8 July 1816
Reka vremyon v svoyom stremlenii
Unosit vse dela lyudei
I topit v propasti zabvenya
Narody, tsarstva i tsarey.
A yesli shto i ostyotsa
Chrez zvuki liry i truby,
To vechnosti zherlom pozhryotsa
I obschei ne uidyot sud’by.
Derzhavin wrote the poem a few days before his death on July 8, 1816. By that time, he was a distinguished poet at the age of 73. The central idea of the poem resonates with Solomon’s thoughts on the meaning of human life in Ecclesiastes, the canonical Wisdom Book in the Old Testament: All is vanity. The allegorical image of time as the river of oblivion is rooted in Greek mythology. The river Lethe flew in the underworld of Hades. Shades of the dead were required to drink it to erase their memories. Allusions to the lyre and the trumpet stand for poetry. And, as Derzhavin concludes in the end, it will inexorably be devoured by ‘the orifice of eternity’ (literal translation of ‘zherlo vechnosti’). This refers us to one of the most quoted allegories of time: Greek God Kronus, eating his children. Iambic tetrameter of the poem (rhymed a B a B c D c D) creates an impression of a flowing stream. Unlike the poet’s pessimistic view on the fate of his poems, we still remember them today and admire their beautiful clarity.
Relentless River, coursing ages,
Usurps all works of mortal hands;
It sinks all worlds, in darkness rages:
Naught shall be saved – not kings, nor lands.
Should any trace endure an hour
Through Lyre’s chord or Trumpet’s call,
Obscured it drowns, by Time devoured,
Purged of its form – the Fate of all.
Translated by Professor Alexander Levitsky and first published in the volume ‘Poetic Works’, Brown University, 2001.
The translation offered here is one of the eight versions, which proves the poem’s mysterious power. I chose it because this translation is the closest one to the original meter. Derzhavin did not write about darkness (third line), originally there was the abyss of oblivion (propast’ zabvenyia), but I agree with the translator’s word choice, because waters in the underworld apparently do not reflect any light. The last two lines in the translation do not reconstruct the image of the orifice, hole or throat (all could stand for the word ‘zherlo’, however Time (written from the capital letter) devoured any trace, marks a clear connection with the same Greek myth used in the original. The original has an acrostic. First letters of each line form two words: ‘Ruina chti’. The literal translation is ‘Honor the Ruin’.
Prepared by Natalia Vygovskaia