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Two Stanzas by Ivan Turgenev

 

There was once a town, the inhabitants of which were so passionately fond of poetry, that if some weeks passed by without the appearance of any good new poems, they regarded such a poetic dearth as a public misfortune.

They used at such times to put on their worst clothes, to sprinkle ashes on their heads; and, assembling in crowds in the public squares, to shed tears and bitterly to upbraid the muse who had deserted them.

On one such inauspicious day, the young poet Junius came into a square, thronged with the grieving populace.

With rapid steps he ascended a forum constructed for this purpose, and made signs that he wished to recite a poem.

The lictors at once brandished their fasces. 'Silence! attention!' they shouted loudly, and the crowd was hushed in expectation.

'Friends! Comrades!' began Junius, in a loud but not quite steady voice:—

  'Friends! Comrades! Lovers of the Muse!
  Ye worshippers of beauty and of grace!
  Let not a moment's gloom dismay your souls,
  Your heart's desire is nigh, and light shall banish darkness.'

Junius ceased ... and in answer to him, from every part of the square, rose a hubbub of hissing and laughter.

Every face, turned to him, glowed with indignation, every eye sparkled with anger, every arm was raised and shook a menacing fist!

'He thought to dazzle us with that!' growled angry voices. 'Down with the imbecile rhymester from the forum! Away with the idiot! Rotten apples, stinking eggs for the motley fool! Give us stones—stones here!'

Junius rushed head over heels from the forum ... but, before he had got home, he was overtaken by the sound of peals of enthusiastic applause, cries and shouts of admiration.

Filled with amazement, Junius returned to the square, trying however to avoid being noticed (for it is dangerous to irritate an infuriated beast).

And what did he behold?

High above the people, upon their shoulders, on a flat golden shield, wrapped in a purple chlamys, with a laurel wreath on his flowing locks, stood his rival, the young poet Julius.... And the populace all round him shouted: 'Glory! Glory! Glory to the immortal Julius! He has comforted us in our sorrow, in our great woe! He has bestowed on us verses sweeter than honey, more musical than the cymbal's note, more fragrant than the rose, purer than the azure of heaven! Carry him in triumph, encircle his inspired head with the soft breath of incense, cool his brow with the rhythmic movement of palm-leaves, scatter at his feet all the fragrance of the myrrh of Arabia! Glory!'

Junius went up to one of the applauding enthusiasts. 'Enlighten me, O my fellow-citizen! what were the verses with which Julius has made you happy? I, alas! was not in the square when he uttered them! Repeat them, if you remember them, pray!'

'Verses like those I could hardly forget!' the man addressed responded with spirit. 'What do you take me for? Listen—and rejoice, rejoice with us!'

'Lovers of the Muse!' so the deified Julius had begun....

  'Lovers of the Muse! Comrades! Friends
  Of beauty, grace, and music, worshippers!
  Let not your hearts by gloom affrighted be!
  The wished-for moment comes! and day shall scatter night!'

'What do you think of them?'

'Heavens!' cried Junius; 'but that's my poem! Julius must have been in the crowd when I was reciting them; he heard them and repeated them, slightly varying, and certainly not improving, a few expressions.'

'Aha! Now I recognise you.... You are Junius,' the citizen he had stopped retorted with a scowl on his face. 'Envious man or fool!... note only, luckless wretch, how sublimely Julius has phrased it: "And day shall scatter night!" While you had some such rubbish: "And light shall banish darkness!" What light? What darkness?'

'But isn't that just the same?' Junius was beginning....

'Say another word,' the citizen cut him short, 'I will call upon the people ... they will tear you to pieces!'

Junius judiciously held his peace, but a grey-headed old man who had heard the conversation went up to the unlucky poet, and laying a hand upon his shoulder, said:

'Junius! You uttered your own thought, but not at the right moment; and he uttered not his own thought, but at the right moment. Consequently, he is all right; while for you is left the consolations of a good conscience.'

But while his conscience, to the best of its powers—not over successfully, to tell the truth—was consoling Junius as he was shoved on one side—in the distance, amid shouts of applause and rejoicing, in the golden radiance of the all-conquering sun, resplendent in purple, with his brow shaded with laurel, among undulating clouds of lavish incense, with majestic deliberation, like a tsar making a triumphal entry into his kingdom, moved the proudly erect figure of Julius ... and the long branches of palm rose and fell before him, as though expressing in their soft vibration, in their submissive obeisance, the ever-renewed adoration which filled the hearts of his enchanted fellow-citizens!

April 1878.