Haig's page of Armenian poetry in translation
This page, and especially the editorial contribution thereon, is still under
construction, and likely appreciably to be amplified in the near
Please also feel free to read some of my own translations from Ancient
Armenian, prepared in connection with the programme-notes for a series
of recent recitals I organised of
unaccompanied Armenian Church music here in Cambridge, and wherein I
endeavoured to place the items in each programme in an appropriate
musical, liturgical and (to a lesser extent) theological
background. Much of our finest poetry from mediaeval times and earlier
come from the Hymnal of the Armenian Church - as of course does much
of our finest music from all time.
This is my page of "Armenian Poems Rendered into English Verse by Alice Stone Blackwell
", published in 1896 and 1917. I understand she was an American, and in her own words "each of these translations in verse has been made from a literal translation in prose, furnished to me in English or French by my Armenian
friends". I had the good fortune of acquiring the rather rare, 1917 publication only last week (on Friday, 5 July, 1996), and have proceeded to type some
samples of her renderings herewith. I have added some biographical notes and
other editorial comments, altered her Armenian transliterations in one or two
cases, and removed the more disturbing Americanisms. Clearly, her attempts to
make the English verses rhyme do, on occasion, cause the reader to smile,
and at times significantly weaken the unforced, pithy Armenian original; and
adjectives are particulary readily compounded in Armenian,
frequently necessitating ungainly
periphrasis in English. But overall, in my view she has been remarkably
successful, and much of her work evinces great skill, and also great
affection for the original. I wonder what her own poetry was like...!
Incidentally, there are now several appalling translations of
Armenian poetry around, which, in my view, need to be avoided at all costs,
and in these circumstances those of Alice Blackwell are particulary worth
cherishing, and they really do stand out - as indeed do those of
Mischa Kudian (still in print, and therefore not included here). Incidentally,
there is hardly any duplication between the poetry chosen by Blackwell and
As I have confined myself to a selection of Blackwell's renderings here, it has been impossible to give a truly representative selection of Armenian poetry. For instance,
there is hardly any ancient poetry in her volume; even when she does not
omit a major poet, she omits some of his or her finest work (for instance,
Siamanto's "Ap m mokhir, hayreni doun" is a glaring omission, and the examples
she has included are not necessarily what is now considered his very best work), she omits many important comtemporary poets in favour of lesser ones,
and of course, omits many great poets whose mature oevre she could not have
known at the time of publication. (Thus, for instance, no Vahan Tekeyan and no Gevorg Emin,
alas!) Nonetheless, I hope that the present selection will prove of some interest to those who are not so fortunate as to be in a position to enjoy these verses in the language in which they were conceived.
St. Nerses the Gracious (1102-1172)
O Day-spring, Sun of righteousness, shine forth with light for me!
Treasure of mercy, let my soul thy hidden riches see!
Thou before whom the thoughts of men lie open in thy sight,
Unto my soul, now dark and dim, grant thoughts that shine with light!
O Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Almighty One in Three,
Care-taker of all creatures, have pity upon me!
Awake O Lord, awake to help, with grace and power divine;
Awaken those who slumber now, like heaven's host to shine!
O Lord and Saviour, life-giver, unto the dead give life,
And raise up those that have grown weak and stumbled in the strife!
O skilful Pilot! Lamp of light, that burnest bright and clear!
Strength and assurance grant to me, now hid away in fear!
O thou that makest old things new, renew me and adorn;
Rejoice me with salvation, Lord, for which I inly mourn.
Giver of good, unto my sins be thy forgiveness given!
Lead thy disciples, heavenly King, unto the flocks of heaven!
Defeat the evil husbandman that soweth tares and weeds;
Wither and kill in me the fruits of all his evil seeds!
O Lord, grant water to my eyes, that they may shed warm tears
To cleanse and wash away the sin that in my soul appears!
On me now hid in shadow deep, shine forth, O glory bright!
Sweet juice, quench thou my soul's keen thirst! Show me the path of light!
Jesus, whose name is love, with love crush thou my stony heart;
Bedew my spirit with thy blood, and bid my griefs depart!
O thou that even in fancy art so sweet, Lord Jesus Christ,
Grant that with thy reality my soul may be sufficed!
When thou shalt come again on earth, and all thy glory see,
Upon that dread and awful day, O Christ, remember me!
Thou that redeemest men from sin, O Saviour, I implore,
Redeem him who now praises thee, to praise thee evermore!
(The above rendering is incomplete; there are in fact thirty-six stanzas,
each consisting of three verses, all the verses of each stanza starting with one letter of the
Armenian alphabet - which in those times still consisted of only
thirty-six letters. There exist at least half a dozen different musical settings
of this rather popular, early-morning hymn.)
Sayat Nova (1712-1795)
The youth and the streamlet
Down from yon distant mountain
The streamlet finds its way,
And through the quiet village
It flows in eddying play.
A dark youth left his doorway,
And sought the water-side,
And, laving there his hands and brow,
"O streamlet sweet!" he cried,
"Say, from what mountain com'st thou?"
"From yonder mountain cold
Where snow on snow lies sleeping,
The new snow on the old."
"Unto what river, tell me,
Fair streamlet, dost thou flow?"
"I flow unto that river
Where clustering violets grow."
"Sweet streamlet, to what vineyard,
Say, dost thou take thy way?"
"The vineyard where the vine-dresser
Is at his work to-day."
"What plant where wilt thou water?"
"The plant upon whose roots
The lambs feed, where the wind-flower blooms,
And orchards bear sweet fruits."
"What garden wilt thou visit,
O water cool and fleet?"
"The garden where the nightingale
Sings tenderly and sweet."
"Into what fountain flow'st thou?"
"The fountain to whose brink
Thy love comes down at morn and eve,
And bends her face to drink.
"There shall I meet the maiden
Who is to be thy bride,
And kiss her chin, and with her love
My soul be satisfied."
Fr. Leont Alishan
The Nightingale of Avarayr
Whence dost thou come, O moon, so calmly and softly,
Spreading o'er mountain, valley, and plain thy light,
And over me the Patriarch, wandering sadly,
With wandering thoughts, in Avarayr to-night?
Here where our matchless, brave Armenian fathers
Fell as giants, as angels rise anew,
Com'st thou to spread o'er the bones of the saints a cover
Of golden thread, from thy cloud of snowy hue?
O dost thou think, though thy brow be bright already,
Adornment of heroes' blood would become it well?
Or dost thou still, in silence and secret, wonder
To think how the great and terrible Vartan fell,
Giving his enemies' lives to the shades of darkness,
And giving his spirit into the hands of God?
And thou, O River Dghmood, thou flowest lamenting
Amid thy reeds, sad river bestained with blood.
And thou, O wind from Mankuran's upland blowing,
Or Ararat's sacred summit, gray-haired and hoar,
Thou, too, like me, uncertain and trembling movest,
On faint wings passing the mountains and valleys o'er.
From forest to forest, from leaf to leaf, lamenting,
Thou comest upon the plains, in pale moonshine,
To carry unto Armenian hearts the echo
Of the last sighs of this worn heart of mine.
Nightingale, voice of the night, little soul of the roses,
Friend of all mournful hearts that with sorrow are sighing!
Sing, little nightingale, sing me a song from that hillock,
Sing with my soul of Armenia's heroes undying!
Thy voice in the cloister of Thaddeus reached me and thrilled me;
My heart, that was close to the cross, in a reverie grave,
Suddenly bounded and throbbed; from the cross I hastened to seek thee -
Came forth and found thee here, on the field of Vartan the brave.
Nightingale, this is the tale that of thee our fathers have told us:
That Avarayr's nightingale, singing so sweetly at daylight's dim close,
Is not a bird, but a soul, - it is Yeghishe's sweet-voiced spirit,
That sees the image of Vartan for aye in the red-blooming rose.
In winter he walks alone, and mourns in the midst of the desert;
In spring comes to Avarayr, to the bush with roses aflame,
To sing and call aloud, with Yeghishe's voice, upon Vartan,
To see whether Vartan perchance will answer when called by his name.
If like the voice of a nightingale faint and weary,
Songs of Togarmah, my voice shall reach your ears,-
Sons of the great, whose valiant and virtuous fathers
Filled plains, books, and the heavens, in former years,-
If one small drop of blood from Armenia's fountain,
The fount of Bahlav, flow into your bosoms' sea,-
If you would that your country's glories for you be written,
Come forth to Ardaz with your Patriarch, come with me!
NB. Yeghishe was an Armenian historian of the fifth century AD, a contemporary
of Vartan, who died in the battle of Avarayr in 451. In his history of the
Persian invasion he compares Vartan drenched in blood, to the red rose.
Hence the allusions in the poem. Fr. Alishan actually wrote the poem in
ancient Armenian of roughly the same period. This poem (from the seventh stanza onwards) is also a famous
and rather beautiful song - there are at least two different musical versions
In fact Vartan, and the other Leontines, as they are known, are now saints!
Moon in the Armenian Cemetery
O moon, fair lamp divinely lit!
God set you in the sky
To lead night's hosts, for darkness blind
And for my heart an eye.
When o'er my head you swing, your lamp
A glittering chain doth hold;
Your string of heavenly silver is,
Your wick of burning gold;
And, as a diamond flashes light,
You shed your rays abroad.
How bright you were, that second night,
Fresh from the hand of God!
How bright you were when first was heard
The heavenly nightingale!
The wind, that seemed like you alive,
Played soft from vale to vale;
With that calm breeze, the limpid brook
Plashed in an undertone;
There was no human ear to hear,
The angels heard alone.
The angels swung you in their hands,
And silently and slow
You traversed heaven's cloudless arch,
And sank the waves below,
What time the sun with feet of fire
Was soon to mount the blue,
While o'er the silent world were spread
Twilight and hoary dew.
Stay, stay, O sun! awile delay;
Rise not in the blue sky,
But let the little moon still walk
The cloudless realm on high!
Stay, little moon! Oh, linger yet
Upon the heights and hills;
Pass slowly, calmly, where your light
The sleeping valleys fills!
For I have words to utter yet,
To you I would complain.
Oh, many are my bitter griefs,
My heart is cleft in twain.
Bright moon, haste not away because
You hear a mourner's cry!
As comforter of broken hearts
You shine there in the sky.
You come to Eden's land, but not
As on that far first night,
When man was happy, knowing naught
Save life and love's delight.
Then your white radiance was warm
To waves and flowerets fair,
And wheresoe'er your soft light fell,
Immortal life bloomed there.
Turn and look down on me, O moon!
Gaze at our mountains' foot,
And see the ruined temples there,
And tombs so sad and mute, -
Tombs of Armenians who long since
From earth have passed away.
There sleep the ashes of our sires,
In darkness and decay.
Armenians they, the earliest born
Of all the human race,
Who had their home within the land
Once Adam's dwelling-place.
[Here follows a long list of Armenian kings.]
But you are setting fast, O moon!
Your lustre fades away,
And like a silver plate you sink
In cloud-banks dense and gray.
Stay yet a moment's space, O moon,
Stay for the love of me!
There in the valley is one stone
Unknown to history.
Go, let your last light linger there,
And lift it out of gloom,
For that obscure and nameless stone
Will mark the poet's tomb!
Catholicos Mgrdich Khrimian "Hayrig" (1820-1907)
The memorial of the lamenting soldier
Oh, not for me will be a grave
With cross-marked stone to view!
I die upon the field of death;
My name will perish too.
And not for me a splendid bier,
Or burial's pageant vain,
Or family to mourn for me,
Or friends for funeral train.
My tomb, which my own hands have dug,
Will be a trench profound;
The graves of thousands of the dead
With mine will make a mound.
Then strip me of my uniform,
My arms and honours proud,
And leave me but my blood-stained shirt
To serve me for a shroud.
A soldier's corpse is valued not;
Within a trench to lie
'Tis cast, as on the threshing floor
The sheaves are piled on high.
We from the battle-field set out,
And we have reached our rest.
Tired soldiers of the field of blood,
Sleep with untroubled breast!
At Gabriel's trump, our mound shall stir,
And as in fresher guise
Eagles their plumage strong renew,
We to new life shall rise.
Christ comes as judge, and all earth's thrones
Before God's bar are set.
The judgement of the field of blood
Just God will not forget.
Ye living soldiers, fare ye well!
I leave this world. I bore
The sword, and perished by the sword,
As Christ foretold of yore.
A farmer God creted man,
The soil to dress and till;
Curst be the hand whose wicked art
Has taught him blood to spill!
Wise men predict a golden age
When peace o'er earth shall breathe,
When kings shall all be reconciled,
And swear the sword to sheathe.
The lion shall gentle grow, the wolf
Browse by the lamb in peace,
The fields of blood with lilies bloom,
And all earth's conflicts cease.
A dream! I do not credit it.
Christ's words come back to me,
That nation shall 'gainst nation rise,
Earth be a bloody sea.
O Jesus, Saviour bringing peace!
Our world you came and saw.
Men are insane; they have not yet
Mastered your gospel's law.
Angel of love incarnated!
You said all men that live
Are brethren; give to us your peace,