Nacht, straten, apotheek, lantaren,
Een zinloos schijnsel in de mist.
Al leef je nog eens twintig jaren -
Geen uitweg - alles is beslist.
Je sterft en wordt opnieuw geboren,
Alles herhaalt zich vroeg of laat:
Rimpels in het kanaal bevroren,
Nacht, apotheek, lantaren, straat
Vertaald door Marja Wiebes en Margriet Berg
Nacht, straat, lantaarn, drogisterij,
Een schijnsel voos en afgestompt.
Een kwart eeuw gaat misschien voorbij -
Dit alles blijft. Geen mens ontkomt.
Je sterft - en weer hetzelfde wacht,
Met alle dingen als ze waren:
Nacht, ijzig water in de gracht,
Drogisterij, straat, en lantaren.
Vertaald door Jean Pierre Rawie
Listen to this poem in Russian.
Voiced by: Natalia Baraban
Discover this poem in 60 seconds
A drugstore at night is something several artists drew inspiration from, like the American painter Edward Hopper (1882 - 1967) who paints it as a beacon of light in the dark night. Alexander Blok paints a different picture in this poem. The bleak glow of the drugstore that he encounters on his walk is washed-out. Blok does not find any refuge here and only sees the futility of living.
Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.
Sint Petersburg 1880 - 1921
Alexander Blok grew up in an aristocratic family in Saint Petersburg. In 1898, he graduated from gymnasium and went on to study law and language. It was around that time also that he started writing poetry. Blok was a defeatist. In his adolescent years, he was influenced by contemporary philosophers and poets who also held dark dreams for the future. This was later portrayed in many of his own works.
Since the publication of his first collection of poems Stichi o prekrasnoj dame (Verses About the Lady Beautiful) in 1904, he was regarded as a prominent poet. The ‘Lady’ in question was his wife Lyubov Dmitrievna. She was the daughter of the famous chemist Dmitri Mendeleev, who developed the periodic table. His marriage was a rocky one as his wife had an affair with one of his friends, and in 1907 the couple decided to spend some time apart. All of this did not make Alexander any happier.
What is this poem about?
In this poem, Alexander Blok takes us on a nightly walk through Saint Petersburg. It is not a cheerful walk. The only light on the streets comes from the street lanterns and the shop window of a drugstore. It incites Blok with ideas about the meaning of life. Can you control the world around you? Does it matter whether you exist or not? His conclusions are bleak: the city is developing, but not all the time. You do not have much influence, and when you die, that will change little as well.
Yet, these conclusions might not only have been negative for him. Alexander Blok was afraid of the Apocalypse, the end of time. The idea that eventually everything will stay the same and very little changed, might have offered him a grip on life or even reassurance.
Origin of this poem
Alexander was never filled with joie de vivre but when he wrote this poem on 10 October 1912, he had been melancholic for quite some time. His mind was occupied with the turmoil that had characterized Russia for years. In previous years, the tsar had allowed a parliament and political parties but several radical groups wanted even more improvement, leading to recurring attacks and strikes. Internationally, there was also turmoil, and Blok was convinced that a war was coming.
Besides this, he also had deep personal doubts. After the death of both his father and his son in 1909 he fell into a existential crisis. He believed his own aristocratic lifestyle to be decadent and was not sure where his marriage was headed. Alexander Blok welcomed change but also feared it.
Tormented by all these troubles Alexander Blok roamed the streets in the north of Saint Petersburg at night, where he often visited a restaurant on Krestovsky-island. On the corner, at one of the bridges going south, stood a drugstore which might have been his source of inspiration for this poem. Perhaps one of his nightly walks stirred him to write Night.
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Aleksandr Blok in Leiden
Photo Anoesjka Minnaard
This poem can be found on the corner of Thorbeckestraat and Roodenburgerstraat since 1998, in what is known as the mayors and professors district in Leiden. Perhaps coincidentally, many Slavic scholars and translators live here. In 2009, one of them noticed, after the restoration of the poem, that something had gone wrong. Painter Jan Willem Bruins had mixed up two of the Russian letters. The vigilant neighbor could not sleep for two days for he could not and would not live across from a Russian wall poem that contained spelling errors. Fortunately, Bruins returned after two days and was willing to fix his mistake right away.
In 2009, the font was changed and two squares on each side on the poem were added. These come from a children's book written by El Lissitzky called Skaz pro dva kvadrata (About Two Squares; Berlin, 1922). These two squares can also be found on the Meelfabriek on the Zijlsingel in Leiden. In the lower right corner the signatures of its painters can be found: a spider for Jan Willem Bruins and a red line for Ben Walenkamp. The latter selected the poem.
His head always stayed clear. It was not the wine that ruined him but despair.
Nina Berberova, who wrote Blok’s autobiography, also concluded that he was addicted to red wine.
- Anna Akhmatova,whose poem Muza can be found on a Leiden wall, called Alexander Blok an anchor for the beginning of the twentieth century.
- At first Blok was happy with the Russian Revolution of 1917. Finally things were about to change, everything would be better. In January of 1918, he wrote his most famous poem The Twelve, in which he welcomed the revolution. A few years later, he disappointedly withdrew his support.
Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи еще хоть четверть века -
Все будет так. Исхода нет.
Умрешь - начнешь опять сначала
И повторится все, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.
Night, street, lamp, and pharmacy,
A meaningless and misty light.
Live on a quarter century -
The same. There is no hope of flight.
You will die, rise from where you fell,
All be repeated, cold and damp:
The night, the wavering canal,
The pharmacy, the street, the lamp.
Translation by Leo Yankevich
This entry was written by Eva van Santen in collaboration with Taalmuseum. The translation into English is by Natasja Oorthuis. The following publications were consulted:
- Nina Berberova, Aleksandr Blok en zijn tijd, een biografie. (Aleksandr Blok i ego vremja, biografija.) Moskou 1999. p. 94
- Emmanuel Waegemans, Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur 1700-2000, Antwerpen 2003.
- Victor Terras, Handbook of Russian Literature, USA 1985.
- Avril Pyman, The Life of Aleksandr Blok, Oxford 1980.