Chekhov on Sakhalin

Heaney, Seamus

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: May-11-1999


The 30 year old Anton Chekhov, determined to pay his "debt to medicine," sets off from civilized Russia to investigate the prison colonies on Sakhalin Island, off the east coast of Siberia. (See Chekhov's A Journey to Sakhalin, annotated in this database.) In the poem Chekhov stands at the rail of a steamer on Lake Baikal and downs a jigger of cognac, then smashes the glass on the rocks. "In the months to come / It rang on like the burden of his freedom / To try for the right tone--not tract, not thesis--"

In his attempt "to squeeze / His slave's blood out" (Chekhov was the grandson of serfs), he spent the next several months feverishly documenting the conditions on Sakhalin. Subsequently, he spent several years trying to express his experience in writing.


This short poem is Heaney's tribute to Chekhov's passionate and lifelong quest "to try for the right tone." The title poem of Station Island, the book from which "Chekhov on Sakhalin" comes, refers to a famous Irish place of pilgrimage, also called "St. Patrick's Purgatory."

The present poem commemorates Chekhov's own pilgrimage, and especially the inner journey that accompanied his physical travel and hardships. Heaney encapsulates this in seven quatrains of his elegant and seemingly effortless off-rhymed verse. This very serious poem contrasts nicely with Brodsky's loving, but humorous, tribute, Homage to Chekhov (see annotation).


A 28-line poem.

Primary Source

Station Island


Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Place Published

New York