Alexander Blok (1880-1921)
Alexander Alexandrovich Blok was born in St Petersburg. His father was a professor of law in Warsaw, his mother a literary translator and his maternal grandfather the rector of St Petersburg University. His parents separated soon after his birth and he spent much of his childhood at Shakhmatovo, his maternal grand-father's estate near Moscow. There he discovered the religious philosopher Vladimir Solovyov and the poetry of Tyutchev and Fet, both of whom were still surprisingly little known. Shakhmaovo would remain for Blok the image of a lost paradise.
In 1903 Blok married Lyubov Mendeleyeva, the daughter of Dmitry Mendeleyev, the chemist who created the periodic table. It was to Lyubov he dedicated his poem-cycle “Verses about the beautifu1 Lady” (1904). For well over a year, however, the marriage remained unconsummated. Eventually, Lyubov seduced him, but this did not help; Blok appears to have felt that sex was humiliating to women. The couple remained together, but their marriage was largely asexual; both had affairs with others.
The idealism of Blok's first book yielded to a recognition of the tension between this idealism and reality — and the Beautiful Lady yielded her place to the more louche figure of the Stranger. 'The Stranger', written when Lyubov was close to leaving Blok for his fellow-poet Andrey Bely, is one of Blok's most famous poems. Here we present it in two translations: English and Scots. As well as some of his best-known love poems, and poems about the Muse, we include two poems in free verse, both imbued with a warmth and a gentle humour lot generally associated with Blok.
The greatest of Blok's later poems are meditations on Russia's destiny. 'The Twelve' (1918) is an ambiguous welcome to the October Revolution. In staccato rhythms and colloquial language, the poem evokes a winter blizzard in revolutionary Petrograd; twelve Red Guards marching through the streets seem like Christ's Twelve Apostles. Many of Blok's fellow-writers hated this poem for its apparent acceptance of the Revolution

Most Bolsheviks, on the other hand, disliked the poem for its mysticism.  Blok's biographer Avril Pyman writes, `Blok had spent two months prior to his composition of "The Twelve" walkingthe streets, and the snatches of conversation written into the poem, the almostcinematic, angled glimpses of hurrying figures slipping and sliding over or behind drifts or standing rooted in indecision as the storm rages around them work as in a brilliantly cut documentary film. [. .] Musically, the different rhythms are unified by the wind [. . .] stilled only in the last line.14

Towards the end of his life Blok's chronic depression deepened.  For nearly two years between 1916 and 1918 he wrote nothing. After writing 'The Twelve' and one other poem in less than two days — and noting, 'A great roaring sound within and around me. Today, I am a genius' — he sank into a still longer silence. 'All sounds have stopped,' he told Korney Chukovsky. 'Can’t you hear that there are no longer any sounds?' During his last three years Blok wrote several prose articles, but only one   poem, 'To Pushkin House', an invocation of Pushkin's joy and 'secret freedom'.

Boris Pasternak tells how Mayakovsky once suggested they go together to defend Blok at a public event where he was likely to be criticized: 'By the time we got [there] . . . Blok had been told a pile of monstrous things and they had not been ashamed to tell him that he had outlived his time and was inwardly dead — a fact with which he calmly agreed.'15

   In spring 1921 Blok did indeed fall ill, with asthma and heart problems.  His doctors wanted him to receive medical treatment abroad, but he was not allowed to leave the country, in spite of the pleas of Maxim Gorky. Blok died on 7 August 1921.

Blok was idolized in his day and is still considered one of Russia's greatest poets, but there have always been doubting voices. In his memoir “Petersburg Winters” Georgy Ivanov recounts a conversation between himself and his mentor Nikolay   Gumilyov. In reply to Ivanov's claim that, however blasphemous it may be, ‘The Twelve' is a work of genius, Gumilyov replies, 'So much the worse if it is! The worse both for poetry and for Blok himself. Don't forget that the Devil is a genius too — so much the se both for the Devil and for us all’ 16 D. S. Mirsky writes, ‘But great though he is, Blok is also most certainly an unhealthy morbid poet, the greatest and most typical of a generation whose best sons were stricken with  despair and incapable  of overcoming their  pessimism  except  by losing themselves in a dangerous and ambiguous mysticism  or by intoxicating  themselves in a  passionate whirlwind.’ 17. Only four years earlier, Mirsky had said that if he had to choose between 'The Twelve' and all the rest of Russian literature put together, he would hesitate. 18. Few poems can have had such   power to polarize opinion — let alone the opinions of a single person.

Akhmatova famously referred to Blok as 'the tragic tenor of the epoch'.19 And in 'To the Muse' Blok wrote:


          And I knew a destructive pleasure

          in trampling what's sacred and good,

          a delirium exceeding all measure —

          this absinthe that poisons my blood!

                      (trans. Stephen Capus)


The Stranger 20

     Over the restaurants on sultry evenings

     the stale hot vapours rise,

     and a corrupting spirit born of springtime.

     sounds in the drunken cries.

     Over the boredom of suburban villas,

     the alleys dusty-dry,

     glimmers the golden sign above the baker's,

     and tired children cry.

     And every night beyond the level


     with bowler hats askew,

     saunter the local wits with girls a-giggle,

     to criticize the view.

Over the lake is heard the creak of rowlocks, and female shrieks resound, while high above, the moon, surprised at nothing, grins meaningless and round. And every night my glass reflects my image, friend of my solitude, who by the strange wine's aromatic power, as I am, is subdued. The sleepy waiters, stuck beside the tables, watch for an empty glass, while drunken men, with eyes like rabbits', bellow: 'In vino veritas!' But every evening at the fated hour — or is it just my dream? — a figure moves across the misted window, a girl in silks that gleam. Slowly she passes through the drunken rabble, companionless and fair, and by the window sits, a mist of perfume spread round her in the air. Her silken waist, her ,hat of sable feathers, her narrow hand with rings, seem to exhale a breath of long-forgotten and legendary things. Tranced by the wonder of her nearness, striving to pierce her shadowy veil, I look on an enchanted shore, a distance beyond some magic pale.

Unspoken mysteries to me are given, another's sun is mine; transfused through every corner of my being, steals the astringent wine. Within my brain the drooping ostrich feathers wave languidly and sweep; blue on that distant shore the eyes that flower, immeasurably deep. Safe in my soul there lies a hoarded treasure, whose key is only mine — Oh, you were right indeed, you drunken monsters, the truth is found in wine. (1906) Frances Corn ford and Esther Polianowsky Salaman

 At darknin' hings abune the howff a weet and wild and eisenin' air. Spring's spirit wi' its waesome sough rules owre the drucken stramash there. And heich abune the vennel's pokiness, whaur a' the white-weshed cottons lie, the Inn's sign Minters in the mochiness, and lood and shrill the bairnies cry. The hauflins 'yont the burgh boonds gang ilka nicht, and a' the same, their bonnets cocked; their bluid that stounds is playin' at a fine auld game. howff tavern eisenin' lustful stramash uproar vennel's alley's bunters. mochiness glimmers ... dampness hauflins 'yont young lads beyond stounds throbs

 And  on  the lochan there, hauf-herted 
          wee  screams   and creakin' oar-locks soon'. 
          And  in the lift, heich, hauf-averted, 
          the  mune looks owre  the yirdly roon'. 

          And  ilka evenin', derf and serious 
          (Jean ettles nocht o' this, puir lass), 
          in liquor, raw yet still mysterious, 
          a'e freend's aye mirrored in  my glass. 

          Ahint the sheenin'  coonter gruff 
          thrang  barmen  ding the  tumblers doun; 
          'In vino veritas' cry rough 
          and  reid-een'd fules that in it droon. 

          But  ilka evenin' fey and fremt 
          (Is it a dream nae wauk'nin'  proves?) 
          as to a trystin'-place undreamt, 
          a silken leddy  darkly  moves. 

          Slow  gangs she by  the  drunken anes, 
          and  lanely by the winnock sits; 
          frae'r robes, atour the sunken anes, 
          a  rooky   dwamin' perfume  flits. 

          Her  gleamin' silks, the taperin' 
          o' her ringed fingers, and her feathers 
          move  dimly like a  dream wi'in, 
          while endless faith aboot   them gethers. 

          I seek, in this captivity, 
          to pierce the veils that darklin fa' 
          — see white clints slidin' to the sea, 
          and  hear the horns o' Elfland blaw. 

  lochan lake  lift sky yirdly roon' earthly round derf taciturn 
  ettles nocht knows nothing thrang . . . ding busy. . . bang 
  fremt taciturn winnock  window 
  frae'r  atour from her ... about rooky dwamin' misty, swooning 

           I ha'e dark secrets' turns and twists, 
           a sun is gi'en me to baud, 
           the whisky in my bluid insists, 
           and spiers my benmaist history, lad. 

           And owre  my brain the flitterin' 
           o' the dim feathers gang aince mair, 
           and, faddomless, the dark blue glitterin' 
           o' twa een in the ocean there. 

           My soul stores up this wealth unspent, 
           the key is safe and nane's but mine. 
           You're richt, auld drunk impenitent, 
           I ken it tae — the truth's in wine. 

                                             Hugh MacDiarmid 


             She came in out of the frost, 
             her cheeks glowing, 
             and filled my whole room 
             with the scent of fresh air 
             and perfume 
             and resonant  chatter 
             that did away with my last chance 
             of getting anywhere with my work. 

             she dropped a hefty art journal 
             onto the floor 
             and at once 
             there was no room  any more 
             in my large room. 

           haud hold  spiers my benmaist asks my inmost 

        All this 
        was somewhat  annoying,                                                        
        if not absurd.                                                                
        Next, she wanted "Macbeth"                                                      
        read aloud to her. 

        Barely had I reached                                                          
        "the earth's bubbles|" 21 
        which  never fail to entrance me 
        when I realized that she, 
        no less entranced,                                                            
        was staring out of the window.                                                 I 
        A large tabby cat                                                             
        was creeping along the edge of the roof 
        towards some amorous  pigeons. 
        What angered me   most                                                        
        was that it should be pigeons, 
        not she and I, 
        who were  necking,                                                            
        and that the days of Paolo and Francesca                                     
        were long gone. 
                                               Robert Chandler                       


        When   you  stand in my path, 
         so alive, so beautiful, 
        yet so tormented; 
         when  you  talk only of what is sad,                                     
         when  your thoughts are of death,                               
         when  you  love no one                                                    
         and feel such contempt for your own beauty —                               
         am I  likely to harm you? 

  No  . . . I'm no lover of violence, 
        and I don't cheat and am not proud, 
        though I do  know   many things 
        and have thought  too much  ever since childhood 
        and am too preoccupied   with myself. 
        I am, after all, a composer of poems, 
        someone  who calls everything by its name 
        and spirits away the scent from the living flower. 

        For all your talk of what is sad, 
        for all your thoughts of beginnings and endings, 
        I still take the liberty 
        of   remembering 
        that you are only fifteen. 

        Which  is why I wish 
        you to fall in love with an ordinary man 
        who  loves the earth and the sky 
        more  than rhymed 
        or   unrhymed 
        talk of the earth and the sky. 

        Truly, I will be glad for you, 
        since only someone  in love 
        has the right to be called human. 

                                               Robert Chandler 

                      The  Sugar Angel 

       Through the closed nursery doors, the sugar angel 
      stares through the chink to see 
      the children playing at the Christmas party, 
      the brightly candled tree. 

Nana is making up the crackling fire,
a blaze for Christmas Day. Only the sugar angel — he is German — wastes, warm and sweet, away. First comes the softening of his little feathers, the melting of his feet, the tiny head falls back, he makes a puddle, minute and warm and sweet. And then the puddle dries away. The mistress looks everywhere in vain, while old deaf Nana, who remembers nothing, grumbles and looks again. You fragile creatures of our dearest daydreams! Break, melt and vanish away in the bright-burning blaze of hourly happenings, the clatter of everyday. Only a little mischievous girl, recalling the breath of days departed, will weep for you in secret for a moment. A child is tender-hearted. (1909)
"Frances Cornford and Esther Polianowsky Salaman" In a Restaurant Will I ever forget it, that mythical night: in the blaze of the setting sun an abyss divided the sky in two and the street lamps came on one by one. I sat in a crowd by the window while somewhere an orchestra sang about love; I sent you a rose in a glass of champagne as gold as the heavens above. Returning your arrogant look with a mixture of pride and confusion, I bowed; with studied disdain you turned to your escort: 'That one, too, is in love with me now.' All at once the ecstatic strings thundered out in response . . . But still I could see from your show of contempt, from the tremor that shook your hand, that your thoughts were with me. You jumped up from your place with the speed of a bird that's been startled; your languid perfume, the swirl of your dress as you passed, died away like a vision that's over too soon. But out of its depths a mirror reflected your glance as you cried: `Now's your chance!' And a gypsy, jangling her beads, sang of love to the dawn and started to dance. (1910) Stephen Capus from "Dances of Death" Night, lantern, side street, drugstore, a mindless, pallid light. Live on for twenty years or more —
it'll be the same; there's no way out.

Try being reborn — start life anew. All's still as boring and banal. Lantern, side street, drugstore, a few shivering ripples on the canal. (1912) Robert Chandler The Kite Over the empty fields a black kite hovers, and circle after circle smoothly weaves. In the poor hut, over her son in the cradle a mother grieves: 'There, suck my breast: there, grow and take our bread, and learn to bear your cross and bow your head.' Time passes. War returns. Rebellion rages. The farms and villages go up in flame, and Russia in her ancient tear-stained beauty, is yet the same, unchanged through all the ages. How long will the mother grieve and the kite circle still? (1916) Frances Corn ford and Esther Polianowsky Salonan


from "The Twelve" From street to street with sovereign stride . . — Who's there? Don't try to hide! But it's only the wind playing with the red banner ahead. Cold, cold, cold drifts of snow. — Who's there? No hiding now! But it's only a starving hound limping along behind. Get lost, you mangy cur — or we'll tickle you with our bayonets. This is the last of you, old world — soon we'll smash you to bits. The mongrel wolf is baring his fangs — it's hard to scare him away. He's drooping his tail, the bastard waif . . . — Hey, you there, show your face! Who is it waving our red banner? Wherever I look — it's dark as pitch! Who is it flitting from corner to corner always out of our reach? [. . .] Crack-crack-crack! And the only answer is echoes from house to house. Only the whirlwind's long laughter criss-crossing the snows. Crack-crack-crack! Crack-crack-crack!

From street to street with sovereign stride, a hungry cur behind them . . . While bearing a blood-stained banner, blizzard-invisible, bullet-untouchable, tenderly treading through snow-swirls, hung with threads of snow-pearls, crowned with white haloes of roses — who, who else but Jesus Christ?23 (1918) Robert Chandler


12. “The Bronze Horseman”:  The equestrian statue of Peter the Great by Etienne Falconet, long an emblem of Petersburg.   Commissioned by Catherine the Great, this was unveiled on 7 August 1782, the official centenary date of Peter’s accession to the  throne, in a square close to the River Neva.                                    

13. “Nevá”: Stanley Mitchell chose, Russian style, to stress the last syllable of the river's name. Antony Wood chose to stress the first syllable, English-style. It seemed best to accept this clash as a salutary reminder that translation inevitably entails inconsistencies.

14.  Mitchell died before completing his translation of “The Bronze Horseman.”    His version of the 'Prologue' is superb, but he would certainly have revised it further. With his family's permission, we have made small changes to six passages we believe Stanley would himself have revised had he lived longer.                             

15. “the pen of Karamzin “: Nikolay Karamzin's twelve-volume Istoriia                    gosudarstva Rossiiskogo (History of the Russian State, 1818-29).                   

16. “Before it”: A line left unrhymed in the original.

17.  Petropolis . . . Poseidon: 'Petropolis' is a Greek form of 'Petersburg'. Poseidon is the Greek god of the oceans. Triton is his son and messenger; his emblem is a trident.                                        

18.  the ill work crimson-covered: Crimson or purple was the ceremonial colour of the Tsar's mantle. This line refers not only to the dawn but also to the Tsar's failure to deal adequately with the flood.                                                                 

Count  Khvostov:  Dmitry Khvostov   (1757-1835)  was a bad poet  generally loved for  his good nature. Karamzin once wrote of  Khvostov's passion for versifying: 'Here is love that is worthy of a talent. He has none, but he deserves to have it' (Pis'rna N. M.  Karamzina   k I. I.  Dmitrievu  (Petersburg:  Akademiia  nauk, 1866), p. 379).        

20.  “Wedding Song”: Pushkin presents this as a folk song, but it is his own composition.

21.  “Exegi monurnentum”:   A version of “Exegi monumenturn” by the Latin poet   Horace (65-8 BC.   For a version by Derzhavin, see p. 13.

22.  Alexander's   Column: A   column erected on Palace Square in Petersburg in honour of Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825).




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