Osip Mandelstam: “Notre Dame”
Where a Roman judge framed laws for alien folk
A basilica stands, original, exulting,
Each nerve stretched taut along the light cross vaulting,
Each muscle flexing, like Adam when he first woke.
If you look from outside you grasp the hidden plan:
Strong saddle-girth arches watchfully forestall
The ponderous mass from shattering the wall
And hold in check the bold vault’s battering ram.
A primal labyrinth, a wood past men’s understanding,
The Gothic spirit’s rational abyss,
Brute strength of Egypt and a Christian meekness,
Thin reed beside oak and the plumb line everywhere king.
Stronghold of Notre Dame, the more my attentive eyes
Studied your gigantic ribs and frame
Then the more often this reflection came:
From cruel weight, I too will someday make beauty rise.
Translation by Robert Tracy