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.

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 Vasnetsov’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.

Image may contain: 1 person


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.