TELL me not, in mournful numbers,
Life is real ! Life is earnest!
Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,
Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
In the world’s broad field of battle,
Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant !
Lives of great men all remind us
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Let us, then, be up and doing,
- Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat,
- The mist in my face,
- When the snows begin, and the blasts denote
- I am nearing the place,
- The power of the night, the press of the storm,
- The post of the foe;
- Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form;
- Yet the strong man must go:
- For the journey is done and the summit attained,
- And the barriers fall,
- Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
- The reward of it all.
- I was ever a fighter, so—one fight more,
- The best and the last!
- I would hate that Death bandaged my eyes, and forbore,
- And made me creep past.
- No! let me taste the whole of it, fare like my peers,
- The heroes of old,
- Bear the brunt, in a minute pay glad life’s arrears
- Of pain, darkness and cold.
- For sudden the worst turns the best to the brave.
- The black minute’s at end,
- And the elements’ rage, the fiend voices that rave,
- Shall dwindle, shall blend,
- Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain.
- Then a light, then thy breast,
- O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,
- And with God be the rest!
By Robert Browning
Translation by Judith Hemschemeyer¹
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings –
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.
Instead of a Preface
In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror, I spent seventeen months in the prison lines of Leningrad.
Once, someone “recognized” me. Then a woman with bluish lips standing behind me, who l of course, had never heard me called by name before, woke up from the stupor to which everyone had succumber and whispered in my ear (everyone spoke in whispers there):
“Can you describe this?”
And I answered, “Yes, I can.”
Then something that looked like a smile passed over what had once been her face.
April 1, 1957
Mountians bow down to this grief,
Mighty rivers cease to flow,
But the prison gates hold firm,
And behind htem are the “prisoners’ burrows”
And mortal woe,
For someone a fresh breeze blows,
For someone the sunset luxuriates –
We wouldn’t know, we are those who everywhere
Hear only the rasp of the hateful key
And the soldiers’ heavy tread.
We rose as if for an early service,
Trudged through the savaged capital
And met there, more lifeless than the dead;
The sun is lower and the Neva mistier,
But hope keeps singing from afar.
The verdict . . . And her tears gush forth,
Already she is cut off from the rest,
As if they painfully wrenched life from her heart,
As if they brutally knocked her flat,
But she goes on . . . Staggering . . . Alone . . .
Where now are my chance firneds
Of those two diabolical years?
What do they imagine is in Siberia’s storms,
What appears to them dimly in the circle of the moon?
I am sending my farewell greeting to them.
That was when the ones who smiled
Were the dead, glad to be at rest.
And like a useless appendage, Leningrad
Swung from its prisons.
And when, senseless from torment,
Regiments of convicts marched,
And the short songs of farewell
Were sung by locomotive whistles.
The stars of death stood above us
And innocent Russia writhed
Under bloody boots
And under the tires of the Black Marias.
They led you away at dawn,
I followed you, like a mourner,
In the dark front room the children were crying,
By the icon shelf the candle was dying.
On your lips was the icon’s chill.
The deathly sweat on your brow . . . Unforgettable! –
I will be like the wives of the Streltsy[i]
Howling under the Kremlin towers.
Quietly flows the quiet Don,
Yellow moon slips into a home.
He slips in with cap askew,
He sees a shadow, yellow moon.
This woman is ill,
This woman is alone,
Husband in the grave, son in prison,
Say a prayer for me.
No, it is not I, it is somebody else who is suffering.
I would not have been able to bear what happened,
Let them shroud it in black,
And let them carry off the lanterns…
You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo[ii]
What would happen in your life –
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year’s ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there’s no sound – and over there how many
Innocent lives are ending now…
For seventeen months I’ve been crying out,
Calling you home.
I flung myself at the hangman’s feet,
You are my son and my horror.
Everything is confused forever,
And it’s not clear to me
Who is a beast now, who is a man,
And how long before the execution.
And there are only dusty flowers,
And the chinking of the censer, and tracks
From somewhere to nowhere.
And staring me straight in the eyes,
And threatening impending death,
Is an enormous star.
The light weeks will take flight,
I won’t comprehend what happened.
Just as the white nights
Stared at you, dear son, in prison,
So they are staring again,
With the burning eyes of a hawk,
Talking about your lofty cross,
And about death.
And the stone word fell
On my still-living breast.
Never mind, I was ready,
I will manage somehow.
Today I have so much to do:
I must kill memory once and for all,
I must turn my soul to stone,
I must learn to live again –
Unless… Summer’s ardent rustling
Is like a festival outside my window.
For a long time I’ve forseen this
Brilliant day, deserted house.
June 22, 1939
You will come in anny case – so why not now?
I am waiting for you – I can’t stand much more.
I’ve put out the light and opened the door
For you, so simple and miraculous.
So come in any form you please,
Burst in as a gas shell
Or, like a ganster, steal in with a length of pipe,
Or poison me with your typhus fumes.
Or be that fairy tale you’ve dreamed up,
So sickeningly familiar to everyone –
In which I glimpse the top of a pale blue cap
And the hosue attendant white with fear.
Now it doesn’t matter anymore. The Yenisey swirls,
The North Star shines.
And the final horror dims
The blue luster of beloved eyes.
August 19, 1939
Now madness half shadows
My soul with its wing,
And makes it drunk with fiery wine
And beckons toward the black ravine.
And I’ve finally realized
That I must give in,
Raving as if it were somebody else.
And it does not allow me to take
Anything of mine with me.
(No matter how much I plead with it,
No matter how much I supplicate):
Not the terrible eyes of my son –
Suffering turned to stone,
Not the day of the terror,
Not the hour I met with him in prison,
Not the sweet coolness of his hands,
Not the trembling shadow of the lindens,
Not the far-off, fragile sound –
Of the final words of consolation.
May 4, 1940
“Do not weep for Me, Mother,
I am in the grave.”
A choir of angels sang the praises of that
And the heavens dissolved in fire.
To his Father He said: “Why hast Thou forsaken me!”
And to his Mother: “Oh, do not weep for Me…”
Mary Magdalene beat her breast and sobbed,
The beloved disciple turned to stone,
But where the silent Mother stood, there
No one glanced and no one would have dared.
I learned how faces fall,
How terror darts from under eyelids,
How suffering traces lines
Of stiff cuneiform on cheeks,
How locks of ashen-blonde or black
Turn silver suddenly,
Smiles fade on submissive lips
And fear trembles in a dry laugh.
And I pray not for myself alone,
But for all those who stood there with me
In cruel cold, and in July’s heat,
At that blind, red wall.
Once more the day of remembrance draws near.
I see, I hear, I feel you:
The one they almost had to drag at the end,
And the one who tramps her native land no more,
And the one who, tossing her beautiful head,
Said, “Coming here’s like coming home.”
I’d like to name them all by name,
But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to
I have woven a wide mantle for them
From their meager, overheard words.
I will remember them always and everywhere,
I will never forget them no matter what comes.
And if they gag my exhausted mouth
Through which a hundred million scream,
Then may the people remember me
On the eve of my remembrance day.
And if ever in this country
They decide to erect a monument to me,
I consent to that honor
Under there conditions— that it stand
Neither by the sea, where I was born:
My last tie with the sea is broken,
Nor in the tsar’s garden near the cherished pine stump,
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,
But here, where I stood for three hundred hours,
And where they never unbolted the doors for me.
This, lest in blissful death
I forget the rumbling of the Black Marias,
Forget how that detested door slammed shut
And an old woman howled like a wounded animal.
And may the melting snow stream like tears
From my motionless lids of bronze,
And a prison dove coo in the distance,
And the ships of the Neva sail calmly on.
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? were we not weaned till then,
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the seven sleepers’ den?
‘Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea discovers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to others, worlds on worlds have shown:
Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemishperes,
Without sharp North, without declining West?
Whatever dies was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or thou and I
Love so alike that none do slacken, none can die.
The title of the movie Invictus (well worth seeing by the way) is based on this poem by William Ernest Henley
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.