Don Juan – V. Bryusov

Russian Silver Age poetry translations (occasional), 39/?

Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) was one of the founders of Russian Symbolism. Raised in a family of freed serfs who were against all religion, so that he was “raised with principles of strict materialism and atheism” and read Darwin rather than fairy tales, he received an excellent education but was expelled from his first high school for promoting atheist ideas (he finished his second). He was fascinated by Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and translated them, as well as Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry (which translations I have read, and approve) and languages as far from Russian as Japanese: Wikisource has Bryusov’s translation of Matsui’s Basho’s famous “frogs in the old pond” haiku.

In his 1900 collection “Tertia vigilia” (The Third Watch; most of his collection titles were not in Russian), Bryusov had a cycle called “The Favourites of the Ages” in which he imagined poems either from the perspective of, or addressed to, famous historical and mythical figures: Essarhadon, Dante, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Napoleon, Orpheus, Psyche… This poem is from the perspective of Don Juan. It is in the form of a Petrarchan sonnet, and this time I did succeed in having only two rhymes through the original eight lines. I took a few liberties with the wording (for example, the original mentions only “plateaus” but the double meaning of the word “defile” was too tempting to pass up).

If after reading this poem, you too want Don Juan to get punched in the face, read the previous poem about Don Juan in this series, Alexander Blok’s The Strides of the Commendatore.



Don Juan

Yes, I’m a sailor! A wanderer of the seas,
In endless waves a seeker of strange isles.
I yearn for new hues in a different breeze,
New tongues and alien plateaus and defiles.

And women come to my passionate pleas
Obedient, with but begging in their smiles!
As painful veils drop off their souls at ease,
They give their all — their wonders and their trials.

In love, souls open to the farthest side,
And brighter grow their sacred depths so wide
Where all things are deliberate and rare.

Yes! I destroy! Like Vampyre, lives I drain!
But each soul offers a new world again,
And tempts anew with secrets undeclared.

Valery Bryusov, May 12 – July 25, 1900; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016.

Sonnet – A. Gertsyk

Russian Silver Age poetry translations (occasional), 38/?

Last Monday I introduced Adelaida Gertsyk to this series. Here is another interesting poem by her, just titled “Sonnet.” I don’t know whether it is referring to a specific person or event in Gertsyk’s life. She also turns out to have played a role in the life of Sophia Parnok, the poet we saw two days ago; it was at a party of Gertsyk’s that Parnok met Marina Tsvetaeva.

The sonnet is Petrarchan (8 + 6 lines, rather than the Shakespearean 4 + 4 + 4 + 2 which Pushkin later modified for the Onegin sonnet used for all stanzas of that novel), with the original rhyme scheme being ABBAABBA CCDEED. I couldn’t keep the eight lines consistent as just two rhyme endings, so I introduced a third, as well as tweaking a few constructions.


Measureless now is sorrow, good, and resignation.
Last night he told me, “Let’s again leave one another.
“We meet in lies. ‘Tis lie we’re like sister and brother.
With no forgetting, there’s but complication.”
Then up rose the familiar tormentation
As it pierced days and nights, again, again.
“I’m not yet free, the time has not come, then.
Maybe a year will bring the liberation…”

There are no years, few days left — he’d forgotten.
The last has come to this spirit downtrodden…
But then he suddenly knelt helpless by my feet
And his head touched my knees, as if in prayer.
And with no other words we long sat there
Blessing in silence this instant bittersweet.

Adelaida Gertsyk, April 1913, Moscow;
translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016.

Unbreakably – P. Solovyova

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 37/?

Polixena (or Poliksena) Solovyova (1867-1924) had the misfortune to be born sister to the much more famous poet, philosopher and theologian Vladimir Solovyov, one of the central founders of 20th-century Russian Christian philosophy. Thus, the younger Symbolists venerated her poetry more because they saw her as her brother’s spiritual sister than for its own merit. She herself apparently saw at least her early publications, in the 1880s, as weak, and was much more prominent as an artist and illustrator. Review of her poetry were compassionate and its technical weaknesses, claims Wikipedia, were not much pointed out. The exception was Alexander Blok, who disliked her poetry and refused to review it.

From 1905 to 1912 she was editor of a children’s magazine and children’s publishing house with her lesbian lover, the children’s author Natalia Manaseina (ironically, Blok’s mother volunteered as proofreader for it). There she published her translation of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” one of the earliest translations into Russian (I have not yet read it). After the Revolution, for several years she worked as a librarian and translator in Koktebel in the Crimea. She remained with Manaseina until the end of her life.

This poem is addressed to Zinaida Gippius, whom we have already encountered in this series. I can see that the criticism of Solovyova’s general technical weaknesses would apply to its over-repetition in the original of the words “passion” (three times) and “death” (also three times; I replaced one of them with “mortal”). I still find it an interesting poem as another example of women’s poetry in the Silver Age. I unfortunately have not yet found out what Solovyova’s relationship was to Gippius in order to contextualize this poem further.


To Zinaida Gippius

The closer death breathes through its icy teeth,
The hotter scarlet kisses glow,
And in the graveside requiem, passion’s moans grow.
In earthly waters hardness gleams beneath.
And spring bloom would not draw such passioned breath
So sweetly, if that mortal stinging
Were not a threat to fruits autumn was bringing:
No passion without shade of death.

Polixena Solovyova, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya,
September 2016.

Poem 25 – S. Parnok

Russian Silver Age poetry translations (occasional), 36/?
Nowadays Sophia Parnok (1885-1933) is known best for being the lover of Marina Tsvetaeva from 1914 to 1916. But she was a poet, translator (from French) and highly respected literary critic in her own right, writing excellent criticism of the post-Symbolism poetic movements, without adhering to a movement herself. She concisely characterized the styles of Akhmatova and Mandelstam, but rejected acmeism as a school of thought. She also wrote libretti — she had been raised in a musical family. (Her brother Valentin Parnakh — they both changed the spelling of their Jewish last name, Parnokh, in different ways — as well as being a poet and playwright, is considered the introducer of jazz to the Soviet Union in the 1920s.)
She was married (with a wedding by Jewish rite) to the poet and dramatist Vladimir Volkenstein for two years, but afterwards turned her attention exclusively to women. According to a line in her English Wikipedia article sourced to Diana Burgin’s biography of her, “She also survived a train crash, owned a pet monkey, and was Russia’s first openly-lesbian poet… Parnok finally succumbed to her illness in 1933 with three of her lovers at her bedside. Her funeral procession of her friends and fans extended 75 kilometers outside of Moscow.” (Which I find lovely to contemplate but hard to believe — 75 km is pretty darned long.)
There are only four of her poems on Russian Wikisource, which bear the numbers they had in her collected poetry edition, presumably the one edited by Sophia Poliakova and published in Ann Arbor in 1979.
Poem #25
If you find out you’ve by stubborn friends been rejected,
If you find out that Cupid’s bow wasn’t so taut,
If unkissed lips had by another’s caress been affected,
And one laconic with you shares with others all thought…
If gardens have turned to desert through loss and privation —
Strike, still, with distracted fingers the lyre’s bright strings:
Poet, recall in your grief your fellow’s Latinate declaration:
“Swifter still pass days deceived by the lying that sings.”
Sophia Parnok, 1912; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016.

“I’ve mixed up the cards in solitaire…” – M. Voloshin

Russian Silver Age poetry translations (occasional), 35/?

In his collection Years of Wandering, Maximilian Voloshin (the Symbolist who had fought a duel with Gumilev, discussed earlier in this series) had an eleven-poem cycle dedicated to the city of Paris — a city which he seemed to have had mixed feelings about. Starting in 1903 he was dividing his time between Russia and Paris, working with both French and Russian artists (among other things, he became initiated as a Freemason there) and sending articles and poetry to the Russian magazine Libra.

This is the last entry in that cycle, which opens with the title line in the original, but I found it worked better in English to swap the first two lines. I will keep the original opening line as a title, so future readers can track down the original more easily. I took a few liberties with the imagery of this translation in order to make it work better as a poem (and to have more recognizable place names to Anglophone readers: in the original, he uses “Monsalvat,” the name used in Wagner’s Parsifal, instead of Corbenic for the location of the Holy Grail, and specifically refers to the Meganom peninsula in the Crimea in the last verse).

My own feelings towards Paris are decidedly mixed as well.


“I’ve mixed up the cards in solitaire…”

Empty, dry is my wellspring tonight.
I’ve mixed up the cards in solitaire.
Île-de-France’s gardens hold my sight,
But my soul longs for the desert air.

Autumn strolls on the Versailles’ park trails,
Sunset sets afire the atmosphere.
Yet I dream of the Knights of the Grail
On Corbenic’s cliffs steep and severe.

Paris, I know and desire the power
Of nepenthe in your poisoned glasses!
But! My soul holds Crimea’s desert flowers,
Heat, and stones, and the drying grasses…

Maximilian Voloshin, 1909; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016.

“Here I kneel on the flagstones…” – A. Gertsyk

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series (occasional), 34/?

I first heard of Adelaida Gertsyk (1874-1925) through a dedication in Maximilian Voloshin’s poems. She had been a prominent female poet among the Symbolists, who often called her a “prophetess.” As well, she was a prominent translator, particularly of Friedrich Nietzsche, both his philosophical texts and his poetry. She also wrote a number of articles on child psychology.

Her husband, Dmitri Zhukovsky, whom she married in 1908, was also a translator of philosophy (and a biologist by education) and she helped him edit the journal “Questions in philosophy.” Together they hosted a prominent salon for literary and philosophical discussion in Moscow. (He was the son of the general Eugene Zhukovsky but seems to be no relation to the Golden Age poet and translator Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852), who bore that surname by adoption anyway.) Voloshin introduced Gertsyk to Marina Tsvetaeva when the former was 35 and the latter was 18, and Tsvetaeva described the meeting as as “We passionately became friends.”

After the Revolution, while living in Sudak in the Crimea, she was arrested and imprisoned for a few months. She described this in her memoir “Basement Essays,” which has been fully published only in Latvia. Most of her work is still unknown and unpublished in Russia.


Here I kneel on the flagstones as in bygone day.
I don’t know to whom or about what I pray.
With the power of fire, longing and entreating cry,
I’ll dissolve all the walls between “I” and “not-I.”
If there’s heaven in me — open, open your door!
If there’s fire in the dark — light and burn, I implore!
Joyful heaven’s encounters nearing I see.
This time’s world, how to name it? How to set it free?

Adelaida Gertsyk, 1907; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 2016