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Lyrics translations

All lyrics by Nikolai Gumilev


The cards, one by one, were lying to me,
The wine I’d been drinking wasn’t enough.
The stars, cold and pale, blinked outside.
It was late evening in squally March.

In anxious excitement and coldly mad,
I felt as if this game was a dream.
I shouted, “I bet everything in the bank!”
My card was defeated, and I lost the game.

I went outside. The shadows of dawn
Moved gently over the delicate snow.
Next thing I remember: I fell on my knees
And pressed the gold pendant cross to my lips.

— To become free and pure, like starry heavens,
Accept Sister Poverty’s walking stick,
To wander and beg for my bread on the roads,
Adjure in the holy name of the cross!

A moment later… amidst noise and laughter,
All in the room shrank frightenedly back,
As I walked inside, in fever and madness,
On top of the cards I laid down my cross.


I walked along a narrow path,
Enjoying my daydreams,
In every blade of autumn grass
I saw a burning look.

The herbs interlaced,
The flowers were slowly singing
And drooping under the green toxic
Breath of autumn.

In the blissful deception
Of the last cold and powerful rays of light
You could hear Pan’s ringing laughter
And a strange foreign chatter.

And wood nymphs
With crystal clear tears for the azure spring
Tasted the pleasure
Indulging in the autumn heavenly slumber.

I know unfaithfulness,
Today I am celebrating with Pan.
But tomorrow I will wear
A fancy garment of snow-white flowers.

As the passion subsides,
The icy sorrow will tell a story
About happiness without heaven,
Eyes without a sparkle and dreams without love.


translated by: Richard McKane
N.Gumilev. 1999. The pillar of fire and selected poems

I smashed happiness with sacrilegious triumph,
     and there is no anguish, no reproach,
but every night I dream so clearly
     of vast night lakes.

The lilies on the mourning black waves
     are silent as my thoughts,
and the silver-white willows
     arouse forgotten, sad spells.

The moon illumines the bends of the road
     and sees the deserted field,
how I choke in the heavy alarm,
     and wring my hands till they hurt.

I will remember and something must appear,
     like the denouement in a twilight drama:
the sad girl, the white bird
     or a strange, tender fable.

And a new sun will sparkle in the mist
     and the shadows will be dragonflies,
and the proud swans of ancient tales
     will come out on the white steps.

But I can't remember. I am weak, wingless,
     I look at the night lakes
and hear how the waves babble weakly
     the words of the fateful reproach.

I will wake up, my lips confident as before.
     The night is distant and alien,
and the minutes of labour and peace
     are both earthly, beautiful and vulgar.

Old Abbey

Behind the walls of the old abbey —
The gate-keeper told me —
Sacrilege is committed every night:
There comes an unknown horseman,

In a black cloak, big and awkward,
He walks through the yard,
Carefully stepping over the pools,
Dirtying his flares ever so slightly.

Having unbarred the door,
The demons are dancing in the hallway,
With toads and midnight owls,
Wizards and wild crones.

All night long their evil laughter
Rings around the halls of the church,
Singing, dancing and the heavy footfall
Of boots heeled with nails.

But at dawn, in the wild noise of orgy
You can hear screams of rage and terror.
It is Saint George coming
With a sword made of ivory.

Seeing his thunderous brows,
The demons flee away with fright,
And in the morning, drops of blood
Appear on his silver armor.

Portrait of a Man

His eyes are like underground lakes,
Abandoned palaces of kings.
Marked with a sign of shame,
He never talks about God.

His mouth is a purple wound
From the blade dipped in poison.
Sorrowful, shut too soon,
They temp you to unknown pleasures.

His hands are pale like the moon,
With horrors of unforgiven curses,
They used to caress young witches
And know bloody crucifixes.

He happened to have drawn a weird lot:
To be the dream of murderers and poets,
Perhaps, when he was born on earth,
A bloody comet melted in the sky.

His soul still harbours old-time bitterness,
His heart remembers endless sorrows,
Yet he will not sacrifice his memories
For any gardens of Madonna or Cypride.

He’s angry, but he’s not a blasphemer,
His skin is smooth and soft like satin.
And he can smile and laugh, but cry…
He’s lost the gift of tears for ever.

The Voice of Silence

Sometimes I am feeling sad,
I am god – abandoned, forgotten,
Rebuilding out of ruins
The old churches with doors to the future.

It is hard to create a new temple
Out of ash, and the faithless would say
That the Dream, the Eternal and Holy,
Have burned out and people went blind.

And then somebody’s voice from above,
From somewhere beyond the blue sky,
Started talking to me with passion
Telling me of the global battle.

“My brother, though tired and pale,
Don’t give up, sacrifice your whole self,
If you want that the mountain peaks
Would shine in the darkness of night.

If you want to unfold the horizon
In front of the poor and sick
Take the days of stinging sadness
Away into your powerful heart.

Be a pure sacrifice at sunrise,
Speechless burn in the darkest abyss,
And you’ll be the Promised Star
Announcing the coming of dawn.”


The eagle flew ever stronger and higher
To the throne of power in the light of stars,
His flight beautiful and regal,
And his radiantly brown feathers glossy.

Where had he lived before? Perhaps, in prison,
Caged in the king’s menagerie,
Once chirping greetings the young spring
Who was in love with a thoughtful prince.

Or maybe he had lived in a wizard’s lair
And watched the sky through a tiny window,
He got fascinated by the heights
That turned his heart into the sun.

Does it matter?! In a playful, tempting manner,
The azure perfection was being disclosed,
And he flew on and on three days and nights
And died choking with bliss.

Oh yes, he died! But he could not fall,
As he had joined the circles of the planets.
Beneath him was a bottomless abyss,
But the force of gravity was too weak.

The rays of light, heavenly and cold,
Pierced the boundless horizon,
Without a slight decay, he flew on,
His dead eyes looking to the stars.

Worlds would collapse into depths,
Archangels’ trumpets would blare,
But his gorgeous grave will never
Be a place to dance on.


In the Javan reeds,
Where monsters wail in every pit,
As in tireless nightmares,
There lives a hippopotamus with a huge belly.

Boas whiz swinging over steeps,
And tigers threaten with a roar,
Strong buffalos snort, but he
Calmly eats his grass or sleeps.

Neither arrows, nor assegais –
He is not scared of anything,
And even bullets of sepoys
Slide off his panzer skin.

And like this hippopotamus,
I am dressed in my sacred armor
And walk majestically upright
Without fear across the deserts.

Translated by: Natalia Ilina, except for (3) "Lakes"

© 2011 Little Tragedies