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

Modernity – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 17/?

To follow up on yesterday’s second Mandelstam poem in this series, here is one that is closely related to the first one I posted (found here). Apparently, reading the Iliad late at night, and writing poems about the weird mental state that results, was a common pastime among the Acmeists, and Gumilev had done it four years earlier. However, the two poets’ responses to the same situation are fascinatingly different; Gumilev focuses on the modern world’s contrast with the world of the Iliad, while Mandelstam looks at the Achaeans directly.

(I am aware that it’s mammoths, not mastodons, that lived in Siberia. Please feel free to go to Gumilev’s grave and address your concerns, although I suspect he knew as well, and was just reaching for a rhyme with “horizons” in the original.)


I shut Homer and sat by the bay window glass.
On my lips the last word of the Iliad fluttered.
The night watchman’s long shadow unhurriedly passed,
And above something — lamplight or moonlight — bright sputtered.

So, so often I’d throw down challenging looks
And I met in reply many challenging glances:
Odysseuses over a shipping firm’s books,
Agamemnons amid seedy public-hall bouncers.

Likewise, far in Siberia where blizzards weep,
Mastodons grow more still in their silver glaciers.
Over there their dull yearning makes snowdrifts sweep,
And it’s their blood that reddens horizon frontiers.

I am sad from the book, yearning from the moon’s light.
Perhaps I need no hero, the way it is going.
Here come down the alley, strange in tender delight,
A pair of students embracing, like Daphnis and Chloe.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1911; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016.

The Magic Fiddle – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 12/?

We return to another poem by Nikolai Gumilev, this one published in 1910, the year he married Anna Akhmatova (they would be together for eight years). A critic (uncited) has mused that this poem is key to all of Gumilev’s work: the admonishment of an experienced poet to a young one about the reverse side of creativity, and a warning, foreshadowing the doom that was to come to Gumilev himself in August of 1921. Gumilev dedicated it to Valeriy Bryusov (1873-1924), one of the co-founders of the Symbolist movement.

The Magic Fiddle

My dear boy, you are so happy, ever merry, bright and smiling,
Do not ask for this sweet fortune that has poisoned worlds away.
You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know what is this violin,
What dark horrors lie in store for one who dares begin to play!

If a player’s hands commanding take the violin and bow,
Peaceful light is gone forever from the eyes that make that choice.
Rabid wolf packs wander, hungry, on the roads where fiddlers go.
Fiends and demons love to listen to the fiddle’s regal voice.

Ever, ever must these strings go on and sing and cry and wail,
And the maddened bow must leap and dance all through the nights and days,
Under sun and under snow, under blizzard, under gale,
Even when the west is burning, even when the east’s ablaze.

You will tire, you will slow, you will stop for just one note,
And the power will be gone from you to breathe or make a sound,
And the wolves in rabid bloodlust will at once lunge at your throat,
And their paws will crush your ribcage as their teeth will drag you down.

Then you’ll know the cruel mockery of all that sang around,
And your eyes will see the over-late but overwhelming fear,
And the mournful cold will wind around your body like a shroud,
And your friends will bow their heads then, and your bride will burst in tears.

Go on, boy! You will not find either joy or treasure here!
But I see that you are laughing, there are sunbeams from your eyes.
Here, take the magic fiddle, face the monsters others fear,
And go die a death of glory, the dread death that fiddlers die!

Nikolai Gumilev, 1910; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, 2012.

The Giraffe – N. Gumilev

Russian Silver Age Poetry translations, 2/?

Nikolai Gumilev (or Gumilyov) (1886-1921) is nowadays better known as the repressed and eventually murdered husband of Anna Akhmatova, but he was a competent poet in his own right, and co-founded the Acmeist movement in poetry. He was fascinated by Africa and visited it four times, but this poem, the first I had encountered of his work, is not about Africa, not really.

The Giraffe

Today I can tell that your gaze is especially sad
And your arms are especially thin as they clasp round your knee.
Listen, I’ll tell you how far, far away, on the shores of Lake Chad,
An exquisite giraffe wanders free.

He has been created so languid and graceful and slim
With dapples in magical patterns adorning his hide,
So only the moon in her beauty compares with him
As she shimmers and breaks on the crystal lake’s rippling tide.

He looks like the many-hued sails of a ship from afar.
He floats in his gallop as birds do in joy of their flight.
I know that the earth sees much wonder when at the first star
He hides in a cavern of marble to wait out the night.

I can tell of mysterious lands and of laughter and bliss,
Of the maid black but comely, the passionate young chief on the plain…
But you, for too long you’ve inhaled the weight of the mist.
You do not believe there is anything other than rain.

And how can I tell you of the scent of the grasses that play
Beneath slender palms, and how tropical gardens there lie…
You’re crying? Just listen… on the shores of Lake Chad, far away,
An exquisite giraffe wanders by.

Nikolai Gumilev, 1908; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, February 2012.