The Admiralty (Адмиралтейство), Osip Mandelstam

Photograph by Alexei Troshin (Алексей Трошин), walks.ru (Прогулки по России)
Photograph by Alexei Troshin (Алексей Трошин), walks.ru (Прогулки по России)

Mandelstam wrote this in 1913, when he was 22. It can’t be understood without its title, as nowhere in the poem does the word “Admiralty” appear. The Admiralty – in its present form dating from 1806, but since Peter the Great’s time the headquarters of the Russian Navy – is one of the most beautiful buildings in one of the world’s most beautiful cities. For Mandelstam, as for many Russians, it is symbolic of (part of) Russia’s leaning westwards, and the yearning for an escape from the paradoxical claustrophobia that may sometimes be felt in the world’s largest country.

There’s an interesting piece (together with another translation) here. The translation manages to retain “acropolis” – which in the end I rendered as “house”; but it is less faithful to the metre…

In northern capital a dusty poplar’s planted,
Translucent clock-face is ensnared by dappled green,
And in its shade gleams house or battleship enchanted
From far away, the kin of sky and water’s sheen.

A breezy barque, its mast of touch-me-not is slender,
It stands in line along with Peter’s royal heirs,
It shows that demi-god does not make beauty tender,
For its design is caught in simple craftsman’s stares.

On earth we’re governed by four elemental forces,
But fifth is free creation of the human heart.
Does it not mock hegemony of space’s courses,
This ark so chastely crafted by its maker’s art?

Enraged, Medusas clutch with spiteful glare’s contentions,
The rusty anchor rots like an abandoned plough –
Behold, she casts aside the bonds of three dimensions
And all the oceans of the world are opened now!

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

В столице северной томится пыльный тополь,
Запутался в листве прозрачный циферблат,
И в темной зелени фрегат или акрополь
Сияет издали, воде и небу брат.

Ладья воздушная и мачта-недотрога,
Служа линейкою преемникам Петра,
Он учит: красота – не прихоть полубога,
А хищный глазомер простого столяра.

Нам четырех стихий приязненно господство,
Но создал пятую свободный человек.
Не отрицает ли пространства превосходство
Сей целомудренно построенный ковчег?

Сердито лепятся капризные Медузы,
Как плуги брошены, ржавеют якоря –
И вот разорваны трех измерений узы
И открываются всемирные моря!

Translation by Rupert Moreton

2 thoughts on “The Admiralty (Адмиралтейство), Osip Mandelstam

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