Konstantin Balmont: Devil's Voice

The Russian Symbolists were slow to win acceptance. They combined a fastidious verse craftsmanship with social attitudes that were rather questionable, if not downright wicked to the common people. In the poem here, 'The Devil's Voice', is Konstantin Balmont being sincere and not simply playing to the gallery of disaffected Russian youth, particularly girls who liked to live dangerously, or appear to do so? Yes, he was. Balmont had a decided animus against religious institutions that helped hold together society in Imperial Russia, and he therefore welcomed the first 1917 Revolution, only turning against the second, the Bolshevik Revolution, which he saw as replacing one authoritarian and oppressive regime by another. He left Russia in 1917, travelled widely, and finally settled in France, slowly becoming disillusioned, an alcoholic and finally the destitute inmate of a local sanatorium, where he died in 1942.

That wildness and hit or miss attitude to life was part of Balmont's character. He wrote voluminously, for long periods turning out a new collection every year, but the good poems became fewer and fewer until by 1905 he had succumbed to a middle age contentedness that is fatal to the muse. The spontaneous lyricism of words that just came to him was resistant to the continual rewriting and rewriting that good poetry generally needs, and his émigré status didn't help: the Soviets had long ago returned to civic poetry.

It is for six books published from 1894 to 1904 that Balmont is remembered, and which have a richness of sound and vocal design new to Russian verse. In way difficult for us to understand, and only practised in the English poets of the Nineties (and perhaps in Stevens's 'Sunday Morning'), the very sound of words had colour and meaning for Symbolist poets. In spite of their narrow views and mannerisms, they combined great talent with careful craftsmanship that had been missing from Nekrasov and other civic poets, making this so-called Silver Age only slightly inferior to the Golden Age of Pushkin's circle. Pushkin himself was inimitable, of course, and the Golden Age was much more varied in tone and subject matter. The Symbolists, on the other hand were irremediably serious and solemn. Life was a ritual, and writing verse even more so. In Blok and Sologub the solemnity is sometimes relieved by bitter feelings of 'metaphysical irony', but only Bely had a genuine and irrepressible gift for humour. Balmont, alas, did not. {1-2}

balmont devil's voice translation

Like Mallarmé , the Russian Symbolists tried to bring poetry closer to music. The semantic nature of words is overlaid or obliterated by the emotional value of sounds and their connotations. They ceased to be words as such, and became more in the nature of 'phonetic gestures'.

The many varied meanings thus conjured up also gave an air of mystery to the poems, or 'obscurity' as the general public saw it. But the poetry was new, was an improvement on civic verse, and paved the way for Russian Modernist verse.

Russian Text

Голос Дьявола

Я ненавижу всех святых,
Они заботятся мучительно
О жалких помыслах своих,
Себя спасают исключительно.

За душу страшно им свою,
Им страшны пропасти мечтания,
И ядовитую Змею
Они казнят без сострадания.

Мне ненавистен был бы Рай
Среди теней с улыбкой кроткою,
Где вечный праздник, вечный май
Идёт размеренной походкою.

Я не хотел бы жить в Раю,
Казня находчивость змеиную,
От детских дней люблю Змею,
И ей любуюсь, как картиною.

Я не хотел бы жить в Раю,
Меж тупоумцев экстатических,
Я гибну, гибну, — и пою,
Безумный демон снов лирических.


The TTS Audio Recording is:

Prosodic Analysis of 'The Voice of the Devil'

The poem is written in iambic tetrameters, with an extra unstressed syllable ending the even-numbered lines:

Я ненави́жу всех святы́х,    4a
Они́ забо́тятся мучи́тельно     4BB
О жа́лких по́мыслах свои́х,     4a
Себя́ спаса́ют исключи́тельно.     4BB

Previous Translations

Ruverses has a translation by Alex Cigale. I give his first two stanzas:

With a passion I detest the saintly —
Their scrupulous and tortured concerns
And shallow thoughts are for themselves;
Themselves alone exclusively they save.

They fear exclusively for their souls,
In terror of their dreams' gaping abyss
And of that ancient poisoner the Worm
They execute without guilty conscience.


The Symbolists were accomplished technicians, but we have to be careful not to make translations too facile or witty that they verge on self-mockery. Balmont always took himself seriously, and for that reason I have broken the rhythm in places, writing 'wholly unconscionable they are in this' rather than 'a touch peremptory in this', which is better verse. I have also substituted 'Serpent's' for the Russian 'Snake's' in stanza 4, to make a stronger line.

English Translation of Balmont Poem

The Devil's Voice

I hate the saints exceedingly,
the care they take, so marked and grave,
pathetic thoughts of those that see
themselves among the first to save.

Care for their own soul, that comes first,
and fear of dream in that abyss:
the poisonous serpent stoned and cursed:
unconscionable they are in this.

As such I'd hate a Paradise
composed of shadows, missy smiles.
Eternal May’s holidays suffice
for any walk of measured wiles.

No, not for me God's holy land
when I enjoy the Snake’s caprice.
From childhood days I’ve kept to hand,
the Serpent's alluring masterpiece.

So not for me a Paradise
inhabited by imbeciles.
I'll sing in dying and devise
a dream my demon then defiles.

References and Resources

1. Mirsky, D.S, Contemporary Russian Literature (Alfred A Knopf, 1926) 181-6.

2. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 172-5.