“Words” in Advent

by Nikolai Stepanovich Gumilev

In the days when the God eternal
Was declining face to the new world,
By the Word they stopped the sun’s inferno,
And destroyed the towns by the Word.

And an eagle was falling at the ground,
Stars were backing to the moon in fright,
If, as made from orange flames a cloud,
Word was sailing in the heaven’s height.

Figures were involved in low action,
As the tamed, domesticated herd,
Just because all set of comprehension
From the clever figure could be learned.

The white-bearded patriarch, wish found
Good and evil by his own hands,
Deciding not to use the sacred sound,
Drew a figure by a cane in sands.

Did we not forget in troubles own:
Only Word is blessing in the world?
In the Gospel, sent to us by John,
Is the saying, that the Word is God.

We designed for it the limits, gladly –
The scant limits of the life and thoughts,
And like bees in empty hives smell badly –
Badly smell the dead forever words.

(Translated by Simon Franklin. From 20th Century Russian Poetry by Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Copyright 1993 by Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Also found in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, Atwan, Dardess, and Rosenthall.)

I don’t know exactly what this poem is about, except that it plays with ideas about “words.” Here you get references to the ideas about how God created the world you might find in Genesis one—that God spoke the world into being. In the gospel of John, the writer sets up Jesus as being understood to be the Word, connected to that life produced by God by uttering words “in the beginning.” And the word was with God and the word was God; in him was life and the life was the light….but we’re not quite there yet. That’s the Christmas text.

For now what I think is interesting what the poet suggests happens when we get our hands on words—we design limits for it, gladly, and limits on God tend to ruin things.


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