Catherine Pozzi : Immortal Longings

born into a very select Parisian family during the latter nineteenth century — her father was a fashionable surgeon and a Senator while her mother presided over a salon patronised by Sarah Bernhardt and Leconte de l’Isle — ‘Karin’ developed into a withdrawn, very intense young woman “tall, gracious and ugly” as Jean Paulhan describes her cattily. She traversed various emotional and religious crises, which she recounts in her voluminous Journals, before making a disastrous marriage which never survived the honeymoon. Not that she was frigid: a few years on, already suffering from the tubercular complaint which eventually killed her, she embarked on a tempestuous affair with Paul Valéry and committed the unforgivable faux-pas, not of having an affair with a married man, but of openly avowing the liaison.

If ever there was a poète manqué(e) — I am tempted to say génie manqué — it was Catherine Pozzi. In a rather pathetic passage from her Journals, she asks ‘Dieu Esprit’ to forgive her for not having fulfilled her sacred mission and having wasted too much time on trivialities. While her contemporary, Marcel Proust, also a chronic invalid and insomniac, managed to write the longest novel in the world, Catherine Pozzi left us only her Journals, one or two inconclusive philosophical prose pieces and….six poems. Out of these six, only one was published during her lifetime — though this was according to her own wishes.

Like the English Romantic poet Beddoes, Catherine Pozzi spent much of her life vainly searching for some faculty or lost sense, which would enable humanity to overcome the dreadful duality matter/spirit. To this end, she undertook serious studies in biology and physics during her maturer years, and, piecing together scattered passages from her Journals and prose pieces, it would seem that she was groping towards a theory similar to that of ‘morphic resonance’ currently advanced by Dr. Rupert Sheldrake, whereby each of our sensations, and ultimately the whole of our lives, is a sort of recapitulation of what has already been : “Je sens ce que j’ai déjà senti” as she puts it. More’s the pity she did not leave us a body of work as substantial as that of, say, Blake.

 Sebastian Hayes
                                                          Vale

That peerless love that was your gift to me,
The wind of days has rent beyond repair,
High burned the flame, strong was our destiny,
As hand in hand we stood in unity
Together there ;

Orb that for us was single and entire,
Our sun, its flaming splendour was our thought,
The second sky of a divided fire,
And double exile by division bought ;

These scenes for you evoke ashes and dread,
Places that you refuse to recognize
And the enchanted star above our head
That lit the perilous moment our embracing shed,
Gone from your eyes…..

The future days on which your hopes depend
Are less immediate than what’s left behind;
Take what you have, each harvest has an end,
You’ll not be drunk however much you spend
On scattered wine.

I have retrieved those wild celestial days,
The vanished paradise where anguish was desire ;
What we were once revives in unexpected ways,
It is my flesh and blood and will, after death’s blaze,
Be my attire ;

Your name acts like a spell, lost bliss I knew,
Takes shape, becomes my heart; I live again
That golden era memory makes new,
That peerless love that I once gave to you,
And lived in pain.

Ave

Love of my life, my fear is I may die
Not knowing who you are or whence you came,
Within what world you lived, beneath what sky,
What age or time forged your identity,
Love beyond blame,

Love of my life, outstripping memory,
O fire without a hearth lighting my days,
At fate’s command you wrote my history,
By night your glory showed itself to me,
My resting-place…

When all I seem to be falls in decay,
Divided infinitesimally
An infinite number of times, all I survey
Is lost, and the apparel of today
Is stripped from me,

Broken by life into a thousand shreds,
A thousand disconnected moments — swirl
Of ashes that the pitiless wind outspreads,
You will remake from what my spirit sheds
A single pearl.

Yes, from the shattered debris of my days,
You will remake a shape for me, remake a name,
A living unity transcending time and space,
Heart of my spirit, centre of life’s maze,
Love beyond blame.

Maya
Descending layer by layer the silt of centuries,
Each desperate moment always takes me back to you,
Country of sun-drenched temples and Atlantic seas,
Legends come true.

Soul ! word adored by me, by destiny made black,
What is it but the body when the flame has fled ?
O time, stand still ! O tightened weft of life, grow slack !
A child again, the trail toward the dark I tread.

Birds mass, confront the sea-wind blowing from the West,
Fly, happiness, towards the summer-time of long ago,
The final bank once gained, all is by sleep possessed,
Song, monarch, rocks, the ancient tree cradled below,
Stars that from old my original face have blessed,

A sun all on its own and crowned with perfect rest.

Nova

Far in the future is a world that  knows not me,
It has not taken shape beneath the present sky,
Its space and time not ours, its customs all awry,
Point in the lifespan of the very star I flee,
There you will live, my glory and my ruin — I
Will live in you, my blood your heart will fructify,
Your breathing, eyesight, mine, while everything of me
That is terrestrial will be lost, and lost eternally !

Image that I pursue, forestall what is to be !
(Acts I once cherished, you have wrought this agony)
Undo, unmake yourself, dissolve, refuse to be,
Denounce what was desired but not chosen by me.

Let me not see this day, fruit of insanity,
I am not done — let fall the spool of destiny !

Scopolamine

The wine that courses through my vein
Has drowned my heart and in its train
I navigate the endless blueI am a ship without a crew
Forgetfulness descends like rain.

I am a just discovered star
That floats across the empyrean —
How new and strange its contours are!
O voyage taken to the sunAn unfamiliar yet persistent hum
The background to my night’s become.

My heart has left my life behind,
The world of Shape and Form I’ve crossed,
I am saved   I am lostInto the unknown am tossed,
A name without a past to find.

Nyx
A Louise aussi de Lyon et d’Italie

O you my nights  O long-awaited dark
O noble land   O  secrets that endure
O lingering glances    lightning-broken space
O flights approved beyond shut skies

O deep desire  amazement spread abroad
O splendid journey of the spellstruck mind
O worst mishap O grace descended from above
O open door through which not one has passed

I know not why I sink, expire
Before the eternal place is mine
I know not who made me his prey
Nor who it was made me his love

Catherine Pozzi

Translation Sebastian Hayes

Advertisements

Ni Zan : Classical Chinese Painter

ni zan (1301-1374) is regarded as one of the four masters of Chinese landscape painting during the Yüan (Mongol) dynasty. Originally a wealthy landowner, he spent the latter part of his life living on houseboats wandering around the lakes and rivers of Songjiang and Suzhou, sometimes staying with literati friends. There is an article on him by Jane Dwight in the July 2009 issue of the Newsletter of the Chinese Brush Painters Society, and he is the speaker of the following monologue taken from The Portrait Gallery by Sebastian Hayes (Brimstone Press, 2008).

On the Great Lakes        

My works are colourless, the outlines clear
But never bold, dry, even strokes; the scene

Is much the same, a bank with mainly leafless trees,
Stretches of open water, in the distance, hills;
The season, autumn (though it might be early spring);
Mid-morning; human shapes never appear, at most
A makeshift shelter in the foreground with a roof of reeds
Made by a passing traveller; no wind,
The very slightest flutter at the tips of trees,
But at ground level nothing, even a rowing-boat
Would mar the perfect stillness and the silence…
 
Rain; the sound of it agreeable, light rain
Coming in from the south, my travelling-boat
Rocks idly in the creek, securely moored;
Behind me dark land-masses, misty peaks,
Bent pine and tangled scrub; Ma Yüan’s scrolls

Reach out towards the indistinct but mine do not,
All is contained and definite, hillsides rise up
And lakes are bright with water, always, endlessly

                                                                                    Sebastian Hayes

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 

Verlaine : Il Pleure dans mon coeur



/* 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;}


/* 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;}

Il pleure dans mon cœur…

 

                         Il pleut doucement sur la ville.

                                    (Arthur Rimbaud)

 

Il pleure dans mon cœur

Comme il pleut sur la ville :

Quelle est cette langueur

Qui pénètre mon cœur?

 

O bruit doux de la pluie

Par terre et sur les toits!

Pour un cœur qui s’ennuie

O le chant de la pluie!

 

Il pleure sans raison

Dans ce cœur qui s’écœure.

Quoi! nulle trahison? …

Ce deuil est sans raison.

 

C’est bien la pire peine

De ne savoir pourquoi

Sans amour et sans haine

Mon cœur a tant de peine!  

 

                                                 

            This is probably the most famous poem by Paul Verlaine, the French nineteenth century poète maudit who is today better known for his turbulent liaison with the adolescent Arthur Rimbaud than for his actual writings. I render it as

 

Tears fall from my heart….

 

Tears fall in my heart

Like rain on the town —

What is this dull smart

That transpierces my heart?

 

The sweet sound of the rain

On roofs and on the ground!

For a spirit in pain,

O the song of the rain !

 

Tears come for no reason,

To this heart sick of life,

Neither parting nor treason,

My sadness has no reason.

 

And the worst is not to know

Why, without love or hate,

Tears do not fail to flow,

But why I do not know. 

 

            [I am indebted to Claude Mignot-Ogliastri, the critic and biographer, for pointing out to me that Verlaine did not write that tears were flowing from his heart, which would be commonplace, but in his heart, causing me to emend my original translation.]   

 

            As far as I am concerned, poetry should essentially be

                 “what oft was felt but ne’er so well expressed”

to slightly adapt Pope’s famous line — he actually wrote “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed”.  Here, Verlaine gives perfect expression to a mood or feeling which I, and countless other people, have occasionally experienced : a sort of sadness which has no raison d’être, or not as far as one can make out. Even, it is not clear whether it really is sadness. I remember one whole summer  when, though not having any particular reason for depression, rather the contrary, I found myself afflicted by recurrent periods of continual weeping (after which I felt a  hell of a lot better), and I have met people in ‘Workshops’ of the psychological type who have recounted identical experiences.  The whole point of Verlaine’s poem is that this sadness “has no reason” and the poet is almost as much puzzled as he is afflicted.

     An article recently appeared in the New Scientist discussing whether depression can/should be cured by ‘happiness’ drugs, provoking varied reactions amongst correspondents. Currently, although almost everyone in this country, including or especially the best off, seems to spend most of their time moaning and whinging, there is a positive obligation to always be  photographed not only smiling but laughing uproariously. If the current government had another term (which currently seems unlikely) it would probably end up by making it punishable by law to appear despondent in public — a £50 fine, say, for a first offence and a warning of more serious penalties for recidivism. One envies the Victorians their right to view life as a serious  business.

 

                                                                                                               Sebastian Hayes    


Anna de Noailles : Belle Époque Femme Fatale and Woman of Letters


/* 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;}

 

although a french speaker and fairly well conversant with French poetry, I only came across the writings of Anna de Noailles (1876–1933) a year or so  ago, which shows how much she is an almost forgotten figure (not one of her many volumes of poetry is currently in print). I was at once struck by the burning sincerity and power of these poems which make the writings of Mallarmé and other Symbolists, her immediate predecessors in French poetry, appear tame and frigid.

            Take, for example, the following poem

 

               The Trace I Wish to Leave

 

i aim to thrust myself against this life so hard,

And clasp it to me fiercely, leaving such a trace,

That when the sweetness of these days I must discard

The world will keep awhile the warmth of my embrace.

 

The sea, spread out across the globe so lavishly,

On stormy days my fitful memory will sustain,

And in its myriad, random motions ceaselessly

Preserve the acrid, salty, savour of my pain.

 

What will be left of me in heath and windswept coomb?

My blazing eyes will set the yellow gorse on fire,

And the cicada perched upon a sprig of broom

Will sound the depth and poignancy of my desire. 

 

Each spring, in fertile meadows where the skylark sings,

In lanes and wayside ditches where wild flowers grow,

The tufted  grass will tremble at the touch of unseen wings,

The phantoms of my hands that held them long ago.

 

My joy and restless passion will not die with me,

Nature will breathe me in, making of me a part 

Of all that lives, while sorrowing humanity

Will hold the individual profile of my heart.   

 

                                                            (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

Or again 

                        Life-Force

 

i have the taste for what is ardent and intense,

Delirious crowds and bodies, a heroic role

In life, such bitter, acrid smells are like incense

To my tumultuous heart and my excessive soul.

 

From mundane tasks and cares I languish to be free,

Oh to be living now amidst the pent-up might

Of storm and spray, inhale the odour of the sea,

And breathe the morning air that silences the night.

 

Dawn breaks, the dazzled world returns to life again,

Birds sing, a clamour rises from the street below,

A thousand bustling noises fill my waking brain,

I am a canvas sail the wind swings to and fro.

 

To fill like this the days that lead towards the tomb,

Bearing a heart that’s swollen like a mellow fruit,

And leaves its juice and scent to beautify the room,

The mark of one who was in pleasure resolute.

 

To see spread out before me all that life can yield,

And clasp it to me fiercely like an infant boy

Hugging an unknown beast discovered in a field,

Who, ev’n when bitten, bloodstained, still is mad with joy.

 

To steel oneself for happiness, hand, will and eye,

Scaling the heights and depths of what the heart can bear,

To risk one’s all and the assaults of time defy,

To breathe the sparse and heady Himalayan air ;

 

To strive to emulate the wheeling sun and moon,

Monarch of golden day and night-time’s silvery queen,

To live like spumes of spray whipped up by a typhoon

Or like the unyielding thorn upon a wind-lashed green.

 

Sorrow and joy are lifelong comrades travelling home,

My heart yields always to their joint pulsating call,

I am an emerald lawn where pairs of lions roam,

Upon my lips there is the taste of honey and of gall.

 

And finally I celebrate that ecstasy

Of dying in full strength within the midst of  strife,

Because desire exceeds my frame’s capacity,

                        And what I hold inside me bursts the bonds of life.               

           

                                                                        (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

 

            I assumed Anna de Noailles must have been a rebellious, tormented individual who published little in her lifetime — a sort of French Charlotte Mew —  and who led the recommended late nineteenth century poète maudit existence. Imagine, then, my surprise — and to a certain extent chagrin —  when I discovered that she was in her lifetime extremely successful : an aristocrat fêted by Parisian literary high society, a friend of Proust, Rostand, Cocteau, Valéry, you name them. Leading artists painted her and Rodin sculpted her. Her first collection of verse Le Cœur Innombrable (‘The Numberless Heart’) was something of a literary sensation and, since, with her long black hair and piercing eyes, she was hauntingly beautiful as well, she attained for a while almost the sort of status of Princess Diana in our own era. Reputedly, a fashionable young man, Charles Demange, committed suicide out of unrequited love for her.

            One can only describe Anna de Noailles as a Romantic,  perhaps the last significant Romantic poet in French literature, and certainly the best female Romantic French poet. She has an edge which nineteenth-century Romantic writers like Lamartine, whom she resembles superficially, do not have because she was militantly atheistic and pantheistic, creating her own feminine version of Nietzsche’s tragic philosophy. Anna de Noailles does not hide, indeed goes out of her way to emphasize, the dark side of passion : she writes, typically, “on aime plus âprement que l’on ne hait” where the ‘on’ refers to ‘woman’ — “We women love more violently than we hate”. Anna de Noailles is also much more specific about female sexual desire than most Romantic poets (including Byron) dared to be. The following remarkable poem, perhaps based on an affair with the writer Maurice Barrès, is the only poem I have ever come across (by a man or woman) which expresses female disappointment after sexual climax (because the male is unable to continue the experience)

 

                        The Aftermath

 

above all, after climaxes the most intense

In our close-knit uniting, frenzied, barbarous,

Reclining side by side, gasping for breath, I sense

            The abyss that severs us;

 

In silence we recline, not understanding why,

After such pent-up fury, longed-for, deep, insane,

So suddenly we find ourselves apart and lie

            As separate selves again;

 

You are beside me but your gaze does not reveal

That eagerness I answered with a fire unknown,

You are a helpless beast gorged with its meal,

            A corpse sculpted in stone;

 

You sleep and do  not stir — how can another know

What dream has quieted your restless mind?

But through me yet great gusts of yearning blow

            Leaving their mark behind;

 

I cannot cease from living, O my dearest love!

My warlike frenzy underneath its peaceful air

In desperation searches round me and above

            To find a passage there!

 

And still you lie content! The throbbing ecstasy

Of sadness coursing through my limbs, and that profound

Confusion, nothing of all this in you I see.

My love, my only love! Between yourself and me

            There is no common ground.    

 

                                                            (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

                       

 

            Anna de Noailles also wrote a lot about death and in a graphic way that betrays a real horror of physical disintegration, combined with a resolute acceptance of the finality of death.

 

                              Regrets 

 

leave me among the graves, I wish to linger here,

The dead are in the ground, the day is bright and clear,

I smell sweet odours, water, leafy trees and hay,

The dead are in their death for ever and a day…

My dancing body will be hard to recognize

Quite soon, my temples cold, dark gaps instead of eyes;

Like them the solitary deed I shall perform

Though used to having by my side a body warm.

And all of this must cease ! all must expire!

Mouth, melting glances, kisses, my desire —

I shall become a thing of shadow, will be dumb

When next year’s spring, so green and rosy-cheeked will come,

An avalanche of  gold and mounting sap and dew !

Yet I who am so tender-hearted through and through,

So filled with idle hopes and dreams, so languorous,

No longer shall I greet the dawning of each day,

But motionless in sleep for evermore must stay !

Others I cannot know, happy and sensuous,

Young men with maidens at their sides will wander by   

And see the labour in the fields, the corn, the vine,

The changing colours of the seasons, whereas I 

Will notice nothing —  in the grave I shall recline,

And all the sweetness of this life will be a memory…

But you who read these lines will stop and think of me, 

You’ll see what I once was before my glow departs;

My smiling ghost will comfort you in your ordeal

For, in your torpor and dejection, you will feel

That my cold cinders hold more passion than your hearts.  

 

                                                            (translation by Sebastian Hayes)

 

            Anna de Noailles also wrote three novels, long out of print : it would seem that they deal mainly with the psychological pressures on young women to conform to patriarchal society.

            Stylistically, Anna de Noailles resisted the temptations of free verse, and wrote almost entirely in rhymed alexandrines or octosyllabic lines. Her diction is careful and she does not use colloquialisms. Also, despite her strongly introspective tendencies, she keeps at arm’s length stream of consciousness techniques which were already becoming fashionable at the time she did most of her writing.

            Why has Anna de Noailles disappeared almost without a trace?                           Although her social and political views were advanced and even controversial for the time, she was, nonetheless, a Countess by marriage and a Greek/Romanian princess by birth which in the inverse snobbish era of today damns her completely. Worse still, she was associated for more than twenty years with Maurice Barrès, a leading right wing political and literary figure of the time though now completely forgotten. (The Dadaists staged a mock trial of Barrès in 1921 and condemned him to twenty years of hard labour.) Anna de Noailles did at least have enough integrity not to allow him to influence either her frequentations — she had several Jewish friends — or her public views since she aligned herself behind the small and very unpopular French pacifist movement in the run up to World War I.   

            One might have expected radical feminism to have resuscitated Anna de Noailles but her stance is not politically correct, since she believed there were profound gender differences between men and women, and was at pains to affirm woman in her emotional and instinctual (rather than rational) persona which, for a certain type of feminist, is hopelessly retrograde. 

            Anna de Noailles has been very little translated and the only full-length critical appraisal in English is Catherine Perry’s scholarly and very perceptive Persephone Unbound, Dionysian Aesthetics in the Works of Anna de Noailles (Bucknell University Press, 2003) to which I am indebted. The best-known French biography of Anna de Noailles,  is by Claude Mignot-Ogliastri (Méridiens-Klincksieck, 1986), who has also edited the Correspondence between Anna de Noailles and Maurice Barrès.   

 

 

 

Acknowledgements:  My  translation “The Aftermath” appeared in Tears in the Fence No. 47 and my translation “The Trace I wish to Leave” appeared in Fire.

                                                                                                        Sebastian Hayes  

           

Cavafy : Irony in the Poems of Cavafy


/* 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;}


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;}


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;}

Irony in Cavafy’s Poems

 

although the term ‘irony’ is used quite a lot with reference to certain authors, Thomas Hardy in particular, when I was preparing to give a talk to some friends about Cavafy, another author who is supposed to exemplify it, I realized I didn’t really know what it meant, or couldn’t pin it down anyway.

 

IRONY :  1. The mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.  2. A situation or result that is the direct opposite of what was expected or intended. (Greek eironeia)”        

                                                                      (COLLINS) 

 

            Irony in conversation depends on tone and expression and so cannot easily be communicated in writing. In any case, it is rarely used nowadays : it belongs to an era where conversation was cultivated and nuances were noted. Today people are more likely to be openly insulting if they don’t like someone; moreover, the twosidedness of irony is too subtle for today’s one-dimensional world.

            Writers concentrate on irony of situation, not irony of expression. The principal feature, as the dictionary points out, is the co-existence or rapid succession of two opposite or contradictory elements. The classic example of irony is that of the hero who, precisely by attempting to avoid his or her fate, puts his head in the noose. Thus Oedipus who, warned by the Delphic Oracle that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, decides not to return to Corinth where he lives with his supposed parents and, shortly afterwards, comes across his real father, Laius, whom he kills in the equivalent of a modern dispute between motorists. Worse still in a way, when enthroned as King of Thebes with Jocasta as his wife, he makes a big show of wanting at all costs to find out the guilty man in the city who, supposedly, has brought the plague on its inhabitants as punishment from the gods. Bit by bit, he realizes with horror that the guilty man is himself. The situation would not perhaps be so ironical if it was part of a chronicle or history : it seems important that the audience, who are in the know, should be there to watch Oedipus going towards his doom full of good intentions.   

            The Greeks seem to have invented irony as an attitude and  dramatic device : there are few other examples that come to mind in mythology and even Shakespeare and the Elizabethans rarely if ever use it. In principle, there is tragic irony in Lear giving away his kingdom to his daughters who do not care for him and withholding her part from the one who does. Chekov would have exploited such a situation, but Lear is so objectionable that one feels he gets what he deserves — and there is no irony in that. Irony lends itself more to tragic-comedy than to tragedy as such — and there are certainly moments when Oedipus Rex teeters on the verge of black humour, as the author undoubtedly realized.

            Cavafy is the poet of irony par excellence. A fairly crude but nonetheless effective example of ‘irony of situation’ is Nero’s Deadline.

 

“Nero wasn’t at all worried when he heard

What the Delphic Oracle had to say:

‘Beware the age of seventy-three’.

Plenty of time to enjoy himself.

He’s thirty. The deadline

The god has given him is quite enough

To cope with future dangers.

 

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome —

But wonderfully tired from that journey

Devoted entirely to pleasure:

Theatres, garden-parties, stadiums,

Evenings in the cities of Achaia…

And, above all, the delight of naked bodies.

 

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba

Secretly musters and drills his army —

Galba, now in his seventy-third year.”

 

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 

            Once again, it seems necessary for there to be a ‘god’s eye view’ : the irony of the situation is not apparent to Nero, nor even to Galba, but only to the historian or to the reader of the poem who is put in the know by Cavafy.

            Both these examples, those of Oedipus and Nero, are examples of good fortune turning to bad — I have wondered whether there can be irony in bad fortune turning to good. In the film Les Enfants du Paradis the bandit Larcenaire and two associates waylay the successful actor in his dressing room in order to extort money from him, perhaps kill him. But when asked for money, the famous actor hands them a great wad of notes saying, “If I knew you I’d maybe let you have everything I’ve got, but since I don’t, we’ll share the takings”. The upshot is  they become his friends and offer to be his seconds in a duel he is to fight in the morning. Is this irony? I think so, but it is a rare example. Almost all examples of irony of situation are of the opposite kind. It would be ‘ironical’ if I managed to pick a quarrel for no reason with the very man turns out to be the only person who could help me out in Ia mess I  shortly afterwards get myself into. But it would not, I think, be ‘ironical’ if I render some service to a complete stranger who turns out to be a long-lost relative in disguise testing me out to see if I deserved to inherit  his vast fortune. Still, if this were a scene in a play or film where the audience knew the identity of the stranger, I suppose it could be called ‘dramatic irony’.  

            A much subtler example of ‘irony of situation’ is On the Stairs.

“As I was going down those ill-famed stairs

you were coming through the door, and for a second

I saw your unfamiliar face and you saw me.

Then I hid so you wouldn’t see me again,

and you hurried past me, hiding your face,

and slipped inside the ill-famed house

where you couldn’t have found pleasure any more than I did.

 

And yet the love you were looking for, I had to give you;

the love In was looking for — so your tired, knowing  eyes implied,

you had to give me.

Our bodies sensed and sought each other;

our blood and skin understood.

 

But we both hid ourselves, flustered.”

 

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 

            But why is this meeting ironic (which it certainly is) rather than tragic — or for that matter ridiculous?

            History, or the part of history that interests Cavafy, is deeply ironic, because of the glaring contrast between expectations and mundane realities, or between memories of past greatness and present mediocrity. Heroes such as Hercules, Theseus or Achilles  do not appear in Cavafy’s poems, not because he despises them in the rather suspect modern ‘anti-heroic’ manner, but simply because he views the situation in which they are placed as psychologically and morally uninteresting, as too one-dimensional. In a sense these heroes are never really tested : they never grow old and feeble, never have to look defeat in the face. Very few of the historical personages  who appear in Cavafy’s poems are famous figures, and even when they are, we do not see them at their zenith :  Mark Anthony only makes an appearance at the moment when the god (Dionysus) abandons him. As an example of Spartan style we are not given Leonidas (the hero of Thermopylae) but Queen Cratesiclea whom no one has ever heard of  :

 

“King Cleomenes did not know, he did not dare —

He did not know how to put into words such a request

To his own mother: that  Ptolemy had demanded

That she be sent to Egypt also, and be held a hostage there

As a guarantee of their agreement;

A very humiliating, unseemly matter.

And he was always about to speak; and he always demurred

And he always started to say it and always faltered.

 

But this superior woman understood him

(besides she had already heard some rumours about it)

And she encouraged him to explain.

And she laughed and said certainly she would go.

And indeed she rejoiced that she was able

Still to be useful to Sparta in her old age.

 

As for the humiliation — well, she was indifferent.

Assuredly he, a son of Lagus, born only yesterday,

Was unable to understand Spartan pride;

And so his request could not really

Humilate a Great Lady as

Illustrious as she, the mother of a Spartan king.”

 

                                    (translated by Rae Dalven)  

 

            Historical characters like Queen Cratesiclea manage to turn the tables on destiny — by accepting it with equanimity rather than by defying, let alone reversing it (which they know to be impossible). The gods (or the Romans)  always win  but it is still possible for humans to gain a moral advantage : the unexpected reaction to disaster of persons such as Mark Anthony or King Demetrios takes the fates by surprise, knocks them off balance, as it were. 

 

 “When the Macedonians abandoned him

And proved they preferred Pyrrhus,

King Demetrios did not, so it is said, behave

In the least like a king. He went

And took off his robes of gold,

And cast off his purple shoes.

He dressed hurriedly

In simple clothes and went off

Behaving like an actor

Who when the performance is over

Changes his clothes and departs.”

 

                                    (translated by Rae Dalven) 

 

            Cavafy’s Greece is not that of Pericles or the Parthenon, nor even that of Alexander the Great, it is above all Greece during the Roman and even Christian period that engages Cavafy. The civilization is in decline but, Cavafy, a fervent Hellene, shows that the Greek spirit was never greater than when the entire people had lost out militarily and politically — but not aesthetically and morally — to the all-conquering Romans, or, in terms of belief, to the all-conquering Galilean.

            The supreme example of Cavafy’s irony is directed against himself. There are one or two poems — but not that many — where Cavafy  protests against society’s attitude towards homosexuals. But even here he is far-sighted enough to anticipate that all this inner torment and soul-searching which he obviously lived through will one day appear hardly worth talking about. This is how I interpret “The Rest I Will Tell To Those Down In Hades”

 

“ ‘Indeed,’ said the proconsul, closing the book,

 ‘This line is beautiful and very true.

Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.

How much we will tell down there, how much,

and how different we’ll appear.

What we protect up here like sleepless guards,

wounds and secrets locked inside us,

protect with such great anxiety day after day,

we’ll reveal freely and clearly down there.’

 

‘You might add,’ said the sophist, half smiling,

if they talk about things like that down there,

if they bother at all about them any more.’ ”

 

            (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)  

       

                                Sebastian Hayes 

 

Antony and Cleopatra


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;}

 

     


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;}

 

          Anthony and Cleopatra

 

 

Side by side they stand, surveying from on high

All Egypt slumbering in the stifling heat;

Far off, at Saïs, the black marshes meet

The sinuous Nile, meandering sleekly by;

 

He is from Rome, whom no one may defy,

She like a captive helpless at his feet,

Through his breast-plate he feels her faint heart-beat,

This siren child he seeks to pacify;

 

She looks at him, white cheeks and jet-black hair,

Subtle, all-conquering perfumes fill the air,

With eyes wide open, offers him her lips;

 

And, bending down, Mark Anthony descries,

Mirrored in those gold-fringed dark-blue eyes

The sea at Actium, covered with fleeing ships. 

 

 

 


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;}

  This is a translation of a poem by José-Maria de Heredia, a nineteenth century French poet (18421905)  highly regarded at the time but not much read today.

     The Battle of Actium (September 2, 31 BC) was the decisive encounter between Mark Antony and Octavian, better known by his subsequent honorific title, Augustus. One might be forgiven for thinking Actium was near Alexandria, if one based one’s history on Shakespeare, but it was actually situated in the Peloponnese directly facing the eastern seaboard of Italy which Antony originally planned to invade with his vast armada of ships, five hundred strong of which some sixty or more were Egyptian. Instead of this, Mark Antony, who, whatever his personal prowess on the field, seems to have been an extremely incompetent strategist, found himself bottled up in the gulf with winter coming on and his supply lines with Egypt cut.

            His own general, Canidius Crassus, advised Antony to abandon the vast but unwieldy and undermanned fleet and withdraw his legions by land. Cleopatra, who was present at the Council of War, naturally preferred withdrawal by sea : not only was there the question of her personal safety but she was paymaster with her vast fortune and had a ship laden with treasure. As it happened, whether by intent or design, Cleopatra and the Egyptian contingent seized an opportunity which arose during the sea-battle the following day to pass through a gap in Octavian’s line and fled with Antony following fast after her. The result was that most of Antony’s remaining  seamen and linfantry changed sides — and who could blame them?   (At any rate, this is the version given in Richard Holland’s persuasive book, Augustus, Godfather of Europe.)

            The original French poem is as below

    



/* 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;}

             Antoine et Cléopatre

 

Tous deux ils regardaient, de la haute terrasse,

L’Égypte s’endormir sous un ciel étouffant,

Et le fleuve, à travers le Delta noir qu’il fend

Vers Bubaste ou Saïs rouler son onde grasse.

 

Et le Romain sentait sous la lourde cuirasse,

Soldat captif berçant le sommeil d’un enfant,

Ployer et défaillir sur son cœur triomphant

Le corps voluptueux que son étreinte embrasse.

 

Tournant sa tête pale entre ses cheveux bruns

Vers celui qui s’enivraient d’invincibles parfums,

Elle tendit sa bouche et ses prunelles claires ;

 

Et sur elle courbé, l’ardent Imperator

Vit dans ses larges yeux étoilés de points d’or

Toute une mer immense où fuyaient des galères.

 

                                                José-Maria de Heredia

 

 

 


 

 


  

 

 

The Mountain Lion

The mountain lion, or cougar, is unlike any of the other big cats : there is something intangible and mysterious about him or her, as Robert Redford, who founded a refuge for this endangered species, rightly stated. It is this quality that I have tried to express in the following  poem

!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:”Arial Unicode MS”; panose-1:2 11 6 4 2 2 2 2 2 4; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:swiss; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-1 -369098753 63 0 4129279 0;} @font-face {font-family:”\@Arial Unicode MS”; panose-1:2 11 6 4 2 2 2 2 2 4; mso-font-charset:128; mso-generic-font-family:swiss; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:-1 -369098753 63 0 4129279 0;} @font-face {font-family:”Calisto MT”; panose-1:2 4 6 3 5 5 5 3 3 4; mso-font-charset:0; mso-generic-font-family:roman; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:3 0 0 0 1 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:””; margin:0cm; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} @page Section1 {size:612.0pt 792.0pt; margin:72.0pt 90.0pt 72.0pt 90.0pt; mso-header-margin:36.0pt; mso-footer-margin:36.0pt; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} –>

/* 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;}

 

within  your endless wanderings over crags and hills,

What thoughts, what idle dreams, pass  through your fertile  mind?

Neither at rest nor restless, a strange purpose fills

Your studied, stealthy gait, with never a glance behind;

 

Remote and self-contained, you represent the will,

But not the will to power, only the will to be;

Stalker and seeker, you will haunt the mountains still

When man has gone, his cities covered by the sea.

 

This earth you is not your real home : alone of all

The beasts that pace the wildness and traverse the snow,

You feel the unheard, unseen world and can recall

The distant source of life which in ourselves we know;

 

Throughout my life I’ve known you, now and at the end

You are my spirit guide and helper, trusted friend.

                                                                               Sebastian Hayes

Beach of Dreams by Henri Chabrol


/* 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;}

for several years I used to go regularly to a house overlooking the Etang du Berre, a lake communicating with the sea in the South of France not far from Aix-en-Provençe. This house, called Villa Jeanne, belonged to a long-standing friend of mine, Mlle Marthe Bauzan, now deceased and I have given a thumbnail sketch of the house and situation in the booklet Far Cries (available from the author).

 

                                        Villa Jeanne

 

twisted pines, waves pounding the tiny beach,

Wind from the sea, restless, unceasing,

Gabled house half-hidden with dark green shutters

And long terrace edged by a stone balustrade,

Gulls returning home at nightfall

In long V’s stretching across the sky.

 

 

            Not far away from this house was a shuttered, seemingly abandonedsmaller house, not much more than a fisherman’s cabane, right alongside the water which had in the past served as a sort of week-end retreat for a local schoolteacher, Henri Chabrol, and his wife. They had been friends of Mlle Bauzan but were long since dead. Knowing that I was in some sort a writer, Mlle Bauzan showed me a small book of poems written by this Henri Chabrol, entitled Calanques. I have not been able to trace this book (which was perhaps privately printed) and all I have of it is the following poem which impressed me so much that I copied it out longhand, and have only fairly recently come across it in my papers.

            It is not, perhaps, an absolutely first-rate poem but it records very well what was clearly a seminal experience for the author, and which struck a chord with me. I thought the least I could do was to try to salvage this piece from oblivion, hence my translation into English followed by the original.

 

 

Beach of Dreams

 

once only I held her

even her name will remain forever unknown

the girl with the mandrake flowers in her hair

who like an Aphrodite I saw from afar emerging from the sea

planting herself on the sand like a clay figurine on marble

upright and gazing back at the sea

the sea that was mirrored in her eyes and in the sway of her thighs

and we remained with our backs to the dunes talking

like brother and sister

our words keeping pace with the sun

skirting round our souls that marvelled at this meeting

what I said giving food to her while I drank in the music of hers

at length came the hour when we saw our shadows lengthening

                                                                 in front of us side by side

and then we entered into each other more fully and easily

                                                                           than into ourselves

as if we knew every contour of our bodies

the very colour and grain of our skin

the recesses of our eyes in which we saw our own image

the fleshy pulp of our lips

and when we mounted to the summit of our desire

palpitating united body and soul

beyond all shameful pretences  and simulated ardours

we gave ourselves to each other  taking ourselves one from the other

and we ate our love like a ripe fruit

without slinking towards it by stratagems and dishonesties

satiated by this lightning flash from eternity saved for ever from

bitterness and disgust

this happiness which was a fruit melting within our tears

which were yet tears of joy

and then the woman with the mandrake flowers in her hair left

doing nothing to bind the freedom of this instant

to the chain of days stretching out before me like her footsteps on the sand.

 

 

 

PLAGE AUX REVES

 

Celle que je n’ai prise qu’une fois

je ne saurai jamais son nom

la femme aux fleurs de mandragore —

comme une aphrodite je l’ai vue au loin se lever de la mer

et sur la plage se poser pareille à une statuette d’argile sur le marbre

droite et regardant la mer

qu’elle captivait en ses prunelles et dans la vague de ses hanches

Et nous sommes restés adosses aux dunes fraternelle­ment et nos paroles accompagnaient le soleil et faisaient le tour de nos âmes émerveillées de leur rencontre

et je la nourrissais des miennes et je buvais le chant des siennes

et quand vint l’heure où nous vîmes nos ombres cou­chées devant nous côte à  côte

voici que nous étions entrés l’un en l’autre mieux qu’en nous-mêmes

comme nous connaissions la courbe de nos corps et

la couleur et le grain de notre peau et les retraites

de ces yeux d’où sortait notre propre image

et la pulpe de nos 1evres.

Et quand nous fûmes montés à la cime du désir où

palpitaient unies notre chair et notre âme

par delà les hontes du caprice et des ardeurs chari­tables

nous nous sommes donnés nous nous sommes pris l’un à l’autre

nous avons mangé notre amour comme un fruit mûr

sans nous glisser vers lui par les détours et les bassesses

et nous infliger l’insulte du triomphe et de la défaite

rassasiés par cet éclair d’éternité pour une fois sauvés de l’amertume et du  dégoût,

le bonheur comme un fruit qui fond parmi nos pleurs qui sont encore du                                                                                                     bonheur. 

Et puis la femme aux fleurs de mandragore s’en est ‘a11ée

et n’a rien fait pour attacher la liberté de cet instant

à la chaine des jours que ses pas étendaient devant moi sur le sable.

 

 

Poème d’Henri CHABROL

 

Extrait du recueil de poèmes intitulé : CALANQUES

 


Observations on Translating a Poem from the French



/* 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;}

 

 

To Rhyme or not to Rhyme : Reflections on Translating a poem from the French

 

A couple of days ago I decided, I’m not quite sure why, to translate a little poem by the forgotten poet, Paul-Jean Toulet, a Parisian fin de siècle dandy and poète maudit. His poetry, like Verlaine’s, is all mood and stance and musicality with no message to speak of. He interests me mainly because of the combination of tight  form and lyrical  fluency : he is like a man dressed in a tight suit with old-fashioned starched collars who turns out to be an excellent tango dancer. Actually, the contrast is more apparent than real : ‘free verse’ encourages looseness and superfluity rather than fluency and, for that matter, tango is a very stylized dance.

 

            The poem is untitled.

 

 

Puisque tes jours ne t’ont laissé

Qu’un peu de cendre dans la bouche,

Avant qu’on ne tende la couche

Où ton cœur dorme, enfin glacé,

Retourne, comme au temps passé,

Cueillir, près de la dune instable,

Le lys qu’y courbe un souffle amer,

—Et grave ces mots sur le sable :

Le rêve de l’homme est semblable

Aux illusions de la mer.

 

 

            I give my own way of proceeding which may, of course, not suit everybody.

 

0. I print out the poem in bold type and large pointsize and paste or Sellotape the page to an A4 size sheet of board. 

 

In this way I can carry around the poem with me in a compact size, can prop it up against the wall in the kitchen &c. &c.  (I buy up large sheets of board in a Stationer’s, or Art Supplier’s, and have them guillotined as it’s much less expensive that way. There are various thicknesses available.)      

 

1. I have a close look at the piece I’m about to translate.  

 

In this case, the rhyme scheme is the unusual abba acdc cd  and, as is customary with Toulet, he uses a short line —  I make the syllable count  8-8-7-8  7-9-8-8 8-7.  Rees, in his  Introduction to French Poetry 1820 1950 (whence I culled this bloom) makes the important point that French poetry depends much more on syllable count than on stress : there is no equivalent in French poetry to (of?)  the typical English blank verse pentameter. But even this does not quite go far enough; French poetry, of a certain type at any rate, proceeds by flows and bursts rather than by feet or syllable count. Toulet may have had some reason for the variation around the 8 syllable count, but, more likely, he simply had enough sense to use an approximate line length, not a fixed one — despite being in other respects a very finicky writer. The rhymes themselves are an odd mixture : there is the so-called weak rhyme (rime faible) ‘laissé glacé’  followed immediately by the true rhyme ‘glacé passé’.  ‘Instable sable semblable’  do not quite make a true rhyme trio since the able’  in the first two words is a shade longer and more emphatic than in ‘semblable’. And, finally, it is not clear whether one should consider ’soufflle amer la mer’ as straight repetition of ‘lamer’, or as a sort of rime riche manqué.  [A rime riche is where the rhyming syllable is repeated exactly with an extra syllable in front e.g. verte ouverte.] This sort of ambivalence with respect to rhyme is typical of Toulet and probably deliberate.      

 

2. I decide, at any rate provisionally, how closely I am going to imitate the   form of the original.

 

It is by no means obvious that a poem that is rhymed in the original comes off better as a rhymed poem in English, or even as verse at all : I have seen  French prose translations of Cavafy (by Yourcenar I think) that do more justice to the Greek poet than many English verse translations. However, in this case, there is only one answer : the poem is scarcely worth translating at all if you don’t keep rhyme and probably also stanza form, since the ‘message’ is commonplace. This is where the standard maxim of “not sacrificing sense to sound” becomes useless, since in such a poem, the sound makes up a large percentage of the sense — “the form is the message” if you like.

 

3. Get something down on paper without bothering too much about accuracy or rhyme.

 

If you are lucky, you may find one or two rhymes pop up.

            I found myself automatically falling  into something approaching a pentameter, and started off merrily

 

                        “Now that the days have left you nothing more

                        Than taste of (?) and  ashes on your lips”

 

            But, on reflection, I thought the pentameter had too much Anglo-Saxon forward drive, was more Shakespeare than Toulet. I thus had to make the unwelcome decision to rein back into the uncustomary (in English) octosyllabic line, and thus exclude from consideration a whole lot of words that would be too long. For an 8 line you find yourself in practice restricted to one three-syllable word per line at most, and in the original there is only one such word —  ‘illusions’ which Toulet saves for the final line.      

 


4. Once you’ve got a line or two, go straight to the end of the poem and work backwards.

 

In strict verse forms, the last line, or last couplet or triplet, has a resounding finality and if you miss this, you won’t make a successful translation.

            Keeping close to the final line of the French meant that the English had to end with ‘sea’ and I originally wrote

                                    “…than the scintillations of the sea”

but had to change this when I decided on a basic octosyllabic line throughout.

            ‘…semblable’  suggested  ‘…resemble’ which I quite fancied. However, consulting Stillman’s The Poet’s Manual and Rhyming Dictionary (an indispensable work for the poetry translator) I found that the only rhymes for ‘resemble’ were ‘assemble’ and ‘dissemble’. Since the poem ends cdccd in the original, I needed a rhyming triplet so this was out.      

 

5. Allow yourself to be guided by rhymes for key words

 

In a poem with a dense rhyme scheme — the traditional ballade is ababbccdcD repeated three times, and an envoi ccdcD (!!!) — you’ve had it if you don’t select rhymes for which you can find plenty of words. In practice, I find even getting three or four words to a rhyme is tough.

            Here, it seemed almost inevitable to have the third line from the end  concluding with ‘…..sand’, say, ‘Engrave these words upon the sand’  and, luckily, there are quite a few words ending in ‘–and’. Nothing had much of a sense of ‘resemblance’ though, which was required for the end of the penultimate line and, indeed, in my final version I tacitly dropped the idea.

 

6. Decide which images in the poem are the most important.

 

If you’ve opted for strict rhyme and metre, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to include all the images, so one or two will have to go.

            An image I above all did not want to lose was that of the lily buffeted by the wind in a terrain vague behind the dunes. Laying someone on a bed to be frozen (lines 3 and 4) was less important and ended up by being partly sacrificed.

 

7. Fill in the middle of the poem, make a readable version and polish it up.

 

8. Go back and check for accuracy.

 

If you’re too concerned with fidelity to the original, you might end up like the ludicrous character in Camus’ La Peste (a much overrated book in my opinion) who never gets beyond the first paragraph of the great novel he aims to write because he’s so concerned with getting off to a perfect start. However, before delivering to the public or publisher, it’s essential to check for wild inaccuracies (and even getting someone else to look at the version you’ve made).

            The last change I made to my version was, very reluctantly, to go back to Toulet’s ‘illusions de la mer’ and conclude “…than the illusions of the sea” — in previous versions I had written ‘scintillations’, and then ‘reflections’. To me, speaking of ‘illusions’ is actually a defect in the original : the word is too obvious and, if you think about it, inaccurate as well. The sea does not give back mirror images as a pool of still water does, and the surface aspect of sea-water does not seduce us by its resemblance to real-life scenes but by its jewel-like sparkle. Still, if Toulet wrote ‘illusions’, I felt I had to fall into line — though I might yet go back on this decision.

            It is arguable to what extent it is legitimate to improve on the original, or try to, since you are bound to lose something anyway and might as well try to give something back. Pound does this all the time, of course, and on the whole gets away with it — but perhaps only because the poets he translated were long dead and writing in little known languages such as  Provençal, Anglo-Saxon and Mandarin Chinese. If he were alive today and translating contemporary authors, I suspect he’d be in danger of prosecution or worse at the hands of the irate authors.

 

            My final, or nearly final version is  :

 

now that the days have taken all

But taste of ashes on your lips,

Before your tired body slips

Into a frozen sleep, recall

The times that were, gather once more

The lily from the windswept land

Where shifting dunes stretch to the sea,

—Then trace these letters on the sand :

Man’s dreams can no more time withstand

Than the illusions of the sea.

 

 

                                                                                    Sebastian Hayes  

           

 


« Older entries