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 Vastetsov’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.
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.