While translating Apollinaire’s “Zone” and Tsvetaeva’s “Verses on Moscow”—coincidentally at the same time—I was surprised to find many similarities. First I found that they were written within three years of each other (1913 and 1916) and contain almost the same number of lines (160 and 155). Then I noticed that both are strongly autobiographical and that they focus on their respective cities, Paris and Moscow. For two poets living a long way apart and in very different cultures, the similarities seemed worth pursuing further.
Both poets celebrate their cities, sometimes rhapsodically, but still include less savoury details. Bells appear in both poems. Religion is also prominent.
The two poets were both well travelled. Apollinaire at 33 had lived life to the full, had travelled widely in Europe and had been wounded in the World War 1 trenches. The younger Tsvetaeva (24) had also travelled in Europe (Italy, Switzerland) and at 16 she studied for a while at the Sorbonne before settling in Russia. But despite this exposure to other cultures, she remained focused on Russian poetry, especially on the examples of Blok and Akhmatova.
Thus the similarities end when considering prosody. Of course they were both poets of their time, so there is fragmentation in both poems, though much more in Apollinaire’s, who has 33 line breaks in his 160-line poem. Tsvetaeva divides her poem into nine sections, eight of which are in either couplets, tercets, quatrains, or sestets, while the irregular ninth has a starting octet, three sestets and finally a couplet.
Although both poets use rhyme, there is a significant difference in punctuation. While Tsvetaeva punctuates conventionally, including the wide use of the dash that is common in Russian poetry, Apollinaire uses no punctuation at all.
Perhaps the most striking difference is in their outlook. Apollinaire, strongly affected by the Futurist movement, creates a world that is emphatically modern with airplanes, buses and typists. Tsvetaeva focuses on bells, historic churches and icons; there are only pedestrians in the Moscow streets.
In the end you are weary of this ancient world
O shepherd Eiffel Tower the flock of bridges bleats this morning
You’ve lived enough in Greek and Roman antiquity
Here even automobiles look ancient
Religion alone has remained a brand new religion
Has remained simple like the hangars of Port-Aviation
You alone in Europe are not antique O Christianity
The most modern European is you Pope Pius X
And you whom the windows observe shame restrains you
From entering a church and confessing there this morning 10
You read prospectuses catalogues posters that sing aloud
Here’s the poetry this morning and for prose there are the newspapers
There are 25-centime weeklies full of detective stories
Portraits of great men and a thousand various titles
This morning I saw a pretty street whose name I’ve forgotten
New and clean it was the bugle of the sun
The managers, the workers, the pretty stenographers
From Monday morning to Saturday evening four times daily pass by
In the morning the siren wails there three times
A grumpy clock barks there around noon 20
The inscriptions on the signs and walls
The plaques the notices squawk like parrots
I like the grace of this industrial street
Situated in Paris between Rue Aumont-Thiéville and Avenue des Ternes
There’s the young street and you are still only a little child
Your mother dresses you only in blue and white
You are very pious and with the oldest of your friends René Dalize
You like nothing as much as the pomp of the church
It’s nine o’clock the gas is lowered to blue you secretly leave the dormitory
You pray all night in the college chapel 30
While eternal and adorable the amethyst depth
Turns forever the blazing glory of Christ
It’s the beautiful lily that we cultivate
It’s the red-haired torch that the wind doesn’t extinguish
It’s the pale rosy son of the sad mother
It’s the tree always thick with prayers
It’s the double gallows of honour and eternity
It’s the six-pointed star
It’s God who dies on Friday and is resurrected on Sunday
It’s Christ who ascends into the sky better than aviators 40
He holds the world altitude record
Pupil Christ of the eye
Twentieth pupil of the centuries it knows how
Turned into a bird this century rises like Jesus into the air
The devils in the chasms lift their heads to watch it
They say that it imitates Simon Magus in Judea
They yell that if it knows how to fly it should be called a flyer
Angels flutter around the lovely acrobat
Icarus, Enoch, Elijah, Apollonius of Tyana
Float around the first airplane 50
They make way sometimes to let pass those borne up by the Holy Eucharist
Those priests who rise eternally in raising up the host
The airplane finally lands without folding its wings
The sky then fills with millions of swallows
Quickly there arrive crows falcons owls
From Africa come ibis, flamingo, storks
The Roc bird celebrated by storytellers and poets
Glides down holding in its claws the skull of Adam the first head
The eagle descends from the horizon with a great cry
From America comes the little hummingbird 60
From China have come the long and supple pihis
Which have a single wing and which fly in pairs
Then comes the dove immaculate spirit
Escorted by the lyre-bird and the ocellated peacock
The phoenix that pyre that recreates itself
Veils everything for a moment with its bright cinders
The sirens leaving the perilous straits
Arrive singing beautifully all three of them
And all of them eagle phoenix Chinese pihis
Fraternize with the flying machine 70
Now you are walking in Paris all alone in the crowd
Herds of bellowing buses roll by close to you
The anguish of love tightens your throat
As if you weren’t meant to be loved anymore
If you were living in ancient times you would enter a monastery
You are ashamed when you catch yourself saying a prayer
You laugh at yourself and like the fire of hell your laugh sparkles
The sparks of your laughter gild the depths of your life
It’s a picture hung in a sombre museum
And sometimes you go to look at it up close 80
Today you walk in Paris the women are blood-stained
That’s how it was and I would rather not recall it was at the twilight of beauty
Surrounded with fervent flames Notre-Dame looked at me in Chartres
The blood of your Sacré-Coeur inundated me in Montmartre
I am sick of hearing blessed words
Love from which I suffer is a shameful malady
And the image that possesses you makes you go on living in insomnia and anguish
It is always close to you this passing image
Now you are on the Mediterranean shore
Under the lemon trees that blossom all year 90
With your friends you take a boat trip
One is from Nice one from Menton and two from La Turbie
We look down in fear at the octopi in the depths
And among the algae swim fish images of the Saviour
You are in the garden of an inn in the Prague suburbs
You feel completely happy a rose is on the table
And you observe instead of writing your tale in prose
The chafer beetle that sleeps in heart of a rose
Shocked you see yourself depicted in the agates of Saint-Vit
You were sad enough to die the day when you saw yourself there 100
You resemble Lazarus stunned by the daylight
The hands of the clock in the Jewish quarter go backwards
And you also go slowly backwards in your life
Climbing up to the Hradchin while listening in the evening
To the singing of Czech songs in the taverns
Here you are in Marseilles among watermelons
Here you are in Coblenz at the Hotel of the Giant
Here you are in Rome seated under a Japanese medlar tree
Here you are in Amsterdam with a young girl you find beautiful and is ugly
She is to marry a student from Leyde 110
Rooms are rented there in Latin Cubicula Iocanda (Latin: bedrooms to let)
I remember it I spent three days there and as many in Gouda
You are in Paris at the juge d’instruction
Like a criminal you are placed under arrest
You have made sad and joyful trips
Before becoming aware of lying and age
You suffered from love at 20 and at 30
I have lived like a fool I have wasted my time
You no longer dare look at your hands and every moment I feel like sobbing
For you for the one that I love for all that has frightened you 120
You look with eyes full of tears at these poor emigrants
They believe in God they pray the women suckle children
They fill with their odour the hall of the Gare Saint-Lazare
They have faith in their star like the Magi kings
They hope to make money in Argentina
And to return home after making a fortune
A family carries a red eiderdown as you carry your heart
This eiderdown and our dreams are equally unreal
Some of those emigrants stay here and lodge
In hovels on Rue de Rosiers or Rue des Ecoffes 130
I’ve seen them often in the evening they take the air in the street
And move rarely like chess pieces
There are mainly Jews their women wear wigs
They stay sitting anemic at the back of shops
You are standing at the counter of a crapulous bar
You drink a two-sou coffee among the wretched
At night you are in a fine restaurant
These women are not bad they have worries however
Each of them even the ugliest has made her lover suffer
She is the daughter of a policeman on the Isle of Jersey 140
Her hands which I have not seen are hard and cracked
I have immense pity for the scars on her belly
I now humble my mouth to a wretched whore with a ghastly laugh
You are alone the morning will come
The milkmen rattle their churns in the streets
Night recedes like a beautiful Métis woman
It’s tricky Ferdine or attentive Léah
And you drink this burning liquor like your life
Your life that you drink like brandy
You walk toward Auteuil you want to go home on foot 150
To sleep among your Oceania and Guinea fetishes
They are Christs of another form and another belief
They are inferior Christs of obscure hopes
Sun severed neck
Guillaume Apollinaire 1913
Translated by John Cobley
VERSES ON MOSCOW
Clouds all around
Cupolas all around
Across all of Moscow
So many hands are needed!--
I lift you up, the best burden,
In this amazing old city
In this peaceful old city
Even when I’m dead
It will give me joy-
You will reign, you will grieve,
Take the crown
O my first-born.
You will fast in lent,
No eyebrow cosmetics
And all forty—go!-
Go around on foot—with youthful steps!-
To all of the open
It will be your turn:
Indeed you will give Moscow
To a daughter
With tender bitterness.
For me undisturbed sleep, bell peals,
31 March 1916
Take from my hand this not-made-by-hand city,
My strange and beautiful brother.
Church to church, all of the forty times forty,
And above them the rising doves.
And the Spassky Gate—with flowers,
Where the orthodox remove their caps.
The chapel of stars, a refuge from evil,
Where the floor is wiped clean by kisses.
The incomparable five-cathedral circle,
Take it, my ancient inspired friend.
To the garden of Unexpected Joy
I will lead my foreign guest.
The rich golden cupolas will start to shine,
The sleepless bells will start to chime.
And the veil of Our Lady
Will fall on you from purple clouds.
And you will rise, filled with wonderful powers…
You will not repent that you have loved me!
31 March 1916
Past towers at night
The squares are hurrying us along.
Oh, how terrifying in the night
Are the cries of young soldiers!
Rumble, loud heart!
Kiss warmly, love!
Oh, this bestial cry!
Oh, audacious blood!
My mouth is aflame,
With a gift that’s holy—sight.
Like a golden casket
Stop your mischief,
Light a candle,
So that what I wish for you
Does not happen now.
31 March 1916
The day will come, a sad one, it’s said.
They’ll reign, they’ll weep, they’ll burn,
--Cooled by someone’s five-kopek coin—
My eyes active like flames.
And—the double finding the double—
Through vague features a face appears.
Oh, I will finally be favoured by you,
A beautiful belt of fine design!
And from a distance—do I catch sight of You?—
The procession, with confused signs of the cross,
Stretches along the black road
To my hand, which I won’t withdraw,
To my hand, with which prohibition is removed,
To my hand, which is no more.
Your kisses, O living ones,
I won’t oppose at all—the first time.
A beautiful cloak of fine design
Has enshrouded me from head to toe.
Nothing will make me blush;
Today is my holy Easter.
Along the deserted Moscow streets
I go—I with you plodding along.
On the road no one will fall behind,
And the first lump will fall on the coffin roof,--
And finally the narcissistic
Solitary dream will be resolved.
From now on, nothing will be needed
By the late lamented boyarina Marina.
11 April 1916
Above the city spurned by Peter,
The thunder of the bells roars out.
The thundering surf fell
Over the woman rejected by you.
Praise to Peter and to you, O Tsar!
But tsar, the bells are higher than you.
While they thunder out of the blue,
The primacy of Moscow is beyond doubt.
And all of the forty of forty churches
Laugh down on the pride of the tsars!
28 May 1916
From above the blue forests near Moscow
Bell peals rain down intermittently.
Blind men trudge down the Kaluga Road,-
Kalugan-songful-beautiful, the bell-rain
Washes away and washes away the names
Of humble pilgrims praising God in the dark.
And sometimes I think that I,
Tired of you enemies, of you friends,
And of the servility of Russian speech,-
Will pin a silver cross on my breast,
Cross myself, and quietly set off
Along the Kaluga Road.
Whit Sunday, 1916
Seven hills—like seven bells.
Over seven bells are bell towers.
In total forty times forty.
Seven hills of ringing!
I was born into ringing bells,
Into the golden day of John the Disciple.
Home was a gingerbread house
Surrounded by wattle fencing and gold-domed chapels.
I loved, loved the first bell,
While the nuns were flowing to mass,
And the wail in the stove and the warm sleep,
And the babushka healer next door.
Accompany me, all you Moscow rabble,
The crazy, the thieving, the Khlysts!
Priest, fill my mouth more firmly
With Moscow’s land of bells!
8 July 1916
Moscow! What a vast
Strangely welcoming home!
Everyone in Russia is homeless.
We’ll all come to you.
A brand disgraces the shoulders,
A knife from the boot.
You will call from afar
For penal brands
For every sickness
Our Child Panteleimon
Is the healer.
There behind that door
Where people flock—
There glows the golden heart
And a Hallelujah flows
Onto the dark fields.
I kiss you on the breast
8 July 1916
A rowan tree
Lit with red bunches.
Leaves were falling.
I was born.
Hundreds of bells
It was Saturday:
John the Disciple.
I’ve wanted to nibble
At the bitter bunch
Of the hot rowan tree.
16 August 1916
Note: The first section is addressed to her daughter Alya. The second section is addressed to poet Osip Mandelshtam.