We shall meet again, in Petersburg

May 31, 2007 at 10:10 am 5 comments

Osip Mandelstam


We shall meet again, in Petersburg,
as though we had buried the sun there,
and then we shall pronounce for the first time
the blessed word with no meaning.
In the Soviet night, in the velvet dark,
in the black velvet Void, the loved eyes
of the blessed women are still singing,
flowers are blooming that will never die.

The capital hunches like a wild cat,
a patrol is stationed on the bridge,
a single car rushes past in the dark,
snarling, hooting like a cuckoo.
For this night I need no pass.
I’m not afraid of the sentries.
I will pray in the Soviet night
for the blessed word with no meaning.

A rustling, as in a theater,
and a girl suddenly crying out,
and the arms of Cypris are weighed down
with roses that will never fall.
For something to do we warm ourselves at a bonfire,
maybe the ages will die away
and the loved hands of the blessed women
will brush the light ashes together.

Somewhere audiences of red flowers exist,
and the fat sofas of the loges,
and a clockwork officer
looking down on the world.
Never mind if our candles go out
in the velvet, in the black Void. The bowed shoulders
of the blessed women are still singing.
You’ll never notice the night’s sun.

(Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin)

Of all the omissions from our list of poets so far, none is perhaps as surprising to me personally as the absence of Mandelstam. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.

Mandelstam, along with Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, is an old favourite. His poetry has that supra-lyrical quality of transcending understanding – a quality best seen, though in a very different way, in the poetry of Pablo Neruda. I couldn’t explain to you what it is about a poem like this one that I find moving, almost haunting. But something about it speaks to me across time and space, makes me experience a nostalgia for a lost Russian youth that I (obviously) never had. Just the first four lines of this poem are weighted with such sadness, such an intensity of longing, that they alone leave me moved and vulnerable.

I particularly love “maybe the ages will die away / and the loved hands of the blessed women / will brush the light ashes together” because it makes me think, inevitably, of Eliot: “The worlds revolve like ancient women / gathering fuel in vacant lots” lines published, I remind myself, a mere 3 years before Mandelstam’s poem, which was written in November 1920.



Entry filed under: Clarence Brown, English, Falstaff, Osip Mandelstam, Russian, W.S. Merwin.

The Insistence of Beauty I’m glad your sickness

5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Yossarian  |  June 10, 2007 at 10:04 pm

    An awful translation of a beautiful poem. Plenty of what in Russian is called ‘otsebjachina,’ – crap added by the translator – especially in the last all-important stanza. There is certainly no clockwork officer in the original. Furthermore, Merwin and Brown seem to think it necessary to underline the anti-Soviet theme of the poem. This stems perhaps from the feeling that in its published version, the poem had been heavily censored, which is probably a correct assumption. However the published incarnation of the poem, was all the more beautiful because of its ambiguity, something Merwin does not seem to recognize. The very last line is also not as abrupt as it seems in the translation (it is abrupt, but only halfway).

    I would translate the last four lines thusly:

    So – I guess – extinguish our candles,
    In the black velvet of the global void
    Keep on singing the blessed wives’ keen shoulders
    Though the night sun you won’t note.

    This is a lot more accurate. The second line is supposed to ambiguously bridge the first and third, belonging to both equally. Merwin attaches it to the first, which is wrong. The women are in fact wives, their shoulders are not bowed or hunched, but the opposite: they are described literally as steep, which in this context means handsome, beautiful, endowed with classical lines.
    Another gigantic mistake is the Merwin’s misapprehension of color. The poem is composed of blacks, grays and whites. There are no reds in it (thus, no Soviets, nor any red flowers). Even the roses in Cypris’ arms are not red: they are a kind of funeral gray.

    In fact, the whole poem, much like many of Mandelstam’s poems eschews color for sound, or lack thereof. The greatest beauty of “In Petersburg we’ll meet once more” is the deafening roar of silence.

    The translation is awful. However, to your credit, you picked out the best translated line as your favorite. It is one of my favorites too, behind, of course “So – I guess – extinguish our candles” and “in the black velvet of the global void,” which when rendered properly become the keystones of the work. I don’t remember where I came upon Merwin before, but I do not have a pleasant recollection of that meeting. I will try to come up with a more passable translation, and will perhaps post it in the coming days.

    Thank you for taking an interest in Mandelstam, he is one of our best. I haven’t looked very closely, but you seem to be missing Aleksandr Blok as well. This is a grave omission – Blok was easily the best poet of the first twenty years of the 20th century. And I don’t mean just in Russia.

  • 2. Falstaff  |  June 11, 2007 at 3:52 am

    Yossarian: My apologies. I don’t speak a word of Russian, so have no way to judge the quality of the translation. Would be great if you could point us to a better translation if you know of one.

    It’s interesting that you mention Blok because he’s next on my list of Russian poets to include – though I’m worried now about how good the translation I’m using is.

  • 3. A Girl Was Singing « pō’ĭ-trē  |  June 24, 2007 at 9:56 am

    […] fine Russian poet, this time by request (though I’ve been meaning to include Blok for a while). I love the vividness of this poem, […]

  • 4. Akhil Katyal  |  May 31, 2013 at 6:44 pm

    what a lovely audio reading. thanks for this.

  • 5. Discipline | Ingenious Torture  |  March 12, 2014 at 3:40 am

    […] with Naomi Shihab Nye it was “Making a Fist“.  And with Mandelstam, it was “We shall meet again, in St. Petersburg“. With Lermontov it was “Sail”, and in nearly every translation the first and […]


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