Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Poète maudit

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
Lithograph, 1892
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,
Doucement tinte.
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
softly rings.
A bird in the tree out there
sadly sings.

My God, my God, that’s life,
simple, complete.
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.


Jane said...

Neil, you don't have to publish this, but how do you do that hypertext linking? My blogger book doesn't say, so all I know how to do is write out the entire http//www., etc. Thanks.

Neil said...

Jane - I have to publish, as I don't have your email! But I think it may be useful to others as technologically clueless as we are... I am assuming your blog is also a google blog (I believe it is). I've only just worked out how to do this. When you write (or copy in) the text of a blog entry, there is a row of little icons above, one of which (second from the right, I think), is what you have to click to upload a picture. Another of them (I think it is the one immediately to the left of the picture one, but if you hover your cursor over them, they tell you what they do) is to insert a link. I this case, I highlighted the word "here", then clicked on that icon. An empty box pops up into which you copy the link you want to make, and hey presto! it is done.

Neil said...

The icon to look for is the third from the left; it looks a bit like a bull's head.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Good translation, Neil. I'm sure I've read several English versions of this poem over the years, although a quick search of my shelves turned up only Ernest Dowson (too archaic for me) and Joanna Richardson (OK). Yours has some good touches and is true I think to the contrary tugs in this poem, mournful/yearning on the one hand and yet terse/concise on the other.

Neil said...

Thanks, Phil. I'm not sure this is as good as it should be. Whenever I try to translate Verlaine, I get stuck with the rhymes - they just seem superfluous to me, but with this poem in particular, he insists on them (even to point of using the word palm to mean branch just in order to rhyme with calm). In some ways I can see what he is doing, especially when he rhymes a word with itself (I'm sure there's a technical name for this, but I can't think what it is). This can work superbly - I think of Bob Dylan's Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, in which he rhymes the word "table" with itself three lines in a row - but I notice in other versions of this Verlaine poem translators have often tried to soften the repetition. For me, the best English language versions of Verlaine are Martin Sorrell's in Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems (OUP, 1999) - just as well I had lost my copy until today, otherwise I might not have bothered making this.

Philip Wilkinson said...

The rhymes in Hattie Carroll (sometimes internal: 'slain by a cane') are terrific. The example you quote is actually 'the table' x 3, which makes it even more relentless. One of my favourites is 'caught 'em' and 'bottom', which sounds a bit silly out of context but in the song works with sardonic power.

Neil said...

You're so right, that "the table" three times is much more relentless than just "table". Although the rhymes in Hattie Carroll are so great, I think Dylan has fought rhyme rather than embraced it - as a songwriter, he's locked into rhyme, but as a poet he's all about images and cadences. What did he call his songs, way back in the day? "Exercises in tonal breath control."