The last two sonnets in this series hardly do justice to the best of the poet. Three of these I have saved for the last. The Encyclopaedia Britannica commends Heredia’s sonnets: “These poems capture in verse a fugitive moment of history (usually classical or Renaissance) ... in one startling image ... [he] caps the beauty of each poem with a final couplet or line of especially haunting effect.” If one has reservations about such a conceit as the snapping shut of a gold-ribbed crimson fan in Soleil Couchant, if one finds some of the imagery there precious, there can be little reservation about the exuberance of Floridum Mare. Even better are the set of three sonnets with which this series winds up.
In the section Rome and the Barbarians is a close-knit set of three sonnets under the title Antony and Cleopatra, which build up to the final line of the third – and that has the same title. The full force of that final couplet can only be felt if all three sonnets are read in sequence, yet it is the third sonnet that is best known, from frequent inclusion in anthologies. The Penguin Book of French Verse Volume 3 includes it on its own.
There were many high-ranked Romans who had some lady of Eastern origin for bed-mate, their association quite public, but the Romans did not marry these companions. This is precisely why the affairs of Julius Caesar and of Mark Antony with Cleopatra were such a cause for scandal. Egypt was a very important protectorate during the Roman Republic, and afterwards a province of the Empire. It was also an old civilisation, older far than Rome. True, it lay near enough, merely to the south of the Middle Sea on whose northern shores were the once mighty Greece and the presently mighty Rome. But Egypt was dark of skin, burned by the sun, with strange gods, strange customs (the ruler marrying his sister), and a habit of ensnaring the northern conqueror. Look at what it did to Alexander. His successor in this part of his very short-lived empire was the Greek general Ptolemy Lagides, and what happened to him? He turned Egyptian. His half-breed descendants were as uncanny as any true-born Egyptian. That is how Romans not ensorcelled by an Egyptian regarded the matter.
Julius Caesar never became supreme ruler in Rome, and was killed before he could make good his promise of crowning Cleopatra his queen and naming their son his heir. Mark Antony had both the desire and the ability to achieve all this – in theory. When his Roman physical strength and military discipline came up against the wiles of Cleopatra, the result was predictable. But how differently it can be presented in verse or drama or a combination of both. With great skill, Heredia presents it, with many dramatic effects, as a conflict of ambitions rather than just a story of l’amour à la folie.
The first sonnet in the set has Cleopatra at the centre, in the second it is Antony; the third brings them together for the tragic climax. The first is Act One of a drama familiar to Classical Greece and Rome, the combat of Mars and Venus. At the outset, Venus is in the ascendant. In Act Two, it is Mars who is victorious. In Act Three, they play out their mutual destruction, for these are not two Immortals, merely pictured as such. They must pay the price for their choices.
All three sonnets are vividly pictorial. One could name artists to paint the scenes described. They are sensuous in other ways, too, evoking the smell, the sound, the tactile sense and the atmosphere appropriate to each setting. The unity of the set is further strengthened by Heredia’s use of language – he was known for his use of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia – and by the tension resulting from deliberate ambiguities of syntax that draw attention to the theme of ‘seeing’ and ‘failing to see’.
To appreciate Le Cydnus fully one should be familiar with the passage from Plutarch which supplied Shakespeare with one of his famous speeches. Heredia sharpens the picture with added detail. Plutarch wrote that such reports came to Tarsus of Cleopatra’s progress up the river Cydnus, that the citizenry left Antony seated on the tribunal in the marketplace and rushed to the riverbank to witness the Egyptian queen’s arrival. It should be kept in mind when reading the only mention of Antony – unnamed – in this sonnet. Cleopatra’s vessel had a gilded stern and silver oars. Its sails were purple and the canopy that sheltered her from the sun was cloth of gold. She was robed as Venus, and on either side of her, were boys dressed as Cupid.
Le Cydnus has many words suggesting glory, victory, splendour, and other sets of words that imply trapping, especially by seduction, and the dark consequences.
Sous l'azur triomphal, au soleil qui flamboie,
La trirème d'argent blanchit le fleuve noir
Et son sillage y laisse un parfum d'encensoir
Avec des sons de flûte et des frissons de soie.
The transferred epithet “triomphal” and “flamboie” used with the sun are suggestive of the intention of Cleopatra and of the impression she makes. The silver trireme’s reflection in the river (ominously black) whitens the water – deceptively? Its wake disperses perfumes (a recurring word in all three sonnets) like incense from a censer. This can be taken literally and innocently. Yet the words “encens – encensoir” have another meaning, which is flattery. This whole show put on by the Egyptian queen is to seduce the Roman general. The rustle of silk and the sound of flutes are partly incidental, partly may suggest the hissing of the Serpent of the Nile, as outraged Romans styled her.
À la proue éclatante où l'épervier s'éploie,
Hors de son dais royal se penchant pour mieux voir,
Cléopâtre debout en la splendeur du soir
Semble un grand oiseau d'or qui guette au loin sa proie.
Voici Tarse, où l'attend le guerrier désarmé;
Et la brune Lagide ouvre dans l'air charmé
Ses bras d'ambre où la pourpre a mis des reflets roses.
The first tercet opens with a brief, abrupt statement like a stage direction. What does the rest of the sentence imply? Has the warrior laid aside his arms, or has he succumbed already to the Lagide’s charms? (Cleopatra’s ancestor, Ptolemy, was a by-blow given the name of his alleged father, as Lagos or Lagides.)
Et ses yeux n'ont pas vu, présage de son sort,
Auprès d'elle, effeuillant sur l'eau sombre des roses,
Les deux enfants divins, le Désir et la Mort.
The final tercet opens with “And ... eyes have not seen, omen of ... destiny.” In English it would be plain, in French the statement is ambiguous because the possessive agrees in gender with the possessed, not with the possessor. Who does not see? Since the children dressed as Cupids are on either side of her and Antony is facing Cleopatra, it makes more sense that he is the one who fails to see. It fits into a pattern running through the set, of what Antony should see and what he finally does see.
In this closing tercet there are more ill-omens. Once more the river is dark – “sombre” is the word. Why are the Cupid-children tearing off petals from the roses to scatter them? “Efeuiller” is not really “to defoliate”; it is to pull the petals off. One would expect baskets of rose petals to be provided. Tearing off petals carries a hint of destruction. (In the next sonnet there will be dead leaves whirling.) It is unsettling enough. And then to conclude with the omens that Antony fails to see in the Cupids: Desire and Death!
Below are a prose translation, my verse translation and one by Edward Taylor. Another, by Eli Siegel, can be found here:
Prose translation (literal):
Under the triumphal* blue, with sun blazing, The silver trireme whitens the black river And its wake leaves a perfume as from a censer With sounds of flute and shivers of silk.
* transferred epithet.
At the prow brilliant* where the sparrow-hawk bends/ stoops, Out of her royal dais leaning to see better, Cleopatra standing in the splendour of evening Seems like a great bird of gold that looks out for its prey.
* could be a transferred epithet, but the prow was gilded, according to Plutarch.
Here is Tarsus, where awaits the disarmed warrior, And the brown/ dusky Lagide opens in the charmed air Her amber arms on which the purple has placed rosy reflections.
And his eyes have not seen, omen of his destiny, Beside her, tearing off their petals [from roses] and scattering them on the dark water, The two divine children, Desire and Death.
THE CYDNUS (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)
In blue triumphal sky the sun’s ablaze,
Silver trireme’s sheen turns black waves to milk
Its wash disperses scents like incense haze
With soft sound of flute and shiver of silk.
On dazzling prow a sparrow hawk perches;
In eve’s splendour, for better view leaning
From royal dais, Cleopatra searches—
A great bird of gold chosen prey seeking.
Waiting in Tarsus, the warrior disarms.
While the dusky Lagide in air she charms,
Through purple stretches her arms of amber,
Children shred roses on waters sombre.
And in this divine pair he fails to see
Desire and Death foretell his destiny.
THE CYDNUS (Tr. by Edward R. Taylor, 1906)
Beneath triumphal blue, in flaming ray,
The silver trireme tints the dark flood white,
And censers breathe rich perfumes that unite
With rustling silks and flutes' mellifluous play.
Where, at the prow, the spread-hawk holds his way,
Cleopatra forward leans for better sight,
And seems, as stands she in the evening light,
Like some great golden bird in watch for prey.
Now Tarsus sees the warrior captive there:
The dusky Lagian opes, in that charmed air,
Her amber arms with roseate purple dyed;
Nor has she seen anear, as fateful sign,
Shredding the roses on the sombrous tide,
Those twins, Desire and Death, of life divine.
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