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.

The Grey-Eyed King – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 9/?

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966; born Anna Andreyevna Gorenko) may be the modern Russian poet most acclaimed in the West. This is at least partly because of her longtime struggle against the Stalinist terror that killed her ex-husband Nikolai Gumilev and her common-law husband Nikolai Punin and for many years imprisoned her son Lev Gumilev. Her powerful poetry chronicling and bearing witness to the horrors she saw, most famously the “Requiem,” is popular in the West because it is great, yes, but it also serves the anti-Stalinist and anti-Soviet narrative in a way that, say, Khlebnikov does not. The choice of what gets translated and what gets promoted is often political.

I personally dislike the most famous translations of Akhmatova, by Jane Kenyon, set to music by Iris DeMent, because in an effort to preserve the words and meanings they eschew rhyme and rhythm, being line-by-line translations in blank or free verse. Akhmatova RHYMED, she used rhyme with deftness and skill, and that was what made her work dangerous to authority: it was easily memorized and so would be preserved even if paper copies were destroyed.

I will not translate Akhmatova’s post-1917 poems until at least 2017 (when, 50 years after her death, her work enters public domain under Canadian copyright law), but her pre-Revolution poems are in public domain by Russian law, and so I did this one. A rhyming work of flash fiction, it conveys one of the key aspects of Akhmatova’s work, the perspective of women.

I took one major liberty with the translation: “slain” implies violence, while the word she used, “umer = died” is neutral and by implication, does not imply violence. But she never explains how did the king die, so for the sake of a rhyme, I will fess up and leave this there. “Sooner or later / The gentle person, the mime sublime, / The incorruptible translator / Is betrayed by lady rime,” as Nabokov observed.

The Grey-Eyed King

Hail to thee, ineluctable pain!
Last night the grey-eyed king, hunting, was slain.
The autumn evening was sultry and red.
Returning, my husband placidly said,
“They brought him back from the hunt where he died,
They found his body, the old oak beside.
Pity the queen. He was so young, I say!
Now overnight all her hair’s gone grey.”
On the mantel he found his pipe and his snuff
And to his night shift he went walking off.
I’ll wake my daughter, asleep after play,
I’ll look into her bright eyes, dear and grey,
While poplars rustle their leaves at the door:
“He’s gone forever. Your king is no more…”

Anna Akhmatova, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

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.

“Evening. Shadows…” – V. Khlebnikov

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 7/?

A (needed) change of tone from yesterday. Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922; born Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov) was one of the central figures of the Futurist movement, along with Vladimir Mayakovsky. The Futurists sought to rebel against conventions of poetic genre and form; their first major collection, of which half the poems were Khlebnikov’s, was called “A Slap In The Face of Public Taste” (1912). (The Russian Wikipedia notes, unsourced, that Khlebnikov was challenged to a duel by Osip Mandelstam in 1913, over an apparent literary argument, but the duel never occurred.)

In contrast to very grounded and specific poets such as Esenin, Khlebnikov was fascinated by cosmological themes and the nature of the universe in his work: e.g. “Besides the law of gravity / To find the common structure of time, / Of the golden harp of the sun, / The basic small cell of time and the entire network.” (1921; translation mine 2007.) He sought to be clever with the Russian language, tearing apart words and creating new ones, pushing Russian morphology and metaphor to the limit. A Slavic enthusiast, he went through a period of completely eschewing non-Slavic roots in his work, a conceit it would be difficult to match in the much more mixed language of English. Translating his work into English requires coining new words to match his neologisms, such as “swanderful” for his “lebedivo” (lebedi = swans; divo = wonder, miracle). This poem is not as elaborate as some, but still forced me to decide how to translate his wordplay on “slovo” (word) and “sleva” (at the left).

Evening. Shadow.
Porches. Languor.
We sat, drinking evening light.
In each eye the flight of deer
In each gaze a spear’s flight.
And when universal summergold boiled in the sunset west
From the store a boy dashed out
Followed by “Heat!” the shout,
And I, closer to right than the rightmost
Was more leftword than leftward.

Velimir Khlebnikov, 1908; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, 2007, revised 2016.

Dog Song – S. Esenin

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 6/?

Sergei Esenin: “Dog Song”

Warning: I have never managed to read this poem out loud without crying. This partly drove my choice to do it for my first Esenin: as a way to try, through close reading, to regain control over it. (It didn’t work; now I may just cry in two languages.)

Sergei Esenin or Yesenin (1895-1925) was raised in a rural peasant family, and even when he joined Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely in Petrograd, he didn’t quite fit into the Symbolists, Acmeists or Futurists and ended up co-founding another poetic movement, the Imaginists. He had multiple lovers and marriages, including a short-lived marriage to modern dance pioneer Isadora Duncan (she was eighteen years older than him, knew barely any Russian, and he knew no other languages). He struggled with depression and was found hanged in Leningrad’s Hotel Angleterre at the age of 30. To this day, debates rage as to whether it was truly a suicide, or a set up assassination by the NKVD.

This poem was written when he was only twenty, and shows how familiar he was with the harsh reality of rural life.

Dog Song

As dawn gilded the burlap row
Of bags in the old grain shed,
A bitch there birthed a litter in snow:
Seven pups with fur all red.

Till night she caressed them round
With her tongue combing them neat,
And meltwater trickled down
Under her belly’s heat.

At dusk, when in the henhouse dimly
Hens roost on their perching rack,
The master came out grimly
And laid all seven in a sack.

She bounded across drifts to the river,
Hurrying after his step…
And long, long the smoothness quivered
Of the unfrozen water’s ebb.

When back she came, barely trudging,
Licking sweat off her fur,
The moon rising over the thatching
Seemed one of her pups to her.

Up she stared, softly whining
At the sky dark-blue and still.
The moon slid by, slim and shining,
And vanished behind the hill.

And like when they mock her, throwing
Not meat but pebbles cold,
Dully, dog eyes went flowing
Down in snow like stars of gold.

Sergei Esenin, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.


I’d like to thank the analysis by Grigori Gendelev that really helped my understanding of this poem. 

In Paradise – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 5/?

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) is still considered one of Russia’s greatest twentieth century poets, although the Soviet Union and Russia heavily downplayed the fact that she had multiple same-sex attachments. She was very erudite; she studied in France, Switzerland and Italy at a time when even the Tsar’s children only dreamed of doing so, and she spent some later years of her life translating poetry including that of Federico Garcia Lorca.

Her life was one full of tragedy: she had to place both of her daughters in an orphanage and one of them starved to death there; she spent a miserable time in emigration in Paris; after her family’s return to Russia both her husband and her remaining daughter were arrested for espionage and her husband was shot while her daughter was imprisoned; and she herself finally committed suicide in 1941.

This poem dates from her first collection of poems, published when she was just eighteen, but it has the passion that sings through all of her work.

In Paradise

Memories weigh too much upon the shoulders.
Even in heaven for earthly things I’ll weep.
At our new meeting, silent words much older
I will not keep.

Where flights of angels in formation soar,
Where a child harp choir mid lilies plays,
Still, restless in the rest forevermore,
I’ll seek your gaze.

Alone among the solemn innocent maidens,
Passing heavenly sights with bitter mirth,
I’ll sing, with earth and alienness laden,
A song of earth.

Memories weigh more than my back can bear.
That hour, I won’t hide my tearing eyes.
Our meetings I don’t need, nor here nor there —
Not for meeting will we wake in Paradise!

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

“Insomnia. Homer…” – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 4/?

Osip Mandelstam or Mandelshtam (1891-1938) is generally considered the greatest of the Acmeists. During the Stalin years, he was arrested and imprisoned twice and finally died in a transit camp. His poetry was banned; his wife, Nadezhda, memorized all of it just in case all copies would have to be destroyed, and worked tirelessly to promote his work after the Stalin era ended. He was also very close to (and frequently rumoured to be having an affair with) Anna Akhmatova.

This is a poem written when he was twenty-four, and I chose it partly for its timelessness — I mean, who hasn’t tried to fall asleep by reading the Iliad’s interminable Catalogue of Ships chapter? The sea being “wine-dark” is not in the original, but I couldn’t resist using it.

“Insomnia. Homer”

Insomnia. Homer. Sails growing tight.
I’ve read half the list of Ships of the Achaeans.
That lengthy flock, that train of silver cranes
That over Greece once long ago took flight.

Like cranes fly in a wedge to alien shores —
Divine foam shimmers on kings’ royal hair —
Where do you sail? If Helen weren’t there,
What’s Troy to you, Achaean men of yore?

Both sea and Homer — love may move them all.
Whom should I hearken? Homer now hushes.
The wine-dark sea in oratory rushes,
Against the headboard of my bed it falls.

Osip Mandelstam, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016 (because I felt we need more Mandelstam on this project).

“A girl sang in the cathedral choir” – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age Poetry translations, 3/?

Alexander Blok
“A girl sang in the cathedral choir”

Well, on deciding to do this as a series, I realized that I didn’t have as large a stockpile of Silver Age poetry translations as I thought (with a good distribution of authors and moods, so it’s neither all-Gumilev nor all-depressing all the time) so…gotta make more. This poem by Alexander Blok, the most famous of the Symbolists, I’d first heard a girl recite at a Russian church school graduation when I was about six.

A girl sang in the cathedral choir
Of all the ships that had gone to sea,
Of all the travellers lost and tired,
Of all who’d forgotten what joys may be.

And on her white shoulder a sunbeam glistened,
As up her voice soared to the dome’s far height,
And in the darkness all watched and listened
To the singing white dress in the ray of light.

And it seemed to each watcher that joy was nearing,
That all ships were in harbours calm and secure,
That in faraway lands people lost and weary
Had found new lives shining bright and sure.

Sweet was her voice, the ray slim and fine…
Only up on high, where all Truths are learned
At God’s pearly gates — a child was crying
That no one gone out would ever return.

Alexander Blok, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

The Giraffe – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age Poetry translations, 2/?

Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov) (1886-1921) is nowadays better known as the repressed and eventually murdered husband of Anna Akhmatova, but he was a competent poet in his own right, and co-founded the Acmeist movement in poetry. He was fascinated by Africa and visited it four times, but this poem, the first I had encountered of his work, is not about Africa, not really.

The Giraffe

Today I can tell that your gaze is especially sad
And your arms are especially thin as they clasp round your knee.
Listen, I’ll tell you how far, far away, on the shores of Lake Chad,
An exquisite giraffe wanders free.

He has been created so languid and graceful and slim
With dapples in magical patterns adorning his hide,
So only the moon in her beauty compares with him
As she shimmers and breaks on the crystal lake’s rippling tide.

He looks like the many-hued sails of a ship from afar.
He floats in his gallop as birds do in joy of their flight.
I know that the earth sees much wonder when at the first star
He hides in a cavern of marble to wait out the night.

I can tell of mysterious lands and of laughter and bliss,
Of the maid black but comely, the passionate young chief on the plain…
But you, for too long you’ve inhaled the weight of the mist.
You do not believe there is anything other than rain.

And how can I tell you of the scent of the grasses that play
Beneath slender palms, and how tropical gardens there lie…
You’re crying? Just listen… on the shores of Lake Chad, far away,
An exquisite giraffe wanders by.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1908; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, February 2012.

Listen! – V. Mayakovsky

They had an edition of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “Listen” collection at the University of Chicago Seminary Co-op bookstore, and it reminded me I’d done my own translation of the title poem once upon a time. I will be running this as a series (I’ve finally found a use for my blog).

If they light the stars,
That means someone needs it, right?
That means someone wants them to be?
That means someone calls pearls these spitballs of light?
And, bursting his lungs
in the dust of noon,
Rushes to God,
fearing that he would be late,
kisses His sinewy hand after coming so far,
that there MUST be a star,
That he can no longer bear the torment of this starless fate!
And afterwards walks about,
but calm on the outside,
And says to someone,
“Now you’re okay?
You’re not afraid?
Listen, if they light
the stars,
that means someone must need it?
That it must be vital
that every night
above the rooftops
there glows at least one star?!

– V. Mayakovsky, 1913 (translation Tamara Vardomskaya, December 2005, revised 2012)