An orange-red sky…
A gusty wind shakes
The bloody cluster of rowan berries.
I chase the fleeing horse
Past the glass hothouse, 5
Past the trellises of the old park,
And past the swan pond.
Alongside me runs
My shaggy, red-haired dog,
Who is dearer to me 10
Than even a brother
And who will be remembered
After she has died.
The hoof-taps speed up;
Dust covers everything. 15
It is difficult to chase a horse
Of pure Arabian blood.
I may have to sit down,
Panting, on a rock
That is broad and flat 20
And marvel vacantly
At the orange-red sky
And listen vacantly
To the wind screaming piercingly.
Nikolai Gumilyov (from Bonfire, 1916-1918)
Translated by John Cobley
Autumn is a popular theme in Russian poetry, perhaps because autumn is so short and beautiful in most of Russia. There, autumn is always the precursor of a bitter winter and is all the more precious for being the last warm days of the year. Pushkin’s “Autumn” (Osen’) is perhaps the finest Russian autumn poem and is definitely worthy of comparison with Keats’ immortal “Ode to Autumn.” Gumilyov wrote three autumn poems; this is my favorite.
The fleeing horse and the screaming wind are very evocative for me, especially in the context of autumn, when the passing of time is so evident. I had trouble finding an English word for tupo, which is used twice at the climax of the poem (lines 21-23). Originally I chose “vapidly,” but then I recalled Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” and changed it to “vacantly.” (“And oft when on my couch I lie/In vacant or in pensive mood”) I sense that the speaker of the poem, exhausted after chasing the horse, is empty to receive nature’s message. So I read this poem as also being about poetic creation, the poem to be written symbolized by the elusive Arabian horse.
Gumilyov’s most celebrated poem, “The Runaway Tram,” also describes a fast-moving object like the horse here.
1. The Russian word for hothouse is orangereya from the French orangerie. Presumably Russians often used hothouses for growing oranges. Thus the poem in the original Russian, repeats the colour orange three times.
2. Death is a theme in many autumn poems. Here Gumilyov introduces it through his dog that runs alongside him. Death is then suggested again with the dust that “covers everything.”
Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921) was one of Russia’s leading poets in the first years of the 20th century. He believed in carefully constructed poems and was central to the Acmeist movement. He was for some years married to Anna Akhmatova, another leading Russian poet. In World War 1 he was twice awarded the St. George Cross, the equivalent of the British Victoria Cross. Always outspoken he was eventually arrested and executed by the Soviet government in 1921.