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Jaroslav Seifert (1901 – 1986)

Poet and journalist who was the first Czech to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984. 

 

An Umbrella from Piccadilly

 

 

By Jaroslav Seifert *

 

 

 

If you’re at your wits’ end concerning love

try falling in love again —

say, with the Queen of England.

Why not!

Her features are on every postage stamp

of that ancient kingdom.

But if you were to ask her

for a date in Hyde Park

you can bet that

you’d wait in vain.

 

If you’ve any sense at all

you’ll wisely tell yourself:

Why of course, I know:

it’s raining in Hyde Park today.

 

When he was in England

my son bought me in London’s Piccadilly

an elegant umbrella.

Whenever necessary

I now have above my head

my own small sky

which may be black

but in its tensioned wire spokes

God’s mercy may be flowing like

an electric current.

 

I open my umbrella even when it’s not raining,

as a canopy

over the volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets

I carry with me in my pocket.

 

But there are moments when I am frightened

even by the sparkling bouquet of the universe.

Outstripping its beauty

it threatens us with its infinity

and that is all too similar

to the sleep of death.

It also threatens us with the void and frostiness

of its thousands of stars

which at night delude us

with their gleam.

 

The one we have named Venus

is downright terrifying.

Its rocks are still on the boil

and like gigantic waves

mountains are rising up

and burning sulphur falls.

 

We always ask where hell is.

It is there!

 

But what use is a fragile umbrella

against the universe?

Besides, I don’t even carry it.

I have enough of a job

to walk along

clinging close to the ground

as a nocturnal moth in daytime

to the coarse bark of a tree.

 

All my life I have sought the paradise

that used to be here,

whose traces I have found

only on women’s lips

and in the curves of their skin

when it is warm with love.

 

All my life I have longed

for freedom.

At last I’ve discovered the door

that leads to it.

It is death.

 

Now that I’m old

some charming woman’s face

will sometimes waft between my lashes

and her smile will stir my blood.

 

Shyly I turn my head

and remember the Queen of England,

whose features are on every postage stamp

of that ancient kingdom.

God save the Queen!

 

Oh yes, I know quite well:

it’s raining in Hyde Park today.

 

* * *

 

 

Fragment of a Letter

All night rain lashed the windows.

I couldn’t go to sleep.

So I switched on the light

and wrote a letter.

 

If love could fly,

as of course it can’t,

and didn’t so often stay close to the ground,

it would be delightful to be enveloped

in its breeze.

 

But like infuriated bees

jealous kisses swarm down upon

the sweetness of the female body

and an impatient hand grasps

whatever it can reach,

and desire does not flag.

Even death might be without terror

at the moment of exultation.

 

But who has ever calculated

how much love goes

into one pair of open arms!

 

Letters to women

I always sent by pigeon post.

My conscience is clear.

I never entrusted them to sparrowhawks

or goshawks.

 

Under my pen the verses dance no longer

and like a tear in the corner of an eye

the word hangs back.

And all my life, at its end,

is now only a fast journey on a train:

 

I’m standing by the window of the carriage

and day after day

speeds back into yesterday

to join the black mists of sorrow.

At times I helplessly catch hold

of the emergency brake.

 

Perhaps I shall once more catch sight

of a woman’s smile,

trapped like a torn-off flower

on the lashes of her eyes.

Perhaps I may still be allowed

to send those eyes at least one kiss

before they’re lost to me in the dark.

 

Perhaps once more I shall even see

a slender ankle

chiselled like a gem

out of warm tenderness,

so that I might once more

half choke with longing.

 

How much is there that man must leave behind

as the train inexorably approaches

Lethe Station

with its plantations of shimmering asphodels

amidst whose perfume everything is forgotten.

Including human love.

 

That is the final stop:

the train goes no further.

 

“Fragment of a Letter” from The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert

Translated from the Czech by Ewald Osers

Edited by George Gibian

 

 

 

 

 

 

* * *

 

 

* Jaroslav Seifert

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1984

 

Born: 23 September 1901, Prague, Austria-Hungary (now Czech Republic)

 

Died: 10 January 1986, Prague, Czechoslovakia

 

Residence at the time of the award: Czechoslovakia

 

Prize motivation: "for his poetry which endowed with freshness, sensuality and rich inventiveness provides a liberating image of the indomitable spirit and versatility of man."

 

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