Such a liberty unwonted (О свободе небывалой), Osip Mandelstam


Written in 1915, this dense little poem presages Mandelstam’s later loss of liberty. I think I’m right in saying that the key to understanding it is to see it as a conversation between fidelity and the poet, who recognises that law’s grip on liberty will ultimately allow him none.

In the first stanza, I deliberately – and gratefully – took the opportunity to mirror Mandelstam’s near rhyming.

Short lines coupled with Russian’s long inflections are something of a translator’s nightmare – in the second stanza, I found myself adding “stretch” to fill the first line, having decided to move “crown” (мою корону – “my crown”) into the second. I then had to use the second line’s “imposing” (возлагаю – “I shall place”), which left me needing to find seven syllables for what was left – на тебя – “on you”, and the shifted crown. I don’t suppose that makes sense…

For comparison, here’s another translation – which takes a less rigid approach to metre. And (added later) – compare with this – a revised effort that I think is a great improvement.

Such a liberty unwonted –
Candle’s flicker sweetened thought.
“From the outset never parted,”
Sobbed fidelity at night.

“Over you I’ll stretch, imposing
But a crown upon your pate,
Freedom- and law-wards disposing,
yielded you in your loving state…”

“Liberty to law is fated –
Wedded soon they, so you see
Crown insubstantially weighted
Certainly isn’t for me.”

Cast out into space’s darkness
Destined are we soon to die,
We’ll bemoan a beauty endless,
We’ll fidelity decry!


О свободе небывалой
Сладко думать у свечи.
— Ты побудь со мной сначала, —
Верность плакала в ночи.

— Только я мою корону
Возлагаю на тебя,
Чтоб свободе, как закону,
Подчинился ты, любя…

— Я свободе, как закону,
Обручен, и потому
Эту легкую корону
Никогда я не сниму.

Нам ли, брошенным в пространстве,
Обреченным умереть,
О прекрасном постоянстве
И о верности жалеть!

One thought on “Such a liberty unwonted (О свободе небывалой), Osip Mandelstam

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