Vladislav Khodasevich's Monument

Vladislav Khodasevich (1886-1939) was born in Moscow but of Polish-Lithuanians: his mother was Jewish and his father Catholic. That combination of sources gave Khodasevic some independence from Symbolist influences: he was a genuine mystic and his style is closer to the poetry of the past, to Pushkin and his circle with their love of wit and craftsmanship. Khodasevich bought out his first collection in 1907, but it was his 1917 The Grain's Past that brought him fame. The Heavy Lyre followed in 1922, but in 1922 Khodasevich left Russia with Nina Berberovna, settling in Sorrento, Berlin and Paris. A third important collection, European Night followed in 1927, but depression, ill-health and poverty made poetry writing difficult. Nonetheless, Khodasevich did receive well-deserved acclaim for his critical articles and for an admirable and still standard biography of Derzhavin. {6}

khodasevich monument

In Khodasevich also appears a bitterness, the malaise that is characteristic of the 20th century. The earlier poems are marked by decadence, but this gives way to cynicism and rancor at the banal 'horrors' of life, to nebulous anxieties and the falsities of society.

In this poem, however, clearly entitled 'Monument' to contrast with the assertive confidence of Derzhavin and Pushkin, the sentiment is more of gentle resignation and reflection on the mysteries of time and eternal recurrence.

Russian Text


Во мне конец, во мне начало.
Мной совершённое так мало!
Но всё ж я прочное звено:
Мне это счастие дано.

В России новой, но великой,
Поставят идол мой двуликий
На перекрестке двух дорог,
Где время, ветер и песок...

January 1928

The TTS Audio Recording is:

Analysis of Khodasevich Poem

The poem is simply written in iambic tetrameters, rhymed AAbb CCdd, where upper case denotes a feminine rhyme:

Во мне коне́ц, во мне нача́ло. 4A
Мной совершённое так ма́ло ́! 4A
Но всё ж я про́чное звено́: 4b
Мне э́то сча́стие дано́. 4b

Previous Translations of 'Monument'

Ruverses have 3 versions. I give the first stanza of each:

Alex Cigale:

In me is the beginning, in me the end.
What’s been accomplished by me a blink!
Yet still I am a reliable chain link:
This happiness to me has been given.


The end, the start I do embody —
Forged as a link that's true and sturdy.
Although my claims to fame are few!
Rejoicing, I unite the queue.

Michael Frayn:

I am an end and a beginning.
So little spun from all my spinning!
I’ve been a firm link nonetheless;
With that good fortune I’ve been blessed.

There is also the rendering by Robert Chandler in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry:

In me things end and start again.
I am, although my work is slight,
a link in an unbroken chain —
one joy, at least, is mine by right.

Starting the Translation

This is a simple poem to translate, even keeping the AAbb stanza form:

In me is death and a beginning;
so little done I have been winning.
Yet as a link I’ve nonetheless
been given this great happiness.

When Russia comes again to power
I'll see my idol every hour,
observe the two-way crossroad ways
of wind and sand and endless days.

Comparing Translations

Both the Cigale and Athena versions are rather poor: incomplete or silly rhymes, stilted phrasing, missing the sense. The Frayn version is a little free ('So little spun from all my spinning!' where the Russian simply says 'how little I have done') but reproduces the feminine rhyme. The Chandler doesn't reproduce the feminine rhyme, but is otherwise faithful, sensible and effective in all but the poetry.

But what exactly is the poem saying? At this point we need to consult the Russian critics, {4} though these unfortunately only point out that 1. the exact circumstances of the poem's creation are not entirely known, 2. the contrast is clearly with Pushkin's Monument, 3. the words are largely to be taken at their face value, and 4. punctuation errors suggest that the last line should read 'where time is wind and sand', possibly an allusion to Einstein's General Relativity Theory.

I'm not a Khodasevich scholar, but find these suggestions over-clever. Nonetheless, we should keep the translation open to the same allusions and interpretations that Russian critics have found in the original.

Which of the two translations, Frayn or Chandler, do we like? I prefer the Frayn, as it seems to have that extra dimension of subtlety and depth of sense we call poetry. Chandler's is excellent, clear, well-turned and even elegant, but, like the well-known anthology he edits, somewhat prosaic otherwise.

Penguin Book of Russian Poetry

Here may be the place for a few comments on 'The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry' (2015) edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Drayluck and Irina Mashinsky. As the winner of the English Pen Award, this stout volume is a favourite of many, particular for its extended coverage of Silver Age and later poets, its bibliographies and helpful notes. For notes on the individual poets, however, I generally find Bristol {1} more enlightening, as is Mirsky {2} for older poets. The great disappointment, and this can only be personal impression, is the quality of translation. It's generally sensible, technically accomplished, but too often 'lifeless', lacking those qualities that make us reread a poem again simply for the poetry it stirs in us. Some examples. (Lines or phrases I particularly detest are given in italics):

Derzhavin: Monument.

I have built myself a monument, miraculous, eternal,
stronger than metal, higher than pyramids;
whirlwind and thunder will not overthrow it;
it will not be destroyed by the flying years.

Rather pedestrian metre, no rhyme and a monument knocked down by 'flying years'. My version, for comparison {5}:

I’ve raised a monument more durable that brass,
more marvellous and loftier than the pyramids,
that will through swirling wind and storm surpass
the flight of years to which mortality submits.

Puskin: Bronze Horseman.

43. I love you, miracle of Peter's,
your stern and graceful countenance,
the broad Neva's imperious waters,
the granite blocks that line your banks,
the railings in cast-iron muster,
the melancholy of your nights,
transparent moonlight, moonless lustre,
50. where in my room I use no lights,
to read and write, when massed facades
and sleeping empty boulevards
are clear to see, and all afire
glitters the admiralty spire,

The last two lines are excellent, of course, and the accent is correctly placed on 'Neva', but this celebrated passage has somewhat approximate rhymes, rather lacks Pushkin's sense of atmosphere, and its 'transparent moonlight, moonless lustre' is inappropriately claustrophobic.

Lermontov: The Sail

Lone sail against blue sea-mist:
what is it seeking?
what forsaking?

Wind, waves, and bending mast:
not happiness . . .
not happiness.

A pared down evocative version, certainly, but leaving out too much of the Russian, and not particularly good verse.

Fet: Spring

I come again with greetings new,
to tell you day is well begun;
to say the leaves are fresh with dew
and dappled in the early sun.

Do we need these inversions and poeticisms in the 21st century?

Blok: Unknown Woman

Tranced by the wonder of her nearness, striving
to pierce her shadowy veil,
I look on an enchanted shore, a distance
beyond some magic pale.

Limited and contrived rhyming. There are better versions, as the compilers must surely know.

Final Version

We are not far from a final version:

In me is death and a beginning,
so little here I have been winning.
Yet as a link I’ve nonetheless
been given this great happiness.

When Russia comes again to power
my Janus idol gains its hour,
and looks about the crossing ways
at wind and sand and endless days.

References and Resources

1. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 222-23.

2. Mirsky, D.S. Contemporary Russian Literature 1881-1925. (A. Knopf) 239-40.

3. Chandler R. et al. The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (Penguin, 2015) 235-6.

4. Lavrentiev, M. (2012) Vladislav Khodasevich. Extended article in Russian.

5. Holcombe C.J. (2021) Dherzhavin: Selected Poems.

6. Khodasevich, V (1886-1939) Derzhavin: A Biography, translated by Angela Brintlinger. University of Wisconsin Press, 2007.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.