"Demyan's Fish Soup," or "Demyanova Ukha" in Russian, was written by Russian author Ivan Andreevich Krilov (1768-1844). The interior of a Russian peasant house was something familiar to all Russians, as is the description of Russian hospitality (taken to an extreme here). With that cultural understanding, the scene is painted clearly even after the first two lines. Krilov first read this fable at a meeting of the "Society of the Friends of the Russian Language" in appropriate circumstances. The event followed immediately on a tiresome and inordinately long paper with which someone had been trying the patience of the audience. Consequently, the reading of the fable caused much hilarity and applause.
Krilov wrote a total of 201 poetic fables, of which (according to Krilov) only 30 were borrowed from other authors. Beginning as a translator of foreign verse, he then proceeded into the rich field of Russian life. In his own works, he displayed his skill as a storyteller and his flair for terseness, genial humor, and satire. His popularity was immense in his own day, and continues today.
Russian artists and painters in second half of the 19th century began depicting scenes from pastoral life. They depicted the simple personal lives of ordinary Russians and their ways and traditions of hospitality. Because much of Krilov's work fits into this genre, his fables were translated onto canvas, paper, and paper-mache. One of the favorite's was Demyanova Ukha, and was originally painted on canvas by A. A Popov. His painting currently hangs in the Historical Museum of Russia. The Lukutin and Vishniakov workshops often recreated this scene in lacquer miniature.
The text of "Demyan's Fish Soup" below was translated by C. Fillingham Coxwell, M.D., and was taken, along with the information on Krilov, from his book Kriloff's Fables, republished 1970 by Scholarly Press, Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 79-108502.
Demyan's Fish Soup
"I beg you! Be so kind!
Just favor me and taste it!"
Neighbor, I pray you, do not press me!" Change your mind.
Another spoonful; do not waste it;
This fish-soup is the thing, 'tis luscious, capital."
"I've swallowed now three portions." "What of that? no matter,
Come now, no foolish chatter,
Think of your health, and eat it all;
"Tis soup indeed, with many a ball
As if fine amber beads had hither chanced to fall!
Quick eat it, oh! my comrade dearest,
Here's bream, with giblets nice; here's sturgeon where it's clearest;
Another little morsel? Wife, upon him call!"
Warm-hearted friend Demyan thus urges Phoka keenly,
Allows him never respite, smiles serenely.
Sweat starts, on Phoka's face, to gather as might rain,
Nevertheless, he lets himself be helped again,
Making an effort, though a drear one,
Finishes all. "Ah, you're the sort I love!"
Remarks Demyan, "You're not an appetite above!"
"Another little plateful? Come then, oh, my dear one!"
But Phoka, hot and red,
Though liking fish-soup much, had grown a prey to dread,
And, fur cap grasping,
Uprose without delay and fled;
And, since, to friend Demyan no word has said.
Author! however blest, because true gifts digressing,
And grow by prolix ways distressing,
Know that your glorious prose, or transcendental verse
Becomes a blight and is then too much fish-soup worse.