Tanja Velma is going to be telling us the story of “The Unknown Lady” by Aleksandr Blok at the Story Boat this Friday. I’ll be reciting an English / Scots version of the poem – so the audience can find a way into the story – as a prelude to Tanja’s recitation of the indescribable sounds of the original Russian verse. (For those Russian readers out there in Hamburg & elsewhere, here's the Russian text.) I’ll also be discussing the poem right here & now on this blog – why should we listen to the Russian & the Scots? - , but before that the work itself:
Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Unknown Lady” Willie MacFarlane’s “Unknown Lady”
At darknin’ hings abune the howff At darkening high above the inn
A weet and wild and eisenin’ air. A wet and wild and yearning air.
Spring’s spirit wi’ its waesome sough Spring’s spirit with it’s woesome sigh
Rules owre the drucken stramash there. Rules o’er the drunken uproar there.
And heich abune the vennel’s pokiness, And high above the city’s fringes
Whaur a’ the white-weshed cottons lie, Where all the white-washed cottons lie
The Inn’s sign blinters in the mochiness, The inn’s sign gleams in moochiness
And lood and shrill the bairnies cry. And loud and shrill the wee kids cry.
The hauflins ’yont the burgh boonds The hoodlums past the burgh bounds
Gang ilka nicht, and a’ the same, Go out each night and each the same
Their bonnets cocked; their bluid that stounds Their caps cocked up, their blood that pounds
Is playin’ at a fine auld game. Is playing at a fine old game.
And on the lochan there, hauf-herted And on that lochan there half-hearted
Wee screams and creakin’ oar-locks soon’. The squeaks and creaks of oar-locks sound.
And in the lift, heich, hauf-averted, And sky-high up now half-averted
The mune looks owre the yirdly roon’. The moon looks o’er the earthly round.
And ilka evenin’, derf and serious And each same evening, silent, serious
(Jean ettles nocht o’ this, puir lass), (Though Jean knows nought of this, poor lass)
In liquor, raw yet still mysterious, In liquour, raw yet still mysterious,
A’e freend’s aye mirrored in my glass. A friend is mirrored in my glass.
Ahint the sheenin’ coonter gruff Behind the shining counter, gruff
Thrang barmen ding the tumblers doun; Barmen slam the tumblers down;
‘In vino veritas’ cry rough ‘In vino veritas’ cry rough
And reid-een’d fules that in it droon. And red eyed fools that in it drown.
But ilka evenin’ fey and fremt But each same night, fated, lonely,
(Is it a dream nae wauk’nin’ proves?) (Is it a dream no waking proves?)
As to a trystin’-place undreamt, As to a trysting-place undreamt,
A silken leddy darkly moves. A silken lady darkly moves.
Slow gangs she by the drunken anes, Slow goes she by the drunken ones,
And lanely by the winnock sits; And lonely by the window sits;
Frae’r robes, atour the sunken anes, From her robes, above the sunken ones,
A rooky dwamin’ perfume flits. A musky, pungent, perfume flits.
Her gleamin’ silks, the taperin’ Her gleaming silks, the tapering
O’ her ringed fingers, and her feathers Of her ringed fingers, and her feathers
Move dimly like a dream wi’in, Move dimly like a dream within,
While endless faith aboot them gethers. While endless faith about them gathers.
I seek, in this captivity, I seek, in this captivity,
To pierce the veils that darklin fa’ To pierce the veils that darkly fall
– See white clints slidin’ to the sea, - See white cliffs sliding to the sea,
And hear the horns o’ Elfland blaw. And hear the horns of Elfland blow.
I ha’e dark secrets’ turns and twists, I have dark secrets turns and twists,
A sun is gi’en me to haud, A sun is pushed into my hand,
The whisky in my bluid insists, The whisky in my blood insists
And spiers my benmaist history, lad. On questioning my soul, my lad.
And owre my brain the flitterin’ And o’er my brain the flittering
O’ the dim feathers gang aince mair, Of those dim feathers goes once more,
And, faddomless, the dark blue glitterin’ And fathomless through dark blue glittering
O’ twa een in the ocean there. Two eyes upon a distant shore.
My soul stores up this wealth unspent, My soul stores ups this wealth unspent,
The key is safe and nane’s but mine. The key is safe and none but mine.
You’re richt, auld drunk impenitent, You’re right, old drunk impenitent,
I ken it tae – the truth’s in wine. I know it too, the truth’s in wine.
(Hugh MacDiarmid’s version of the poem is taken from lines 169-220 of his epic, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”,best read in a good edition – for example the Penguin 20th C. Classics series.) More about the poem shortly, in the next post .....