Evolution’s blind alley

Two years ago or earlier I made a point to translate into English what I consider one of the most meaningful Russian poems of the 20th century, Osip E. Mandelstam’s Lamarck. It’s still work in progress but it’s time to share it with the world. The poem must have to do with evolutionary theodicy — its impossibility — with the pain of Evolution, or Nature herself leading its creatures into a hopeless blind alley.

I have found a translation by Michael Denner (original included) and another one by Grigory Freidin (pdf).

I have tried to rhythmicize the English text slightly, but I’d rather have it sound like an awkward translation than a proper, meaningless English poem.

Lamarck (1934)

There was an old man shy like a boy,
an awkward, timid patriarch.
Who’s the fencer for Nature’s honor?
Well of course, the fiery Lamarck.

If all that lives is but an ink-blot
after a short escheated day,
on Lamarck’s moving stairway
I’ll take the last footstep.

I’ll go down to the tubemakers and barnacles,
having rustled past the lizards and the snakes,
along the springing gangways, down the flexures
I will contract; like Proteus, disappear.

I’ll don a mantle of horn,
refuse hot blood,
grow suckers overall, and helix-like
bite into the ocean foam.

We passed the ranks of insects
with wineshot cups of eyes.
He said: “All Nature is in chasms,
there is no vision — it’s the last time you have seen.”

He said: “Enough sonority,
you’ve loved Mozart in vain,
arachnoid deafness is descending:
this lapse is stronger than our strength.”

And Nature has retreated from us
as if for us She had no use,
and She put up an oblong brain,
as if a foil, into a darkling sheath,

and She forgot — was late — to pull down
a drawbridge for
those with a green grave,
red breath, a supple laugh.

One example of what’s lost. Prodol’nyj mozg is literally “longitudinal brain;” the immediate meaning implied is most likely “medulla oblongata.” Pod”emnyj most is “drawbridge”. Although “brain” and “bridge” alliterate, the effect is lost because of the “draw” part. Prodol’nyj mozg and pod”emnyj most sound remarkably similar.


  1. Thanks for that (I’d write more if I didn’t have this lousy backache today).

  2. Is the language in the original as convoluted as the English? (The word “ensheat” is very obscure, for instance.) I love the feel of this poem, the translation that is. I love the tension between the language and the meaning. One suggestion: should “as if a foil” be “as if in a foil”?

  3. Curt — yes, Mandelstam’s language is far from simplistic, and is sometimes hard to decipher. Anglophone translators tend to simplify his vocabulary.

    As for “escheat,” Mandelstam uses an old Russian legal term (vymorochnyj), now completely outdated, which corresponds to “escheated,” as in “escheated property.” What is the meaning of “escheated day,” then? Literally, it’s as if somebody had owned the day but left no heirs so the property had to revert to some higher power. But the key to the poet’s intended meaning may be the sound of the Russian word: the root of vy-moroch-n-yj sounds like morok — a mirage, a ghost teasing, fooling and tormenting those it haunts. (Hence morochit’ golovu — pull the wool over one’s eyes.) I hope that the “cheat” in “escheated” works along these lines, too.

    The “foil” I had in mind is a light fencing sword (Lamarck is a “fencer”). I would do with “sword” if it weren’t so general.

    Lots of thanks for stopping by and reading through!

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