Thursday, June 17, 2010

Seven variations on El Desdichado

Following yesterday's post, Jane Librizzi of The Blue Lantern asked for illumination on the texts incorporated in the engravings by Henri-Georges Adam. They are all from the 1853 sonnet sequence Les Chimères by Gérard de Nerval, the man who used to take his pet lobster for walks on a lead in the gardens of the Palais Royal. These are densely allusive, complex poems, and although it occurred to me to try to translate one, good sense prevailed. But in the spirit of "Be careful what you wish for", here is the original French text of Gérard de Nerval's best-known poem, El Desdichado (famously quoted by T.S. Eliot in The Waste Land), plus 7 English versions, the fashioning of which has gently whiled away a summer's morning.... The first version is a bare literal translation, the second an attempt at a rhymed equivalent, and the remainder wander steadily further and further from the source text. I would have just posted Martin Bell's translation, which I remember from 40 years ago, but I couldn't put my hand on the book! And for those of you who come to this blog for prints not poems, there are two further engravings by Henri-Georges Adam.

Henri-Georges Adam, El Desdichado (texte)
Engraving, 1950


Je suis le ténébreux, - le veuf, - l’inconsolé,
Le prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie:
Ma seule étoile est morte, - et mon luth constellé
Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

Dans la nuit du tombeau, toi qui m’as consolé,
Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie,
La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé,
Et la treille où la pampre à la rose s’allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus? . . . Lusignan ou Biron?
Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la reine;
J’ai rêvé dans la grotte où nage la syrène. .  .

Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron:
Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée
Les soupirs de la sainte et les cris de la fée.

Henri-Georges Adam, El Desdichado
Engraving, 1947



I am the shadow man, the widower, the unconsoled,
The Prince of Aquitaine, his tower in ruins:
My only star is dead, and my constellated lute
Bears the Black Sun of Melancholy.

In the darkness of the tomb, you who consoled me,
Restore to me Posilipo and the Italian sea.
The flower that so pleased my desolate heart
And the trellis where the vine twined round the rose.

Am I Love or Phoebus? Lusignan or Biron?
My forehead is still red from the kiss of the queen;
I have dreamed in the cave where the siren swims.

And I have twice victorious crossed the Acheron:
Modulating in turn on the lyre of Orpheus
The sighs of the saint and the cries of the fairy.


I am a man of shadows; disinherited.
A prince defeated in a ruined tower.
From the black sun of sadness the light has fled.
My lute is silent; dead my only star.

In the close tomb, the darkness thickens.
Console me with Posilipo and the Italian sea,
The flower that heals a heart so stricken,
With memories of you and me.

Am I Eros or Apollo? Melusine’s husband, or Lord Byron?
My forehead imprinted with a queen’s desire,
I have dreamed of swimming with the siren.

Twice I have crossed the river of death
And all the while Orpheus twanged his lyre
To the sighs of a saint, a fairy’s breath.


Shadowman. Widower. I am inconsolable.
The lost prince of a burned-out tower.
My guiding light is gone, and my starry lute
resounds to the thud of a sad black sun.

In the blackness of my tomb, you who consoled me,
give me back Posilipo and the bay of Naples—
the flower that restored my desolated heart,
the trellis where the rose and the vine entwine.

Am I Eros or Apollo? . . . a lover or a warrior?
My brow is stamped red by the kiss of a queen—
my head swims with dreams of the siren’s cave.

And I have swum twice across the waters of death—
and at each stroke Orpheus strummed his lyre
to the whimpers of a saint, and a fairy’s cries.


I lurk in the shadows. Bereft. Inconsolable.
The disenchanted prince of a tower that never was.
My lodestar extinguished, and my star-pocked lute
thrumming to the beat of a sad black sun.

You who comforted me in the darkness of the tomb,
lead me back to Virgil’s cave and the bay of Naples—
garland my shattered heart with flowers,
entwine it with roses and rambling vines.

Am I Eros or Apollo? . . . Roland or Tam Lin?
My brow tattooed by the kiss of a queen—
my head awash with dreams of sirens.

And I have twice tamed the waters of Acheron—
as Orpheus wrung from his rippling lyre
the tears of a saint, and a fairy’s cries.


Having lost everything, I live in the shadowland,
a dispossessed prince in his fallen tower.
My star has died, and my lute is branded
with the black sun of everlasting grief.

What consolation is it in the lightless tomb
to recall the bright sun glancing off the sea
to dapple a posy of heartsease
or twine the rose around the vine?

Am I love’s fool? When a queen’s red kiss
Burned onto my brow, my dreams were all
of swimming with the mermaids beneath the waves.

Twice now I have crossed the forbidden river
while Orpheus shaped his melodies
from the moans of a saint, and a fairy’s cries.


I skulk in the black hole of my imploded dreams,
a prince who can’t accept his tower has fallen down.
The starshine that once fell on my guitar
flattened by the rays of a dead black sun.

In this dark night of my soul, comfort me
with memories of Italy  and the sea,
when you were coming into bloom
and we forgot whose limbs were whose.

Your lipsticked kiss still throbs on my face—
I could have been whoever you wanted me to be
that night we spent in the mermaid’s cave.

Once more I have reached the river of forgetfulness
and the echoes of your cries still fill the air.
I tune my guitar to the sound of your despair.


I live in the shadows cast
by a blackened sun.
The music of the stars
is the sound of time imploding.

Speak to me of Skenfrith,
give me back the walk along the Isis
The Wind in the Willows
and the first true day of spring.

Neither the heart nor the head can help us now—
the wave is coming
to drag us down to the mermaid’s lair.

How many times have we walked the line
between life and death? The air thrilling
with unearthly yelps and cries.

copyright © Neil Philip 2010


Jane Librizzi said...

Versions two and seven get my vote. What fun. Thank you so much.

Neil said...

Thanks, Jane - without your prompting I'd never have written these. Of course I meant only to write one, but they kept coming, and didn't seem amenable to being fused into a single text.

Jane Librizzi said...

I recently read Edith Grossman's book "Why Translation Matters" (which I recommend). One of my happiest memories of French class was our being set to choose, and translate, one of Flaubert's "Trois Contes" (Three Tales). Thank goodness we were sixteen, too soon for killjoys to stifle us with the word 'temerity.' Comparing your versions is such fun. Thanks again.