“I heard a voice” (“Мне голос был”), Anna Akhmatova

Modigliani's sketch of Anna Akhmatova. (The original still hangs in her room at the Fountain House in St Petersburg.)
Modigliani’s sketch of Anna Akhmatova. (The original still hangs in her room at the Fountain House in St Petersburg.)

This was written in 1917, when the temptation to leave Russia must have been very strong. Given all that was to follow, Akhmatova would have saved herself much grief if she had succumbed to temptation; but the world would have been deprived of the poetry her suffering inspired.

(My original translation began with “I heard a voice” – I discovered the complete version of the poem later.)

When suicidal angst afflicted
The people’s wait for German guests,
And stern Byzantine soul convicted
Rekindled was in Russian breasts,

When, unaware of her past glory,
The capital on Neva’s shore
No longer proud of her great story
Was touting like a drunken whore,

I heard a voice. It came, beguiling,
It said: “Come over to me here,
It’s time to leave land, deaf, defiling,
Abandon ever Russia’s sphere.

I’ll wash your blood-stained hands before I
Extract the black shame from your heart,
Rename the pain that a priori
Of loss and ill will is but part.”

But then with calm and silence witting
With hands I covered up my ears,
So would not words so unbefitting
then sully grieving soul with smears.


Когда в тоске самоубийства
Народ гостей немецких ждал,
И дух суровый византийства
От русской церкви отлетал,

Когда приневская столица,
Забыв величие своё,
Как опьяневшая блудница,
Не знала, кто берёт ее,-

Мне голос был. Он звал утешно,
Он говорил: “Иди сюда,
Оставь свой край, глухой и грешный,
Оставь Россию навсегда.

Я кровь от рук твоих отмою,
Из сердца выну черный стыд,
Я новым именем покрою
Боль поражений и обид”.

Но равнодушно и спокойно
Руками я замкнула слух,
Чтоб этой речью недостойной
Не осквернился скорбный дух.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

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