Thursday, June 23, 2016

José-Maria de Heredia - 3 Soleil Couchant

Before passing on to the subject of this instalment, a Postcriptum to the previous one. Floridum Mare was very much a painting in words, and there are two paintings which could illustrate it. One may even be called La Bretagne et la mer (Brittany and the Sea), if one sees it on the website of the Galerie Enora (, where it is not identified but I read the signature as “A(ndré) Wilder”. The other is La moisson au Pouldu (Harvest at Le Pouldu) [on the coast of Brittany] by Adolphe Beaufrère ( Both paintings are protected by copyright and so here are only postage-size images to guide an online search:


The second sonnet to surprise me, after the effect made by L’oubli, is another in the group called The Sea of Brittany. It was a mixed pleasure to read it. To me it seems more artificial than the two sonnets already considered, as if Heredia has not got to grips with that time between day and night always appealing to a poet, or with the strange, rather wild setting. A comment by the poet Eli Siegel is pertinent: “
Heredia had his fourteen-line form and then looked for something in history (or it might be just in landscape, with history faint) to become words, lines, sentences, rhymes, rhythm”. Has the writer of this sonnet been too artful in making use of two clever ideas that he had – the infinite sea beginning where the land ends, and the sun’s last display as a fan of red with golden ribs? (It was satisfying to match the French “sans fini ... finit” with the exact equivalent in English, “endless ... ending”. Such an opportunity seldom comes to one translating into English verse!)

Here is Soleil Couchant followed by a literal translation in prose, my attempt in verse, and a translation each by two poets:

Soleil Couchant

Les ajoncs éclatants, parure du granit,
Dorent l'âpre sommet que le couchant allume;
Au loin, brillante encor par sa barre d'écume,
La mer sans fin commence où la terre finit.

À mes pieds, c'est la nuit, le silence. Le nid
Se tait, l'homme est rentré sous le chaume qui fume;
Seul, l'Angélus du soir, ébranlé dans la brume,
À la vaste rumeur de l'Océan s'unit.

Alors, comme du fond d'un abîme, des traînes,
Des landes, des ravins, montent des voix lointaines
De pâtres attardés ramenant le bétail.

L'horizon tout entier s'enveloppe dans l'ombre,
Et le soleil mourant, sur un ciel riche et sombre,
Ferme les branches d'or de son rouge éventail.

Prose translation (literal):
The shining gorse/ furze, adornment of the granite, gilds the rugged summit/ height which the sunset lights up; far away, still shining through its tide of foam, the endless sea begins where the land ends. [Backing up my choice of gorse over furze, a choice based on its sound in the context of the other words, there is Sabatini’s The Marquis of Carabas, which mentions gorse alongside “surging blocks of granite” but never furze.]
At my feet it is night, silence. The nest holds its peace, the man has gone in under the smoking thatch; only the evening Angelus disturbs the mist/ haze, to the vast clamour/ roar of Ocean it joins/ unites itself.
Then, as from an abyss’ depths the trails, the moors, the ravines, rise up faraway voices of tardy herders/ shepherds collecting/ rounding up their livestock.
[See footnote.]
The entire horizon is wrapped in shadow, and the dying sun, on a sky rich and sombre/ darkening, shuts up the golden ribs of his red/ crimson fan.

SETTING SUN (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)

Splendid shines the gorse, granite cliff adorning,
Which the sun in setting gilds on rugged height.
Far off, its foaming tide once more made bright,
The endless sea begins where land is ending.

Night spreads below my feet, silent. The nest
Is hushed, man has returned ‘neath smoking thatch;
The Angelus alone disturbs the mist,
And the vast roar of Ocean strives to match.

As from an abyss’ depths there now arise,
To gather their flocks, tardy shepherds’ cries
From out the moors, the ravines, and the trails.

Shadow takes the horizon in its span,
As the sun, in a rich, sombre sky, fails,
Furling up gold ribs of his crimson fan.

SUNSET (Tr. by Edward Robeson Taylor, 1906)

The blossomed furze gem of the granite's crest
Gilds all the height the sun's last glories fill,
And far below, with foam refulgent still,
Unbounded spreads great ocean's heaving breast.

Silence and Night are at my feet. The nest
Is hushed; the smoking thatch folds man from ill;
And but the Angelus, with melodious thrill,
Lifts its calm voice amid the sea's unrest.

Then, as from bottom of abyss, there rise
From trails, ravines and moors the distant cries
Of tardy herdsmen who their kine reclaim.

In deepening shade the whole horizon lies,
And the dying sun upon the rich, sad skies
Shuts the gold branches of his fan of flame.

(Tr. by Maurice F. Egan, ca 1902)

The sunlit brush light to the dark rock lends,
And gilds the summit of the mountain dome
Where sets the sun; beyond—a bar of foam—
The endless sea begins where the earth ends:

Beneath me, night and silence; tired man wends
To where the smoking chimney marks his home.
The Angelus, deadened by the mists that roam,
In the vast murmur of the ocean blends.

As from the depth of an abyss, the sound
Of far-off voices in the space around
Comes from belated herdsmen with their clan.

The western sky is clothed in shadows gray;
The sun on rich dark clouds sinks slow away
And shuts the gold sticks of his crimson fan.

Even a minor English poet can make a pastoral evening scene personal and unforgettable:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Thomas Gray’s ploughman is recognisable; “homeward” evokes a certain response. In Soleil Couchant, we have this: “l'homme est rentré sous le chaume qui fume”. What man? The “smoking thatch” may be a clever phrase but does it really give such an immediate sense of nostalgia as “homeward” does? Can the unseen shepherds and scattered flocks of the sonnet compare with “the lowing herd” or “the drowsy tinklings” which “lull the distant fold”? Heredia’s Angelus has to struggle for a place beside “the curfew tolls the knell of parting day”.

It is a question of what happens to French words used in classically structured poetry. They become symbolic signs – what in computer-influenced jargon are named (with possibly unintended disrespect) icons. In English poetry words can be crammed with connotations and take on an almost incantatory power: those “immemorial elms”, “innumerable bees”, “darling buds of May”, “autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa”, “like a garment, wear the beauty of the morning”. One could quote a bookful of such phrases and lines, all powerfully evocative, holding a particular emotional resonance for the reader. (In some sonnets, Heredia does find the memorable phrase or line but often one gets the feeling that the rules govern his choice of words, and so the words become counters in a game.)

English has a rich vocabulary but is poor in possibilities for rhyme. Heredia’s sonnets are known for their rhyme scheme, and the skilled use of the feminine rhyme. This is difficult to reproduce in English, as are the alexandrines – syllabic verse where twelve syllables usually fall into two sections by means of the stress, although they may be divided into three or four such sections. As for the rules regarding rhymes, I find them so complicated that I would never dream of trying to write verse in French! Furthermore, what about being true to every detail in the original, Heredia being known for his care over choice of detail; and what of striving to make of the English version something as near as possible to an acceptable poem, not a collection of lines forced into a rhyme scheme to match the French? It seems to me more productive to compose something that is likely to tempt the reader on to the original sonnets, rather than to be very strict with metre and rhymes but write something very artificial, with odd word formations or amending the original either by omission or by addition.

Footnote: “Pâtre” is synonymous with either “berger” or “pasteur”, (and is generally kept, along with “pasteur”, for literary use), signifying one who minds the “betail”, which could mean bulls, cows, sheep or goats. A “pasteur”, or a “berger”, however, only tends sheep and must be rendered as shepherd. Although he was careful to put in certain details as they suited his purpose, I doubt that Heredia greatly cared whether it was cattle or sheep that he heard, for both are to be found in Brittany, but chose “pâtre” and “betail” for the effect on his line. Taylor and Egan opt for cattle. I could as well have used herdsmen and beasts for the French, the syllables are a match, but the connotations are not comparable with shepherds and sheep.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

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