“Lamarck” is at once a homage to a great scientist and thinker and a prophecy for the future of mankind. In it, Mandelstam contemplates the ramifications of Lamarck’s conception of evolution as an ever-changing “ladder,” with man at the top. Ultimately, Mandelstam uses this poignant and beautiful poem to posit questions about man’s role in history that resonate with the ideas prevalent during the Russian Revolutionary period. In this world, shaped by cataclysms and adaptation, will man someday stop being human?

Several translations of this poem into English do exist, but I have yet to find one that even attempts to conserve the meter or rhyme. That is precisely my goal here.


Осип Мандельштам

Был старик, застенчивый как мальчик,

Неуклюжий, робкий патриарх…

Кто за честь природы фехтовальщик?

Ну, конечно, пламенный Ламарк.

Если всё живое лишь помарка

За короткий выморочный день,

На подвижной лестнице Ламарка

Я займу последнюю ступень.

К кольчецам спущусь и к усоногим,

Прошуршав средь ящериц и змей,

По упругим сходням, по излогам

Сокращусь, исчезну, как Протей.

Роговую мантию надену,

От горячей крови откажусь,

Обрасту присосками и в пену

Океана завитком вопьюсь.

Мы прошли разряды насекомых

С наливными рюмочками глаз.

Он сказал: природа вся в разломах,

Зренья нет — ты зришь в последний раз.

Он сказал: довольно полнозвучья,—

Ты напрасно Моцарта любил:

Наступает глухота паучья,

Здесь провал сильнее наших сил.

И от нас природа отступила —

Так, как будто мы ей не нужны,

И продольный мозг она вложила,

Словно шпагу, в тёмные ножны.

И подъёмный мост она забыла,

Опоздала опустить для тех,

У кого зелёная могила,

Красное дыханье, гибкий смех…


Osip Mandelstam

There lived a man, shy like a young boy,

A very awkward, timid patriarch…

Whom to defend its honor did Nature employ?

What fiery fencer? But of course, Lamarck.

If living things are tiny ink blot marks

Frail evidence of a short, heirless day,

Then on this mobile ladder of Lamarck’s[1]

The final rung I’ll gladly take.

The annelids and cirripeds I’ll visit,

With snakes and lizards rustle in the grass,

Down stiffened gangways, shapeless bridges

I’ll shrink and disappear, like Proteus.

I’ll dress myself with capes of hardened horn,

Reject the warm blood from my veins,

Into sea foam, with suction cups adorned,

I’ll plunge my curly tendriled lengths.

We passed the insect orders on our way

With stiffened legs and shotglass eyes.

He told me: nature lies in disarray,

Your sight has gone away—tell seeing goodbye.

He said: enough of harmony, sonority,—

You loved that Mozart piece in vain:

A spidery deafness now comes over me,

This force is stronger than our strength.

And from us Nature stepped aside

Not caring if we even breathed,

A longitudal brain she slipped inside

Like a sword into its dark sheath.[2]

An elevated bridge she didn’t provide,[3]

She was too late to lower it for those,

Whose graves are green and not as bright,

Whose breath is red, whose laughter supplely grows.

[1] If you look carefully at the Russian version, you can see that “Ламарк”=”Lamarck” is at the ends of the fourth and seventh lines. Staying true to this original rhyming scheme, I have done the same in the English.

[2] Notice the proliferation of “s” and “sh” sounds. I’m trying to imitate the “zh” and “sh” sounds in the Russian.

[3] Take a good look at this line as well as the third line of the preceding stanza. In the Russian, the two lines are incredibly similar-sounding (the meanings are about the same as in my translations):

I Prodolniy Mozg Ona Vlozhila=And a longitudal brain she slipped in

I Podyemniy Most Ona Zabuila=And a drawbridge she forgot

Especially similar-sounding are “Prodolniy Mozg” = “longitudal brain” and “Podyemniy Most” = “drawbridge.”

I couldn’t let this major poetic detail get completely lost in translation, so when I put together my lines I decided to make them as similar as possible, and to preserve the same, rhyming endings.

A longitudal brain she slipped inside,

An elevated bridge she didn’t provide,

The nice surprise was that “brain” and “bridge” do help preserve the similarity somewhat.