The Birch Tree – S. Gorodetsky

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 22/?

Winding up the mini-theme of the Silver Age poets and religion, we turn to pagan gods.

Sergei Gorodetsky (1884-1967) was, with Gumilev, the co-head of the Poets’ Guild that forged the Acmeist movement. However, he has since been overshadowed by Akhmatova, Mandelstam, and even Gumilev himself. He started out as a Symbolist, and seems to have kept the habits, with his imagery. He also served as a mentor to many of the “new peasant poets,” most importantly Sergei Esenin, helping the latter’s entry into Russia’s poetic circles. As well, he was a war correspondent and medical aide during the First World War, and allegedly, published a book of poems about Armenia commenting on the Armenian genocide. (Wikipedia claims he knew the Armenian language but that had “citation needed” beside it.) After the Revolution, he joined the forces of Soviet poets, as well as translating opera librettos.

In this poem, as he is wont to do, he invokes the “Slavic Pagan” gods Lel (the god of marriage) and Yarilo (god of the sun or summer). Trick is, those are both part of “cabinet mythology”: the attempt by nineteenth-century mythographers to create a mythology for pre-Christian Slavs that would be as diverse as Hellenic or Celtic, most of whose gods were made up. Yarilo, referring to “yar,” spring or summer (cognate with Germanic “Jahr” and thus English “year”), was originally associated with a festival at the end of spring, and the cabinet mythographers turned the name of the festival into a full-fledged god. Lel is similarly unattested as a god in pre-Christian sources, but Gorodetsky may not have known this.

But it’s still a lovely poem.

The Birch Tree

I fell in love with you one amber day
When, born in azure glow
From every twig, its thanks to say,
Warm languor trickling would flow.

White as hop blooms, lake waves foamed and rolled,
So white their bodies fair.
The laughing Lel the love-god pulled
The sunbeams of black hair.

Yarila himself splendidly had crowned
The tips of locks with verdant hue,
And braiding them, would scatter down
Green colour into azure blue.

Sergei Gorodetsky, June 14, 1906; translation by me, July 2016