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.