Alexander Pushkin: The Demons

A new paraphrase/adaptation of a Russian poem from 1830.

The clouds whirl, the clouds scurry.
The moon, unseen, lights up
from above the flying snow.
Gloom-ridden sky, gloom-ridden night:
on my life, I can’t find the way.

I drive, I drive on the endless steppe.
The little bell’s ding-ding-ding
flies back to me, fearsome,
fearsome in spite of one’s self,
lost bells amid an unknown plain!
— “Driver, don’t stop! Keep going on!” —

“It’s impossible, sir. It’s a heavy go
for the horses against all this snow.
And my eyes are swelling shut, sir.
Who can make out where snow ends
and where the land begins?
All the roads are covered, I swear.
Kill me if you like. I’ve stopped,
for not a track is to be seen.
We are lost! What would you have me do?” —

“What have you been following, driver,
if you can see no road?” —

“Some Demon of the steppe, my lord,
is leading the horse and me. I thought
I recognized a turn or two, but no,
now we’ve been turned aside. We’re lost!

“Look, there ahead beyond that drift
he huffs, and spits at me. My God,
he’s almost led the stumbling team
into a steep ravine! Back, back!

“Did you not see him, sir? He stood
as thin as a weird mile-post before us.
(Here, take this cloth and clean
your fogged-up spectacles!)
Look there — that little spark was him,
and now he’s gone into the empty dark.”

The clouds whirl, the clouds scurry.
The moon, unseen, lights up
from above the flying snow.
Gloom-ridden sky, gloom-ridden night:
on my life, I can’t find the way.

We have no strength to go onward:
there, look, our tracks again:
we have gone in a full circle!
The little bell is suddenly silent,
in a fog so thick it cannot tremble.

The horses stop. What is that in the field?
“Who knows, sir. It’s just a tree stump.
No, Bozhe moi, I see a wolf!”
The snowstorm becomes furious,
the snowstorm howls and wails.
The snorting horses make sounds
of terror and try to break the reins.

“There – farther on — the Demon.
I saw him jump, sir. See there:
just those two eyes float deep,
red lamps inside the gray-white
nothingness of sky and snow.”

Then comes a sudden silence,
a narrow path made visible
lures on the horses; the bell
makes tentative tinkles. I see
a line of phantoms assembled
on either side of us,
in the midst of the whitening plains.

Onward we go, the driver’s
whispered litany of Bozhe moi,
Bozhe moi and the silver ding
of the blessed sledge-bell
our only prow and pilot.

Endless and formless,
the Demons watch us
in the dim play of the moonlight;
they are are legion as leaves
on the ground in November.

How many are there? Where do they go
en masse in this blizzard night?
And, oh, they are singing. Hush, driver!
Listen to that plaintive melody!
Are they off to some hobgoblins’ burial?
Is Baba Yaga at last to be married?

The clouds whirl, the clouds scurry.
The moon, unseen, lights up
from above the flying snow.
Gloom-ridden sky, gloom-ridden night:
on my life, I can’t find the way.

In faith the driver and the horses
plod on in the narrow passage,
the right-of-way the Demons grant us
as they swarm and swarm around us,
some walking on snow and treetop,
some leaping into the storm itself.

Home, if I make it there, will not be warm
enough, nor will any bright song erase
the funereal chant of the Demons,
whose mourning rends my heart.

Bozhe moi, ding-ding-ding,
Bozhe moi, ding-ding-ding
Bozhe moi, ding-ding-ding

1830, Translation and adaptation by Brett Rutherford, 2012




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