Hayyim Bialik: By Flickering Sundown (from Hebrew)

This is one of my favorite poems of all time. The recording is not in Modern Hebrew, but rather in traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation. It would be unintelligible to most of today's Israelis. In addition to having different vowel and consonant sounds from Sephardic Hebrew, Ashkenazi Hebrew has a very different stress pattern. (Though a version of the poem in modern Israeli pronunciation has been very successfully set to music by Nuri Korn.) My translation is followed by the Hebrew original, which is in turn followed by a commentary which gives my personal thoughts on it.

By Flickering Sundown
By Hayyim Bialik
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click here to hear me recite the poem in Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation

By flickering sundown, come to the window
And lean on me, let me receive
Your arms round my neck, your head on my head-
And let us conjoin in the eve.

So blended, toward one bright, terrible Glory
Our eyes will turn, silent, and see.
On seas of the light we'll set, in the sunset,
Our innermost fantasies free,

And rustling like doves, desirously wild,
They'll home for the distance, the height,
To reach violet ridges, islands of glory.
And there they will calmly alight...

Those islands afar! Those same worlds on high
Which all of our dreams foretell,
Which rendered us strangers under all Heaven,
Converted our lives into Hell;

Those islands of gold for which we so thirsted
As if for a homeland, whose way
All stars of the night kept signaling out
To us with one quivering ray....

On them we were left, no friend or companion:
Two flowers cast out to the sands,
Two lost ones who seek a thing lost forever
As strangers upon a strange land.


Many thanks to: Andrew Frisardi, Seree Zohar and Adam Elgar for comments and improvements on the English


The Original

עִם דִּמְדּוּמֵי הַחַמָּה
חיים נחמן ביאליק‎

עִם דִּמְדּוּמֵי הַחַמָּה אֶל-הַחַלּוֹן נָא-גשִׁי
וְעָלַי הִתְרַפָּקִי,
לִפְתִי הֵיטֵב צַוָּארִי, שִׂימִי רֹאשֵׁךְ עַל-רֹאשִׁי –
וְכֹה עִמִּי תִדְבָּקִי.

וּמְחֻשָּׁקִים וּדְבֵקִים, אֶל-הַזֹּהַר הַנּוֹרָא
דּוּמָם נִשָּׂא עֵינֵינוּ;
וְשִׁלַּחְנוּ לַחָפְשִׁי עַל-פְּנֵי יַמֵּי הָאוֹרָה
כָּל-הִרְהוּרֵי לִבֵּנוּ.

וְהִתְנַשְּׂאוּ לַמָּרוֹם בִּיעָף שׁוֹקֵק כַּיּוֹנִים,
וּבַמֶּרְחָק יַפְלִיגוּ, יֹאבֵדוּ;
וְעַל-פְּנֵי רֻכְסֵי אַרְגָּמָן, אִיֵּי-זֹהַר אַדְמוֹנִים,
בִּיעָף דּוּמָם יֵרֵדוּ.

הֵם הָאִיִּים הָרְחוֹקִים, הָעוֹלָמוֹת הַגְּבֹהִים
זוּ בַחֲלוֹמוֹת רְאִינוּם;
שֶׁעָשׂוּנוּ לְגֵרִים תַּחַת כָּל-הַשָּׁמָיִם,
וְחַיֵּינוּ – לְגֵיהִנֹּם.

הֵמָּה אִיֵּי-הַזָּהָב זוּ צָמֵאנוּ אֲלֵיהֶם
כְּאֶל אֶרֶץ מוֹלֶדֶת;
שֶׁכָּל-כּוֹכְבֵי הַלַּיִל רָמְזוּ לָנוּ עֲלֵיהֶם
בְּאוֹר קֶרֶן רוֹעֶדֶת.

וַעֲלֵיהֶם נִשְׁאַרְנוּ בְּלִי-רֵעַ וְעָמִית
כִּשְׁנֵי פְרָחִים בַּצִּיָּה;
כִּשְׁנֵי אֹבְדִים הַמְבַקְשִׁים אֲבֵדָה עוֹלָמִית
עַל-פְּנֵי אֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה.



Commentary with Transliteration and Literal Translation:

This poem is one of my very favorite things written in Hebrew. Though I've tried to do my best to communicate its greatness in the poetic rendering above, the original is heavily allusive (like a sizable portion of all Hebrew poetry, due to the remarkable continuity of the Hebrew tradition.) "Im Dimdúmey Haxámo" is rich with references not only to the Torah, but to Kabbalah, Zionist sentiment and a whole range of concepts that cannot be conveyed by even the best poetic rendering. Though the following commentary, interspersed with a transliteration and literal translation, barely skims the surface of the poem, I hope it can give the interested English speaker some idea of what this poem is doing in Hebrew.


Stanzas 1 & 2

Im dimdúmey haxámo el haxáloyn no-góyši
Veoláy hisrapóki
Lífsi héytev tsavóri, sími róyšex al róyši
Vexóy ími tidbóki.

Umxušókim udvéykim, el hazóyhar hanóyro
Dúmom níso eynéynu
Vešiláchnu laxófši al pney yámey hoóyro
Kol hirhúrey libéynu.


At twilight, do come to the window
And lean against me (or: enfold me)
Hold fast to my neck, set your head against my head
And thus be conjoined with me (or: cleave to me)

Fastened and conjoined, to the terrible splendor
We shall silently lift our eyes
And set free over the surface of the seas of light
All the fantasies of our hearts.


I feel a bit odd commenting on a poem like this, since I am as un-Jewish, ethnically and culturally, as can be. But, as Judd Hirsch's character once said in Independence Day, nobody's perfect. So here goes.

The opening stanza appears to suggest the beginning of a conventional love poem. It is redolent with echos, textual and narrative, of the Song of Songs. Passages alluded to include the following


[8:6]
מִי זֹאת, עֹלָה מִן-הַמִּדְבָּר, מִתְרַפֶּקֶת, עַל-דּוֹדָה
Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness, leaning upon her beloved?
(where the word "leaning" translates the same verb להתרפק as "enfold" does in my prose crib)


[2:6]
שְׂמֹאלוֹ תַּחַת לְרֹאשִׁי, וִימִינוֹ תְּחַבְּקֵנִי.
Let his left hand be under my head, and his right hand embrace me.


[2:9]
דּוֹמֶה דוֹדִי לִצְבִי, אוֹ לְעֹפֶר הָאַיָּלִים; הִנֵּה-זֶה עוֹמֵד, אַחַר כָּתְלֵנוּ--מַשְׁגִּיחַ מִן-הַחַלֹּנוֹת,
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart; behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh in through the windows,

Moreover, the entire stanza suggests a quasi-spiritual conjoining similar to many interpretations of the Song of Songs.

However, there is a darker subtext. Although the opening words עם דימדומי החמה im dimdúmey haxámo mean "at twilight" as a phrase, the literal, word-by-word meaning is something more like "at the petering-out of the sun." This lends the phrase a more ominous tone than "twilight" or "sundown" have in English. Furthermore, while the amatory entreaties of the Song of Songs usually take place in the daylight or morning, night time in that text is often a period of unfulfilled yearning. Therefore, having this conjugal occurrence in the twilight flips the Song-of-songs allusion on its head.

The second stanza is slightly more overtly ominous. The words I have rendered literally above as "terrible splendor" are extremely poignant in Hebrew. נורא Nóyro contains both the common meaning of "terrible" and the Biblical meaning of "awe-inspiring." זוהר Zóyhar not only means "glory" and "brightness" as well as "splendor" but is also the title of the most important work of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), the Zohar. The Zohar is a mystical commentary on the Torah, providing a discussion of the nature of sin, good and evil, God's relationship with man and a host of other things. The joining of the man and the woman of the first four lines now stops being a simple love poem and takes on a spiritual dimension when the reader realizes that the Zohar teaches that God's essence is not homogeneous, but that it has two dimensions, male and female, which must be conjoined into one (a reversal of the process that created Eve from Adam's flesh) in order to maintain harmony in the universe. In addition, the twilight of the opening line is made even more resonant now by the Kabbalistic teaching that God's thought is especially concerned with men in the twilight hours.

The phrasing of the final two lines of the second stanza uses a phrase ימי האורה yámey hoóyro "the seas of light" which subverts a rather trite phrase yóymey hoóyro (days of light.) The word for "light" used here has mystical connotations as well. It also alludes to the opening of Genesis where god sends his spirit "over the face (al pney)" of the darkness and the waters before creating light, and dividing the world into Night and Day, Heaven and Earth, Land and Water. The lovers take on a superhuman, godlike quality as their thoughts roam God's creation of light as God's thoughts once roamed the waters of the pre-eternal universe. However, by using the words הירהורי לבינו hirhúrey libéynu, "fancies of our [human] heart," (which, by the way, is also an idiom meaning roughly "innermost thoughts") the poem insists on their mortal, human nature, and hints that these two humans are attempting something meant only for God himself.

Stanzas 3 & 4

Vehisnásu lamóroym beóf šóykek kayóynim
Uvamérxok yaflígu, yoyvéydu;
Val pney rúxsey argómon, íyey zóyhar admóynim,
Beóf dúmom yeréydu.

Heym hoíyim harxóykim, hooylómoys hagvóyhim
Zu vaxlóymoys reínom
She'osúnu legéyrim táxas kol hashomóyim
Vexayéynu lgeyhínom.


And they will arise toward the heights in a yearning/rustling flight like doves
And sail into the distance and be lost
And upon purple mountain ridges and ruddy islands of splendor
They will descent quietly in flight

They are the distant isles, the lofty worlds
That we saw in dreams
That made us strangers/converts/gentiles under all the heavens
And made our lives Hell.


The word מרום móroym is a word that can denote any high place. However, in the Bible, it most often denotes the abode of God (as in Psa 68:18; Psa 93:4; Psa 102:19 and elsewhere.) The word יונים yoynim (doves) recalls Biblical passages such as those in Leviticus and Numbers, where a dove is used as a sacrificial offering to God. The word יפליגו yafligu (sail/soar off) brings to mind also the portion of Genesis where Noah sends forth a dove to see if the flood is over. שוקק šoykek (yearning, rustling) connotes carnal desire (and occurs several times with such a meaning in, for example, the song of songs) but is also often used in religious literature to describe someone who is ruled by their earthly, base ambitions, trapped in the throes of pleasure-seeking, and is unable to set their heart on God, unable to rejoice. The word used to describe the mountain ridges as "purple" (ארגמן argómon)is also the one used to describe a high priest's garments. The effect this produces is one of confusion. Good and evil, divinity and cupidity are confounded in ways that make the meaning of this passage difficult to paraphrase.

In the subsequent stanza, the distant isles, האיים הרחוקים ha'iyim harxóykim are described using a phrase from Isaiah 66:19 "The distant isles that have not heard of My fame nor seen My glory." As Bialik's line indicates, they are illusions, the fantasies of dreams. The word גרים geyrim, which is rendered as "strangers" above is extremely loaded. גר Geyr originally meant something like "wayfarer" or "outsider" (meanings it still possesses) but it also described either a non-Jew or (as in modern Hebrew) a convert to Judaism: one who is in some way set apart from the Jewish ethnos. It suggests that the illusory islands created by the couple's blasphemous love have set them apart from God, as it has set them apart from each other.

Stanzas 5 & 6:

Héymo íyey hazóhov zu tsomeynu eleyhem
Keel érets moylédes
Šekól kóychvey holáyl rómzu lónu aléyhem
Beoyr kéren royédes

Vealéyhem nišárnu bli réya veómis
Kishnéy fróxim batsíyo
Kishnéy óyvdim hamvákšim aveydo oylómis
Al pney érets noyxríyo


Those are the islands of gold for which we thirsted
As for a homeland
At which all the night's stars hinted
With the light of a tremulous ray.

And on them we were left without friend or companion
Like two flowers in the desert/wilderness/waste
Like two lost ones seeking an eternal/worldwide loss (i.e.something forever lost)
On a foreign land.


Heaven and earth have not been united, the lovers have failed to achieve perfect union and harmony because such demands are beyond the ability of human love, and only within the power of God. In seeking to be god-like, they have estranged themselves from divinity, perhaps even from the possibility of the divine's existence. The home they/the speaker thought to reach has turned out to be empty space. The word ציה tsiyo (wilderness) here used carries with it strong Biblical connotations of banishment, of being out of place, as well as having to thrive in barrenness. This is strengthened by the rhyme-phrase ארץ נוחריה éretz noyxríyo which, in context, echos Exodus [2:22], where Moses has a child with Zipporah while a fugitive in the desert:

וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ גֵּרְשֹׁם: כִּי אָמַר--גֵּר הָיִיתִי, בְּאֶרֶץ נָכְרִיָּה.
" And she bore a son, and he called his name Gershom; for he said: 'I have been a stranger in a strange land (éretz noyxrío).'"

This, juxtaposed with ארץ מולדת éyrets moyléydes- land of birth, homeland , along with the idea of "lost ones" (אובדים oyvdim) connects the whole poem at once with the predicament of western civilization, and with Zionist sentiment and the Jewish predicament. On a more personal level, the speakers have by their own choice elected to relive the cycle of disillusionment.

5 comments:

  1. then for current israeli heb, some are definitely in the wrong place which is why it wd sound odd:
    hachama, accentuate final a
    el - accentuate
    goshi - accent i
    then you'd follow with the same stresses on the next line. perfect balance of rhythm and rhyme.

    btw i know you said [...] (cant remember the name) helped you with the old-style ashkenazic enunciation, but i think it's incorrect to say that the modern pronunciation destroys bialik's work. additionally, one must keep in mind that he was a very learned fellow, who knew about the correct placing of stresses from reading Bible, where they are specifically marked and unchanged over centuries. nevermind, there's always so much debate about these issues. tnx for the name fix.

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  2. You're def. right about Hachamá. that was a typo.

    But "góshi" is weird. I just checked w/ my two Modern Hebrew dictionaries. And they both indicate that the fem imperative takes penultimate stress. An Israeli correspondent says both seem natural to her.

    Anyway, regarding Bialik's stress in general, I'd just say: look at the rhymes. Bialik's rhymes clearly incorporate the penultimate syllable as well as the final one. (e.g. oylómis/v'ómis, batsíyo/noychríyo etc.) In fact, *all* of bialik's rhymes in every poem do this- with the exception of places (such as monosyllabic words joined to grammatical prefixes) where traditional Ashkenazi hebrew actually would use end-stress (and also some children's verse written in Modern Hebrew). If bialik really did intend for all his rhymes to be end-stressed, this makes as little sense as if English were to allow "align" to rhyme with "malign" but not "divine." But if you assume penultimate stress, then it makes sense, like English rhyming "rover" with "over" but not with "killer."

    And even Bialik's imperfect rhymes strongly suggest penultimate stress. For example, take the 4th stanza of his poem בתשובתי "On My Return."

    וכמאז באפל מתוחים
    קורי ארג העכביש
    מלאי פגרי זבובים נפוחים
    שם בזוית המערבית...

    The 2nd and 4th lines rhyme, in ashkenazi hebrew, as "haakóvish/hamaróvis", where the unstressed less prminent second syllable is allowed to be imperfect and the stressed "-óv-" matches up perfectly.

    Bialik was certainly a learned fellow who, like most Ashkenazim, would have known about the liturgical practice of end-stressing words in accordance with the Torah's stress marks- since that's what he would have heard in liturgical readings. But that certainly didn't stop him from employing penultimate stress for literary use. Without exception, *all* ashkenazi poetry -by Tchernichovsky, Bat-Miriam and others- requires penultimate stress most of the time. If you read, for example, Tchernichovsky's sonnet sequence "To The Sun", you'll find that the sonnets, all of them iambic, cannot be scanned as such (or for that matter as anything) with Modern Hebrew stresses. It is only when Tchernichovsky moved to Israel and started writing in the language spoken there that he started to use rhymes and meters which suggest end-stress. A particularly strong example of the same fact is Yocheved Bat-Miriam's early poem "אמה וחצי קומתי" which only manages to maintain end-stressed rhymes by rhyming on monosyllabic words (which are then camouflaged with grammatical prefixes.) Compare this with the poetry Bat-Miriam wrote after moving to Israel, and you'll see that *those* poems' rhymes presume end-stress nearly everywhere where modern Hebrew does.

    Heck, the Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse, by T. Carmi, even devotes several pages to the penultimate stresses of ashkenazi poetry

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sounds conclusive. Did you ever find author's reading of old fellows (Byalik, Tshernichovski, Fichman)?

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  4. O and here's a bit of an interview with prof. Dovid Katz wherein he reads some of Bialik's and Tchernichovsky's work in Ashkenazi pronunciation:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAswEzeaYY8

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