“Yes, I am lying in the earth” (“Да, я лежу в земле”), Osip Mandelstam

Written in 1935. Mandelstam was in exile in Voronezh – and at his most cryptic.

Yes, I am lying in the earth – but see my lips
The words to every schoolboy’s future lesson giving:

Upon Red Square the earth is rounder, and it slips
In hardening plunge without an intervention,

The earth is surely rounder there upon Red Square,
Its slope is surely free without intention,

It’s sliding into fields of rice as long as there’s
Upon the surface of the earth a slave still living.


Да, я лежу в земле, губами шевеля,
Но то, что я скажу, заучит каждый школьник:

На Красной площади всего круглей земля,
И скат ее твердеет добровольный,

На Красной площади земля всего круглей,
И скат ее нечаянно-раздольный,

Откидываясь вниз — до рисовых полей,
Покуда на земле последний жив невольник.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“That evening organ’s arcing forest didn’t grumble” (“В тот вечер не гудел стрельчатый лес органа”), Osip Mandelstam

It helps to know your Goethe – and I am indebted to Ian Mac Eochagáin, who identified the allusion to Erikönig, and recognised that Mandelstam must have been listening to Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin. Mandelstam wrote this in 1917 – when any thoughts inspired by beauty were overshadowed by fear of what was to come.

That evening organ’s arcing forest didn’t grumble –
The trees sang Schubert to us, their own cradle’s sound.
The windmill whispered, and in tempest’s stirring rumble
Was blue-eyed drunkenness of music’s laughter found.

The world of ancient song is coloured green and russet
But is for ever young and free,
There nightingale-filled lime trees’ heaving gusset
Is rocked about by king of forest’s crazy spree.

That song of night’s return, replete with dreadful power,
Is wild and savage, like a glass of blackened wine:
This Doppelgänger, with his empty glower
Peers through the chilly window, senseless and malign!


В тот вечер не гудел стрельчатый лес органа,
Нам пели Шуберта — родная колыбель.
Шумела мельница, и в песнях урагана
Смеялся музыки голубоглазый хмель.

Старинной песни мир — коричневый, зеленый,
Но только вечно молодой,
Где соловьиных лип рокочущие кроны
С безумной яростью качает царь лесной.

И сила страшная ночного возвращенья —
Та песня дикая, как черное вино:
Это двойник, пустое привиденье,
Бессмысленно глядит в холодное окно!

Translation by Rupert Moreton


Lived Alexander Gertsevich… (Жил Александр Герцевич…), Osip Mandelstam

The main challenge in translating this odd little poem from 1931 lay in reproducing Mandelstam’s playful changes with Alexander’s surname. Another difficulty is that there are several versions, using Gertsevich, Serdtsevich (“Heartsovich”) and Skertsevich (“Scherzovich”) inconsistently.  I have been unable to discover whether the musician existed or not.

Lived Alexander Gertsevich,
Musician and a Jew –
He ground the works of Schubert out
Like diamond, pure and true.

He gaily played by day and night
A crackling piece he’d learned,
The one sonata’s tune that he
Had memorised he churned.

What, Alexander Gertsevich,
Has day now ceased to glow?
Stop, Alexander Heartsovich,
It’s all the same, you know.

So let the fair Italian girl,
As long as snow is dry,
On narrow sledge’s runner’s skirl
Behind old Schubert fly.

And hearing dovish music’s flow
Of death we’re not afraid,
And there, just like a thieving crow
We’ve on coat-hanger swayed…

All, Alexander Gertsevich,
Was finished long ago,
Stop, Alexander Scherzovich,
It’s all the same, you know.


Жил Александр Герцевич,
Еврейский музыкант,–
Он Шуберта наверчивал,
Как чистый бриллиант.

И всласть, с утра до вечера,
Заученную вхруст,
Одну сонату вечную
Играл он наизусть…

Что, Александр Герцевич,
На улице темно?
Брось, Александр Сердцевич,–
Чего там? Все равно!

Пускай там итальяночка,
Покуда снег хрустит,
На узеньких на саночках
За Шубертом летит:

Нам с музыкой-голубою
Не страшно умереть,
Там хоть вороньей шубою
На вешалке висеть…

Все, Александр Герцевич,
Заверчено давно.
Брось, Александр Скерцевич.
Чего там! Все равно!

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“Where is the terrifying place” (“Куда как страшно нам с тобой”), Osip Mandelstam

Mandelstam died eighty years ago on his way to the Gulag. This poem from 1930 – so clearly about Stalin – was one of many that got him into trouble. “Only in our country is poetry respected,” he said. “People are killed for it. And there’s nowhere else that people are killed for poetry.”

Where is the terrifying place
We’re bound for, Comrade Bigmouth-face?

How crumbles our tobacco blend,
My nut-cracking foolish friend!

A starling’s whistle might get us by,
We’ll have our fill of a nutty pie…

However it goes, it’ll end.


Куда как страшно нам с тобой,
Товарищ большеротый мой!

Ох, как крошится наш табак,
Щелкунчик, дружок, дурак!

А мог бы жизнь просвистать скворцом,
Заесть ореховым пирогом…

Да, видно, нельзя никак.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“Above at frightening height” (“На страшной высоте”), Osip Mandelstam

Mandelstam wrote this in 1918, as St Petersburg was crumbling around him. Petropolis appears to be a mythic projection of an ideal St Petersburg that roams freely through the heavens, while its brother on earth is dying.

Above at frightening height there burns a roaming fire!
Is it a star that blazes, flying?
This star’s transparent, and it burns with roaming fire –
Petropolis, your brother’s dying!

Above at frightening height our worldly dreams now fry,
An emerald star through night is flying.
If you’re a star, the kin of water and the sky,
Petropolis, your brother’s dying!

A terrifying ship above at frightening height
With wings extended there is flying…
The emerald star above in gorgeous famine’s flight,
Petropolis, your brother’s dying!

Transparent spring has ended over black Neva,
Now melts the wax of the undying…
Petropolis, your city, if you are the star,
Petropolis, your brother’s dying!


На страшной высоте блуждающий огонь!
Но разве так звезда мерцает?
Прозрачная звезда, блуждающий огонь,-
Твой брат, Петрополь, умирает!

На страшной высоте земные сны горят,
Зеленая звезда летает.
О, если ты звезда,- воды и неба брат,-
Твой брат, Петрополь, умирает!

Чудовищный корабль на страшной высоте
Несется, крылья расправляет…
Зеленая звезда,- в прекрасной нищете
Твой брат, Петрополь, умирает.

Прозрачная весна над черною Невой
Сломалась, воск бессмертья тает…
О, если ты звезда,- Петрополь, город твой,
Твой брат, Петрополь, умирает!

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“‘Ice cream!’ And the sun. And a wafer’s light crisp.” (“‘Мороженно!’ Солнце. Воздушный бисквит.”), Osip Mandelstam

A poem from 1914. It is striking how many of Mandelstam’s early poems seem to focus on the transience of simple pleasures.

“Ice cream!” And the sun. And a wafer’s light crisp.
A glass in the hand with its water near freezing.
Bedazzled, my consciousness reverie’s seizing,
To ruddy-dawned Alps with milk chocolate world’s wisp.

Look tenderly now with a clink of your spoon –
In little pavilion, ’midst dusty acacias,
Accept with delight from the bakeries’ graces
In dainty container delectables strewn.

The organ’s companion will, sudden, appear,
The portable icebox’s colourful cover –
With greedy attention of man for his lover,
A boy now is looking at what we have here.

The gods do not know yet what will be his choice:
The diamonds with cream or the wafer with filling?
But soon it will vanish, as slender ray’s spilling,
God-given, sun-spangled, mysterious ice.


“Мороженно!” Солнце. Воздушный бисквит.
Прозрачный стакан с ледяною водою.
И в мир шоколада с румяной зарею,
В молочные Альпы, мечтанье летит.

Но, ложечкой звякнув, умильно глядеть –
И в тесной беседке, средь пыльных акаций,
Принять благосклонно от булочных граций
В затейливой чашечке хрупкую снедь…

Подруга шарманки, появится вдруг
Бродячего ледника пестрая крышка –
И с жадным вниманием смотрит мальчишка
В чудесного холода полный сундук.

И боги не ведают – что он возьмет:
Алмазные сливки иль вафлю с начинкой?
Но быстро исчезнет под тонкой лучинкой,
Сверкая на солнце, божественный лед.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

Notre Dame, Osip Mandelstam

Mandelstam in 1909

This is from Mandelstam’s first collection, Kамень (“Stone“). He wrote at least two other poems about buildings around this time – Aya Sofia and The Admiralty.

Where once a Roman judge o’er alien folk did sit
A temple stands, agleam with first exhilaration,
Like Adam once, with sinews’ taut extenuation
Its criss-cross arches lightly flex in muscled knit.

But from outside itself the secret plan betrays:
For here the flying buttresses explain the matter,
Ensure the heavy mass within can never shatter,
And tame the crazy vaulted battering ram’s displays.

An elemental maze, this forest makes us fools,
It is the Gothic spirit’s reasoned stone-built chasm,
The might of Egypt met with Christian’s timid spasm,
The reed beside the oak. And all the plumb line rules.

O fortress Notre Dame, the more I gazed on you,
The more I took on board your monstrous rib-caged linking,
The more a single plan impressed upon my thinking –
From stone-grim evil soon I’ll fashion beauty too.


Где римский судия судил чужой народ,
Стоит базилика,- и, радостный и первый,
Как некогда Адам, распластывая нервы,
Играет мышцами крестовый легкий свод.

Но выдает себя снаружи тайный план:
Здесь позаботилась подпружных арок сила,
Чтоб масса грузная стены не сокрушила,
И свода дерзкого бездействует таран.

Стихийный лабиринт, непостижимый лес,
Души готической рассудочная пропасть,
Египетская мощь и христианства робость,
С тростинкой рядом – дуб, и всюду царь – отвес.

Но чем внимательней, твердыня Notre Dame,
Я изучал твои чудовищные ребра,
Тем чаще думал я: из тяжести недоброй
И я когда-нибудь прекрасное создам.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“I see the heavens, dull and stony” (“Я вижу каменное небо”), Osip Mandelstam

Portrait by Lev Aleksandrovitc Bruni

An early poem, from 1910.

I see the heavens, dull and stony
Above the waters’ sluggish web.
And Erebus, soul’s hateful crony,
Enfolds me in his tedious ebb.

I comprehend this dread appalling,
And there’s a link I understand:
Not crumbling, still the sky is falling,
Not foaming, still sea strikes the strand.

Oh, pale chimeras’ shadows hover
Upon the rough sand’s glimmer-gold,
And, oh, the grey sail’s trefoil’s cover
Is cross-nailed, like my yearning’s hold!


Я вижу каменное небо
Над тусклой паутиной вод.
В тисках постылого Эреба
Душа томительно живет.

Я понимаю этот ужас
И постигаю эту связь:
И небо падает, не рушась,
И море плещет, не пенясь.

О, крылья бледные химеры,
На грубом золоте песка,
И паруса трилистник серый,
Распятый, как моя тоска!

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“You aren’t yet dead” (“Еще не умер ты”), Osip Mandelstam

Cherdyn in 1912

Mandelstam wrote this at the beginning of 1937, a year before he died on his way to the Gulag. He and Nadezhda were in exile in the city of Voronezh. Their time there was something of a reprieve – they had previously endured great hardship in exile in Cherdyn in the Northern Urals. In her last letter to Osip, which he probably never received, Nadezhda wrote of that time:

Do you remember how we dragged whatever we’d found for our miserable feasts to wherever it was we’d pitched our tent? Do you remember how good the bread was when the miracle was granted and we ate it together? And last winter in Voronezh – the joyous poverty and the poetry… I remember coming back from the bath house having bought eggs or sausages or something. A cart with a load of hay was passing. It was still cold, and I was freezing in my jacket (and still we must freeze: I know you are cold now). That day I remember now. And I realise that that winter, those days, those trials – they were the best and final happiness that will come to us in this life.

You aren’t yet dead, and you are not as yet alone,
As long as with your beggared lover
By joy of wide expanses of the plains you’re thrown
As dark and cold and blizzards cover.

In lavish destitution and in mighty dearth
Then live in peace and consolation.
For blessed then the days and nights on earth
And sinless is sweet occupation.

Unhappy he, who shadow-like is scared
By yelp, who’s by the wind prostrated,
And poor is he, whom death has scarcely spared,
Whom shadow-begging leaves unsated.


Еще не умер ты, еще ты не один,
Покуда с нищенкой-подругой
Ты наслаждаешься величием равнин
И мглой, и холодом, и вьюгой.

В роскошной бедности, в могучей нищете
Живи спокоен и утешен.
Благословенны дни и ночи те,
И сладкогласный труд безгрешен.

Несчастлив тот, кого, как тень его,
Пугает лай и ветер косит,
И беден тот, кто сам полуживой
У тени милостыню просит.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“The drifting smoke was melting in the frosty air” (“В морозном воздухе растаял легкий дым”), Osip Mandelstam

Mandelstam in 1909
Mandelstam in 1909

An early poem from 1909. Mandelstam was 18, and a student at the University of Heidelberg.

The drifting smoke was melting in the frosty air,
And I, oppressed by freedom’s sadness, lingering there,
Wished only to ascend to cold and quiet singing,
To disappear for ever, but my fate was bringing

Me down the snowy street upon the evening hour
Where dog was barking at the sunset’s clinging power.
With passers-by approaching me my heart was pounding.
Don’t speak to me! What can I say? It’s too confounding.


В морозном воздухе растаял легкий дым,
И я, печальною свободою томим,
Хотел бы вознестись в холодном, тихом гимне,
Исчезнуть навсегда, но суждено идти мне

По снежной улице, в вечерний этот час
Собачий слышен лай и запад не погас,
И попадаются прохожие навстречу.
Не говори со мной! Что я тебе отвечу?

Translation by Rupert Moreton