A Fragment from Gumilev (4). Translated from the Russian by Simon R Gladdish


I met
The Tsar of Trabzon, when
This hall he left at midday,
And though I hadn’t eaten,
He took my hand and led me
Towards Saint Sofia’s Cathedral.
He was silent, only once he asked me,
Whether by a Scythian tradition
A body had been buried beneath the temple’s base
So that the walls stay firmly put
And the majestic columns will not split;
I crossed myself and answered,
‘Why, this superstition is unworthy of
Either the Emperor or Byzantium.’
He smiled and again
Fell silent.
You know this temple;
On narrow, shaky ladders, planked footways,
Among monstrous timbers like the edges
Of a Levi fan or hippopotamus,
We climbed to where the architect thinks
From clay pots he will raise a dome.
My companion stood at a terrible height
With his face turned south, gilded by the sun,
Like an uncertain spirit, he began to speak.
I listened, clinging to the handrail.
He spoke that this city –
Its buildings, palaces and roadways,
As all words, wills and thoughts,
Which own a person,
Are a heritage to the living from the dead.
That there are two worlds, between themselves unequal:
In one, extensive, there are geniuses, heroes,
Filling the universe with glory,
But we their pitiable descendants occupy the other,
The slaves of necessity and fate.
Then he said it wasn’t so terrible to die,
If Hercules and Julius Caesar have died,
If Maria and Jesus Christ have died,
And suddenly, having said Christ’s name,
He stepped forward, from the wall’s edge, where there is air
Penetrated by the midday flame …
And it seemed to me that he was standing
Above a chasm, having conquered terrestrial gravity;
In a horrible confusion I closed my eyes
For an instant, or a half of one;
When again I opened them, in front of me –
O, misfortune! – I saw nobody.

How I descended on the planked footway, I do not remember …
There, behind the wall, people already mingled,
Crowding around a heap of meat and bones
Without a human image or likeness.
Our masons are severe: their
Favourite entertainments are animal fights,
Fisticuffs and night-time drunkenness,
But the weather-beaten faces trembled,
Tears shone in their gloomy eyes
When I cried before them,
That it was the body of the Tsar of Trabzon.
They loved him for his cheerfulness
For his courage, and his beauty,
As I loved him for his high spirits
And his ability to withstand torture.
And even – dare I say? – I heard
Some whispered curses
As they stared at the imperial palace;
They everywhere suspect betrayal.

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