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.

Andrei Navrozov

Andrei Navrozov

9 Responses

  1. Raymond Olson says:

    Thank you, Mr. Navrazov. The poem speaks to me, I must say. Perhaps I’ve read another translation already, for I recall a pre-World War II anthology of nineteenth-century Russian poetry in translation that I read more than 40 years ago. I thought then that, besides Pushkin and Lermontov, three poets represented in it were outstanding: Afanasy Fet, Nikolai Nekrasov, and Fedor Tiutchev.

  2. Robert Reavis says:

    Thank you, Andrei. This contemplative thread once made up a significant part of our civilization. It is ignored and neglected to such an extent in contemporary times that the one predominate avenue of approaching it, poetry, is rarely even mentioned in education or conversation and more rarely practiced except by those “happy few.”

  3. Harry Colin says:

    Well-deserved encomiums here, Mr. Navrozov, for your elegant translation. Quite lovely.

    I must say, too, I salute your courage in substituting your translation for Nabokov! I can only imagine his reaction were he to see it!

  4. andrei navrozov says:

    Gentlemen, many thanks for all your kind comments. I ought to note that the poem is actually in the form of three six-line stanzas, but as Dr. Fleming is not up for technology’s challenge – a weakness that I share and with which I sympathize – it appears here without spaces between the stanzas.

  5. Andrew G Van Sant says:

    From your fingers to Dr. Fleming’s fingers Mr. Navrozov.

  6. Ben says:

    Reading and rereading each translation, comparing and contrasting is sweet elation!

    This is what we pay for people, this and the wise curmudgeons’ broken glass…


  7. Ben says:


  8. Ben says:

    Incidentally, it’s not a lack of sleep that kills one, it’s the worrying about it …

  9. andrei navrozov says:

    Thank you Dr Fleming for o’erpowering The Machine!