Verlaine ? Il est caché parmi l'herbe, Verlaine
Long ago, I sat in a circle of fifteen girls as Madame __, her hair brittle with red-orange dye, put us through French conjugations. I hadn’t much patience for the grammar, but I loved the sound of French words, the epitome of which seemed, at the time, to be Paul Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne:
Les sanglots longsHere's an audio of the poem read in French:
Blessent mon coeur
Et blême, quand
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;
Et je m'en vais
Au vent mauvais
Pareil à la
While I had only a sketchy understanding of the French, it didn’t matter. The rhythmic keening of the words was all I required.
I knew nothing of the poet’s story. Verlaine was only a name. (I learned something of him recently, through the backdoor of learning about Rimbaud. He seems to have been a pathetic mess of a human being and, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a jerk. In reading Verlaine’s poem, his life may be best left out of it, as the poem stands admirably on its own.)
I often wonder what I’m missing when I read poetry in translation. Friko, whose blog Friko’s Poetry and Pictures contains a brilliantly eclectic selection of poems from around the world, wrote incisively on that point:
Translating poetry can only be done by a poet. Even then the poet will be of his own time and use words which belong in his own time.Though I haven’t facility in other languages, reading translations of Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne provides a hair-raising case for Friko’s point. Here’s a literal rendering of the first stanza in English:
To do the poet to be translated justice the translator has to immerse himself not only in the poem but also the culture, the life, the literary language, the history of the original poet.
For years I have been searching for translations of poems from German into English and vice versa, without great success. There is always something lacking.
The long sobs(C. John Holcombe)
Of the violins
Wound my heart
With a languor
Now consider these translations, none of them by fools, so far as I know:
Leaf-strewing gales(Gertrude Hall, 1895)
Utter low wails
Till on my soul
Their creeping dole
When a sighing begins(Arthur Symons, 1902)
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long.
The long sobs of(Martin H. Sorrell, 1995)
Lay waste my heart
The long sobbing(Karl Kirchwey, 2011)
Of autumn strings,
Wounds my heart
With a languor that
With the possible exception of Symons, they each fall apart, particularly at the stanza’s close. (And Hall has gone off and written an entirely different poem.)
In 1895, a reviewer of Hall’s translation of one of Verlaine’s poems wrote:
the translation is done as well, perhaps, as it might be done, but it is not done at all, and it is not the translator’s fault, and there is nothing to be done except not translate Verlaine.And this year, Edmund White, in reviewing Kirchwey’s new translation of Verlaine poems, wrote:
Where in French there is so little emphasis that the mind glides effortlessly along, in the English there is a harsh definiteness, which lends a peasant dignity (or a pedantic heaviness) to things. . . . English can turn Verlaine’s lightly brushed-in atmospherics into an earthbound plod.
I don’t like the idea of losing hope, but it does seem that, even in the most thoughtful English renderings, Verlaine’s music disappears—or at best is hidden in the grass.
Postscript: Even history had a go at the poem: it was used to signal the French Resistance of the coming of D-Day.
(The translation of the first stanza used in the video is almost identical to the literal translation and, to my mind, an improvement on those previously quoted.)
Chanson d’Automne has been set to music repeatedly. Frederick Delius, Gabriel Dupont, and Benjamin Britten set the poem, though classical composers by no means have a lock on it. Charles Trenet’s version is a charmer, and Léo Ferré’s eccentric approach has appeal as well. Both can be heard below. sToa and The Last Hour, both of which are categorized as darkwave (but don't ask me what that is), have versions and, for those who are inclined toward post-metal (don't ask me what that is, either), there is a version by Les Discrets. And then we have Dominique Pinon, whose real claim to fame may be as an actor in “When Evil Calls (2006), the world's first horror series for mobile phones.”
For those with Spotify, click on Chanson d'Automne for a collection of musical versions of the poem.
Chanson d'Automne, sung by Charles Trenet
Credits: The quotation from Mallarmé is from Le Tombeau de Verlaine; the English translation of the poem (and the line that is the post’s title), by A. S. Kline, can be found here. The Verlaine poem in French is from Verlaine Poésies, Édition J’ai Lu, 1998. The reading of Verlaine's poem is by Nathalie Mussard, courtesy of LibriVox. The quotation from Friko is the first comment here.
Sung by Léo Ferré
The literal translation of the poem by C. John Holcombe can be found here, as can the Symons and Sorrell translations. The Hall translation can be found here. The Kirchwey translation can be found here. The full review of Hall’s translation, from which the quotation was taken, can be found here (though you may need to be a subscriber to the New York Times to read it). Edmund White’s full review of Kirchwey’s translation of Verlaine’s Poems Under Saturn, from which the quotation was taken and which also includes a review of Ashbery’s translation of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, can be found here.