The Poetry of Ivan Bunin


Ivan Bunin is better known for his short stories, but wrote poetry throughout his long working life. The poetry is quiet and unassuming, but was sufficient to win Bunin the Pushkin Prize in Russia on three occasions, and contribute to the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded in 1933, when Bunin was an emigré writer domiciled in France.

Bunin's poetry is popular with Russians, but is not well known outside the country. The poems seem very conventional, quite unlike those of more celebrated writers in Russia's Silver Age, but the pieces are very accomplished and have weathered well: many indeed anticipate the approaches of western Modernist poets.

Bunin's Traditional Approach

Poetry for Bunin required application, observation and detachment. Each poem was a separate conception, therefore, born of what its author felt and saw at that particular moment, and not the product of a sustained reflection on intellectualised themes, as Modernist work tends to be. Bunin was thus a very traditional poet, indeed reactionary in later years. A poet in Bunin’s view does not create from sustained imagination, but must fuse sense impressions and craft to produce aesthetic entities that reconcile us to our existence as it generally is, fragmentary and in the end unsatisfactory, but still mysteriously life-enhancing.

The free pdf ebook translates fifty of Bunin's most representative pieces. Each is given with facing Russian text, and the ebook includes an extensive Appendix providing literal and prosodic renderings, links to critical articles and audio recordings, and important references.

A free e-book in pdf format.

Excerpt (Opening of Leaf Fall)

The forest, a towering, painted wall
of purple, gold and crimson shade
rejoices in the sunlight’s fall
from heights into this brilliant glade.

5. The birch-tree shavings, yellow-white,
thin-glimmer in the azure light,
while tall, dark firs that soar on through
the gaps in maples fade to blue.

In places through the foliage shine
10. odd widows where the sky has won.
The forest smells of oak and pine,
of summers dried out in the sun.

Now autumn, in her sadder shows,
adopts the widow’s quieter clothes.

15. Today, athwart the light, is laid
across an empty courtyard space,
the spider’s web of silver braid
that was an aerial net of lace.

About the yard, throughout the day,
20. the last moth flutters, then is still,
when, like a petal in the chill
of winter, in the web will stay.

But in the sun great warmth is found,
as from the splendour all around.
25. But also silence in the light
that falls from blue and forest height.

What does this close, thick silence hold
that we can hear a leaf unfold?
The forest, a towering, painted wall   
30. of purple, gold and crimson shade.       

Across this simple, happy glade,
and spell-bound by the silence made,
a blackbird calls and seems to fly
from where the thickest shadows lie.

35. Deep amber gleams the foliage there,
but scattered through the heaven’s air,
wide, scattered flocks of starlings press:
then all is still, as though aware
of this last flood of happiness.

40. So autumn knows its settled lease,
accepting deep and thoughtful peace.