»  Sergei Yesenin's "Song of a Bitch"

 

"Song of a Bitch"

by Sergei Yesenin, 1895-1925

 

•  Background

I know: "Song of a Bitch" raises the eyebrows of an English-speaking reader. It's a plain translation of the Russian title, though, so don't blame me.

This is in fact an old favorite of mine; not least because since first encountering it around age 20 I have loved three dogs, and mourned two of them.

I have taken the Russian text from my 1965 edition of Dmitri Obolensky's The Penguin Book of Russian Verse. Prof. Obolensky gives the following (slightly edited) somewhat depressing brief biography of the poet.

SERGEY YESENIN (1895-1925), the son of a peasant of the Ryazan province, at first hailed the Revolution which he identified with a new mystical Christianity. But he gradually became disillusioned by the industrialization of the village and lamented the disappearance of "wooden Russia" in melodious and nostalgic verses. Another of his themes was the Bohemian life of the Moscow taverns. After a brief and unsuccessful marriage with the dancer Isadora Duncan (1922-23), he took increasingly to drink and fell into mental prostration. Finally, alone in a Leningrad hotel, he opened a vein in his wrist, wrote with his own blood a farewell poem, and hanged himself.

Ah, Russia!

The following poem was written in 1915 when the poet was nineteen or twenty. It has been very popular with readers. If you want to hear it read in Russian much better than mine, cut'n'paste the title into YouTube. Some of the readings there have musical accompaniment.

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•  Play the reading

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•  Text of the poem

Песнь о собаке

        Сергей Александрович Есенин

Утром в ржаном закуте,
Где златятся рогожи в ряд,
Семерых ощенила сука,
Рыжих семерых щенят.

До вечера она их ласкала,
Причëсывая языком,
И струился снежок подталый
Под тëплым еë животом.

А вечером, когда куры
Обсиживают шесток,
Вышел хозяин хмурый,
Семерых всех поклал в мешок.

По сугробам она бежала,
Поспевая за ним бежать.
И так долго, долго дрожала
Воды незамëрзшей гладь.

А когда чуть плелась обратно,
Слизывая пот с боков,
Показался ей месяц над хатой
Одним из еë щенков.

В синюю высь звонко
Глядела она, скуля,
А месяц скользил тонкий
И скрылся за холм в полях.

И глухо, как от подачки,
Когда бросят ей камень в смех,
Покатились глаза собачьи
Золотыми звëздами в снег.

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Prof. Obolensky's prose translation, from The Penguin Book of Russian Verse (1965).

In the morning, in a barn for storing rye, where bast mats gleam golden in a row, a bitch gave birth to seven red-brown puppies.
She fondled them until the evening, licking them smooth with her tongue, while the melting snow flowed beneath her warm belly.
But in the evening, when the hens bespatter their perch with their droppings, the grim-faced master came out and bundled all seven into a sack.
She raced over the snowdrifts, keeping pace with him; and for a long, long time shudders ran across the smooth surface of the unfrozen water.
But when she dragged herself wearily back, licking the sweat from her sides, she thought the moon above the cottage was one of her puppies.
She gazed up into the dark blue sky, whining loudly, but the slender moon slid on and disappeared in the fields behind the hill.
And softly, as though someone had thrown her a stone in jest, tears rolled from the bitch's eyes like golden stars into the snow.

There are some verse translations here: this one, for example, by Peter Tempest.

In the barn corner early one morning,
Where rush matting covers bare earth,
A bitch to a litter of seven
Small reddish-brown puppies gave birth.

All day until dusk she fondled them
With her tongue going to and fro,
In the warmth of her underbelly
The snowflakes would melt and flow.

But when dusk fell and the fowls took
Their places on perch and rack
The farmer came out and scowling
Put the puppies into a sack.

The bitch ran over the snowdrifts,
Keeping up with his measured pace …
And ripples long after quivered
On the pond's ice-free surface.

And as the bitch homeward tottered,
Licking sweat from flanks that steamed,
The moon shining over the cottage
Was one of her puppies, it seemed.

And fixing on deep-blue heaven
Her steady gaze she whined
And the slender moon went floating off
Over the far hillside.

And dully, as when they'd throw her
Not bread but a stone for a lark,
The eyes of the bitch went rolling
ln the snow like golden stars.