Roncesvalles by Varlam Shalamov

I was captivated straight away,

tired of the lies all around me,

by that proud, tragic tale

of a warrior’s death in the mountains.

 

And it may have been Roland’s horn

that called me, like Charlemagne,

to a silent pass where the boldest

of many bold fighters lay slain.

 

I saw a sword lying shattered

after long combat with stone –

a witness to forgotten battles

recorded by stone alone.

 

And those bitter splinters of steel

have dazzled me many a time.

That tale of helpless defeat

can’t help but overwhelm.

 

I have held that horn to my lips

and tried more than once to blow,

but I cannot call up the power

of that ballad from long ago.

 

There may be some skill I’m lacking –

or else I’m not bold enough

to blow in my shy anguish

on Roland’s rust-eaten horn.

 

by Варлам Тихонович Шаламов (Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov)

(1950?)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun facts: Shalamov references one of his favourite poems by Marina Tsvetaeva by mentioning Roland’s Horn calling to him.

Roncesvalles is famous in history and legend for the defeat of Charlemagne and the death of Roland in 778, during the battle of Roncevaux Pass, when Charlemagne‘s rear guard was destroyed by Basque tribes. Among those killed in the battle was a relatively obscure Frankish commander, Roland, whose death elevated him and the paladins, the foremost warriors of Charlemagne’s court, into legend, becoming the quintessential role model for knights and also greatly influencing the code of chivalry in the Middle Ages. There are numerous written works about the battle, some of which change and exaggerate events. The battle is recounted in the 11th century The Song of Roland, the oldest surviving major work of French literature, and in Orlando Furioso, one of the most celebrated works of Italian literature.

Marx and Heine and Dowlais by Idris Davies

I used to go to St John’s Wood

On Saturday evenings in summer

To look on London behind the dusty garden trees,

And argue pleasantly and bitterly

About Marx and Heine, the iron brain and the laughing sword;

And the ghost of Keats would sit in a corner,

Smiling slowly behind a summer of wine,

Sadly smiling at the fires of the future.

And late in the summer night

I heard the tall Victorian critics snapping

Grim grey fingers at London Transport,

And sober, solemn students of James Joyce,

Dawdling and hissing into Camden Town.

 

But now in the winter dusk

I go to Dowlais Top

and stand by the railway bridge

Which joins the bleak brown hills,

And gaze at the streets of Dowlais

Lop-sided on the steep dark slope,

A bettered bucket on a broken hill,

And see the rigid phrases of Marx

Bold and black against the steel-grey west,

Riveted along the sullen skies.

And as for Heine, I look on the rough

Bleak, colourless hills around,

Naked and hard as flint,

Romance in a rough chemise.

 

by Idris Davies


Fun facts:

Dowlais is a village and community of the county borough of Merthyr Tydfil, in Wales. Dowlais is notable within Wales and Britain for its historic association with ironworking; once employing, through the Dowlais Iron Company, roughly 5,000 people, the works being the largest in the world at one stage.

Marx, I assume, refers to Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) the German philosopher, economist, historian, political theorist, sociologist, journalist and revolutionary socialist.

Heine, refers to Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (13 December 1797 – 17 February 1856) was a German poet, journalist, essayist, and literary critic. He is best known outside of Germany for his early lyric poetry, which was set to music in the form of Lieder (art songs) by composers such as Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert. Heine’s later verse and prose are distinguished by their satirical wit and irony. He is considered part of the Young Germany movement. His radical political views led to many of his works being banned by German authorities, which however only added to his fame. Heine spent the last 25 years of his life as an expatriate in Paris.

James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (2 February 1882 – 13 January 1941) was an Irish novelist, short story writer, and poet. He contributed to the modernist avant-garde and is regarded as one of the most influential and important authors of the 20th century. Joyce is best known for Ulysses (1922), a landmark work in which the episodes of Homer’s Odyssey are paralleled in a variety of literary styles, most famously stream of consciousness. Other well-known works are the short-story collection Dubliners (1914), and the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Finnegans Wake (1939). His other writings include three books of poetry, a play, his published letters and occasional journalism.

Pity The Nation by Kahlil Gibran

My friends and my road-fellows, pity the nation

that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.

“Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave…

eats bread it does not harvest…

and drinks a wine that flows not from its own winepress.

 

“Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as a hero,

and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

 

“Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it

walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins,

and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between

the sword and the block.

 

“Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose

philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of

patching and mimicking.

 

“Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with

trumpetings, and farewells him with hooting, only to

welcome another with trumpeting again.

 

“Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment

deeming itself a nation.”

 

by Kahlil Gibran

(1883-1931), Lebanon