The Magic Fiddle – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 12/?

We return to another poem by Nikolai Gumilev, this one published in 1910, the year he married Anna Akhmatova (they would be together for eight years). A critic (uncited) has mused that this poem is key to all of Gumilev’s work: the admonishment of an experienced poet to a young one about the reverse side of creativity, and a warning, foreshadowing the doom that was to come to Gumilev himself in August of 1921. Gumilev dedicated it to Valeriy Bryusov (1873-1924), one of the co-founders of the Symbolist movement.

The Magic Fiddle

My dear boy, you are so happy, ever merry, bright and smiling,
Do not ask for this sweet fortune that has poisoned worlds away.
You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know what is this violin,
What dark horrors lie in store for one who dares begin to play!

If a player’s hands commanding take the violin and bow,
Peaceful light is gone forever from the eyes that make that choice.
Rabid wolf packs wander, hungry, on the roads where fiddlers go.
Fiends and demons love to listen to the fiddle’s regal voice.

Ever, ever must these strings go on and sing and cry and wail,
And the maddened bow must leap and dance all through the nights and days,
Under sun and under snow, under blizzard, under gale,
Even when the west is burning, even when the east’s ablaze.

You will tire, you will slow, you will stop for just one note,
And the power will be gone from you to breathe or make a sound,
And the wolves in rabid bloodlust will at once lunge at your throat,
And their paws will crush your ribcage as their teeth will drag you down.

Then you’ll know the cruel mockery of all that sang around,
And your eyes will see the over-late but overwhelming fear,
And the mournful cold will wind around your body like a shroud,
And your friends will bow their heads then, and your bride will burst in tears.

Go on, boy! You will not find either joy or treasure here!
But I see that you are laughing, there are sunbeams from your eyes.
Here, take the magic fiddle, face the monsters others fear,
And go die a death of glory, the dread death that fiddlers die!

Nikolai Gumilev, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, 2012.

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