On Butterfly (Mandelstam)

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<On Butterfly>
written by Osip Mandelstam
Fragment from Journey to Armenia. The Chapter "About the Naturalists". Translated by Dmitri Smirnov.


   There is a sublimity of Dante in that reverse and descending movement down the ladder of living creatures that we are making together with Lamark.[1] The lowest forms of organic existence are the Hell for a human being.
   The long grey whiskers of this butterfly had spinal structure and resembled exactly the branches on the collar of French academician or silver palms, laid on a coffin. The breast is strong, is developed into the shape of a boat. Its head is unimportant, and similar to cat’s head.
   Its big-eyed wings were made of the excellent old silk of some admiral who had been both at Cesme[2] and Trafalgar[3].
   And suddenly I caught myself on the wild desire to glance at nature drawn by the eyes of this monster.

Osip Mandelstam:

   В обратном, нисходящем движении с Ламарком по лестнице живых существ есть величие Данта. Низшие формы органического бытия — ад для человека.
   Длинные седые усы этой бабочки имели остистое строение и в точности напоминали ветки на воротнике французского академика или серебряные пальмы, возлагаемые на гроб. Грудь сильная, развитая в лодочку. Головка незначительная, кошачья.
   Её глазастые крылья были из прекрасного старого адмиральского шёлка, который побывал и в Чесме, и при Трафальгаре.
   И вдруг я поймал себя на диком желании взглянуть на природу нарисованными глазами этого чудовища.

  1. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744 – 1829) was a French soldier, naturalist, academic and an early proponent of the idea that evolution occurred and proceeded in accordance with natural laws.
  2. The naval Battle of Chesma took place on 5-7 July 1770 near and in Çeşme (Chesma) Bay, in the area between Asia Minor and the island of Chios, the site of a number of past naval battles between Turkey and Venice. It was part of the Orlov Revolt of 1769, a precursor to the later Greek War of Independence (1821-29), and the first of a number of disastrous fleet battles for Turkey against Russia.
  3. The naval Battle of Trafalgar saw the British decisively defeat a combined French and Spanish fleet on 21 October 1805 in the most significant naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars.

Cc-by.jpgCc-non commercial.jpg © Dmitri Smirnov, translation. Can be reproduced if non-commercial.