Top left an angel
hovering. Top right the attendance
of a star. From both
bottom corners devils
look up, relishing
in prospect a divine
meal. How old at the centre
the child's face gazing
into love's too human
face, like one prepared
for it to have its way
and continue smiling?
By R. S. Thomas
from Counterpoint 2. Incarnation (1990)
Over the meadows, beyond the mountains,
there once lived a painter called Klee,
and he sat on his own on a path
with various bright-coloured crayons.
He drew rectangles and he drew hooks,
an imp in a light-blue shirt,
Africa, stars, a child on a platform,
wild beasts where Sky meets Earth.
He never intended his sketches
to be like passport photos,
with people, horses, cities and lakes
standing up straight like robots.
He wanted these lines and these spots
to converse with one another
as clearly as cicadas in summer,
but then one morning a feather
materialized as he sketched.
A wing, the crown of ahead -
the Angel of Death. It was time
for Klee to part from his friends
and his Muse. He did.He died.
Can anything be more cruel?
Though had Paul Klee been any less wise,
his angel might have touched us all
and we too, along with the artist,
might have left the world behind
while that angel shook up our bones,
but – what help would that have been?
Me, I'd much rather walk through a gallery
than lie in some sad cemetery.
I like to loiter with friends by paintings -
yellow-blue wildlings, follies most serious.
by Арсений Александрович Тарковский
(Arseny Alexandrovich Tarkovsky)
translated by Robert Chandler
Arseny was the father of the famous and highly influential film director Andrei Tarkovsky. His poetry was often quoted in his son’s films.
Paul Klee (18 December 1879 – 29 June 1940) was a Swiss German artist. His highly individual style was influenced by movements in art that included Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Klee was a natural draftsman who experimented with and eventually deeply explored color theory, writing about it extensively; his lectures Writings on Form and Design Theory (Schriften zur Form und Gestaltungslehre), published in English as the Paul Klee Notebooks, are held to be as important for modern art as Leonardo da Vinci’s A Treatise on Painting for the Renaissance. He and his colleague, Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky, both taught at the Bauhaus school of art, design and architecture. His works reflect his dry humor and his sometimes childlike perspective, his personal moods and beliefs, and his musicality.
Here is a reading of the poem in Russian set to music featuring one of Klee’s artworks.
Beneath is the original Russian version of the poem.
Жил да был художник Пауль Клее
Где-то за горами, над лугами.
Он сидел себе один в аллее
С разноцветными карандашами,
Рисовал квадраты и крючочки,
Африку, ребенка на перроне,
Дьяволенка в голубой сорочке,
Звезды и зверей на небосклоне.
Не хотел он, чтоб его рисунки
Были честным паспортом природы,
Где послушно строятся по струнке
Люди, кони, города и воды.
Он хотел, чтоб линии и пятна,
Как кузнечики в июльском звоне,
Говорили слитно и понятно.
И однажды утром на картоне
Проступили крылышко и темя:
Ангел смерти стал обозначаться.
Понял Клее, что настало время
С Музой и знакомыми прощаться.
Попрощался и скончался Клее.
Ничего не может быть печальней.
Если б Клее был немного злее,
Ангел смерти был бы натуральней.
И тогда с художником все вместе
Мы бы тоже сгинули со света,
Порастряс бы ангел наши кости.
Но скажите мне: на что нам это?
На погосте хуже, чем в музее,
Где порой слоняются живые,
И висят рядком картины Клее -
Голубые, желтые, блажные…
And with a strange desire all her days
she walked her worldly ways;
for dull the melodies of earth she found
after that heavenly sound.
by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)
translated by Frances Cornford
Interesting extra: The poem this extract is from was written by Lermontov when he was seventeen years old. Typical of his early romanticism its subject is a soul unable to forget the songs of the angel who first carried her down to earth to be incarnated.
On a sidenote: The past day or two I’ve been using WordPress’ new ‘blocks’ system and putting this in the ‘verse’ version. Does it make any difference? The entire system just feels like it complicates matters needlessly.
To the angel without wings:
‘Greetings; don’t let me keep you.’
To the winged one, making as if
to be up and gone: ‘Stay awhile.’
To the dark angel, pedlar
of reflections: ‘I am not at home.’
To the one sworn eternally
to silence: ‘Eavesdrop my heart.’
To truth’s angel: ‘In his ear about me
nothing but the white lie.’
by R. S. Thomas
from Mass for Hard Times (1992)
You stood before me
so still and quiet.
Your gaze was languid
and full of feeling.
It summoned memories
of days so lovely…
It was the last
such day you gave me.
Now you have vanished,
a quiet angel;
your grave is peaceful,
as calm as Eden!
There rest all earthly
There rest all holy
Thoughts of heaven.
by Василий Андреевич Жуковский (Vasily Andreyevich Zhukovsky)
translated by Boris Dralyuk
Fun fact: Ivan Bunin, the Nobel Prize winning Russian emigre author, is related to him.
Turn round, O Life, and know with eyes aghast
The breast that fed thee – Death, disguiseless, stern:
Even now, within my mouth, from tomb and urn,
The dust is sweet. All nurture that thou hast
Was once as thou, and fed with lips made fast
On Death, whose sateless mouth it fed in turn.
Kingdoms abased, and Thrones that starward yearn,
All are but ghouls that batten on the past.
Monsterous and dread, must it forever abide,
This inescapable alternity?
Must beauty blossom, rooted in decay,
And night devour its flaming hues always?
Sickening, will Life not turn eventually,
Or ravenous Death at last be satisfied?
by Clark Ashton Smith
And the just man trailed God’s messenger,
His huge, light shape devoured the black hill.
But uneasiness shadowed his wife and spoke to her:
‘it’s not too late, you can look back still
At the red towers of Sodom, the place that bore you,
The square in which you sang, the spinning-shed,
At the empty windows of that upper storey
Where children blessed your happy marriage-bed.’
Her eyes that were still turning when a bolt
Of pain shot through them, were instantly blind;
Her body turned into transparent salt,
And her swift legs were rooted to the ground.
Who mourns one woman in a holocaust?
Surely her death has no significance?
Yet in my heart she never will be lost,
She who gave up her life to steal one glance.
– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1922-1924)
– from Anno Domini MCMXXI translation by D. M. Thomas
A man met Rachel, in a valley. Jacob
Bowed courteously, this wanderer far from home.
Flocks, raising the hot dust, could not slake their
Thirst. The well was blocked with a huge stone.
Jacob wrenched the stone from the well
Of pure water, and the flocks drank their fill.
But the heart in his breast began to grieve,
It ached like an open wound.
He agreed that in Laban’s fields he should serve
Seven years to win the maiden’s hand.
For you, Rachel! Seven years in his eyes
No more than seven dazzling days.
But silver-loving Laban lives
In a web of cunning, and is unknown to grace.
He thinks: every deceit forgives
Itself to the glory of Laban’s house.
And he led Leah firmly to the tent
Where Jacob took her, blind and innocent.
Night drops from on high over the plains,
The cool dews pour,
And the youngest daughter of Laban groans,
Tearing the thick braids of her hair.
She curses her sister and reviles God, and
Begs the Angel of Death to descend.
And Jacob dreams the hour of paradise:
In the valley the clear spring,
The joyful look in Rachel’s eyes,
And her voice like a bird’s song.
Jacob, was it you who kissed me, loved
Me, and called me your black dove?
– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1921)
– from Anno Domini MCMXXI translation by D. M. Thomas
Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase!)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
“What writest thou?”—The vision raised its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answered, “The names of those who love the Lord.”
“And is mine one?” said Abou. “Nay, not so,”
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerly still; and said, “I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men.”
The angel wrote, and vanished. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And showed the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem’s name led all the rest.
by Leigh Hunt (1784 – 1859)