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Annensky: Five Poems

by John Cobley

Friday Oct 14th, 2016



Innokenty Annensky (1855-1909) is not regarded as one of Russia’s greatest poets, but he has been repeatedly praised by those great poets of the generation that followed him. Mandelshtam, Gumilyov and Akhmatova all looked up to him. 

He published little poetry in his lifetime, focusing rather on his passion for Greek literature and translating 23 plays by Euripedes. As well, like Matthew Arnold, he had a distinguished career in education. 

Annensky was appreciated especially for his prosody. His subject matter was based on nature, which he used to convey human emotions and sensibilities. D.S. Mirsky, in A History of Russian Literature, has called Annensky’s poetry “not metaphysical, but purely emotional—or rather, perhaps, nervous.” Annensky was influenced by the French symbolists, especially Baudelaire. His extremely lyrical poems require a lot from the reader. Often he juxtaposes very different ideas that are not connected clearly but merely separated by an ellipsis. 

My translations do not attempt to repeat the rhyming or the rhythms. Rather, I have tried to be as precise as possible with the meaning, hoping to help the non-Russian-speaking reader better access to Annensky’s difficult poems.



Black Spring



 Accompanied by the knell of copper

A coffin was being carried along,

And gruesomely prominent,

A waxen nose peered out from the coffin.


Did it want some breath there

For an empty breast? . .

The last of the snow was dark-white

And the crumbling road was heavy.


And only the turbid frost

Flowed into the decay,

And black spring

Peered dully into the gelatin of eyes—   


From the peeling roofs, out of the brown pits,

From the faces turned green . . .

And there, along the deathly fields,

From the swollen wings of birds . . .


O people! Heavy are life’s footsteps

Along the rutted road,

But nothing is as sad

As the meeting of two deaths.





The joyful day is afire . . . patches of poppies are everywhere

Among the drowsy grasses-- like greedy impotence,

Like lips full of temptation and poisons,

Like the outspread wings of purple butterflies.



The joyful day is afire . . . But the garden is empty and silent,

It has long finished with temptation and feasts, -

And the withered poppies, like the heads of old women,

Are protected by the radiant chalice of the heavens.






 Golden but meager gardens

With the allure of purple in the slow decay,

And the late heat of the sun, with its shortened arcs,

Unable to transform itself into fragrant fruit.



And the yellow silk of carpets, coarse traces,

And the obvious lie of the final meeting,

And the black bottomless ponds of the park

Ready long since for matured suffering . . .



But the beauty of loss is all that the heart feels,

Only the ecstasy of its bewitching power;

Those who have already tasted the lotus

Are stirred by the insidious aroma of autumn.



The Anguish of a Mirage


The last colour has faded

Like a whisper in a midnight prayer . . .

O tale of madness, what do you need

From this heart?


Aren’t my travels across the snow

Hard beyond calculation or measure?

Aren’t the empty distances grey to me?

Aren’t the bells ringing dimly?


My heart, why are you

So deeply divided?

I know that she’s far away,

But I feel her closeness.


Here they are, the snowy mists;

I can’t take my eyes off them:

Soon we must pass by each other

On the white but lifeless snow.


Soon someone will wordlessly

Couple our sleighs and uncouple them again.

For a tormenting moment the babble

Of the bells will blend for us . . .


They have blended . . . But we will never

Meet each other again in the dim night . . .

In the anguish of an endless circle

I drag myself along a hateful path . . .


The last colour has faded

Like a whisper in a midnight prayer . . .

O tale of madness, what do you need

From this heart?



The Bow and the Strings


What a heavy, dark delirium!

How dull the moonlight in the heights!

To handle the violin for so many years

And not to recognize the strings in the light!


Who needs us? The one who’s ignited

Two yellow faces, two sad ones . . .

And suddenly the bow felt

Someone take them up and unite them.


“What a long time it’s been. Through this darkness

Tell me one thing: Are you still the same one, the same one?”

And the strings caressed the bow,

And ringing out, they trembled while they caressed.


“Isn’t it true that we’ll never part again?

Isn’t that enough? . .”

And the violin answered yes,

Although the heart of the violin was in pain.


The bow understood everything, it fell silent,

But the echo in the violin persisted . . .

And what seemed music to people

Was a torment to them.


But the man didn’t extinguish the candles

Until morning . . . and the strings sang . . .

Only the sun found them

Powerless on the black velvet bed.


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