“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.

“Your opened hand, your tilted shoulder…” – M. Voloshin

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 23/?

We gradually shift from the theme of religion and myth to the theme of love, via a poem that incorporates both myths and love. 

Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932) was a prominent member of the Symbolist circle. He finished his education as an autodidact after being expelled from Moscow University for “participation in unrest and student agitation.” He travelled Europe to study art (he was a notable landscape artist) and also participated in scientific expeditions to Central Asia. He had been both a Freemason and an Anthroposophist. During the Russian Civil War, while living in Koktebel in the Crimea, he used his house as a safehouse for the persecuted — first, the Reds from the Whites, then after the Reds gained power, the Whites from the Reds. 

This is a love poem that uses palmistry notions. To my knowledge, there is no Ring of Venus in the standard palmistry map of the hand, but there is a Girdle of Venus: a curved line under the middle and ring fingers, above the topmost of the major lines, the “Heart Line.” In a quaint 1930s palmistry book I read once, the presence of a Girdle of Venus on the subject’s hand is associated with…the authors hedged about it with horror and finally said that they might as well tell you, it’s “onanism.” Being a well-informed palmistry skeptic these days, I was amused to think this while translating this poem. To clarify, other sources do claim it’s more about sensuality. 


Your opened hand, your tilted shoulder…
Your face not yet to me defined,
Your Ring of Venus stood out bolder,
I knew the power in its line.

The way the Lines of Will divided
Told: you and I alike are strained.
Trapped in one ring, captive inside it
In the twin flows of the mundane.

And if we meet in fated chances
(Perhaps in thunder of the chase),
I’ll love you not for speech or glances
But for your pale palm’s fine trace.

Maximilian Voloshin December 3, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

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

Music / “At night, when troubles fall in slumber” – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 21/?

I continue the mini-theme of how Silver Age poets dealt with God and religion, and we return to the greatest of the Russian Symbolists, Alexander Blok.

Today’s poem had no name as Blok wrote it in 1898. It was Dmitri Shostakovich who dubbed it “Music.” Yes, today’s musical setting is finally by a composer you have heard of. In 1967, while recovering in hospital from a broken leg, Shostakovich went through a two-volume set of Blok’s poetry and picked seven poems, mostly from 1898-99 with one from 1902 to create a song suite (he didn’t like the term “song cycle”) for voice, violin, cello and piano: his “Seven Songs on the Poetry of Alexander Blok,” Op. 127. This poem is the seventh, forming the climax of the suite as it is performed.

A reader of this series asked me a short while ago, “Well, what is the message of these poems?” Well, for this one, laced with Symbolism as it is, I’m pretty sure the message is, “Blok thought sunsets were pretty.” He just expressed it quite fervently.


At night when troubles fall in slumber,
And cities vanish in the shade,
Oh, God has music without number,
What wondrous sounds the earth gets played!

What matter all life’s storms and fears
If I’ve the burning bloom of rose?
What matter all the human tears
When blushing spread the sunset glows!

Accept, o queen of heaven’s gloaming,
Through blood, through torture, through the grave,
The cup of final passion foaming
From your most undeserving slave!

Alexander Blok, September 1898; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016