The Sea of Brittany had two surprises for me. In one, José-Maria de Heredia the impassible Parnassian has almost turned into Vincent van Gogh, the impassioned Post-Impressionist. Floridum Mare, a Latin title which sounds silly in English as Flowering or Flowery Sea, has some typical Heredia motifs (dark profile; land to sea and back and forth) but it is painted, in many colours, and describes two groups of creatures deliriously excited. That, surely, is far removed from the presumably calm, controlled activities of Parnassians in their studies or salons.
L’oubli has a blue sky, green acanthus, and tawny earth, besides the dark profile. For sounds it has an antique melody sighing in a horn, and the lamentations of the sea. Movement is only suggested – the drover with his buffaloes. In Floridum Mare we have a palette of colours, some unexpected when applied to the sea, others to be imagined (apart from a field described as full of golden corn): many-coloured fields ripe for the harvest, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies. There is, too, that dark profile, with an unusually imaginative association to characterise it. Indeed, there is an unusual imagination very busy in this sonnet. Also busy is the movement: a breeze that rocks the crops but lifts and lowers the object in profile suggestively, as if it were in a storm; another breeze which is “honey-sweet”; the tide that surges landward causing “whirlwinds” of gulls to follow it “with joyous cries”, and as it ebbs, breaks up the white wave-crests so that the scattered foam looks like a flock of sheep; and flights of butterflies over the sea like so many flowers. These last are said to be in ecstasy (or, less politely, drunk). Whatever was the poet’s own mood as he wrote this sonnet?
Apart from Van Gogh and his Lark over a Cornfield, there are other personal associations which for me added plausibility to the cornfield by the sea, and the gulls’ interest in agricultural activities. For the first there is the novel, The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge. For the second there is Ivor Gurney’s lovely song-setting of Joseph Campbell’s I Will Go With My Father A-Ploughing.
But returning to the sonnet, Floridum Mare is another of the sixteen exceptions. Its rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CCD CCD. Here is the literal translation in prose, followed by the original, and some verse translations:
The harvest overflowing the multi-coloured plain rolls, undulates, unfurls in the cool wind cradling it; and the profile, on the distant sky, of some harrow seems like a ship pitching and raising a black bowsprit.
And beneath my feet the sea, right to the purple sunset, sky-blue or pink or violet or perse [see footnote] or white with the wave-crests [see footnote] dispersed by the ebb is greened to infinity like a great meadow.
Also, gulls follow the tide towards the ripe corn that swells like a golden surge, with joyful cries, flying in whirlwinds;
while from the land a honeyed breeze spreads at the will of their winged ecstasy over the flowery Ocean flights of butterflies.
La moisson débordant le plateau diapré
Roule, ondule et déferle au vent frais qui la berce;
Et le profil, au ciel lointain, de quelque herse
Semble un bateau qui tangue et lève un noir beaupré.
Et sous mes pieds, la mer, jusqu'au couchant pourpré,
Céruléenne ou rose ou violette ou perse
Ou blanche de moutons que le reflux disperse,
Verdoie à l'infini comme un immense pré.
Aussi les goëlands qui suivent la marée,
Vers les blés mûrs que gonfle une houle dorée,
Avec des cris joyeux, volaient en tourbillons;
Tandis que, de la terre, une brise emmiellée
Éparpillait au gré de leur ivresse ailée
Sur l'Océan fleuri des vols de papillons.
FLORIDUM MARE (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)
Over patchwork plain a harvest overflowing
Cradled by cool wind rolls, undulates, unfurling.
Harrow in profile dark against the distant sky
Lifts bowsprit as of ship, pitching and tossing high.
Beneath my feet the sea, purple where the sun sets,
Sky-blue, perse, hued like a rose, or violets,
Save where the ebb tide spreads the wave-crests white, like sheep
On the great green meadow of the infinite deep.
Gulls follow the surging tide with shrill, joyous cries,
Over the ripe corn, their flocks in a whirlwind rise
Where it swells like a golden influx of the seas;
While from the land is flowing a honey-sweet breeze
That flowers o’er the Ocean with flights of butterflies,
Scattered at the will of their winged ecstasies.
FLOWERY SEA (Tr. by Edward Robeson Taylor, 1906)
O'er pied plateau the wave-swept harvest flows,
Rolls, undulates and breaks, with wind rocked high,
And yon dark harrow, profiled on the sky,
Seems like some vessel in the tempest's throes.
With blue, cerulean, violet or rose,
Or fleecy white from sheep the ebb makes fly,
The sea, far as the West's empurpling dye,
Like boundless meadow verdurously glows.
The gulls, that watch the tide with eager care,
On whirling wing with screams of joy fly where
The ripened grain in golden billow lies;
While from the land a breeze of sweets possessed
Disperses o'er the ocean's flowery breast
In winged rapture swarms of butterflies.
Footnotes: Perse – There is no single English word equivalent for this colour, which has long been accepted as a dark blue-gray on the way to, but not reaching, indigo. Perse has a confusing history from documents of at least the 14th century onwards but that is irrelevant to the modern perception. Perse is not ultramarine (although Anthony Hartley thinks so), because the ‘marine’ does not indicate the colour of the sea. “Ultramarine” means “from beyond the sea” (the Mediterranean) and Afghanistan is far enough from Western Europe. Its lapis lazuli ground up yielded the madly expensive colour, a blue so deep it is like the sky nearing nightfall, before it goes black.
Moutons – can be either sheep or white wave-crests. A gift to a poet. Hartley translates “blanche des moutons” as “the white horses”, which is puzzling. What is a sheep to the French may well be a horse to the English, but calling wave-crests sheep is bad enough – a dictionary soon solves that – calling them horses is unnecessarily mystifying.