Gumilev's Like the Wind in a Happy Country

Nicholay Gumilev (1886-1921), Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) are three poets whose names are often linked. All were Acmeists, i.e. heirs of Symbolism but aiming for greater clarity and objectivity. All knew each other well. Mandlestam and Gumilev were close friends, and Akhmatova was Gumilev's first wife. All suffered under the Soviet state. Akhmatov was able to publish little after 1921, and most of her work came out posthumously. Mandelstam was exiled twice and died in transit to the gulag camps. Gumilev was shot for participation in a counterrevolutionary plot. {1}

gumilev: like the wind translation

Beside his contemporaries, Mandelstam and Akhmatova, Gumilev is often seen as 'light-weight', lacking the depth of the first and the passion of the last. But Gumilev was innovative and introduced exotic themes into Russian verse. He created a new direction, moreover, where spiritual matters are nonetheless rooted in the concrete world. {1}

Russian Text

Словно ветер страны счастливой

Словно ветер страны счастливой,
Носятся жалобы влюбленных.
Как колосья созревшей нивы,
Клонятся головы непреклонных.

Запевает араб в пустыне —
«Душу мне вырвали из тела».
Стонет грек над пучиной синей —
«Чайкою в сердце ты мне влетела».

Красота ли им не покорна!
Теплит гречанка в ночь лампадки,
А подруга араба зерна
Благовонные жжет в палатке.

Зов один от края до края,
Шире, все шире и чудесней,
Угадали ли вы, дорогая,
В этой бессвязной и бедной песне?

Дорогая с улыбкой летней,
С узкими, слабыми руками
И, как мед двухтысячелетний,
Душными, черными волосами.

April 15, 1915

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Analysis of Poem 'Like the Wind'

The poem looks to be in tertiary tetrameters, either a loose dactylic or more probably a dolnik: rhyming is ABAB:

Сло́вно ве́тер страны́ счастли́вой, - u - u u – u – u    3/4A
Но́сятся жа́лобы влюблённых. - u u - u - u - u    3/4B
Как колосья созре́вшей ни́вы, - u u - u - u - u    3/4A
Кло́нятся го́ловы непрекло́нных. - u u – u u – u – u    3/4B

The rhythm is clearly a little irregular, and third line rhyme is only approximate.

Previous Translations

Richard McKane has a faithful, (i.e. fairly literal but unrhymed), translation on Ruverses. I give his first stanza:

Like the wind of a happy country
the complaints of those in love carry.
Like the ears of ripened corn
the heads of the unbowed bow.

First Translation of Gumilev's Poem

If we think the metre is a loose dactylic (i.e. some of the stressed syllables above should be read as unstressed) we can write:

Like the wind from a happy country
complaints of lovers are borne,
inflexible they bend in their bounty,
like the ears of the ripened corn.

The Arab singing in desert places
‘a soul from the body is torn’.
On blue depths the Greek agonizes,
’in the seagull the heart is reborn.’

Is beauty to them not submissive;
Does the Greek’s lamp not know intent?
Are the beans not roasting and hissing
As perfume suffuses the tent?

That call is ever enlarging,
wider and more wonderful yet.
Have you not guessed it, my darling?
How this song is rambling inept.

My dear with a song of the summer
hands slender but feeble there:
two thousand years old is the honey
and stifling the ebony hair.

We have reproduced the dactylic rhythm, the trimeter and the AbAb rhyme scheme, but there remain several problems:

1. Meaning: does Gumilev really mean complaints in line 2? Apparently so. жалобы does indeed mean complaints and grievances, but also claims and petitions. The poem's theme (I think) is that love is insatiable, and lovers always expect more recognition, knowing also that love thrives on separation (line 8).

2. Rhymes. We've made the b line rhymes masculine, when in fact they're feminine: all the rhymes are feminine: ABAB. Why not write the translation so? Because the rendering is then pretty intolerable, if it can be done at all. Here's an attempt:

Like the wind from a happy country
complaints of lovers are coming,
inflexible they bend in their bounty,
like ears that the cornfield is summing.

English verse rarely uses feminine rhyme throughout, because such rhymes (being rarely available as wanted) cause distortions in meaning, and tend to look comic and/or contrived.

3. Metre. English verse rarely uses the dactylic metre, either, for the same reasons. Russian accommodates the metre easily, but English does not.

Alternatives: Dolnik Tetrameters

The obvious alternative is to see the Russian as dolnik tetrameters, which we could render as free verse, i.e. varying rhythms:

Like the wind from a happy country
are the petitions from lovers borne,
how stiffly they bend in their bounty,
in those ears of ripened corn.

The Arab sings in the desert places:
'how soul is from body is torn.'
On great depths the Greek agonizes:
'in seagull's flight is heart reborn.'

Is beauty to them not submissive;
does the Greek’s lamp not know intent?
Is the friend's Arab seed not hissing,
does the incense not fill the tent?

So the call goes on, ever enlarging,
much wider and more wonderful yet.
Have you not guessed the secret, my darling,
of the ramblings my songs beget?

My dear, this is a song of the summer:
fine hands but too feeble to dare.
Two thousand years old is the honey
and still heady the ebony hair.

This seems to me much better. We've made a few tweaks, but the rendering is fairly close. Later poets would write lines that lack an immediate and obvious significance, but Gumilev stays on the home shores of the rational. His lines do make sense: we just have to find it.

Final Note: Free Verse and Worse

We can see the effect of the various forms of verse by rewriting stanza three.

Free verse: more varied and lightly patterned:

Is beauty to them not submissive;
does the Greek’s lamp not know intent?
Is the friend's Arab seed not hissing,
does incense not fill the tent?

Traditional verse: the rhythm more regular and regimenting:

Are not her looks to them submissive;
does not the Greek’s lamp know intent?
Is Arab seed of friend not hissing,
doesn't incense fill the tent?

Most translations today use a mix of free-verse and prose that I call 'prose-verse', as in Richard McCain's rendering:

Beauty is their slave!
The Greek woman tends the icon lamps by night,
and the Arab's friend roasts
fragrant beans in the tent.

Prose lacks even minimal graces: the literal (machine) translation of the Russian is:

Is beauty not submissive to them!
The Greek woman warms up on the night of the lamp,
And the friend of the Arab grain
Incense burns in the tent.

True free-verse is the most difficult to write, requiring an acute ear for phrasing and much time spent testing the innumerable possibilities.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (1991, O.U.P.) 207-210.