Konstantin Balmont: Reeds

Konstantin Balmont's poetry, dedicated to the search for a cosmic wholeness, was attractive to many by virtue of colour, expansive tone and natural lyricism. The work was very hit and miss, however, as Balmont was unfortunately unable to revise or work on the spontaneously given lines. Decline set in after 1905, and even his prose Mirsky castigates as ‘the most insipid, turgid and meaningless in the language. {1-2}

The six books Balmont published from 1894 to 1904 do have a richness of sound and vocal design unknown in Russian before, much though critics complained that the verse lacked variety or any real feeling for the Russian language. {1-2}

balmont reeds translation

Being influenced by the French Symbolists, and their escape from oppressive city life, the Russian Symbolists also came to adopt a cosmopolitan imagery and an escape into universal symbols. But a love of their countryside is also a continuing aspect of Russian literature, and here Balmont

is recording the intimate world of nature, not of course without attributing a world-weariness and desolation to a moonlit scene. The translation point here is how far we wish to depart from a literal translation of the Russian words to convey the tone that Balmont was aiming for.

Russian Text


Полночной порою в болотной глуши
Чуть слышно, бесшумно, шуршат камыши.

О чём они шепчут? О чём говорят?
Зачем огоньки между ними горят?

5 Мелькают, мигают, — и снова их нет.
И снова забрезжил блуждающий свет.

Полночной порой камыши шелестят.
В них жабы гнездятся, в них змеи свистят.
В болоте дрожит умирающий лик.
10 То Месяц багровый печально поник.

И тиной запахло. И сырость ползёт.
Трясина заманит, сожмёт, засосёт.

«Кого? Для чего?» — камыши говорят.
«Зачем огоньки между нами горят?»

15 Но Месяц печальный безмолвно поник.
Не знает. Склоняет всё ниже свой лик.

И, вздох повторяя погибшей души,
Тоскливо, бесшумно, шуршат камыши.


The TTS Audio Recording is:

Prosodic Analysis of 'Reeds'

The poem is written in amphibrachic (u - u) couplets, a little irregularly in some lines. The first (regular) couplet:

Полно́чной поро́ю в боло́тной глуши́   u-u  u-u  u-u  u-   4a
Чуть слы́шно, бесшу́мно, шурша́т камыши́.  u-u  u-u  u-u  u-   4a

Previous Translations

Ruverses have two renderings, both by celebrated translators of an earlier generation. I give the first three couplets of each:

1. Maurice Bowra

When midnight has come to the desolate fen,
Almost unheard is the reeds’ rustle then.

What do they whisper, and what do they say?
Why are the marshlights among them at play?

They glimmer and shimmer and vanish from sight;
Then again is rekindled that wandering light.

2. Paul Selver

When midnight has come on the desolate slough,
Scarce heard are the reeds, so softly they sough.

Of what do they whisper and talk to and fro?
For what are the flamelets amongst them aglow?

They shimmer, they glimmer, and once more they wane,
Then the wandering light is enkindled again.

Both reproduce the amphibrachic meter, and I think we should too.


It's not difficult to do, and was once within the easy compass of verse writers. Indeed, if memory serves, such 'games' were common in Bowra's circle, when all present were expected to compose decent lines in this, that or the other metre at the drop of a hat. The real issue is how we strike a balance between a faithful rendering of the Russian (which both Bowra and Selver achieve) and more pleasing effects that the amphibrachic encourages.

1. Suppose we had written the second couplet as:

What are they whispering, what do they say?
What do the marsh-lights between them convey?

for the second couplet, where a literal translation is:

What are they whispering about? What are they talking about?
Why are the lights burning between them?

Is 'convey' the right word here? Is it not too close to corporation-speak: 'I conveyed to him our position on the matter, and was given to understand . . .' Bowra and Selver have also had their difficulties here with 'play' and 'aglow', of course, and we'd probably do better with:

What are they whispering, what do they say?
Or marsh-lights between in their glimmering way?

2. Suppose we had written the concluding couplet as:

And now there is nothing but a soul as it dies,
and the reeds with their mournful and noiseless sighs.

Where the literal translation is:

And, repeating the sigh of the lost soul,
the reeds rustle mournfully, noiselessly.

That 'mournful and noiseless sighs' is a little awkward and heavy: it would be better to string them out with:

Now nothing's repeating, but soul as it dies
mournfully in reeds with their muted sighs.

Russian, with its liquid syllables, is admirable for these effects, but even in English there are many possibilities that readers can try for themselves (muted, soundless, noiseless, imperceptible, etc.) But the point I am making is that translation has to be appropriate — in diction, in rhythm and what George Saintsbury would call 'fingering', i.e. those modifications to an exact metre needed for variety and expressiveness. In my translation of Nekrasov's 'Frost the Red-Nosed', {3} for example, I have purposely not replicated Nekrasov's ternary rhythms because these in English are reserved for children's verse and comic effects.

English Translation of Balmont Poem

The Reeds

Midnight has come to the watery fen:
reeds rustle noiselessly now and then.

What are they whispering, what do they say?
Or marsh-lights between them in their glimmering way?

Flashing and blinking, again they are gone,
now gathering once more, and are flickering on.

Midnight has come; the reeds quiver and shake
with the movement of toads, the hiss of a snake.

The face, extended, dies as the waters dilate:
the moon in flushed crimson is disconsolate.

A smell of mud and of dampness to slowly begin
as the quagmire sucks and will draw them in.

For whom and what reason? the reeds seem to say.
Why does the glowering between flare up and delay?

How sad is the moon as it wistfully calls,
but knows nothing as the lower and lower it falls.

Now nothing's repeating, but soul as it dies
mournfully in reeds with their noiseless sighs.


This is a rather free translation, where I've aimed for sonic effects rather than a facsimile of the Russian.

References and Resources

1. Mirsky, D.S, Contemporary Russian Literature (Alfred A Knopf, 1926) 184-6.

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

3. Holcombe, C.J. (trans) Nekrasov's Red-Nosed Frost. Ocaso Press 2020.