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Contra spem spero (Against all Hopes)

Thoughts, away, you heavy clouds of autumn !

For now springtime comes, agleam with gold !

Shall thus in grief and wailing for ill fortune

All the tale of my young years be told ?

No, I want to smile through tears and weeping,

Sing my songs where evil holds its sway,

Hopeless, a steadfast hope forever keeping,

I want to live ! You, thoughts of grief, away !

On poor, sad, fallow land, unused to tilling,

I’ll sow blossoms, brilliant in hue,

I’ll sow blossoms where the frost lies, chilling,*

I’ll pour bitter tears on them as dew.

And those burning tears shall melt, dissolving

All that mighty crust of ice away,

Maybe blossoms will come up, unfolding

Singing springtime for me, too, some day.

Up the flinty, steep and craggy mountain

A weighty ponderous boulder I shall raise,

And bearing this dread burden, a resounding

Song I’ll sing, a song of joyous praise.

In the long dark ever-viewless night time

Not one instant shall I close my eyes,

I’ll seek ever for the star to guide me,

She that reigns bright mistress of dark skies.

Yes, I’ll smile, indeed, through tears and weeping,

Sing my songs where evil holds its sway,

Hopeless, a steadfast hope forever keeping,

I shall live ! You thoughts of grief-away !

Translated by Vera Rich

Forest Song

As I die, the abandoned fire of my songs

will burn in the world,

and the restrained sowing will sow,

it will burn at night, it will burn in the daytime.

How lovely is the strain

Of mingled joy and pain;

It cuts deep in the breast

And cleaves the heart in twain.

How pettishly you've broken off my rhyme!

Have you forgotten last year's summertime?

Of last year's summer I no memory keep

What was sung then died out in winter's sleep.

No memory it provokes.

Like subterranean fire

My ardent pity split the granite vault,

And I broke out again into the light.

The magic word gave life to my dumb lips —

I wrought a miracle … I only knew

I was not destined to forgetfulness.


Ah, for that body do not sigh!

‘Tis now infused and glows with fire divine,

As clear and bright and glittering as good wine

Whose life in sparkling bubbles mounts on high.

Naught but an airy pinch of dust

Remains to mingle with the earth below.

Beside these waters shall a willow grow,

My end give life to something more robust.

And to me here shall many seek,

Both rich and poor, the joyful and the sad.

Their grieves I’ll mourn, their joys shall make me glad –

To every one my soul shall gently speak.

And I shall find some word for all:

The quiet murmur of my rustling leaves;

The willow pipe that tender music breathes;

The melancholy dews that from my branches fall.

I’ll give them back in mystic speech

All those dear tender songs you used to sing,

The tunes you played for me in that lost spring –

O play again, beloved, I beseech!


Why are my words not like steel brightly flashing

Out in the field where two armies are clashing ?

Why not a sabre whose pitiless blows

Cut off the heads of our bitterest foes ?

You dagger-words, that I tempered and tested,

Gladly I’ll draw from my breast where you rested,

But it is my heart to the purpose applying,

I’ll shape a weapon with sparks from it flying,

Then I shall hang it up high on the wall

Others to gratify, me to appall.

My only weapon, dear words that I cherish,

We must ensure that not both of us perish !

Wielded by brothers we do not yet know,

You may do better in routing the foe.

My blade shall sever the fetters of iron,

Echo aloud in the forts of all tyrants.

Other blades also shall join it to bring

New days when speeches of free men will ring.

Mighty avengers my sword shall inherit,

With it they’ll race to do battle with merit…

Sword, better service go render the brave

Than to my feeble hands you ever gave !

Translation: Peter Tempest


The Guelder-Rose

The Cossack is dying, the maiden crying:

"Let me stay beside you, deep in earth I would be lying!"

"O if you are truly such a faithful maiden,

Then become a guelder-rose with snowy blossom laden.

Dew that in the morning on the mowing settles

Shall not weigh upon my grave but on your flowing tresses.

When the hot sun scorches and the blossom blanches

Heat shall not dry up my bones but shrivel your green branches."

"O my sweet, how can it give you any pleasure

That I glow so red when I feel sorrow beyond measure?

O my sweet, how can it be a cause for gladness

That I blossom when my heart is full of gall and sadness?

Will the grave be dearer to you, my beloved,

If I am a green tree rising silently above it?"

"Even my own mother could not grieve so deeply

As you grieve for me, my guelder-rose tree was already growing.

People with small children came and stood there gazing,

Never had they seen before a wonder so amazing:

"Who is it lies buried here beside the highway

Where a guelder-rose is blossoming in frost so spryly?

See its green and slender leaves there twisting, curling,

And the blood-red berries in its snowy blossom stirring!"

In reply the guelder-rose its leaves uncovered:

"Why must I be silent at the side of my beloved?

O the tree is silent while the axe is swinging,

When the man cuts deeply, then the tree is singing.

First a branch he severs, then a pipe he's playing,

With an arrow from the guelder-rose his heart assailing."

Translation: Peter Tempest

A Forgotten Shadow

(Dante’s Wife)

Austere Dante, the Florentine exile,

Looms up from out the Middle Ages’ gloom.

Like to those times, he also found his song

While walking through a mystical, dark wood

Amidst a chaos of wild images.

What soul would venture in his steps to go

Through those dark groves, if ’twere not for the flowers

Which bloom with hues eternal midst the thorns?

The singer plucked them with a master’s hand

And wove them all into a flowery crown,

Besprinkled it with heavenly dews, and placed

It as a tribute on the early tomb

Of Portinari’s lovely Beatrice,

Who once, by chance, had smiled at him,

The second time passed by without a glance.

The third time when he looked on her, she lay

Unmoving, coffined, ready for the grave.

To him she had been like the gracious sun

Which pours forth light, and with it joy and life,

Unheeding unto whom it gives its gifts.

And though that beaming sun so swiftly set,

He ne’er forgot it, neither in the gloom

Of exile, nor by friendly fireside;

Nowhere on earth, in Hell, or Paradise,

Could he forget his lovely Beatrice.

’Twas she alone who ruled him in his song,

For in the realms where he in spirit dwelt

He found no other consort like to her.

He crowned her with a chaplet glorious,

Such as no other woman e’er has worn.

Immortal pair, Dante and Beatrice!

All-powerful death has not yet sundered you.

Yet w hy dost thou, capricious fantasy,

Call up before my mind a wretched form

Like some vague figure seen as in a dream?

It wears no crown or shining aureole,

Its features are enshrouded with a veil

Of dense, concealing mist. Who can it be?

No poet sang a paean in her praise,

No artist tried her beauty to depict;

Somewhere, far down in history’s dim depths ».

A hint of her still lives. who is it then?

’Tis Dante’s wife! Scarce other name remains

By which she still is known—as though she ne’er

Possessed an individual, personal name.

This woman ne’er became a guiding star,

But, like a faithful shadow, followed him

Who symbolized “ Ill-fated Italy.”

She shared with him sad exile’s bitter bread,

She lit the household fire for him upon

An alien hearth. And, surely, many a time

The hand of Dante, seeking some support

And sympathy, would on her shoulder rest.

For her, life’s path was his poetic fame,

Although she ne’er put forth her hand that it

Might be illumined by a single ray;

And when the fire in the singer’s eyes

Died out, she covered them with reverent hand.

0 faithful shadow! where then is thy life?

Thy personal destiny, thy griefs and joys?

Though history be silent, yet in thought,

I see how many lonely days were spent

In sadness and in dread expectancy,

How many sleepless nights as black as care,

As long as misery, I see thy tears . . .

And through thy tears into the realms of fame,

As one walks through the dew, swept—Beatrice!


No more can I call liberty my own,

To me there’s naught remains but hope alone.

The hope to see once more my loved Ukraine.

To come back in my native land again.

To gaze once more on Dnieper’s azure wave—

I care not if alive or in the grave.

To view the steppe, its ancient funeral mounds,

To sense the ardent strength which there abounds. . . .

No more can I call liberty my own,

To me there’s naught remains but hope alone.

Tears o’er Ukraine

Ukraine! bitter tears over thee do I weep.

Alas! of what use is such grief unto thee?

What can I avail thee by sorrow so deep?

Alas! thou hast small help from me.

O scalding tears! searing my soul with your flame,

Ye leave in my eyes flaming traces of pain:

Those sharp pangs of sorrow now wither my frame,

And all healing arts are in vain.

How many of us are shedding such tears!

O children, how can we still laugh and be gay?

Beholding our mother in miseries and fears,

How can we still cheerfully play?

They say that a mother’s hot tears can abrade

And penetrate even the stubbornest flint;

Then should not these agonized tears of a maid

At least make a tiny imprint?

Vain Tears

Laments and groans are all around,

Irresolute, faint challenges,

Complaints against vile destiny,

And foreheads bowed in bitterness.

And all the time we still bewail

Our Ukraine’s ancient misery;

With tears we wait the coming day

For chains to break and set us free.

Such tears the more inflame our wounds,

Delay their healing, make them ache.

Our chains might rust from falling tears,

But of themselves they’ll never break.

What use are such despondent moods?

For turning backwards ’tis too late.

Much rather let us set to work

And strive a future to create.

Do you remember

Do you remember that time when I spoke

The words: “ If certainty lay in my ken

When I shall die, I’d make a will to have

The music played I loved while living, when

They bury me.” No sooner had the words

Flown from my lips than all began to laugh:

“ Perhaps you’d like to see your friends compelled

With song and dance to write your epitaph?”

And then began a talk on funerals,

That would not seem worth while remembering.

But I remember every word—the jokes

Woke something in my soul that left a sting.

My soul seeks no repose “ with all the saints,”

No “ memory perpetual” 1 wishes sung;

Those strains and words alike are strange to me

As are the brazen bells with clamorous tongue.

When comes the time to mourn o’er my remains,

Then let the music wordlessly sweep on

With tears and laughter, joy and grief confused,

Like to the song raised by the dying swan.

And let the ones who in the morning grieved,

Go to the dance at eve in merry throng.

You think it strange—a funeral, then a dance?

’Tis but a usual end to mournful song.

I do not wish that aught should be disturbed

By my plunge on to unknown destiny.

I would not that my death should wound a soul

So much as life itself has wounded me.

The Avenging Angel

When dark enwraps the world at dead of night,

There often visits me a doubtful guest;

His look and speech rouse terror in my breast;

Like bloody Mars his eyes are fiercely bright.

The dreadful angel smiles at me, I know;

I see both love and hatred in that smile:

Red stains like blood his snowy wings defile,

Like sunset’s crimson gleaming on the snow.

He speaks to me words terrible and great,

And in his hands he holds a flaming sword;

From out my heart there springs a warlike word,

A battle cry, wild songs of fiery hate.

“ Words, words, mere words!” replies my visitor.

“ Th’ avenging angel I—for deeds I long,

Not words. Think not that thy brave song

Will others stir, but not thyself, to war.

“ I give to thee my sword; though thou be weak,

’Tis not too heavy for bold hands to swing.

Dost thou fear death, or wounds, or suffering,

Thou, who with all thy soul, dost freedom seek?”

He tenders me the sword. I fain would take it, though

I find my hand will not obey my will.

Afy noble rage subsides, my heart grows still:

“ Depart,” I say, “ I will not with thee go.

“ I fear not for my life, but for the soul

Which dwells in me, which I in others see;

Should I slay that, ’twould mean deep guilt for me,

For such a deed I ne’er could pay the toll.

“ Thy servant Corday struck a fatal blow

To rid her world of one tyrannic ban;

But in the tyrant she perceived the man,

When o’er Marat she shrieked and wept for woe.”

The midnight guest fades out, but leaves behind

Within my soul a dread and bloody trace;

By day I see the angel’s smiling face;

That talk unfinished agitates my mind. . . .