This site is intended to be viewed with javascript enabled; please upgrade or reset your browser.

See here for more details.

Literature and Ideas

Showing posts marked with the following tag: French

The Two Roads

The Card Players by Paul Cézanne (1839–1906).

Many writers consider their art not as something to be mastered — and as something that must be mastered — but as a game of chance, on which they can test their luck. They will happily hand themselves over to Fortune, basing their own worth on nothing more than her valuation (although they are bound to inflate it a little, of course).

There are two traps, two roads to destruction: the first consists in adapting too easily to the tastes of the public, the second in holding too faithfully to one's own idiosyncratic system.

Paul Valéry (1871–1945)
Tel Quel

Beaucoup d'écrivains considerent leur art, non comme chose dont il faut se rendre maitre — sine qua non — mais comme un jeu de hasard ou l'on peut risquer sa chance. Ils se remettent tout entiers a la fortune et se donneront la valeur qu'elle voudra bien leur conférer. (Ils ajouteront meme quelque chose.)

Il y a donc deux écueil, deux manieres de s'égarer et de périr: l'adaptation trop exacte au public; la fidelité trop étroite a son propre systeme.

Brave be the Poet

The scaredy cats
strut out in packs,
while lions roam
the sands alone.

May poets always walk like lions.
Les animaux lâches vont en troupes.
Le lion marche seul dans le désert.
Qu'ainsi marche toujours le poète.

from a diary entry, dated 1847
Alfred de Vigny (1797–1863)

High Horse

I rode a horse
over cloud-strewn fields,
submerging myself
in the smouldering day.

No stopping me going
to God knows where.
Not a horse, but a ship.
Not a ship, but desire.

It was a horse,
as never seen
before. The head
of a courser, dressed

in delirium. Wind
that neighs as it spreads.
I was still riding
and gestured my words:

“Follow my track,
my best of best friends,
come on, you can:
the route is restful,

the sky is uncast.
But who is it who speaks?
At this height, I lose track
of myself. So can you

work it out? I’m the one
who was speaking before.
Am I still the same person
I was when I spoke?

And, friends, are you
the same as you were?
As we climb, we change
and we blur, you and I.”
J’avais un cheval
Dans un champ de ciel
Et je m’enfonçais
Dans le jour ardent.
Rien ne m’arrêtait
J’allais sans savoir,
C’était un navire
Plutôt qu’un cheval,
C’était un désir
Plutôt qu’un navire,
C’était un cheval
Comme on n’en voit pas,
Tête de coursier,
Robe de délire,
Un vent qui hennit
En se répandant.
Je montais toujours
Et faisais des signes :
« Suivez mon chemin,
Vous pouvez venir,
Mes meilleurs amis,
La route est sereine,
Le ciel est ouvert.
Mais qui parle ainsi ?
Je me perds de vue
Dans cette altitude,
Me distinguez-vous,
Je suis celui qui
Parlait tout à l’heure,
Suis-je encor celui
Qui parle à présent,
Vous-mêmes, amis,
Êtes-vous les mêmes ?
L’un efface l’autre
Et change en montant. »

Jules Supervielle (1884–1960)

Old Flame

By candlelight
he loved to read
all through his life.

And often moved
a hand across
the flame, to prove

to himself
that he lived,
prove that he
was alive.

Since the day
of his death,
he has kept
by his side

a candle that burns.
But now he keeps
his cold hands firm.
Tout le long de sa vie
Il avait aimé à lire
Avec une bougie
Et souvent il passait
La main dessus la flamme
Pour se persuader
Qu'il vivait,
Qu'il vivait.
Depuis le jour de sa mort
Il tient à côté de lui
Une bougie allumée
Mais garde les mains cachées.

Jules Supervielle (1884–1960)

Returneth to Vomit

Head of a Dog (1930).

Angry Dog (ca. 1938–43).

Both watercolours are by Edvard Munch and are based on his neighbour's dog, a creature he didn't much love.

Down here, we all mess up:
so many crackpots run past
in pursuit of their shadows, they're,
more often than not, impossible to tot.
We really ought to send them off to meet that dog that Aesop talked about.
It saw that its prey was wading through waterways,
so thought of nothing more than diving in to drown itself — and ended up
with both the prey and shadow splashed away.
Chacun se trompe ici-bas : On voit courir après l’ombre Tant de fous, qu’on n’en sait pas La plupart du temps le nombre.
Au Chien dont parle Ésope il faut les renvoyer. Ce Chien, voyant sa proie en l’eau représentée, La quitta pour l’image, et pensa se noyer ; La rivière devint tout d’un coup agitée. À toute peine il regagna les bords, Et n’eut ni l’ombre ni le corps.

Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695)

The Soporific

Poppy Field in a Hollow near Giverny (1885) by Claude Monet.
Pick me the wild-born poppy
that grows in the wheatfield's shade.
Let them say that I’ve supped of the liquor
that closes grief-stricken eyes.

I’ve seen too much, and I’m tired
of dreams pursued by that dream.
Why must you keep me, you blood-
red season, away from the roses?

Ah, but what do shut eyelids need?
They need flowers that keep you asleep.
Cueillez-moi ce pavot sauvage 
Qui croît à l’ombre de ces blés : 
On dit qu’il en coule un breuvage 
Qui ferme les yeux accablés. 
J’ai trop veillé ; mon âme est lasse 
De ces rêves qu’un rêve chasse. 
Que me veux-tu, printemps vermeil ? 
Loin de moi ces lis et ces roses ! 
Que faut-il aux paupières closes ? 
La fleur qui garde le sommeil !

Alphonse de Lamartine (lines 11–20 of Les Pavots)

Today marks one hundred years since the armistice was signed and weapons slowly fell silent on what had been the battlefields of the First World War. The poppy signified the loss of life and offered a sanitised way of memorialising the massacres that had ended the lives of the millions (this owed much to the popularity of the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian solider John McCrae). The poppy has also been associated with the lassitude and the sleepiness generated by its byproduct opium, especially since the time of the Romantic poets, who partook mostly in the form of laudanum, which was sold cheaply in working-class districts. The opioids were used as painkillers (and, in some cases, morale-boosters) in the trenches, a temporary escape from the wounds of war; non-medicinal use was banned in the UK by the DORA of 1916, following fears that soldiers would become too incapacitated to fight.

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


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.