse Evgeny Onegin and the poem “The Bronze Horseman.” Some of his writings and his associations with members of the Decembrist uprising caused him trouble with the Tsar; for intermittent periods Pushkin was exiled, surveilled, and censored. Pushkin died as the result of an injury incurred in a duel with a French officer who had designs on the poets’ wife.

Matvei Yankelevich

Matvei Yankelevich's books include Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square). His translations include Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Ardis/Overlook), and he is the co-translator (with Eugene Ostashevsky) of Alexander Vvedensky's An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets), which received a National Translation Award. He has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a founding member of the Ugly Duckling Presse editorial collective, where he curates the Eastern European Poets Series. He teaches at Columbia University's School of the Arts and the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College.

English translation copyright (c) Matvei Yankelevich, 2020.