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Apollinaire and Tsvetaeva: Zone and Verses on Moscow

by John Cobley

Tuesday May 15th, 2018





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


Adieu Adieu


Sun severed neck


Guillaume Apollinaire  1913

Translated by John Cobley








Clouds all around

Cupolas all around

Across all of Moscow

So many hands are needed!--

I lift you up, the best burden,

My weightless



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!-

Forty churches.

Go around on foot—with youthful steps!-

To all of the open

Seven Hills.


It will be your turn:

Indeed you will give Moscow

To a daughter

With tender bitterness.

For me undisturbed sleep, bell peals,

Early dawns-

In Vagankovo.


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

Iverskaya glitters.


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

After all.


For penal brands

For every sickness

Our Child Panteleimon

Is the healer.


There behind that door

Where people flock—

There glows the golden heart

Of Iversky.


And a Hallelujah  flows

Onto the dark fields.

I kiss you on the breast

Moscow earth!


8 July 1916




A rowan tree

Lit with red bunches.

Leaves were falling.

I was born.


Hundreds of bells

Were arguing.

It was Saturday:

John the Disciple.


Until now

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.



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