It’s dark. Not caring where I go, which path I follow,
Past sleepy ponds I stroll.
Of autumn freshness, leaves and fruit the fragrance mellow
Drifts over all.
The garden’s almost bare, and through the branches whitely
The stars of evening show.
Dead silence reigns. Murk clothes the paths. It’s nighttime.
My steps are slow.
They’re slow, but wake the hush… High in the sky’s cool
A princely diadem,
The icy Pleiades blaze diamond-like and sparkle,
Each one a gem.
On its face, “The Pleiades” by Nobel Prize-winning Russian author Ivan Bunin (translation from All Poetry) contains an inspirational (and somewhat unoriginal) message: when life seems dark, confusing, and/or pointless, look at the stars, and their transcendent light will lead you to your spiritual home.
But the poem allows for a competing interpretation: humans can catch glimpses of sublime phenomena, but pure beauty will always be very much out of our reach. Bunin invokes Buddhist imagery in the first stanza, particularly when he characterizes Earth as a dark, murky place filled with marshy ponds, arbitrary paths, and “dead silence.” The seemingly idyllic autumnal imagery is associated with ephemerality, as well as the inevitability of death.
And just as the moon often represented spiritual enlightenment in Buddhism, the Pleiades–fittingly named after seven heavenly goddesses in Greek mythology–stand in for the concept of ascension (as one ascends to a throne). But they are as “icy” as they are unreachable, and can only be seen from a fragmentary, faulty perspective. Aspirational but unattainable, the Pleiades are a “diadem” that no human will ever get to wear.