Aleksandr Pushkin: The Truth, Critical Essay

Aleksandr Pushkin: The Truth, Critical Essay

Azure Gallagher Michalak

“From ancient times sages were seeking

For the forgotten truth’s footprints.

And they for long were loud-speaking

The usual speeches of old flints.

They were repeating: “The truth-treasure Had hidden self into a well.” (5)

And, drinking water all together, were crying: “There we’ll find it, well!”

But someone faithful friend of mortals, (Maybe Silen this person was)

The witness of their disputes, thoughtless,

Had tired of water and of noise,

Left all attempts to find the holly, And thought about wine, the first, (10)

And, having drunk a bowl, whole,

Saw, on its bottom, the truth, lost.”

 -Aleksandr Pushkin, Yengeny Bonver translation [1]

One of the fundamental human attributes is the search for the Truth, the meaning of life. It has been a signature part of society ever since at least the beginning of civilization. People have attempted in myriad ways to try to find this universal truth; philosophy, religion, sports, math, science, and art are just a sample. And so Pushkin’s poem begins with a subject no less important than this; sages trying to find the meaning of life, the Secret that makes everything sparkle.

At the beginning, these wise sages track down footprints, and search widely for the remainder of the “truth-treasure”. They appear to be unsuccessful, and at the end, the situation becomes hopeless and the distracted wise men talk amongst each other whilst drinking water and making excuses, saying the truth must be hidden in a well. (5) As they are drinking water and still not finding the truth, it becomes apparent that this method is not working. The water in this poem stands for cowardice and blandness, and reminds one of the phrase “watered down.” It symbolizes the futility of their hunt for truth.

The search for meaning has been a failure for the wise sages, but someone else is now introduced, Silen or Silenus. At the end, only the person who became tired of the search actually found it. Silen was a satyr from Greek mythology, one of the first antinatalists. (those against bringing life into the world) This philosophy, of which a central tenet is overpopulation, has existed since long before the total human population was over one billion. Ironically, as Silen abandons the quest for the truth, becomes distracted and drinks wine, he actually discovers that truth lost at the bottom of his bowl. (12) The moral is that you cannot find the truth by furiously searching for it like the sages, only by letting it find you instead. The latter half of the poem could be miscontrued to support alcoholism, but in actuality the wine and water are symbolic for different ways of living, the former frenetically searching and the latter calm and collected. 

There are two words for “truth” in Russian, Istina and Pravda. The former is “divine truth” and the latter is subjective truth, the word used in this poem. [2] Of all the ways of searching for the Truth, some are direct and some not as direct; some use a physical method to bring psychological and spiritual satisfaction to their lives, others try to find it directly at a higher level. It seems the old men were trying this higher spiritual or philosophical approach without success. Silenus’ approach, on the other hand, was reminiscent of Forrest Gump, Sling Blade, or any simpleminded but generally happy people.

“The Truth” is a compliment to the physically-dwelling and simple-minded, stating that only by enjoying life can one find any remnant of the truth, not by trying to directly capture it. By being less intelligent, one is aware of less problems and life may appear better. Abstract worries or ideaologies may not obscure vision in these people. As the overused cliche goes, “Ignorance is bliss.” Many appear happy with their lives lived simply, on farms or the wilderness. 

One of the issues with this poem, and with Pushkin and Russian poets in general, is the fact that meaning is often lost or occluded in translation. Russian only shares primitive roots with English, and compared to French and Spanish it is quite difficult to translate. The numerous translations of this piece in particular make this fact painfully obvious. Neither of them are alike or even very similar. A literal interpretation is below, and it seems that the Yevgeny Bonver translation is actually inferior in a way, using rhymes that do not fully fit together and feel quite false. A fitting example is: “The truth-treasure has hidden itself into a well/ and there we’ll find it, well!” 

Literal Translation

It has long been looking for the wise

Traces of the forgotten truth

And long, long interpreted

Longstanding rumors elderly.

Asserted: “Truth is holy In the pits, cleaned up secretly “

And, happily drinking water, Shouted: “Here we find her!”

But somebody, mortal benefactor (And almost old Silenus)

Their stupidity important witness,

Water and cry tired,

Left our invisibility, First thought about wine

And, drained to the dregs the cup

Saw the truth at the bottom.

Although some of the English grammar and all of the end rhymes have been taken out in this version, it has more of the Russian character and arguably more impact than the translation at the beginning of this essay. Nevertheless, Alexsandr Pushkin is considered the Shakespeare of Russia, and “The Truth” is one of his more fascinating poems, on which many hours of research can be spent. It is very thought-provoking, a useful way to start philosophical discussions, and although the English version may not have the same impact as the original, it is still high-quality piece of classic poetry.





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