“For One Now Forever Gone”: Anna Akhmatova’s White Flock

I rang in the New Year with Tsvetaeva’s 1921 greeting to the White Army refugees in Gallipoli, and now that the Russian Old New Year is behind us, I’d like to bracket the holidays by sharing my translation of a wartime poem by Anna Akhmatova, written in 1915. These two lyrics have something besides war in common: both feature phrases that would serve as titles for collections — phrases that conjure images of white birds. Tsvetaeva refers to her vanquished soldiers as “the demesne of swans,” while Akhmatova describes as a “white flock” the verses she addresses to the artist Boris Anrep, whom she loved deeply and who was then fighting in the Imperial Army. When I think of these poems, I picture tired but gallant soldiers in white gimnasterkas or officers in white kitel tunics

Vasily Vereshchagin,
Turkestan Officer (1873)

Akhmatova’s poem appeared in and lent a name to her 1917 collection White Flock. My translation of it was partly motivated by A. E. Stalling’s excellent TLS review of a new edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s verse, Poems and Satires, edited by Tristram Fane Saunders. In the review Stallings quotes in full what is perhaps Millay’s finest sonnet, “If I should learn, in some quite casual way,” and rereading it I was reminded of the degree to which Millay’s coolly contained passions — her banked fires — sometimes resemble Akhmatova’s.

I don’t know if you’re dead or living.
Should I look for you, carry on,
or fervently grieve in the evening
for one now forever gone?

All for you: my blue flaming eyes,
insomnia’s melting heat,
the white flock of my lines,
the prayer I repeat and repeat.

There was no one to me more important,
no one who wearied me so —
not the man who consigned me to torment,
not the man who caressed, then let go.

1915


Я не знаю, ты жив или умер, —
На земле тебя можно искать
Или только в вечерней думе
По усопшем светло горевать.

Всё тебе: и молитва дневная,
И бессонницы млеющий жар,
И стихов моих белая стая,
И очей моих синий пожар.

Мне никто сокровенней не был,
Так меня никто не томил,
Даже тот, кто на муку предал,
Даже тот, кто ласкал и забыл.

1915

8 thoughts on ““For One Now Forever Gone”: Anna Akhmatova’s White Flock

  1. As ever, a beautiful translation and an fascinating introduction. It’s interesting that in your translation, you chose to put the line “И очей моих синий пожар” at the beginning of the stanza (it works!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you as always! And yes, that little shift not only helped with the rhyme scheme but also clarified the link between the flames and the heat, and allowed me to make the prayer as repetitive as it deserves to be.

      Liked by 1 person

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