Blog Post

Sonnet by Day

Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855) is a towering figure in Central and East European literary history.  You'll find monuments to him in three national capitals—Warsaw, Minsk, and Vilnius—as well as the Ukrainian city of Lviv.  In Krakow, he's buried in the Wawel, alongside Polish kings.  Haven't heard of him?  Me neither, not till long after I finished my Ph.D.

Poor Mickiewicz—he committed the cardinal sin of writing in Polish, what American educators today would call a LCTL ("less commonly taught language").  Scholars of romanticism, it seems, have enough on their plate just trying to keep track of what happened in England, France, Germany, and Russia.  Sure, Mickiewicz might have been Pushkin's peer and rival, but, as a representative of a "minor literature," he has regularly been omitted from teaching anthologies and survey courses.  And that's a low down shame.

Here's my translation of "Ałuszta w dzień" (Alushta by Day), one of Mickiewicz's eighteen Sonety krymskie (Crimean Sonnets) (1826).  Why the Crimea?  He was living in exile in Odessa at the time.  The region struck him as exotic, a part of the world long ruled by the Ottoman Turks and only recently annexed by the Russian Empire (1783).  Accordingly, he includes untranslated Turkish and Persian words in his verse, as well as evoking Islamic history and literature more generally .  He also seems to have been powerfully affected by the local landscape, especially the sharp contrast between the swirling ocean and rocky hills.  As Czesław Miłosz puts it, he was led to think about "transformation," and the result is "daring metaphors" that convey "the rush to reach forward, beyond the given moment."


Aluszta w dzień

Już góra z piersi mgliste otrząsa chylaty,
Rannym szumi namazem niwa złotokłosa,
Kłania się las i sypie z majowego włosa,
Jak z różańca chalifów, rubin i granaty.

Łąka w kwiatach, nad łąką latające kwiaty,
Motyle różnofarbne, niby tęczy kosa,
Baldakimem z brylantów okryły niebiosa;
Dalej sarańcza ciągnie swój całun skrzydlaty.

A kędy w wodach skała przegląda się łysa,
Wre morze i odparte z nowym szumem pędzi;
W jego szumach gra żwiatło jak w oczach tygrysa,

Sroższą zwiastując burzę dla ziemskiej krawędzi;
A na głębinie fala lekko się kołysa
I kąpią się w niej floty i stada łabędzi.

Alushta by Day

From its breast the mountain now shakes its misty khalat.
With morning namaz the field, spiked golden, roars.
The forest bows and from its May-tresses pours,
As from a khalifah's rosary, ruby and garnet.
The meadow's all flowers.  Over it flowers float,
A rainbow scythe, butterflies of many colors.
They—a diamond baldachin—hide heaven's course.
Far off a locust tugs its winged winding sheet.
And where the bald rock gazes into the waters
The sea seethes and, if repulsed, new roars rush out.
In this roaring the light plays, as in the eyes of tigers
Presaging a sterner storm on this narrow land-spit.
Lightly on the depths a wave sways and shivers
While in it bathes a flock of swans, a fleet.


Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.