Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Poetry Break: 'No Place for White Hands'

On the Road (1845), a short poem by writer Nikolay Nekrasov, is considered a classic of Russian poetry. When it comes to lady-to-maid plots in Victorian-era literature this is probably as best as it gets. Not unlike "tragic octoroon" stories in the United States around the same time, this is more of a biting comment on class disctinctions, society injustice, and serfdom than anything else,

However, I can't help but think that the inherent eroticism of the main character's social and cultural downfall from a noble lady to a bondmaid was not lost on contemporary readers.

I did not know there was a very good English translation of this poem until I stumbled upon a collection of Nekrasov's work published by Delphi Classics.

On the Road

'Is this wearisome road without end?
I am sick of the grey desolation!
Sing a song for me, driver, my friend,
Of recruiting, of long separation,
Make my laugh by some legend of old,
Speak of what thou has seen or been told,
Think of something, I pray, to relieve me...'
'I too, sir, am troubled, believe me:
I am cursed with a venomous wife:
It's like this; the first part of her life
She was petted and spoilt by the gentry,
To the barin's own house she had entry;
Why, she lived with the barin's own daughter,
And all manner of learning they taught her,
Such tricks as for nobles are fit:
How to read, play the harp, sew and knit.
And her clothing was not what one sees
On the women and girls of the peasant:
They must deck her in silk, if you please,
And her food was abundant and pleasant:
Milk and honey and kasha, galore,
"Eat your fill, there will always be more..."
And she looked so majestic and grand
That a serf-girl you'd never have thought her -
But a lady of rank in the land,
Why, a marriage a gentleman sought her,
('Twas the coachman who told that to me)
Her happiness, though, was not granted;
"Wed a slave to a noble!" quoth she,
"In your circles such ware is not wanted."
'Well, the barin's young daughter got wed,
And the marriage took place in the city,
Then the barin fell sick, more's the pity,
And on Trinity eve he lay dead.
So protector than Grousha had none,
In a month the new heir showed his hand,
He recounted the serfs one by one,
Re-adjusted the taxes and land,
Then of Grousha bethought him as well,
And what happened there no-one can tell, -
Did she vex the new master or no,
Did it seem to him best she should go,
Did he reckon the manor too small
To house Grousha along with them all....

'Well, whatever the reason might be,
"Get thee gone to the village!" quoth he,
"Art a bondswoman, learn thy degree!"

'Poor girl!.. how she wept... 'twas no place
For white hands and a delicate face.

'To my grief I had turned then nineteen,
So a payer of taxes they made me,
And to marry with Grousha they bade me,
God sees what a coil it has been!
She looks so... forbidding somehow,
She can tend neither garden nor cow,
It's not that she's lazy or wilful,
But simply... her hands are not skilful
At work that for peasants is good,
Such as carrying water or wood.
And it's pitiful, barin, to see her
At work in the fields. Could I free her
I would. But there... what can I do?
'Well, I buy her a trifle or two,
But my gifts have no power to appease her,
The coarse sarafan does not please her,
She shrinks from the rough peasant shoe.
With others she's passive and still,
But alone she lies sobbing and wailing,
She's like one distraught. 'Tis God's will,
For the woman herself has no failing...
She reads in some sort of a book,
At some sort of portrait she'll look,
It sickens my heart: who can tell
If the boy will not perish as well?

'She'll teach him and tend him and wash him,
And comb out his hair every day,
Won't chide him, and won't let me thrash him:
A real little barin, you'd say.
Ah, well... it won't last in that way,
She hardly can stand on her feet.
She's pale, and as lean as a splinter,
A spoonful of porridge she'll eat...
They say she'd be dead before winter.
God knows what the reason can be.
I don't overwork her, you see,
I keep her, - there's nought I refuse her,
It's seldom enough I abuse her,
And not without cause, as I think.
And this I can swear on my honour:
My fist is no heavy upon her,
And never unless I'm in drink.'

'Stay, driver, enough for to-day,
You've driven my sadness away!'


  1. An Appreciative ReaderApril 20, 2017 at 11:21 PM

    The breadth of your cultural knowledge scares me sometimes, Camille! It's amazing the things you ferret out... Thanks for the share :)

    1. You are welcome, there is more where it came from!

    2. The 1970s potboiler "Wicked Loving Lies" by Rosemary Rogers has a wicked stepmother suborn perjury that has an heiress falsely judged to be a slave and sold rather than inheriting her father's property,on the grounds that she was supposedly the daughter of an octoroon.

    3. Yes, thanks for mentioning this one. I used to look for stories like that. Most famously this plot device is central to Robert Penn Warren's A Band of Angels.