The Fugitive / Mikhail Lermontov (Translated by Benjamin Rozonoyer)
This Fugitive (aka The Deserter) was so powerful and tragic that as soon as I read it in Russian I felt compelled to render it into English in order to be able to share the experience of reading it. I have not been able to find another faithful or dynamic enough verse translation of this poem. I have made my translation completely faithful to the original meter and rhyme scheme, and extremely close to the original in meaning (matching line to line).
The poem is written in the setting of the Muslim Circassians (the Caucasus was ever a source of inspiration for Russian poets). The warlike Caucasian peoples hold sacred the law of avenging their fallen kin. This poem is about a deserter who has not avenged his dead relatives, and so becomes an outcast to his community. The poem describes the successive rejection of the fugitive by his most elemental relations, in inverse order of their importance: first by his friend, then by his love, and finally by his mother — both metaphorically and literally undoing his passage into society.
For more on Mikhail Lermontov, read this article.
A Mountain Legend
Haroun fled faster than a rabbit That sprints for safety from a hawk; He fled in fright the field of battle, On which Circassian blood spilled hot; His father and his older brothers For faith and freedom suffered steel, And in the dust their skulls are smothered Beneath the adversary’s heel. Their blood runs red and asks arighting, Haroun forgot about his dead; He threw aside amidst the fighting His sword, his rifle — and has fled! The day went down; in wreaths, the cloud The dusky meadows didst enshroud With its wide winding-sheet of white; The cold night air from eastwards wafted, And o’er the wasteland of the prophet The golden crescent shone its light... Emaciated, dehydrated, Wiping away the blood and grime, Haroun betwixt the cliffs located His native aul1 in crescent-shine; Still closer he snuck up, unspotted... Around him quiescence and calm, Unscathed from battle’s strife and slaughter Haroun alone has made it home. He speeds to the familiar saklya2, There flickers light, the host is likely; With tension he could hardly hide, He drew a breath, and stepped inside; Selim a friend he ere considered, Selim did not discern his breath; Upon his bed, his body withered, — Alone, — he lay at point of death. “Allah is great! From dark contagion In his kindheartedness supreme Protects you with a radiant angel!” — “What are the tidings?” — asked Selim, And lifted up his weakening eyelids, And hope inside them like a fire glints!.. And he rose, and his fighter’s blood Again before the end ran hot. “Two days in the ravine we battled, My father fell, my brothers too. And to the desert I abandoned, An animal run down, pursued, My lacerated feet in anguish From rocks and brambles strewn in sores, Upon uncharted paths I languished By tracks of wolves and wild boars. The foe is here — Circassians perish. Give me a shelter, my old friend; And holy prophet! to the end Your tender kindness I will cherish!..” And spoke the dying from his bier: “Depart — you’re worthy of depiction. Nor shelter, nor a benediction For a defector have I here!..” Haroun, with secret shame tormented, Bearing the blame without a word, From the unfriendly home resented, Across the threshold stepped unheard. And, passing by another saklya, He for a moment stopped his pace; A fleeting dream from former days With a caress poured over hotly His cold and melancholy brow. And he felt sweet, a gentle glow Lit up his soul; in the night’s dark’ning It seemed, two fiery eyes were sparking Before him, passionate and soft, And he remembered: I am loved, It’s me alone she finds her bliss in… And wants to run inside — and listens, And hears within an olden tune… And he turned paler than the moon. The crescent’s aglow Softer and quieter, And the young fighter To battle must go. His rifle the warrior loads, And the sorrowful maiden him bodes: My darling, don’t tarry, Your fate be not scorning, Be praying towards morning, The prophet adorning, And still more your glory. His kinsman’s betrayer With perfidy murd’rous, Th’ invader’s unslayer, Will rot away wordless. The rain o’er his remnants is gory, The mongrels his bones will not bury. The crescent’s aglow Softer and quieter, And the young fighter To battle must go. Haroun continues through the silence Upon his way, with neck depressed, And swollen teardrops from his eyelids Fall, intermittent, on his chest… His house, angled by the fury, Looms white before him as he looks; Haroun, emboldened, towards it hurries, And, hopping at window, knocks. Within, to heaven now directing Her fervent prayers for her son, The white-haired mother is expecting Her own alive, but not just one!.. “Mother, unlock! I’m a poor stranger, Haroun! your youngest son, your own; By Russian shots ungrazed through danger I came to you!” — “Alone?” — “Alone!..” — “Where is your father? Brothers?” — “Slain! The holy prophet blessed their lot, And angels raised them to his reign.” — “Did you avenge them?” — “I did not… But straight I darted to the mountains, And left my sword in a far place, To dry your eyes’ disconsolate fountains, And wipe the teardrop off your face…” — “Choke up, enough! you wicked giaour, You couldn’t die in honour’s hour. So go away, and live with none. My hairs are white, you will not see them Smirched by a runaway of freedom, A slave and cur — and not my son!..” Pronounced the word of abnegation, And the whole world is wrapped in dream. Revilements, groans and supplications Rang out beneath the window’s gleam; And in the end, a glinting dagger Cut short the outcast’s shameful days… At dawn the aging mother staggered… And coldly turned away her gaze. The corpse lay under condemnation Lest all the graves might be befouled, The bloodspill from the laceration The home dog licked, and softly growled; The little children taunted, bending, O’er the deserter’s cold remains, His shameful flight and wretched ending The lore of freedom still retains. Scorched by the prophet’s indignation, His frightened spirit took its flight; And through the eastern elevation, A shadow, wanders in the night, And on the panes at sunrise, sickly, It knocks and pleads to be restored, But hears the Quran sounding strictly, And scuttles to the mountains quickly, As ere it scuttled from the sword.
1 An aul is a type of fortified village found throughout the Caucasus mountains, especially in Dagestan. The word itself is of Turkic origin and simply means village in many Turkic languages. The auls of Svaneti, with their distinctive medieval towers, have been recognized as a World Heritage Site.
2 Saklya huts are used by indigenous people from the North Caucasus. They differ from other types of dwelling because they are built on stony ground without any foundations. Their walls are made of clay, and in rich saklyas, the floor is covered with wooden boards. The fireplace, like in a yurt, is located in the center. The roof is flat and the house is sunken to shield it from strong mountain winds.
The Fugitive, a New Translation: Copyright 2021 by Benjamin Rozonoyer. All rights reserved.