Hill Christmas by R. S. Thomas

They came over the snow to the bread's

pure snow, fumbled it in their huge

hands, put their lips to it

like beasts, stared into the dark chalice

where the wine shone, felt it sharp

on their tongue, shivered as at a sin

remembered, and heard love cry

momentarily in their hearts' manager.


They rose and went back to their poor

holdings, naked in the bleak light

of December. Their horizon contracted

to the one small, stone-riddled field

with its tree, where the weather was nailing

the appalled body that had not asked to be born.


by R. S. Thomas

from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)
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Роландов рог (Roland’s Horn) by Marina Tsvetaeva

Like a jester complaining of the cruel weight

of his hump – let me tell about my orphaned state.

 

Behind the devil there’s his horde, behind the thief there’s his band,

behind everyone there’s someone to understand

 

and support him – the assurance of a living wall

of thousands just like him should he stumble and fall;

 

the soldier has his comrades, the emperor has his throne,

but the jester has nothing but his hump to call his own.

 

And so: tired of holding to the knowledge that I’m quite

alone and that my destiny is always to fight

 

beneath the jeers of the fool and the philistine’s derision,

abandoned – by the world – with the world – in collision,

 

I blow with all my strength on my horn and send

its cry into the distance in search of a friend.

 

And this fire in my breast assures me I’m not all

alone, but that some Charlemagne will answer my call!

 

by Марина Ивановна Цветаева (Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva)

(March 1921)

translated by Stephen Capus


Fun facts: This poem was a favourite of Varlam Shalamov, according to Irina Sirotinskaya (she was a close friend of his and the holder of his works’ publication rights). It’s very likely he may have referenced this work in his poem Roncesvalles.

Tsvetaeva is referencing the romanticised tale of the historical figure Roland‘s death as retold in the eleventh-century poem The Song of Roland, where he is equipped with the olifant (a signalling horn) and an unbreakable sword, enchanted by various Christian relics, named Durendal. The Song contains a highly romanticized account of the Battle of Roncevaux Pass and Roland’s death, setting the tone for later fantastical depiction of Charlemagne’s court.

And, yes, he is ‘that’ Roland – the one who Stephen King references in his Dark Tower series though it was chiefly inspired by him via the poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” by Robert Browning.

 

Original Russian cyrillic version:

 

Роландов рог

Как нежный шут о злом своем уродстве,
Я повествую о своем сиротстве…

За князем — род, за серафимом — сонм,
За каждым — тысячи таких, как он,

Чтоб, пошатнувшись,— на живую стену
Упал и знал, что — тысячи на смену!

Солдат — полком, бес — легионом горд.
За вором — сброд, а за шутом — все горб.

Так, наконец, усталая держаться
Сознаньем: перст и назначением: драться,

Под свист глупца и мещанина смех —
Одна из всех — за всех — противу всех! —

Стою и шлю, закаменев от взлету,
Сей громкий зов в небесные пустоты.

И сей пожар в груди тому залог,
Что некий Карл тебя услышит, рог!

 

A recital of the original Russian language version

Jerusalem by R. S. Thomas

A city – its name

keeps it intact. Don’t

touch it. Let the muezzin’s

cry, the blood call

 

of the Christian, the wind

from sources desiccated

as the spirit drift over

its scorched walls. Time

 

devourer of its children

chokes here on the fact

it is in high places love

condescends to be put to death.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Experimenting with an Amen (1986)

Good Friday by R. S. Thomas

It was quiet. What had the sentry

to cry, but that it was the ninth hour

and all was not well? The darkness

begun to lift, but it was not the mind

 

was illumined. The carpenter

had done his work well to sustain

the carpenter’s burden; the Cross an example

of the power of art to transcend timber.

 

by R. S. Thomas

from Laboratories of the Spirit (1975)

The Cry of Elisha after Elijah by R. S. Thomas

The chariot of Israel came,

And the bold, beautiful knights,

To free from his close prison

The friend who was my delight;

Cold is my cry over the vast deep shaken,

Bereft was I, for he was taken.

 

Through the straight places of Baca

We went with an equal will,

Not knowing who would emerge

First from that gloomy vale;

Cold is my cry; our bond was broken,

Bereft was I, for he was taken.

 

Where, then, came they to rest,

Those steeds and that car of fire?

My understanding is darkened,

It is no gain to enquire;

Better to await the long night’s ending,

Till the light comes, far truths transcending.

 

I yield, since no wisdom lies

In seeking to go his way;

A man without knowledge am I

Of the quality of his joy;

Yet living souls, a prodigious number,

Bright-faced as dawn, invest God’s chamber.

 

The friends that we loved well,

Though they vanished far from our sight,

In a new country were found

Beyond this vale of night;

O blest are they, without pain or fretting

In the sun’s light that knows no setting.

 

by R. S. Thomas (From the Welsh of Thomas William, Bethesda’r Fro)

from The Stones in the Fields (1946)

Death is a No [extract] by Marina Tsvetaeva

Death is:

an unfinished house,

an unbrought-up son,

an unbound-up sheaf,

an unbreathed-out sigh,

an uncried-out cry.

 

by Марина Ивановна Цветаева (Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva)

(1920)

translated by Boris Dralyuk

‘And You, My Friends…’ by Anna Akhmatova

And you, my friends who have been called away,

I have been spared to mourn for you and weep,

Not as a frozen willow over your memory,

But to cry to the world the names of those who sleep.

What names are those!

I slam shut the calender,

Down on your knees all!

Blood of my heart,

The people of Leningrad march out in even rows,

The living, the dead: fame can’t tell them apart.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1942)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas