Bach – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translation series, 52/?

Following Igor Severyanin’s Beethoven sonnet of last week, I am going to continue running a small series of poems about composers. This one, by Osip Mandelstam, works as a substitute for his “Ode to Beethoven” that I first wanted to do. It is interesting to see in it the fascination that Lutheran church culture has for a poet used to Russian Orthodox (and Jewish) church culture.


Children of dust, this congregation,
Here boards instead of icon saints
Where but psalm numbers mark creations
Of J. S. Bach, in chalk and paint.

The tumult of such different voices
In churches and in tavern halls —
While like Isaiah you’re rejoicing,
Oh, Bach, the shrewdest of us all!

When your grandchildren came to hear it,
Debater, playing your chorale,
Was it in truth support for spirit
You sought in proof and rationale?

What is a sound? Sixteenth note fractions,
The organ’s many-layered shout —
Laconic old man, all those actions
Are no more than your mumbling out!

The Lutheran priest as he preaches
On his black pulpit, over verse,
Mixes the sound of his speeches,
Angry respondent, all with yours.

Osip Mandelstam, 1913; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, September 22, 2019.

“I’m given a body” – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 16/?

This is eighteen-year-old Osip Mandelstam, optimistic and self-reliant even as he muses. At the time, he would just have gone to the University of Heidelberg after completing a year at the Sorbonne in France. By 1911, as his family’s finances started to collapse, he would need to return to Russia and try to complete his education at the University of Saint-Petersburg — which had a strict quota on Jews, so he converted to Methodism (a very rare religion in Russia). Despite this, his studies would suffer, and he would never complete a formal degree.


I’m given a body — what should I be trying
With it, so one and only, and so mine?

I ask, who should I thank for quiet elation,
For joy of life, of breath, of inhalation?

I am the gardener, I am the bloom,
I’m not alone in this world’s dungeon gloom.

My warmth and breath’s already come to be
Laid on the glass panes of eternity.

And on them now a pattern is incised.
Since recent times it can’t be recognized.

So let the muck of moments flow apace,
But that dear pattern cannot be erased.

Osip Mandelshtam, 1909; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016

“Insomnia. Homer…” – O. Mandelstam

Russian Silver Age poetry translations, 4/?

Osip Mandelstam or Mandelshtam (1891-1938) is generally considered the greatest of the Acmeists. During the Stalin years, he was arrested and imprisoned twice and finally died in a transit camp. His poetry was banned; his wife, Nadezhda, memorized all of it just in case all copies would have to be destroyed, and worked tirelessly to promote his work after the Stalin era ended. He was also very close to (and frequently rumoured to be having an affair with) Anna Akhmatova.

This is a poem written when he was twenty-four, and I chose it partly for its timelessness — I mean, who hasn’t tried to fall asleep by reading the Iliad’s interminable Catalogue of Ships chapter? The sea being “wine-dark” is not in the original, but I couldn’t resist using it.

“Insomnia. Homer”

Insomnia. Homer. Sails growing tight.
I’ve read half the list of Ships of the Achaeans.
That lengthy flock, that train of silver cranes
That over Greece once long ago took flight.

Like cranes fly in a wedge to alien shores —
Divine foam shimmers on kings’ royal hair —
Where do you sail? If Helen weren’t there,
What’s Troy to you, Achaean men of yore?

Both sea and Homer — love may move them all.
Whom should I hearken? Homer now hushes.
The wine-dark sea in oratory rushes,
Against the headboard of my bed it falls.

Osip Mandelstam, 1915; translation by Tamara Vardomskaya, July 2016 (because I felt we need more Mandelstam on this project).