Hell Set to Music, Osip Mandelstam


Mandelstam wrote this in 1937, a year before his death in the Gulag. It is not – to say the least – an easy poem, either to understand or translate. The key – perhaps – is to understand that when oppressive authority would seek to do away with all hope, the only hope to be found lies in the ambivalent spirit of the oppressed and the defiance of black humour. James Fenton’s review here is headlined “Hell set to music”, and I have taken the liberty of using this as the title of my translation. It would be an apt description of the sweat of translation – but that hell by comparison is as nothing, and the resulting music is much less exquisite…

Irretrievably lost, at sky blinking –
God, if really you’re there I beseech!
With your nine athletes’ discuses clinking
You, O Dante, more easily speak.

Strip my vital force not away: dreaming,
First it kills me, then offers caress –
Strokes my ears and eyes’ sockets, thus scheming,
Routs ennui with its Florentine zest.

Please, I beg you, my head do not cover
With a laurel wreath, cutting and tight,
Heart of mine in twain rent I would rather
Than retort of your blue-splintered spite.

When the end of life’s service comes on me,
Of the living, much cherishèd friend,
Hovering higher, yet plunging still deeply,
Sky’s response – to breast chilled at the end.


Заблудился я в небе — что делать?
Тот, кому оно близко, — ответь!
Легче было вам, Дантовых девять
Атлетических дисков, звенеть.

Не разнять меня с жизнью: ей снится
Убивать и сейчас же ласкать,
Чтобы в уши, в глаза и в глазницы
Флорентийская била тоска.

Не кладите же мне, не кладите
Остроласковый лавр на виски,
Лучше сердце мое разорвите
Вы на синего звона куски…

И когда я усну, отслуживши,
Всех живущих прижизненный друг,
Он раздастся и глубже и выше —
Отклик неба — в остывшую грудь.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

4 thoughts on “Hell Set to Music, Osip Mandelstam

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s