A young Boris Pasternak (left) with his brother, Alexander, painted by their father, Leonid Pasternak. Image credit: U.S. Public Domain
In the wake of Russian invasion in Ukraine in February, 2022, New School professor Inessa Medzhibovskaya shared a translation of this early poem by Boris Pasternak (1890–1960). The English translation is followed by the original text, “Fevral’. Dostat’ chernil I plakat’!” (1912), and a note on the translation.
February. Get ink—and weep away!
About February, aghast, in sobs
To write. Its raucous slosh
Is blazing black, aflame with spring.
Where rooks resembling charcoaled pears
Crash into puddles thousand strong
Down from the trees, their arid sorrow
Cascades into the eyes’ abyss.
“Fevral’. Dostat’ chernil I plakat’!” (1912)
Февраль. Достать чернил и плакать!
Писать о феврале навзрыд,
Пока грохочущая слякоть
Весною черною горит.
Достать пролетку. За шесть гривен,
Чрез благовест, чрез клик колес,
Перенестись туда, где ливень
Еще шумней чернил и слез.
Где, как обугленные груши,
С деревьев тысячи грачей
Сорвутся в лужи и обрушат
Сухую грусть на дно очей.
Под ней проталины чернеют,
И ветер криками изрыт,
И чем случайней, тем вернее
Слагаются стихи навзрыд.
On the Translation
The four quatrains of the “February” poem are written in iambic tetrameter and rhymed abab, with feminine rhymes concluding the first and third line, and masculine rhymes concluding lines two and four in each of the stanzas. Written by a 22-year-old author, this untitled poem is usually the first to open Pasternak’s poetry collections. The Russian original is full of “sobbing,” it is choking with staccato sounds, dazzled by its own expressionist imagery, and unnerved by the crenelated rhythm. Such is the image of the wind “corrugated” [izrYt] by the cries and noisy, storm-like descent from the trees of the flocks of rooks resembling “charcoaled pears.” The nervous tempo and the dark black of the blaze in the rites of this coming spring (Igor Stravinsky’s eponymous ballet was finished in 1913) are set off by the more serene tempo of the stanzas describing the author’s experience of poetic transport. His smooth flight “over there,” to the holy of holies of creation, is accomplished for the price of just sixty kopeks as is he hopping into a very prosaic, light four-wheeled city horse coach to the sound of a joyous peal of the church bells. In the end, fears and anguish become purged by precipitous—the truest—sounds of a poem in the making: the poet’s composure is regained after the poem has begun being composed.
Through the tears of February, the poem speaks to the tragedy that began on February 24, 2022, the day when the Russian military operation, its invasion of Ukraine, was unleashed. Boris Pasternak, a Jew by birth, chose to remain in Soviet Russia when the rest of his family, his famous father, painter and portraitist Leonid Pasternak included, had left, never to return. The future Nobel Prize laureate (1958) and author of Doctor Zhivago must have known that years of vicious hounding from the party apparatchiks and the subservient nomenclature cliques lay in store. Indeed, and as is well known, he was forced to decline the Nobel award. Pasternak was a multilingual cosmopolitan who never lost faith in the capacity for resurrection and rebirth of the Russian language. In the darkest years of Stalinism, he produced the definitive Russian versions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Goethe’s Faust, translations that belong in the world treasury of dramatic poetry in their own right. In 1944, Odessa—the heroic port on the Black Sea, and the birthplace of his father—was liberated from the Nazi troops and their allies by the soldiers of the many nationalities and ethnicities of the Soviet Union who fought in the Soviet Army. Thinking of Odessa’s own unique conglomerate of nationalities and the inimitable specificity of its unmistakable parlance, Pasternak went on to compose his lesser-known poetic tribute to the liberated city, writing a poem called “Odessa,” in which he made a promise that that the wounds and horrors brought on by the war would be redeemed with the help of Russian literature. It is imperative to rely on this faith in the rebirth of life with the help of art: the current suffering of Ukraine is sending this urgent signal to the world.
A disclosure regarding unrhymed and rhymed poetry: Pasternak composed in rhymes. However, we must follow the proscription issued by Vladimir Nabokov and honor his opinion that poetry in translation renders all rhymes inimical to the spirit of the original.
Poetic variations on this poem and tributes to the victims of this war by New School students will be also shared with our community.
Inessa Medzhibovskaya has taught at The New School since 2004 and is currently Associate Professor of Liberal Studies and Literature at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College. Her newest book is Tolstoy as Philosopher (2022).
 The original has a proletka [pronounced prolYOtka], an open light carriage of four wheels that can “fly” fast from place to place.
 Six grivnas is equal to sixty copecks. Grivna is an old Slavic currency. Hryvnia is now the national currency of Ukraine.
 Thawed spots show their black as if they were under-eye bags. These are the signs of “arid sorrow” [sukhAya grust’] collapsed into the abyss of the eyes.
 The cries are those of the rooks; they are augmented by the loudness of the poet’s sobs mixed with the wails of the wind, and these are topped off by the crashing of the tree branches and all the boisterous noise coming from the dives that rooks are taking and then splashing in the rivulets of thawed puddles.