A Spring Harvest

Geoffrey Bache Smith (1894 – 1916) was a friend of J.R.R. Tolkien and fellow member of the Tea Club and Barrovian Society (TCBS). Smith excelled in Latin and French. When the First World War broke out, he joined up in 1914 and in 1915 was commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers. On November 29, 1916, his battalion was shelled and he received a wound in the arm from a shell fragment. The injury proved fatal and Smith died of complications in the early hours of December 2nd. He was 22 years of age and is buried in Warlincourt Halte British Cemetery, Saulty, France.

In 1918, Tolkien gathered Smith’s poetry and published it as a collection entitled, A Spring Harvest. He added a brief “Note”:

The poems of this book were written at very various times, one (“Wind over the Sea”) I believe even as early as 1910, but the order in which they are here given is not chronological beyond the fact that the third part contains only poems written after the outbreak of the war. Of these some were written in England (at Oxford in particular), some in Wales and very many during a year in France from November 1915 to December 1916, which was broken by one leave in the middle of May.

“The Burial of Sophocles,” which is here placed at the end, was begun before the war and continued at odd times and in various circumstances afterwards; the final version was sent me from the trenches.

Beyond these few facts no prelude and no envoi is needed other than those here printed as their author left them.

J. R. R. T.


To a Dürer Drawing of Antwerp Harbour

Figured by Dürer’s magic hand wast thou,
That, lightning-like, traced on the lucid page
Rough, careless lines, with wizardry so sage
That yet the whole was fair, I know not how:
Ships of gaunt masts, and stark, sea-smitten prow,
Idle, yet soon again to sweep the main
In the swift service of old merchants’ gain,
Where are ye now, alas, where are ye now?
Gone are ye all, and vanished very long,
Sunk with great glory in the storied wars,
Or conquered by the leaping breakers wild:
And yet we love your image, like some song
That tells of ancient days and high, because
Old Dürer looked upon you once and smiled.


Schumann: Erstes Verlust

O, dreary fall the leaves,
The withered leaves;
Among the trees
Complains the breeze,
That still bereaves.

All silent lies the mere,
The silver mere,
In saddest wise
Reflecting skies
Forlorn and sere.

Would autumn had not claimed its own
And would the swallows had not flown.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
And she has passed
And left the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year,
And me alone.

Skies overcast!
Leaves falling fast!
Does she that passed
Dream of the woodland strown,
The woodland strown,
The silver mere,
The dying year,
And me alone?


Creator Spiritus

The wind that scatters dying leaves
And whirls them from the autumn tree
Is grateful to the ship that cleaves
With stately prow the scurrying sea.

Heedless about the world we play
Like children in a garden close:
A postern bars the outward way
And what’s beyond it no man knows:

For careless days, a life at will,
A little laughter, and some tears,
These are sufficiency to fill
The early, vain, untroubled years,

Till at the last the wind upheaves
His unimagined strength, and we
Are scattered far, like autumn leaves,
Or proudly sail, like ships at sea.


Songs on the Downs


This is the road the Romans made,
This track half lost in the green hills,
Or fading in a forest-glade
’Mid violets and daffodils.

The years have fallen like dead leaves,
Unwept, uncounted, and unstayed
(Such as the autumn tempest thieves),
Since first this road the Romans made.


A miser lives within this house,
His patron saint’s the gnawing mouse,
And there’s no peace upon his brows.

A many ancient trees and thin
Do fold the place their shade within,
And moan, as for remembered sin.


“Dark is the World our Fathers left us”

Dark is the world our fathers left us,
Wearily, greyly the long years flow,
Almost the gloom has of hope bereft us,
Far is the high gods’ song and low:

Sombre the crests of the mountains lonely,
Leafless, wind-ridden, moan the trees:
Down in the valleys is twilight only,
Twilight over the mourning seas:

Time was when earth was always golden,
Time was when skies were always clear:
Spirits and souls of the heroes olden,
Faint are cries from the darkness, hear!

Tear ye the veil of time asunder
Tear the veil, ’tis the gods’ command,
Hear we the sun-stricken breakers thunder
Over the shore where the heroes stand.


Dark is the world our fathers left us,
Heavily, greyly the long years flow,
Almost the gloom has of hope bereft us,
Far is the high gods’ song and low.


April 1916

Now spring is come upon the hills in France,
And all the trees are delicately fair,
As heeding not the great guns’ voice, by chance
Brought down the valley on a wandering air:
Now day by day upon the uplands bare
Do gentle, toiling horses draw the plough,
And birds sing often in the orchards where
Spring wantons it with blossoms on her brow—
Aye! but there is no peace in England now.

O little isle amid unquiet seas,
Though grisly messengers knock on many doors,
Though there be many storms among your trees
And all your banners rent with ancient wars;
Yet such a grace and majesty are yours
There be still some, whose glad heart suffereth
All hate can bring from her misgotten stores,
Telling themselves, so England’s self draw breath,
That’s all the happiness on this side death.


“Over the Hills and Hollows Green”

Over the hills and hollows green
The springtide air goes valiantly,
Where many sainted singing larks
And blessed primaveras be:

But bitterly the springtide air
Over the desert towns doth blow,
About whose torn and shattered streets
No more shall children’s footsteps go.



To-night the world is but a prison house,
And kindly ways, and all the springing grass
Are dungeon stones to him that may not pass
Among them, save with anguish on his brows:
And any wretched husbandman that ploughs
The upland acres in his habit spare
Is king, to those in palaces of glass
Who sit with grief and weariness for spouse.

O God, who madest first the world that we
Might happy live, and praise its pleasantness
In such wise as the angels never could,
Wherefore are hearts, fashioned so wondrously,
All spoiled and changed by human bitterness
Into the likenesses of stone and wood?


“O Long the Fiends of War shall dance”

O long the fiends of war shall dance
Upon the stricken fields of France:
And long and long their grisly cry
Shall echo up and smite the sky:
O long and long the tears of God
Shall fall upon a barren sod,
Save when, of His great clemency,
He gives men’s hearts in custody
Of grim old kindly Death, who knows
The mould is better than the rose.

Featured: Spring in the Trenches, Ridge Wood, 1917, Paul Nash; painted in 1918.

Fluttering Things

These poems are excerpted from Richard Pope’s recent collection, Fluttering Things: Poems about Birds. The book is beautifully illustrated with watercolors and photographs.

All proceeds go to Thicksons Woods Land Trust and Matt Holder Environmental Research Fund.


In feather-white silence
I hear them
discussing me
soft reedy whistles and thin nasal
talking it over
In a straggling swoop
a chatty wave invades
they inundate the clearing
all over the trees
these chickadees
upside down on branches
swaying in the breeze
constantly chattering
dee dee dee
audibly pecking
unconcerned by me.
One cocky fellow
in immaculate dress
with glossy black evening cap
bolder than the rest
drops down for a look
not fearing to land
on my outstretched hand
he cocks his head to watch me
set to fly
my eye to tiny jewel-like beady eye
then satisfied
he’s in the crowd again
which swoops off
sudden as it came
and for minutes
I can hear them
dee dee dee
then once again the snow hush lights on me.

Considerable Specks
Winter Wrens

Doughty trout lilies
curled like unborn babes
force their way
through last-year’s leaves.
The crowns
of towering hardwoods
colour and swell.
Apart from teetering partridges
gorging on buds
no birds can be seen
and the April woods
though poised for a mad rush of life
are chilly and spare
and one would say
spring is far away
were not the woods exploding with exquisite song
tumbling rushing melodies
and clear
trills and crescendos
and sustained –
powerful singing by masters
with soul and finesse.
Though nothing is visible
no matter how hard you look
the birds that produce this
Must be substantial in size.
No point checking your book
For the tiniest wren.
By June
the live warm greenwood
is quiet
and still.
There is sneaking
and skulking
and hiding
and streaking down holes
and an awful lot of furtiveness
by chipmunks
and voles.
Every time I walk past my pile of boughs
something whirs near the ground
and flits out of sight.
from afar
out the corner of my eye
I pick up action
a darting in or out
or mice
or the like
seeking cover
no doubt.
Certain something has just darted in
I lie on the ground
and peer into the tangle
at its most snarled spot.
I probe the impenetrable wall
of interwoven hemlock slash
and suddenly
as if by magic
I am seeing a bird
a tiny motionless milk-chocolate-flecked brown bird
a feathered ping-pong ball with a tiny sharp bill
and a stumpy tail
cocked ninety degrees to its back
with a jauntiness
hardly expected
in so small a mite,
once it knows it’s been seen,
flits further back in the brush pile
out of my sight.
No question about it
the books must be wrong
this shy silent lifespeck
can’t be the one
who shatters the wide glass woods
with his April song.

Lament in a Minor Key

Something of the ghost about the loon
no ripples
no splash heard
Indian mists
souls yearning
past lives blurred
its necklace makes the loon a totem bird
how can one withstand
the plea
forlorn and phantom
lakes away
lost forever
echo play
through damp night valleys from some hollow bay
Nighttime laughter
a maniac’s cry
The revelling of some werewolf spirit
exhuberant counterpoint to the long plaintive sigh.
Am I to be the last lost soul to hear it?

Richard Pope is a retired professor of Russian literature, and a lifelong birder. Aside from various scholarly publications, he is also the author of Flight from Grace: A Cultural History of Humans and Birds, Me n Len: Life in the Haliburton Bush 1900-1940, and a novel, Shadows Gathering.

Encomium Eduardi iunioris

Carmen in laudem Eduardi cum mense Novembri 1272 regnaret.

(MS. Cotton. Vespas. B. XIII. fol. 130 vo; Saeculum 13).

Eaduuardi regis Anglorum me pepulere
Florida gesta loqui, pudor est famosa tacere.
Hic tener ætate dum vixerat in juvenili,
Conflictus plures superavit corde virili.
Belliger ut pardus, fragrans dulcedine nardus,
Dum viget Eaduuardus, rutilat novus ecce Ricardus.
Sic gemino flore Britones titulantur honore,
Bella per Eaduuardi similis et probitate Ricardi.
Belligeri juvenis laudabat Gallia mores;
Ampla manus dantis meritos congessit honores.
Invida gens cupiens meritas extinguere laudes,
Excogitando novas cœpit contexere fraudes:
Anglorum proceres legem fingendo novellam,
Ubere de regno terram fecere misellam.
Rex pater et patruus cum bina prole reguntur
Per sibi subjectos, ex quo mala multa sequuntur.
Degener Anglorum gens, quæ servire solebat,
Ordine mutato regem cum prole regebat.
Conjurat populus fruiturus lege novella;
Fædere mox rupto consurgunt horrida bella.
Dum Leycestrensem comitem sibi plebs sociavit,
Intestina sibi dispendia concumulavit.
In regem proprium gens irruit impia, natum
Cum patre et patruo captivat, mox dominatum
Consequitur, gaudent victores, corda tumescunt.
Effugit Eaduardus, statim nova prælia crescunt.
Convocat auxilium, solidantur fædera, crevit
Turma ducis, delusa cohors sua crimina flevit.
Concurrunt partes, quatiuntur tela, vigore
Militis Eaduuardi madidantur rura cruore.
Occidit ense Comes, proceres mucrone necantur;
Sic vincunt victi, victores exsuperantur.
Regno pene suo spoliatus seditione,
Victrices turmas miro superavit agone.
Ad regimen regni patrem stirps clara revexit,
Nequiter ablatum quod longo tempore rexit.
Plebs devicta fremit, iterumque potentibus unit
Turmas belligeras, dape, telis, oppida munit.
Insula per proceres vastatur mox Eliensis.
Urbs regni nostri capitanea Londoniensis
Per quosdam capitur, quatitur certamine diro;
Sed debellantur hæc omnia robore miro.
Pax optata redit, conduntur tela, nitescunt
Nubila quæ fuerant, Anglorum gaudia crescunt.
Impiger Eaduuardus devitans otia, signum
Mox crucis assumpsit, cupiens exsolvere dignum
Obsequium Christo, qui se liberavit ab isto
Turbine bellorum; sequitur pia turba virorum.
Francorum regis germanus rex Siculorum
Innumeros populos ad regnum Tuniciorum
Duxerat, ut vetitum potuit rehabere tributum,
Agminibus cunctis dicens iter hoc fore tutum
In terram sanctam; cruce plebs signata dolebat,
Dum sua vota male jam commutata videbat.
Eaduuardus sequitur credens bellare potenter
Cum Sarracenis; gentilis rex sapienter
Prælia devitans, solvit quodcunque petebat.
Rex Lodowicus obit cum prima prole, dolebat
Gallia, rex Karolus remeat, turmasque reduxit,
Anglos cum Siculis, Britonum plebs anxia luxit.
Vota crucis Christi Siculorum rex male frangit,
Et sua delusus populus discrimina plangit.
Applicat in portu Trapennæ, mox borialis
Turbo quatit puppes, populus perit innumeralis,
Mergitur æs totum, salvatur et Anglica classis
Munere divino, quod non periit valor assis.
Rex prodire negat, renuens sua solvere vota.
Dux pius Anglorum similis et sua concio tota
Puppes ascendit, mare transmeat, ad loca tendit
Gentibus obsessa, longævo turbine pressa.
Accon respirat de tanto milite gaudens,
Atque sepulta diu psallit nova cantica plaudens.
Soldanus fremuit, procerem cogitando necare,
Quem per carnificem dirum fecit jugulare.
Hic assessinus Veteris de Monte ferebat
Nuncia conficta, quæ falso conficiebat;
Ingreditur thalamos præludens hostia, cultro
Vulnera vulneribus impressit; strenuus ultro
Restitit Eaduuardus, tortorem robore stravit,
Quem telo proprio condigna morte necavit.
Et quia condignum Christus famulum sibi novit,
Illius plagas sacro medicamine fovit.

Expliciunt versus secundum Thomam de Wyta compositi de domino Eadwardo Angliæ rege illustrissimo.

Featured: Edward I, ca. 1272-1307; Sedilia at Westminster Abbey, erected during the reign of Edward I.

God’s Answer to the Poet Baudelaire

Baudelaire died just over 150 years ago, having received the sacraments of the Church. It would be short-sighted to see him only as a hashish-smoking debauchee, a dandy crushed by ennui, an heir who squandered his fortune. If he took on to his very core the darkness of a world without hope and stirred up “the infamous menagerie of our vices,” he has nothing in common with the bourgeois who quietly confesses his atheism. It is worth rereading the contempt with which he holds, in Pauvre Belgique! the “prêtrophobes” and freethinkers who have stunted the scope of the world by extirpating from the conscience any idea of divine retribution: “Having imagined suppressing sin, the freethinkers thought it ingenious to suppress the judge and abolish punishment. This is exactly what they call progress.”

There is something prophetic in his denunciation of a soulless life, where everything is bought and sold. In this sense, Baudelaire is an anti-bourgeois, an “anti-modern” in the line of the Psalms: “And man when he was in honour did not understand; he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them… They are laid in hell like sheep: death shall feed upon them.” (Ps 48:13;15). He could have written Nietzsche’s words, which mock the health-idolatry of the pagan world: “We have our little pleasure for the day, our little pleasure for the night, but above all we revere health.” Houellebecq also participates in his spirit when he writes: “I am a Catholic in the sense that I show the horror of the world without God.” The poet’s restless soul has something of the mystical about it, like an inverted kinship. He responds to the allure of the Divine by probing his own abyss. “His poetry of unrepentant supplication was so sacrilegious that it became, by antinomy, suggestive of adoration,” writes Bloy in Un brelan d’excommuniés.

He pursues an “unknown God,” masked and versatile, who gives “suffering / As a divine remedy to our impurities” (Bénédiction). Bloy wrote of him that he “was a reverse Catholic, like the demons who ‘believe and tremble’ according to the words of Saint James” (James 2:19).

Like Augustine, Baudelaire had a restless heart. He was implacably lucid on man’s lies, on wounded nature, on the ambiguity of beauty, whose gaze is at once “infernal and divine.” He scrutinized “to the very core the dark and obscure stone” (Job 28:3) of a world in despair. Like Job, who cursed the day of his birth, he made his mother’s mouth fill with the anguish of having given birth to a monster: “Ah! why did I not give birth to a whole knot of vipers, / Rather than nourish this mockery” (Bénédiction).

He is the poet of sin, which implies the knowledge of a deeper clarity and the revelation of a wounded love. He was the man of De profundis that cried out in the valley of tears. He regretted that the priest of Honfleur had not understood that his poems were based on “a Catholic idea,” that of the sinner who awaits redemption through death. Baudelaire descended into the underworld, into the opacity of a world that confusedly awaited the light. He is the poet of Holy Saturday. Did he rise again? Did he experience Easter morning? Nadar asked him just before his death: “How can you believe in God?” With “a cry of ecstasy,” he showed the Place de l’Étoile, illuminated by “the splendid pomp of the setting sun.” “He certainly believed,” concluded Nadar.

Little Thérèse was born just after his death, like a little sister. She lived in the heroic faith of a world devoid of hope. She faced the darkness of the ultimate temptation, that of despair. Her manuscripts should be reread as a mysterious response to the “cursed poet”: “I suppose I was born in a country surrounded by a thick fog…. The King of the homeland with the shining sun came to live thirty-three years in the land of darkness. Alas! the darkness did not understand that this Divine King was the light of the world… But Lord, your child… asks you for forgiveness for her brothers. She agrees to eat as long as you want the bread of sorrow and does not want to get up from this table filled with bitterness where poor sinners eat until the day you have marked…”

May she “throw flowers” to the picker of Les Fleurs du mal, who begged Beauty to finally open the door “to an infinite that I love and have never known.”

Father Luc de Bellescize is the Curate of Saint Vincent-de-Paul in Paris. This article comes through the kind courtesy of La Nef.

Featured: Portait of Baudelaire, by Gustave Courbet; painted ca. 1848-1849.

Peace Calls Us

Beatriz Villacañas is a poet, essayist, translator and literary critic. She holds a PhD in English philology and teaches English and Irish literature at the Complutense University of Madrid. Her father was Juan Antonio Villacañas, one of the greatest Spanish poets of the post-war period. She has published many books of poems and has won various literary prizes. For her poem, “Peace Calls Us” (newly translated below), she was named an International Cultural Ambassador on behalf of Spain by the International Chamber of Writers and Artists, CIESART, as well as an International Ambassador for Peace.

The translations that follow are by Krzysztof Sliwa, who is a biographer, documentalist, writer and Corresponding Academician of the Royal Academy of Cordoba, Corresponding Academician of the Royal Academy of Toledo and Member of Honor of the Sociedad Cervantina de Esquivias, Spain.

“God is the only example” [Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591)].

“The pen is the language of the soul” [Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)].

Peace Calls Us

Peace calls us, brothers, it invites us,
and opens for us the lights of its bridges,
on which we walk to find the sources
of a Good that heals every wound.

Although evil is winning the game,
let us not give up, let us be resilient.
May peace, justice and the good be the currents
to navigate in this life.

Let us open our eyes to Truth
and with its lucidity and its caress,
let us be a worthy humanity.

And in the face of lies and their malice
let us defend peace and truth:
And with them will come the good and justice.

Peace and Truth: Union

Truth in life is essential,
Truth is our need.
With truth we will have freedom,
and Peace will arrive wholesome and complete.

With truth, peace will be real and peace
will give us security, wholesome path to happiness.
Peace and Truth: vital union.

We must know truth delivers us from lies
and its betrayal and not let evil take its toll.
Peace and truth in our hearts will come
and give us good strength:
after crying, the song.

Praying in Hope

Jesus, in my soul I feel now
that You will come to save us from the one who lies.
In Your Love, I see and feel that Your bridge
leads us to the truth and to the dawn.

You give springtime to those who long for it:
for my thirst for You, You give me the spring
that your Permanent Presence flows in me,
with the Truth that saves and redeems.

You are, Jesus. Truth, Way and Life,
and I believe, Lord, for Thou sayest it,
Thou art the all-embracing Good.

May the Truth set the guidelines
and may lies be destroyed,
while You, Jesus Christ, bless us.

Living Word

Your Word is so living, Father
that it gives light to the meadows,
gives color to the flowers,
makes the roots fruitful,
enlivens the fire of love,
opens the way
to the steps that yearn for transcendence,
makes my verses sprout.

You, at each of our steps, You teach us
that everything here is born
from the fruitful root of Your Word.
Each day opens a dialogue with You.
I thank You
because Your Word
is daily news of Love:
and Love, day after day,
gives us news of the eternal.

When Faith Came to Dwell In Me

Question after question I asked myself
and, without an answer, I spoke with doubt,
always searching for the naked Truth,
that would illuminate my life.

Poetry came to lend a hand.
With it, Dear God, You gave me Your help.
The faith that does not make mute penetrated me,
that which turns tears into joy.

Faith is a gift, also a workout,
an indispensable and persistent effort
to which Your Love gives great benefit.

Faith entered to dwell my ardent soul,
which thirsted for You from the beginning,
and, wanting to feel You, already feels You.

“Gain a heart of wisdom” (Proverbs 4:23).

Laus in excelsis Deo.

Featured: The Last Judgment, detail, by Fra Angelico; painted ca. 1435-1440.


Władysław Broniewski (1897—1962), the famous Polish poet, translator, writer and soldier, wrote this poem as a homage to Mikhail Bakunin (1814—1876), the Russian revolutionary. This poem is translated by Przemysław Abramowski.


Such veiny hand on manuscript
Lionish profile of head above it.
Huge shadow falls on wooden doors
Slightly ajar. On the table
Oil lamp glows
While the night—immense, starry…
The silence overwhelms, it’s midnight.
Sparkling snow on roofs, fluffy snow.
Bakunin’s writing.
(This veiny hand. The lion’s mane.
Ominous shadow alludes pain?)
The shadow here might rise a cloud
Which could unleash a storm today!
(How heavy’s hand… To think about
Why pen—my weapon—is a weight…)
Outside—just snow, night, stars…
The tea is tepid. Pipe’s smoke rises…
Bakunin dreams—scenes from his life
Flow in his brain… some, inter alia,
Adventurous—like freedom run
He made alone through Transbaikalia
With Tsarist posse right on his heels
Escape by luck—chance U.S. sail…
His traces then, to their blight
As if some snow obscured white.
The silence grows. The darkness crawls.
Cherry smoke curls dreamingly wade…
This shadow there, dwarfing the walls
It’s him! Year eighteen forty-eight!
Again, voracious and so savage
Sniffing for blood in shifts of tone
Song sung on Dresden’s barricades
Which cries as then: Tear down the thrones!
This song puts Europe to a torch
The spring of nations, freedom’s magnet
The million-footed crowd now bulging
In booms of salvos—hear, young Wagner!
…all lost. Last, mutinous
Prague would flash, then only darkness.
And so things ended up
In chains, in bloody Chemnitz dungeon.
Each day he measured the world with thought
His cell had three steps for him only.
Freedom! Many hard years went by
Whispering her name to walls in torment.
Nicholas’ thugs put him in chains
Whose ringing he only heard as “Rise!”
Free man he sailed the world around,
No land was safe like Switzerland
Where he had settled—and what today—
Bern’s eerie silence so tough to heart?
Here—Siberian snow…
Wild and unbounded freedom!
Longing, which Herzen didn’t know!
In this great silence time seems to
Roll back the memory with its weight
Bakunin’s mind breaks free and talks
Again to Orlov, which their fate
Prevented, yet the old man swears
To give the Tsar no more weak lies
Never kowtow—better offend!
“Pugachov’s spectre is now me
So like a phantom shall I stand
Over Empire, and people’s fury
From prison here I will swing
On world and Russia!”
With squinted eyes
This January Bakunin writes:
“I’m leaving only what I got
Some clothes (all patched), some free thought.
The glass of life—I took a good sip
So as a free man I’m on this old trip
I’m leaving now. Swiss city Bern,
Its silence—Iet clock-masters keep them.
Our stars have harsher sparkle learnt
Over the steppes and in my wisdom.
Slowly through snow I’ll walk alone
After the call of northern wind
Which in eternal snowstorm blows
And blasts, so free—all time it did
Shake fist at Earth—while in its path
Teaching us humans its full wrath.”

Tocsin of the Absolute: Armel Guerne

Armel Guerne (1911-1980) was a French poet and translator. A friend of Mounir Hafez, Georges Bernanos and Emil Cioran, he is the author of numerous translations, including those of Kawabata, Hölderlin, Novalis, Woolf, The Book of a Thousand and One Nights and Moby Dick, to name only the most famous. The fame of his work as a translator has somewhat obscured his own immense poetic work. Yet, according to his own admission, he had no other ambition “than to be welcomed and received as a poet, to be able to count myself one day among the holy number of those divine ruffians of love.”

In the midst of an indigent modernity, dominated by the “absurd and monstrous accumulation of the things without souls,” Armel Guerne knew how to tear open an irredentist breach—a breakthrough “against the world” to sound the tocsin of the Absolute. From his first arrow to his final salvo, his work never deviated from its outgrowth—all were charitably oriented towards a poetic star, the only herald of a “truth that lasts, that begins at the ground level and goes to the sky, and that remains.” And as a cliff carries its other side, his work as a translator and poet are rooted in the same mythical Vale of Tempe—that land of the German Romantics, on which they silently set the “very seal of eternity” on poetry.

Of Armel Guerne’s critical writings (collected in Le Verbe nu [The Naked Word] and L’Ame insurgée [The Insurgent Soul]), chanted at the edge of inner constellations, one could say what Bettina von Arnim said of Hölderlin’s poetry: they are “in the eternal fermentation of restless poetry.” Without ever feeding on any “flavor of the day”—whose constant frenzy is only a proof of its latent paralysis—Armel Guerne watched over a branch of speech, which it is up to each generation to revive in a “grace of living charity” (Lettres Dom ClaudeLetters Dom Claude). Like a guardian of the Pyrenees, like the crypt where the Mazdean priests maintained a sacred fire for a thouysand years, Armel Guerne praised and preserved this heritage of “incessant orations”—thus re-establishing the preeminence of the poem, this “brazen shaft of all words, this axis around which all the worlds revolve and all the ages turn.” (La Nuit veilleNight Watch).

In fidelity to this stellar decree, one finds in each of Armel Guerne’s poems the destined reflection of the “infinite Silentiary” (JournalDiary), which gave his poetry a vesperal and definitive character—in the image of the burnt sky which culminated above Tourtrès, where Guerne sat with his mill, like a watchman on an inalterable Acropolis. It is from this “mill of miracles,” rooted in “the mineral of the wind and forgotten times” that Armel Guerne wrote his greatest poetic work, including Les Jours de l’Apocalypse [The Days of Apocalypse], Le Jardin colérique [The Angry Garden], or the Rhapsodie des fins dernières [Rhapsody of the End Times].

In spite of the overwhelming confidentiality in which his work remains walled up, Guerne remains a sentinel in our night, reminding us of the imperative necessity of poetry, this “Ravenous hunger of the Holy Spirit” which never gives up its weapons to any world, and only gives its eyes to the expectation of a Word—without ever dimming its “purple wing” (St. John of the Cross).

If the poets are immutable and that they alone “found what remainsm” as Hölderlin said, the conservation of their voices seems however to be endangered by the modern pandemonium, which does not cease to reduce the range of their insolent brisures. Guerne hurled in particular violent anathemas at the prolific critical logorrhea which, contrary to its initial mission of “passer-by,” is now happy to palaver blissfully, by assembling and disassembling the great texts upon a mechanical and inert frame. In this necropolis of the word, erected by these merchants of contraband, we find “Nothing true. Nothing alive. Nothing lived. Death put in tomes. Death. Easy to recognize: it cannot be silent, since it exists only in its chatter” (Le Verbe nu). By thus spatulating its plaster of quibbles, this “necrophilic literature of professors, doctors, commentators, exegetes, analysts, biographers, historiographers, anecdotists, nomenclators” proves in the same gesture that it does not actually reside in the poem—its learned objectivity was thus only a scarecrow, upon which it leaned its disarmament—its escape before a sovereign Word. According to Guerne, this denial is the very sting of this pantomime modernity, which, by fear or by cowardice, gesticulates ceaselessly on its own rubble: “For there is a modern thought… clothed in a barbaric or zany language, caught in a corset, a thought without breath; its circle has been reduced to the dimensions of a tiny circus… without ever risking a glance outside” (Le Verbe nu). From then on, we have to consider, following Guerne, that this tropism to the dismantling of the poets is only an umpteenth modality of the “technical Moloch” demystified by Bernanos—this specter of orphaned ashes, which voluntarily forgets as its corruption of the world advances, the vital ferments which made it get born.

Drained and brutalized, the modern soul—whose each edges seems dedicated to the countable osculation of the world—does not know how to measure itself with this sibylline and elusive truth deposited by poetry. It is against this seated deciphering that Guerne crystallizes his rock of insurgency: his anger has no other aim than the fight against all these debilitating deadlocks—tightened every day by the modern dementia, “whose characteristic is to never think, but to turn in circles, faster and faster, in the sawdust and the dung of the time, with the other civil servants, without ever risking a glance outside” (Le Verbe nu).

It is thus against the grain that Guerne reveals to us the dawn of an interior vox cordis, that of poetry—since it is “the only language still alive enough, still armed enough, still powerful and whole enough, close enough to the mystery also of the word, to carry away the fortresses of the inertia and to burst the concrete of the lie, carrying in it a grain of human truth which can still germinate, a seed of beauty which will bloom in the hideousness” (L’âme insurgée).

“All true language is silence”

In response to this deadlocked language, padlocked in its own corrosion, Guerne enjoins us to scrutinize the incandescent hearth of poetry, where only “silence” crackles—this pneuma of an unconquerable breath that whispers its “Unavowable absence impossible to grasp” (Le Jardin colérique). This absence—unavowable because unforgivable—is not this withdrawn mutism that a certain poetry obscure to itself claimed in a self-sufficient glory. On the contrary, with Guerne, silence is an immemorial tear to be safeguarded, a mythical Palladium which guarantees to the world the perpetuation of an island of freedom: “Silence is not what one believes, an extinction, an immobility, a not closed in a yes wide open. Silence is a movement that contains itself, of such power and intensity that to move beside it becomes a grotesque caricature, a stunning simulacrum. The movement of movement, the universal source… The hand of all caresses, of all pains, beyond evil and good, of all acts” (Fragments).

To be disposed to this poetic grammar, it is necessary to imagine that poetry shelters in its torn center a baptistry of silence, where is imperially maintained the forefinger of Angerona, that ancient goddess whose finger affixed to lips—symbol of an ordered silence—is an insolence opposed to all the noises of the world, be they the sweetest. And it is from this preserved archipelago—where the eternal and the temporal intersect—that Armel Guerne composed his Adamic alphabet, wherein culminates in its summit “the unique human voice that stands behind the words and that resounds, mysteriously, each time man reaches out to himself… Sometimes open to the heavy night and echoing in the depths of the abyss, sometimes torn by supernatural gleams, this authentic voice of man, which reappears suddenly at the crucial hours, pierces and disperses his languages” (L’Ame insurgée). For Guerne, perhaps even more than an inapparent heart or a founding axis, silence is the very strength of the poet—indeed, the only one he truly possesses. [“That the most sublime poetry is really, in the end, only the learning of silence” (Le Verbe nu)].

And to connect the corolla of the diamond cutters, who set poetry with an aura of silence, it is appropriate to quote Max Picard and his Monde du silence (World of Silence), in which he writes that “Poetry comes from silence and for the nostalgia of silence.” [Max Picard wrote of Hölderlin that his words “seem to come from a space that existed before creation” (Le Monde du silence)].This echo without return acts thus in the manner of a liturgical screen, by which the poet sifts the relics of a word which precedes the creation, to collect the deposit of a new clarity—opened in the immobile one. This is what Guerne’s poem Le Poids vivant de la parole (The Living Weight of the Word) evokes, in which he dips his hieratic blade, ever more deeply into the “amassed” powers of silence [“The most difficult thing is still to gather the silences, all the silences of the most diverse kinds, and to bring them back intact, one by one, by the dozens, by the thousands, the smallest and the largest, to collect them carefully as they pass and to bring them home delicately. Without breaking them, without tarnishing them, without crumpling them” (La nuit veille)]:

You can write, and you write;
You can be silent, and you are silent.
But to know that silence
Is the great and only key,
One must pierce all the symbols.
To devour the images,
To listen in order not to hear,
To undergo until death
Like a crushing
The living weight of the word.

It is thus about poetry as about an asceticism: a constant and heroic “mine of will” which arms itself in a column of silence. In these two secret nobilities, the same language of oracle is whispered: an awakener of the Spirit who goes “to seek behind the noise; who picks it up and who collects it for all those who are exiled from it. In such a poetic alchemy, there is no place for embellishment or ornament: each word, however simple, is chanted at its “maximum flavor“—thus crystallizing this concretion of the poem into a secret pearl, which testifies before its living weight: “The silent meditation of the most silent of monks is, in this sense, a listening of the word until the finest of the ineffable. Almost perfection” (Fragments).

The Abyss of Time

For Guerne, much more than a simple aggregate of captious and scattered words, the poem is a tension—torn at the two points of the infinite, between the previous Word and the words that seek it. This caesura of abyss, as violent as a “silent storm,” reminds us of the famous letter of the American poet William Carlos Williams [1913 letter to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine], where he, after having written that ” Now life is above all things else at any moment subversive of life,” indicates that it is the same for the poem: ” Verse to be alive must have infused into it something of the same order, some tincture of disestablishment, something in the nature of an impalpable revolution.” With Guerne, it is a question of the same perseverance of the poem in a stellar conatus, of the same light accentuating itself in a coruscating force—all these ardent powers concur to this “oxidation of the infinite, of the eternity or of the things” carried by the poetry.

Detecting then a “source of all fires,” the poet fans the mythical remains of it to the point of setting his own word ablaze in a burning firebrand—to be able to welcome “the deposit of a truth” which is not his own. It is this lightning rearrangement that the poem Soudain [Suddenly] encloses, spurring even more deeply this “urge for renewal is gaining ground in the aftermath of monstrous destruction,” of which the poem is only one meteor:

Words, just to put them down
One next to the other,
That say more and go further
Than we go; words
Suddenly no longer ours
And stand so close
Close to a supreme truth.
Words that cease to be said
To better come, suddenly, to become again.
Words of the word.
(Le Poids vivant de la parole)

And if “the ark of the world is on the waters of time,” as Guerne writes in his Jours de l’Apocalypse, it is because it is the poet’s responsibility to go up the tubular corridors of time—themselves linked to the “pillar of Eternity”—to ring the bell of the unalterable. Split between these two temporal poles, his own and that of the word, the poet condenses a “hurricane above the deserts” and breaks the anthropic bodice by a ray of lightning—such as the “interior blood and its irrevocable mystery, until then contained in the night of the body” (La Nuit veille). For, contrary to a modern taxonomy, which requires of the poet a hectic inventiveness turned towards artifice or imagination, Guerne teaches us that the “clairvoyance” of the poet is above all an inclination of the soul towards itself—a sovereign expectation of the living Weight of the word: “The true mystery of all poetry, it is that the poet is in us; the other one, the one who speaks, doesn’t speak; it’s not true: it’s not him, it’s just the Word. Thus, it is by an august gesture of allegiance that the poet makes himself Sphinx, by putting himself in tune with an anterior sovereignty—being able thus only “to give his voice—even if it is breathless—to the voice which calls” (Au bout du tempsAt the end of time).

And it is in this beginning of a rediscovered word that we detect the first strain of Guerne’s thought—the vital point from which all its foliage branches out. It is based on the intuition that poetry should not “second the world” as Kafka said about the novel, but that it aspires to be a mirror of the Apocalypse, taken in its primary sense of “revelation” and “unveiling”: “We have passed the threshold of the Apocalypse and, in my opinion, we are mistaken when we want to look at or read the Apocalypse as a prophecy. In reality we should read and understand it as a lived history, already past in part, and in the depths of which we are charitably engaged. This is what is happening every day. It is more than at our doors; it has entered our lives, we are living it, absolutely.” This apocalyptic bottom generates a deep caesura in his poetic thought—it calls him to a conversion, which carries the word on the imperious way of necessity. As if, by the tear that it would impose, the Apocalypse definitively breaks the vitiated fabrics of the babble, so that poetry finds its innocence of the aerolith. It is with this breaking star that Armel Guerne hoped to hang poetry, as shown in one of his confessions, written in the beating of a revealed abyss: “About poetry, I have ambitious and clear ideas which put it a little higher than the ditty: I want to say, today, vigil of the end time” (Letter to his editor).

The Open Palms

“On a sinking ship, panic comes from the fact that all the people, and especially the sailors, obstinately speak only the language of navigation; and no one speaks the language of shipwrecks. Only prophets and poets know how to use this language of meltdown panic, according to Guerne. In a disoriented universe, where dissolution and siltation seem to be the only avenues of the future, these two passers-by of the absolute raise the lost by only their glances “turned right side up.” It is one of the multiple possible meanings that we give to the Apocalypse evoked by Guerne—beyond a material state of the world, it is an interior accentuation by which the poet does not write any more for himself, nor for the others, but in front of the end of times. Howling thus his Rhapsodie des fins dernières, under the porch of the agony of the world, his verses are consumed in an irrevocable detonation, which tremble with equal intensity with all the “revelations”—”For the poet, the universe is an incandescent drama. Its tragedy enlightens” (Fragments).

Guerne initiates us then into a blessing by the desert—understood as the voluntary desiccation of the poet where the waiting and the attention become his only prayers, his only consoling sources. In these latitudes—dug in an unfathomable abyss that summons all the chasms of silence and night—the freedom of the poet is strangled by the very power of the word: “The word speaks; and I listen to it speak. It sings; and I listen to it sing. It commands; and I listen to it obey and I see it obey. This is the School of the Seer.” And it is from these specular sighs, which reflect even more deeply the received light, that the poet abandons his lower maneuvers to receive the break of a superior verb: “The writing is only a bark of which one makes a divine cup; remains the One who fills it and the one who is thirsty and who takes it to drink. Begging before the one and begging before the other, the poet is between the two ” (Rhapsodie des fins dernières). It is this hieratic snatch of which each poem is the palpitating witness that makes Guerne’s poetic thought so necessary. It reminds us that beyond the dislocation of the poet, between supplications and thundering, it is the simple word carried by poetry which bequeaths to us an effulgent crystal—”The poet did nothing but open his blood, source of word” (Le Verbe nu).

It is up to the poet alone to hold out this open palm of the beggar—whose bruised phalanxes are only the pulverized reflection of his own charity—to pick up this immemorial tear of the word. Like a herald, the poet then remembers this mythical needle by affixing it on all the ruins of the world—and carries in front of a new Axis Mundi, like an Atlas armed with the sword of the Archangel: “All set their traps for you, scholars, politicians, bankers; the traps in which they themselves are caught. The poet holds out to you his buoy, and if he can, his hand”. (Preface to his translation of the Disciples at Sais, Hymns to the Night, religious songs of Novalis).

Henri Rosset writes from France. “Everyone wants to own the end of the world.” This articles through the kind courtesy of PHILITT.

Happy Days

…by Lillian Broadbridge, with the Revd Septimus Hazard, MA.

You’d never guess, I’m a poetess! That little spark of creativity has always been within me, and I felt I just had to write this, bringing back memories of the good old days when Churchill was at No. 10 and our dear Queen was young and lovely. Ah! I’m no expert poetess, I’m the first to admit, but I thought I would share it with that wonderful Rector of Prawnsby, the parish next door to Radlett and Aldenham (where we still miss Mr. Manley). My Leslie, I’m afraid, would be useless here: you don’t hear much poetry in Barclay’s Bank. Well, quick as a flash, Father Septimus (who I know likes me) replied “I would be only too enchanted, Mrs. B. Can a man with a second-class degree in divinity possibly lend you a hand? (It was from Oxford, mind!) But, revenons à nos moutons as they say across the Channel, would you like me to read your meter?” He indeed did, and was really quite gushing about my talent, as well as the deeper message of this little poem. Who knows, we may collaborate again. Without further ado…

Happy Days

There was a time when children were God-fearing,
Boys were bold and little girls endearing
When our world was wholesome, pure and true
You’d say sorry; please; or, indeed, thank you.
At table you’d neatly handle fork and knife,
Lest Mother scolded—ah, a faithful wife!
She’d put out Father’s after-office slippers,
For breakfast there’d be soldiers, even kippers.
The wireless would play a merry tune
The latest, greatest hit from Patrick Boone.
The Morris Oxford, ’twas neat as a pin
Our trusty carriage for the Sunday spin;
That same Sabbath we’d sing the Good Lord’s praise…
Oh, can’t we please bring back these happy days?

In Search of Boris Poplavsky

An Introductory Digression

I first ran into Boris Poplavsky’s name in 1940 or 1941, and it was a case of mistaken identity. I was in Beverly Hills, California, at the home of a remarkable woman named Anna Semyonovna Meller, who in the days of my childhood was Madame Antoinette, the best known and most elegant couturiere in Harbin. My mother’s dressmaking establishment, Levitina-Karlinskaya, was not even a close second, but theirs was a friendly rivalry.

Anna Semyonovna’s adopted son Alex, six years my senior, was the idol and the despair of my Manchurian childhood: a champion ice skater, a concertizing pianist at the age of twelve, and a stoic who, during a hike in Chalantung, went on talking with a smile after a sharp rock had opened a bleeding gash on his knee. (I was half his age at the time and I remember screaming my head off at the mere sight.) Now, in California, he was a Surrealist painter, had been awarded a Guggenheim grant, and had spent a summer in New York, where he had met Pavel Tchelitchew (Chelishchev) and the son of Max Ernst and a number of other persons of equally supernatural stature.

Staying as a boarder at Anna Semyonovna’s was Alex’s friend Eddie, a young man of similar origins and background (his parents owned a dress shop on the Bubbling Well Road in Shanghai, and my mother had worked for them in her early youth), a former Berkeley architecture major who was now studying costume design at an art school somewhere near Westlake Park. Eddie’s sketches usually took first prize at school competitions, with the second prize going to his principal rival and fellow student, a melancholy-looking German refugee boy named Rudi Gernreich.

Waves of pure happiness would wash over me every time I waited for the Wilshire bus to take me for a day or a weekend to the Meller home in Beverly Hills, away from everything that made my life in Los Angeles glum and barely endurable: the incomprehensible courses in civics and physics (even their names seemed interchangeable) at Belmont High; the hopelessly boring afternoon job at the grocery store; and the pointless weekly exchange of mutual insults between Jack Benny and Rochester on the living room radio. (“It is all probably very funny and subtle, if we could only truly understand it,” my father would assure me after denying me permission to turn the dial to some concert music. But I did understand it all and it was not funny.)

At the Mellers’, things were altogether different. To begin with, it was perfectly all right to speak Russian and to have been born in China without having everyone exclaim, as they did at school, “How did you ever manage that?” or “Were your parents missionaries?” Instead of Jack Benny on the radio, there were real live stars to be encountered in Beverly Hills. Once I had to jump back when a long black car swung into a driveway with George Raft at the wheel and Rita Hayworth next to him.

Another time, Eddie and I were walking past the John Frederics millinery shop on Beverly Drive and were stopped dead in our tracks by the sight of the most unbelievably beautiful woman either of us had ever seen. She was selecting a hat inside. We stood there staring, exchanging whispered conjectures as to who this magical creature might be; then a saleslady came out, not to ask us to move, but to announce, “Miss del Rio would like to know which of the two models you gentlemen consider more becoming.” None of the Dolores del Rio films I saw later even began to do justice to the unforgettable radiance of her beauty.

Many years later, I felt a shudder of recognition as I watched that same scene reenacted (transposed into a comical key) in Billy Wilder’s film Witness for the Prosecution. Could Eddie have recounted it to someone during his brief career at the film studios? He was designing costumes for Gene Tierney and Maria Montez at Universal—or was it United Artists?—when he was run over and killed by a drunken driver. It happened as he was crossing Beverly Drive one evening in 1945, about half a block from where he and I had once stood admiring Dolores del Rio. Eddie also had connections in the world of burlesque. Rose La Rose wanted a new kind of stage costume and he came up with one that featured a quivering pink lobster over the G-string. One night he sneaked me backstage at the burlesque house on Main Street (I was too young to purchase a ticket), and I watched from the wings a performance of a tassel-twirler named Ermaine Parker. Afterward we went out for coffee with her and her tall, handsome husband, the straight man for the foul-mouthed, baggy-pants comedian in the show. The talk was mostly about the couple’s infant son, who had developed a liking for classical music before he learned to speak.

There were art exhibits of new painters, to which Alex or Eddie would take me: Salvador Dalí at the Ambassador Hotel, Eugene Berman and Christian Bérard at little galleries on Sunset Strip. But above all, books and poems were a part of daily life at the Mellers’. It was there that I was introduced to, or urged to read, Look Homeward, Angel; To the Lighthouse (which I couldn’t get through on the first try); Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog (the book that provided the model for the title came later); a volume of short stories by Noel Coward (which I still think quite good); and collections of poems by Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, and (whatever happened to him?) George Barker.

While everyone at home and at school kept urging me to forget about those useless Russian books I was forever dragging about, Alex and Eddie, older and wiser, never considered giving up their cultural heritage. Alex had his cult of the “three fellow-Alexanders”—Pushkin, Blok, and Scriabin; he had given up playing the piano when he decided that, compared to the later period of Scriabin, all music was primitive and dull. The three of us used to get high reciting Blok to each other, mostly from The Mask of Snow and The Nightingale Garden cycles. But here I could contribute as well as receive.

One day, after leafing through A Synthetic History of the Arts, by a Soviet scholar named Ioffe, at the Los Angeles public library, I learned of the existence of Boris Pasternak and Velimir Khlebnikov. There was no Khlebnikov at the library, but I immediately copied out his poem about the grasshopper, which Ioffe had cited to illustrate some principle of modern painting or other. They did have My Sister Life and Themes and Variations. I took these over to the Mellers’ the next weekend, and while the older generation (Alex’s parents and his aunt Madame Olga) pronounced Pasternak incomprehensible, Alex and Eddie both agreed that here was a major discovery. I also introduced them to my favorite modern Russian novelist, a man I knew only as V. Sirin, with whose work I had become involved several years earlier. When I brought over my copy of Invitation to a Beheading, Eddie tried reading it out loud, but his long sojourns in Shanghai and Berkeley had done something to his Russian stress. (This was not noticeable when he spoke, only when he read aloud.) I took the book away from him and began to read slowly, getting all the stresses right, but after three pages I had to stop: Eddie was on the floor, his legs kicking in the air, a beatific smile on his face. “Stop it, I can’t stand it, it’s too beautiful,” he was moaning.

Alex’s reaction was a little more reserved. He kept the book for several days and when he returned it, he remarked, “If I were a writer, this is how I would want to write.” And a little later: “I had the damnedest feeling I wrote some of it myself.”

Sirin then joined Pushkin, Blok, Pasternak, Thomas Wolfe, and Dylan Thomas in our literary pantheon. It was on one such enchanted Sunday afternoon, leafing through the New York Russian newspaper Novoe russkoe slovo [published until 2010], to which Anna Semyonovna subscribed, that I came upon Poplavsky’s name—and this is where the mistaken identity part comes in. A memoirist (Yury Terapiano? Vladimir Varshavsky?) was reminiscing about the Russian Montparnasse of the 1920s. He could vividly remember the poet Boris Poplavsky drunkenly declaiming:

And the nightingale in the Sanskrit tongue
Shouts “More wine! More wine!” over the yellow rose.

The name was unfamiliar, but there was something about those two lines that made me resolve to look up their author. As a matter of plain fact, however, the lines were not by Poplavsky. I could never find them in any of his books, and after years of fruitless searching I finally, through sheer accident, discovered the awkward truth. The lines are a quotation from the Rubaiyat translated into Russian by Ivan Tkhorzhevsky. In connection with that translation Vladislav Khodasevich, when asked one morning why he looked so poorly, quipped: “I had a terrible nightmare. I dreamed that I was a Persian poet and that Tkhorzhevsky was translating me.” [The passage corresponds to stanza 6 of Edward Fitzgerald’s version, where the nightingale speaks in Pahlavi and the rose is sallow. The notes to my (New York, 1888) edition explain that the rose was yellow in the first edition of Fitzgerald’s translation and identify Pahlavi as the “old, heroic Sanskrit of Persia.” This seems to suggest that Tkhorzhevsky was translating Fitzgerald into Russian, rather than the original Omar.]

But never mind. These two lines of Tkhorzhevsky’s pseudo-Omar did direct me to Poplavsky.

The Discovery

The strange Aztec-Mayan pyramid that houses the main public library in downtown Los Angeles will always remain for me one of the endearing spots in Southern California. Its dark tile walls that kept the air comfortably cool on the muggiest days; the long, Alhambra-like vistas that opened from one room to another; the purling fountains in the inner yards (if I’m making it sound garish and eclectic, it no doubt was) I still find unforgettable. There was a Russian lady in the Foreign Books Room, whose name I never learned, who made it a point to purchase everything worthwhile in contemporary Soviet and Russian émigré literature. The library’s collection of volumes on Russian painters and painting and on the Soviet theater of the 1920s was nothing short of opulent.

Yes, of course they had Poplavsky at that library. There were two slim volumes: a selection from his journals and a volume of verse called Flags. I got Flags, opened it in the middle, and immediately felt as though I were falling through a hole in the ice. Nikolai Tatishchev described his first impression of reading Flags thus: “A pure and piercing sound. Hardly anything can be made out. Now and then something breaks through and stings you. ‘O Morella, come back, it will all be different one day.’ Alarm, apprehension. The barometer needle quiveringly indicates a storm. A degree of agitation that can be expressed only in deliberately approximate terms.” [N. Tatishchev, “O Poplavskom” [On Poplavsky], Krug [The circle], vol. 3 (Paris, 1938)].

This was how a mature person, a close friend of the poet and the publisher of his posthumous books, reacted to Flags. My own impression (and it remains one of the most vivid of my entire life) was somewhat different. I was struck first of all by the bright colors, the swirling images, the authenticity of the dreamlike states the poems conveyed:

In the emerald waters of the night
Sleep lovely faces of virgins
And in the shadow of blue pillars
A stone Apollo slumbers.

Orchards blossom forth in the fire,
White castles rise like smoke
And beyond the dark blue grove
Vividly dark sand is ablaze.

Flowers in the garden hum,
Statues of souls come to life
And like butterflies from the fire
Words reach me:

Believe me, angel, the moon is high,
Musical clouds
Surround her, fires
Are sonorous there and days are radiant.

My English cannot reproduce the pulsating music that emanates from these lines in Russian, nor does it convey the artful and often startling rhymes. There are pages and pages in this little book that project this blend of color and music, but there are also other things:

We shelter our caressing leisure
And unquestioningly hide from hope.
Naked trees sing in the forest
And the city is like a huge hunting horn.

How sweet it is to jest before the end
This is understood by the first and the last—
Why, a man vanishes, leaving fewer traces
Than a tragedian with a divine countenance.

There was an attitude in those poems, a vision, a sensibility quite new to me, but one that I instantly recognized and accepted:

But now the main entrance thundered and the bell started barking—
Springtime was ascending the stairs in silence.
And suddenly each one remembered that he was all alone
And screamed “I’m all alone!” choking with bile.
And in the singing of night, in the roar of morning,
In the indistinct seething of evening in the park
Dead years would arise from their deathbeds
And carry the beds like postage stamps.

I did not know enough about poetry at the time to recognize Poplavsky’s sources, to discern his French influences: Baudelaire (who had a greater impact on him than anyone except Blok), Nerval, Rimbaud, Laforgue, Apollinaire, Breton. I did not know then, as I know now, that Boris Poplavsky was in a sense a very fine French poet who belongs to Russian literature mainly because he wrote in Russian. But much of his sensibility was also a verbal equivalent of the visual imagery I knew and loved in the work of the exiled Russian neo-Romantic painters Pavel Tchelitchew and Eugene Berman. [“But Poplavsky’s surrealistic world is created illegitimately, using means borrowed from another art, namely painting (some of the critics have pointed out that Poplavsky is actually a visual rather than a musical poet; his poetry has been compared to Chagall’s painting…” Gleb Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii [Russian literature in exile] (New York, 1956), 339. The observation is absolutely correct, but why is cross-fertilization between the arts illegitimate? Russian poetry of the twentieth century in particular has a deep-going and highly legitimate symbiotic involvement with both painting (Voloshin, Mayakovsky, Khlebnikov) and music (Bely, Blok, Kuzmin, Pasternak)].

An uncritical acceptance? I knew at once that much of what Poplavsky was doing was highly artificial. But I knew even then that artifice was a natural component of some of the finest art and had no objections. Despite its artificiality (and partly because of it), the book hit me with a wave of lyrical power I would not have believed possible, a wave that swept me off my feet and held me prisoner for many weeks. This was not like getting intoxicated on Blok’s verbal magic, nor was it like the intense intellectual pleasure afforded by Pasternak’s formal perfection and his freshness of perception.

Poplavsky came to me more like a fever or a demonic possession. I went around reciting Poplavsky’s lines by heart. I tried composing melodies to them. I discovered that stanzas 3 and 4 of his poem “To Arthur Rimbaud” could be conveniently sung to the tune of the clarinet solo from Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, and I did sing them, obsessively. The next thing I knew, my mother, normally infuriatingly indifferent to poetry, was muttering Poplavsky to Chaikovsky’s music in an undertone while fixing dinner.

It was a heavy burden to keep to oneself at sixteen. I was fortunate indeed to have two older friends with whom I could share it. Alex and Eddie were almost as enthusiastic about Poplavsky as I. The three of us leafed through the fragments of his journals. We did not find his religious quest congenial, but the seriousness and depth of his spiritual experience got through to us, and his ways of formulating it we also found impressive. Seeing that Russian poetry could be this closely allied with Surrealism in painting, Alex was moved to write a few Russian poems, which were meant as literary parallels to his paintings. He submitted them to Novoe russkoe slovo and one of them was printed, not in that newspaper’s Sunday poetry section as he had hoped, but as an illustration to an editorial which discussed the poor quality of Russian émigré poetry and asserted that Surrealism as a whole was an unimportant trend, by now entirely passé and forgotten. Then Alex was drafted into the army. He wrote me asking for the library copy of Flags. I sent it to him, he returned it, then he wanted it again, and it was lost in the mail. I ruefully paid the charges for the lost book ($2.50, I think). A few months later it turned up at Alex’s training camp. When I tried to return it, I was told that there was no need, because the library had replaced it. I now had my own copy of a book by Poplavsky… But just who, exactly, was Boris Poplavsky?

Some Biographical Materials

Exhibit A: His Father

[The vice president of the Moscow Association of Manufacturers] was Yulian Ignatievich Poplavsky, an extremely original and colorful personality even for the Moscow of those days. Poplavsky was a musician. He graduated (with very high grades) from the Moscow Conservatory where he majored in piano and was one of the favorite pupils of Pyotr Chaikovsky, with whom he was on intimate terms, as can be seen from his memoirs. I do not remember what it was that moved him to give up his musical career and take up industrial relations….

Poplavsky was a talented person; one seldom encounters such facility with word and pen. He could discuss any topic and could treat the most serious subject in a frivolous vein. His speech mannerisms, which corresponded to his manner of dress, irritated many and Poplavsky was widely disliked. It was said that he was “barred from the stock exchange.” This seems to be factually correct: invitations were not extended to him and this would cause clashes between the Manufacturers’ Association and the Stock Exchange Committee. He was also active in St. Petersburg where he was the representative of his organization, together with Jules Goujon [the president of the Manufacturers’ Association] at the Convention Council. When a petition had to be drafted or a summary of a discussion prepared, he was irreplaceable and was able to draft them with the utmost ease and elegance.

Gradually, people became accustomed to his manners, and he began receiving invitations to Stock Exchange Committee sessions, especially when labor problems were involved, inasmuch as the antiquated organization of the Stock Exchange Committee was falling behind the times in collecting current statistical data and the documentation pertaining to labor problems. Poplavsky’s office on Miasnitskaia Street was excellently organized and the Association (it was in existence for only twelve years) was able to accumulate much valuable material.

[A portrait of Boris Poplavsky’s father, from Paul A. Bouryschkine, Moskva kupecheskaia – The Merchants’ Moscow (New York, 1954), 256–57. This little-known volume is an astoundingly thorough and convincing record of the contribution made by the traditionally maligned and despised Russian merchant class to the development of Russian culture, literature, and the arts during the century preceding the Revolution.]

Exhibit B: His Sister

I can still see one [of these poetesses]—tall, feverish, everything about her dancing: the tip of her shoe, her fingers, her rings, the tails of her sables, her pearls, her teeth, the cocaine in the pupils of her eyes. She was hideous and enchanting with that tenth-rate enchantment which cannot but attract, to which people are ashamed to be attracted, to which I am openly and shamelessly attracted.…

I can say in general that I was met with kindness in this alien world of female practitioners of drug-addicted poetry. Women are in general kinder. Men do not forgive felt boots or having starving children. But this very same P——skaya, I am convinced, would have removed the sables from her shoulders had I told her that I had a starving child at home.…

I did not get to hear the feverish, fur-clad beauty recite her poetry, but I doubt that cocaine could have disposed her to write of love.…

[Three glimpses of Boris Poplavsky’s sister Natasha, gleaned from Marina Tsvetaeva’s memoir A Hero of Labor (1925). Tsvetaeva and Natasha Poplavskaya both appeared at a reading of women poets in the cold and starving Moscow of 1920].

Exhibit C: His Biography

Boris Poplavsky was born in Moscow on 24 May 1903. His father was a free artist—a musician, a journalist, and a well-known social figure; his mother, née Kokhmanskaya, came from an old, cultivated, aristocratic family, had a Western European education, and was a violinist with conservatory experience. As a child, Boris Poplavsky was first looked after by his nanny, Iraida, and then by a German nurse and a French governess. Later, as an adolescent, he had Swiss and English tutors, and when he reached school age, he was taught by Russian university students, hired to give him lessons. He also studied music, but showed no enthusiasm; lessons in drawing, however, were always his favorites.

In 1906, his mother had to take the children abroad because of the severe illness of her daughter. They lived alternately in Switzerland and Italy, while his father remained in Moscow. While abroad, Boris forgot his native tongue to such an extent that, when he returned to Moscow, his family had to enroll him and his brother at the French lycée of Saint Philippe Néri, where he remained until the Revolution. Boris took to reading early … and it was hard to tear him away from a book. When his elder sister Natasha, a dazzlingly educated and talented girl, published a collection of verse in Moscow, where she was considered an avant-garde poetess, Boris, either through competitiveness or imitation, also began to practice writing verses in his school notebooks, accompanying them with fanciful illustrations.

When the Revolution broke out in February 1917, Boris was fourteen years old. In 1918 his father was forced to travel to the south of Russia, and he took his son along. Thus, while still quite young, Boris had to part from his family and experience all the horrors of the civil war. In the winter of 1919, when he lived in Yalta, he gave his first reading as a poet at the Chekhov Literary Circle. And in March of the same year he and his father emigrated to Constantinople. This period of his life can be summed up in two words: he meditated and prayed. All the money his father gave him, his own belongings, even his food, Boris gave to the poor; at times several homeless people would spend the night in his room: students, officers, monks, sailors, and others, all of whom were literally refugees.

In Constantinople, Boris attended a makeshift equivalent of high school, did a great deal of sketching, read a lot, occasionally took incidental jobs, and spent much time with the cub scouts at the Russian Hearth, which was organized by the YMCA. At the same time, Boris saw life through a veil of profound mysticism, as if sensing the breath of Byzantium which gave birth to the Orthodox faith, to which he yielded himself unconditionally. In June 1921, his father was invited to Paris to attend a conference on Russian trade and industry.

For ten years Boris lived in the Latin Quarter, during the last four on the rue Barrault near the place d’Italie. There he died in the little annex at number 76-bis, located on the roof of the immense Citroën garage. The exciting and intriguing city of Paris absorbed Boris so much that he left it only once, in 1922, to spend a few months in Berlin. There he moved in the avant-garde literary circles, often appeared at literary gatherings and artistic soirées, and made a number of literary acquaintances.

The Poplavsky family gradually all assembled in Paris and Boris’s life seemed to enter upon a normal course. He regularly attended the Art Academy at La Grande Chaumière and was later enrolled at the Sorbonne, majoring in history and philology. He immersed himself in philosophy and theology and spent long hours in the rare manuscript room of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève. He was a passionate book collector; he had two thousand volumes at his death. He regularly visited museums, where he would stay for days on end. He studied assiduously, practiced sports, and wrote. As in earlier days, he was interested in poetry, literature, economics, philosophy, sociology, history, aviation, music, and everything else. He was always in a hurry to live and work, and he sometimes dreamed of becoming a professor of philosophy in Russia … not merely when collective farmers got to wear top hats and drive around in Fords, as he put it, but when the persecution of faith would end and a free life of the spirit would begin.

His novel Homeward from Heaven, which is partly autobiographical, gives an idea of how Boris lived and worked in Paris. He frequently appeared at literary gatherings, debates, and conferences as the principal speaker or as a discussant; he was well known in literary and artistic circles. His close friends valued him as a religious mystic, a God seeker, and a perceptive philosopher and thinker. The last years of his life were profoundly enigmatic. Many found in him not only a friend, but a source of support for attaining an ideological turning point in their lives. He was destitute at the time, but he would still share his last penny with the poor.

A tragically absurd incident brought his life to an end. On 8 October 1935, Boris met a half-mad drug addict, who under the pressure of his own adversity decided to commit suicide and wrote a suicide note, addressed to the woman he loved. He persuaded Boris, “on a dare,” to try out a “powder of illusions,” but instead, excited by the maniacal idea of taking a fellow traveler along on his journey to the beyond, gave him a fatal dose of poison, taking one himself at the same time.

Boris left behind two parts of a trilogy in the form of two large novels, Apollon Bezobrazov and Homeward from Heaven, and sketches for the third part, The Apocalypse of Therese. Then there are three volumes of verse ready for publication, a philosophical treatise on logic and metaphysics, the essay “Solitude,” a multi-volume diary, notations, drawings, letters, his favorite books which contain many jottings on the margins, and a great deal of other material, which so far has not been sorted out.

Paris, October 1935
[Yulian Poplavsky’s biography of his son, slightly abridged. [Iu. I. Poplavskii, “Boris Poplavskii,” Nov’ (Tallinn), no. 8 (1936): 144–47.]

Exhibit D: A Friend

I began writing verse quite early, and in 1920 Boris Poplavsky and I organized a Poets’ Guild in Constantinople.

Vladimir Dukelsky, alias Vernon Duke. [Autobiographical note in the anthology Sodruzhestvo (Washington, 1966), 521. Although both wrote poetry at the time, it was the future composer of Cabin in the Sky and Le bal de blanchisseuses who considered himself a poet then, while Poplavsky saw himself as a future painter.]

Exhibit E: Self-Portraits

  1. “Poverty is a sin, retribution, impotence, while luxury is like a kingdom in which everything reflects, extends, incarnates the slightest flutter of God’s eyelashes. And nevertheless, stoically, heroically, Oleg managed to bring his life to a realization, extricated it out of its wraps, despite poverty, inertia, and the obscurity of his underground destiny. Having received no education, he wrenched one for himself from the stained, poorly illuminated library books, read while his behind grew numb on the uncomfortable benches. Anemic and emaciated, by abstinence and daily wrestling with heavy iron weights, he forced life to yield him cupola-like shoulder muscles and an iron handgrip. Not handsome, unsure of himself, he used his hellish solitude, know-it-allism, valor, asceticism to master that fierce eye mechanism which was able to subjugate, at times to his own amazement, female heads radiant with youth. For Oleg, like all ascetics, was extraordinarily attractive, and his ugliness, rudeness, and self-assurance only enhanced his charm. Life refused him everything and he created everything for himself, reigning and enjoying himself now amidst the invisible labors of his fifteen-year effort. Thus, in a conversation he would calmly and slyly radiate the universality of his knowledge, which astounded his listeners as much as did the ease with which he could, while sitting on a sofa, lift and toss about a thirty-kilogram weight or a chair, held horizontally by its back in his hand, as he laughed at the gloomy, lifeless, unascetic, sentimental, disbelieving Christianity of the Paris émigré poets.”
  2. “You thought, Oleg, that you could at last do without God, rest from His insatiable demands; and see, now He is doing without you.… Look, nature is about to enter upon her sad, brief summer triumph and you were asleep, your heavy head full of the hot waters of sleep, and you dreamed of earthly, full-blooded, bearded life. Once again you were insolent to God, Oleg, and tried living without Him, and your face hit the ground, heavily, stupidly, clownishly. You finally awoke from the pain, took a look around, and see, the trees are already in bloom and have hung out their vivid, abundant new leaves. It is summer in the city and again you are face to face with God, whether you want to be or not, like a child that conceived the wish to hide from the Eiffel Tower behind a flowering shrub in the Trocadero garden and after walking around it was instantly overtaken by the iron dancer-monster that takes up the entire sky. You try not to notice it, but it hurts you to look at the white sky and a heavy, sweaty stuffiness is pressing on your heart. You are again in the open sea, in the open desert, under an open sky covered up by white clouds, in the intolerable, ceaseless, manifest presence of God and sin. And there is no strength not to believe, to doubt, to despair happily in a cloud of tobacco smoke, to calm yourself at a daytime movie. The entire horizon is blindingly occupied by God; in every sweaty creature He is right there again. Eyesight grows dim and there is no shade anywhere, for there is no home of my own, but only history, eternity, apocalypse. There is no soul, no personality, no I, nothing is mine; from heaven to earth there is only the fiery waterfall of universal existence, inception, disappearance.”

[Two of Boris Poplavsky’s self-portraits as Oleg in his novel Homeward from Heaven. Fragments from Homeward from Heaven, in Krug, vol. 3].

Exhibit F: The Critical Response

[R]ecently Will of Russia (Volia Rossii) discovered the amazingly gifted B. Poplavsky. Of all his delightful poems it printed, not a single one could have possibly appeared in Contemporary Annals (Sovremennye zapiski)—they are far too good and uniquely original for it. [Georgy Ivanov in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 31 May 1928]

Among the Parisians, Boris Poplavsky is particularly outstanding. Some of his poems (especially the one with the epigraph from Rimbaud that appeared in volume 2 of Poetry and the “Manuscript Found in a Bottle” in Will of Russia, number 7) force one to stop and listen in astonishment to the voice of a genuine and entirely new poet. What is interesting about Poplavsky is that he has severed all ties with Russian subject matter. He is the first émigré writer who lives not on memories of Russia, but in a foreign reality. This evolution is inevitable for the whole of the emigration. [D. S. Mirsky (Prince Dmitry Svyatopolk-Mirsky), in Eurasia (Evraziia), Paris, 5 January 1929.]

…Poplavsky’s pseudonaiveté and sleek imitation of the correctly grasped literary fashions. There is no point in mentioning Poplavsky’s name next to the names of Blok and Rimbaud (and yet this has been done by Weidlé and Adamovich and Mochulsky). The scribblings (pisaniia) of Mr. Poplavsky, whose critical articles are as deliberately insolent as his verse, would not even deserve mention were it not for the fact that these puerile and shrill scribblings found an echo in Georgy Adamovich. [Gleb Struve in Russia and Slavdom (Rossiia i slavianstvo), 11 May 1929; 11 October 1930.11].

Gleb Struve attacked Poplavsky’s work vehemently when it first appeared in print, and he remained Poplavsky’s most consistent critical opponent. The only other adverse response to Poplavsky’s literary beginnings in émigré criticism, Vladimir Nabokov’s review of Flags in Rul’ [The rudder]—which Nabokov subsequently repudiated—is far milder in both its tone and its conclusions. Although Nabokov took Poplavsky to task for his violations of meter, ungrammatical usages, and abuses of inappropriate colloquialisms, he ended the review with the admission that some of the poems in the collection “soared with genuine music.”

In his later history of Russian émigré literature, Professor Struve cites the highly favorable opinions of various important émigré writers and critics about Poplavsky’s poetry with exemplary scholarly objectivity; he even seems to see some promise in Poplavsky’s novels. But his ultimate judgment on Poplavsky can be summed up in this quote: “He was a gifted man and an interesting phenomenon, but he never became any kind of writer, no matter what his numerous admirers may say” (Struve, Russkaia literatura v izgnanii, 313).

Exhibit G:


The lower depths of Montparnasse have claimed the lives of two more young Russians. Under circumstances that are still being investigated, the poet Boris Poplavsky and nineteen-year-old Sergei Yarko, well known in certain shady cafés of boulevard du Montparnasse, died of narcotics poisoning.


The police commissioner of the Maison Blanche quarter immediately initiated an investigation. At first, the possibility of a double suicide was not ruled out. But upon examination of the evidence, it became clear that the young men were the victims of a drug overdose. It is also possible that the drug, purchased on Montparnasse from nameless dealers, contained an admixture of some kind of poison.

Boris Poplavsky never thought of suicide. Sunday evening he visited Dmitry Merezhkovsky and discussed literature and politics with him. On Monday he was seen on Montparnasse. His parents, with whom he had a conversation several hours before his death, categorically reject the possibility of suicide. Their son was a victim of “white powder” vendors.

Apparently Poplavsky and Yarko had been addicts for a long time. In the poet’s wallet, his own photograph was found, bearing a revealing inscription: “If you are interested, I found a source of cocaine, etc. Reasonably priced: heroin 25 fr. a gram, cocaine—40 fr.” This was written in Poplavsky’s hand—apparently in some café, where he was not able to announce the news out loud to his friend.


At 4 p.m. yesterday, Poplavsky’s and Yarko’s bodies were taken to the Institute of Forensic Medicine for autopsy. The funeral is planned within the next few days. But there are absolutely no funds available for Boris Poplavsky’s burial. His family is destitute. There is not a sou in the house. Boris Poplavsky’s parents are appealing to all his friends and to all generous people to help them pay for a coffin and a burial plot for the poet whose life ended so tragically. Donations may be sent to Latest News.

[Selected passages from the lengthy news story in Latest News (Poslednie novosti), Paris, 11 October 1935].

Excerpts from “The Book of Blessings,” Poplavsky’s Unpublished Journal for 1929.

109. I need only those writers whom I can apply practically in my life, from whom I can learn a particular form of pride or pity and, of course, whom I can develop and alter in my own way. Chekhov teaches me to endure in a special way, not to surrender, to hope, for in Chekhov there is much that is Roman, there is much of “no matter what happens,” of quand même. With Dostoevsky one can be ill and die, separate and perish, but it is impossible to live with him. As for Tolstoi, with his ancient Hebraic family idylls, I find him repulsive. But Chekhov I hope to put to use, after first rendering him harmless. How? By expanding and developing his admiration for the perishing, beautiful failures, by cleansing him of his disgusting squeamishness and his dignified contempt, contempt for what has failed, what has perished, i.e., extending him in a Christian or, more correctly, specifically Orthodox direction.

110. Chekhov is the most [Russian] Orthodox of Russian writers or, more correctly, the only Orthodox Russian writer. For what is Russian Orthodoxy if not absolute forgiveness, the absolute refusal to condemn which we hear in the voice of Sonya and of the Little Priest of the Swamps? [I.e., Sonya from Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya, and the elfin creature from Blok’s poem of that name, who prays with equal fervor “for the injured leg of a frog and for the Pope in Rome.”]

111. Blok is also an Orthodox poet, the poet of absolute pity, angry at nothing, condemning nothing….

115. It seems to me that the closest work we have to the spirit of the Prometheus of Aeschylus is Chekhov’s Ivanov. Let us note, en passant, that the Prometheus of Aeschylus is one of the most pretentious heroes in world literature. But then, is there anything more beautiful than heroic pretentiousness, for is not the perishing hero higher than the smugly successful hero? And is not the point of a perishing hero in his pretense at being a hero?

116. All my poetry is only the voice of Sonya, or at least I would like for all my poetry to be the voice of Sonya, consoling Uncle Vanya abandoned by everyone in the midst of the demolished estate….

123. Oh, how the lower strata of the émigrés are irritated and outraged by the sight of an impoverished and merry friend of books and stars, with his tattered pants and a monocle in his eye! It is their enormous, base yearning for power that is outraged within them. What! He dares to be joyous, that owner of worn-out shoes? Isn’t he in the same position as we? He has no money, no power, and he dares to be joyous. Where does he get his joy? Surely not from that bookish, intellectual stuff—the very thing that ruined Russia? From Culture and Social Conscience? Thus the poor people. And a huge disgust hangs suspended in perplexity from their curled lip, while the friend of the stars goes his own way in his worn-out shoes, waving his handsome athletic arms in the air as he recites poetry to his neighbor.

124. The attitude of the wealthy émigrés toward the friend of the stars is even more base. What! We’ve done our best, we’ve achieved, we’ve recovered our own, and this one dares to be joyous while the seat of his pants is in patches? What was the point of our struggle?

125. But the attitude of foreigners is delightful. It can be seen from their glances in the street, for in them there still survive the ancient, beautiful ideals, merry and profound, of ancient stoical poverty. There was once this delightful philosopher—Anaximenes of Dorcrete seems to have been his name—a fine athletic old man. Diodorus tells us that he was once invited to some ritzy party, by some tyrant or other. Coming to the table, he bared himself and beshat the company and the table, and with this excellent deed he indubitably deserved his immortality. His other works were forgotten, but compared to this they could not have been important.

Poplavsky Yesterday and Today

When I first read Flags, I had no idea of Poplavsky’s position in the Russian literary hierarchy. I had simply assumed that he was a poet as famous as Blok and Pasternak. I knew little about Russian poetry as a whole at the time, and there were many important modern poets I was yet to discover and read. It took me a few years to realize that apart from a small cult centered in Paris, almost no one had ever heard of his name. In the late 1940s my colleagues at the Control Council for Germany, Alain Bosquet and Edouard Roditi, were publishing a literary journal in Berlin. They asked me to write something about Russian poetry for it, “about somebody modern and famous, like Selvinsky or Bagritsky,” as Roditi put it. I had no idea who Selvinsky and Bagritsky were, but I offered to write about the three poets who had been my favorites during my school years in Los Angeles. They let me, and I wrote three brief pieces on Khlebnikov, Pasternak, and Poplavsky; these were translated into German and published in Das Lot in 1950, with a selection of translated poems by each of these poets. [S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 46–51].

The overindulgent accompanying note identified me as the author of “numerous articles published in American newspapers and magazines,” but apart from a few pieces in the college newspaper, this was actually my debut in print. I’m glad it had to do with Poplavsky and that I already then called him the most interesting poet produced by the Russian emigration between the two world wars.

By then I had already read his two posthumous collections of verse (they contain some astounding poems, but I found them on the whole a bit of a letdown after Flags); the published portions of his novels (Homeward from Heaven contains some of his finest lyrics, inserted between passages of prose and printed to look like prose); his paradoxical critical essays; the highly original short story “The Ball;” his pieces on painting and boxing.

When in 1965 Nikolai Tatishchev privately published a new volume of Poplavsky’s previously uncollected poems, Dirigible of Unknown Destination, my torch for the poet flared up again. The volume contained some of his most typical and most perfectly realized poems (“On the Frontier,” for instance, with its striking central metaphor of a poet as a customs official trying to stop the two-way smugglers’ traffic between the Land of Good and the Land of Evil; or “The Biography of a Clerk,” with its transposition of the humiliated clerk of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk into a Kafkaesque and surrealistic tonality).

I read a paper on Poplavsky’s surrealistic techniques at a scholarly gathering in Washington, D.C., and published it as an article in Slavic Review. A few graduate students purchased copies of the Dirigible as a result, but I knew that, with one or two exceptions, I had failed to convince my fellow Slavicists of the value of Poplavsky’s work. Just how badly I had failed was made clear to me by one of my most respected and discerning colleagues, who referred to him as a Parisian Vertinsky (a popular émigré nightclub singer) for the elect few.

Doing literary research in Europe in the fall of 1969, I made a point of seeking out and talking about Poplavsky with those who knew him or were his friends in an effort to reconstitute the reality of the man behind the poetry and the prose: the poets Alla Golovina and Sofiya Pregel; the painters Ida Karskaya (a marvelously warm and compassionate woman and a far more important painter than I had previously realized) and Constantine Terechkovitch; the critic Georgy Adamovich; the literary scholar Sophie Laffitte (née Glickman, later Sophie Stalinsky and Sophie Bonneau); and of course Poplavsky’s closest friend and the curator of his archive, Nikolai Tatishchev. All of them had observed Poplavsky at close range at one or another time in his life, all but the first two had poems dedicated to them in Flags, and all were willing to talk about him candidly and openly.

Some day I hope to transcribe these interviews in full, but for the moment I can say that their sum total has helped me to formulate the two sets of polarities that I feel primarily motivated and shaped Poplavsky’s literary art. The never-resolved dichotomy between poetry and painting is what accounts for the intensely visual nature of his imagery and much of his subject matter.

According to Terechkovitch, Poplavsky thought of himself during his first few years of exile not as a poet but as a painter. In 1922, Terechkovitch and Poplavsky traveled together to Berlin to study art. In Berlin, Poplavsky met the leading Soviet abstractionists as well as Chagall, Tchelitchew, and Chaim Soutine. But everyone, and particularly his teachers and colleagues, kept assuring him that he had no talent for painting. At first he tried to ignore their verdict. When he realized that they were right, the result was a total nervous breakdown that kept him bedridden for several weeks. Not only his highly personal articles on art exhibitions and painters, which appeared later in the journal Numbers (Chisla), but much of his prose and poetry testify to his never-ending yearning for mastery of the visual arts. His literary development reflects not so much the development of Russian émigré poetry as the evolution of the Paris schools of painting in the late 1920s and early 1930s—especially those of the Surrealists and the neo-Romantics.

The other central polarity has to do with his insatiable hunger for mystical experience (any kind of mysticism) and drug experience (any kind of drugs). It was his sister Natasha, that “dazzlingly educated and talented girl” his father wrote about, who introduced Boris to drugs by the time he was twelve. Her search for the ultimate high eventually took her to Madagascar, to Africa, to India, and finally to Shanghai, where she died in the late 1920s—of pneumonia, according to her father’s biography of Boris, but of a hopeless opium addiction according to everyone else.

Drugs remained a constant presence in Poplavsky’s life, both in Berlin and in Paris, and they (rather than imitation of his idol Rimbaud) account for the psychedelic swirling of images and the vivid, violent colors so typical of his verse. There are vast riches of authentic psychedelia to be mined in twentieth-century Russian poetry—Balmont and Khlebnikov are the names that come to mind most easily—but no one in the Russian tradition exploited the openings to other realities that drugs afford as systematically as did Poplavsky in the service of his poetry. There was, unfortunately, no LSD or mescaline to be had in those days, and he had to do it the hard way. (A tremendous stimulus for writing much of Flags came when his friend, the minor poet Boris Zakovich, the “Pusya” of Poplavsky’s journals, inherited a large supply of pain-killers and mind expanders from his dentist father.)

Those who are capable of appreciating the unique kind of beauty Poplavsky was thus able to glimpse and convey are the beneficiaries. Poplavsky’s religious quest was as intense as it was eclectic. A devout and loyal member of the Russian Orthodox Church (as his journals leave no doubt), he was powerfully drawn to Roman Catholic rite and lore, to Hindu mystics, to freemasonry, and to various forms of spiritualism.

One of the most intense experiences of his life, according to Tatishchev, occurred in 1918, when he met Jiddu Krishnamurti, the philosophical and spiritual teacher, who took his hand and addressed a few words in English to him. Poplavsky understood no English, but he was moved to tears. In Berlin he had several discussions about anthroposophy with Andrei Bely. (His mother and aunt were close to Moscow anthroposophic circles.)

Boris Poplavsky was loved by a number of exceptional and brilliant women in his day, but the central relationship of his life, its keynote, was what he himself called his love affair with God (roman s Bogom). This affair is the subject of many poems in Snowy Hour; it is basic to his novels, and it is vividly reflected in the portions of his diaries which his friends Dina Shraibman and Nikolai Tatishchev published after his death. It was also discussed in print by no less a thinker than Nikolai Berdyaev in his puzzled, perplexed, and not entirely sympathetic review of Poplavsky’s journals [In Sovremennye zapiski Contemporary annals, no. 68 (1939)]. I’ll venture to say, with all due respect, that the celebrated philosopher simply failed to grasp the point of Poplavsky’s mysticism. Like art, like drugs, mysticism was for Poplavsky both a way of expanding his personal vision and a means of transforming unbearable social reality.

Poplavsky’s lecture on Marcel Proust and James Joyce (he is the only Russian writer I can think of besides Vladimir Nabokov who responded creatively to Ulysses), of which I have the outline, concludes with a surprising prediction of impending social revolution in Western Europe, which would combine social, sexual, and personal-mystical elements. For Poplavsky, the reason the Soviet experiment turned Russia into a “vast, barbarous, snow-clad field” was that in its attempt to build a better society it suppressed the human spirit and its most precious manifestations. This was well understood by Poplavsky’s friends Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky; yet one can easily imagine the shock that this conclusion of the Proust-Joyce lecture occasioned among the émigré audience when Poplavsky delivered it at the Kochevie Club on 22 October 1931.

Poplavsky’s career in the world of émigré letters was brief and meteoric. Only six years separate his literary debut from his death. During that time he impressed some of the most important older writers-in-exile (Merezhkovsky, Khodasevich, Georgy Ivanov) and was acclaimed by the finest émigré critics (Mirsky, Mochulsky, Adamovich, Weidlé). He must have made an enormous impression on the émigré writers of his own age group, for he looms as a momentous presence in the subsequently written autobiographies and memoirs of Nina Berberova [The Italics Are Mine (New York, 1969)]; Yury Terapiano [Vstrechi [Encounters] (New York, 1953)]; Vladimir Varshavsky [Nezamechennoe pokolenie-The unnoticed generation (New York, 1956)]; and V. S. Yanovsky [“Eliseiskie polia” [Les Champs-Élysées], an excerpt from his memoirs, in Vozdushnye puti: Al’manakh [Aerial ways: An anthology], vol. 5 (New York, 1967), 175–200].

Vladimir Nabokov on two occasions singled out Poplavsky as the only poet of importance among the younger émigrés.20 At Poplavsky’s funeral, homage was paid to him by such diverse figures as Mark Aldanov, Aleksei Remizov, and Vladislav Khodasevich, whose eloquent obituary of Poplavsky was later reprinted in a collection of his critical essays [V. Khodasevich, “O smerti Poplavskogo” [On Poplavsky’s death], in Literaturnye stat’i i vospominaniia [Literary essays and memoirs] (New York, 1954)].

And yet, if we were to take a count, there would probably be fewer people in the world today who are aware of Poplavsky’s existence than there were in 1935. I am convinced that Boris Poplavsky has his readers somewhere. But where? Russians, either abroad or in the Soviet Union, don’t seem to want to read him. When Olga Carlisle included Denise Levertov’s fine translation of his poem, “Manuscript Found in a Bottle,” in her book Poets on Streetcorners, the Moscow Literary Gazette took her to task for including this “tramp of whom no one has heard” among the other fine Russian poets in her anthology.

Publication of a few excerpts from The Apocalypse of Therese in George [Yury] Ivask’s Russian literary journal Experiments (Opyty) in the late 1950s was met with similar scorn by Russian newspapers in Paris and New York.

I tried submitting several of his unpublished poems and a highly interesting essay on Russian painting (which I obtained from Nikolai Tatishchev and which Jean-Claude Marcadé carefully annotated) to the New York Russian literary journal Novyi zhurnal. Two of the poems were published, with distorting “corrections” by the editor, while the remainder of them and the article were rejected after a two-year wait. [An English translation (by Peter Lawless) of Poplavsky’s article about the Berlin Exhibition of 1922 was eventually published: “The Notes of Boris Poplavsky,” intro. by Simon Karlinsky, annotations by Jean-Claude Marcadé, Art International 18 (1974): 62–65].

In a personal letter to me, the editor of Novyi zhurnal, Roman Goul, wrote that Poplavsky was “an utter madman” and proudly recalled how he and a group of friends once threw Poplavsky out of a Berlin beer hall.

And yet, as Vladimir Nabokov put it when I informed him of my interest in Poplavsky: “Yes, write something about him. He was, after all, the first hippy, the original flower child.” This might simplify things a bit, but it is not wrong. [His involvements with drugs and Hindu mystics are two of the more striking ways in which Poplavsky seems to foreshadow the hip culture, but that is by no means all. He dressed unconventionally, was never without a pair of dark glasses, thought bathing unnecessary, and would wear the same shirt for weeks on end. His favorite music was by Bach, Scriabin, and Stravinsky. A beard and long hair are the only ingredients that were missing, but that tonsorial style was inextricably connected with the priestly caste in Russian culture. There clearly would have been no point in Poplavsky’s trying to pass for an Orthodox priest.]

During the past few years young Slavic scholars in the West, those in their early twenties, have been repeatedly taking to Poplavsky like the proverbial duck to water. I’ve read with pleasure the intelligent papers Olga Bazanoff and Mike Hathaway wrote about him for Vsevolod Setchkarev’s seminar on émigré literature at Harvard, and Hélène Paschutinsky’s first-rate MA thesis on Poplavsky’s imagery, written under Sophie Laffitte’s direction at the Sorbonne. I am excited about Anthony Olcott’s Stanford thesis.

[Particularly impressive is Mlle Paschutinsky’s demonstration of the central function of the states of flying, floating, and levitation in Poplavsky’s poetry, and of his systematic use of objects and beings capable of these states: fish, ships, dirigibles, balloons, submarines, interplanetary rockets, clouds, comets, and angels, as well as the role of Poplavsky’s ubiquitous bridges, balconies, and towers, functioning as steppingstones to flight and levitation. The resultant antithesis of lightness and heaviness is then used by Mlle Paschutinsky to construct a highly convincing and logical system that provides us with a key not only to Poplavsky’s imagery, but also to the whole of his complex metaphysics. Should Poplavsky’s poetry ever gain the wide readership it so very much deserves, Hélène Paschutinsky’s study will certainly be a fundamental source on this poet.

[In subsequent years Paschutinsky, under the name of Elena Menegaldo, published widely on Poplavsky. See, for example, her important edition of Boris Poplavskii, Neizdannoe: dnevniki, stat’i, stikhi, pis’ma, ed. A. Bogoslovskii and E. Menegal’do (Moscow: Khristianskoe izd-vo, 1996), and subsequent editions of Poplavsky’s collected works. See also Dmitrii Tokarev, “Mezhdu Indiei i Gegelem” (Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2011)].

Perhaps Poplavsky was an émigré in more senses than one. Caught between cultures, he was also trapped in the wrong historical period. Many young non-Russians today should have no trouble identifying with him and seeing him as one of themselves. As Emmett Jarrett and Dick Lourie wrote,25 when I sent them some trots of his poetry for translation: “He’s dynamite…”

How to detonate him?

It is of interest to read Karlinsky’s early publication—dating from 1950—which was written as an introduction to a German translation of three of Poplavsky’s lyrics:

Boris Poplavsky’s name is completely unknown in his own country. Poplavsky was perhaps the most gifted representative of a generation of Russian émigré poets who were born in Russia but whose literary activity between the two wars took place everywhere: from Warsaw to Addis Ababa. Poplavsky spent his short life (1903–35) mostly in Paris. His literary reputation was based on a small volume of poems with the title Flags. This book was published in Paris and Tallinn in 1931.

After his death, a collection of poems with the title In a Wreath of Wax, a short novel (Homeward from Heaven), and Diaries were found among his papers. A selection of these works was published by Poplavsky’s friends. In Diaries, Poplavsky gives a detailed description of his poetic method. In this context, Poplavsky quotes an old Hindu poem in which an unknown poet is not satisfied with the sentence “The tree of my life yearns on a hill;” a few lines later the same poet gives a modified version of the same sentence: “The blue tree of my life yearns on a hill.” As Poplavsky noted, the color blue is added to express the intangible.

Nowadays Poplavsky’s poetic method seems to be similar to French Surrealism, and Diaries shows that he had studied and admired the writings of André Breton. When reading Poplavsky’s poems one is reminded of surrealistic paintings.

[Translated by Joachim Klein, from S. Karlinsky, “Drei russische Dichter,” Das Lot 4 (October 1950): 50].

Simon Karlinsky (1924–2009) was a prolific scholar of modern Russian literature who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, from 1964 to 1991. This memoir is an excerpt from Freedom From Violence and Lies, a collection of Karlinsky’s essays.

Featured: Boris Poplavsky, at KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens, Department Store of the West), Berlin, 1922.

Francis Thompson: Three Poems

Francis Thompson (1859–1907) was an English poet and Catholic mystic whose work outlines the numinous basis of reality. His work has been neglected of late and needs to be more widely read. The selection that follows is from a collection entitled, Poems, which was published in 1909.

Before Her Portrait in Youth

As lovers, banished from their lady’s face
      And hopeless of her grace,
Fashion a ghostly sweetness in its place,
      Fondly adore
Some stealth-won cast attire she wore,
      A kerchief or a glove:
      And at the lover’s beck
   Into the glove there fleets the hand,
   Or at impetuous command
Up from the kerchief floats the virgin neck:
So I, in very lowlihead of love,—
      Too shyly reverencing
   To let one thought’s light footfall smooth
Tread near the living, consecrated thing,—
   Treasure me thy cast youth.
This outworn vesture, tenantless of thee,
      Hath yet my knee,
   For that, with show and semblance fair
      Of the past Her
Who once the beautiful, discarded raiment bare,
      It cheateth me.
   As gale to gale drifts breath
   Of blossoms’ death,
p. 4So dropping down the years from hour to hour
   This dead youth’s scent is wafted me to-day:
I sit, and from the fragrance dream the flower.
      So, then, she looked (I say);
      And so her front sunk down
Heavy beneath the poet’s iron crown:
      On her mouth museful sweet—
      (Even as the twin lips meet)
      Did thought and sadness greet:
      In those mournful eyes
   So put on visibilities;
As viewless ether turns, in deep on deep, to dyes.
      Thus, long ago,
She kept her meditative paces slow
Through maiden meads, with wavèd shadow and gleam
Of locks half-lifted on the winds of dream,
Till love up-caught her to his chariot’s glow.
Yet, voluntary, happier Proserpine!
      This drooping flower of youth thou lettest fall
      I, faring in the cockshut-light, astray,
         Find on my ’lated way,
      And stoop, and gather for memorial,
And lay it on my bosom, and make it mine.
To this, the all of love the stars allow me,
      I dedicate and vow me.
      I reach back through the days
A trothed hand to the dead the last trump shall not raise.
      The water-wraith that cries
From those eternal sorrows of thy pictured eyes
Entwines and draws me down their soundless intricacies!

“Manus animam pinxit”

Lady who hold’st on me dominion!
Within your spirit’s arms I stay me fast
      Against the fell
Immitigate ravening of the gates of hell;
And claim my right in you, most hardly won,
Of chaste fidelity upon the chaste:
Hold me and hold by me, lest both should fall
(O in high escalade high companion!)
Even in the breach of Heaven’s assaulted wall.
Like to a wind-sown sapling grow I from
The clift, Sweet, of your skyward-jetting soul,—
Shook by all gusts that sweep it, overcome
By all its clouds incumbent: O be true
To your soul, dearest, as my life to you!
For if that soil grow sterile, then the whole
Of me must shrivel, from the topmost shoot
Of climbing poesy, and my life, killed through,
Dry down and perish to the foodless root.

Sweet Summer! unto you this swallow drew,
By secret instincts inappeasable,
      That did direct him well,
p. 9Lured from his gelid North which wrought him wrong,
      Wintered of sunning song;—
By happy instincts inappeasable,
      Ah yes! that led him well,
Lured to the untried regions and the new
      Climes of auspicious you;
To twitter there, and in his singing dwell.
      But ah! if you, my Summer, should grow waste,
      With grieving skies o’ercast,
For such migration my poor wing was strong
But once; it has no power to fare again
      Forth o’er the heads of men,
Nor other Summers for its Sanctuary:
      But from your mind’s chilled sky
It needs must drop, and lie with stiffened wings
      Among your soul’s forlornest things;
A speck upon your memory, alack!
A dead fly in a dusty window-crack.

         O therefore you who are
      What words, being to such mysteries
      As raiment to the body is,
         Should rather hide than tell;
      Chaste and intelligential love:
         Whose form is as a grove
Hushed with the cooing of an unseen dove;
Whose spirit to my touch thrills purer far
Than is the tingling of a silver bell;
Whose body other ladies well might bear
As soul,—yea, which it profanation were
p. 10For all but you to take as fleshly woof,
      Being spirit truest proof;
Whose spirit sure is lineal to that
      Which sang Magnificat:
         Chastest, since such you are,
         Take this curbed spirit of mine,
Which your own eyes invest with light divine,
For lofty love and high auxiliar
         In daily exalt emprise
         Which outsoars mortal eyes;
      This soul which on your soul is laid,
      As maid’s breast against breast of maid;
Beholding how your own I have engraved
On it, and with what purging thoughts have laved
This love of mine from all mortality
Indeed the copy is a painful one,
         And with long labour done!
O if you doubt the thing you are, lady,
         Come then, and look in me;
Your beauty, Dian, dress and contemplate
Within a pool to Dian consecrate!
Unveil this spirit, lady, when you will,
For unto all but you ’tis veilèd still:
Unveil, and fearless gaze there, you alone,
And if you love the image—’tis your own!

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The Hound of Heaven

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
   I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
   Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
               Up vistaed hopes, I sped;
               And shot, precipitated
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
   From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
               But with unhurrying chase,
               And unperturbéd pace,
      Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
               They beat—and a Voice beat
               More instant than the Feet—
      “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

               I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
   Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followéd,
               p. 49Yet was I sore adread
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside)
But, if one little casement parted wide,
   The gust of His approach would clash it to
   Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,
   And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
   Smiting for shelter on their changèd bars;
               Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to dawn: Be sudden—to eve: Be soon;
   With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
               From this tremendous Lover!
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
   I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
   Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
   Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
         But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,
      The long savannahs of the blue;
               Or whether, Thunder-driven,
         They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
   Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.
         Still with unhurrying chase,
         And unperturbèd pace,
   Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
            p. 50Came on the following Feet,
            And a Voice above their beat—
      “Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.”

I sought no more that, after which I strayed,
      In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
      Seems something, something that replies,
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
      With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.
“Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me” (said I) “your delicate fellowship;
      Let me greet you lip to lip,
      Let me twine with you caresses,
      With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
      With her in her wind-walled palace,
      Underneath her azured daïs,
      Quaffing, as your taintless way is,
            From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.”
            So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.
      I knew all the swift importings
      On the wilful face of skies;
      p. 51I knew how the clouds arise
      Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
            All that’s born or dies
      Rose and drooped with—made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine—
      With them joyed and was bereaven.
      I was heavy with the even,
      When she lit her glimmering tapers
      Round the day’s dead sanctities.
      I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
      Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
            I laid my own to beat,
            And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.
For ah! we know not what each other says,
      These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
      Let her, if she would owe me,
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
      The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
               My thirsting mouth.
               Nigh and nigh draws the chase,
               With unperturbèd pace,
      Deliberate speed majestic instancy
               p. 52And past those noisèd Feet
               A voice comes yet more fleet—
   “Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me.”

Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
               And smitten me to my knee;
      I am defenceless utterly,
      I slept, methinks, and woke,
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
      I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
      Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
      Ah! is Thy love indeed
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
      Ah! must—
      Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?
p. 53My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
      From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.
      Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity,
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again;
      But not ere him who summoneth
      I first have seen, enwound
With grooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
      Thee harvest, must Thy harvest fields
      Be dunged with rotten death?
            Now of that long pursuit
            Comes on at hand the bruit;
      That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
            “And is thy earth so marred,
            Shattered in shard on shard?
      Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!

      “Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught” (He said),
“And human love needs human meriting:
      p. 54How hast thou merited—
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
      Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
      Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
      Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
      All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
      Rise, clasp My hand, and come.”

            Halts by me that footfall:
            Is my gloom, after all,
      Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
            “Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
            I am He Whom thou seekest!
      Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.”

Featured: “The Mystical Flower,” by Tintoretto; painted ca. 1588.