Thursday, 28 September 2017

National Poetry Day: Osip Mandelstam's 'The Twilight of Freedom'

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and the theme for 2017 is 'Freedom'.

For this year's theme, the poem I have chosen is by Russian poet Osip Mandelstam: 'The Twilight of Freedom' (translated by Clarence Brown and WS Merwin).

This is one of Mandelstam's earlier poems, from his collection Stone (1913). "O sun, judge, people, desolate/are the years into which you are rising!" he writes - presciently, considering that the regime had not yet arrived under which he would eventually die (in 1938, in a transit camp, after years of persecution).

The lines "In the deepening twilight the earth swims into the nets/and the sun can't be seen" made me think of Isaiah 25:7. Mandelstam urges courage, but with a keen, sad understanding of the extent to which the world has drifted from what it should be, in humanity's insatiable quest for power.


  1. Lovely poem that is very much appreciated -- I wish it were easier to find more Mandelstam translated into English.

    1. Thank you! My feeling is that there's actually a fair amount of Mandelstam translation, but I have a bit more anxiety about reading them than I generally do with poetry translations. As poetry translation is such a niche area and not lucrative, I tend to trust that translations are going to be fairly faithful, but then I hear that Mandelstam is considered very hard to translate, and I don't know which translations or translators are supposed to be the best. I think the translations published by NYRB Books are supposed to be good, though. I also have certain thoughts/feelings about current trends in poetry translation which worry me, and which I might share at some point.