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Translated by PETER McCAREY.


ALL THERE IS to know on the art of leaving
I’ve learned in careful pillow-talk at night.
The oxen ruminate. It’ll soon be morning;
The night watch does its rounds, round to the light.
I trace the rubric of the cockerel darkness
When, taking up his road, with brimming eyes,
The one who’s leaving suddenly feels its harshness
Hit home: the muses’ song, the women’s cries.
Who can tell what an abstract noun like ‘leaving’
Will come to mean, when it’s our turn?
What are we to make of the cockerel crowing
When midnight flames in the citadel still burn?
And in the dawn of some new life or other
With oxen ruminating in the hay,
Why does the herald of this new world order
Preen on the battlements to greet the day?
I love the ordinariness of fabric:
The shuttle, warp and weft, the spindle’s hum.
And here she’s: barefoot, feather-light, in cambric
Shift, running to meet you, glad you’ve come.
Our life is threadbare, and the words to measure
Joy are worn thin with repetition;
We’ll keep on using them, but what we treasure
Now is just the flash of recognition.
So be it, then. A translucent figure
Lies on a clean, clay dish; a squirrel’s pelt
Stretched out. A girl, a fortune-teller
Waits to see which way the wax will melt.
It’s not for us to test the reaper’s mettle;
The wax is lost on women, bronze on men.
For us the die is only cast in battle;
Vision is theirs, at the living end.

Translator’s note:

A talk I gave in St Petersburg turned on Osip Mandelstam’s poem ‘Tristia’.1 Afterwards it occurred to me that none of the English translations I’ve seen comes close to conveying the force of the Russian, so here is another attempt, that was made on the poem’s centenary.

The original:


Я изучил науку расставанья
В простоволосых жалобах ночных.
Жуют волы, и длится ожиданье,
Последний час вигилий городских;
И чту обряд той петушиной ночи,
Когда, подняв дорожной скорби груз,
Глядели вдаль заплаканные очи
И женский плач мешался с пеньем муз.
Кто может знать при слове «расставанье» –
Какая нам разлука предстоит?
Что нам сулит петушье восклицанье,
Когда огонь в акрополе горит?
И на заре какой-то новой жизни,
Когда в сенях лениво вол жует,
Зачем петух, глашатай новой жизни,
На городской стене крылами бьет?
И я люблю обыкновенье пряжи:
Снует челнок, веретено жужжит.
Смотри: навстречу, словно пух лебяжий,
Уже босая Делия летит!
О, нашей жизни скудная основа,
Куда как беден радости язык!
Все было встарь, все повторится снова,
И сладок нам лишь узнаванья миг.
Да будет так: прозрачная фигурка
На чистом блюде глиняном лежит,
Как беличья распластанная шкурка,
Склонясь над воском, девушка глядит.
Не нам гадать о греческом Эребе,
Для женщин воск, что для мужчины медь.
Нам только в битвах выпадает жребий,
А им дано гадая умереть.

The title was an afterthought, from Ovid, foreign also to its author, an ‘ostranenie / estrangement’, though the deep theme of yearning is not. The poem echoes Dante, Blok, folk tales and the aubade; it reads like a testament, which perhaps it was. The poem raises echoes its author may not have intended: is the acropolis in the poem Athenian or Muscovite? Some lines don’t age well at all: ‘Для женщин воск, что для мужчины медь.’ (Wax is to women what bronze is to men). At the same time, the poem contains some of those stern generalizations that can rise from the emotional peak of Mandelstam’s poetry:

И сладок нам лишь узнаванья миг.’

‘For us, only the moment of recognition is sweet’

Recognition of what? What we treasure, I’d say, is the very moment of assent to the poem, which does not depend simply on what the poem says. If we dig down, we find that Tristia quotes a line and a theme from a poem by Akhmatova; Mandelstam’s painful parting is perhaps from her, perhaps not; ‘Delia’ (simply ‘she’ in the English translation) refers to one of Batyushkov’s free translations from Tibullus. Batyushkov may have been speaking of Anna Furman; Tibullus, if we are to credit Apuleius and Wikipedia, was referring to a woman called Plania. How much of this do we know or need to know? In Tibullus and Mandelstam, Delia is barefoot; in Batyushkov she is naked. There’s nothing more to show. What we recognize, with the added poignancy and disorientation of moving from one language to another, is the bitterness of separation.


Also in The Fortnightly Review: Three more poems by Osip Mandelstam, translated by Alistair Noon.

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was an important and popular poet in Russia, where he was arrested twice under Stalin. He died of cold and exposure in Vladivostok shortly after his second arrest in 1938. “Tristia” is the title poem from Mandelstam’s second collection, published in 1922.

Peter McCarey is the author of www.thesyllabary.comCollected Contraptions (Carcanet, 2012) and Find an Angel and Pick a Fight (Molecular Press 2013).


  1. Multilingualism and Russia’s Ethnic Cultures through English, French, German, Russian and Other Languages (St Petersburg, Herzen University Press, 2018), pp. 90-102.

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