It’s winter

Sándor Kányádi, when applying the image of the cycle of nature to history and thus making understandable and supportable with the metaphor of the approaching winter that massive and irreversible destruction which took place in the past century not only in Transylvania, but in the whole of Eastern Europe, either consciously or unconsciously followed the example of those – Transylvanian and European – Humanist predecessors who, perhaps also for their own comfort, explained and represented as inevitable with the cycles of human life and nature the rise and decline of nations. The winter as a metaphor for desperate historical situations has a long tradition and is still alive in the literature of various peoples.

In Hungarian its most famous example is undoubtedly the last two stanzas of Mihály Vörösmarty’s Foreword, written “in Baracska, in the late winter of 1850-51”, which expands to cosmic proportions the tragedy of the lost war of independence of 1848-49 and the subsequent bloody retaliation. The introductory verse of the penultimate stanza, “Now it’s winter and snow and silence and death” is a well-known topos for every Hungarian even if they do not remember anything else of the poem. The particular cruelty of the poem is that while the winter metaphor implicitly includes the possibility of a nearing spring, Vörösmarty explicitly states that the spring, even if it will come, will be just a lie.


Most tél van és csend és hó és halál.
A föld megőszült;
Nem hajszálanként, mint a boldog ember,
Egyszerre őszült az meg, mint az Isten,
Ki megteremtvén a világot, embert,
E félig istent, félig állatot,
Elborzadott a zordon mű felett
És bánatában ősz lett és öreg.

Majd eljön a hajfodrász, a tavasz,
S az agg föld tán vendéghajat veszen,
Virágok bársonyába öltözik.
Üvegszemén a fagy fölengedend,
S illattal elkendőzött arcain
Jókedvet és ifjuságot hazud:
Kérdjétek akkor ezt a vén kacért,
Hová tevé boldogtalan fiait?

Now it’s winter and snow and silence and death.
The earth has turned white.
Not hair by hair like a happy man:
it turned white at once, like God
who, having created the world and man,
this half-god and half-animal being
was horrified over the grim work
and turned white and old in his sorrow.

Later will come the hairdresser, the spring,
and the old earth will perhaps take a wig,
she will dress in the velvet of flowers
the ice will thaw on her glass eyes
and on her cheek camouflaged with perfumes
she will lie cheerfulness and youth.
Ask then this aged coquette:
where has she put her unhappy children?

For our generation, if on a different poetic level, but a similar role was played by a song written by János Bródy after the state of emergency introduced on 13 December 1981 in Poland and the suppression of the Solidarity movement. The song, though at that time was broadcasted on the radio, could be first published on LP only after the change of the regime, on the album “1977-1990” performed by Zorán Sztevanovity.

János Bródy – Zorán Sztevanovity: Do not wait for May. From the album 1977-1990 (1990)

Készülj a hosszú télre, kedvesem
Mert hosszú lesz a tél, én azt hiszem
A szíved melegét tedd el nekem
Én majd a szemed fényét őrizem

Szedd össze mindazt, ami megmarad
Csak lassan égesd el a vágyakat
Csavard a lángot lejjebb, kedvesem
A tűzre szükség lesz még, úgy hiszem

Ne várd a májust, hiszen közelít a tél
Ne várd a májust, kedvesem
Öltözz fel jól, ha az utcára kilépsz
S ha fázol, bújj az ágyba velem

Szelíd legyél, derűs és hallgatag
És bölcs mosollyal tűrd, ha bántanak
Legyél folyó, s ha támad majd a tél
Páncélod lesz kemény és hófehér

Készülj a hosszú télre, kedvesem
Mert hosszú lesz a tél, én azt hiszem
Get ready for the long winter, my dear,
because the winter will be long, I think
Keep the warmth of your heart for me
and I will guard the light of your eyes

Pick up everything that remains
and just slowly burn up the desire
turn the flame down, my dear
we will still need the fire, I think

Do not wait for May, for winter is nearing
do not wait for May, my dear
dress up well when you step out to the street
and if you’re cold, get down in the bed with me

Be gentle, serene and silent
and put up a wise smile if you’re hurt
Become a river, and when winter attacks
you’ll have an armor, hard and white

Get ready for the long winter, my dear,
because the winter will be long, I think

Kata remembers it like this: “I do not know whether János Bródy wrote it on that occasion or not, but to me this song is clearly linked to the suppression of Solidarność. We were then twenty years old, we were looking forward to life to open to us, to be in love and to be happy. We just wanted to go to a concert of Tamás Cseh when we learned the news. Life was all of a sudden darkened and locked away by Jaruzelski’s rise to power. We were sitting with my friend in my tiny room, the former servant’s hall of a former bourgeois apartment, and talking about that now everything is over, and that we have to expect a durable repression and the hardening of the dictatorship also in Hungary. Judit told that there was only a single slice left to us from life, and it was love. I heard this song immediately after that. And the coming years in fact were about this, that in the long winter people tried to obtain from each other the fullness and spaciousness of life, which necessarily led to tragedies. So this song still today evokes the servant’s hall, and still my stomach tightens just as thirty years ago, and I recall those people whom I saw getting spoiled in those years.”

One of the finest examples of the winter metaphor, however, comes from Iran, from one of the greatest Iranian poets of the 20th century, the creator of Persian free verse, Mehdi Akhavan Sales (1928-1990), of whom we have already translated some poems. His poem Zemestân ast – It’s winter is still so important in Iran that the greatest living musicians, the repeatedly quoted Mohammad Reza Shajarian (vocals) Hossein Alizadeh (tar), Kayhan Kalhor (kamanche) and the younger Shajarian (tombak) – the Masters of Persian Music – have set it to music and perform it, and this music accompanies also Rafi Pitts’ successful and gloomy film of 2006 about the daily life in Teheran’s poor neighborhoods, which also bears the same title.

Here below, after the Persian text and English translation of the poem we also include the full concert recording of It’s winter by the Masters in Los Angeles, December 2001 (41 minutes). If you are not yet accustomed to the meditative Persian music, then listen first to the some minutes long detail of the concert illustrated with the photos of two young Iranian photographers, Ehsan Amini and Hamed Masoumi whose pictures also accompany this post. The flash video includes only the last stanza with English subtitles. We do not insert it here, just give a link to it, so you can watch it full size.

As we have written several times already, the musicality of the language and the play with the accidental assonance of words is such an integral part of Persian poetry that it is virtually impossible to translate it to any language. Therefore we only give a more or less literal translation, complemented below with the audio recordings of the poem. This time the translation is not ours, but the widely used one by Mahvash Shahegh, which in some places slightly differs from the original text, and to which we have added in gray the translation of those few verses which, for some unknown reason, were missing from her text.

زمستان است

سلامت را نمی خواهند پاسخ گفت
سرها در گریبان است

کسی سر بر نیارد کرد پاسخ گفتن و دیدار یاران را
نگه جز پیش پا را دید ، نتواند
که ره تاریک و لغزان است
وگر دست محبت سوی کسی یازی
به اکراه آورد دست از بغل بیرون
که سرما سخت سوزان است

نفس ، کز گرمگاه سینه می اید برون ، ابری شود تاریک
چو دیوار ایستد در پیش چشمانت .
نفس کاین است ، پس دیگر چه داری چشم
ز چشم دوستان دور یا نزدیک ؟

مسیحای جوانمرد من ! ای ترسای پیر پیرهن چرکین
هوا بس ناجوانمردانه سرد است … ای
دمت گرم و سرت خوش باد
سلامم را تو پاسخ گوی ، در بگشای

منم من ، میهمان هر شبت ، لولی وش مغموم
منم من ، سنگ تیپاخورده ی رنجور
منم ، دشنام پست آفرینش ، نغمه ی ناجور

نه از رومم ، نه از زنگم ، همان بیرنگ بیرنگم
بیا بگشای در ، بگشای ، دلتنگم
حریفا ! میزبانا ! میهمان سال و ماهت پشت در چون موج می لرزد
تگرگی نیست ، مرگی نیست
صدایی گر شنیدی ، صحبت سرما و دندان است

من امشب آمدستم وام بگزارم
حسابت را کنار جام بگذارم
چه می گویی که بیگه شد ، سحر شد ، بامداد آمد ؟
فریبت می دهد ، بر آسمان این سرخی بعد از سحرگه نیست
حریفا ! گوش سرما برده است این ، یادگار سیلی سرد زمستان است
و قندیل سپهر تنگ میدان ، مرده یا زنده
به تابوت ستبر ظلمت نه توی مرگ اندود ، پنهان است
حریفا ! رو چراغ باده را بفروز ، شب با روز یکسان است

سلامت را نمی خواهند پاسخ گفت
هوا دلگیر ، درها بسته ، سرها در گریبان ، دستها پنهان
نفسها ابر ، دلها خسته و غمگین
درختان اسکلتهای بلور آجین
زمین دلمرده ، سقف آسمان کوتاه
غبار آلوده مهر و ماه
زمستان است

zemestân ast

salâmat-râ nemikhâhand pâsokh goft
sarhâ dar geribân ast

kasi sar bar nayârad kard pâsokh goftan o didâr iârân-râ
negah joz pish-e pâ-râ did, natânad
ke rah târikh o laghzân ast
vagar dast-e mohabbat sui kasi yâzi
be ekrâh âvarad dast az baghal birun
ke sarmâ sakht suzân ast

nafas, kaz garmgâh sine miâyad borun, abri shavad târik
cho divâri isad dar pish-e chasmânat
nafas kinast, pas digar che dâri chasm
ze chasm-e dustân-e dur yâ nazdik?

masihâye javânmard-e man! i tarsâye pir-e pirhan cherkin
havâ bas nâjavanmardâne sar dast… ây
damat garm o sarat khosh bâd
salâmam-râ to pâsakh gui, dar bokshây

manam man, mihmân-e har shabat, luli vash-e maghmun
manam man, sang-e tipâkhorde i ranjur
manam, dushnam-e past-e âfarinesh, naghme-ye nâjur

na az rumam, na az zangam, hamân birang-e birangam
biâ bogshâ-ye dar, bogshâ-ye, dâtnagam
harifâ, mizbânâ, mihmân-e sâl o mâhat posht-e dar jun moj milarzad
tagargi nist, margi nist
sedâyi gar shanidi, sohbot-e sarmâ va dandân ast

man emshab âmadastam vâm bogzâram
hesâbat-râ kenâr-e jâm bogzâram
che miguyi ke miga shod, sahar shod, bâmdâd âmad?
faribat midahad, bar âsmân in sorkhi-ye ba‘d az sahargah nist
harifâ! gush-e sarhâ borde ast in, yâdegâr-e sili-ye sard-e zemestân ast
va ghandil-e sepehr-e tang midân, morde yâ zende
be tâbut-e setabr-e zolmat-e na tuye marg andud, penhân ast
harifâ! ro cherâgh-e bâde-râ befruz, shab bâ ruz yeksân ast

salâmat-râ nemikhâhand pâsokh goft
havâ dâgir, darhâ baste, sarhâ dar garibân, dasteha penhân
nafashâ abr, delhâ khaste va ghamgin
derakhtân eskelethâye bolur âjin
zamin delmorde, saghf âsmân kutâ
ghobâr âlude mehr o mâh
zemestân ast

It’s winter

They are not going to answer your greeting
Their heads are in their collars

Nobody is going to raise his head
To answer a question or to see a friend
The eyes cannot see beyond the feet
The road is dark and slick
If you stretch a friendly hand towards anybody
He hardly brings his hand out of his pocket
For the cold is so bitter

The breath coming out of your chest
Turns into a dark cloud
And stands like a wall in front of your eyes
While your own breath is like this
What do you expect from your distant or close friends?

My gentle Messiah, O, dirty dressed monk
The weather is so ungently cold
You be warm and happy
You answer my greeting and open the door

It is me, your nightly guest, an unhappy gypsy;
It is me, a kicked up, afflicted stone
It is me, a low insult of creation, an untuned melody.

I am neither white nor black, * I am colorless
Come and open the door, see how cheerless I am
O, my dear host, your nightly guest is shivering outside
There is no hail outside, no death;
If you hear any sound, it is the sound of cold and teeth.

I came tonight to repay the loan
to put down my bond beside your cup
What are you saying, that
It is too late, it is dawn, it is day?
That’s an illusion! What you see on the sky
Is not the redness after dawn
It is the result of the winter’s slap
On the sky’s cheeks
And the lantern of the sky, whether dead or alive,
Is covered by the thick coffin of the darkness.
O, partner go and get the wine ready
Days and nights are the same

They are not going to answer your greeting
The air is gloomy, doors are closed,
The heads are in collars, the hands are hidden,
The breaths are clouds, the people are tired and sad,
The trees are crystallized skeletons, the earth is low-spirited
The roof of the sky is low
The sun and moon are hazy
It’s winter

On this recording the poem is recited by Mahvash Shahegh, while on the following video by Mehdi Akhavan Sales himself, who was also an excellent performer.

And here you can listen to the complete concert recording of 2001:

Hossein Alizadeh - Kayhan Kalhor - Mohammad Reza Shajarian – Homayoun Shajarian: Zemestân ast (“It’s winter”). Recording of the December 2001 concert of California (41'47)