My accountant just asked me to prepare my year’s accounts, so I was overtaken by an (unaccountable) urge to translate a poem by Paul Verlaine. Funny how that works....
Edmond Aman-Jean, Paul Verlaine
Published by L’Artiste in 1896
ref: Sanchez & Seydoux 1896-1
In this extraordinary lithograph, the Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) stares at us as if from beyond the grave. In fact, although desperately ill, he still had four years to live. The setting for this portrait is the Broussais hospital, where he was drawn by his close friend Edmond Aman-Jean (1860-1935) in January 1892. The painting Aman-Jean made after this visit is now in the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Metz, Verlaine’s birthplace. It can be seen here. To my mind, the lithograph that Aman-Jean made of the same subject is even more powerful, because of its haunted, ghostly quality. It reminds me of one of my favourite Verlaine poems, published in Sagesse in 1881, “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit...”, which was written in prison, I believe, but could just as easily be written from hospital. There’s an interesting discussion of it, with various alternative translations, here. Here it is, in the original and in my attempt at an English version (you will have to imagine line indents in the second and fourth lines of each stanza, as I can't make these work in the blog format):
Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,
Si bleu, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
Berce sa palme.
La cloche, dans le ciel qu’on voit,
Un oiseau sur l’arbre qu’on voit
Chante sa plainte.
Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là,
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.
—Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà
De ta jeunesse.
The sky above the roof
so blue, so calm!
A tree above the roof
cradles its palm.
A bell in the sky out there
A bird in the tree out there
My God, my God, that’s life,
No sounds of strife,
just the hum of the street.
—What have you done, O you in there
weeping all day?
Say what you have done, you in there:
thrown your youth away.