She came in out of the frost,
her cheeks glowing,
and filled my whole room
with the scent of fresh air
and resonent chatter
that did away with my last chance
of getting anywhere in my work.
she dropped a hefty art journal
onto the floor
and at once
there was no room any more
in my large room
was somewhat annoying,
if not absurd.
Next, she wanted Macbeth
read aloud to her.
Barely had I reached
the earth's bubbles
which never failed to entrance me
when I realized that she,
no less entranced,
was staring out of the window.
A large tabby cat
was creeping along the edge of the roof
towards some amorous pigeons.
What angered me most
was that it should be pigeons,
not she and I,
who were necking,
and that the days of Paolo and Francesca
were long gone.
by Александр Александрович Блок
(Alexander Alexandrovich Blok)
translated by Robert Chandler
‘The earth’s bubbles’ in this poem references a line from Act I, scene 3 of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth “The earth hath bubbles, as the water has, / And these are of them.” which Banquo says to Macbeth when the witches disappear after their encounter. Between 1904 and 1905 Blok wrote a poem cycle he titled ‘Bubbles of the Earth’, incorporating motifs from folk magic. In 1907 he wrote of Shakespeare, ‘ I love him deeply; and perhaps, most deely of all – in the whole of world literature – Macbeth’.
Paolo and Francesca refers to the affair between Francesca and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta, both of who were married, but fell in love nonetheless. Their tragic adulterous story was told by Dante in his Divine Comedy, Canto V of the Inferno, and was a popular subject with Victorian artists and sculptors, especially with followers of the Pre-Raphaelite ideology, and with other writers.
I feel my life hang by a hair
as I wait at night for the Muse;
youth, freedom, fame melt into air
as my guest appears with her flute.
She enters, tosses back her shawl;
her half-closed eyes let nothing pass.
‘So it was you who sang of Hell
to Dante?’ ‘Yes,’ she says, ‘it was.’
by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)
from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book) era
translation by Robert Chandler
Fun Fact: The exact muse from Greek mythology referred to here is Euterpe who in late Classical times was named muse of lyric poetry and was often depicted holding a flute. The Dante referred to here is of course Dante Alighieri and his epic poem the Divine Comedy, in particular the Inferno section. Calliope was usually considered the muse of epic poetry but of course Akhmatova herself wrote lyric poetry thus explaining why she, to her surprise, encounters Euterpe and not Calliope.
“I am air and fire…”
She has kissed lips already grown inhuman,
On her knees she has wept already before Augustus…
And her servants have betrayed her. Under the Roman
Eagle clamour the raucous trumpets, and the dusk has
Spread. And enter the last hostage to her glamour.
‘He’ll lead me, then, in triumph?’ ‘Madam, he will.
I know’t.’ Stately, he has the grace to stammer…
But the slope of her swan neck is tranquil still.
Tomorrow, her children… O, what small things rest
For her to do on earth – only to play
With this fool, and the black snake to her dark breast
Indifferently, like a parting kindness, lay.
– by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova), 1940
– from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book)
– translation by D. M. Thomas
When at night I wait for her to come,
Life, it seems, hangs by a single strand.
What are glory, youth, freedom, in comparison
With the dear welcome guest, a flute in hand?
She enters now. Pushing her veil aside,
She stares through me with her attentiveness.
I question her: ‘And were you Dante’s guide,
Dictating the Inferno?’ She answers: ‘Yes.’
by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1924)
from Тростник (Cane) / Из шести книг (From the Six Books)
translation by D. M. Thomas
Our tools are primitive
a rouble’s worth of paper,
a hurrying pencil,
we need no more
to build a castle –
high in the air –
above the world’s bustle.
Dante needed nothing else
to build gates
into that Hell hole
founded on ice.
by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)
translated by Robert Chandler