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Title: Leviathan, Yggdrasil, Earth Titan, Eagle: Balʹmont's Reimagining of Walt Whitman

Author: Martin Bidney

Publication information: "Leviathan, Yggdrasil, Earth Titan, Eagle: Balʹmont's Reimagining of Walt Whitman," by Martin Bidney, first appeared in The Slavic and East European Journal 34.2 (Summer 1990), 176–191.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00246

Konstantin Dmitrievič Balʹmont, "father of Russian Symbolism" (Mandelʹštam, 2:342), was one of the great intercultural communicators of modern times. Quoting Balʹmont's contemporary, Evgenij Aničkov, Georgette Donchin reminds us that Russian Symbolists "'greedily drank at all the new sources of Western art that were available,' they were typically 'men of the renaissance,' they felt bound to know foreign languages, they were 'humanists in the sense of erudition'" (Donchin, 9; Aničkov, 51-52). The Scales (Vesy), the magazine in which a few of Balʹmont's early Whitman translations first appeared, tried to expand its readers' awareness of vital developments in world literature; to this end, it posted correspondents in France, Germany, Poland, England, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Italy, Greece, and India (Donchin, 49-50). In his 1904 book Mountain Peaks (Gonyja veršiny) Balʹmont offers a list of "the most outstanding symbolists, decadents and impressionists" ("naibolee vydajuščixsja simvolistov, deka-dentov, i impressionistov") to prove that these exemplary creators are not mainly French (as readers might have expected) but rather Scandinavian, German, English and American (79). Among these poetic leaders Balʹmont includes Whitman.

Balʹmont published a 210-page volume of selections from Leaves of Grass (Pobegi travy) plus four essays on Whitman. The 1908 essay "Polarity" ("Polijarnost") is affixed as preface to Pobegi travy; two more essays "Chanter of Personality and Life" ("Pevec ličnosti i žizni") and "The Poetry of Struggle" ("Poèzija borʹby"), appear in the volume White Summer Lightening (Belyja zarnicy) and "Of Enemies and Enmity" ("O vragaz i vražde"), a 1908 essay on Whitman, may be found in Marine Phosphorescence (Morskoe svecenie). Though Balʹmont's volume of translations includes less than a third of the "Complete Authorized Edition" of Leaves of Grass (Boston: Small, Maynard & Company, 1905) that served as his source,1 he does include selections from all the major periods of Whitman's life, all the more or less chronological subgroupings of Whitman's text.2 Why, in any given group, did Balʹmont include certain poems and leave out others? What determined his choices? The essays provide the best commentary on this question, as on all others, for in Balʹmont's prose we learn which lyrical moments, which idea's of Whitman's universalism was vastly appealing to the cosmopolitan Balʹmont, but in presenting the American sage to the Russian public Balʹmont shaped both the Whitman persona and the form of its utterances according to his own style of writing, his own mode of vision, both in verse and prose.

The conceptual focuses of the essays show us what philosophical elements Balʹmont thought most timely, and most abiding, in Leaves of Grass. The self-transcending Whitman is contrasted with the self-preoccupied Poe in Balʹmont's psychology of personality. In cosmic terms, Whitman's enthusiastic philosophical monism is stressed for its capacity, rare among poets, cheerfully to affirm the plenitude of being. In the area of social relations, Balʹmont feels that Whitman has plenty to teach us about the affirmation of love and sex, friendship and passion. Finally, Whitman's prophetic scope makes him, for Balʹmont, our best interpreter of major trends in modern history.

But far more than a philosophical reconstrual, Balʹmont's reinterpretation of Whitman inn his translations and criticism involved a full-scale reimagining of Whitman and his work in visionary term, the terms of poetic myth. Balʹmont conveys his vision of Whitman in symbolic emblems, mythic images. His mentor in this task was John Addington Symonds, whose Walt Whitman: A Study contains a statement that Balʹmont quotes with fervor: "'Leaves of Grass,' which I first read at the age of twenty-five, influenced me more perhaps than any other book has done, except the Bible; more than Plato, more than Goethe" (Symonds, 11; quoted BZ, 105). Symonds despairs of pinning Whitman down in propositions; rather, he relies on metaphor. And Symonds' metaphors deeply impressed his Russian reader. Concluding his study, the English critic invites is to see Whitman as Behemoth, wallowing in primeval jungles, bathing at fountain-heads, of mighty rivers, crushing the bamboos and the cane-brakers under him, bellowing and exulting in the torrid air. He is a gigantic elk or buffalo, trampling the grasses of the wilderness, tracking his mate with irrepressible energy. He is an immense tree, a kind of Yggdrasil, stretching its roots deep down into the bowels of the world, and unfolding its magic boughs through all the spaces of the heavens. His poems are even as the rings in the majestic oak or pine. He is the circumambient air, in which float shadowy shapes, rise mirage-towers, and palm-groves; we try to clasp their visionary forms; they vanish into ether. He is the globe itself; all seas, lands, forests, climates, storms, snows, sunshines, rains of universal truth. (155-156). Balʹmont picks up most of these images and elaborates or transforms them with exuberance, linking them to imagery he finds in the Whitman poems he translates, so in their new versions these images become thematic emblems in his work, symbols of what Balʹmont loves most in Whitman and stimuli for his own best prose poetry about Whitman's legacy. Balʹmont likes Symonds' reference to a marvelous prodigy of power from the Book of Job, but instead of Symonds' Behemoth, Balʹmont likens Whitman to Leviathan. Balʹmont so eagerly appropriates Symonds' Yggdrasil image of a cosmic tree that in his own essays the spreading tree largely replaces the prolific grass as central metaphor for Whitman's opus. Though Balʹmont skips over Symonds' image of the gigantic elk or buffalo, he modifies Symonds' metaphor of Whitman as the earth-globe; Whitman becomes the earth-glob personified, transformed into a Primal Titan or earth giant. (Indeed, Symonds elsewhere depicts Whitman as Antaeus [143].) Finally, Balʹmont compares Whitman not to the circumambient air but to a closely related image: the airborne eagle. A look at Balʹmont's lyrical prose on these four image-themes (Leviathan, Yggdrasil, earth-titan, eagle) will clarify the basic concepts of his Whitman criticism and at the same time open up entryways into his most appealing translations. The four emblems represent the four aspects (psychological, cosmic, social, historical) of Balʹmont's rethinking of Whitman's great poem. We can even say that, as embodied in Balʹmont's lyrical prose and imaginative translations, the mythic images themselves add up to a major Balʹmontian visionary work.3

Balʹmont does not oppose his Leviathan-Whitman to Symonds' Behemoth-Bard in a polemical spirit; he would as soon blend the images of earth and sea-monsters, for his focus is on raw, unabated energies, omnivorous percipience. For Balʹmont, Whitman's impressionability is undiscriminating and voracious, like an antediluvian Leviathan. But, like an antediluvian bulky and menacing monster, he transports us to the morning of Creation, and gives us the sensation of the huge creative expanses of Earth and Water.

[Ego vpečatlitelʹnostʹ nerazborčiva i prožorliva, kak dopotopnyj Leviafan. No, kak dopotopnoe gruznoe i grozunio čudovišče, on perenosit nas k utru Mirozdanija, i daet nam oščuščenie ogromnyx tvorčeskix prostranstv Zemli i Vody.(BZ, 66)]
Yet the substitution of Leviathan for Behemoth in Balʹmont's Jobean vision does indicate something central in Balʹmont's own sensibility as well as in Whitman's;both are sea-poets, and the communicate well in this element. In the essay "Polarity" Balʹmont translates a lyric from the "Sands at Seventy" portion of Leaves of Grass, a poem entitled "Had I the Choice." Here Whitman declares that if he were to magically allowed to compete effectively with such greats as Homer, Shakespeare, and Tennyson, he would willingly renounce the opportunity in exchange for the gift to transfer the "trick" of a single sea-wave's motion, the merest "odor" of the ocean's enlivening "breath," into some lines of his own lyric verse (LG, 514). Whitman, says Balʹmont, did indeed have this wished-for ability; he conveys to us the tang of the salty sea breeze. But Balʹmont goes much farther in his praise: Whitman himself is a water spirit. He is a Sea-King; when he splashes, he overturns ships; he is shaggy, ragged feckless, splendid—and gripping.

[Uitman sam—Vodjanoj. On—Morskoj Carʹ, plijašet—korabli oprokidyvaet, kosmatyj, loxmatyj, nelepyj, prekrasnyj, tak vot i zaxvatyvajuščij. (PT,8]

Balʹmont translated Whitman to the sound of sea rhythms: he tells us that he did most of the rendition for his Whitman anthology during the autumns of 1903 and 1905 on the Baltic shore, and also (during the latter autumn) partly in Moscow, listening to the soldiers' rifle salvos. In Marine Phosphorescence Balʹmont brings together more explicitly the themes of death and the sea in connection with Whitman, this time in a way that suggests communication with the American Leviathan or sea bard in ways both spoken and unspoken. Here Balʹmont describes walking by the sea at Soulac-sur-Mer, trying to sort out his reactions to the Russo-Japanese war in the context of Whitman's meditations on Civil War fatalities. Whitman, he reasons, wrote of a war that served the higher end of the emancipation, while Balʹmont's friend Leonid has just died in a quiet different of struggle—a baseless conflict, where the only "enemies" were those unseen leaders who uprooted peaceful men like Leonid from their homeland to make them die pointlessly on the barren plains of Manchuria. Balʹmont's metaphor for this grotesque uprooting is the transformation of sea plants tossed ashore by a recent storm; the beautiful orchid-like forms are now hideously twisted out of shape, "cartilaginous-looking, large-nostriled, repellent stalks, broken, tangled, dead" ("xrjaščevidnye, nozdrevatye, protivnye stebli, slomannye, sputannye, mertvye" ([168]). Even so are the mounds of the dead in Manchuria mere remnants tossed up by the great "Ocean of Night" ("vybroskami Nočnogo Okeana" ([168]).

Balʹmont's scenario evidently embodies a strong memory of Whitman's "As I Ebb'd by the Ocean of Life," a poem Balʹmont did not translate but which has in effect powerfully recreated: Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,)
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
. . .
A limp blossom or two, torn just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature. . ..(LG, 256)
The habitual reader of Whitman can rewardingly discover in Balʹmont not merely manifest allusions to Whitman as sea-poet, but submerged memories, still active below the surface, engendering new sea visions.

Homer sang the sea in dactyls, and so does Whitman, to a degree—but the Balʹmontian Russian Whitman loves the rhythm even more. Balʹmont's fondness for triple meters impels the Russian sea poet to blend his own style with Whitman's by adding a good many more dactyls to those already present in the American bard's marine masterpiece, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."4 Here is Whitman, at the song's dramatic climax, addressing the bird that has vainly sent out its longing cries toward the loud-sounding sea: Démŏn ŏr bírd! (săid thĕ boy's soul,)
      Ís ĭt indéed tŏwărd yŏur mate you sing? or is it réally tŏ me?

For I, that was a child, my tongue's use sleeping, now Ĭ hăve heard you,
Nów ĭn ă mómŏnt Ĭ know what I am for, I awake,
And alréady ă thousand síngĕrs, ŏ thousand songs, clearer, louder and
      more sórrŏwfŭl than yours,

A thousand warbling echoes have stártĕd tŏ life within me, névĕr tŏ die. (LG, 251-252)
My sample scansions indicate no shortage of phrases that may be easily read as dactyls. But Balʹmont offers a much larger proportion; in his version the triple meter provides the dominant rhythmic feeling of the stanza: Démŏn ĭli ptícă! (skăzálă dŭša rebenka),
Vprávdŭ lĭ etŏ k pŏdrúgĕ svŏéj ty pŏéš? ĭlĭ voístĭnŭ etŏ kŏ mne?
Ibo ja, cto málčĭkŏm byl, s réčjŭ, drĕmótŏj ŏb"jatoj, nýnĕ ŭslýšăl tĕbja,
V mig edínyj tĕpér' jă ŭznal, čtó jă tăkoe, já prŏbŭdilsja,
I uz' týsjăčĭ zvónkĭx pĕvcov, tysjăčĭ pesen, grómčĕ, zvŏnčéj, čĕm tvŏí, ĭ

Tysjăčĭ otklĭkŏv, [zvónkŏ] ščĕbéčŭščĭx, k žiznĭ vŏznikli vŏ mne, i [vstáv,]
      nĕ ŭmrut (PT, 108-109)

Not only have dactyls take over, but their forward surge cannot be interrupted through literalism: the bracketed words "zvonko" and "vstav" do not correspond to any words of Whitman but are inserted to strengthen the surf-like moan that blends with the songs of birds, to keep the dactyls moving.

As Whitman blends the sounds of bird-music with those of the ocean (the great Sea Mother that rocks the cradle), so Balʹmont thematically combines music and marine imagery as he explains the crucial role that the Leviathanic Whitman plays in the Balʹmontian psychology of personality: Whitman is the great self-transcender, losing himself in a larger element. In "Polarity" we learn that without Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe "the nineteenth century could not have realized itself and become complete" ("Bez nix 19-j vek ne mog by osuščestvit'sja i byt' zakončennym" [PT, 5]). These two poets embody for our time the eternal, mutually contrary principles of our human approach to reality: self-consciousness and self transcendence.5 "Edgar Poe is the crucible of self-consciousness"; he leads us through an "enchanted hall ending in a magic mirror—you look into it, and there's nowhere else to go" ("Edgar Po—gornilo samopoznanija";"Začarovanny pyšnyj zal, končajuščijsja magičeskim zerkalom, v kotoroe gljaneš'—i bo'lše už nekuda idti" [PT, 6]). But Whitman moves in the reverse direction, not toward the North Pole of crystalline and frozen self-study, but southward, away from the griefs and doubts Poe felt, toward a contrary principle, the affirmation of universal Being/ Reading Whitman, Balʹmont says that his own soul, now become one with Whitman's, "enters the ocean of Universality and, blending all instruments in a thunderous organ, sings in oblivion of self : 'Hosannah!'" ("vstupaet v okean Vsemirnosti i, slliv vse instrumenty v gromovyj organ, poet samozabvenno—'Osanna!'" [PT, 6]). Balʹmont's metaphor of musical speech-forms blended in a musical ocean echoes Whitman's own imagery of blended human and non-human speech-music in "Out of the Cradle".

Whitman, then, has looked into Poe's mirror of self-analysis but has turned away from it, directing all the streams of his consciousness toward the infinite sea where, like subaqueous Leviathan, he can immerse himself in the broader element of Being. Here the development of Balʹmont's Whitmanlike marine imagery reaches its dithyrambic culmination: Through the immediate transformation of everything in the flowing current of life into a symbol, through the confluence of all separate streams into one universal Ocean, Whitman, time and again, victoriously advances toward the universal affirmation of the I, which has looked into the mirror [of self-analysis] and then left it for Affirmed-Being, which perpetually expends itself, losing not a drop — or losing, perhaps, but not caring.

[Čerez nepreryvnuju simvolizaciju vsego, čto na mig voznikaet v tekuščem pootoke žizni, čerez vpadenie vsex ediničnyx ruč'ev v odin vselenskij Okean, Uitman, mnogo imnogo raz, pobedno podxodit k mirovomu utverždeniju Ja; zaglijanuvšago v zerkalo i ušedšago ot nego, k Bytiju Utverždennomu, kotoroe vecno sebja rastračivaet, ne terjaja no idnoj svoej kapli,—byt' mozet, i terjaja, da tak cto ne žalko . (PT, 7)]

Balʹmont thinks Whitman has unduly weakened his self-image as cosmopolitan World-Affirmer—at least from the likely perspective of his future Russian readers—by including in his great poem too many elements that are "purely American, local" ("sliškom mnogo. . .èlementov čisto-amerikan-skix, mestnyx" [BZ, 65]). Balʹmont therefore omits from his own Pobegi travy all the nationalistic paeans: "Song of the Redwood-Tree," "Song of the Exposition," "By the Blue Ontario's Shore"—even "Passage to India," which celebrates America's technological power of transcontinental telegraphy. He prefers "Song of the Answerer," that globally responsive bard who appears an Englishman to the English, "a Russ to the Russ" (LG, 168; "Russkomu Russkim" [PT, 82]). Balʹmont especially loves "Salut au Monde," where Whitman goes so far as to visit "the giant pinnacles of Elbruz, Kazbek, Bazardjusi," the "Balks, Carpathians," the "tents of Kalmucks ad Baskirs," the "samoiede," the "Siberian," as well as "Moscow" "Siberian Irkutsk," and other vantage points from which he can greet the mighty Slavic tribes and empires!" and in particular the "Russ of Russia!" (LG, 139, 143-145; see PT, 65, 9-60, 72). Probably Balʹmont's desire to present Whitman as World-Affirmer, fleeing (or flowing) in the reverse direction from that sought by narcissistic self-analysts like Poe, will best explain the most striking omission from Pobegi travy, the absence of "Song of Myself". True, the title of Whitman's "Song" refers to "self" that is hardly contained between the poet's hat and boots. Yet even so, Balʹmont may well have felt that it would unduly complicate his neat (surely rather too neat!) theoretical model of polar opposites: self-fixated Poe vs. self-obvious Whitman.

As Balʹmont proceeds to broaden the psychological principle of self-transcendence into a metaphysical or cosmic principle of the Plenitude of Being, he begins to compare Whitman's life and work to the growth of Yggdrasil, the cosmic tree of Norse mythology. Balʹmont combines Symonds' characterization of Whitman's religion as "cosmic enthusiasm"(31; "kosmičeskij èntuziazm" [BZ, 83]) with his own new version of Symonds' Norse analogy. Whitman "reminds one of the legendary tree Yggdrasil, whose boughs encircle the world, and whose roots are in the subterranean realm, and whose green summir is in the boundless Heaven" ("napominajuščago skazočnoe drevo Igdrazil', č'i vetvi oxvatyvajut mir, i č'i korni v podxemnom carstve, i č'ja zelenaja veršina v bezkonečnom Nebe" [BZ, 72]). Balʹmont details for us the whole growth process whereby the seed produces a shoot, a stalk, a trunk, new sprouts, thickening rings, foliage, blossoms; then come the birds, leading our attention to the sky, the clouds, the boundlessness of life, of beauty (BZ, 72-73). Many poets have produced ephemeral flowering gardens, but only Whitman's poem has the potential to spread "young growths of mighty forests of the future" ("molodyja zarosli mogučix lesov grjaduščago" [BZ, 101].6

This new Yggdrasil myth is compounded of Whitman, Symonds, and Balʹmont's own expanding vision. What is most vital about it is that Balʹmont makes his principle of Fullness of Being include complementary processes: destruction as well as creation. We learn that Whitman's father was a carpenter; that the verses of the song emulate the blows of the axe (BZ,73); that the young poet liked the sound of the woodmen's axe far better than the soft lures of civilization; and that in this he embodied the strength of his young country. "chaotically rushing toward the massive creation of new forms of life" ("xaotičeski rvuščejsja k massovym sozdan'jam novyx form žizni" [BZ, 67]). Complementary forces, creation and destruction, are blended in these vignettes of the carpenter's son, the wilderness-taming nation, the primal wood and the manly axe.

The chief source of this vision in the work of Whitman himself is "Song of the Broad-Axe," where opposite principles are similarly united in a framework of mutual support. Whitman shows us the interdependence of wood and metal, axe and earth, biological birth and mechanical arts, bodies and tools. nature and culture, all united in variants of a single "rhyme," a single ongoing and productive life power. THe formal embodiment of this is Whitman's use of an uncommon musical device; all eight tetrameters in poem's first stanza end in variants of the same oblique rhyme or half-rhyme: wan, drawn, bone, one, grown, sown, upon, on. The axe-blow accents are heavy, the ringing percussive rhymes relentless; as we shall see, the sheer virtuosity of the writing seems to attract Balʹmont as much as the fullness-of-being, a woodmanship philosophy: Wéapon shápely, náked, wán,
Héad from the móther's bówels dráwn,
Wóoded flésh and métal bóne, límb only óne and líp only óne,
Gráy-blue léaf by réd-heat grówn, hélve produced from a líttle seed sówn,
Résting the gráss amid and upón,
Tó be léan'd and tó clean ón. (LG, 184)
Whitman speeds up the tetrameters' tempo slightly in mid-stanza by combining two of his rhymed tetrameters in line 3 and another in line 4, thus shortening what would have been two additional end-line pauses. Extra verve enters the music for this wedding of nature and man's arts.

Balʹmont duplicates this unusual effect of amazingly well. He inserts a few more syllables because the language requires it, and he has to change the number of stresses, but the heavily accentual effect still comes through with a fine fidelity: Orúž'e nagóe i strojnoe, sineváta egó belizná,
Iz glubin materínskago čréva golová egó vznesená,
Plót' iz dréva i kóst' iz metella, člén odín i gubá liš' odná,
Sero-siníj líst v krasnom žáre vozrós, rukojátka že sémenem makym daná,
Ležít na travé, i travá pod nim skolnená,
V ném upór, v ném opóra daná. (PT, 87)
Such meters and rhyme schemes are as rare in Russian as in English; Whitman's richly significant tree-emblem, his creative-destructive axe enigma, has stimulated Balʹmont to produce in "Pesn' plotnič'jago topora," something equally rich and strange.

Applying the fullness-of-Being principle to social relations, Whitman celebrates human fulfillment through love and friendship. Yet in his particular mode of affirmation Whitman contrasts—in Balʹmont's view—not only with the melancholy Poe but also with the sanguine Shelley (another poetic hero of Balʹmont's); and it is this perceived contrast that spurs Balʹmont to one of his most entertaining and effective pieces of Whitmanist mythmaking: his portrait of Whitman as Primal Giant or Earth-Titan. Three kinds of light shine in the eyes of Poe, Shelley and Whitman. Poe's eyes give off the phosphoric, unearthly light of St. Elm o's fire or will-o'-the-wisp; Shelley's, the trancelike radiance of an aroma-drunken midday, or—oftener—the moonlight that we see on mountain peaks or on the silent ocean (BS,84). By contrast: The countenance of Walt Whitman is the countenance not of a spirit, not of a demon, but the bright face of a mighty dweller on the earth, in love with Earth in an earthly way, this face of a giant who, as if playing ball, can sport with craggy boulders and pile up these powerful rocks so that towers form, and cities arise, and the streets of these mighty cities will be labyrinths, and from the height of measureless stories from numberless windows will gaze, in harmonious multiplicity, the faces of free and thoughtful people, reconciled with Earth, and in the eyes of these new free people, bound by the ties of a single spiritual life, will burn the same light that shines in the deep eyes of this obdurate and freshly-joyful giant. . .

[Lik Uolʹta Uitmana—lik ne duxa, ne demona, a svetloe, lico mogučago žitelja Zemli, pozemnomu vljublennago v Zemlju, èto lik ispolina, kotoryj, kak v mjač, mozet igratʹ oblomkami utesov, i možet nagromozditʹ èti moščnye kamni odin na drugoj, tak čto slozatsja basni, i vyrostut goroda, i ulicy ètix mogučix gorodov budut labirintami, i s vysoty bezmernyx ètažej is bezčislennyx okon budut gljadetʹ v sodruzestvennom mnnozestve lica svobodnyx i myslikaš čix ljudej, primirivšixsja uzami edinoj duxovnoj žizni, budet getʹ tot že svet, cto svetitsja v glubokix glazax vot etogo upornago i radostnago-svežago giganta. . .(BZ, 84)]

Whitman's famous imagined cities of amativeness and adhesiveness here arise as if in play, and the identical nature of the ludic light that glistens in the eyes of their hardly distinguishable inhabitants seems a playful reference, on Balʹmont's part, to the bard's oft-boasted powers of procreation. Symonds (see above) had likened Whitman to the earthly globe. Whitman makes his mythic Whitman equally of the earth, earthy, but—not resting content with this—further elaborates the Earth Giant into a Primal Titan born of both Gaia and Ouranos, combining sublunary powers and skyey ones: "Enlivened by ruddiness, blue-eyed, with an attractive and penetrating look, a true son of the SKy and Earth" ("Oživlennyj runjancem, goluboglazyj, s licom vnimatelʹnym i proniknovennym, istyj syn Neba i Zemli" [BZ, 102]).

Balʹmont's vignette of a titan who playfully builds labyrinthine cities and who then peoples them with this ubiquitous amiable image is itself an elaboration of a translation: here again we will see that Balʹmont's essays and translations are concurrent expressions of a single interpretive process. Whitman's "I Dream'd in a Dream" is a "Calamus" lyric, celebrating the love of comrades: I dream'd in a dream I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of
      the rest of the earth

I dream'd that was the new city of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love, it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.
(LG, 133)
In rendering this five-line poem, Balʹmont splits up some lines for smoother flow and reshapes all the music in the dactylic mold of his personal rhythmic style: Mne snilosʹ vo sne, čto ja vižu nevedomyj gorod,
Nepobedimyj, xotja b na nego i napali vse carstva zemli.
Snilsja mne novyj gorod druzej,
Samym vysokim tam—kačestvo bylo mogučej ljubvi,
Vyše—ničto, i za nej vse idet ostalʹnoe,
Zrima byla jasno mgnovenie každoe
V dejstvijax žitelej etogo goroda,
V ix vzorax, vo vsex ix slovax.
For his prose limning of the giant bolder of cities, Balʹmont has borrowed from this poem the "city of friends," the "looks" in their eyes, and has added the image embodied in the title of the poem that precedes it in Leaves of Grass, "Earth, My Likeness" (LG, 132; "Moj Obraz, Zemlja," PT,59), to give us the composite portrait of the gigantic Earth-Titan, Earth-lover, erecting towers of rock. The resulting cities will be as "invincible" as was Antaeus, so long as he remained Earth's adherent.

In "Earth, My Likeness" Whitman says that within himself, as within the seemingly impassive terrestrial globe, there is a potentially eruptive force of which he "dare not tell" in "words, not even in these songs" (LG, 132; "Ja ne smeju ob ètom v slovax rasskazatʹ, / Ni daže v strokax ètoj pesni" [PT, 59])This enigmatic, elusive tone may well account for the (at first surprising) convoluted, anfractuous quality Balʹmont ascribes to the Earth-Titan's new cities of friendship ("i ulicy ètix mogučix gorodov budut labirintami"). Symonds had already cited "Earth, My-Likeness" in his own critical study, noting the "spiritual conflict" it seemed to embody; he adds that in such poems "Whitman has struck a keynote, to the emotional intensity of which the modern world is unaccustomed" (73-74). Symonds concludes that "the time has not yet come to raise the question whether the love of man for man shall be elevated through a hitherto unapprehended chivalry to nobler powers, even as the barbarous love of a man for woman once was" 984-85).

Balʹmont, in turn, grants that the American bard may have gone "too far along paths leading to the unusual, the unelaborated, the not-yet-realized" ("sliškom daleko, po dorogam, uvodjaščim k neobyčnomu, k nevyrabotannomu, k neosuščestvlennomu" [BZ, 70]), but he thinks Whitman avoided certain distortions that plagued earlier seers. Michelangelo's women, Balʹmont avers, look so masculine that they seem beings from another planet where no one who likes real women would ever want to go. Leonardo's androgynes, though more attractive, are also extraterrestrial: orchidlike, serpentine, hothouse growths. In Whitman's "Earth, My Likeness," Balʹmont concludes, we find not only a "serpentine pliancy and unspokenness" ("zmeinaja uklončivostʹ i nedogovorennostʹ") recalling Leonardo's paintings, but also something more primal and mighty, more admissible and comprehensible in its power (see BZ, 70-71). Summing up his discussion of "I Dream'd in a Dream," Balčmont amiably likens this vision of Whitman's to a portrait "of an idealized host of Zaporoshian Cossacks" ("kak by nekotoroj idealčnoj Zaporožskoj Seči" [BZ, 71]).

If Balʹmont liked the unconstraint of Whitman's American Cossacks, a couple of statistics will suggest that his own creative powers as translator were even more impressively enlivened by the American bard's depictions of heterosexual "amativeness." Balʹmont translated fifteen of Whitman's thirty-nine "Calamus" poems, but he did all sixteen of the lyrics that constitute the cycle, "Children of Adam." It is possible that these figures reflect a fear of controversy on the Russian translator's part. Yet although at one point Balʹmont remarks that it is "not always possible to quote" ("Ne vsegda vozmožno procitirovatʹ" [BZ, 69]) from the most startling of Whitman's hymns to the human body, the controversial elements he refers to in that statement are actually glorifications of heterosexual love.

In any case, Balʹmont is translating "amative" or "adhesive" poems, lyrics of love or friendship for women or men, he always writes faithfully and freely. Balʹmont never bowdlerizes. We have been "So deeply corrupted by historical Christianity," he declares, that we are "nearly incapable of understanding the beauty of a living body. . .health, complete, inspired, passionate, convincingly-challengingly-passionate" ("Gluboko izvraščennye istoričeskim Xristianstvom,. . .my počti nesposobny ponimatʹ krasoty živuščago tela,. . .zdorovago, zakončennago, oduxotvorennago, strastnago, ubeditelʹno-uzyvčivo-strastnago" [BZ, 108-109]). Quoted in full, Balʹmont's peroration on this theme would prove a worthy counterpart in prose to his masterly rendition of Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric."

We have seen Balʹmont's Whitman as Leviathan, emerging only to lead us back to the primal ocean of self-oblivion; as Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life or cosmic forest, embodying the principle of plenitude; as sportive Titan, building from boulders labyrinthine cities based on love and friendship, physical and spiritual, reflecting their maker's ruddy face and sky-blue gaze. Finally we come to the political Whitman, aptly symbolized in Balʹmont's vision by the eagle. Symonds had compared the bard to the circumambient air, and Balʹmont, too, favored metaphors that emphasized not only breadth but height: elevated perspective, encompassing multitudes. In "The Poetry of Struggle" he tells that Whitman's birth constellation could have been nothing less than an entire galaxy: the Milky Way (BZ, 106-107). In "Chanter of Personality of Life" Balʹmont elaborates the sky-theme by calling Whitman not only a "reader of human souls" but even an "astrologer of human eyes" ("čitatelʹ duš ljudskix," zvezdočet ljudskix glaz" [BZ, 74]). The metaphor of the eagle or bird of prey allows Balʹmont to add to this general sense of heightened perspective two subthemes with specifically political meaning: the role of violence and conflict in ushering in long-needed changes, and the role of Whitman as poet of transition, of historical movement and passage.

Whitman's own great carols of avain ecstasy provided the basis for Balʹmont's metaphor of Whitman as eagle. Balʹmont praises Whitman's "Dalliance of the Eagles" and invests his rendition with the classical majesty, regularizing the rhythm into dactylic hexametric [see BZ, 69-70; . LG, 273-274; PT, 125]). Balʹmont loves to paint in prose Whitman's man-of-war bird, its metallic wings like "airy yataghans" ("vozdušnye jatagany" [BZ, 115]). And in his translation, "Ptica-Boec," Balšmont cannot resist adding some original new touches to the Whitman canvas. When Whitman writes "Now a blue point, far, far in heaven floating" (LG, 257), Balʹmont offers: "Ty sinjaj točka teperʹ, daleko, daleko na nebe / Plyvešʹ" (PT, 111); instead of cluttering Whitman's line with extra syllables in order to keep all the meanings, he puts the airy verb in a one-word line of its own, suitably "floating" in space. For "rosy and elastic dawn" Balʹmont writes "S zarej vozrostajušče-rozovoj," making the first word grow elastically into a new, rich compound. Whitman's word "gyrating" becomes "kružišʹsja, mčišʹsja," so that one can hear the sound of the rustling winged cartwheels (see LG, 257-258; PT, 111-112).7 Balʹmont wants to convey, as he feels Whitman has done, "Sea and Air, in their fused boundlessness" ("More i Vozdux, v ix slitnoj bezbrežnosti" [BZ, 116]), imaged in the soaring sea-bird that Whitman so resembles.

To expand the metaphor, Balʹmont compares the eagle's widened view of space with the equally expanded temporal scope of Whitman's vision. Here Balʹmont cites a report (relayed by Symonds, xiv-xv) that the American poet "was quiet grey at thirty," that he "had a look of age in his youth," as later a "look of youth in his age." Balʹmont comments: As the eagle by its flight changes the conception of height, erasing the distinction between flatland and mountains, so too the spiritual flight of this genius has fused into one the contrasting human ages of life, rising above them all.
[Kak orel izmenjaet poletom ponjatie vysoty, stiraja različie meždu ravninoj i gorami, tak duxovnyj polet ètogo genija slil voedino raznstvujuščie čelovečeskie vozrasty, voznesjasʹ nad vsemi. (BZ, 101)]
This allowed Whitman to preserve his youthfulness into age, even after a paralytic stroke: "with broken wings" he yet remained a "mighty and proud bird, completing his earthly life with epic clarity, with elemental majesty" ("o slomannymmi krylʹjami," "moščnoj, gordoj pticej, zaveršivšej zemnuju žiznʹ èpičeski-jasno, stixijno-veličestvenno" [BZ, 105]). More than that: the agelessness of Whitman's character and personality gave him powers of prophetic insight, transcending time as the eagle transcends space.

Civil War carnage was an evil which contributed, Balʹmont feels, to a greater good—and he tries to see current Russian conflicts in the same way, from Whitman's time-transcending height. He quotes his translation of Whitman's "Trickle Drops," somewhat out of context, to support the thesis that "the path of constructiveness is a path sown with red flowers" ("Putʹ stroitelʹstva—putʹ, usejannyj krasnymi cvetami" [BZ, 119]).8 Balʹmont even boldly translates, in this context of justified violence, Whitman's celebratory lyric of advancing freedom, "Europe, The 72nd and 73rd Years of These States," with lines like "The People scorn'd the ferocity of kings" ("Narod prezrel svireposti vladyk" [LG, 267; BZ, 92]). Whitman's poem actually depicts the revolutions of 1848 (LG, 266n), though Balʹmont thought it referred to the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune (BZ, 91). Either way, Balʹmont might well feel that the words "seem written positively for us, Russians who are living through the years 1905-1906" ("kažitsja položitelʹno napisannymi dlja nas, Russkix, pereživajuščix 1905-1906 gody" [BZ, 91]). Remarks elsewhere in his essay make it clear that Balʹmont is here referring to the Russo-Japanese War; he speaks of a conflict between two nations, two races (BZ, 88). But readers may have caught an implied reference to the ominous 1905 civil uprising as well.

We saw earlier, in discussing the paradoxes of the broad-axe metaphor, that for Balʹmont Whitman's principle of plenitude appears to involve the affirmation of creative and destructive processes as intertwined; the wood-handled axe and the tree it fells both express the same force of advancing, outgoing life. In politics, though, it becomes harder for Balʹmont to affirm the productive results of force. The Russo-Japanese War vividly dramatizes this problem, for as we saw in the 1908 essay from Marine Phosphorescence, the Russians and the Japanese are, properly speaking, not enemies in Balʹmont's opinion—the only real enemies are the warmakers. How, then, can Whitman's affirmation of violence still serve as a guide?

The problem comes to a head as we read Balʹmont's excellent rendering of Whitman's "Song of the Banner at Daybreak." Here force is idealizes from the eagle's perspective, as the "Poet" in the impassioned allegory declares: "Ja volʹnaja ptica lesov i utesov, / Ja volʹnaja ptica morej, / S vysot ja vziraju, na krylʹjax, na krylʹjax" (PT, 135; "I use the wings of the land-bird and use the wings of the sea-bird, and look down as from a height" [LG, 287]). The Poet justifies the vision of the Child, who glories in the prospects held out by the mysterious and alluring military Banner and Pennant, which the Father, eyes focused on earth and matter, on mere mundane practicality, cannot comprehend. Balʹmont compares this idealistic allegory to Goethe's Erlkönig" for its balladlike music and its stress on the child's superior powers of vision(BZ, 132). But there is an inner contradiction—a troubling and revealing one—lurking within the Goethe comparison. Goethe's Erlkönig or Alder King, as Balʹmont knew all to well, serves no lofty, vital power or progressive tendency of the Spirit. The Alder Kingis, quite simply, a child snatcher and a vicious killer. That is what the child's penetrating vision perceived and what his father had failed to comprehend. Does Balʹmont see war as vindication of an ideal, as his conscious rhetoric proclaims, or as merely grotesque tragedy, as his Goethe comparison would insidiously imply? The two attitudes seem to be warring, if only subconsciously, within Balʹmont's ming.

Certainly Balʹmont changes his attitude, or his emphasis, as occasion seems to demand; the 1908 essay "The Poetry Struggle" (where "Banner at Daybreak" is quoted in full) should not be taken as a final statement. Like Whitman, Balʹmont eschews any simple solution to the problem of evil, political evil in particular. Commenting on his translation of Whitman's "I Sit and Look Out," Balʹmont draws a distinction between two kinds of evils indicated by Whitman: those common to history as a whole, possibly evils of an eternal nature; and those caused by present-day moral problems, by living in an evil house with a rotten foundation (BZ, 119). Balʹmont says he will decline to discuss the first group of evils, the permanent or irremediable ones,9 and will concentrate instead on the second kind: the moral evils that face us, in our time. We have the duty, and the ability, to level corrupt constructions and build something better (BZ, 119).

But elsewhere in "The Poetry of Struggle" Balʹmont admits that this is easier said than done; political forces today threaten to take on the elemental, ungovernable character of volcanoes and avalanches. From this perspective, Balʹmont feels that perhaps his most immediately apropos translation may be "Gody Sovremennosti," a rendering of Whitman's "Years of the Modern," filled with frankly acknowledged speculations and guesses, with prophecies indistinguishable from perplexities. Freedom seems triumphant, the People's role beginning, but feverish phantoms crowd in: Are all the nations communing? is there going to be but one hear to the

Is the humanity forming en-masse? for lo, tyrants tremble, crowns grow dim,
The earth, restive, confronts a new era, perhaps a general divine war,
No one knows what will happen next, such portents fill the days and

Years prophetical! the space ahead as I walk, as I vainly try to pierce it is
      full of phantoms. . . (LG, 490)

Balʹmont's version scrupulously conveys the honest indeterminacy of Whitman's intuitions, so far as the poet himself could grasp them. It takes Balʹmont eight lines to render five of Whitman's, for he is unwilling to omit any hint, any implication: Vse narody besedu vedut? sozdaetsja-li èto u šara zemnogo edinoe serdce?
Čelovečesto xočet li slitʹsja v splošnoe odno?
Ibo, vidišʹ, tirany trepeščut, korony tusknejut,
Uporstvuja v duxe svoem, Zemlja—licom k licu s novoj èroj,
Pred vseobščeju, bytʹ možet, vojnoju božestvennoj,
Ne znaet nikto, čto slučitsja vot-vot, dni i noči takimi napolneny

Veščie gody! prostranstvom poka ja idu i tščetno starajusʹ ego pronicatʹ,
Napolneno prizrakami. . . (BZ, 91)
Portents, phantoms—and a bewildered poet who tries to pen the seismic notations. Taken together, Balʹmont's criticism and translations are refreshing as interpretive art, as a Whitmanlike human document. Unconventional, topical, they are minutely sensitive, responsive, and alive. And Balʹmont's fourfold Whitman—Leviathan, Yggdrasil, Earth-Titan, and Eagle—is an evocative presentation that has by no means lost its power.


1. Recommending this edition for its completeness, Balʹmont at the same time warns his readers against expurgated English versions, which he labels "hypocritical" ("Osteregaju or licemernyx Anglijskix izdanij, s propuskami [BZ, 101n]). But since the 1905 is virtually inaccessible to reader today (non-circulating even in those rare library collections where it may be found), I cite the textually authoritative, complete Norton Critical Edition of Bradley and Blodgett. Comparative study of the tables of contents and od a considerable variety of poems from both editions has revealed no differences whatever, even in minor matter of typography. Also PT is not lineated. For this reason, and also for greater readability, I refer to all Whitman poems, whether in the original or in Balʹmont's Russian, by page number. [back]

2. True, the latter periods of Whitman's life and words are proportionately much less thoroughly represented in Balʹmont's selection. Yet even in these instances, Balʹmont deserves praise for the quality of the lyrics he chooses to render, e.g., "Chanting the Square Deific," "Sparkles from the Wheel." [back]

3. Balʹmont's presentation of Whitman was not of course the only one available to early twentieth century Russian readers; Kornej Čukovskij was also circulating Leaves of Grass renditions at about this time (see Mendelʹson, 311 and, for the history of Russian criticism and translations of Whitman generally, Mendelʹson, 304-313). Čukovskij's renditions of Whitman's verse (see Čukovskil 89-210) nicely complement Balʹmont's; the two men have for the most part chosen different lyrics to render. [back]

4. Balʹmont was evidently proud of his version of this poem; it is by far the longest of the thirteen poems he selected from Whitman for the collection of Balʹmontian translations, Iz mirovoj poèzii (107-116 for "Iz kolybeli bezkonečno bajukajuščej"). "Spjaščie," by the way, does not count; it is but a brief fragment of "The Sleepers" [back]

5. Balʹmont repeats this dichotomy elsewhere. In "Shelli i Bajron" he assigns self-consciousness to Byron and self-transcendence to Shelly; this Balʹmontian dichotomy has been compared to Turgenev's contrast of Hamlet and Don Quixote (Bidney, 61). [back]

6. In fixing on the tree metaphor to describe Whitman and his work, Balʹmont shows sensibility strikingly similar, in this respect at least, to Pound's. "The images of wood and trees were never far from Pound's mind when he spoke of Whitman"; "Not only did he habitually speak of Whitman in terms of sap and fiber, wood and trees, bit in The Spirit of Romance he related Whitmanian 'cosmic consciousness' to a passage in Dante in which Glaucus is transformed into a god by eating magical leaves of grass (Witemeyer, 91, 101). [back]

7. A balanced picture, though, must include the observation that this same translation contains a major error: in rendering "thou are all wings" ("To the Man-of-War-Bird," LG, 257) as "ty, veter, vse vetry" (PT, 111), Balʹmont shows he has likely misread "wings" as "winds." [back]

8. "Trickle Drops" is of course a "Calamus" poem, a confession of the pangs of frustrated feeling, not a meditation on history. [back]

9. I think, however, that in translating "Proud Music of the Storm" Balʹmont does show the reader what in fact constitutes Whitman's only resolution of this larger problem (of cosmic or "natural" evils): to use the world's conflict-and violence-ridden music as an elucidating commentary on our own eventual (terrifying yet necessary) passage from life to death. [back]


Aničkov, Evgenij. "Poslednie pobegi russkoj poèzii." Zolotoe Runo 2 (1908). 45-54.

Balʹmont, Konstantin. Belyja zarnicy. St. Petersburg: Izd. M. V. Pirožkova, 1908.

Balʹmont, Konstantin. Gornyja versiny. Moscow: Grif, 1904.

Balʹmont, Konstantin. Iz mirovoj poèzii. Berlin: Slovo, 1921.

Balʹmont, Konstantin. Morskoe svečenie. Moscow-St. Petersburg: M.O. Volʹf, 1910.

Balʹmont, Konstantin. "Shelli i Bajron." Russkie Vedomosti (2 August 1894).

Bidney, Martin. "Shelley in the Mind of the Russian Symbolist Balʹmont: Six Kinds of Influence/Appropriation." Comparative Literature Studies 25 (1988). 57-71.

Cukovskij, Kornej. Moj Uitmen: očerki o žizni i tvorčestve, izbrannye perevody iz "Listʹev travy," proza. Moscow: Izd. "Progress", 1966.

Donchin, Georgette. The Influence of French Symbolism on Russian Poetry. The Hague: Mouton & Co., 1958.

Mandelʹštam, Osip. Sobranie sočinenij. Ed. G. B. Struve and B. A. Filippov. 3 vols. New York: Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1971.

Mendelʹson, Moris. Žiznʹ i tvorčestvo Uitmena. Moscow: Izd. "Nauka", 1969.

Symonds, John Addington. Walt Whitman: A Study. London: John C. Nimmo, 1893.

Uitman, Uolʹt. Pobegi travy. Trans. Konstantine Balʹmont. Moscow: Skorpion, 1911.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.

Witemeyer, Hugh. "Clothing the American Adam: Pound's Tailoring of Walt Whitman." Ezra Pound Among the Poets. Ed. George Bornstein. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985. 81-105.


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