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Literature and Ideas

Asleep in the Valley

There is a trench of green where rivers sing,
And to the grass some tatters madly cling
In silver light; behind the proud peaktops
The sun shines on a brightly foaming copse.

An open-mouthed, young soldier, head undressed,
Whose neck is bathing in the fresh, blue cress,
Is sleeping, lying on the grass, with clouds
Above, a bed of green where light rains down.

He sleeps with feet on gladioli, as
A smiling, sickly child. He takes a nap.
May nature rock him warm. The air is sharp.

His nostril does not shiver at the scents.
He sleeps in sun, a hand placed on his chest.
At rest. And two red holes in the side of his breast.
C’est un trou de verdure, où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme:
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

Arthur Rimbaud

Commentary

It interested me to learn that critics consider this poem to be set during the contemporaneous Franco-Prussian War (which I know of almost entirely from Guy de Maupassant’s short stories); when first skimming the text, without considering its author, I had anachronistically assumed that the protagonist was a poilu, taking respite from the protracted trench warfare of WWI (perhaps I read too much into “il fait un somme”, assuming it to be a dormant pun!). This misreading, however, reveals a strength of the poem: so long as war continues (and the unfortunate truth is that it appears unlikely soon to stop), there will be lives cut short, tears shed and bodies buried, and there will be an audience for poems such as this that find some small scraps of beauty in the wretchedness of war. The dead soldier has become inseparable from the green and pleasant land on which he lies, and nature is the beneficent mother who had rocked his cradle and now his corpse. While his country remains at war, he is, at last, at peace.

The poem is traditional in form, written before Rimbaud turned to symbolism. It is a sonnet, in the Italian style (where, in technical terms, an octave is followed by a concluding sestet), each line made up of alexandrines, a French classical metre, so it felt most natural to convert this to iambic pentametre, which bears a similar pedigree in English. I did not stick strictly to the original rhyme scheme (for example, ABAB in the first two stanzas), but did use strong end rhymes and half rhymes to replicate the euphony of the original; the liveliness of the verse is intentional, but is undercut in the final stanza by the tragic theme and the solitary use of anapaests.

This translation was originally written for entry into a competition, hence the short accompanying commentary.

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