The Golden Cockerel

Alexander Pushkin June 5, 2017
Russian
Easy
7 min read
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    In country far, and days long gone,
    There lived a famous Tsar — Dadon.
    When young, his strength was held in awe
    By all his neighbours: he made war
    Whenever he declared it right.

    With age, he grew less keen to fight,
    Desiring his deserved peace: Struggle should stop; war’s clamour cease.

    His down-trod neighbours saw their chance,
    And armed with dagger, sword and lance,
    Attacked his frontiers at will,
    Making the old Tsar maintain still
    An army of twelve thousand men,
    With horses, weaponry, and then
    Appoint highly-paid generals
    To guard the kingdom’s threatened walls.

    But, when they watched the west, ’twas sure
    The eastern border, less secure
    Would be where hostile troops appeared,
    The danger greatest where least feared.
    Eastward the generals sally forth,
    Only to find that now the north
    Border is where the danger lies.
    Tormented thus, Tsar Dadon cries
    Hot tears of rage. He cannot sleep.
    O’er land foes stream; then from the deep.
    What is life worth, when so assailed?

    So, desperate, Dadon availed
    Himself of magic, turning to
    A sorcerer (and eunuch, too),
    Interpreter of omens, stars,
    Bird-flights, and such particulars.
    The courtier, sent to call the sage,
    Implied there’d be a handsome wage.
    Arrived at court, the wise old man
    Disclosed with confidence his plan:
    The golden cockerel he drew
    Out from his bag by magic knew
    Who would attack, and when, and where,
    Enabling generals to prepare.

    “Just watch and listen,” said the sage.
    Dadon responded: “I engage,
    If this be so, to grant as fee
    Whatever you request of me.
    So, set the cock, as weather-vane
    Upon the highest spire. Remain
    Watchful, attentive; he will show
    You when to arm, and where to go.
    Superior intelligence
    Will always be the best defense.”

    And so it proves: whenever threats
    Appear, the faithful sentry sets
    His crimson crest in that direction
    Whence comes th’incipient insurrection.
    “Kiri-ku-ku,” he cries, “Hear me,
    And rule long years, from worry free.”
    Discovered once, and caused to flee,
    Then thrice more routed, th’enemy
    Lose heart, respect again the will
    Of Tsar Dadon, their master still.

    A year so passes, then one more.
    Dadon expects another score.
    One dawn however, courtiers wake
    The Tsar, pale-faced, with hearts a-quake:
    “The cockerel, Lord, calls you to arms.
    Protect us, holy Tsar, from harms.”
    Dadon, half-sleeping, asks: “What? What?
    Have you your manners quite forgot?”
    “Forgive us, but the cock,” they say,
    Is adamant, brooks no delay.”
    The people panic. Only you
    Can their else-mut’nous fears subdue.

    Rousing himself, old Tsar Dadon
    Declares he’ll send his elder son
    Southward, whose army shall repel
    The foe which that true cockerel
    Has there disclosed. “Now back to bed
    “The enemy’s as good as dead.”
    The Tsar proclaims, “I too retire.
    Fear not. My spy’s still on his spire.”

    Wars oft entail a news black-out:
    Was there a victory? Or rout?
    Who has prevailed? How stands the score
    Of dead? And were ours less or more
    Than theirs? No word for seven days
    The Court’s disquietude allays.

    Then, on the eighth, the cockerel’s
    Loud cry the peace again dispels.
    This time his crimson comb points north.
    Dadon ordains to sally forth
    His younger son, leading a force,
    So rich in armour, men and horse,
    That no known foe could fail to yield,
    Such weapons Dadon’s troops now wield.

    They march; are gone. Silence profound
    Envelops them, as though the ground
    Had opened, as it did in truth,
    To swallow up all Hamlin’s youth
    When its authorities displayed
    Indiff’rence to a promise made.

    Ill omen! For another week
    The golden cock’s sharp close-clamped beak
    Swings slowly round, clock-wise; and then
    Swings just as slowly back again.
    But, when the eighth day dawns, the bird
    Crows the alarm. Grim-faced, a third
    Army the Tsar himself leads out.
    Ahead, a solitary scout,
    Follows the blood-red setting sun.
    Dadon’s last campaign has begun.
    Long nights and days the soldiers march:
    Frost cramps their feet; then hot winds parch
    Their throats. They seek, but find no trace
    Of battles, of the bloody chase
    Of fugitives, of funeral mounds.
    No rallying cries, no trumpet’s sounds
    Waft to the ears of Tsar Dadon,
    As puzzled, tired, he trudges on.

    Just when he’s topped a mountain pass,
    Descending valley-ward,… alas!
    What frightful vision lies before
    Him: scattered round a silken tent
    Lie those two armies Dadon sent
    In his defence. Now all are dead;
    And his two sons, unhelmeted,
    Hold swords plunged in each other’s breast,
    Hatred in four glazed eyes expressed.

    Oh, my dear children! Who has snared
    My falcons? What magician dared
    Villainy in their hearts to stir,
    To make of each a murderer?
    His soldiers raise such grievous groan
    It seems the very mountains moan. But then the curtains of the tent
    Are flung aside. The hands that rent
    Them, diamond-ringed and braceleted,
    The stately figure, noble head,
    Royalty’s redolence express..
    A Shamakhanskaya Princess
    She is, who sees Dadon, and smiles.
    Her beck’ning finger so beguiles
    Him that, bewitched, his sons forgot
    The Tsar accepts his destined lot:
    Her rule, indeed her domination.

    He walks, surrendering his nation,
    Into the silken-wall’ed tent,
    Wherein his next eight nights are spent
    In (who can doubt?) those rites of passion
    To detail which is out of fashion,
    Feasting ‘tween-times on everything
    Our chefs declare «fit for a king».

    At last begins the homeward course.
    The maiden, mounted on his horse,
    Caresses the still-love-sick Tsar.
    The soldiers grumble; yet they are
    Eager to tell their waiting friends
    (With what imagination lends
    Their memories) fantastic stuff
    And nonsense. Sure, they’ve seen enough!

    Rumours have reached the capital
    Before them. At its drawbridge, all
    The people wait in trepidation
    To see the ruler of the nation
    Approaching with his new consort,
    Of whom men variously report
    She is a witch, a whore, a queen.
    Never before have such things been.

    They greet their Tsar. His grave salute
    Befits his rank; but his acute
    Eye has detected in the crowd
    That eunuch-sage whose cockerel’s loud
    Uproar had saved the threatened state.
    “Approach, old man,” Dadon invites,
    “I grant whatever gift requites
    You for your golden cockerel
    Whose sentry-duty served so well.”

    “I just desire,” the wizard says,
    The Shamakhanskaya Princess.
    Come now, my lady, we must leave.”
    Th’astonished Tsar cannot believe
    His ears. “What? what? Take my princess?
    And you a eunuch! I confess
    I never heard a better joke.
    But seriously, when I spoke
    Of paying you right handsomely
    I also meant in reason. See,
    I’ll give you half my treasury;
    A lordship; and, if lechery
    Indeed attracts you, all the whores
    Whom you can satisfy.”

    With force
    The wizard answers: “Satisfied
    I’ll be only with her as bride.
    Give me the Shamakhan Princess.
    I’ll be content with nothing less.”
    “Take nothing then,”Tsar Dadon said.
    His sword-swipe smote the old man dead.
    The crowd was dumbstruck; but the maid,
    By this aggression undismayed,
    Burst out in laughter, peal on peal,
    As though by laughing to reveal
    Her full involvement in the plan
    To trick and then destroy a man.

    The Tsar, though startled, deigns to smile.
    Then on, along the Royal Mile.

    The crowd begins a careful cheer,
    Until a whir of wings they hear
    And see a bird with lance-like beak,
    A golden bird, with feathers sleek,
    Dive at the Tsar, piercing his head.
    Dadon groans once, falls, and is dead.

    Where’s she who was to be his queen?
    Vanished, as though she’d never been.

    The story’s false; but in it lies
    Some truth, seen but by inward eyes.

     

     

     

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