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Under the Sign of Blok

The Twelve and Other Poems

by Alexander Blok, translated by Jon Stallworthy, translated by Peter France
Oxford, 181 pp., $5.75

Selected Poems

by Anna Akhmatova, translated by Richard McKane, with an Essay by Andrei Sinyavsky
Oxford, 111 pp., $3.75

Fever and Other New Poems

by Bella Akhmadulina, translated by Geoffrey Dutton, translated by Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin, with an Introduction by Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Morrow, 66 pp., $5.50

In the half-dozen years preceding the First World War, the artists and poets of Russia, in the words of one of them, “lived under the sign of Blok.” They got drunk on his poetry as he himself got drunk on wine, although several groups were already proclaiming their opposition to the Symbolist school which he was supposed to represent. To Blok nothing earthly had meaning except as the embodiment of supernal value. His love—whatever its object: women, Russia, poetry—was passionate and yearning; his poems originated in ethereal, mysterious, immeasurably distant sounds; his emotions were wind and fire; glimpses of perfection brought him momentary bliss, disappointment was anguish. The infinite was enchanting; the limited filled him with despair. Without visions men were puppets and life a desolate recurrence of the senseless and the drab.

Poems About the Beautiful Lady, published in the autumn of 1904, was the first, and the happiest, of all his books. Quasi-religious, ecstatic, other-worldly, it is a song of adoration in which his tremulous love of a real woman, Liubov Dimitrievna Mendeleeva, whom he had known since boyhood and married in 1903, was, like Dante’s love of Beatrice, indistinguishable from his longing for the Ideal:

I enter the dark church slowly
and perform a humble rite.
I wait for the Beautiful Lady
in the glimmer of icon light.

But even now there was a presentiment of loss:

I wait in silence, grieving and loving.
The whole horizon is on fire for the apparition,
but terror pricks me. You will change Your shape.

The Beautiful Lady did change, to be replaced by an infernal Stranger in a dreary world of “drunkards’ haunts,” “dusty side-streets,” and “jocular swells,” in which Pierrot, Columbine, and Harlequin acted out their puppets’ drama of disillusionment and deception. And now Blok wrote profoundly melancholy lyrics: “Night, a street, a lamp, a chemist’s shop, a meaningless and dullish light”—the dismal scene was fixed for all eternity; you may live another quarter-century, it will be there still; you may die and start all over again, all will be repeated, “the chemist’s shop, the street, the lamp.” Twenty-five years after his death, Akhmatova wrote: “He’s right. Once more the street-lamp and the chemist’s shop. The Neva, silence, granite.”

The periods of gloom were broken by ardent involvements: infatuations with women, the actress N. N. Volokhova in 1907, the singer L. A. Delmas in 1914, each of them resulting in an impassioned cycle of lyrics, The Snow Mask and Carmen; a no less vehement, lifelong affair with Russia, celebrated, among other poems, in the magnificent series On the Field of Kulikovo; and finally a headlong absorption in the Bolshevik revolution that inspired Blok’s best known work, The Twelve, and its sequel, The Scythians, both of them written in a kind of divine frenzy between January 8 and 30, 1918, in the same way and the same tone as some of his most passionate lyrics.

His favorite images are all here: the dark path, the raging blizzard, the searing Dostoevskian drama of jealous love, and at the end, the dim, religious vision, not of the Beautiful Lady this time but of Christ, moving at the head of a column of soldiers who have been transformed from a band of marauders into a reverent group that suggests the twelve apostles:

…So they march with sovereign tread…
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head,
carrying a blood-red flag—
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed—
crowned with a crown of snow- flake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.

Blok’s poems are images of his emotions, not of their objects. It was natural for him to write symbolically. But it was only after he had written a great deal—Poems About the Beautiful Lady contained only ninety-three of the 800 lyrics he had already written by that time—that he discovered himself to be a Symbolist. And, while admiring much of the Symbolists’ poetry, he never joined their movement, repelled by their theoretical pronouncements that seemed to him boring and pretentious. No society of theoreticians could ever claim him. He hated arguments and held the mind to be an enemy of true knowledge:

The intellect cannot measure the divine,
azure is hidden from the intellect,
but seraphim sometimes bring as a sign
a holy vision to the world’s elect.

That he himself was one of the elect was a source of torment as well as joy, and certainly not of pride. It was a fateful gift that along with the happiness of “holy vision” brought also a sense of inevitable failure and even guilt. For the artist was the unwilling jailer of radiant, life-giving inspiration, which was snared and maimed in his song:

this gentle bird, this wind-following featherweight,
bird that intended to break death’s control,
bird that descended to rescue my soul,

and was, for recompense, imprisoned in the cage of his verse, its wings clipped, its songs learned by heart:

Here is my cage, an immovable metal one,
now with the sunset’s brush gilding its grill.
Here is my bird, my once jubilant little one,
perched in a ring singing over my sill.

Blok’s exaltation is not fashionable today. Unabashed, divine afflatus seems embarrassing, if not downright suspect, in an age when every feeling has been analyzed, classified, and tagged with a scientific label. Nevertheless, his emotional fire, his distrust of rationality were genuine; his work is Romanticism of a high order. When I read in Mr. Stallworthy’s Introduction that he had willfully modified Blok’s prosody and rhetoric because “to modern Western ears” they would sound “ridiculously bombastic,” I cringed. But fortunately Mr. Stallworthy’s practice is less alarming than his description of it; and although his translations lose the emotional sweep and eloquence of Blok’s music, and so miss the special quality of his greatness, they are the best we have, faithful to the original and good poems in themselves.

Anna Akhmatova’s work, which is neither visionary nor romantic—Mandelstam was among the first to suggest that it derived from the nineteenth-century Russian novel rather than from poetry—would be more accessible to modern Western ears, were it not that it is as difficult to translate as Pushkin’s, and for the same reason: its music, like Pushkin’s, is a harmony of sounds subtly echoing within apparently unstudied lines of conversational speech. It is exquisitely musical, wonderfully compact, very strong. Eight lines, or less, are sufficient to suggest a complete human drama, a single gesture to convey a complex state of emotions. And even in her early poignant lyrics about unhappy love Akhmatova was never pitiful. Always reticent, dignified, and simple, there was implicit in her from the first that capacity for grandeur which was fully realized in her late years in her noble Requiem and Poem Without a Hero that solemnize the tragedy of a whole nation. She remained the same throughout her long life—(she died in 1966 at the age of seventy-seven). Her voice grew deeper, her cadences more majestic, but her music was always restrained, her perceptions exact, and her bearing proud.

She began to publish as one of a group that rebelled against the nebulousness of Symbolism, with its preference for sound over sense, and proposed to make poetry once more definite and clear. Gumilev, whom she married in 1910, was a leader of this group, that called itself Acmeism; but just as Blok stood apart from the wilder flights of Symbolist dogma, so Akhmatova resisted the excesses of Acmeism. Her poetry, however, does exemplify its doctrine at its best. It has something in common with Imagism and with Japanese art.

I do not know how accurately Japanese poetry can be rendered in English, but Mr. McKane’s verses sound more like translations from the Japanese than from Akhmatova. The images are correctly reproduced, but the poems have become all image; and without Akhmatova’s delicately balanced rhymes, verbal echoes, and rhythmic modulations, the force of what she is saying is half lost. These are really prose translations, though they look like verse on the printed page. By way of example, let me take a lyric of 1914 in which Akhmatova records the one occasion on which she visited Blok. It consists of four unrhymed quatrains:

I visited the poet.
Midday, Sunday.
It was quiet in the big room
And a frost outside the window,

and a crimson sun
above the shaggy dove-grey smoke…
The silent host
looks at me piercingly.

He has eyes which everyone
always remembers.
Better for me to be careful
and not look at them at all.

But I remember a conversation,
a smoky midday, Sunday
in a high, grey house
by the sea-gates of the Neva.

Yá pri/shlá k po/étu/ v gósti.
Róvno/ pólden./ Vóskre/sénie.
Tíkho/ v kómna/té pro/stórnoy,
A za/ ókna/mí mo/róz.

Í ma/líno/vóie/ sólntse
Nád lo/khmátym/ sízym/ dýmom…
Kák kho/zýain/ mólcha/lívy
Yásno/ smótrit/ ná me/nýa!

Ú ne/gó gla/zá ta/kíe
Chtó za/pómnit/ kázhdy/ dólzhen;
Mné zhe/ lúchshe,/ ósto/rózhnoy,
V níkh i/ vóvse/ né glya/dét.

Nó za/pómni/tsýa be/séda,
Dýmny/ pólden,/ vóskre/sénie
V dóme/ sérom/ í vy/sókom
Ú mor/skíkh vo/róto Ne/vý.

The details in the translation are Akhmatova’s exactly, and even the quiet tone of her recollection is there, but there is no hint of her metrical scheme nor of the verbal play that takes the place of rhyme. The original is done in trochaic tetrameter, with a truncated last line in each stanza; and there is an exquisite pattern of assonance within the lines and stanzas, so that on a first reading one is hardly aware that the poem is unrhymed. The first stanza is built on echoing o‘s: line 1—po, go; line 2—ro, no, po, vo; line 3—ho, ko, ro, to; line 4—ok, mo, oz; the second stanza on long and short i‘s and ya‘s; the third, on a‘s and e‘s; and the fourth, which harks back to the first, on o‘s again.

Akhmatova’s musical and graphic effects are greatly varied: “from the barest whisper to fiery eloquence, from downcast eyes to lightning and thunderbolts,” in Sinyavsky’s words. They are the formal replica of a profound and flexible spirit, that “in spite of the muted orchestration,” says Sinyavsky, “reveal a character of vast, massive, almost monumental stature,” a woman equal to the tragedy that found her out. She did not deliberately enlarge her scope from private sorrow to national tragedy. History did this for her after her initial, fateful choice in 1917 when she could have left Russia but scornfully refused. (Blok greatly admired and knew by heart the lyric she wrote about her choice.) After this, the epoch’s cruelties engulfed her: the terrible years of revolution and civil war, the Stalinist purges, when her only son was imprisoned and exiled, the siege of Leningrad, evacuation to Tashkent for a three years’ stay, and in 1946, the notorious denunciation of her by Zhdanov and her expulsion from the Writers’ Union.

For two long periods, from 1925 to 1940 and again from 1946 to 1950, she was silenced. She did not complain. When she could not publish her own poems, she translated those of others and wrote scholarly articles on Pushkin. “I am happy to have lived through these years,” she wrote in a brief preface to her collected poems in 1961, “and seen these events that have not had their equal.” Her patriotism was not blind, however. She denounced her country’s tyrannies, and her magnificence was the ability to endow with tragic grandeur the grief that she and her countrymen endured.

Blok was born in 1880, Akhmatova in 1889, Bella Akhmadulina almost two generations later, in 1937. There is an enormous difference between her and the older poets. She seems to be less sure of herself, uneasy and lost, anxious about her poetic gift, and uncertain of her place in society. She has neither Blok’s strength to denounce or transform a hateful reality nor Akhmatova’s ability to elicit from it an inherent pity and terror. Her world is grotesque, her experience fantastic.

Yelabuga, the town where Marina Tsvetaeva killed herself, takes the form of a demonic reptile which she vows to crush with her heel—a passage that for loathesomeness is like the hideous nightmare of Dostoevsky’s Ippolyt Terentiev in The Idiot; her own poetic gift is now a ceaseless rain that, while the city is suffering from drought, dogs her footsteps, soaks her through and through, and inundates the house to which she is invited; now it is a dream of little airplanes that are like chicks eating out of her hand and children climbing on her knees;1 and now it is a fever that frightens her and disgusts her neighbor and breaks the doctor’s stethoscope; her nervous system bursts out “like a spring through an old mattress,” tears in her “pupils hang over the cliff” of her face. But she does not wish to get well:

Fever, beat on my drawn skin with your drumstick,
don’t spare me. I’m yours! Without you I am lost!
I am a ballerina to your music!
I am the frozen puppy of your frost!

These grotesque hyperboles remind one of Mayakovsky. But unlike him, she is not an orator and propagandist. Nor is she a realist like Akhmatova, nor a symbolist like Blok. When she wants to be exact, she writes prose, as when she tells of a sudden meeting with Pasternak in the woods of Peredelkino, and then translates her narrative into verse:

From the forest, like an actor emerging from the scenery,
he suddenly brought a splendid gesture out
into the open, with no audience to shout
applause—and stretched out both his hands to me.

He was both theater and himself.

Her poetry is a deliberate distortion of reality, a form of allegorical writing, in which cleverness counts for a great deal: a speeding motorcyclist typifies the active life by contrast to the snail-like progress of the poet’s work; an automatic soda water machine is a magic dispenser of unexpected bliss; building a snowman becomes an emblem of poetry and love.

Fantastic, often amusing, her work, to my ear at least, is predominantly plaintive, with a kind of yearning tenderness and a somehow baffled capacity to love, great loneliness, helpless dissatisfaction, and a sense of estrangement from both the world and herself. Her excited, nervous poetry is unhappy rather than tragic, restless rather than passionate. She speaks of suffering as wisdom, but hers is the self-induced, self-inflicted suffering of useless sympathy, a pained, perhaps guilt-ridden, identification with the torments that others have endured and that have passed her by. Blok and Akhmatova wrote only of what they had themselves experienced, their work has the intense compactness of actual encounters; Akhmadulina seems haunted by the misery she has not lived, and her poetry is discursive and meditative, not intense, but longing for intensity.

She has not been faced with the difficult choices that her predecessors had to make at the time of the revolution and the civil war; she has spent her adult life in post-Stalin Russia, and her interests are apolitical. But she was born in the year of the great purges, and in one of her poems, “The Night of St. Bartholomew,”2 which, unlike her other work, is imbued with a kind of somber passion, she seems to point to the root of her suffering.

A child born in the vicinity of bloodshed, she says, is mysteriously, and of necessity, corrupted by both the executioner and his victim; his infant’s cry is the teething of a werewolf; and when, through branches, one glimpses something that makes one’s blood run cold, it’s just the faces of little children nurtured in the shadow of crime—while, at the same time, in Heaven, there is another cry, the faint voice of St. Bartholomew, centuries before the awful night that bears his name, weeping for its own defenselessness in strains of horror greater than a line of verse can hold; these are the tears of one between two fires, not yet Huguenot nor Catholic, foreseeing what he cannot help—an image, it may be, of Akhmadulina herself, whose anger, tenderness, and longing are the unavailing voice of the poet between two fires, neither Huguenot nor Catholic, the poet-child of 1937, aware of monsters, victims, hangmen, weeping for its own fragility.

  1. 1

    Unaccountably, in Mr. Dutton’s usually painstaking translation only a fragment of this poem appears, so that its meaning is lost.

  2. 2

    Not included in Mr. Dutton’s collection.

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