Hovhannes toumanyan


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“Toumanyan’s poetry is Armenia itself, ancient and new, resurrected and portrayed in poems by a great master”, said Russian poet Valeriy Bryusov. Hovhannes Toumanyan was born on the February 19, 1869, in the village Dsegh of the Lori region, in the family of a clergyman. Lori was described by renowned Armenian poet Avetik Isahakyan as a county of tales and legends, every corner of it a testament, each stone a witness to the heroic past. The poet spent his childhood in Lori, and that Homeric land left its indelible imprint on all his works. Toumanyan went to primary school in his native village. He was then a pupil at the one of the best Armenian schools of the time, Nersessian School in Tiflis, the cultural and political center of Transcaucasus of that era. Due to his father’s death, he was forced to return to Armenia to care for his family. His future education and development were left to his own efforts according to his tastes and preferences. He had a keen interest in world folklore, and with the sensitivity of a folklore writer, he retained the integrity of Armenian cultural history. “I always had a faithful and reliable guide: my intuition,” Toumanyan said. At the young age of 19, Toumanyan married and in due time fathered ten children. Most of his life, until his death in 1923, was passed in Tiflis. His trips were rare and only made when unavoidable. He once made a journey to St. Petersburg and Moscow, but that was a trip in a prison carriage in 1908, taking the poet to trial in court, accused of anti-tsarist activities. Towards the end of his life, in 1921, he traveled again; this time to Constantinople in connection with the work of the Armenian Relief Committee and returned with his health undermined. Towards the end of 1922, Toumanyan, already seriously ill, was taken to Moscow for medical treatment, and after a number of unsuccessful operations and attempt to try to cure his ever growing ailment, the great Armenian poet passed away in one of Moscow hospitals. His remains were moved to Tiflis. Toumanyan lived a highly intense life at a turbulent period in Armenian history. His time witnessed stormy upheavals: international conflicts in the Caucasus; World War I; the genocide of Armenians in Turkey; revolutions; and civil wars. Thousands upon thousands of voices of his people echoed their hopes and sufferings in his heart. “I live and agonize with everybody, I suffer for all.” Toumanyan devoted his life to a country that had many enemies and few friends. He engaged in numerous public activities. In 1899, the poet established in his house the literary group “The Upper Room” which turned into a significant literary centre bringing together a number of writers and political figures of the time. In autumn of 1912, he sponsored the Caucasian Society of Armenian Writers in Tiflis and was chairman of the society up to the fading of his health in 1921. The society organized weekly literary readings and public lectures devoted to Armenian, Georgian and other literatures. In the three hundred odd publicist articles he wrote, Toumanyan showed himself to be an accomplished critic and historian of literature and expressed many interesting ideas on literature, art, language and Armenian culture. His activity extended beyond the literary frame. In 1917-1918, Toumanyan sponsored a number of societies, Union of Countrymen's Associations, Society for Help to War Victims, Society for Help to Orphans and Refugees. Hovhannes Toumanyan began writing at the age of 10, but only became known as a poet in 1890, when his first collection of poems was published. Even in this early book one can clearly see all the freshness that Toumanyan brought to Armenian literature with his poetry. This stage of development in Armenian literature justifiably is referred to as the “Toumanyan phase.” His poetry falls into two parts, lyrical and epical that are both personal and universal. He brought poetry closer to the people. In 1886, legends “The Dog and the Cat”, “Unlucky Merchants”, in 1887 poems “The Song of the Plough”, “The Ancient Blessing”, “Maro” were born showing the individuality of the author. He is also the poet of children. The poet wants the infant emerging into daylight to see life as bright and cloudless as joy itself. He approaches the child as a kindly spirit, to tell him about birds and foxes, dogs and cats, trees and flowers, to lead him along the wonderful paths of early knowledge. Toumanyan’s inspiration came from everyday ordinary activities of the people. The heroes of his works are simple villagers. He reveals such qualities as indestructible strength of thought, beauty and richness of feelings, wisdom and depth. Life was harsh for villagers who endured unwritten patriarchal laws and prejudice and the reign of unjust oppression. Facing these difficulties, Toumanyan’s heroes often die a tragic death. While depicting these sad realities, Toumanyan, at the same time, discovers and exposes true poetry, purity of feelings, integrity, and inextinguishable determination towards justice among his heroes. Among the works that portray the times in which Toumanyan lived, are his poem, “Anoush” and the story “Gikor.” These are celebrated works for the contemporary reader. “Anoush” is often called the pinnacle of Toumanyan’s poetry, and “Gikor,” –of his prose. “Anoush” tells about the tragic love of a young shepherd boy (Saro) for a girl (Anoush). The poem portrays the spiritual richness of heroes, their inner feelings, their endless devotion to one another, and their youthful selflessness and readiness to self-sacrifice. The poet, turning to Anoush, roaming in solitude and despair at the loss of her lover, addresses her with words on the eternity of life and infinite renewal. Toumanyan, at the same time, while giving a spiritual picture, gives a broad picture of the cultural life of the people, depicting daily activities and customs, and their vision of the world. “Gikor” is the story of a 12-year-old peasant boy who goes to the city and succumbs to the cruelty of those surrounding him there. The entire story is extremely dramatic, abounding in lyrical quality with simultaneous touches of happiness and sadness. Toumanyan’s poetic talent is first of all seen in epic settings, in portrayal of sharp, dramatic situations and bold, strong characters. The ballad “A Drop of Honey” is based on an Armenian tale from the Middle Ages that tells how a spilled drop of honey caused bloodshed between two people who lived in neighboring villages, and then – between those two villages, and then between states. “A Drop of Honey” is an extraordinary satire on pointless and unjust wars that are instigated by belligerent monarchs and “patriotic” demagogues, who speak in the name of God and justice. Toumanyan was constantly concerned with issues of life and death, the purpose of human life, and man’s connection with Nature. He loved “straying into eternity” trying to find answers to questions that preoccupied him, trying to penetrate into the “secrets of the universe.” His poem “Into Infinity” and his four line verses written during the last years of his life are unique patterns of the heavenly power of the human mind. Toumanyan’s entire personal and artistic experience is concentrated in these quatrains. These miniatures eloquently express his emotions and his inner thoughts about people and their destiny. One of the main thoughts of this great poet-humanist is that human beings by their moral essence must deserve harmony and natural beauty. Toumanyan’s poems dedicated to his fatherland, “In the Armenian Mountains,” “Armenian Grief” and “With My Fatherland” set the course for future Armenian patriotic poetry. Great poetic canvases “David of Sassoun,” a brilliant rendition of the superb epic of the Armenian nation, “Parvana,” depicting the eternal yearnings of unquenchable love and perfection, “The Poet and the Muse,” on the subject of the contradiction between the lofty ideals of poetry and harsh reality; “Sako from Lori” showing the destructive force of prejudice, “The Capture of Fort Temuk”, a poem about beauty and immortality, lauding patriotism and the strength of love that is able to inspire an act of great achievement – an act of great courage, are real gems of Armenian literature. Toumanyan saw the supreme goal of art to be the bringing together of men, peoples and nations. He stressed the link between a writer and the people. He considered folklore to be one of major sources of literary growth. Many of Toumanyan’s ballads and tales originate from folk sources and it is generally accepted that Toumanyan’s best tale is “Brave Nazar” – a tale, which the poet wrote using about 20 versions of the same plot, including non-Armenian versions. This tale ridicules those people who idolize undeserving people and raise them into rulers. Later these ‘rulers’ incite wars, spread violence and tyranny and make people suffer. The tale is remarkable for its sharp satire, keen and witty detailed observations. Toumanyan’s writings portray Armenian people’s national character, their history, their landscapes, reflecting their customs and popular legends, grieves and joys, ideals and dreams. To understand that world it is necessary to understand that everything he wrote, poetry and prose, fairytales and realistic stories, legends and ballads, even his journalistic writings and correspondence, has an inner unity, embraced as they are by the coherent world outlook of this great individual. The writer of universal appeal was called “pan-Armenian poet”. His works with their classic simplicity and depth are intelligible to people of every age, nationality and time. Dozens of phrases and expressions from Toumanyan’s works have become a natural part of people’s everyday language, their sayings, adages, and maxims. One of the most remarkable Armenian poets, Yegishe Charents, called Toumanyan “the greatest of all the Armenian poets, a patriarch of new Armenian poetry.” His works gave inspiration and inexhaustible material for the Armenian stage and musical arts. They have been staged on numerous occasions in various theatres and portrayed by painters. They inspired Armenian composers who wrote music of different genres based on the motives of his works – from songs to opera to ballet. “Each poet, first of all, should be the heart of his people,” Toumanyan wrote. His life’s work attests to this virtue.

What else is needed if freedom and love we possess?
What are you looking for if you can’t even make a step without suffering?
Oh fool! When will the hour come when you will take all that
We’re gifted with, even not for long, without suffering?

I made my life into a village green, walked on by everyone,

Untended, desolate, and barren, it has passed with not one green shoot;

How many flowers could have bloomed from that soil that have not bloomed-

What answer can I give, to the giver of land and flowers?
The Armenians' Grief

The Armenian grief is a boundless sea,

An immense, dark sea,

In pain, in that black water,

My soul swims aimlessly.

Now it rises up with fury

Toward the clear sky above,

And tired now, it plunges

To the endless depths.

Wine is not unendingly deep

Nor can it raise me as far as the sky...

In the vast sea of Armenian sorrow

My tired soul moves, always in grief.

The Little Landtiller

"Spring came merry, the birds returned,

The sun rose warm, waters gurgled,

Days of plowing and sowing came.

I turned ravens into a team,

And harnessed geese as a spare one,

I hired sparrows to watch the herd,

And partridges to bake the bread,

I had a plot. I plowed and tilled,

I sowed barley and rye and wheat."

English translation by Alice Stone Blackwell

The Crane

The Crane has lost his way across the heaven,

From yonder stormy cloud I hear him cry,
A traveller over an unknown pathway driven,
In a cold world unheeded he doth fly.

Ah, whither leads this pathway long and dark,

My God, where ends it, thus with fears obsessed ?

When shall night end this day's last glimmering spark ?

Where shall my weary feet to-night find rest ?

Farewell, beloved bird, where'er thou roam

Spring shall return and bring thee back once more,
With thy sweet mate and young ones, to thy home
Thy last year's nest upon the sycamore.

But I am exiled from my ruined nest,

And roam with faltering steps from hill to hill,
Like to the fowls of heaven in my unrest
Envying the boulders motionless and still.

Each boulder unassailed stands in its place,

But I from mine must wander tempest tossed
And every bird its homeward way can trace,
But I must roam in darkness, lone and lost.

Ah, whither leads this pathway long and dark,

My God, where ends it, thus with fears obsessed?
When shall night end this day's last glimmering spark?
Where shall my weary feet to-night find rest ?


With My Fatherland

From early days I turned my gaze towards the vast unknown.

In heart and mind I soar above the abyss, intent and lone.
Yet every time, O country of mine, my heart is torn again
When I reflect upon your past and present full of pain,
Upon the silent crowds of exiles-your devoted sons,
Upon the plight of ruined villages and burned and looted towns.
O Fatherland beloved mine,
In age-old sorrow you repine! 

I see the ruthless enemy putting you to tortures,

I see your face so beautiful, your flowering, fields and orchards
Contorted with the agony of villages and towns;
I hear the shouts of those whose name I calmly can't pronounce,
Who turned our land into a vale of sorrow without bounds.
Till now in plaintive songs, my land, that sorrow still resounds.
O hillbound Fatherland of mine, 

In age-old anguish you repine!

Your wounds are countless, O my land, yet still alive are you.

The cherished words we have waited for are already breaking through
Your lips compressed with sorrow; we believe that on the way
Destined to you by God and Fate-those words you'll find and say.
We wait with fervour for your call-anon, Anon we hear it;
You will become a promised land, free both, in flesh and spirit,

O lofty, sacred Fatherland,

O ever-cherished Fatherland!

We hope, we know the dawn will rise and put an end to dark,

And joy will pour like sunshine into every stricken heart.
The summits of your mountains from the clouds on us will gaze,
And for the first time Ararat will smile at dawn's first rays,
And a poet with lips undefiled by rage and condemnation,
Will glorify in glowing words your great rejuvenation.

O my reviving Fatherland,

Shine with new light, my Fatherland!


In the Armenian Mountains

The way was heavy and the night was dark,

And yet we survived
Both sorrow and gloom.
Through the ages we go and gaze at the stark
Steep heights of our land-
The Armenian Highlands.

We carry from old our treasure,

Vast as the sea,
Brought into life
By the great soul of our people,
In our lofty land-
The Armenian Highlands.

How many times

The savage hordes
From the blazing desert
Tore and tormented
Our caravan
In our blood-smeared land-
The Armenian Highlands.

Yet, plundered and scattered,

Our caravan
Sought its way out
From among the rocks
Counting the scars of its countless wounds
In our mournful land-
The Armenian Highlands.
And we gaze with dolorous, longing eyes
At the earth in its gloom,
At the distant stars;

Ah, when will the dawn break at last

Over our green
Armenian Highlands.


The Ancient Blessing

'Neath a hazel's green, gathered in a ring

Sat the men of age, who had known life's sting.
They sat them around,
Stooped on the ground,
For feasting and song,
This ven'rable throng,
Our fathers, the aged, our seniors, the sage
Honoured for their age.
With uncovered heads we three of us stood;
We were school friends good,
Just three village lads, spirited and lighthearted.
Our hands on our chests in humbleness lay
As in voices strong we enlivened the throng
With song after song.
At the songs of joy of our childhood world
The gray Tamada his moustaches twirled,
Then each filled his cup to the very brim 
And stood up with him.
This blessing they spoke "Live long, lads, live happy
Not as we lived in our day!"
Peace to your bones, our fathers who moaned!
The ills that you bore we also have known,
And now, in moments of joy or distress,
When children we bless,

We speak in your words: "Live long, lads, live happy,

Not as we lived in our day!"



English translation by V. Rogov

Beside the laughing lake of Van 

A little hamlet lies; 
Each night into the waves a man 
Leaps under darkened skies. 

He cleaves the waves with mighty arm, 

Needing no raft or boat, 
And swims, disdaining risk and harm, 
Towards the isle remote. 

On the dark island burns so bright 

A piercing, luring ray: 
There's lit a beacon every night 

To guide him on his way. 

Upon the island is that fire 

Lit by Tamar the fair; 
Who waits, all burning with desire, 
Beneath the shelter there. 

The lover's heart-how doth it beat! 

How beat the roaring waves! 
But, bold and scorning to retreat, 
The elements he braves. 

And now Tamar the fair doth hear, 

With trembling heart aflame, 
The water splashing-oh, so near, 
And fire consumes her frame. 

All quiet is on the shore around, 

And, black, there looms a shade: 
The darkness utters not a sound, 
The swimmer finds the maid. 

The tide-waves ripple, lisp and splash 

And murmur, soft and low; 
They urqe each other, mingle, clash, 
As, ebbing out, they go. 

Flutter and rustle the dark waves. 

And with them every star 
Whispers how sinfully behaves 
The shameless maid Tamar; 

Their whisper shakes her throbbing her 

This time, as was before! 
The youth into the waves doth dart, 
The maiden prays on shore. 

But certain villains, full of spite, 

Against them did conspire, 
And on a hellish, mirky night 
Put out the guiding fire. 

The luckless lover lost his way, 

And only from afar 
The wind is carrying in his sway 
The moans of: "Ah, Tamar!" 

And through the night his voice is heard 

Upon the craggy shores, 
And, though it's muffled and blurred 
By the waves' rapid roars, 

The words fly forward-faint they are- 

"Ah, Tamar!" 
And in the morn the splashing tide 
The hapless yough cast out, 

Who, battling with the waters, died 

In an unequal bout; 
Cold lips are clenched, two words they bar: 
"Ah, Tamar!" 
And ever since, both near and far, 
They call the island Akhtamar 

It’s Not Going To Be The Same

(An Ancient Story)

Translated from Armenian by Daniel Janoyan
Glendale, July 23, 1997

Once upon a time, who knows for sure

What is guaranteed in this world of ours?
There is only one thing that lasts for sure
And that is, "There is nothing guaranteed in this world of ours."

There was a man who was a peasant;

A poor man indeed, barely from day to day surviving.
This peasant happened to have a well-behaved son
Who as a servant to someone he trusted.

Years passed by and this well-behaved son

Served his master so well and so honestly
That he soon got a raise and was deserving;
His master looked upon him just like his son.

And one day the father remembered his son

And he went over to visit his son.
"How are you , my boy, I hope you’re no more naked and hungry any more!"
"No, I’m just fine, Dad, I have a living now;
But what can one do if it’s not going to stay the same?"

And the father left and years passed by;

The boy progressed as days passed by
And he got promoted and to the palace assigned,
Soon to become the servant of the almighty king.

One day the father remembered his son

And he went over to visit his son:
"Tell me, how are you my son? What else do you want?
You are already swimming in this abundant sea!"
"That’s right. I am full, Dad. You go home in peace!
But what can one do if it’s not going to stay the same?"

And the father left and years passed by.

Our clever boy got admired so much
That the king made him second to him
And all his kingdom to inherit!

And one day the father remembered his son

And he went over to visit his son:
"Tell me, how are you my son? What else do you want?
Everybody now lives by your own word and order!"
"That’s right. I’m great, father. I’m already the boss.

But what can one do if it’s not going to stay the same?"

And the father left and years passed by.

And the elderly king of this good country
Fell down and died without leaving an heir behind.
The whole world and treasures were left unclaimed behind.
The top officials of the country got together.
They met together and together they decided to get this clever boy
And in glory announced him to be their king!

And one day the peasant father heard

That his son had become a king indeed!
And he went over to visit his son:
"Son, what else do you lack?
You are the only one living in this whole world!"
"Thank God, Dad. I own the crown and the throne!
But what can one do if it’s not going to stay the same?"

And the father left and years passed by.

The newly appointed king residing on his throne
Determined life and death issues, having the whole world within his rule,
Regardless of the fact that he is also one day going
To leave the whole living world to the world itself
And become mortal and end his own soul.

And one day the old father heard

His son, the king, is no longer living!
He could not believe it and went over to find out for himself!
One can’t imagine the grief and the weeping!
The whole world took part in military parades and buried the king
In honor and festive and on their way back home they continued to gossip.

Years passed by and the father for once

Came to visit his son’s grave,
Came to see his son’s marble tomb stone,
And on it inscribed, "It’s not going to stay the same."

And the father left. Years passed by.

Who could ever demand an account….?
From that day on and forever to come
The saying goes on, "It’s not going to stay the same."
The king’s beautiful statue stands no more.
Ours is this world and so is this life.
But neither is our world going to stay the same nor is our life.


Translated from Armenian by Daniel Janoyan
Glendale, September 19, 1996

 I do miss you
O queen of my heart !

What would happen

If for only once you appear
Never mind if then again
You will soon disappear,
Just like a short dream of a night does.

I need only to see

Your picture once more
Simply to tell you
How much I miss you !

If You Visit Me At My Grave

Translated from Armenian by Daniel Janoyan
Glendale, September 24, 1996

If one day, my dear friend,
You visit me at my grave,
And you do find fresh flowers
Newly planted around my grave,
Don’t ever take them to be
Regular flowers under your feet,
Or that Spring has just brought them
To decorate my new dwelling.

Those are my songs that have never been sung,

Carried away in my heart with me.
Those were verses of love,
Which I had no chance to recite before I died.
Those were warm kisses sent down from a universe
And whose roads were shut down by my very grave.


One is sometimes overcome by very bitter thoughts but you are condemned to them and cannot get rid of them. They are like a heavy ailment when you know you have cancer, tuberculosis or cholera and can’t help thinking about the illness and either the illness will vanquish you or you will rise against it with all your being and will recover from it – of course, if courage and intellect suffice you.

Those who have long and seriously taken an interest in our people have always come to the sad conclusion that it has a lot of bitterness in its heart.

That is what they say and they say that with a deep anguish as though it turned out that tubercular bacilli had built their nest in the sick’s chest.

But such sincere and honest men are met infrequently. Establishing the existence of an illness people usually consider themselves healthy and declare others ill. Everyone thinks of himself to be not malicious, not flattering, not mendacious, not intrigant – all these traits do exist but not in oneself!

However, one shouldn’t believe this. And there is one truth with respect to us – we all suffer a deep mental ailment.

You judge.

Ordinary villagers, neighbours who have shared bread on more than one occasion are ready to burst with malice, or as they say, “turn black with malice”, if the land of one of them bears well.

Even those merchants who don’t compete with each other lose their sleep and peace when hearing of someone else’s success and already don’t think about their own business but only about the success of their fellow countryman and given the opportunity they will spare nothing to harm him.

An ecclesiastic however much be he paid, however much be he respected is not contented all the same, protests, complains of injustice. And what do you think is that injustice? That his fellow countryman is paid the same and that he lives well, too.

Suppose townsmen and peasants are in a legal dispute. No court can solve their dispute and it lasts for years and it is not unusual that they dedicate their whole life and all their property to that judicial process until one of them stifles the other, razes him to the ground or until both sides suffer.

We have our own press. Defamation, libel, lie, gloating delight, flattery have been in common use in it for dozens of years. It may happen that in no village has narrow clannishness acquired such a mean aspect as in our press. A famous publicist related that once he had heard someone from an editorial staff say without any constraint – the books of this writer whatever he writes must be invariably and severely criticized or ignored persistently – in a nutshell, destroy him in every possible way only because he is not with us, not “one of us.”

You will find the same morals and manners amidst national, public and literary figures. No one of them can bear the success of the other.

Let us consider teachers now. They are occupied more with dirty tricks against their neighbours than with lessons, and they always aspire to fan a trifling occurrence that can be easily settled within a friendly circle, invariably appeal to the authorities, disgrace each other both in court and in the press, persecute, become the cause of somebody’s resignation, kill morally… No mollification, no leniency, no limits for the spite!

What is the reason for all this?

To comprehend that let us look at the question from the point of view of the laws of nature and history by the serene and broad look that nature and history may give us. Along with other circumstances history has been a wicked stepmother for us. For many centuries has it cast us under the feet of barbarian tribes. And if being trampled every living thing not dies, it is mutilated, demoralized and embittered. That is the law of nature.

What is an ordinary cucumber field? It is known that a trampled plant bears bitter fruits which one cannot eat, that’s why they won’t let you trample a cucumber field. So bitter and grieved becomes a man also – his soul, heart, reason. And this bitterness accumulated in man manifests itself in his actions, look, face, words – in everything and everywhere, in all spheres of life, and the whole life becomes bitter and cruel. It, that life, can contain many beautiful things – “progress,” “culture,” “press,” “literature,” “school,” “charity” – but all this will be like a wormy fruit. All these spheres of life will suffer similar shortcomings, a common illness that can’t be cured from without. Such a society even can produce talents, but they, too, will be unkind and in grief. Such a society cannot beget noble men, kind hearts, and lofty souls, i.e. all that makes life beautiful and the people – likable and kind.

So, if we have national wisdom, spiritual courage and sound intuition, we must not connive at all this and must not fail to see that our people is spiritually seriously spoiled. The first condition for fighting the ailment, the principal condition for recovery is that we confess our misfortune to our own soul and to the whole world. And then the awakening of the salutary self-consciousness will be followed by the lofty aspiration to self-perfection and noble deeds.

There is no other way. True salvation must come from within for we are sick from within.


translated by Ara Hakopyan) from the same site, http://armenianhouse.org/Toumanyan/bio-en.html




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