15 February 2009

Joseph Brodsky's 'Nunc Dimittis'

There is a remarkable poem by the Russian poet of Jewish descent, Joseph Brodsky, that relates the events commemorated today—‘Cретенье’, that is, ‘The Meeting’ (the title in English translations, however, is ‘Nunc Dimittis’). Written in 1972, it is dedicated to the great poet, Anna Akhmatova, a friend and supporter of Brodsky. Akhmatova celebrated her nameday on the Feast of the Prophetess Anna, the day after the Meeting in the Temple, and was considered to have been endowed in some sense with a prophetic gift (see Tomas Venclova, ‘A Meeting of Two Poets: Joseph Brodsky’s “Nunc Dimittis”’, p. 10). According to Venclova, who knew both poets, Brodsky’s religious temperament was similar to that of Søren Kierkegaard and Lev Shestov. Having a greater appreciation for the Old Testament, he was drawn to those parts of the New Testament where there is a sort of overt connection to the Old (Venclova, p. 11). Brodsky claimed the poem had been inspired in part by Rembrandt’s depiction of the Meeting, ‘Symeon in the Temple’ (Venclova, p. 12), though Venclova has shown it is also heavily indebted to Akhmatova and her work.

Here is George L. Kline’s translation of the poem, from Joseph Brodsky, A Part of Speech (NY: Noonday, 1996), pp. 55-7:

‘Nunc Dimittis’

When Mary first came to present the Christ Child
to God in His temple, she found—of those few
who fasted and prayed there, departing not from it—
devout Simeon and the prophetess Anna.

The holy man took the Babe up in his arms.
The three of them, lost in the grayness of dawn,
now stood like a small shifting frame that surrounded
the Child in the palpable dark of the temple.

The temple enclosed them in forests of stone.
Its lofty vaults stooped as though trying to cloak
the prophetess Anna, and Simeon, and Mary—
to hide them from men and to hide them from Heaven.

And only a chance ray of light struck the hair
of that sleeping Infant, who stirred but as yet
was conscious of nothing and blew drowsy bubbles;
old Simeon's arms held him like a stout cradle.

It had been revealed to this upright old man
that he would not die until his eyes had seen
the Son of the Lord. And it thus came to pass. And
he said: ‘Now, O Lord, lettest thou thy poor servant,

according to thy holy word, leave in peace,
for mine eyes have witnessed thine offspring: he is
thy continuation and also the source of
thy Light for idolatrous tribes, and the glory

of Israel as well.' The old Simeon paused.
The silence, regaining the temple's clear space
oozed from all its corners and almost engulfed them,
and only his echoing words grazed the rafters,

to spin for a moment, with faint rustling sounds,
high over their heads in the tall temple's vaults,
akin to a bird that can soar, yet that cannot
return to the earth, even if it should want to.

A strangeness engulfed them. The silence now seemed
as strange as the words of old Simeon's speech.
And Mary, confused and bewildered, said nothing—
so strange had his words been. He added, while turning

directly to Mary: ‘Behold, in this Child,
now close to thy breast, is concealed the great fall
of many, the great elevation of others,
a subject of strife and a source of dissension,

and that very steel which will torture his flesh
shall pierce through thine own soul as well. And that wound
will show to thee, Mary, as in a new vision
what lies hidden, deep in the hearts of all people.’

He ended and moved toward the temple's great door.
Old Anna, bent down with the weight of her years,
and Mary, now stooping gazed after him, silent.
He moved and grew smaller, in size and in meaning,

to these two frail women who stood in the gloom.
As though driven on by the force of their looks,
he strode through the cold empty space of the temple
and moved toward the whitening blur of the doorway.

The stride of his old legs was steady and firm.
When Anna's voice sounded behind him, he slowed
his step for a moment. But she was not calling
to him; she had started to bless God and praise Him.

The door came still closer. The wind stirred his robe
and fanned at his forehead; the roar of the street,
exploding in life by the door of the temple,
beat stubbornly into old Simeon's hearing.

He went forth to die. It was not the loud din
of streets that he faced when he flung the door wide,
but rather the deaf-and-dumb fields of death's kingdom.
He strode through a space that was no longer solid.

The rustle of time ebbed away in his ears.
And Simeon's soul held the form of the Child—
its feathery crown now enveloped in glory—
aloft, like a torch, pressing back the black shadows,

to light up the path that leads into death's realm,
where never before until this present hour
had any man managed to lighten his pathway.
The old man's torch glowed and the pathway grew wider.

The Russian poem (it can be read here) is written in strict amphibrachic tetrameter, and while I haven’t read Kline’s rendering out loud to verify his fidelity, he seems to have attempted to follow the original rather closely in this regard. As I have mentioned previously, my Russian is quite poor, but I can point out two things about the diction. The first, suggested by Venclova, is merely the interesting fact that Brodsky, who was of Jewish decent and did not convert to Christianity so far as I know, uses the word церковь for the Temple in the first line rather than the rather expected храм, which makes it first appearance in the last line of the second stanza. In this way, Venclova suggests, he ‘seems to shift the location of the event from Jerusalem to Russia’ (which reminds me of an observation by Leonard Stanton I shall have to post about soon concerning Dostoevsky’s use of the Life of Elder Leonid of Optina), and, ‘The opposition between Judaism and Orthodoxy, between the Old and the New Testament is thus cancelled out’ (p. 19).

The second interesting point is that he repeatedly refers to St Symeon as старец, a decision that produces an effect similar, it seems to me, to the use of церковь, especially in light of Dostoevsky’s famous description of the ‘institution’ of старцы in The Brothers Karamazov. Unfortunately, the connotations of neither of these dictional choices seem to be reflected in Kline’s translation.


jacobushirsutus said...

I discovered your blog a couple weeks ago and am thoroughly enjoying reading it. I'm not sure how you keep up this torrid pace, but I'm glad you do.

aaronandbrighid said...

James the Hairy> Thank you for your kind comment. If I were to reveal the secret to my torrid pace, it would be like a Soylent Green scenario. Let's just say a lot of no doubt more important things get neglected.