The Strides of the Commendatore – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series (occasional), 33/?

Well, I was tired tonight, and of course when I am physically exhausted from dance, my brain decides that today is a good day to try to translate Alexander Blok’s “The Strides of the Commendatore.”

I think this poem, not even the Mozart opera it is inspired by, was where I heard of Don Juan/Don Giovanni for the first time (Pushkin’s “The Stone Guest” would have been a close second). The original still gives me chills, and its uneven, shifting meter contributes to that. At first I tried to match each line to the original syllable for syllable, then decided the heck with it after a few verses. I did keep repeated words as repeated words, though. I guess Blok knew what he was doing. (I don’t know what’s with the black engine in the sixth verse. I am picturing a drone.)

Here’s a creepy poem. Enjoy.


The Strides of the Commendatore

Past the casement pane the mist curls pale.
Heavy drapes the doorway shade.
So what’s now to you your liberty so stale,
Don Juan, who’s been afraid?

Cold and empty is the chamber’s splendour.
Servants sleep; the night is dead to all.
Out of a land unknown, distant, blissful, tender,
A cock faintly sings its call.

What are blissful sounds to traitors tossing?
Your life’s hours now are finite.
Donna Anna sleeps, over her heart hands crossing.
Donna Anna dreams tonight.

Who is it whose cruel face is doubled
In the mirror’s reflected gleams?
Anna, Anna, is sleep in the grave untroubled?
Are they sweet, unearthly dreams?

Life is mad, and boundless and deflated!
Come and sally forth, old doom!
In reply, victorious and infatuated,
A horn sings from snowy gloom.

Spraying light, an engine passes gliding,
Black and quiet as an owl’s wing.
Quietly, with the weight of stone striding,
The Commander’s coming in.

Like the night clock’s chime from rasping gear,
The door open, out of frozen air,
Chimes the clock: “You invited me to dinner here.
I have come. Are you prepared?”

There’s no answer to the cruel query.
There’s no answer. Silence reigns.
Servants sleep, and in the chamber’s splendour all is eerie.
Night is pale beyond the panes.

At dawn’s hour, strange and cold the air.
At dawn’s hour, the night is dim.
Maid of Light! Where are you, Donna Anna, where?
Anna! Anna! — Only silence grim.

Only in the dawn mist dread and dour
The clocks strike and strike their last:
Donna Anna’s waking comes at your death hour.
Anna’ll rise when your life’s past.

Alexander Blok, 1910-1912;
translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.

“I like it that your fever isn’t me…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 32/?

So it has been over a month of these, and this will be the last one for a while. I am not replacing the question mark with a number, as I will certainly keep doing them — I feel that permanently quitting translating poetry would be as difficult at this point as forgetting the languages I use every day. But they will be an occasional thing rather than a daily thing. Even though actually pulling together eight lines of verse generally takes me about ten minutes and can be done late in the evening, I’ve found that they still use up my creativity for the day, and in this month, I haven’t made any significant progress on my fiction or other artistic pursuits.

For some stats: there are 32 poems, counting this one, representing 15 poets. Five of the poets are women (Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Gippius, Kuzmina-Karavaeva, Lokhvitskaya), with 11 poems by them. I wish I had more, but five women poets is still more than the average Russian can name from the Silver Age. The most poems are by Blok and Tsvetaeva, each with four. Gumilev and Akhmatova each have three. There are two Futurists (Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov), one Imaginist (Esenin), five Acmeists (Gumilev, Gorodetsky, Akhmatova, Kuzmina-Karavaeva, Mandelstam), six Symbolists (Blok, Balmont, Voloshin, Lokhvitskaya, Gippius, Merezhkovsky) and Tsvetaeva who didn’t really adhere herself to a movement to my knowledge.

For a fitting finale to this stage of the project, I decided to go for what is almost certainly Marina Tsvetaeva’s best-known poem. This is mainly because its first and third verses were set to music by M. Tariverdiev and performed in the 1976 film “The Irony of Fate (or, Enjoy Your Bath)” directed by Eldar Ryazanov, that has been a New Year’s tradition for Russian and Soviet citizens for nearly forty years now.

There were many years when I deeply related to the sentiment in the verses. When I first tried translating it in 2006, it was as a loose translation of just the song. To fit it into this project, I took in the second verse, and polished and tweaked the others, taking a few more liberties with the translation than I normally do. Doubtless people have translated the poem/song before. This version is mine.

* * *

I like it that your fever isn’t me.
I like it that my fever isn’t you.
That all this heavy earth spins suddenly
Beneath the feet of — not us two.
I like that I can be open and free,
Not play with words, and not avoid what’s true,
And that I do not blush with crimson hue
When your sleeve touches mine unexpectedly.

I also like that right before my eyes
Another one you’d calmly be embracing,
And you don’t wish for hellfire to rise
On me if it’s not you I kiss the face of.
That my sweet name, my sweet, not night nor day,
You call in vain or whisper to me, “Do you…”
That in church silence they will never say
Above our joining hands a hallelujah…

With all my heart and hand I’m thanking you
That you, if to yourself unknowingly,
Love me so much; for peace the whole night through,
For trysts at dusk being a rarity,
For not-walks in not-moonlight by us two,
That not beyond our heads the sun we’ll see…
Because my fever is, alas, not you,
Because your fever is, alas, not me.

Marina Tsvetaeva, May 3, 1915;
translation by me, March 2006-August 2016

Gamayun – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 31/?

This poem has the interesting story of myth inspiring visual art inspiring poetry inspiring music. Alexander Blok wrote it after seeing Viktor Vasnetsov’s (1848-1926) 1895 painting of the Gamayun, a magical prophesying bird in Russian folklore — a corruption of the Huma bird of Persian and Turkic mythology (folk-etymologized to the verb “gam” meaning noise-making).

Then in 1967, this poem was one of the ones chosen by Dmitri Shostakovich for his “Seven Songs on the Poetry of Alexander Blok” suite. This, the second song, is the perhaps the most desperate and dissonant of the songs in the suite.

Image may contain: 1 person


Over the endless waters’ tide
By sunset light in purple gowned,
Ever she sings things prophesied,
And cannot raise wings battered down.
Of rows of severed heads her song,
The yoke of Tartars fierce and cruel,
Of cowardice, fire, tyrants strong,
The righteous dying, famine’s ruling.
Ev’n with eternal horror wrung,
Love glows on that face so fair.
But from the bloodstained lips and tongue
The truth of days to come rings there.

Alexander Blok, February 23, 1899 (Painting by V. Vasnetsov).
Translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.

Because I am about to wind this series up, and the final cadence always begins with the unsettled and dissonant.

Children of the City – S. Gorodetsky

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 30/?

We’ve previously seen Sergei Gorodetsky at his Symbolist height, in the poem “The Birch Tree” from 1906. Now, only a year later, we get a poem concerned much less with lyrical and mystical landscape imagery, and a lot more with the concerns of social justice. He would not officially become one of the co-founders of the Acmeist movement, that strove to break from the Symbolists and call things as they see them and as they are, until 1912, but even this poem suggests that there was more to him than admiring birch trees and dreaming of pagan gods. Even as he was a member of the educated middle class (his father was an ethnographer) he noticed the struggles and suffering of the lower classes and dreamed of a better future for them. To him, at least, the idea of the Soviet would be such a future; for many of his fellow poets, it was not.

Children of the City

Children of the city, withered faded flowers,
I love you for the completion that a dream empowers.

If only this forehead would smooth out from strain,
If only these eyes were not so sad and drained,

If only these bodies were not starved and thin,
How much joyful enmity would have surged within!

If these feet were only not all rickets-bent,
If beneath them only grass and greenery’s scent!

Children of the city, withered faded blooms,
Still a seed of beauty hides within your gloom.

Mid the clang of iron, the deafening of stone,
You are all the brighter, you are hope alone!

Sergei Gorodetsky, 1907; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“I looked eye to another eye” – M. Voloshin

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 29/?

We return to Maximilian (or Max) Voloshin, the Symbolist, and I have the excuse to tell the story of how he and Nikolai Gumilev fought a duel.

So in 1909, Gumilev was getting interested in the poet Elizaveta Dmitrieva (1887-1928), and they had an affair, but she preferred Max Voloshin. (Wikipedia is not clear as to whether they were having an affair or were just close friends.) So Voloshin and Dmitrieva hatched a plot to essentially do what we now call trolling using what we’d now call a sockpuppet: they started submitting poetry to the magazine “Apollon” under the pseudonym Cherubina de Gabriac. The poetry of the mysterious European Catholic lady caused a sensation, but in the autumn of 1909, the editor finally revealed that that “de Gabriac’s” phone number was that of Dmitrieva and that she was a fake all along.

Gumilev was most chagrined and “allowed himself to speak unflatteringly of the poetess” (meaning Dmitrieva). Voloshin was offended and insulted him in return, at which point Gumilev challenged him to a duel. This happened on November 22, 1909 on the shore of the Chernaya River on the outskirts of St. Petersburg. Gumilev’s second was the editor Eugene Znosko-Borovsky, also noted as a prominent chess master and chess theorist, among the few to defeat Jose Raul Capablanca. Voloshin’s second was the Count Alexey Tolstoy, also notable playwright, science fiction writer, fantasist, and later war crimes investigator (distant cousin of Leo).

Neither poet was hurt; Voloshin’s gun jammed twice and Gumilev shot into the air. But the newspapers had a field day, and Dmitrieva was shocked and embarrassed and didn’t compose poetry for a long time (she remained friends with Voloshin until her death, although she married someone else).

To turn back to this poem by Voloshin: a collection of Symbolist images as it is, it touched two of my life’s perennial fascinations, memory and the minds of others. Although I can’t really articulate why at the moment, I knew when I learned of it that I had to translate it.


I looked eye to another eye,
But met not others’ looks and smiles
But just echoing double files
Of repeated mirrors going by.

I essayed with word, line and hue
To secure a quick moment’s trace.
But in an instant a captured face
Vanished, to be defined anew.

Recognizing, I feared to forget…
But there is no nepenthe in striving.
So to ever be burning and thriving
One must break links without regret.

I am captured in dreams of pearl,
In the curling spin of projections,
Shattered in many-hued reflections.
Lost in a looking-glass lacework whirl.

Maximilian Voloshin, February 7, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.

“At the round tables all made a din…” – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 28/?

We return to another Alexander Blok poem, because one can always use more Blok in one’s life.

This one is restless and disturbing (the original also changes metre from line to line, and I am not aware of a musical setting, so I felt justified in being a bit looser with the metre in the translation as well). I am fascinated by the questions it poses, and reminded of some of the worse parties I have attended.

(The use of the word “cowed” is not in the original, but it fit the rhyme, the original does have her being in the corner, and certainly that is how I would be feeling in her place.)
At the round tables all made a din
Shifting places from side to side.
The wine fog turned everything dim.
Then over the voices, someone who came in
Said aloud, “Here is my bride.”

No one heard a thing of the cry,
As like mad beasts, every man roared.
And one, himself not knowing why,
Pointed at him, laughing and slapping his thigh,
And at the girl who had come through the door.

Then her handkerchief fell to the floor,
As if getting the ominous statement,
They all viciously fell to it, and not long before
With howls every shred into pieces they tore,
And with dust and their blood they stained it.

When then back to their seats came the crowd,
And sat, letting the hubbub subside,
He pointed to the girl in the corner cowed,
And piercing the gloom, he said aloud,
“Gentlemen! This is my bride.”

And suddenly the one who’d laughed, and rocked as well
With his hands about senselessly sweeping,
Down to the tabletop, trembling, fell.
And the ones who before would all madly yell
Now heard the sounds of weeping.

Aexander Blok, December 25, 1902; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.

Rivals – K. Balmont

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 27/?

Winding down the theme of love, and opening the theme of conflict, we return to Konstantin Balmont with my second translation of his work, again from his 1903 collection Let Us Be Like The Sun, from its “Snake Eye” cycle. Examples of symbolism, all of the poems in that cycle deal with the main theme of creative freedom and individualism.  


We may stride straight across any wide-spreading plain,
And progress, never meeting in each other’s path.
And each will remain lord of his own domain,
Until the fateful star is ascendant in wrath.

We may cast down shadows of twin discontent.
The moon will extend them as it shines above.
We’ll be the same steps in one mountain ascent
And equal — till it’s the same woman we love.

And then without helping ourselves we’ll be lying,
And then we’ll forget, both, the God we both knew.
We can, oh we can, achieve all we were trying,
But only, my equal, while we are but two.

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

“We were together…” – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 26/?

With the theme of love (it is never that simple), we return to the poems that Dmitri Shostakovich set to music in his Op. 127, “Seven Songs on the Poetry of Alexander Blok.” (See “Music,” part 7, here.) This one was chosen to be the third part of seven, taking the tension down from the previous song, “Gamayun” (of which more later). It has an elegiac quality; it is clearly talking about love from the past that is no longer present. 

* * *

We were together, I recall…
The fiddle sang, the night was flowing…
Those days you were mine above all,
And lovelier by the hour growing.
Through woman’s smiled request to guess,
Through fountains’ murmur soft receding,
Your lips begged for a kissed caress,
The music for heart’s breach was pleading.

Alexander Blok, March 9, 1899; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“All promised him to me…” – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 25/?

Continuing the theme of love poems (with a twist): This poem by Anna Akhmatova, from her collection White Flock, was dedicated in manuscript to B. V. Anrep, which dedication was subsequently crossed out.

Boris Vasilievich von Anrep (1883-1969) was a poet and artist, who had quit law school to study art (specifically, mosaics) in France and England. By the beginning of the 1920s, he was getting multiple contracts for mosaics in British stately homes, and in 1923, he created the mosaic floor in the Blake Room of the Tate Gallery.

But he spent World War I in Russia, as a reserve officer, and there he met Akhmatova in 1915 in Tsarskoye Selo. She immediately began dedicating poems to him, and seventeen of the poems in White Flock are marked with his name. They would meet whenever he would return from active duty. However, he apparently only saw their relationship as a warm friendship. He had married Yunia Khitrovo, an aristocrat, in 1908, at the insistence of their families as she had been “compromised” by him. Akhmatova met her in 1916 and dedicated another poem to her. By 1911, he had started a relationship with the singer Helen Maitland, and lived with both Helen and Yunia in Paris, while also pursuing other relationships on the side.

He never returned to Russia after 1917, but in 1952, he was commissioned to create four large mosaics for the British National Gallery, and portrayed Akhmatova as Compassion in one of them. They met for the last time in 1965, shortly before Akhmatova’s death.


All promised him to me, it seemed:
The sky’s edge with its dull gold glister,
On Christmas Eve the sweetest dream,
The many-chiming wind at Easter,

The ivy’s curving scarlet vines,
Park waterfalls white-churning down,
The two great perching dragonflies
On the wrought-iron fence rust brown.

I couldn’t not believe, not hope,
That soon in friendship we’d be meeting
When I would walk on mountain slopes
Along a path of rocks sun-heated.

Anna Akhmatova, 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

“Some wait for joy, some seek ovations…” – M. Lokhvitskaya

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 24/?

I mentioned Mirra Lokhvitskaya (1869-1905) before in connection to her correspondence with Konstantin Balmont. As much of her side of the conversation was destroyed, we know of their relationship through a series of poems they dedicated to each other. There was much speculation as to whether their relationship was sexual, but most reliable sources believe that it was platonic — despite the sensuality of her poems, Lokhviskaya lived a quiet life married to Eugene Gibert (a second-generation French immigrant who worked as a civil engineer) and raising five sons.
She was born Maria Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, in a large family. Her younger sister Nadezhda would grow up to be the satirist and memoirist with the pseudonym Teffi, whom I have already mentioned in connection to her reminiscences of Zinaida Gippius. Apparently, all the children in the family wrote poetry but got mercilessly teased by each other for doing it; there are several conflicting stories that Maria took the pen name Mirra from a poem or poetic translation of her brother’s that was the object of family mockery.
In her heyday she was the first notable female Silver Age poet, paving the way for Anna Akhmatova and Maria Tsvetaeva. She was also among the most commercially successful poets of any gender: her collections sold well where most others’ sold poorly. Her contemporaries observe, though, that she was often underestimated because she was small and beautiful, so people didn’t notice anything other than her looks. Unfortunately, she died at the young age of 35, apparently of heart disease.

Most of her poems on Wikisource, though full of lyric imagery, are tricky to translate. She was fond of using very strictly formal verse, such as the triolet, which, like a villanelle, is structured around repeating lines; I would have a hard enough time composing one of those on any topic, much less convey the same meaning with one. This poem is thankfully simpler, and fits our mini-theme of love.


Some wait for joy, some seek ovations,
Some look for honours in the field,
Some yearn for mad gratification,
Some for reply to prayers appealed.

While I — all visions false, mistaken,
Like bygone dreams fever-distressed,
I’ll trade now for the bliss of waking,
Oh dear friend, upon your breast.

Mirra Lokhvitskaya, 1896—1898; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.