Ears – Z. Gippius

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 13/?

Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945) is now less well-known, but in her time she was acclaimed — and controversial for her poetically-expressed views on both religion and sexuality. She was married to Dmitri Merezhkovsky from 1889 until his 1941 death, and theirs was one of the most creatively fruitful marriages in literature. (At first they tried to have a deal that she would write exclusively prose and he would write exclusively poetry — ignoring the fact that she was helping him translate Byron’s poems — but that collapsed once he wished to write a novel, and so she became free to write and publish her verse.) However, even as they were both part of the Symbolist movement, she did not always support some of his more outlandish spiritual ideas.
Like Balmont, Merezhkovsky and Gippius both were shaken by the events of the Revolution, and emigrated to Poland, then lived out their last years in France, where they published an anthology for poets rejected by censors.

I only became acquainted with Gippius’s work very recently, when I went looking for other Silver Age women poets than the all-dominating Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, and this undated poem grabbed me with its very topical sarcasm. (She was known for her criticism and no tolerance for bullshit when she kept a salon for young poets in Russia.) 


“Who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

How mad, how childlike, how stubborn I had been!
I thought that we were all equal in rights and free,
All just because my hearing was clumsily over-keen
And heard steps from a land not ours and wouldn’t be.
But my rebellious spirit won’t revolt now and be shaken,
And now I am in mist and silence just like you.
Only a genius someday from sickbeds will awake us.
We’ll sleep until he comes. In sleep we’re right and true.
No struggle, and no pain… The way is clear and proud!
How near to me my friends since stone-deaf I walk!
We’ll trust only in one whose voice is strong and loud.
And if we hear a shout — even a crowing cock —
He’ll be who we await, we know,
And following the cock we’ll go.

Zinaida Gippius, Undated (circa early 1900s); translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

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.

“Tonight in all the nights I am alone” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 11/?

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow, and all her life she had a passionate love for that city. She wrote a poetic cycle about her love of Moscow, but this poem is part of her cycle “Insomnia,” written mostly in 1916 (with one poem dated from 1921).

Tonight in all the night I am alone,
A sleepless, homeless wandering black nun!
Tonight a key to every door I own,
Of this fair city that is only one!

The road is calling me from my vain rest.
– My fog-dull Kremlin, beautiful you are!
Tonight I kneel and kiss the burning breast
Of all the earth, all round and all at war.

Not hair but fur arises with the mist
As sultry breezes blow into my soul.
Those who are pitied, and those who are kissed –
Tonight I have but pity for them all.

Marina Tsvetaeva, 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

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.