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February 2, 2010
Ты был ли, гордый Рим, земли самовластитель,
Ты был ли, о свободный Рим?
К немым развалинам твоим

Подходит с грустию их чуждый навеститель.

За что утратил ты величье прежних дней?
За что, державный Рим! тебя забыли боги?
Град пышный, где твои чертоги,

Где сильные твои? о родина мужей!

Тебе ли изменил победы мощный гений?
Ты ль на распутии времен
Стоишь в позорище племен,

Как пышный саркофаг погибших поколений?

Кому еще грозишь с твоих семи холмов?
Судьбы ли всех держав ты грозный возвеститель?
Или, как призрак-обвинитель,
Печальный предстоишь очам твоих сынов?

written by 1821, published 1824

Iambic hexameter and tetrameter: 1st and 4th lines of each stanza are hexameter, 3rd line always tetrameter, 2nd line is tetrameter in odd stanzas and hexameter in even stanzas.  Rhyme AbbAcDDc.

The poet delivers a long series of questions to Rome, repeating forms of the pronoun ты or твой some twelve times, plus numerous other forms of direct address: гордый Рим, земли самовластитель, свободный Рим, державный Рим, град пышный, родина мужей.  The observer appears briefly in one line in the third person: их чуждый навеститель.

Roman ruins (CC photo by Erin Silversmith)

In the first three stanzas there is an implicit contrast, perhaps, between “free Rome” on the one hand and the proud and powerful city on the other (especially in lines 1-2).  Still, in lines 1-12 there seems to be more heightening of the oratorical level through repetition and variation than an evolving thought or a presentation of alternative answers to the many questions.  “Тебя забыли боги?” and “тебе ли изменил победы мощный гений?” seem, for example, to be paraphrases of the same idea.  Perhaps there is some change in emphasis from “был ли” questions to “ты ли” questions.

It is in the fourth stanza that alternatives are spelled out, that we finally have “are you this, or that?” instead of “did you exist, or not?,” “are you the one that…?”  Line 14, “судьбы ли всех держав ты грозный возвеститель,” seems to contain the whole of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” and that is the poet’s first reading of what ancient Rome and its ruins might mean.

The second possibility is in lines 15-16: “или, как призрак-обвинитель,/ Печальный предстоишь очам твоих сынов?”  Besides the shift from возвеститель to обвинитель, there are others: the introduction of призрак, giving the ruins a supernatural animation; the perspective of твои сыны, Rome’s own sons, when before the observer had been pointedly чуждый and the perspective universal (всех держав); and the greater length and final position of this second alternative, giving it greater weight.

What is Rome accusing its sons of, and who are its sons?  Why is it sad?  The sons can hardly be the heirs of imperial Rome (где сильные твои?), but in one reading they could be the sons of free Rome – not latter-day Romans, but contemporary European believers in Freedom and the Republic.  Then the ghostly Rome would live on as a reproach, mourning the loss of its long-past Republican freedoms and the failure of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to reestablish them.

Much of this interpretation hangs on the single epithet свободный and the (contemporary or modern) reader’s association of Rome with both Tyranny/Empire and Liberty/Republic.  It is entirely possible to see not a contrast between two Romes in this poem, but a single Rome that is both an empire and a land of freedom, a держава of which freedom is only one attribute.  I don’t have a specific alternate reading to propose offhand, but I don’t want to close off the possibility.

Note the symmetry of the observer’s sadness (грусть)  in stanza 1 and Rome’s sadness (печальный) in stanza 4.

I hadn’t intended to do so many posts on Baratynskii this week, but (as often happens) rereading him, I’m finding much more variety than I remembered.

(Photo and license information here)

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