I dwindle, go unnoticed now

A google search on '"Osip Mandelstam" "gene wolfe" dwindle' produces no hits, and this post is intended to rectify this.

Osip Mandelstam was a poet in Russia, but his later poetry didn't please Stalin, and he spent his later years in exile, serving sentences for counter-revolutionary activities in various work camps, until his death on December 27, 1938, in the Gulag Archipelago. I only know of him because of the fragment that starts "The Sword of the Lictor" by Gene Wolfe:

Into the distance disappear the mounds of human heads.
I dwindle - go unnoticed now.
But in affectionate books, in childrens' games,
I will rise from the dead to say: the sun!

Now I look for the source, I find that the "official" translation is:

Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children's games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.

I prefer the Wolfe version (is it his own version? I don't know). I would also omit "from the dead" from the last line, and perhaps change rise to arise, if I was writing my own book. Since Osip Mandelstam is a bit of an odd name, and the poem distinctly odd, I had wondered if it was an invented quote, with no convenient way to find out. But now google will tell me in seconds.

For completeness:

Book 1 starts with A thousand ages in thy sight/Are like an evening gone./Short as the watch that ends the night/Before the rising sun - which is a hymn based on Psalms 90.

Book 2 with But strength still goes out from your thorns,/and from your abysses the sound of music. / Your shadows lie on my heart like roses / and your nights are like strong wine, which appears to be a GW original and I think you can tell [*].

Book 4 is AT two o'clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen, / You will hear the feet of the Wind that is going to call the sun. / And the trees in the shadow rustle and the trees in the moonlight glisten, / And though it is deep, dark night, you feel that the night is done, which is Kipling.

TUotNS (which I found rather disappointing) is "Awake, for morning in the bowl of night..." by Fitzgerald; my father used to quote that a lot.

[*] Ha, I'm wrong. But I'm correct that its weird. Its actually Gertrud von Le Fort; see for example google books. "Thorns" is then the obvious Christ reference; but "Your shadows lie on my heart like roses" is beautiful. Thanks to JY.


Anonymous said...

Wolfe's "Castle of Days" has a short section on the writing of "The Book of the New Sun" ("The Castle of the Otter"}. In it, he has a chapter on the poetry in TBotNS - none of the epigraphs of the four volumes are original - the one that you were referring to was by someone called Gertrude von Le Fort.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Thanks!! I needed to grab this quotation quickly, and, foolish me, I had forgotten to bring along my trusty copy of "Sword of the Lictor" (or is it in "Claw..."?).

Regardless of in which volume this beautiful verse appears, you have rectified the glaring omission in the Internet. We are all greatly indebted to you.

Verily, thou rocketh my world.

jared yuster said...

Very nice blog, I love Gene Wolfe's work. I think you'll fang that Gertrude Von Le Forte is the author of "but strength still goes out from your thorns..."