Monday, October 10, 2005

The Commander's Footsteps

The Commander's Footsteps - Aleksandr Blok (1912)

Aleksandr Blok was a Russian Symbolist poet who lived from 1880 to 1921. It's not too important to know what Symbolism actually was, since the tags Blok and his ilk used to put on themselves are rather too reminiscent of floppy-haired Bohemians having prolonged arguments in coffee shops before succumbing to tuberculosis.

At the start of his career, Blok's work had passionate elegies to mystical wish-fulfillment women who symbolised love; by the end it featured prostitutes in revolutionary Leningrad negotiating with their clients. Blok had one foot in the romantic world of Pushkin or Keats, while the other stepped into the slaughter of the First World War.

The Commander's Footsteps finds Blok in transition, still writing about classical themes, but presented in a more modern fashion. The subject of this poem is the legendary seducer, Don Juan, about which wikipedia says

The legends say that Don Juan seduced a young girl (Doña Ines) of noble family, and killed her father (Don Fernando). Later, he came across a statue of the father in a cemetery and impiously invited it home to dine with him, an invitation which the statue gladly accepted. The ghost of the father arrived for dinner as the harbinger of Don Juan's death. The Statue asks to shake Don Juan's hand, and when he extends his arm, he is dragged into hell..

The Commander's Footsteps does not retell this story, but concentrates on the last night of Don Juan's life, after the seduction, the deaths of Donna Anna and her father, and the reanimation of the statue. You can read the whole poem here, which also contains a Russian language reading from poet Edvard Bagritsky so scary you could terrify your children with it on halloween.

The first verses sets the scene:

A thick and heavy curtain at the entrance
Behind the window lies the mist of night.
How much is your tedious freedom worth
Now that you know fear, Don Juan?

The sumptuous bedroom is cold and empty
The servants are asleep, the night is dead
From some blessed, unknown, far-away land
Comes the sound of the cock crowing


This is at heart a gothic horror story. The cock crowing symbolises the day which the main character will never see. This night, out of which nameless horrors are about come, is the last for our tormented Don Juan.

Donna Anna sleeps, hands crossed over her heart
Donna Anna is dreaming


Here, Blok is ratcheting up the "creepy" factor. And just in case you're thinking Donna Anna just has an unorthodox sleeping position:

Whose cruel features have frozen
Echoed in mirrors?
Anna, Anna is it sweet to sleep in the grave?
Is it sweet to dream unearthly dreams?


So, in Blok's version of the legend, not only is Don Juan in trouble from the moving statue, but the deceased Donna Anna is showing signs of life. Then Blok slips in an untranslatable pun

Life is empty, senseless and unfathomable!

The Russian word for "unfathomable" is "byezdonna", which you could split into "byez donna", or "without Donna". A little bit clunky, maybe.

A black, silent motor car flies past like an owl,
Its lights splashing in the night
With quiet, heavy footsteps
The Commander enters the house


This last line, thumping and menacing, sounds fabulous in Russian. Blok has surprised us here by putting a motor car into a Spanish legend: the 1912 equivalent of having Don Juan listening to an iPod. Blok then emphasises that this is in freezing Russia:

From the immense cold comes a sound like a clock
Striking hoarsely in the night


Blok isn't even going to mention the details of the Don Juan plot, but here he makes it clear that he is following the traditional story.

A clock striking, "You invited me to dinner
I have come, are you ready?"


Blok has combined the reanimated statue with the sound of the clock, with death striking out the time left as it approaches. Now he revisits an earlier verse, except, as dawn approaches, the night is now pale:

To the cruel question there is no answer
No answer - only silence
There is fear in the sumptuous bedroom at the hour of dawn
The servants are asleep, and the night is pale


We reach the point of Don Juan's strange death.

At the hour of dawn it is cold and strange.
At the hour of dawn the night is dim.
Maiden of Light! Where are you, Donna Anna?
Anna, Anna. Silence.


And the last verse finishes him off in the most chilling way.

Only in the fearsome mist of morning
The clock strikes for the last time
Donna Anna will rise in the hour of your death
Anna will rise in the hour of death


Don Juan's Anna has become an avenging angel, coming to life only to take her lover down into the darkness. In the last line, there is a suggestion that she is not just the Angel of Don Juan's death, but of everyone's.

I love this poem because it has more atmosphere, and is more moving and horrifying than any horror movie. Radiating the intensity of night fears, more than anything else, it describes what five o'clock in the morning feels like.