Sea Roses – K. Balmont

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 44/?

I have just been picking poems by browsing through the Wikisource list of eight-line Russian poems, and stopping at ones that I both like and see a way into translating. (I admit that this is a creative outlet I can do in downtime at work when I am bored.) However, people will doubtless point out to me that the this is the third one in a row to mention or feature storms, on sea or land, and my subconscious is trying to tell me something.

I am not sure what. I do like Konstantin Balmont a lot, and I liked the central image of this poem.

Sea Roses

Sea roses are the whitest roses.
When gales toss the sea, they bloom
When furious breakers in opposing
Torture the turquoise with their boom

And beat and fling it up in rumbling,
Upset it with the thunder’s roars,
And with dead laughter, for a flash they bring
The splendour of a full white rose.

Konstantin Balmont, 1908; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 6, 2019

Rivals – K. Balmont

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 27/?

Winding down the theme of love, and opening the theme of conflict, we return to Konstantin Balmont with my second translation of his work, again from his 1903 collection Let Us Be Like The Sun, from its “Snake Eye” cycle. Examples of symbolism, all of the poems in that cycle deal with the main theme of creative freedom and individualism.  


We may stride straight across any wide-spreading plain,
And progress, never meeting in each other’s path.
And each will remain lord of his own domain,
Until the fateful star is ascendant in wrath.

We may cast down shadows of twin discontent.
The moon will extend them as it shines above.
We’ll be the same steps in one mountain ascent
And equal — till it’s the same woman we love.

And then without helping ourselves we’ll be lying,
And then we’ll forget, both, the God we both knew.
We can, oh we can, achieve all we were trying,
But only, my equal, while we are but two.

Konstantin Balmont, 1903; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

Broken Lines – K. Balmont

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 8/?

Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) was one of the founders of the Symbolist movement. He comes from the previous generation from the poets we’ve seen already, like Akhmatova, Gumilev, Tsvetaeva and Mandelstam; his first wife’s daughter, born after her re-marriage, became Gumilev’s second wife. Astonishingly erudite, he knew multiple languages including Chinese, Sanskrit and Georgian (he tried to translate into Russian Shota Rustaveli’s epic “Knight in the Panther’s Skin”). But he was also very much an activist: he had been expelled from high school for participating in activist circles and at the time of the composition of today’s poem (1903) he was exiled from St. Petersburg for three years for having read his poetry during student anti-government protests.

He became very popular with the Revolution, but, horrified by the new regime, he petitioned to legally leave due to the health of his family*, and spent his final years (1920-1942) in France. There, the emigrant community treated him with suspicion of Soviet sympathies while at the same time the government back home now branded him a traitor for leaving. For the rest of his life, he missed his country, but could not endure the government.

*his third, common-law wife and their daughter. He had multiple powerful loves, tried to commit suicide in 1890 due to the failure of his first marriage, and it certainly seems that for a while he was what we would now call polyamorous with his second and third wives, Ekaterina Andreeva and Elena Tsvetkovskaya, finally emigrating with the latter but still warmly corresponding with the former. He had also maintained a long platonic (maybe) relationship with the poet Mirra Lokhvitskaya, of whom hopefully more anon.

His poems are rich in imagery (and in many cases, eroticism) and are distinguished by a very strong rhythm and musicality. This caused me a lot of trouble when I decided, as part of this project, that I need to look into Balmont’s work — many of the lines contain long words for concepts that would be short words in English, or vice versa, and it is very tricky to think of a line that keeps his metre, rhyme scheme and repetition, simple as the poems appear at first glance.

This one, part of the “Snake Eye” cycle in his collection “Let Us Be Like The Sun” (1903), reads in parts remarkably like today’s social justice rhetoric.

Broken Lines

Sharp and acute angles, broken lines askew —
We are here — we’re hiding in the kingdom that gloom knew.

We’ll rise from grim burrows in the coming day,
We shall yet come dressing in our garments gay.

We will take you over, throw you in our dreams.
We’ll show you the freshness of our new regimes.

Wait and see, you elders, who could never guess
Of other than two motions, only no and yes.

There will come the reckoning, the dark kingdom’ll die.
Dawn breathes royal purple… Hear the eagles cry!

Konstantin Balmont, 1903; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.