The Strides of the Commendatore – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series (occasional), 33/?

Well, I was tired tonight, and of course when I am physically exhausted from dance, my brain decides that today is a good day to try to translate Alexander Blok’s “The Strides of the Commendatore.”

I think this poem, not even the Mozart opera it is inspired by, was where I heard of Don Juan/Don Giovanni for the first time (Pushkin’s “The Stone Guest” would have been a close second). The original still gives me chills, and its uneven, shifting meter contributes to that. At first I tried to match each line to the original syllable for syllable, then decided the heck with it after a few verses. I did keep repeated words as repeated words, though. I guess Blok knew what he was doing. (I don’t know what’s with the black engine in the sixth verse. I am picturing a drone.)

Here’s a creepy poem. Enjoy.


The Strides of the Commendatore

Past the casement pane the mist curls pale.
Heavy drapes the doorway shade.
So what’s now to you your liberty so stale,
Don Juan, who’s been afraid?

Cold and empty is the chamber’s splendour.
Servants sleep; the night is dead to all.
Out of a land unknown, distant, blissful, tender,
A cock faintly sings its call.

What are blissful sounds to traitors tossing?
Your life’s hours now are finite.
Donna Anna sleeps, over her heart hands crossing.
Donna Anna dreams tonight.

Who is it whose cruel face is doubled
In the mirror’s reflected gleams?
Anna, Anna, is sleep in the grave untroubled?
Are they sweet, unearthly dreams?

Life is mad, and boundless and deflated!
Come and sally forth, old doom!
In reply, victorious and infatuated,
A horn sings from snowy gloom.

Spraying light, an engine passes gliding,
Black and quiet as an owl’s wing.
Quietly, with the weight of stone striding,
The Commander’s coming in.

Like the night clock’s chime from rasping gear,
The door open, out of frozen air,
Chimes the clock: “You invited me to dinner here.
I have come. Are you prepared?”

There’s no answer to the cruel query.
There’s no answer. Silence reigns.
Servants sleep, and in the chamber’s splendour all is eerie.
Night is pale beyond the panes.

At dawn’s hour, strange and cold the air.
At dawn’s hour, the night is dim.
Maid of Light! Where are you, Donna Anna, where?
Anna! Anna! — Only silence grim.

Only in the dawn mist dread and dour
The clocks strike and strike their last:
Donna Anna’s waking comes at your death hour.
Anna’ll rise when your life’s past.

Alexander Blok, 1910-1912;
translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.


Gamayun – A. Blok

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.

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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.

“At the round tables all made a din…” – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 28/?

We return to another Alexander Blok poem, because one can always use more Blok in one’s life.

This one is restless and disturbing (the original also changes metre from line to line, and I am not aware of a musical setting, so I felt justified in being a bit looser with the metre in the translation as well). I am fascinated by the questions it poses, and reminded of some of the worse parties I have attended.

(The use of the word “cowed” is not in the original, but it fit the rhyme, the original does have her being in the corner, and certainly that is how I would be feeling in her place.)
At the round tables all made a din
Shifting places from side to side.
The wine fog turned everything dim.
Then over the voices, someone who came in
Said aloud, “Here is my bride.”

No one heard a thing of the cry,
As like mad beasts, every man roared.
And one, himself not knowing why,
Pointed at him, laughing and slapping his thigh,
And at the girl who had come through the door.

Then her handkerchief fell to the floor,
As if getting the ominous statement,
They all viciously fell to it, and not long before
With howls every shred into pieces they tore,
And with dust and their blood they stained it.

When then back to their seats came the crowd,
And sat, letting the hubbub subside,
He pointed to the girl in the corner cowed,
And piercing the gloom, he said aloud,
“Gentlemen! This is my bride.”

And suddenly the one who’d laughed, and rocked as well
With his hands about senselessly sweeping,
Down to the tabletop, trembling, fell.
And the ones who before would all madly yell
Now heard the sounds of weeping.

Aexander Blok, December 25, 1902; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, August 2016.

“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.

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

“A girl sang in the cathedral choir” – A. Blok

Russian Silver Age Poetry translations, 3/?

Alexander Blok
“A girl sang in the cathedral choir”

Well, on deciding to do this as a series, I realized that I didn’t have as large a stockpile of Silver Age poetry translations as I thought (with a good distribution of authors and moods, so it’s neither all-Gumilev nor all-depressing all the time) so…gotta make more. This poem by Alexander Blok, the most famous of the Symbolists, I’d first heard a girl recite at a Russian church school graduation when I was about six.

A girl sang in the cathedral choir
Of all the ships that had gone to sea,
Of all the travellers lost and tired,
Of all who’d forgotten what joys may be.

And on her white shoulder a sunbeam glistened,
As up her voice soared to the dome’s far height,
And in the darkness all watched and listened
To the singing white dress in the ray of light.

And it seemed to each watcher that joy was nearing,
That all ships were in harbours calm and secure,
That in faraway lands people lost and weary
Had found new lives shining bright and sure.

Sweet was her voice, the ray slim and fine…
Only up on high, where all Truths are learned
At God’s pearly gates — a child was crying
That no one gone out would ever return.

Alexander Blok, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.