December 13, 2009

Derzhavin's "Ode to God" and Saint Herman of Alaska

St. Herman of Alaska (Feast Day - December 13)

In the life of Saint Herman of Alaska as recounted by Governor Yanovsky, we read of St. Herman's love for Derzhavin's Ode to God. Yanovsky writes:

"Once I read to Father Herman from Derzhavin's Ode 'God'. The Elder was amazed, ecstatic, and asked that I read it once more, which I did. 'Is it possible that this was written by an ordinary, learned poet?' he asked. 'Yes, he was a learned poet' I answered. 'It was inspired by God,' said the Elder."

Gavrila Derzhavin (+1816) is one of Russia's greatest poets, and his Ode to God is perhaps the greatest poem in Russian history, and certainly its most translated. Not only has it been translated multiple times in the various European languages, but it was translated even into Chinese and Japanese; it has been stated that it was printed in gold letters on white satin, and hung up in the palace of the Emperor of China; and Galowin says it was placed in the same manner in the temple at Jeddo. He wrote this poem in 1784, before the times of Napoleon.

Below are two versions in English. First is the so-called "literal" version by Nathan Haskell Dole. The second is translated by Sir John Bowring. On comparing Sir John Bowring's translation with the literal version, the reader will notice several departures from the original. These changes by Sir John were purposive, because it did not accord with his views of the perfection of the Deity.

Nothing, however, can adequately represent the splendid swing and movement of the Russian verse, with its mingled strength of vocalization. Some idea of the original may be gained from the following transcription of the first stanza:

ODA BOGA (Ode to God)

Tui, prastranstvom bezkonetchnui,
Zhivui v dvizhenyi veshchestva
Techenyem vremeni prevetchnui
Bez lits, v triokh litsakh Bozhestva
Dukh vsiudu sushchii i yedinui
Komunyet myesta i prichinui
Kovo nikto postitch nye mog,
Kto vsyo soboyu napolnyaet
Obyomlet, zizhdet, sokhranyaet,
Kovo mui nazuivaem Bog!


(Translated by Nathan Haskell Dole)

O Thou, infinite in space,
Living in the motions of matter,
Eternal in the course of time,
Without persons in the three persons of the Godhead!
Spirit everywhere permeating, and One,
Who hast no place or condition;
Unto whom no one can attain,
Who fillest all things with Thyself,
Embracest, vivifiest, preservest,
Whom we call God.

To measure the ocean deep,
To count the sands, the planet's rays,
Might be in the power of lofty intellect, -
For Thee there is no number and no measure;
Powerless are the enlightened spirits
Though born of Thy light
To explore Thy decrees.
So soon as thought dare mount towards Thee
It vanishes in Thy majesty,
As a passing instant in eternity.

Existence, forth from chaos, before time was,
Thou from the gulfs of Eternity didst call forth;
And Eternity, before the birth of the ages,
Thou didst found in Thyself:
By Thyself, self constituted,
Of Thyself, self shining,
Thou art light, from whence light streamed.
Creating all things by Thy single word,
In Thy new creation stretching out
Thou wast, Thou art, Thou ever shalt be.

Thou containest in Thyself the chain of beings,
Thou sustainest them, and givest them life,
Thou joinest together the end and the beginning,
Thou grantest life unto death.
As sparks are showered forth, and rush away
So suns are born from Thee.
As on a bright, frosty winter's day
The spangles of hoar-frost sparkle,
So whirl, flash, shine
The stars in the gulfs beneath Thee.

Millions of kindled luminaries
Flow through infinity;
Thy laws they operate,
Pour forth revivifying rays.
But these fiery lamps
Whether piles of ruddy crystals
Or a boiling throng of golden billows,
Others glowing
Or all alike worlds of light,
Are in Thy presence as night before day.

Like a drop drowned in the sea
Is all the shining firmament before Thee;
But what is the Universe that I see?
And what am I before Thee ?
If yon aerial ocean exist
Millions of worlds,
Hundreds of millions of other worlds, and yet, -
When I venture to compare them with Thee,
They are but a single dot,
And I in Thy presence am naught.

Naught! But in me Thou shinest
In the majesty of Thy goodness;
In me Thou reflectest Thyself
As the sun in a tiny drop of water.
Naught! But life I feel,
Unsatisfied with aught, I soar
Ever aloft unto the heights;
My soul yearns to be Thine,
Penetrates, meditates, thinks:
I am, therefore Thou art also.

Thou art! the order of Nature proclaims it,
My heart tells me the same,
My reason persuades me;
Thou art, and I am therefore not nothing!
I am a part of the universal All,
Established, methinks, in the reverend
Midst of Thy Universe,
Where Thou hast ended Thy corporeal creatures,
Where Thou hast begun the heavenly spirits
And the chain of all beings is linked to me.

I am a bond between all worlds everywhere existent,
I am the utmost limit of being;
I am the centre of living things,
The initial stroke of Divinity;
In my body I perish in dust corruptible,
In my spirit I command the storms;
I am a tsar, I am a slave; I am a worm, I am god!
But marvelous indeed as I am,
Whence did I have my being? Unknown
But by myself I could not have been.

Thy work am I, Creator!
I am the creation of Thy wisdom,
Source of life, Dispenser of all good,
Soul of my soul, and Tsar!
It was necessary for Thy righteousness
That the gulf of mortality should be spanned
By my immortal existence;
That my spirit should be wrapped in mortality
And that through death I should return,
Father, to Thy immortality.

Incomprehensible, Ineffable,
I know that my soul's imagination is helpless
To paint even Thy shadow;
But if it is necessary to sing Thy praise,
Then it is impossible for feeble mortals
To reverence Thee in any other way
Than by yearning toward Thee
By losing one's self in Thy endless variety,
And by shedding tears of gratitude.


(Translated by Sir John Bowring)

Thou Eternal One! whose presence bright
All space doth occupy, all motion guide:
Unchanged through time's all-devastating flight;
Thou only God! There is no God beside!
Being above all beings! Mighty One!
Whom none can comprehend, and none explore;
Who fill'st existence with Thyself alone:
Embracing all, supporting, ruling o'er,
Being whom we call God, and know no more!

In its sublime search, philosophy
May measure out the ocean deep,
The sands, or the sun's rays; but, God! for Thee
There is no weight or measure; none can mount
Up to Thy mysteries. Season's bright spark,
Though kindled by Thy light, in vain would try
To trace Thy counsels, infinite and dark;
And thought is lost ere thought can soar so high,
Even like past moments in eternity.

Thou from primeval nothingness didst call
First chaos, then existence: Lord! on Thee
Eternity had its foundation; all
Sprang forth from Thee: -- of light, joy, harmony,
Sole origin : all life, all beauty Thine;
Thy word created all, and doth create;
Thy splendor fills all space with rays divine.
Thou art, and wert, and shalt be! Glorious! Great!
Light-giving, Life-sustaining Potentate!

Thy chains the unmeasured universe surround,
Upheld by Thee, by Thee inspired with breath!
Thou the beginning with the end hast bound,
And beautifully mingled life and death!
As sparks mount upwards from the fiery blaze,
So suns are born, so worlds sprang forth from Thee.
And as the spangles in the sunny rays
Shine round the silver snow, the pageantry
Of heaven's bright army glitters in Thy praise.

A million torches lighted by Thy hand
Wander, unwearied, through the blue abyss;
They own Thy power, accomplish Thy command
All gay with life, all eloquent with bliss.
What shall we call them? Piles of crystal light,
A glorious company of golden streams,
Lamps of celestial ether burning bright,
Suns lighting systems with Thy joyous beams?
But Thou to these art as the noon to night.

Yes! as a drop of water in the sea,
All this magnificence in Thee is lost:
What are ten thousand worlds compared to Thee?
What am I then? Heaven's unnumbered host,
Though multiplied by myriads, and arrayed
In all the glory of sublimest thought,
Is but an atom in the balance, weighed
Against Thy greatest, is a cipher brought
Against infinity! Oh! what am I then? Nought!

Nought! yet the effluence of Thy light divine,
Pervading worlds, hath i cached my bosom too;
Yes! in my spirit doth Thy spirit shine,
As shines the sunbeam in a drop of dew.
Nought! yet I live, and on hope's pinions fly
Eager towards Thy presence; for in Thee
I live, and breathe, and dwell: aspiring high
Even to the throne of Thy divinity.
I am, God, and surely Thou must be!

Thou art! directing, guiding all, Thou art!
Direct my understanding, then, to Thee;
Control my spirit, guide my wandering heart;
Though but an atom 'midst immensity,
Still I am something, fashioned by Thy hand!
I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth,
On the last verge of mortal being stand,
Close to the realms where angels have their birth,
Just on the boundaries of the spirit-land.

The chain of being is complete in me:
In me is matter's last gradation lost,
And the next is spirit, Deity!
I can command the lightning, and am dust!
A monarch, and a slave; a worm, a god!
When came I here? and how so marvelously
Constructed and conceived? Unknown! -- This clod
Lives surely through some higher energy;
For, from itself, it could not be!

Creator! yes! Thy wisdom and Thy word
Created me! Thou source of life and good!
Thou spirit of my spirit, and my Lord!
Thy light, Thy love, in their bright plenitude
Filled me with an immortal soul, to spring
Over the abyss of death, and bade it wear
The garments of eternal day, and wing
Its heavenly flight beyond this little sphere,
Even to its source, -- to Thee, -- its Author there!

Oh! thoughts ineffable! Oh! visions blest!
Though worthless our conceptions all of Thee,
Yet shall Thy shadowed image fill our breast,
And waft its homage to Thy Deity.
God! thus alone my lonely thoughts can soar,
Thus seek Thy Presence, Being wise and good!
'Midst Thy vast works admire, obey, adore;
And when the tongue is eloquent no more,
The soul shall speak in tears of gratitude.