Thursday, June 30, 2016

José-Maria de Heredia – 5 Le Voeu

In the late decades of the 1800s, there was a buzz of interest among scholars, historians and archaeologists, over certain Stone Age and Bronze Age remains in the Pyrenees. Among relics of a much later date, after the Roman conquest of the region that the victors named ‘Gaul’, were blocks of marble carved with a thankful message from the votary to the deity, and described as altars. Like this one – of particular interest to José-Maria de Heredia’s sonnet,
Le Voeu (The Vow):

Perhaps it was because of what he heard in the salon of Gaston Paris, writer, professor of Romance languages, and philologist, as well as historian, palaeologist and specialist in epigraphs, that Heredia took a holiday in Bagnères-de-Luchon. That was during 1885 or 1886. While there, he became acquainted with a monograph by a learned local man, Julien Sacaze, Épigraphie de Luchon (available online, along with Histoire Ancienne de Luchon by Sacaze). The result was a set of five sonnets, grouped as Sonnets Épigraphiques, in the section titled Rome and the Barbarians.

Le Voeu is the first sonnet, and in it he declares his intent in writing the set. Each sonnet will be his own votive altar, therefore the next sonnet takes up the “Subterranean Nymphs” in the last line, and its last line leads to the dedication of the following sonnet. The Garumnian of Le Voeu reappears in the third sonnet.

Luchon is a corruption of Ilixon or Lixon, the local deity, tutelary genius of the healing, sulphurous hot springs. In 76 BC, Pompey, returning to Italy from Spain over the Pyrenees, founded Lugdunum Convenarum (now St. Bertrand-de-Comminges). One of his soldiers, afflicted by a skin disease, was advised by a local tribesman to seek a cure by immersion for 21 days in the waters of Ilixon’s thermal springs. He was completely healed. That was recorded and remembered. The Emperor Claudius is said to have had pools dug and thermal baths built at the springs, “the baths of Ilixon”, now “

Another name that occurs in the votive marbles set up (by Romanised tribesmen and tribeswomen) was Iscitt, worshipped at Garin. The votive marbles were inscribed as seen in the illustration, with the deity’s name, the donor’s name, and V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) M(erito) which means in effect “this is in fulfilment of a vow, gladly and gratefully”.

Vervain, verbena, ‘Juno’s tears’ was a sacred herb, and mallow was offered to Apollo. This might apply as well to the worship of Celtic gods, or it might be the effect of Roman culture. These details don’t matter now. Heredia’s mentor, to whom
Les Trophées is dedicated, Charles Leconte de Lisle, was provoked to laughter by the whole business: the Celtic gods Iscitt and Ilixon, solemnly invoked by Heredia, Hunnu son of Ulohox, the painted Garumnian, and “bald Venasque”. Port de Venasque is a pass in the Pyrenees near Luchon. In a photograph of 1875 by Eugène Trutat, the massive rocks bare of vegetation (bald?) may be seen, and they are part of that same moraine the sonnet refers to:

Provided I kept tongue firmly in cheek, it was possible to make a translation in lines of twelve syllables, but not in Heredia’s rhyme scheme, unless I did violence to sensible English. But Edward R. Taylor wrote his translation in the revised edition according to the rules. For me this exercise was undertaken mainly because curiosity about Iscitt and Ilixon led to a lot of interesting information, partly to complete a set of seven translated sonnets, and mostly because it was amusing to translate a sonnet I, like Leconte de Lisle, find rather absurd! The original sonnet is followed by a literal translation in prose, mine in verse, and Taylor’s second version.

Le Voeu


Jadis l'Ibère noir et le Gall au poil fauve
Et le Garumne brun peint d'ocre et de carmin,
Sur le marbre votif entaillé par leur main,
Ont dit l'eau bienfaisante et sa vertu qui sauve.

Puis les Imperators, sous le Venasque chauve,
Bâtirent la piscine et le therme romain,
Et Fabia Festa, par ce même chemin,
A cueilli pour les Dieux la verveine ou la mauve.

Aujourd'hui, comme aux jours d'Iscitt et d'Ilixon,
Les sources m'ont chanté leur divine chanson;
Le soufre fume encore à l'air pur des moraines.

C'est pourquoi, dans ces vers, accomplissant les voeux,
Tel qu'autrefois Hunnu, fils d'Ulohox, je veux
Dresser l'autel barbare aux Nymphes Souterraines.

Prose translation (literal):
Once the dark Iberian and the Gaul with tawny body hair [hair on the head is cheveux] and the brown Garumnian painted with ochre and carmine, on votive marble cut/ carved with their hands, told of the water beneficent and its power to save.
Afterwards the Emperors, below bald Venasque, built the pool and the Roman thermal baths, and Fabia Festa, by the same road/ in the same way, gathered for the Gods vervain and mallow.
Today, as in the days of Iscitt and of Ilixon, the springs have sung to me their divine song; sulphur smokes/ fumes again in the pure air of the moraine.
That’s why, in these verses, fulfilling vows, as in past times Hunnu, son of Ulohox, I want to dedicate a rude/ crude/ barbarian altar to the Subterranean Nymphs.

THE VOW (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)


Once, the dark Iberian, the tawny Gaul, and brown
Garumnian with ochre and with carmine painted,
These waters’ powers to heal, do good and save made known
On the votive marble their own hands engrav

Came Emperors who built the pools and thermal baths
In Roman style, below Venasque’s bald rock crown,
And Fabia Festa, she who trod the Roman paths,
Mallow and vervain, before the Gods to lay down.

The springs to me have sung their song divine again,
As in bygone days of Iscitt and Ilixon;
Sulphur infuses the pure airs of the moraine.

As Hunnu, Ulohox’ son, made thanks-offering,
Vow to fulfil, these verses are my orison
To Nymphs Below – an altar crude I’m proffering.

THE VOW (Tr. by Edward R. Taylor, 1906)


The brown Garumnus smeared with red and ochrous stain,
The swart Iberus and the light-haired Gaul, of old,
Upon the votive marble cut by them, have told
The virtues of the water and its power o'er bane.

Below Venasque bald the Emperors then were fain
To build the pool and thermae of the Roman mould;
And next 'twas Fabia Festa who, like them controlled,
Collected for the Gods the mallow and vervain.

To-day, as when Ilixon and Iscitt were young,
The springs their song divine to me have sweetly sung,
Where still the sulphur fumes in the moraine's pure breath.

Hence in this vow-fulfilling verse 'tis mine to raise,
Like Hunnu, son of Ulohox, in the bygone days,
A rudely-fashioned altar to the Nymphs beneath.

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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