Dedication – Z. Gippius

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 20/?

Our second Gippius poem. When Zinaida Gippius published her first volume of poetry, in 1894, the first poem, “Dedication,” immediately caused a scandal. How dare this woman write “I love myself as I do God”?

All her life, Gippius was religious and devout, but in a strange, eccentric way, though in a different way than her profoundly mystical husband Dmitri Merezhkovsky. Many years later, the writer Teffi (of whom hopefully more anon) wrote about knowing Gippius in Paris that she had always gone to Catholic church, rather than the Orthodox one. She loved scandal, her contemporaries attest, and on being asked about that line and about her eccentric dress, replied that in those days, she liked pulling those kinds of provocative tricks.

She enjoyed being called “the White She-Devil.” On being asked whether she feared the Last Judgement, Gippius expressed extreme indignation. “I had never encountered such scorn for the afterlife from anyone,” Teffi observed. “She did not deny the existence of the afterlife, but that the Lord would dare judge Zinaida Gippius […] — that was absurd to even consider.”

(In the same reminiscence, Teffi notes that Gippius had a clear weakness for cute kitten pictures, which she desperately tried to conceal.)


The heavens are low and drear,
But my spirit is high, it’s known.
You and I are so strangely near,
And each of us is alone.

Pitiless is the path I have trod
And it leads me to death and the grave.
But I love myself as I do God,
And it’s love that my soul shall save.

And so if on my way I tire
And if pettily I complain,
If for joy I would dare desire,
And rebel against my own grain,

Do not leave me with no glance more,
In dull troubled days, do not leave.
Your weaker friend, I implore,
Console me, pity me, deceive.

As we both on to eastward go,
You and I are uniquely nigh.
The heavens are gloating low,
But I trust that our spirit is high.

Zinaida Gippius, March 1894; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

“Those who are woken, pray for me” – E. Kuzmina-Karavaeva (M. Skobtsova)

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 19/?

There is only one poem by Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva (Maria Skobtsova) on the Russian Wikisource, and I translated it mainly as an excuse to talk about this woman’s extraordinary life. Poet. Acmeist. Memoirist. Mayor. Theologian. Nun. French Resistance fighter. Righteous Gentile. Martyr. Saint.  

She was born Elizaveta Pilenko in 1891 in Riga, and grew up near the Black Sea in Anapa and Yalta. Her father’s death in 1906 made her lose her own faith, and forced the family to move to St. Petersburg. There she met Alexander Blok, starting a long correspondence, and married the former Bolshevik Dmitri Kuzmin-Karavaev, through whom she met many of the poets in the Poets’ Guild, the centre of Acmeist activity. With their support, she began to publish poetry, and her collections were well-received.

In 1913 she left her husband and joined the Socialist Revolutionary Party after the February Revolution. She apparently wished to assassinate Leon Trotsky for closing the SR Party Congress, but friends persuaded her to instead move back to the Black Sea to work for the SR there. She was very active as a community organizer in Anapa, and in 1918 was elected mayor of the city when it fell under White Army control.

She led underground resistance against the Bolsheviks, while trying to protect the population from the terror of the new regime. She was arrested and put on trial, but managed to escape capital punishment due to a skilled defence and help by the judge, D. Skobtsov, whom she ended up falling in love with and marrying. In 1920, after the White movement in southern Russia was destroyed, she and her family escaped to Georgia, then Constantinople, Serbia, and finally Paris in 1924, where she published memoirs and novellas in the Russian-language press.  

In Paris, more and more moved by religious impulse after the deaths of her daughters, she completed a course of study at the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute by correspondence, and in 1932 became a lay nun, taking the name Maria. Now under the name Mother Maria Skobtsova, she extensively published theological writings, memoirs and poetry, as well as frequently lecturing.

When Nazi forces occupied France, the informal convent where she lived became a Resistance headquarters. She and her fellow priests and nuns issued baptismal certificates to Jews. When Jews in Paris were rounded up in the Velodrome d’Hiver to be sent to Auschwitz, Mother Maria succeeded in smuggling four Jewish children out of there in trash bins. In 1943, she and her son were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps. She was killed in the gas chamber at Ravensbruck concentration camp on March 31, 1945, Holy Saturday, only a week before the camp was liberated. 

In 1985, Yad Vashem recognized her as Righteous Among the Nations for her work saving Jews from the Holocaust, and in 2004, with some controversy (related to her two marriages and children, her political activism, the fact that she smoked, and her somewhat heterodox preaching and what some saw as a tendency to holy fool-ishness), the Russian Orthodox Church canonized her as a martyred saint.

The poem below was written before the October Revolution, but both presages her later theological involvement and the struggles she was to endure. 


Those who are woken, pray for me,
All those who hold a splinter of my soul.
The hour has come, brief steps lie to the goal —
All I have seen in dreams has come to be.

Brothers and friends are lost in weary sleep.
The spirit is in mortal suffering spent.
The hour has come; the roads we’ve trod all end,
And God alone my soul will keep.

Elizaveta Kuzmina-Karavaeva (Maria Skobtsova), 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“Leaves fall on your grave…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 18/?

This poem by Marina Tsvetaeva is part of a cycle addressed to Peter Efron, her husband’s brother, who had died of tuberculosis.

She uses the you-formal form throughout in addressing him, a distinction I tried to preserve by using “sir.” In my effort to keep to the rhythm (and make the poem somewhat singable to the numerous musical settings that Russian composers have made of it) I changed the last lines from the letter of the original to a call, although since she does vary the meter of the last line of each verse, I felt I could relax my constraints on this. “To take you home” has more syllables than the original, but there was no shorter way I could do it in English.  


Leaves fall on your grave with the end of the year.
The air wafts winter’s chill.
Listen, my dead sir, listen, my dear,
You are mine still.

You laugh! From the blessed travel cart heading out!
The moon’s overhead.
Mine — as inalienably, with no doubt,
As this hand I spread.

With my bag I’ll go at dawn without fail
To the hospital door.
You’ve just gone away for a holiday, to sail,
To the great ocean shore.

I kissed you! Bespelled you! I laugh at the notion
That dark is the graveyard loam.
I don’t believe death! I await at the station
To take you home.

Let leaves crumble down, what mourning crepe said
Gilt words now erase clear through.
And if the whole world believes you are dead,
Then I am dead too.

I see you, I feel you — all around I scent you!
What matter the wreaths mourners send!
I haven’t forgotten you, I won’t forget you
To eternity’s end!

Of such vows I know the pointless vanity,
Worthless, destroyed.
A call to the endless – A call to infinity –
A call to the void.

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

Modernity – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 17/?

To follow up on yesterday’s second Mandelstam poem in this series, here is one that is closely related to the first one I posted (found here). Apparently, reading the Iliad late at night, and writing poems about the weird mental state that results, was a common pastime among the Acmeists, and Gumilev had done it four years earlier. However, the two poets’ responses to the same situation are fascinatingly different; Gumilev focuses on the modern world’s contrast with the world of the Iliad, while Mandelstam looks at the Achaeans directly.

(I am aware that it’s mammoths, not mastodons, that lived in Siberia. Please feel free to go to Gumilev’s grave and address your concerns, although I suspect he knew as well, and was just reaching for a rhyme with “horizons” in the original.)


I shut Homer and sat by the bay window glass.
On my lips the last word of the Iliad fluttered.
The night watchman’s long shadow unhurriedly passed,
And above something — lamplight or moonlight — bright sputtered.

So, so often I’d throw down challenging looks
And I met in reply many challenging glances:
Odysseuses over a shipping firm’s books,
Agamemnons amid seedy public-hall bouncers.

Likewise, far in Siberia where blizzards weep,
Mastodons grow more still in their silver glaciers.
Over there their dull yearning makes snowdrifts sweep,
And it’s their blood that reddens horizon frontiers.

I am sad from the book, yearning from the moon’s light.
Perhaps I need no hero, the way it is going.
Here come down the alley, strange in tender delight,
A pair of students embracing, like Daphnis and Chloe.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1911; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“I’m given a body” – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 16/?

This is eighteen-year-old Osip Mandelstam, optimistic and self-reliant even as he muses. At the time, he would just have gone to the University of Heidelberg after completing a year at the Sorbonne in France. By 1911, as his family’s finances started to collapse, he would need to return to Russia and try to complete his education at the University of Saint-Petersburg — which had a strict quota on Jews, so he converted to Methodism (a very rare religion in Russia). Despite this, his studies would suffer, and he would never complete a formal degree.


I’m given a body — what should I be trying
With it, so one and only, and so mine?

I ask, who should I thank for quiet elation,
For joy of life, of breath, of inhalation?

I am the gardener, I am the bloom,
I’m not alone in this world’s dungeon gloom.

My warmth and breath’s already come to be
Laid on the glass panes of eternity.

And on them now a pattern is incised.
Since recent times it can’t be recognized.

So let the muck of moments flow apace,
But that dear pattern cannot be erased.

Osip Mandelshtam, 1909; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

The Good Treatment of Horses – V. Mayakovsky

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 15/?

I have a firm and well-founded opinion that Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was, pardon my French, an asshole. Most of his post-Revolution poetry glorified the Soviet state and was in turn propped up by it (my 1955 edition of his collected works has in the fawning introduction such phrases as “A class enemy, in a review of Mayakovsky’s play, wrote with a pretension at irony…”).

The poems that aren’t directly propagandistic tend to reveal an enormous self-centredness: “Tamara and the Demon,” for example, has him self-insert into Lermontov’s famous poem “The Demon” and essentially insist that he is better than the Demon, and Tamara should pour him a glass of wine (there are very obvious reasons I read that poem, and equally obvious reasons I turned away from it in disgust). Even prior to the Revolution, he has such gems as “Nadoelo [I Got Fed Up]” which is a rant about stepping out into a cafe and seeing, oh horror, two fat people, which ends, “When all is settled in heaven and hell / and the Earth draws what had been and what had not been / Remember / Beautiful people / vanished from Petrograd in 1916.”

There are only two poems, in essence, that I’ve read of his that I’ve liked, and both of them are now in this series: “Listen!”, the first one, and the poem below, “The Good Treatment of Horses.” (My mother, who had grown up around horses, dislikes that one too; she says that even with a show of empathy, Mayakovsky’s narrator centres it around himself as “only I”, and it trivializes the fact that if a horse has fallen and doesn’t get up immediately, something is very seriously wrong. That is also a firm and well-considered opinion.)

In 2013, over lunch at the University of Chicago’s Workshop on Semantics Variation, I found myself reciting this poem, in Russian, to a number of linguists including Paul Kiparsky, a Stanford linguist who is possibly the most prominent linguist working on poetry. I hadn’t been sure at all whether I had it memorized, but it was there inside me as all the linguists at the table watched, most of whom knew no Russian at all. The whole experience was kind of magical. That evening I translated the poem. 

The Good Treatment of Horses

The hoofs came tripping,
Sang to the cobbles:
With wind slipping,
With ice hobbled,
Slippery street,
And onto her rump
The horse crashed —
And instantly, the gawkers and chatters,
Who come to Kouznetsky for their trouser covers,
And laughter rang and rattled:
“A horse fell, see! See, the horse fell over!”

All Kouznetsky laughed
And only I
Didn’t add my voice to its cry and hue.
I came up and saw —
The horse’s eyes…
The street tipped over
And flowed askew…

I came up and saw
Tear after tear
Slide along the muzzle and hide in the hair.

And as if one common animal longing and fear
Gushed out of me and into thin air…

“Oh, please, horse, don’t.
Oh, please, horse, listen:
Why are you thinking that, how are you worse?
Darling, we all are a little bit horses,
Each one of us is, in some way, a horse.”

Perhaps she was too old, and needed no coddling;
Perhaps even my thought she thought vain…
But the horse lunged up
Stood without tottering,
And walked on again.
Redhaired child, tail swishing silly…
She came back happy,
Stood in her stall.
And it seemed to her she was still a filly
And life and work worth doing after all.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1918; translation Tamara Vardomskaya, October 2013

“I’ll leave your home…” – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 14/?

When Anna Akhmatova was asked which of her poems were addressed to Nikolai Gumilev, she named six. This is one of the six, and I’ve been pondering every word of it as to what a complicated relationship these two poets had even then.

The year 1913, when this poem was written, Gumilev himself spent many months in Abyssinia, leaving behind Akhmatova and their one-year-old son Lev. Earlier, he had had a brief affair with Olga Vysotskaya which resulted that October in the birth of a son, Orest, whom Gumilev may or may not have known about during his lifetime.

Akhmatova and Gumilev would end up divorcing in 1918, when the new post-Revolutionary government allowed divorce with the possibility of re-marriage, although according to sources, their relationship had soured long before.


(In the original, the first line is “white home/house and quiet garden,” and I’ve wrestled for a long time with how to fit “white” into the verse without messing up the rhythm, and finally decided to cut it. Again, compromises.)

I’ll leave your home and garden quietly lying.
Let life be empty, filled with only light.
You in my poems I’ll be glorifying,
I’ll bring you glory as no woman might.
And in the heaven you made just for her gazing
Your dear friend you will remember well,
While I, rare goods for buyers I’ll be praising —
Your love and tenderness I go to sell.

Anna Akhmatova, 1913; translated by me, July 2016