Valery Bryusov: The Huns

Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov (1873-1924) was a cultivated man, who took an informed interest in historical periods and personalities. He wrote poems on King Esarhaddon of Assyria, Pysche, Moses, Cleopatra, the Scythians, Mary Stuart and Napoleon. In this he had affinities with the French Parnassians, but not at all with English poets, British or America. English poets, or those of any distinction, simply did not write about such subjects, even at the cost of making (I would argue) their work rather provincial if not parochial.

Bryusov was also a man of his time, who despaired of tsarist government, seeing it as dysfunctional, authoritarian and oppressive, largely incapable of change. Like many others he welcomed the Revolution, and (unlike many others) managed to accept and accommodate himself to the Communist regime. In the poem being translated, the Huns are not merely historical figures, therefore, but the forces of change. For that reason, he listens to the tramp of the masses (where the Huns were nomadic horsemen, of course) and calls the Pamirs an unknown country (i.e. a lofty but somewhat unknown entity). {1}

bryusov huns translation

This page is another attempt at the amphibrachic trimeter. On this occasion, all the rhymes are feminine, which Maurice Bowra sensibly converts to AbAb, though without really solving the problems. The amphibrachic trimeter is not a common English verse measure, and translation is at the mercy of decent rhyme words.

Here they don't really exist, and Bowra's rendering is lumpy and contrived. That by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky is more pleasing verse but strays widely from the sense. What's to be done?

Russian Text

Грядущие гунны

Где вы, грядущие гунны,
Что тучей нависли над миром!
Слышу ваш топот чугунный
По ещё не открытым Памирам.

На нас ордой опьянелой
Рухните с тёмных становий —
Оживить одряхлевшее тело
Волной пылающей крови.

Поставьте, невольники воли,
Шалаши у дворцов, как бывало,
Всколосите весёлое поле
На месте тронного зала.

Сложите книги кострами,
Пляшите в их радостном свете,
Творите мерзость во храме, —
Вы во всём неповинны, как дети!

А мы, мудрецы и поэты,
Хранители тайны и веры,
Унесём зажжённые светы,
В катакомбы, в пустыни, в пещеры.

И что, под бурей летучей,
Под этой грозой разрушений,
Сохранит играющий Случай
Из наших заветных творений?

7. Бесследно всё сгибнет, быть может,
Что ведомо было одним нам,
Но вас, кто меня уничтожит,
Встречаю приветственным гимном.

Autumn 1904, July 30 — August 10, 1905

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Prosodic Analysis of the Poem

The poem is written in amphibrachic trimeters rhymed ABAB, i.e. with feminine rhymes throughout:

Где́ вы, гряду́щие гу́нны,    - u u – u u - u 3A
Что ту́чей нави́сли над ми́ром!     - u u – u u - u 3B
Слы́шу ваш то́пот чугу́нный     - u u – u u - u 3A
По ещё не откры́тым Пами́рам.     - u u – u u - u 3B

Previous Translations

Ruverses have two renderings. One is by Maurice Bowra: not a pleasing translation, but I give his first two stanzas:

Oh, where are you, Huns, who are coming?
As a cloud you swell over us here.
I can hear iron footsteps a-drumming
On the yet undiscovered Pamir.

From your camps in the mist let the gathered
Hordes drunkenly fall in a flood;
Give new life to our bodies withered
With your free and fiery blood.

The second is by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky: a little better as verse but not too faithful to the Russian:

Where do you stray, heavy Huns,
Who weigh on the world like a cloud?
Far, under Asian suns,
Your cast-iron tread is loud.

Swoop down in a drunken horde
From your dark encampments, rise
In a tide of crimson poured
Over this land that dies.


First we look at the sense. A DeepL machine translation is:

Where are you, the coming Huns,
That are the clouds that hang over the world!
I hear your cast-iron stomping
Over the still unopened Pamirs.

On us in an intoxicated horde
Fall down from your dark stalwarts.
To revive a decrepit body
With a wave of blazing blood.

Put up, slaves of the will,
Tents by the palaces, as it were,
And shake the merry field...
On the place of the throne-room.

Stack the books with bonfires,
Dance in their joyous light,
You make abomination in the temple.
You are as innocent as children!

And we, sages and poets,
Guardians of mystery and faith,
We'll take the light that's lit,
Into catacombs, deserts, caves.

And that, beneath this flying storm,
Beneath this storm of destruction,
Will the playing Chance preserve
Of our cherished creations?

All may be bent without a trace,
What we alone know,
But you, who will destroy me,
I greet you with a salutary hymn.

If we insist on transcribing the ternary rhythms, we can write:

Whom would you threaten, coming Huns,
the cloudy world now hung with fear?
In iron trampling sons of sons
come from still unknown Pamir.

Onto us the horde descends,
steadily, a falling drunken flood,
where our decrepitude portends
your hot revitalizing blood.

So put, you slaves of iron will,
your tents in palaces we had before.
Let us turn new fields and till
the places that the throne-room saw.

Make of books a conflagration
and dance about as joyful should.
Make of temples an abomination,
with you as innocent as babyhood.

5. We the poets and singing sages,
take faiths and mysteries to the grave;
we hide away the light of ages
in catacomb, desert and the cave.

So, under this great moving storm,
beneath this flood of desecration,
who will save what Chance can form
in individual, pure creation?

All trace of things may well then perish,
the things that we alone once knew:
for you, destroying all we cherish,
will come a hymn to welcome you.

But that's also most unattractive, as repellent as the previous translations. The answer, I think, is to convert the amphibrachic trimeter to a 'singing' iambic and winnow out the sense:

Final Translation

The Huns

I hear you, coming Huns,
whom all of Russia fears,
your iron-trampling sons
from unknown, far Pamirs.

Heavily the horde descends
and breaks in drunken flood,
Our feebleness portends,
does it, your hot new blood?

You slaves of iron will,
raze palaces before.
Erect your tents and till
gardens the throne-room saw.

Books are a conflagration,
dance as the joyful should.
Make temples an abomination
in simple babyhood.

And we, the poets and sages,
take mysteries to the grave,
will hide the light of ages
in desert tomb and cave.

Beneath this moving storm,
this flood of desecration,
who saves what Chance will form
again in bright creation?

All things may well perish,
which we alone once knew:
destroy then all we cherish:
our hymn will welcome you.

Here may be the place to introduce Evelyn Bristol's unrhymed version Bryusov's 'The Huns.' {1} Her first and last stanzas:

Where are you, Huns of the future,
That hand o'er the world like a cloudburst?
I hear the tramp of your iron
On Parmiras as yet undiscovered.

Our lore may all perish, be traceless —
All we alone knew on the planet,
But you, who will come and destroy me —
I meet with a hymn and welcome.

This version, which is clearly not a literary one, but intended to convey the plain meaning, suggests that we (and previous renderings) have overlooked an important nuance. The poem is not set in the historical past but in the present. The 'coming Huns' are the future, and we should modify our rendering a little:

I sense you future Huns
that now all Russia fears,
your iron-tramping sons
from unknown, far Pamirs.

How dark the horde descends,
hard breaks in drunken flood,
No doubt your hot blood mends
our weak, enfeebled blood.

Hut-dwelling slaves: you raze
down bastions of before,
you ruin our fields to gaze
on lands the throne room saw.

You burnt our books and dance,
nor would at flames repent:
the Temple's undone by chance,
but you are innocent.

Let us, poets and sages,
take secrets to the grave,
and hide the light of ages
in desert tomb and cave.

Beneath this moving storm,
the ruin, the devastation,
who says that Chance won't form
a bright and fresh creation?

Though all things yet may perish,
that we alone once knew,
expunge what we would cherish:
our hymn will welcome you.

It's tempting to leave the matter there. But the rendering is a little thin or attentuated. And we could argue that the amphibrachic's 7 or 8 syllables should be rendered by the tetrameter's usual 8 syllables. So, keeping some of these rhymes in our head, but working from the original Russian, we could write:

Where are you, future Huns? I hear
what darkly-threatened Russia fears:
your iron-trampling sons appear
from undisclosed and far Pamirs.

Your drunk and reeling horde descends,
in ravening, destructive flood:
our old, decrepit body bends
to influx of your fresh new blood.

As iron-willed, your slaves may fill
our palaces with meagre tents;
lay waste to crops, and even bill
the throne room for their black events.

You make of books a conflagration,
and dance in joy around the flame,
make temples an abomination:
the child is innocent of blame.

We, seen as poets and as sages,
take faith and mysteries to the grave,
and will we hide the light of ages
in catacomb and desert cave.

Beneath this ever-moving storm,
the ruin and the devastation,
will Chance not hazard and perform
once more its bless and bright creation?

Without a trace may all decay,
be lost what we alone once knew:
yet though our selves may pass away,
it's with a hymn I'll welcome you.

Is that better? No, it's most unattractive. We should go back to the penultimate version.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 175-8.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.