Here I think of the centuries,
six million of them, they say.
Yesterday a fine rain fell;
today the warmth has brought out the crowds.
After Christ, what? The molecules
are without redemption. My shadow
sunning itself on this stone
remembers the lava. Zeus looked down
on a brave world, but there was
no love there; the architecture
of their temples was less permanent
than these waves. Plato, Aristotle,
all those who furrow the calmness
of their foreheads are responsible
for the bomb. I am charmed here
by the serenity of the reflections
in the sea's mirror. It is a window
as well. What I need
now is a faith to enable me to out-stare
the grinning faces of the inmates of its asylum,
the failed experiments God put away.
by R. S. Thomas
from Frequencies (1978)
I would still go there
if only to await
opening of truth's flower;
if only to escape
such bought freedom, and live,
prisoner of the keyless sea,
on the mind's bread and water.
by R. S. Thomas
from No Truce with the Furies (1995)
Spray by the castle hurls across the rail;
The mermaid stares forever across the sea,
Dry-eyed; they lay their poppies at her feet,
But she looks away, to the movement of a sail
Far over breakers; knows not their fallen dead,
Hears not their autumn hymn or the signal guns.
Spray by the castle, spray in November air,
Yearn for the land as she for the empty waves,
(As the dead, perhaps, for their lost and silent home).
Everything empty: castle and crowd and wreaths
Seperate beings; and over them, kissing the rain,
The shape of a fish in bronze, without speech, without soul.
On Sundays remember the dead, but not here.
This is another country, another lord
Rules in its acres, who has no respect for love.
Always the sea sucks at the stones of the wall,
Always the mermaid leans to the distant sail;
Already the wreaths are limp and the children wail.
By Sally Roberts Jones
Aberystwyth ( literally “Mouth of the Ystwyth [river]“) is a historic market town, administrative centre, community, and holiday resort within Ceredigion, Wales, often colloquially known as Aber. It is located near the confluence of the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol. Historically part of Cardiganshire, since the late 19th century, Aberystwyth has also been a major Welsh educational centre, with the establishment of a university college there in 1872.
The mermaid mentioned in this poem is a bronze statue at the base of the Aberystwyth town war memorial which is considered by some to be one of the finest in Britain. Contemporary reports record that the top figure represents Victory and the figure at the base, i.e. the mermaid, represents Humanity emerging from the effects of war. It records the names of 111 Aberystwyth men who died as a result of action during the First World war and 78 men and women who died during the Second World War. It is one of a number in the town: others are in chapels, places of work and schools.
Aberystwyth Castle (Welsh: Castell Aberystwyth) is a Grade I listed Edwardian fortress located in Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, Mid Wales. It was built in response to the First Welsh War in the late 13th century, replacing an earlier fortress located a mile to the south. During a national uprising by Owain Glyndŵr, the Welsh captured the castle in 1404, but it was recaptured by the English four years later. In 1637 it became a Royal mint by Charles I, and produced silver shillings. The castle was slighted by Oliver Cromwell in 1649.
No, I’m not Byron, I’m unknown;
I am, like him, a chosen one,
an exile hounded by this world –
only I bear a Russian soul.
An early start, an early end –
little indeed will I complete;
within my heart, as in a sea,
lie shattered hopes – a sunken load.
Grim ocean, tell me, who can glean
your deepest secrets? Who can speak
my thoughts to the unheeding crowd?
I… God… or will they die unheard?
by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)
translated by Boris Dralyuk
Fun fact: Of course the opening line of this poem refers to Lord Byron. George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron FRS (22 January 1788 – 19 April 1824), known as Lord Byron, was a British nobleman, poet, peer, politician, and leading figure in the Romantic movement. He is regarded as one of the greatest British poets and remains widely read and influential. Among his best-known works are the lengthy narrative poems Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as well as the short lyric poem “She Walks in Beauty”.
Lermontov compares himself to Byron as both endure exile – however Byron’s, unlike Lermontov’s, was by choice. Perhaps more interesting to note is that Byron exiled himself to escape his fame in Britain while, in contrast, Lermontov fears he will die before his verse is recognised. Both became infamous but their reaction to it was very different.
Comparing both you wonder how sincere Lermontov is in this comparison and his voiced concerns of his verse being left unknown considering his poem Death of the Poet, its final part written impromptu, in the course of several minutes, was spread around by Rayevsky and caused uproar. The last 16 lines of it, explicitly addressed to the inner circles at the court, all but accused the powerful “pillars” of Russian high-society of complicity in Pushkin’s death. The poem portrayed that society as a cabal of self-interested venomous wretches “huddling about the throne in a greedy throng”, “the hangmen who kill liberty, genius, and glory” about to suffer the apocalyptic judgment of God. The poem propelled Lermontov to an unprecedented level of fame. Zhukovsky hailed the “new powerful talent“; popular opinion greeted him as “Pushkin’s heir“. Hardly a man who is doomed to have his thoughts unheeded by the crowd.
Perhaps, in his favour, we might reflect he is confessing to being unable to endure his sudden fame caused by his controversial poem, as Byron had gleefully revelled in for his own works and indeed lifestyle, and is somewhat regretful and fearful it would only be for ‘Death of a Poet‘ he would be remembered and none of his other works. Of course we now know him as a Russian Romantic writer, poet and painter, sometimes called “the poet of the Caucasus“, the most important Russian poet after Alexander Pushkin’s death in 1837 and the greatest figure in Russian Romanticism. His influence on later Russian literature is still felt in modern times, not only through his poetry, but also through his prose, which founded the tradition of the Russian psychological novel.
She is more white than the sea’s
Purest spray, and colder
To touch. She is nourished
By salt winds, and the prayers
Of the drowned break on her. She smiles
At the stone angels, who have turned
From the sea’s truth to worship
The mystery of her dumb child.
The bay brings her the tribute
Of its silences. The ocean has left
An offering of the small flowers
Of its springs; but the men read,
Beyond the harbour on the horizon,
The fury of its obituaries
by R. S. Thomas
from Not That He Brought Flowers (1968)
Fun fact: The poem refers to Cape Clear Island off the coast of Ireland. Clear Island or Cape Clear Island (officially known by its Irish name: Cléire, and sometimes also called Oileán Chléire) lies south-west of County Cork in Ireland. It is the southernmost inhabited part of the island of Ireland and has a population of over 100 people. Officially it is a Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking area), and most inhabitants speak Irish and English. Archaeological sites on the island include a prehistoric cup-marked stone (moved to the island’s museum), a fulacht fiadh at Gort na Lobhar, a neolithic passage tomb at Cill Leire Forabhain, several standing stones around the island, a promontory fort at Dún an Óir, and a signal tower dating from the Napoleonic Wars. The island also has a number of early Christian sites, and is reputed to be the birthplace of Saint Ciarán of Saigir. The ruins of 12th century church are close to the main pier.
While the dolphin and the sea-horse
Played silly games together,
The ocean beat against the cliffs
And washed the cliffs with its water.
The scary water moaned and cried.
The stars shone. Years went by.
Then the horrid hour came:
I am no more, and so are you,
The sea is gone, the cliffs, the mountains,
And the stars gone, too;
Only the choir sounds out of the dead void.
And for simplicity’s sake, our wrathful God
Sprung up and blew away the dust of centuries,
And now, freed from the shackles of time
He flies alone, his own and only dearest friend.
Cold everywhere, and darkness blind.
by ‘Dandan‘ a pseudonym used by Даниил Иванович Хармс (Daniil Ivanovich Kharms)
a.k.a. Даниил Иванович Ювачёв (Daniil Ivanovich Yuvachov)
(15 October 1934)
translated by Matvei Yankelevich
Fun fact: A dandan or dendan is a mythical sea creature that appears in volume 9 of ‘The Book of One Thousand and One Nights’ (or more commonly ‘Arabian Nights’). It appears in the tale “Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman”, where the merman tells the fisherman that the dandan is the largest fish in the sea and is the enemy of the mermen. A dendan is capable of swallowing a ship and all its crew in a single gulp. Kharms was probably aware of this and thus played on it for one of his pseudonyms.
A year will come – of Russia’s blackest dread;
then will the crown fall from the royal head,
the throne of tsars will perish in the mud,
the food of many will be death and blood;
both wife and babe will vainly seek the law:
it will not shield the victims any more;
the putrid, rotting plague will mow and cut
and boldly walk the road from hut to hut;
in people’s sight its pallid face will float,
and hunger’s hand will clutch them by the throat;
a scarlet sea will send its bloody surge;
a mighty man will suddenly emerge:
you’ll recognize the man, you’ll feel
that he has come to use a knife of steel;
oh, dreadful day! Your call, your groan, your prayer
will only make him laugh at your despair;
and everything in his forbidding sight –
his brow, his cloak – will fill the land with fright.
by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)
translated by Anatoly Liberman
Fun facts: He wrote this in 1830 and the irony hasn’t been lost on Russian people that less than a hundred years later Nikolai II would lose this throne and… well it’s hard not to immediately see Lermontov’s prophecy (though ‘prediction’ is the more direct translation of the Russian title) proved an all too accurate omen of events during the twentieth century during the Soviet era.
A recital of the poem in Russian:
Original Russian version:
Настанет год, России черный год,
Когда царей корона упадет;
Забудет чернь к ним прежнюю любовь,
И пища многих будет смерть и кровь;
Когда детей, когда невинных жен
Низвергнутый не защитит закон;
Когда чума от смрадных, мертвых тел
Начнет бродить среди печальных сел,
Чтобы платком из хижин вызывать,
И станет глад сей бедный край терзать;
И зарево окрасит волны рек:
В тот день явится мощный человек,
И ты его узнаешь — и поймешь,
Зачем в руке его булатный нож:
И горе для тебя! — твой плач, твой стон
Ему тогда покажется смешон;
И будет всё ужасно, мрачно в нем,
Как плащ его с возвышенным челом.