Rimbaud : The Hands of Mary-Jane


st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

 

“Les Mains de Jeanne-Marie”, written close to the time of the Paris Commune (May 1871), when there was a short-lived popular government in Paris, is the nineteenth-century French revolutionary poem par excellence. The ballad form imitates actual ‘broadsheet poems’ of the time and the image of disembodied hands running amok and killing people indiscriminately surely comes straight from a Parisian equivalent of the Victorian ‘Penny Dreadful’. But Rimbaud combines this with occasional ‘literary’ words and highly romantic images like the Rebel bending down to kiss Mary-Jane’s hands. There may also be touches of Delacroix’s tremendous painting, Liberty on the Barricades, where a larger than life  female figure with breasts uncovered, holding aloft the tricolour in one hand and a bayonet in the other, leads a charge of insurgents across dead bodies. We have in effect, in Rimbaud’s poem, cultural influences from the two classes which, ephemerally, combined to overthrow the Second Empire, namely the proletariat and the liberal elements amongst the urban bourgeoisie.

            This is a poem intended to be read aloud, so I felt it essential to retain the strong, almost nursery rhyme beat, and to retain the rhyme since it knits the poem together effectively. But Rimbaud is also enjoying himself linguistically in the manner of a virtuoso violinist extemporising. So it was necessary to imitate this mannered diction where necessary.

            When you translate a rhymed, metrical poem, you have to decide what elements you choose to retain at all costs and which you choose to let go, since you will never be able to keep everything. Some words in the original are important for the image, others for the sense. I had no scruples about translating “plus fort que tout un cheval” by “stronger than a vice”, since it is not the image of the horse that matters here, but the idea of brute strength. However, I felt that the important visual elements such as ‘jewels’, ‘the Virgin Mary’, ‘barricades’ and so forth needed to be given their closest equivalents — closest in terms of their emotional effect on the English reader. “Mitrailleuses” is translated as “cannonades” since the image of street fighting is what matters — and, as it happens, the literal translation of mitrailleuse (‘machine-gun’) would have been inappropriate here since, for us, it inevitably evokes the trenches of World War I, not barricades in the streets of Paris.

            The ending of the poem is surprising since it seems to suggest that the speaker wants to hurt ‘Mary-Jane’ whom he has, up to this point, idolised. Perhaps, Rimbaud, the rebel, is incapable of maintaining a total attitude of reverence towards anyone or anything, not even   the ‘goddess of revolution’.          

 

                         


st1\:*{behavior:url(#ieooui) }

/* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0cm; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;}

                  The Hands of Mary-Jane

 

Mary-Jane has strong hands,

   Brown hands tanned by the summer,

Pale hands like a ghost’s hands,

— Are these the hands of Juana ?

 

And do they owe their dusky gleam

   To oils of sensual ecstasy?                      

And do they take their moon-like sheen

   From lakes of cool serenity? 

 

These hands have drunk the wine of stars,

   And charmed men shown on knees,

And they have rolled Cuban cigars

   Sold gems in tropic seas.

 

The golden blooms at Mary’s feet

   Lie spoiled through some mishap;

It is because her palms secrete

   Black deadly nightshade sap.

 

Are they hands that follow butterflies

   As blue dawn lightens the countryside,

Seeking the nectar as a prize?

   Or hands that offer cyanide?

 

What fancy can have fired their blood

   Throughout their lucubrations?

A dream that no one understood

   Of Genghiskhans and Zions.

 

These hands are not sellers of fruit,

   Have not toiled for the gods of mankind,

Or washed undergarments of jute

   For poor little children and blind.

 

For these are no ordinary hands,

   Of workers with faces homespun,

Dwelling in stinking wastelands

   And burned by a tarmac sun.

 

These hands will break your backbones clean,

    Though pure as snow or ice,

These hands are deadlier than machines

   And stronger than a vice!

                        Restless as a furnace blaze,

   Shaking as they grow nearer,  

Their flesh has sung the Marseillaise

   But never Ave Maria.                                   

 

                    They’ll squeeze your throat, you haughty dame,

   And crush your dainty paws,

Your hands are steeped in crime and shame,

  Your nails are scarlet claws.

                       

These lover’s hands shine forth so bright,

   That lambs must turn their head,

While in each knuckle the sunlight

   Inserts a ruby red. 

 

The stain of the populace

   Has browned them like breasts in eclipse,

The back of these hands is the place

   For every proud Rebel’s lips;

 

And they have grown pale as hands of maids

   In the noonday of love — wondrous to see,

In the roar of cannonades

   As Paris fought to be free! 

 

And yet, sacred hands, at your fists

   That, enraptured, we kiss once again, There are times when we glimpse round your  wrists

   The silvery links of a chain !

 

And then, angel hands, we draw breath

   For we feel deep inside us a need,

To transmute and discolour your flesh

                          By making your fingers bleed!

 

                                   Sebastian Hayes 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: