Autumn melancholy in Esenin

Autumn birch trees in Belarus

Esenin, though not well-known in the west, is a very popular poet in Russia. Active in the early 20th century, he is the poet of the countryside and of nostalgia for the beauty of nature. Having achieved early success, he was lionised in St Petersburg society and literary circles. But success brought its own curse and a year after this poem was written, he hanged himself in a room at the Hotel Angleterre in the capital.

The poem seems to express the anguish or conflict he felt in the contrast between his current way of life in the big city and the beauty and simplicity of the countryside.

In Russian the poem has a particular rhythm and also rhymes, this musicality contributing to its distinctive melancholy tone and atmosphere. I have been trying to find a way of rendering this poem into English while maintaining both rhyme and rhythm, but all my attempts overcomplicate it and pack out the lines simply to make the metre work. Here’s one attempt at the first stanza:

The birch wood all in golden autumn dressed
Beguiles me into staying with its song,
And mournful cranes now flying home to rest
Show not a shred of pity for the throng.

So, I’l go with this for now:

The golden trees, speaking
In their own bright birch tongue, dissuaded me,
And sad cranes flying overhead
No longer feel sorry for anyone.

Who should they feel sorry for? For еvery wanderer in the world
Will pass by, call in and then leave home again.
The hemp field dreams of all those who have gone
While the broad moon shines over the blue pond.

Standing alone amid the bare plain,
While the wind carries the cranes off into the distance,
My head is full of thoughts of my happy youth,
But I don’t regret a thing about my past.

No regrets for the years wasted in vain,
No regrets for my soul’s lilac hue.
In the garden the fire of a red rowan burns,
But it can’t consume anyone.

The rowanberry clusters are not burnt,
The grass will not disappear from its yellowness.
As a tree silently drops its leaves,
I let fall sad words.

And if time, scattering them in the wind,
Rakes them all into into one useless heap,
Say this…that the golden trees
In their sweet tongue, dissuaded me.

. [1924]

And then they came to the holy city of Byzantium – Haghia Sophia 1

Haghia Sophia is one of those places, like Russia, that I had long known about, often dreamt of visiting and was afraid might ultimately disappoint. I should not have worried: the reality is better than I had expected.

The first thing that strikes you from the outside is the size of the building, its height and bulk, the sheer size of its dome. If it hits you today, what must it have been like in the sixth century when it was first built? Overpowering, awe-inspiring, a fitting place to worship a god. It was the largest church in Christendom until the Renaissance.

The massive buttressing over the main entrance shows how the walls have had to be reinforced to support the weight of the huge dome.

Scattered around what was the churchyard are old tombs and stone pillars from the Byzantine period, a sad reminder of its imperial past.

The current Haghia Sophia is the third church built on this site. The first one dates from the 4th century.  A second one, dedicated in 415 AD, was destroyed by fire in 532 AD and is represented by a fragment of a frieze in front of the main entrance to the church. The current Haghia Sophia was dedicated by Justinian in 537 AD.

The main entrance door with its high and wide frame, and the thickness of the outer walls give an indication of the vast scale of the building.

Just inside the main entrance is the outer narthex, an entrance or lobby area. Today it is a museum of items from the Byzantine era, a porphyry stand, the tomb of an express, a huge stone bowl, Greek inscriptions, as well as explanatory boards about the church.

From the outer narthex you get a view through the Imperial Gates through into the body of the church itself.

Originally the Imperial Gates were only allowed to be used by the Emperor and his entourage and were guarded 24 hours a day. In the tympanum over the Imperial Gates is a mosaic from the late 9th / early 10th century showing an emperor (possibly Leo VI (the Wise)) kneeling beside Christ

Interestingly in another tympanum in the inner narthex is a reminder of the Iconoclast periods of Byzantine history. For reasons still the subject of scholarly debate in the periods 730-787 and 814-842 the Emperor and the Orthodox Church turned against  the use of icons and the depiction of Christ and the saints. Perhaps it was due to Byzantine military failures against Islam, a culture that also forbade the making of images of the divine. Perhaps it was due to the church trying to assert its authority and gain control over the popular veneration of holy images. During these periods, many old images were destroyed and frequently covered over with a simple cross, as in this tympanum.