Download document


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.



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