“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


“America and Europe will no longer be” (“Не станет ни Европы, ни Америки”), Georgy Ivanov

America and Europe will no longer be,
And royal parks and streets of Moscow too –
When frenzy of atomic mad hysteria’s spree
Will spray it all an iridescent blue.

Then tenderly will stretch above the placid sea
An all-forgiving and transparent smoke…
And He who might have helped but never spoke
In splendid solitude will then for ever be.


Не станет ни Европы, ни Америки,
Ни Царскосельских парков, ни Москвы —
Припадок атомической истерики
Все распылит в сияньи синевы.

Потом над морем ласково протянется
Прозрачный, всепрощающий дымок…
И Тот, кто мог помочь и не помог,
В предвечном одиночестве останется.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

Fresh Snow (Пороша), Sergei Yesenin

Yesenin in 1914

A poem from 1914, when Yesenin was 18 or 19. The bird is, of course, a woodpecker – but there’s not a lot you can do to squeeze it into a trochee.

Out on horseback in the stillness.
Hooves resounding in the snow.
Only crows in dusty shrillness
Cackled in the meadow’s glow.

Held by unseen fable’s rapture,
Forest slept beneath the drifts.
There in kerchief’s frozen capture
Pine displayed her snowy shifts.

Crone-like, doubled over, leaning
On her walking stick she’d shrunk.
And in topmost branches, preening,
Pecked a bird upon her trunk.

Horse leapt forward into blackness.
Tumbled snow in spreading shawl.
Now the road with ribbon’s slackness
Stretched itself in endless thrall.


Еду. Тихо. Слышны звоны
Под копытом на снегу.
Только серые вороны
Расшумелись на лугу.

Заколдован невидимкой,
Дремлет лес под сказку сна.
Словно белою косынкой
Повязалася сосна.

Понагнулась, как старушка,
Оперлася на клюку,
А под самою макушкой
Долбит дятел на суку.

Скачет конь, простору много.
Валит снег и стелет шаль.
Бесконечная дорога
Убегает лентой вдаль.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

“Above the raging North Sea storm” (“Над бурным морем Северным”), Mikhail Zenkevich

This confusing poem is dated 12th November 1940, which suggests it’s about the Battle of Britain – a surprising topic for a Soviet poet writing at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Above the raging North Sea storm
The fighters battled in the sky,
Like falcons made of steel,
In leaden deluged fanning form –
Oh, did this vision catch your eye?
Then died the gunfire’s squeal
Above the raging North Sea storm.

Above the raging North Sea storm,
Above the vastness of the waves,
Now ceased the battle’s brew.
Their motors mute, in cloudlike form
Like mourners’ journey to the graves
In silent mass they flew
Above the raging North Sea storm.

Above the raging North Sea storm
The Valkyries were rushing past,
They’d gathered up the dead.
To deathly maids did you conform,
You were all summoned to their feast.
Valhalla’s way blood-red
Above the raging North Sea storm.

Above the raging North Sea storm
The glinting fighters hurtled on
At reckless, breakneck pace
In black procession’s mournful form
Towards Valhalla’s places drawn
In sparkling painted trace
Above the raging North Sea storm.


Над бурным морем Северным
Сражались истребители,
Стальные ястреба,
В свинцовом ливне веерном —
Вы видели? Вы видели?—
И глохнула стрельба
Над бурным морем Северным.

Над бурным морем Северным,
Над водными просторами
Заглох воздушный бой.
Как тучи, цугом траурным
С бесшумными моторами
Летят они гурьбой
Над бурным морем Северным.

Над бурным морем Северным
Проносятся валькирии,
Всех павших подобрав.
Вы девам смерти все верны,
Вы — званые на пире их.
В Валгаллу путь кровав
Над бурным морем Северным.

Над бурным морем Северным
Несутся истребители
Быстрей сверхскоростных
Кортежем черным траурным
К Валгалловой обители
В сверканьях расписных
Над бурным морем Северным.

Translation by Rupert Moreton


Cyclops (Циклоп), Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin self-portrait, 1830

“An occasional poem, written for a masquerade ball where the participants, costumed as personages from Greek mythology, were supposed to present verses to the tsar and his wife. Pushkin’s poem was written for Countess Ekaterina Fedorovna Tizengauzen …, who dressed as a Cyclops. Pushkin sent the poem to her in a letter of 1 January 1830, where he wrote “Acceptez cette platitude comme une preuve de ma parfaite soumission à vos ordres. (Accept this platitude as a proof of my complete submission to your orders). It was declaimed with other poems of this type (mostly written in French) a few days later at the ball, though Pushkin himself was probaböly not in attendance.” (A Commentary to Pushkin’s Lyric Poetry, Michael Vachtel, p. 169)

At once my speech and mind are glazing,
As with one eye I’m on you gazing:
For in my head there’s but one eye.
And should the fates be so desiring
That I’d a hundred to espy
They would be fixed on you, untiring.


Язык и ум теряя разом,
Гляжу на вас единым глазом:
Единый глаз в главе моей.
Когда б судьбы того хотели,
Когда б имел я сто очей,
То все бы сто на вас глядели.

Translation by Rupert Moreton


“I’m carried by the ocean” (“Меня уносит океан”), Georgy Ivanov

Ivanov died in France in 1958 after thirty-six years of exile; and here is an exile’s poem.

To Petersburg, then Paris too
I find I’m carried by the ocean.
I see them, and I listen, through
Fog’s shroud and timbrel’s loud commotion –

With nightingales now shines the night,
Like melting snow, the stars have vanished
And souls – that can’t escape their plight –
With groaning disappear from sight,
With groaning they’re for ever banished.


Меня уносит океан
То к Петербургу, то к Парижу.
В ушах тимпан, в глазах туман,
Сквозь них я слушаю и вижу —

Сияет соловьями ночь,
И звезды, как снежинки, тают,
И души — им нельзя помочь —
Со стоном улетают прочь,
Со стоном в вечность улетают.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

Advance! (Вперед!), Semyon Nadson

The young Nadson

Semyon wrote this when he was fifteen, in 1878. The serfs had been liberated in 1861, and under Tsar Alexander II, who reigned until his assassination in 1881, there was new hope that reform would bring new prosperity and justice to Russia.

Advance, forget your sad affliction,
Against the storm keep up the fight –
For first light’s glowing benediction
That distant glints against the night!
And labour while your arms have vigour,
Of all your shining hope keep hold,
For light and scientific rigour
Now raise aloft your lantern bold!
And let them pour on you their jeering
And let the judgement-rushing crowd
Now cast on you in anger sneering
Its senseless, dim reproach’s cloud;
So go with spirit filled with passion
Along your own unfurrowed way,
And meeting in courageous fashion
Life’s raging tempest’s wild affray.
Awaken those who’ve slept in darkness,
To weary ones extend your hand
And cast truth’s word in all its starkness
Upon the crowd like brilliant band.


Вперед, забудь свои страданья,
Не отступай перед грозой,-
Борись за дальнее сиянье
Зари, блеснувшей в тьме ночной!
Трудись, покуда сильны руки,
Надежды ясной не теряй,
Во имя света и науки
Свой частный светоч подымай!
Пускай клеймят тебя презреньем,
Пускай бессмысленный укор
В тебя бросает с озлобленьем
Толпы поспешный приговор;
Иди с любящею душою
Своею торною тропой,
Встречая грудью молодою
Все бури жизни трудовой.
Буди уснувших в мгле глубокой,
Уставшим – руку подавай
И слово истины высокой
В толпу, как светлый луч, бросай.

Translation by Rupert Moreton