French poetry is radically different from English poetry in ways best explained by someone learned in this subject. I had to be content with the Introduction to the Penguin Book of French Verse Volume 3 from which, I fear, I carried away very little. Not because Anthony Hartley failed to explain well enough; rather, because I have never taken an interest in French Literature as such, merely reading a work here and there for its own sake. But a Sunday Times competition in 1968, set and judged by George Steiner, for the best translation of Baudelaire’s Spleen, was so captivating that it resulted in my purchase of the book I cited, and in my first, halting attempt to translate – of all daunting tasks that only an ignoramus would attempt – a sonnet by the Cuban-born José-Maria de Heredia (1842-1905).
Did the surname attract me? Perhaps. But it was the poem itself, L’oubli, which caught my imagination and held fast. Greece, Ancient Greece, cast a spell over me when I was six or seven. (That’s part of another story.) For W. J. Turner it was “Chimborazo Cotopaxi took [him] by the hand” (Romance). For me it was Poseidon’s temple on the headland at Cape Sounion. L’oubli was a natural magnet.
Heredia was a perfectionist. His first published collection of poems (many had been published individually) Les Trophées (The Trophies), containing 117 sonnets and some other poems, was published when he was fifty. (The printed date is 1893, but the actual release was in December 1892.) It was enormously successful, which surely pleased the poet yet may also have puzzled him. Heredia’s sonnets, the greater part of his verse output, are not only strictly disciplined, they are also for the most part quietly reflective. Some might therefore have found them unappealing. But that was not the popular perception. He was acknowledged to be an outstanding French poet, a matchless writer of sonnets. That admiration continues.
Thou, with ambition modest yet sublime,
Here, for the sight of mortal man, hast given
To one brief moment caught from fleeting time
The appropriate calm of blest eternity. ~ William Wordsworth
Les Trophées opens with L’oubli, and it is ironic that such a poem, so poised and still, like a Grecian shrine of marble, should have an effect that the French would describe as éclatant, meaning sensational or dazzling. It makes an instant impression and is unforgettable. Yet it says nothing extraordinary. How, then, does Heredia achieve this effect?
In the tradition of the French literary sonnet, it adheres to the Petrarchean model of an octet consisting of two quatrains, followed by a sestet comprising two tercets, there being “a veiled climax” (Maurice Egan) in the closing tercet, which should “have a certain element of surprise.” (Egan)
In a hundred and one of the sonnets in the first edition, Heredia keeps to the rhyme scheme of two rhymes only for the octet – A and B – in the line order 1, 4, 5, 8 for A and 2, 3, 6, and 7 for B. The sestet usually has three rhymes – C, D and E, arranged as CCD EDE or CCD EED. In the other sixteen, the sestet may have only two rhymes, C and D, or three rhymes, C, D, and E in varying arrangements. L’oubli is one of the exceptions.
The sonnet records a scene observed by the poet in either Greece or Sicily, or in his imagination visiting one of those regions (it is placed in the section of Les Trophées titled Greece and Sicily), with his understated response to it. There are only three images: the ruins of a temple (columns, statues) overgrown by grass; a herdsman playing an old tune on his horn; the sea, not so much seen as heard. The first quatrain and the first tercet are concerned with the ruins. The second quatrain and tercet are about the herdsman and the sea.
(The sea and the sky appear often in those sonnets which especially attracted my notice, and they are always described as vast or infinite. The frequent juxtaposition of things on land and others in or on the sea is another aspect I have remarked.)
To translate any poetry into verse is a tricky business, and translating Heredia’s sonnets is especially so. Aside from the impossibility of strictly reproducing his rhyme scheme while also writing unstilted and genuinely poetic lines, there is the scansion, not to mention the effect only possible with French words, and further, there are words with no single equivalent in commonly used English vocabulary (the colour perse is one), or with many alternatives from which the poetically right choice must be made (‘forgetfulness’ or ‘oblivion’). French verse for centuries was rigid in its rules of metre, rhyme and rhythm, governed by the syllable – whereas English verse had much freedom and was governed by the stress.
More than one poet has tried, nevertheless, and Edward R. Taylor did reproduce Heredia’s rhyme scheme – in one poem even his alexandrines – yet even Taylor had to revise in the fourth edition of 1906 his first translations of 1897, realising that he had missed some important point. Although some succeed, do his translations reproduce the poetry of the originals? Not the versification, but the poetry?
The difficulties presented by L’oubli begin with the title. In his prose translation for the Penguin book, Anthony Hartley selects “forgetfulness”. Every other translator who is a poet, and whose translation I have read, recognises that only “oblivion” will serve.
This is my literal translation in prose, verse by verse, with comments as required:
On the top of the promontory/ headland the temple is in ruins. And Death has mixed up, in tawny earth, marble Goddesses and bronze Heroes whose glory only the/ alone the/ the solitary/ the lonely grass buries/ entombs. [‘Promontoire’ rhymes with ‘gloire’ but promontory in an English poem is clumsy. ‘Fauve’ can also mean ‘feral’ or ‘wild’ but obviously not in the context of the soil, which is reddish brown or tawny. Alone or only imply that the gods, heroes, and temple are not remembered, as the last verse will reveal, and so only the grass entombs past glory, but the poet’s intent goes a tiny step further – a thought which only just came to me, 46 years after my first translation, underscoring the ease with which one may choose the wrong word – simply that the spot is little frequented.]
Only/ alone, sometimes, a drover/ cow-herd leading his buffaloes to drink, (while) in his horn there sighs an ancient melody/ tune filling the calm sky up to the sea’s horizon, against the blue infinity raises his dark shape/ form. [There are buffaloes in Sicily and in northern Greece, yet those are not the animals that would come to mind in this setting. Boeufs (oxen) could have been used, since a bouvier can be either a drover or a cow-herd, but then the line would lack a syllable. Bétail (cattle) would be as long as buffles, but try the sound of bétail boire versus buffles boire and notice the difference.]
Earth, motherly and gentle to old Gods, makes, every spring, with vain eloquence, on the broken capital another acanthus grow green.
But Man, indifferent to the dream of his ancestors, hears without trembling, in the depth of serene nights, the Sea lamenting as she weeps for the Sirens.
Now the pattern I mentioned is plain – the ruins buried by grass link with the acanthus which maternal Earth has caused to grow afresh on the broken capital. The drover whose melody is heard only by the sea and sky is the indifferent Man, and the sighing of his old tune connects with the lament of the Sea. As the old Gods and Heroes have passed into oblivion, so have the lost Sirens.
The poet is there, observing, recording, yet impersonally for all the melancholy of his theme. He makes a judgement (“Indifferent”, “hears without trembling”) on Man’s lack of response to the losses that he, the poet, has listed, but without entering emotionally into that judgement. Heredia belonged to the circle of writers called The Parnassians. Their motto was “Art for Art’s Sake”. In most of his sonnets he gives the impression of being impassible, that is, incapable of feeling pain, a word generally used in theological discussion. But he is not so impassible that he cannot feel anything at all, as a number of sonnets attest to his pleasure in whatever he is writing about, Floridum Mare being one, and Au Tragédien E. Rossi being another. He is certainly well able to give a frisson to his reader with a concluding line or two, as we shall see by and by.
Heredia was a great sonnet writer in a land with a tradition of, and a reverence for, that form. Was he also a great poet? Edmund Gosse thought he lacked the breadth of vision and the humanity, but declared him a great poetic artist. I agree. Read L’oubli below, followed by my revised translation, to decide for yourself. (My original version was posted in a blog of June 2006 to which the link below will take you.) After that, try E. R. Taylor’s revised translation from 1906 and, at http://www.eldritchdark.com/writings/poetry/390/oblivion-%28l%E2%80%99oubli%29 you will find a modern translation by Clark Ashton Smith.
Le temple est en ruine au haut du promontoire.
Et la Mort a mêlé, dans ce fauve terrain,
Les Déesses de marbre et les Héros d'airain
Dont l'herbe solitaire ensevelit la gloire.
Seul, parfois, un bouvier menant ses buffles boire,
De sa conque où soupire un antique refrain
Emplissant le ciel calme et l'horizon marin,
Sur l'azur infini dresse sa forme noire.
La Terre maternelle et douce aux anciens Dieux
Fait à chaque printemps, vainement éloquente,
Au chapiteau brisé verdir un autre acanthe;
Mais l'Homme indifférent au rêve des aïeux
Écoute sans frémir, du fond des nuits sereines,
La Mer qui se lamente en pleurant les Sirènes.
OBLIVION (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)
High on the headland a ruined temple looms.
Death in red-brown earth has tumbled
Goddess marble, with bronze Hero jumbled;
The lonely grass their fame entombs.
Alone, dark form against a blue infinity,
Sometimes a drover leads his cattle to the bourn.
Filling the calm heavens, sighs in his horn –
Searching the sea’s bounds – an ancient melody.
Earth’s a kindly mother to old Gods; each spring
The fallen capitals with acanthus green
She crowns anew. In vain her gentle pleading.
Indiff’rent to his forebears’ dream, Man hears
Unmoved in the dark depths of nights serene,
Her Sirens lost, the Sea lament with tears.
OBLIVION (Tr. by Edward Robeson Taylor, 1906)
On headland's height the temple's ruins lie,
Where Death has intermixed bronze Heroes slain
The lonely grass enshrouds with many a sigh.
Only at times a herdsman, driving by
His kine for drink, piping antique refrain
That floods the heavens to the very main,
Shows his dark form against the boundless sky.
The Earth, sweet mother to the Gods of old,
At springtime vainly, eloquently weaves
Round the rent capital acanthus leaves;
But man, no more by ancient dreams controlled,
Hears without tremor, in the midnight deep,
The grieving Sea for her lost sirens weep.