Lifesaving Poems: Boris Pasternak’s ‘Hamlet’




The buzz subsides. I have come on stage.
Leaning in an open door
I try to detect from the echo
What the future has in store.

A thousand opera-glasses level
The dark, point-blank, at me.
Abba, Father, if it be possible
Let this cup pass from me.

I love your preordained design
And am ready to play this role.
But the play being acted is not mine.
For this once let me go.

But the order of the acts is planned,
The end of the road already revealed.
Alone among the Pharisees I stand.
Life is not a stroll across a field.


Boris Pasternak,  trs. Jon Stallworthy and Peter France

from Selected Poems (Penguin, 1983)

The Selected Poems of Boris Pasternak was the first collection of poems in translation into English I owned. I fell in love straight away with the first poem in the book, ‘It’s February. Weeping, take ink’. I loved the directness of its tone, which appeared to be addressed to someone both inside and outside of the poem, a tone which managed to sound intense, offhand and grand all at once. I had seen poems by Ted Hughes where first lines had been used as de facto titles, but nothing on this scale, in poem after poem. I felt as though the poems were shrugging their shoulders at me, not caring if I looked their way or not.

For a while I developed a theory that in order to write poems you needed to be up at dawn, freezing and preferably in (or just out of) love.

But the poem I loved best of all was ‘Hamlet’. I had made some attempts at acting at school, with not very successful results. Hooked by the title, I was intrigued immediately by the poem’s opening line which announces the arrival of a character ‘on stage’ but tells us precisely nothing about the action that is happening (or about to happen) there. I loved the daring of this, the wit of depicting a character who moves out of the shadows to start speaking lines which we hear nothing of.

We are privy instead to a more urgent, and it turns out, poignant monologue, one the ‘thousands’-large audience, protected by the ‘dark’, will never hear. More wit. I wondered: who is being ‘seen’ here? Who is is eavesdropping on whom?

I loved this action (more thinking than action?) occurring in media res.  To my untutored ears it sounded as though the assumed voice of a fictional character speaking not his ‘lines’ but his own thoughts seemed at least as ‘truthful’, if not more so, than every other poem in the book. This very much appealed to my still-adolescent mind, the absolute knowledge I had every time I opened my mouth, whether in private or public, that the words I spoke were not the ‘real’ version of the person I thought I was.

Pasternak’s Hamlet gave me my first window into both the complexity, and apparent transparency, of the adult world I was rapidly entering, where saying what you mean and meaning what you say were not the same thing at all. What Seamus Heaney has called the ‘shyest, pre-social, part of [my] nature’ had found itself in the presence of its own, barely acknowledged ‘echo’. Like Hamlet entering the stage, I entered poetry ‘alone’, but was welcomed there, albeit confronted by ‘Pharisees’, waiting to see what I might might find myself saying.


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