To the iambic tetrameter

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October 5, 2003 by AK

It is the iambic tetrameter (the “four-foot iambus” in Russian).

The author is Vladislav Khodasevich (Wladyslaw Chodasiewicz in Polish, his father’s mother tongue, with the l’s crossed), whom Nabokov rated the best Russian poet of the 20th century. Written in 1938, it is considered Khodasevich’s last poem. I wish there were a simple English adjective for “above the stars” — superstellar doesn’t sound reasonable.

Thanks to Mike Tyukanov for answering.

I tried to make a close, literal translation but, of course, that is hardly possible with a good poem. For instance, заветный can mean cherished, secret, bequeathed, promised, consecrated, etc. Играя переливом смысла can also be approximated with “playing with the spectrum of meaning”. Хóлмы снеговые are not exactly “hills of snow”.

Lomonosov’s Ode on the Capture of Khotin (1739) is considered the first well-written major syllabotonic poem in Russian. The iambic tetrameter is the meter of Yevgeny Onegin, The Copper Horseman, The Demon and a great deal of other foundational Russian poems. The only serious competitor for the most important Russian meter is the iambic pentameter. The Waterfall is an ode by Derzhavin (“A diamond mountain is pouring down…”).

The source, along with other poems by Khodasevich, can be found here. Please set “encoding” to “Cyrillic, Windows 1251”.

Не ямбом ли четырехстопным,
Заветным ямбом, допотопным?
О чем, как не о нем самом –
О благодатном ямбе том?
Shouldn’t it be in the four-foot iambus,
The cherished, antediluvial iambus?
What about but itself —
That tetrameter full of grace?
С высот надзвездной Музикии
К нам ангелами занесен,
Он крепче всех твердынь России,
Славнее всех ее знамен.
From the heights of above-the-stars Musicia
Brought to us by angels,
It is stronger than all Russia’s strongholds,
More glorious than all its flags.
Из памяти изгрызли годы,
За что и кто в Хотине пал,
Но первый звук Хотинской оды
Нам первым криком жизни стал.
Years have gnawed out of memory
Who and for what fell in Khotin,
But the first sound of the Khotin Ode
Became, for us, the first cry of life.
В тот день на холмы снеговые
Камена русская взошла
И дивный голос свой впервые
Далеким сестрам подала.
On that day, onto hills of snow
The Russian Camena ascended
And sent her wondrous voice over
To faraway sisters.
С тех пор в разнообразье строгом,
Как оный славный “Водопад”,
По четырем его порогам
Стихи российские кипят.
Since then, in a strict variety,
Like that illustrious Waterfall,
Down its four rapids,
Russian verses have been seething.
И чем сильней спадают с кручи,
Тем пенистей водоворот,
Тем сокровенней лад певучий
И выше светлых брызгов взлет –
And the more forcefully
              they are falling from the steep,
The foamier the whirlpool,
The more precious the melodious harmony
And the higher the flight of light spray —
Тех брызгов, где, как сон, повисла,
Сияя счастьем высоты,
Играя переливом смысла, –
Живая радуга мечты.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
That spray where, like a vision, is hovering,
Shining with the bliss of height,
Sparkling with the tinge of meaning, —
The living rainbow of dream.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Таинственна его природа,
В нем спит спондей, поет пэон,
Ему один закон – свобода,
В его свободе есть закон.
Its nature is mysterious:
The spondee sleeps in it, the pean sings;
It knows only one law — freedom;
In its freedom, there is law.

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