In the woods are orioles: the length of vowels
in tonic verses is the only measure.
But only once each year does nature lavish out
lagniappe duration, as in Homer’s metrics.
Like a caesura yawns this day; since morning
there have been peace and arduous longueurs,
oxen in pastures, and a golden languor
out of a reed extracts a whole note’s riches.
—Osip Mandelstam, summer 1914
I finally got screwjacks (or, if you prefer, jackscrews) put up in the cellar to support the ridiculous weight of the bookshelves I’ve arranged back to back to separate my office from the vestibule area of the house and give it the feel (so pleasant to this habitué of university libraries) of a private carrel, so I’m getting around to going through boxes that have been sitting around for a couple of months now, and one of them contained (among other papers from a decade ago) my translation of one of my favorite early Mandelstam poems, which I thought had gotten lost in one of our moves, and since it still pleases me, I decided to share it with you. (The original Russian is below.)
I notice that many online versions carry the title Равноденствие [Ravnodenstvie] ‘equinox’ (literally ‘equal-day-hood’). The version in my battered little Sobranie sochinenii is untitled, and I’m leaving it that way because “Equinox” makes no sense for a summer poem (and it’s obviously a summer poem—for one thing, orioles don’t show up until well after the vernal equinox [Russian link]). I’m curious how the title got attached to the poem; if anybody knows, please share. The note in Stone (a wonderful edition any Mandelstam fan should have) says “A fair copy is titled ‘Midsummer,’ and Sergey Kablukov refers to it by this name in his diary (6 September 1914),” for what that’s worth.
Есть иволги в лесах, и гласных долгота
В тонических стихах единственная мера.
Но только раз в году бывает разлита
В природе длительность, как в метрике Гомера.
Как бы цезурою зияет этот день:
Уже с утра покой и трудные длинноты,
Волы на пастбище, и золотая лень
Из тростника извлечь богатство целой ноты.