Broken Lines – K. Balmont

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 8/?

Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) was one of the founders of the Symbolist movement. He comes from the previous generation from the poets we’ve seen already, like Akhmatova, Gumilev, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam; his first wife’s daughter, born after her re-marriage, became Gumilev’s second wife. Astonishingly erudite, he knew multiple languages including Chinese, Sanskrit and Georgian (he tried to translate into Russian Shota Rustaveli’s epic “Knight in the Panther’s Skin”). But he was also very much an activist: he had been expelled from high school for participating in activist circles and at the time of the composition of today’s poem (1903) he was exiled from St. Petersburg for three years for having read his poetry during student anti-government protests.

He became very popular with the Revolution, but, horrified by the new regime, he petitioned to legally leave due to the health of his family*, and spent his final years (1920-1942) in France. There, the emigrant community treated him with suspicion of Soviet sympathies while at the same time the government back home now branded him a traitor for leaving. For the rest of his life, he missed his country, but could not endure the government.

*his third, common-law wife and their daughter. He had multiple powerful loves, tried to commit suicide in 1890 due to the failure of his first marriage, and it certainly seems that for a while he was what we would now call polyamorous with his second and third wives, Ekaterina Andreeva and Elena Tsvetkovskaya, finally emigrating with the latter but still warmly corresponding with the former. He had also maintained a long platonic (maybe) relationship with the poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya, of whom hopefully more anon.

His poems are rich in imagery (and in many cases, eroticism) and are distinguished by a very strong rhythm and musicality. This caused me a lot of trouble when I decided, as part of this project, that I need to look into Balmont’s work — many of the lines contain long words for concepts that would be short words in English, or vice versa, and it is very tricky to think of a line that keeps his metre, rhyme scheme and repetition, simple as the poems appear at first glance.

This one, part of the “Snake Eye” cycle in his collection “Let Us Be Like The Sun” (1903), reads in parts remarkably like today’s social justice rhetoric.

Broken Lines

Sharp and acute angles, broken lines askew —
We are here — we’re hiding in the kingdom that gloom knew.

We’ll rise from grim burrows in the coming day,
We shall yet come dressing in our garments gay.

We will take you over, throw you in our dreams.
We’ll show you the freshness of our new regimes.

Wait and see, you elders, who could never guess
Of other than two motions, only no and yes.

There will come the reckoning, the dark kingdom’ll die.
Dawn breathes royal purple… Hear the eagles cry!

Konstantin Balmont, 1903; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

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