Vot kakoi rasseiannyi (That’s How Absentminded!), by Samuil Marshak (Moscow and Leningrad: Detskaia Literatura, 1937). Illustrations by B. Konashevitsa. (YIVO)

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Marshak, Samuil Iakovlevich

(1887–1964), poet and writer. Samuil Marshak’s father, a soapmaker, descended from a family of rabbis. His mother was the daughter of the Vitebsk government rabbi, in whose house Marshak began to study Hebrew at the age of six. Marshak’s talents later drew the attention of the art historian Vladimir Stasov and the writer Maksim Gorky.

From 1904 to 1906, Marshak lived at Gorky’s house in Yalta. Studying at the gymnasium in that city, Marshak became friendly with young Zionists, whose worldview informs his early poems and translations. He entered literary society as a Russian Jewish poet, writing in Russian about Jewish topics for Jewish audiences. In his poems, he mourned the death of Theodor Herzl (“20 Tammuz”; 1904), and called for readers to abandon “the low cowardice of their fathers” and “prepare themselves for battle” (“Skhodka” [The Gathering]; 1906). He also translated Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik’s Zionist poem “El ha-tsipor” (To the Bird; 1906).

From 1906 through 1914, Marshak maintained ties with the Po‘ale Tsiyon movement. He published poems and translations in the journals Evreiskaia zhizn’ (Jewish Life) and Molodaia Iudeia (Young Judea); in the anthology Pesni molodoi Iudei (Songs of Young Judea); in the weeklies Evreiskii mir (Jewish World) and the Zionist Razsvet (Dawn); and in the Safrut (Writing) anthologies (1917–1918). In 1911, as a journalist for Vseobshchaia gazeta (General Newspaper), Marshak visited Palestine. He wrote about his experiences in travel sketches, some of which appeared on the pages of Russian Jewish journals and in a verse cycle titled Palestine (1916–1917).

Marshak’s pre-Soviet verse demonstrates the ways in which he was established in both Russian and Jewish cultures. In his verse of 1905–1909 he often makes use of biblical subjects and images, and of events from Jewish history, as is evident in his “Iz prorokov” (From the Prophets), “O, rydai” (Oh, Weep), “Kniga Ruf’” (The Book of Ruth), “Inkvizitsiia” (The Inquisition), “Iz evreiskikh legend” (From Jewish Legends), and others. In addition, he translated the biblical Song of Songs and the poetry of Bialik, Zalman Shneour, and David Shimoni.

Indeed, the poetics of much of his early verse reflects the image structure of biblical texts. In his first Sionidy (Zionides) anthology, published at some point between 1907 and 1910 but since lost, Marshak uses the Song of Zion genre, inspired by the medieval poet Yehudah ha-Levi and revived in Russian Jewish poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by Leib Jaffe (Leyb Yafe) and Shimen Frug. At the same time, Marshak was enormously drawn to Russian literature and visual arts, particularly to the poets Aleksandr Pushkin, Ivan Bunin, and Aleksandr Blok.

In addition to his contributions to the Jewish press, Marshak wrote for Satirikon, Novyi zhurnal dlia vsekh (Everyone’s New Magazine), and for the newspapers Kievskie vesti (Kiev News), Birzhevye vedomosti (Stock Exchange Journal), and Peterburgskii kurier (Petersburg Courier).

After the revolution, however, he stopped using Jewish literary themes. It is possible that he himself destroyed his Zionides anthology (while the main Russian libraries have the Zionist journals from the 1890s in which Marshak published, the issues that should include his poems are all missing). The path he abandoned as a Russian Jewish poet, silenced at the first hint of Soviet intolerance, anticipated the fate of Russian-language Jewish literature, a form that ceased to exist at the end of the 1930s.

After the revolution, Marshak turned to children’s literature. As editor in chief of the state children’s publishing house in Leningrad, he attracted the most talented children’s writers—people who had no patience for formulas, sentimentalism, and moralizing. Marshak’s dynamic, witty poems introduced children to the world of nature and simple things. From the 1920s until the present day, they have remained as beloved popular children’s reading. Nonetheless, in 1937, Marshak’s publishing house was liquidated and many of the writers arrested.

English translation, which had engaged Marshak’s attention from 1913 (when he studied at the University of London), became the mainstay of his life beginning in the 1930s. He introduced Russian readers to English and Scottish folk poetry, to Shakespearean sonnets, and to poetry by Blake, Burns, Keats, Browning, Wordsworth, Byron, Kipling, and others. During World War II, he wrote satirical pamphlets, poems for posters, and captions for newspaper cartoons.

In the last decade of his life, Marshak turned to lyric poetry. Under the repressive conditions of the Soviet system, he could not write about the problems of Jews; however, his Jewish identification came through in a variety of ways. Among his works with such themes were translations from Yiddish, including “Pesni getto” (Songs of the Ghetto; 1941–1943); he also wrote the poem “Pamiati Mikhoelsa” (In Memory of [the Yiddish actor Solomon Mikhailovich] Mikhoels; 1948) and “Dobroe imia” (A Good Name; 1946), dedicated to Sholem Aleichem; he also donated a large sum of money to send Jewish orphans from Lithuania to Palestine. A later example of his connection to Jews is evident in his verse rebuke to Aleksei Markov for the latter’s antisemitic attack on Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s poem Babii Iar (Babi Yar; 1961).

During the thaw of 1957–1961, Marshak wrote the autobiographical story “V nachale zhizn” (At the Start of Life; 1960), covering the years of his Jewish childhood. But in the most complete eight-volume collection of his work (1968–1972), the verses that he had written for Jewish publications from 1904 to 1918 are hardly represented.

Suggested Reading

Mikhail Leonovich Gasparov, “Marshak i vremia,” in O russkoi poezii (St. Petersburg, 2001); M. Geizer, “Ia vspominaiu krai otsov (S. I. Marshak),” in Russko-evreiskaia literatura XX veka (Moscow, 2001).



Translated from Russian by Alice Nakhimovsky