Wednesday’s Child:The Quietist Manifesto
I had insomnia the other night, and it so happened that my son, who leads what I suspect is a dissolutely sleepless life in London, engaged me in correspondence about a Russian poem we both knew. He wrote that he had tried to translate it into English, but “it kept coming out as a string of banalities.” So I spent the remaining small hours of the night trying to prove my son wrong, to succeed where, in my view, Vladimir Nabokov failed in his translation:
Speak not, lie hidden, and conceal
the way you dream, the things you feel.
Deep in your spirits let them rise
akin to stars in crystal skies
that set before the night is blurred:
delight in them and speak no word.
How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard…
take in their song and speak no word.
The poem bears the Latin name “Silentium” and is by Fedor Tiutchev, who was born in 1803 and died at age 70. As a translator I rarely look to the nineteenth century, because so many linguistic revelations of that golden era have long merged into the mainstream of European thought and speech, and consequently one is almost guaranteed to end up with the “string of banalities,” like Nabokov’s “crystal skies,” which my son bemoaned. Exceptions occur when a particular poet remains obscure – as Emily Dickinson, for instance, is to the Russians and, to be perfectly frank, to most of her compatriots – or when a particular poem is obscure enough to bear deciphering. “Silentium” is in the latter category.
I would describe the poem as a manifesto of quietism. In 1821 the home-schooled Tiutchev, then not yet twenty, became a consular attaché in Munich. By 1835 he attained the rank of chamberlain at the Imperial court. In 1858 he was appointed head of the State Censorship Committee on Foreign Publications, a post he retained for the next 15 years, becoming a privy counselor, then the top rank in the hierarchy of government service, in 1865. In short, he was no revolutionary.
His many political writings reflected his deeply conservative outlook, but what I find so fascinating about his “Silentium” of 1830 is that its message is the categorical abjuring of all politics, nay, of public action of whatever kind. In the poet’s mind, all action – including the act of speech – is but a vain reaction to the vain world’s provocation. To my ears, nearly two centuries later, this message rings almost preternaturally true. But I shall let the gentle reader judge.
Become benumbed and, heart, be still,
Whilst feelings into dreams distill:
Beyond your inner core's horizon
See them both sinking and uprising,
Like stars upon the black of night.
Mere contemplation is delight.
No other soul can read the part:
How can another plumb your heart?
How can he see its where and why?
A thought, expressed, becomes a lie.
Uprooting, one disturbs the spring:
Speak not, only observe and drink.
Master the skill of plucking in you
The string that is the spirit's sinew,
Producing varicolored sound
By madding crowds ever drowned,
By daylight blinded. Be still!
Speak not, only observe and feel.