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The Gravemound

    by Yanka Kupala (1910); Translated by Vera Rich (1971)

    I

    Deep in Bielarus, set amid wasteland and marsh,

      Where a river flows, noisily swirling,
    A memorial of days fled and vanished long-past
      Dreams, a gravemound, grass-grown, sempiternal.


    Deeply rooted, the oak high above spreads its boughs,

      On its breast is parched herbiage clinging,
    And above it, dull breathing, the wind moans and soughs
      A dirge for past years sadly singing.


    At Midsummer a bird perches on it and sings,

      In Advent a wolf howls upon it,
    By day the sun spreads forth its rays in bright strings,
      By night the gold stars gaze down on it.


    Clouds have spread the wide sky, O a thousand of tim

      From far and wide thunders crashed o'er it,
    It stands there, a monument man-made, a sign. . .
      But this, legend says, is its story.


    II

    Near the river bank, on a steep hill towering tall,

      A century or more back in history,
    A castle rose (proof 'gainst all foes was its wall)
      Dread and brooding it gazed to the distance.


    At its feet, the broad lands spread away, far around,

      Lofty fir-trees, black swathes of the tillage,
    Houses, moss-grown like ghosts, homes of families serf-bound,
      Lay there, many a slumbering village.


    In the castle a prince dwelt, renowned the world through,

      Dread, remote as the castle his dwelling,
    All before him must bow willy-nilly, he knew
      No mercy to thoughts of rebellion.


    He oppressed and tormented at home and abroad,

      He and his bold warrior retainers,
    Till from out of men's hearts prayers arose heavenwards,
      And in secret a curse arose baneful.


    III

    Then one day the prince held a feast rich and fine,

      Marriage feast of the princess his daughter,
    At the tables flowed rivers of overseas wine,
      For miles echoed the music and laughter.


    To the wedding the noble guests came from at least

      Half the world, to the feasting and pleasure,
    None could recall such a notable feast,
      Such robes and such jewels and such treasure.


    One day and two the feast rang through the land,

      The music and goblets chimed gaily,
    All the guests wished for was theirs to command,
      They invented new revelries daily.


    But then, on the third day, the prince planned for all

      His warband this gratification:
    For an old harper he ordered them call,
      A minstrel far-famed through the nation.


    IV

    The folk of those parts knew his harp-music well,

      His lays seized the heart and would hold it;
    But those lays and those songs, notes of flute, notes of bell,
      Strange, indeed, was the tale as men told it.


    They said he had only to go forth and play,

      Strike the strings, sing his song never-waning,
    And sleep fled from the eyelids, all sighs died away,
      Not a murmur from cherry or plane-tree,


    The deep woods hushed, no squirrel nor elk would dart forth,

      The nightingale ceased its deep quiver,
    The alder-fringed stream left its everyday roar,
      And the roach hid its fins in the river.


    Wood-sprite and rusalka to mosses would cling,

      Peewit ceased its 'peet-peet' a brief hour,
    At the bell-notes he struck from the harp's living strings,
      Lucky bracken for all men did flower.


    V

    Forth from his ploughland village, the servitors brought

      The bard to that castle so stately,
    Set him there, between maples and limes, on the porch,
      On the threshold of brick tessellated.


    The smock on his back was but simple attire,

      His beard seemed as if white snow fell there,
    In his thought-laden eyes there gleamed forth a strange fire,
      On his knees lay the harp-storyteller.


    He passed his thin fingers across the steel strings,

      The song-music preparing and tuning,
    The notes strike the cold walls, and echoing, ring,
      And in depths of the hall they die, booming.


    The strings were made ready, the notes were in tune,

      Not one glance at the feast or its grandness,
    The white-haired old man sat there, sunken in gloom,
      Awaiting the prince's commandments.


    VI

    'Bard of ploughlands and woods, why art silent so long?

      To my serfs thou art nightingale famous!
    Play for us today, give to us of thy song,
      A prince gives no commonplace payment!


    If thou singst to our taste, if thou pleasest our guests,

      I shall pile thy lute with ducats hoarded,
    But if one of us find thy song lacking in zest -
      With the rope thou shall be well rewarded!


    Thou knowest my fame, of my might thou dost know,

      I know much of thee, hearing men tell so;
    And just as thou singest, I'll sing to thee so!
      'Tis time to begin now, good fellow!'


    The bard heard and gave ear to the prince's command,

      In the grey eyes, sparks brightly were leaping,
    He touched the strings once, touched them twice with skilled hand
      And the living harp-strings began weeping.


    VII

    'O thou prince, thou prince famous the whole wide world through,

      Thou thinkest in no thoughtful fashion!
    No minstrel is quickened by gold's brilliant hue,
      Nor by drunken din of marble mansions!


    My soul would be crushed by the ducats' great mound,

      No laws, Prince, bind the harp nor confine it,
    To heaven alone heart and thought must account,
      To eagles, to sun and stars shining.


    Look thou, Prince, on thy ploughlands, meads, woods, widely-spread,

      My harp and I know them our betters,
    Thou has power, Prince, to torture, hast power to behead,
      But free thought into chains canst not fetter.


    Dread and famous thou art, and this castle of thine,

      From the walls blows, it seems, winter chilling,
    And a heart has thou like this brick threshold so fine,
      And a soul like its vaults, deeply builded.


    VIII

    Look then, thou famous lord, on thy fields, far and wide,

      See the trace of the plough as it roams there;
    But hearst thou what the songs of the ploughman betide,
      Where and how live the men who find homes there.


    Look into thy vaults, O Prince, deep underground,

      Beneath thy great hall builded under,
    Brothers writhe there by thee thrust in mud deep, profound,
      And alive the worms eat them and plunder.


    With gold thou wouldst darken, with gold thou wouldst lure,

      But didst thou see, Prince in thy palace,
    That human blood shines on that gold evermore,
      Blood unquenchable by thy power's malice.


    Thou coverest velvets and silk with fine jewels,

      From fetters they are the steel filings,
    They are frayed rope from a gallows, a noose,
      Such, Prince, is thy noble attiring.


    IX

    Thy board is well-victualled; beneath lie bones spread,

      Bones of peasants in poverty dwining,
    Thou takest thy pleasure in white wine and red,
      - The tears of an orphan's sad pining.


    Thou hast builded thy palace, so dear to thine eye,

      With bricks and stone polished to beauty;
    These are tombstones from graves, dug out of due time,
      Flames of hearts, these, into stone transmuted.


    Thou takest thy pleasure in music and song,

      You, O body-guard, quaff deep your revels,
    But has thou heard how in that music there throng
      Groans, cursing thee and thy kin ever.


    Thou art pale, thou dost tremble, O prince, mighty lord,

      Thy guests glower, thy servants stand dumbly . . .
    It is time now, O Prince, to grant me my reward,
      Excuse my song, an it were clumsy!'


    X

    The prince stands, silent stands, blazing vengeance he looks,

      The hail hushed, naught of jesting nor laughter. . . .
    The prince thought, he took thought, and his sabre he shook,
      And tinkling the echo ran after.


    'Equal thou to the sun! Bard, I summoned thee here

      To sing meetly my princess' wedding,
    Thou dotard and fool. Whoe'er did thee rear,
      Thou degenerate scion of base breeding!


    Thou hast dared stand against me in thy blind despite,

      With a song made the universe tremble,
    I have much wherewith such upstarts to requite,
      Who against me would boldness dissemble.


    I pay all, I love all as befits princely worth,

      Thou desirest no gold - let it pass, then!
    Sink the dotard alive with his harp in the earth!
      I or heaven? Show him which is master!'


    XI

    They seized the old minstrel, they bore off the man,

      And with him his harp clear and tuneful,
    To the steep bank, where sounding the wild river ran,
      They led the bard forth to his dooming.


    They chose them a place and they digged them a grave,

      Three fathoms 'twas wide, and three deeply,
    They buried him there and an aspen stake drove,
      Raised a mound of three fathoms there, steeply.


    There came there no joiners a coffin to make,

      No neighbourly eyes were there weeping,
    The harp then was silent and he - and grief's ache
      And silence, as if night came creeping.


    But the palace resounded and loud the noise rang,

      Folly, music, together with laughter,
    Many wine kegs the prince drained, then many began,
      Thus the wedding feast passed of his daughter.


    XII

    And year after year passed by, passed and flowed,

      And over the bard's gravel mound there,
    Wormwood sprouted, a young oak commenced there to grow,
      And with speaking mysterious resounded.


    And time passed away, hundred years or more,

      And among the folk flowered these rumours:
    Once a year, at night, the old man, as of yore,
      Rises from the mound, white as snow looming.


    And he strikes on the harp, and the strings echo clear,

      To the nerveless hands over them straying,
    And he sings, but the living ken not what they hear,
      At the moon he stares, white as he, playing.


    And they say, should a man ever fathom that song,

      He will never know sorrow nor weeping...
    Maybe this is true - hark with your soul, hearken long. . .
      Gravemounds will tell much in their speaking.




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