Monday, March 6, 2017

Damn books, be silent - some Alexander Blok

A year ago I read a cluster of books by the extraordinary generation of Russian Silver Age poets.  I skipped the slightly older Alexander Blok for logistical reasons, now addressed.  I read the other poets write about Blok: “But the talk is what I remember,” writes Anna Akhmatova.

The Twelve and Other Poems, translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France (1970), is a workhorse overview.  Fifty poems, covering 1900 to 1918.  Blok’s personality is evident, and some of his subjects: his mysticism, St. Petersburg, a succession of semi-imaginary semi-muses (the Beautiful Lady, the Snow Maiden), bouts of drunken Bohemianism in the company of other great poets, and finally his idiosyncratic embrace of the 1917 Revolution.

I get lost when the poems become too mystical, unless this counts as mysticism:

I am nailed to a bar with liquor.
Been drunk all day.  So what!  I’ve lost
my happiness – gone in a troika
careering into silver mist.

It is easier for me to understand Blok as a Bohemian, a poète maudit, which is not the whole story, but is at least one of his modes:

I want to live, live to distraction:
to make the present live for ever,
make the impersonal human, cover
with flesh whatever now has none!

That’s the positive expression of the mode.  The negative is perhaps:

           I long to see written
in men’s eyes and in women’s eyes
marks of damnation and election.  (from “Earth’s Heart Is Growing Cold Again”)

If Blok sounds miserable, well, I can’t speak for more than what is in this book, but yes:

Oh, for that grave in the nettles
in which to sleep and forever
forget oneself!  Damn books, be silent;
I never wrote you, never!

That is from “To My Friends,” which is funny.

The results of Blok’s 1909 visit to Italy are amusing given all the pro-Italy propaganda I read recently.  The same sense of beauty and civilization that entranced Goethe and Forster repelled Blok.  He was suspicious of Ravenna (“Sepulchral wastes where the grapes fatten,” from “Ravenna”) and loathed Florence.

Die, Florence, Judas, disappear
in the twilight of long ago!
In the hour of love and in the hour
of death I’ll not remember you.
The motorcars snort in your lanes,
your houses fill me with disgust;
you have given yourself to the stains
of Europe’s bilious yellow dust.  (from “Florence,” ll. 1-4)

The next poem in the collection begins “Russia and I, must we suffer one destiny?”  Whatever Blok meant by Russia, he meant it.

You may have noticed some rhymes up above.  I don’t know.  These translations give me a strong sense that Blok was a fascinating person and a weak sense that he was a great poet.  Maybe there are better options now.  Please recommend.

Aside from this book, I scrounged up three more translations of Blok’s great, late poem “The Twelve.”  I’ll look at those tomorrow.


  1. That Florence poem certainly isn't the "yes" Camus found in Florence in the midst of his general revolt. And there's nothing quite like the profundity of deception that a foreign writer who suddenly turns on Italy can produce. Blok's Florence poem reminds me of Evelyn Waugh's assessment of a visit to Mt. Etna:

    I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountains almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the top and then repeating its shape, as thought reflected, in a wisp of smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have ever seen in Art or Nature was quite so revolting.

  2. Ha, yes, a great anti-Goethe snarl there. Blok likes the Byzantine aspect of Ravenna, presumably because it is almost Russian. But the Renaissance, Romanticism - oh no.

  3. He was a wonderful poet, but you can't really tell that from translations into English. Fortunately, Hugh MacDiarmid remedies that with his brilliant Scots versions in his epic A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (which I recommend to all and sundry). Scroll down at that link until you get to his version of Blok's "Neznakomka" [the unknown woman], which begins:

    At darknin hings abune the howff
    A weet and wild and eisenin air.
    Spring's spirit wi its waesome sough
    Rules owre the drucken stramash there

    And heich abune the vennel's pokiness,
    Whaur aa the white-weshed cottons lie,
    The Inn's sign blinters in the mochiness,
    And lood and shrill the bairnies cry.

    The language takes getting used to, of course, but it should give you a sense of the impact of the original.

  4. Yes, perfect. As you see in the next post, I think non-traditional translations are the way to go. Bold, translator, be bold.