Sakia-Muni – D. Merezhkovsky

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 10/?

Today we’re diving a little bit earlier, to the 1880s. Dmitri Merezhkovsky (1866-1941) is considered a co-founder of the Symbolist movement, and was apparently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature nine times. He and his wife the poet Zinaida Gippius (of whom hopefully more soon) had a long and prosperous marriage as the power couple of Russian Silver Age poetry. Like almost every other poet I’ve included so far, he also translated, in his case the plays of Euripides and the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.

Connected to his Symbolist imagery, he had a lot of mystical ideas about reforming Orthodox Christianity; later, he would condemn the Soviet era as the coming of the Antichrist. Although this poem was written when he was just nineteen years old, it presages his religious ideas.

 My childhood Russian literature tutor had loved this poem and I had first heard it in her recitation. I had first translated it in 2009 and posted it in the comments of a blog I was following. However, it didn’t fly, as I recall, because subsequent commenters took it to be literally about Shakyamuni Buddha, rather than as the thinly veiled deniable criticism of the Russian Orthodox Church of the 1880s that is obviously is in context; just like Verdi had to set his opera “Un ballo in maschera” in “America”, Merezhkovsky had to set his in a pseudo-“India” with other “gods.” (Hence my intentional misspelling as I re-transcribe the word he used; it’s a fantasy rather than any real religion.)

Then when I went looking for it for this project, I found that all the comments had vanished with the blog’s transferral to another host, and it was not web-archived. The Internet remembereth all — except the things that you want it to remember. So, remembering only the last line, I translated it over again. I am pretty sure that the previous version didn’t contain the words “maligned” or “lazuli” but it’s fun, after working on several poems with a much different register, to play around with more elaborate rhymes.


Mid the mountain cliffs and the dark gorges
Blasted by an early autumn gale,
A crowd of homeless pilgrims to the Ganges
Trudged one evening on the forest trail.

Beneath rags, their frail bodies strained
Going blue from the cold wind and rain.
For two days and for two bitter nights
They had seen no sheltering roof nor light.

Mid the gloomy trees as thunder rumbled
Something glimmered out on their path.
‘Twas a temple — through the doors they stumbled
To find haven from the weather’s wrath.

In the empty shrine on them loomed down
Marble Sakia-Muni on his throne,
Glittering in his porphyry crown
A colossal wondrous diamond stone.

Said one beggar, “Friends and brothers mine,
No one sees us, dark the night and cruel.
There’s much bread, and cloth, and silver fine
They would give us for yon precious jewel.

Buddha doesn’t need it; brighter truly
Do the diamond stars in myriad courses
Gleam for him, lord of the heavenly forces,
In the sky as in cups of lazuli…”

He gave sign; and through the temple hall
The thieves softly to the statue crawl.

But when they reached out with trembling hands
In their need the holy shrine to plunder
A fiery whirlwind and a roar of thunder,
Echoed out in the hinterlands,
Threw the starving mendicants asunder.

And all froze from fear all around.
But one of the beggars, calm and strong,
Forward stepped out of the silent crowd
And said to the deity, “You are wrong!

All those ages, were your priests all lying
That you’re gentle, generous and kind,
Like the sun, you conquer gloom and dying,
And you love to comfort the maligned?

Yet you strike us for a petty pebble,
Us, stretched in the dust before your name
But immortal souls all the same!
What’s the feat to make the wretched tremble
With some show of fire and thunder? Shame!

Shame on you, lord of the heavenly skies!
To deprive the poor of crusts of bread
Full of dread and power you arise!
King of kings, strike from the thunderheads,

Smite the madman who dares to defy —
Here I stand and hold my head up high
Equal to you with my fellow throng,
And before all earth and all the sky
Say: lord of the world, you are wrong!”

Silence — and a miracle transpired:
So that they could take the jewel down
The god’s statue in porphyry attired
Bowed and bent to earth its visage crowned.
Meekly kneeling, humble and contrite
For a beggar crowd the lord of light,
God, great god, lay on the dusty ground.

Dmitri Merezhkovsky, 1885; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.