Poems by Kondratyj Ryleev (1795-1826)

translated from the Russian by Sibelan Forrester

With thanks to Dr. Marina Rojavin of Temple University for assistance with choice of poems.

To the Favorite

(In imitation of Persius’s satire “To Rubelli”)

The haughty favorite, base and deceitful,
Sly flatterer of the monarch and ungrateful friend,
Furious tyrant of your native nation,
A villain brought to high estate by pushiness!
You have the cheek to look at me with scorn
And show your rabid wrath in your horrid gaze!
I do not value your attention, scoundrel;
Abuse from you – that is a crown worthy of praise!
I laugh at the disparagement you do me!
And how could I be wounded by your disrespect!
When I myself look with contempt upon you,
Proud to find none of your feelings in myself?
What is this cymbal sound of your brief fame?
What your awful power and your grand rank?
Ah! better to hide in simple anonymity
Than with low passions and an ignoble soul
Put yourself out for judgment or disgrace
Before the strict gaze of your fellow-citizens.
If there are in me no absolute virtues,
What use then is my rank and all my honors?
Not rank, nor birth – only virtues are respected,
Seianus! And Caesars are scorned without them;
In Cicero ’tis not the Consul but the man
I honor, who saved Rome from Catilina…
Oh worthy man! why can’t you now, newly reborn,
Save your fellow citizens from cruel destiny?
Tyrant, quake! for he may be reborn,
Cassius, Brutus, or scourge of Caesars, Cato!
Oh, how I strive to praise on the lyre the one
Who’ll someday rid my fatherland of you!
You think, perhaps, that your hypocrisy
Will hide the evil’s cause from common sight…
Not conscious of your terrible position,
You go astray in miserable blindness,
However you dissemble and contrive,
You cannot hide the spiteful corners of your soul.
Your deeds will show your true heart to the people;
They’ll come to know that you have cramped their freedom,
With heavy taxes you’ve brought them to beggary,
Deprived the settlements of their former beauty…
Then shall you tremble, haughty favorite!
A people enraged by tyrannies is fearsome!
But if cruel fate, coming to love an evil-doer,
Preserves you from that righteous recompense,
Still tremble, tyrant! For evil and faith-breaking
Your sentence shall be spoken by posterity!


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A Vision

(An ode on the name day
of His Imperial Highness
Grand Prince Aleksandr Nikolaevich,
August 30, 1823)


What an amazing apparition
Was presented to my vision!
I watch in sweet intoxication:
Through the blue arches of the heavens
Above Peter’s awakened city
Hovers the shade of Catherine!
It searches with a greedy glance,
Its brow is all aflame with grandeur…


But there from the wise Empress’s lips,
Like a sun’s ray, a smile has broken:
Before her stands a golden-curled youth.
Frolicking midst the throng of warriors,
First he lifts up the heavy sword,
Then takes from them the battle helmet,
Then, trembling in rapture, he attends
To the tales of grizzled warriors.


Rumyantsev, Minikh and Suvorov
Excite the blood and mind in him,
The fire of glory-loving thoughts
Is shining in his youthful glances.
Touched by the power of the story,
He, following on Yermolov’s trail,
Flies to the snowy Caucasus
And thirsts for victories and fame.


The Empress softly lowered herself
Upon a cloud as light as smoke,
And, smiling, gazed with admiration
Upon the charm of her great-grandson;
But suddenly taking on the visage
Of the bright-eyed Minerva, she
Flew down, full of the holy radiance
That burns within the highest wisdom.


Reaching out to the splendid one,
The Great one uttered unto him:
“I deem your spirit blazes warlike,
With love and hunger for loud deeds.
But there have been sufficient laurels
And victories for the midnight land,
There’s been enough loud-sounding glory
In recent, unforgotten years.


The time of warlike feats has passed
Just like a rumbling thunderstorm;
Another fate awaits your era,
Different deeds await you now.
The vault of azure skies will darken
With an impenetrable gloom;
There comes an age of stormy struggles
Between untruth and sacred truth.


The spirit of freedom now has woken
Against the powers that rule by force;
Look – the peoples are in turmoil.
Look – the swarm of tsars in movement.
It may be, my lad, that the crown
Was meant for you by the Creator;
Love the people, respect law’s power,
Learn early how to be a tsar.


Your duty is to good to the people,
To seek their love in all your actions;
To elevate not empty glitter
And not inheritance, but talents.
Provide enlightened regulations,
Freedom in thoughts and words likewise,
Purify morals through the sciences
And buttress faith in people’s hearts.


Love the free voice of the truth,
Love it for your own benefit,
But the ignoble spirit of slavery –
Root out bad judgment by the courts.
Zealously guard your subjects’ goods;
That is the first of rulers’ duties;
Be a protector of enlightenment;
It is the trusty friend of power.


Strive to catch the age’s spirit,
To learn the needs of the Russian lands,
Be a person to each person,
A citizen to your fellow-citizens.
Be an Anthony on the throne,
Make wisdom resident in your palace –
And thus you’ll win yourself more glory
Than all the heroes and all the tsars.”


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Civic Courage

An Ode

Who then is this astounding giant,
Clad all in shining armor bright,
A peaceful brow, a slender figure,
And radiant with loveliness?
Who is this man, decked with a crown,
Bearing a sword, with scales and shield,
Scorning his foes and pridefulness?
He stands here like a granite cliff
And crushes with a mighty heel
Injustice’s insidious head.

Is it not thou, oh courage of citizens,
Unshakeable and noble one,
Art thou not the genius of antique lands,
And too the power of free souls;
Mother of heroes, cause of miracles,
Is it not thou who didst praise Cato,
Who rescued Rome from Catilina
And in our days hast always been
The firmest buttress of the laws?

Instillèd with great souls by you,
Scorning their foes, scorning offense,
The Aristides, gleaming with glory,
Rescued their homeland from misfortune;
In exile, in faraway regions
Love for the social commonweal,
Love for their fellow citizens
Were unextinguished in their hearts;
They were benevolent there too
And shamed the Areopagites.

Thou, oh thou, who everywhere
Wert guarantee of peoples’ good;
Who mad'st glorious in legal judgment
Both Panin and our Dolgoruky;
One, as a firm guard of the good,
Dared to dispute with mighty Peter;
The other, scorning his fate’s wrath
And his enemies’ shriek and slander,
Spurned the advice of flatterers
And was a pillar for Great Catherine.

Great is he who sought fame in battles
And, striking fear in alien fighters,
Has made fast unto his banners
Victory, the heroes’ companion!
Shield of the homeland, threat to foes,
He is the ages' great achievement;
The heightened voices of the singers
Will hymn the brave deeds of the leader,
And, telling them to younger men,
Their grandchildren will tremble in rapture.

As the full moon from time to time,
Concealed beneath the clouds of night,
Suddenly breaks through that thick gloom
And flashes into travelers’ eyes –
So will a leader, through dark times
Shine for the eyes of future tribes;
But the warrior’s huge achievement
And the shame of his vanquished foes
In the court of minds, the court of ages –
They’re naught compared to civic virtue.

Where have there been few glorious chiefs,
To laws’ and freedom’s detriment?
From ancient years ’til our own era
All peoples have been proud of them;
Blood flowed everywhere in streams
Underneath their mortal swords.
Alas, Napoleons, Attilas,
Each age witnesses them in sequence:
They have appeared in a great crowd…
But have there been many Ciceros?

Only Rome, the worldwide ruler,
That land of freedom and of laws,
She alone managed to give birth
To both two Brutuses, and two Catos.
But are we to despair in spirit,
If one among the mighty giants
Of Great Catherine’s glorious days,
Amid the swarm of chosen men
Mordvinov too sits in the council?

Oh, thus, fellow citizens, ’tis not we
Who in our time fault providence –
Let there be thanks unto the heavens
For their holy condescension!
They, for the good of Russian lands,
Have gi’en a benevolent man to us;
Already five decades he amazes
All Russia with his civil courage;
In vain does slyness hiss around him –
He lays his foot upon its neck.

In vain the lying voice of passions
With spite, envy, and machinations,
Strive in their mad arrogance
To blacken the deeds of the hero.
He is firm, calm, and undeterred,
Keeping an eye on them with scorn,
He holds his free and lofty soul
Both in the council and at court
And with proud courage everywhere
Is a support to power and people.

Just so in terrible beauty stands
Grey-haired Mount Elbrus in thick mist:
All round the snow storms, hail and thunder,
The wind in crevices howls and whistles,
WHilst underneath the clouds fly past,
The streams make noise, the river wails;
But in vain their arrogant outbursts:
Elbrus, fairest Caucasian peak,
Stands undisturbed; under the skies
It proudly lifts its glorious summit.


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