3 Poems by Zinaïda Gippius

Zinaïda Gippius (1869–1945) was a leading and founding figure of Russian Symbolism, the dominant literary and cultural movement in the country from around 1890 to 1910. She was a prolific poet, playwright, and critic who also played an important organizational role in the religious, philosophical, and literary societies of St. Petersburg. She and her husband, the Symbolist writer and theorist Dmitry Merezhkovsky (1866–1941), are sometimes described as the most important and powerful tandem in Russian literature. Personal spiritual experience informs much of Gippius’s work, and the general Symbolist preoccupation with religious philosophy and mysticism was one she certainly shared and helped cultivate. The prevailing mood in her best-known poems, including those translated here, is one of mystery and dread, perhaps reflecting the apocalyptic Christianity Gippius advocated around the turn of the century. After the Bolshevik Revolution, which they strongly opposed, she and Merezhkovsky eventually emigrated to Paris, where they both continued writing.

Flowers of Night[1]

Oh, do not trust the nighttime hour!
It is filled with evil beauty.
In the nighttime people are close to death,
And flowers alone are strangely alive.

Dark and warm are the quiet walls,
And the hearth is long without fire…
And from the flowers I await betrayals,
For the flowers hate me.

Among them I feel uneasy and hot;
Their aroma is stifling and bold,
But to run away from them is not
Possible—no escape from their arrows.

The evening casts its rays of light
Upon their petals through the blood-stained satin…
The tender body comes to life—
The evil flowers have awoken.

From the toxic arum measured
Droplets fall upon the carpet…
Everything is mysterious and uncertain…
And seems to me a quiet argument.

They rustle; they stir and respire;
Like enemies, they keep their eye on me.
Everything I think—they know, they hear,
And they want to poison me.

Oh, do not trust the nighttime hour!
Beware of evil beauty.
In the nighttime we are all closer to death,
The flowers alone are alive.


The Seamstress

For three days now I’ve spoken with no one…
My thoughts are greedy and malicious.
My back hurts. Everywhere I look,
I see only sky-blue patches.

The church bell was droning. It stopped.
I am alone with myself.
Silk of scarlet creaks and bends
Beneath the clumsy needle.

A seal lies over all phenomena.
It is as though they are fused, one to another.
Having taken one in, I try to divine
The other behind it—that which is hidden.

And this silk seems Fire to me.
And now no longer Fire, but Blood.
And blood is but a sign of that which we
Call, in our poor language, Love.

Love is but a sound… At this late hour,
What comes next I can’t reveal.
No, not fire, nor blood, but only satin
Creaks beneath the timid needle.

January 1, 1902


In her shameless and pathetic baseness,
Like dust, she is gray, like mortal remains.
And I am dying of this fatal closeness,
Because she cannot be dissolved from me.

She is rough and she is thorny;
She is cold—she is a snake.
I am wounded all over by her sickly-burning,
Elbow-shaped scales.

Oh, to feel her sharpened sting!
Sluggish, dull, and silent.
She’s such a grave and such a faded thing,
And there is no reaching her—she’s deaf.

Obstinately, with her coiling rings

She snuggles up to me, strangling me whole.
And this most dead, most black of things,
Most terrifying she—she is my soul![2]

1905, St. Petersburg

[1] Undoubtedly an homage to Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil (1857), a foundational text for the Symbolists.

[2] Soul is a feminine noun in Russian.

James McGavran received a Ph.D. in Slavic languages and literatures from Princeton University in 2008. He has taught Russian language and culture courses at Kenyon College and St. Olaf College, and he begins work as an instructor of Russian at Rutgers University in the fall of 2013. His book of annotated translations of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Selected Poems, is now available from Northwestern University Press, and he has also published articles and translations in SlavonicaModern Poetry in Translation, and Slavic and East European Journal. He is currently working on a collection of translations of Osip Mandelstam and a cultural history of chess in Russia and the Soviet Union.