The Founders – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 54/?

The literature teacher who introduced me to this poem was not completely clear which one, of Romulus and Remus, killed the other. In Russian, the word for Rome is “Rim,” which is closer to “Rem,” the word for Remus, so she thought it would be Remus who killed Romulus and named the city after himself — or, considering the word “Roma,” Romulus killed Remus and named the city after himself, or named it after his brother out of regret.

I would think that Gumilev would be more certain about the legend (according to most sources on the legend, Romulus killed Remus), but the poem works both ways: that Remus’s last line is foreboding about either his own death, or his brother’s. 

To make the rhyme work, I put more than one hill in the second line. After all, in reality, there should be seven. 

The Founders

Remus and Romulus stood on the hilltop.
Hills stretched wild and silent before, beside.
Romulus said, “Here will be a city.”
“Bright as the sun, yes,” Remus replied.

Romulus said, “Ancient honours we’ve gotten
By will and order of stars on high.”
“What’s gone before should be forgotten,
Look on ahead,” Remus replied.

“Here will be a circus,” Romulus was saying,
“And here, our home, open to all coming by.”
“But closer to our home, we must be laying
The tombs and the graves,” Remus replied.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1924; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 19, 2019

Bizet – I. Severyanin

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 53/?

This is another one from Igor Severyanin’s “Medallions” collection of sonnets on famous people. I tried to emulate the repeated words in the original. The homage to “Sailing to Byzantium” in the first line, though, is not in the original, but I couldn’t resist. 


This is a country for pearl fishers here
For each bar has a triple pearly shine
At times, my ear’s disarmed by rosy line,
At time, black spreads its power over my ear,
Or grey would cut at times, so piercing clear
It sickens the ear, making it sweetly pine,
It warms us, so we need it, gift-refined
Fire rising through the windy atmosphere.

There was a day when crowds jeered, whistling, wagging,
Now granite for a pedestal they’re dragging —
What does an author care what changes hold?
Dearer than all gone days, I trust there will be
The day the universe’s youth all thrilled be
To Carmen’s song, a thousand years old!

Igor Severyanin, 1926; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 19, 2019.

Bach – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 52/?

Following Igor Severyanin’s Beethoven sonnet of last week, I am going to continue running a small series of poems about composers. This one, by Osip Mandelstam, works as a substitute for his “Ode to Beethoven” that I first wanted to do. It is interesting to see in it the fascination that Lutheran church culture has for a poet used to Russian Orthodox (and Jewish) church culture.


Children of dust, this congregation,
Here boards instead of icon saints
Where but psalm numbers mark creations
Of J. S. Bach, in chalk and paint.

The tumult of such different voices
In churches and in tavern halls —
While like Isaiah you’re rejoicing,
Oh, Bach, the shrewdest of us all!

When your grandchildren came to hear it,
Debater, playing your chorale,
Was it in truth support for spirit
You sought in proof and rationale?

What is a sound? Sixteenth note fractions,
The organ’s many-layered shout —
Laconic old man, all those actions
Are no more than your mumbling out!

The Lutheran priest as he preaches
On his black pulpit, over verse,
Mixes the sound of his speeches,
Angry respondent, all with yours.

Osip Mandelstam, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 22, 2019.

Beethoven – I. Severyanin

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 51/?

In 1934, Igor Severyanin published a collection called “Medallions,” which was sonnets dedicated to people. These ranged from heroes of bygone ages, to great men and women, to his contemporaries including those he knew personally, like Bryusov, Blok, and Akhmatova. Some of them are not sonnets of praise; the one to Boris Pasternak is hilariously scathing, and the one to Arthur Conan Doyle has a fair criticism. Which I hope to get to some time.

But I will start with Beethoven. In the first verse, the easy way into the translation would be to rhyme “moon” and “tune.” That would have been the easy way. I was repelled by the easy way. The pun on “scores” is not in the original, but I had to make it more challenging for myself, too.


Embodying the disembodied all
In sonatas to the silver moonlight pure,
You, lone, found an eternal tune secure
In the measureless losses of the soul,
Frozen in foam of the Ninth wave’s roll
Eternally thus now you shall endure
As monument to those winged for sure
Whose spirit rushes beyond mind’s control.

You crafted Egmont and wrought Leonore,
Now ripe to praise you are the human scores
Crawling from holes of vanity mundane.
Upon your light, they goggle their eyes blind.
The world is with you. In return, in kind,
Your deafness rings, contemptuous in vain.

Igor Severyanin, 1927; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 13, 2019.

The Unknown Lady – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 50/?

I knew that for the fiftieth poem in this series, I wanted something a bit longer and from one of the major poets of the Silver Age. This is perhaps one of the two most famous poems of Alexander Blok (the other probably being “Night, street, streetlight, drugstore…”) and for a while, I was not sure I could pull it off at all. I had to decide to be lot more free in my translation than I usually am, and focus on capturing the image Blok had in mind, as I see it, rather than his exact wording. I still try to keep the repeated or similar words where he had repeated them.

In the spring of 1906, from the recollections of his friends, Blok was prone to going daily to the cheap dive bars in Ozerki, then a small and somewhat disreputable suburb of St. Petersburg. They tell that he had a particular favourite restaurant near the railway station that he would sit and drink in for hours. He was convinced that to get new life experiences, he had to sink to “life’s dirty bottom.” But it was probably a combination of boredom and depression. 

According to Andrei Bely, one night Blok staggered home at midnight, his coat rumpled, grey in the face. When his wife Lubov Mendeleeva (daughter of the chemist Dmitri Mendeleev who first successfully organized the periodic table of the elements) asked why he had “turned to stone,” he replied, “Yes, Luba, I’m drunk,” and showed her a piece of paper on which he had scrawled the first two lines of the poem. Later, when the poem brought him fame, he would proudly show his friends the exact landmarks described in it. The literary scholar Konstantin Mochulin said that the poem brought Blok fame, but it was bought at a high price.  

Most literary scholars concur that there is no real-life analogue of the mysterious lady in the poem: she is intended either as wholly a drunken dream, or the vision through an alcoholic haze of an ordinary low-class woman or streetwalker frequenting the dive bar. 

The painting “The Unknown Lady” by the artist Ivan Kramskoy (1883) is now often identified with the poem, although the poem was written twenty-three years later and the background of the painting is in an entirely different area of St. Petersburg.


The Unknown Lady

Deaf, hot, and wild is the atmosphere
At evening over the tawdry dives.
The springlike spirit smells of poisoned beer
Ruling the drunken criers’ lives.

Beyond the alley dust in eddies fine.
And over country house ennui,
Gilt glints the pretzel of a bakery sign
And one hears straying children weep.

And every evening, past the wrong-side tracks,
Their caps jammed over shiny kits,
Wags tread mid ditches, hands on ladies’ backs,
Deeply convinced of their own wits.

Over the lake creaking the oarlocks go
And female squeals rend the air
And in the sky, numbed to it all below,
A wincing disk rolls to nowhere.

And every evening there’s my only friend
Reflected in my glass anew,
Just like myself chastened and deafenéd
By the obscure and bitter brew.

And by me at the tables on each side
The sleepy lackeys stand and yawn
And drunkards fleshy-faced and rabbit-eyed
“In vino veritas!” yell on.

And every evening, at the hour set
(Or are those dreams in my drunk brain?),
A maiden’s form, captive in silk and net,
Moves past the misty window pane.

And passing by the drunks and their bored grooms,
Never with escort, staff, or aide,
Slow, breathing mists and breathing sweet perfumes,
She sits beside the window shade.

Her taut silks seem to waft on airy wings
The scent of ancient, dim beliefs,
As does her slim hand decked with antique rings
And her hat plumes of mourning grief.

Chained by an intimacy strange and fey,
I peer beyond her veil yet more,
And I see lands enchanted, far away,
And I see an enchanted shore.

Deep secrets are entrusted to my keep,
I’m trusted to hold someone’s sun
The bitter wine has pierced all that runs deep
In what my soul has left to run.

And ostrich plumes are nodding in my brain
And still I smell the sweet perfume
And on a far-off shore where magic reigns
Bottomless shining blue eyes bloom.

A hidden treasure lies within my soul,
Its trusted key is only mine!
O, drunken monster, you’re right after all!
I know now: truth is but in wine.

Alexander Blok, April 24, 1906; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 15, 2019.

“So to reach his lips and bed…” – M. Tsvetaeva

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 49/?

We return to Marina Tsvetaeva today, as well as giving readers perhaps a pleasant break from the eight-line ABAB CDCD rhyme schemes that have been the form of the last few poems I’ve translated. This one is a very unusual structure: three-line verses, with two longer lines and a short one, but contrary to usual appearances of this form, the third line of each verse doesn’t rhyme. I flipped the mentions of “threshold” and “door” to make the rhymes work. It may have been a quick sketch, writing down the strange sensations of going to her lover past a church. 

I can understand. 

* * *

So to reach his lips and bed,
Past God’s Church all great and dread
I must go.

Past the black funeral hearses,
Wedding coach-and-fours.
Angels set a seal forbidden
Laid across his doors.

So in dark of moon night, past
Guardians of iron cast,
Keen-eyed gates —

To a threshold singing loud
Through the haze of incense cloud
I must rush

As from age, all ages seeing,
Human beings to human beings
Rush past God.

Marina Tsvetaeva, August 15, 1916; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 10, 2019.

To A Portrait – I. Severyanin

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 48/?

Igor Severyanin (1887-1941) is considered the principal founder of the Ego-Futurist movement of the Russian Silver Age of Poetry (a sub-branch of the Futurist movement, which was in response and later in parallel to the Symbolist and Acmeist movements, and which itself later influenced the Imaginist movement). Severyanin is a pseudonym, meaning “northerner”; his birth surname was Lotaryov.

The Ego-Futurists emphasized ostentatiousness and sensuality; perhaps Severyanin’s most famous poetic line is “Pineapples in champagne! Pineapples in champagne!” and he was notorious for giving readings in an overly dramatic manner, holding a white lily in his hand. (First, entire audience halls would be almost literally rolling with laughter; a year later, other halls would drink it in, in complete seriousness.)

This poem is fairly simple compared to some, but it was the first one I managed to crack of Severyanin’s, and it will do for a start. He was more interesting once his sensuality is understood to be veiled irony; many critics did not understand that. 

To A Portrait

You have what’s in no one, no one but you.
As but to yourself, you’re close to me, I find.
I did not taste your voice, but know it true.
I love you with all soul of my mind.

You are immortal, but living to me.
You’re dead, but it’s a death without a right.
Oh, through my self you did just barely see,
And I love without knowledge, without sight.

Igor Severyanin, October 1909; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 9-10, 2019.

To Tamara Karsavina – A. Akhmatova

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 47/?
I love my second-rank Silver Agers. Really, I do. I love reading their poetry and finding out about the dramas of their fascinating interlaced lives against the background of a dying autocracy and a rising revolution in both governments and societies. They were many. They loved and believed and were passionate and they deserve to be known.
But it takes picking up a random eight-line poem on Wikisource to make it clear that the reason that even the quiz bowl aficionados among you, dear friends, have not heard of them and have heard of Anna Akhmatova — is that Anna Andreevna Akhmatova really was frickin’ good, as they say about Shakespeare, despite all the people who say she is frickin’ good.
Her dedicatee here, Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978), was the principal dancer of Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and previously of the Imperial Russian Ballet. She pioneered the leading roles in Petroushka and The Firebird. Later, she would emigrate to England and help found the Royal Ballet and the Royal Academy of Dance. 

To Tamara Karsavina

Your light dance, you are like a song composing —
It told us of glory high —
And on your pale cheeks your blush grows more rosy
And darker and darker your eye

And more and more captives with every minute
Forget their own lives mundane,
And in the sounds of the sacred, in it,
Your supple form bends again.

Anna Akhmatova, March 26, 1914; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 9, 2019.

“Oh, tiles that ring the air…” – A. Lozina-Lozinsky

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 46/?
Alexei Lozina-Lozinsky (lo-ZEEN-uh-lo-ZEEN-ski) (1886-1916) was a man with a deeply unfortunate life. The critic M. L. Gasparov described him as “someone who was less well-remembered by his contemporaries for his poetry than for his likeness and for his death, and was cleanly forgotten by their descendants. He worked out his original style, with its grim-disjoined bravado, only in the last years of his short life.”
Descended from the nobility of the Podolsky governorate, Alexei’s full legal surname was not just double-barrelled but quadruple-barrelled: Lubich-Yarmolovich-Lozina-Lozinsky. His mother died of typhus when he was two. At the age of nineteen, he lost his leg: while hunting, he carelessly tossed his loaded gun into a boat, and it discharged into his knee, destroying it and  leading to amputation. He was a student rebel who took part in revolutionary movements and was arrested three times. But he also struggled with depression, and twice attempted suicide by shooting himself in the chest.
His third suicide attempt, on November 5, 1916, was successful. He gave himself a fatal dose of morphine, and, accompanied by a volume of Paul Verlaine’s poetry, he took notes on his sensations until the very end. He was not yet thirty years old.
Probably due to the efforts of his brother Vladimir, a high-ranking priest (protoiereus) in the Russian Orthodox Church, who would later be canonized as a saint, he did receive a Christian burial. 
This short poem, written less than a year before his death, speaks of his depression, but also of the power of music. I took the liberty of using an eye-rhyme rather than a true rhyme in the last verse. 
* * *
Oh, tiles that ring the air
In that long moonlit hall!
I lay down dying there,
In a silent broken fall,
Severe so were the sounds
The darkened organ played,
So many the old wounds
I had as there I lay.
Alexei Lozina-Lozinsky, December 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 9, 2019.

“We proudly despise those around…” – V. Bryusov

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 45/?
This is a short poem by Valery Bryusov, not included in any collection. I find the meter of the original a little off: seemingly amphibrachic trimeter, it faults that meter in the second, sixth and seventh lines. I have no idea whether this was intentional (as Bryusov was a good enough poet to be aware of it) or if this was a hastily written poem Bryusov meant to polish later, and did not.
I like its observations on human nature, though.
We proudly despise those around,
Our wishes are law on our side,
And we suffer torment without bound,
But love our torment in our pride
And if sacred urges beguile
Our heart to take part in their ploy,
We’re boundlessly joyful a while
And we feel ashamed of this joy.
Valery Bryusov, August 13, 1897; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 9, 2019.