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Alexander Blok – The Stranger

Alexander Blok

Alexander Blok, the supreme poet of the Russian Symbolist movement, died this day in the year 1921 in St. Petersburg, at the age of 40.

Blok broke from the tradition of Russian realism with its emphasis on social responsibility (e.g., Lev Tolstoy, Nikolai Nekrasov, Aleksander Herzen) and wrote deeply lyrical, subjective and visionary verse. Blok claimed that “The poet is the bearer of rhythm. In the infinite depths of the human spirit, which are beyond the reach of morality, law, society and the state, move sound-waves akin to the waves embracing the universe . . .” Blok crystalized this “cosmic music” into poetry: it is hallucinatory, hypnotic, spellbinding, and seductive; and the poets who came after him could not resist its current. As the literary critic Kornei Chukovsky said, “Blok’s poetry affected us as the moon affects lunatics.” Among those deeply impacted by Blok were Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatova and Marina Tsvetaeva: all wrote adoring poems in his honor.

Below is one of Blok’s most famous poems, “The Stranger,” read by the Russian actress Alica Koonen, and also an English translation by the one and only Vladimir Nabokov, who once warned readers to be careful with Blok: “. . . he is one of those poets that get into one’s system – and everything (else) seems unblokish and flat.”

“The Stranger,” read by Alica Koonen


По вечерам над ресторанами

Горячий воздух дик и глух,

И правит окриками пьяными

Весенний и тлетворный дух.


Вдали, над пылью переулочной,

Над скукой загородных дач,

Чуть золотится крендель булочной,

И раздается детский плач.


И каждый вечер, за шлагбаумами,

Заламывая котелки,

Среди канав гуляют с дамами

Испытанные остряки.


Над озером скрипят уключины,

И раздается женский визг,

А в небе, ко всему приученный,

Бессмысленно кривится диск.


И каждый вечер друг единственный

В моем стакане отражен

И влагой терпкой и таинственной,

Как я, смирен и оглушен.


А рядом у соседних столиков

Лакеи сонные торчат,

И пьяницы с глазами кроликов

«In vino veritas!»* кричат.


И каждый вечер, в час назначенный

(Иль это только снится мне?),

Девичий стан, шелками схваченный

В туманном движется окне.


И медленно, пройдя меж пьяными,

Всегда без спутников, одна,

Дыша духами и туманами,

Она садится у окна.


И веют древними поверьями

Ее упругие шелка,

И шляпа с траурными перьями,

И в кольцах узкая рука.


И странной близостью закованный,

Смотрю за темную вуаль,

И вижу берег очарованный

И очарованную даль.


Глухие тайны мне поручены,

Мне чье-то солнце вручено,

И все души моей излучины

Пронзило терпкое вино.


И перья страуса склоненные

В моем качаются мозгу,

И очи синие бездонные

Цветут на дальнем берегу.


В моей душе лежит сокровище,

И ключ поручен только мне!

Ты право, пьяное чудовище!

Я знаю: истина в вине.


Озерки, 24 апреля 1906

The Stranger

In the evenings, the sultry air above the restaurants

is both wild and torpid,

and drunken vociferations are governed

by the evil spirit of spring.


In the dusty vista of lanes

where reigns the suburban tedium of clapboard villas

the gilt sign of a bakery—a giant pretzel—glimmers,

and children are heard crying.


And every evening, beyond the town barriers,

in a zone of ditches,

wags of long standing, their jaunty derbies askew,

go for walks with their lady friends.


From the lake comes the sound of creaking oar locks

and women are heard squealing,

while overhead, the round moon,

accustomed to everything, blankly mugs.


And every evening my sole companion

is reflected in my wineglass,

as tamed and as stunned as I am

by the same acrid and occult potion.


And nearby, at other tables,

waiters drowsily hover,

and tipplers with the pink eyes of rabbits

shout: In vino veritas!


And every evening, at the appointed hour

(or is it merely a dream of mine?),

the figure of a girl in clinging silks

moves across the misty window.


Slowly she makes her way among the drinkers,

always escortless, alone,

perfume and mists emanating from her,

and takes a seat near the window.


And her taut silks,

her hat with its tenebrous plumes,

her slender bejeweled hand

waft legendary magic.


And with a strange sense of intimacy enchaining me,

I peer beyond her dusky veil

and perceive an enchanted shoreline,

a charmed remoteness.


Dim mysteries are in my keeping,

the orb of somebody’s day has been entrusted to me,

and the tangy wine has penetrated

all the meanders of my soul.


And the drooping ostrich feathers

sway within my brain,

and the dark-blue fathomless eyes

become blossoms on the distant shore.


A treasure lies in my soul,

and I alone have the keeping of its key.

Those drunken brutes are right:

indeed,–there is truth in wine . . .


Vladimir Nabokov’s translation of the poem, from Verses and Versions, Harcourt, 2008.


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