The last of the three-sonnet set bears the names of the principal actors in its title, but in the body of the poem they are not named. He is “the Roman”, she is merely “she”.
The setting is Alexandria, although not named, the atmosphere oppressive, ‘black’ now describes the Delta, and the River’s waves are – well, ‘broad’ is the most likely word, but the other two possibilities add to the heaviness of the atmosphere. Indeed, heaviness is a constant. The Roman wears a heavy breastplate; the child-woman seems to find her own body too heavy to hold up. She languishes, fainting - ployer et défaillir – so that he has to bend over her to respond to the invitation of the mouth she offers.
This scene is set before the Battle of Actium, but how long before? If it is not long after the Parthian campaign, perhaps when Antony is all dressed up for his triumph, then the vision in Cleopatra’s eyes represents another irony because Antony has not comprehended it, as history demonstrates. If it is just before he sets off to do battle with Octavian, then it is equivalent to the enlightenment which comes too late to Macbeth. (Either way, unless ironically given, Imperator is no title for such a fool!)
Also to be noticed are the “invincibles parfums” with which Cleopatra has deprived Antony of his wits (enivraient), and the reduction of so much gold in Le Cydnus to the “points d’or” in her eyes, and of herself from a great bird of prey to a child rocked in Antony’s embrace.
The final line is so impressive that the sonnet’s popularity may be ascribed to it. Yet it is an illusion wrought by José-Maria de Heredia, as did Shakespeare in his play, the culmination of a three-act drama of seeing without perceiving. With a fine flourish of wand, hat and cloak the poet dazzles his reader as effectively as ever Cleopatra bewitched Antony!
Below are the original sonnet, my prose translation, my verse translation, and one by Edward R. Taylor.
Antoine et Cléopâtre
Tous deux ils regardaient, de la haute terrasse,
L'Égypte s'endormir sous un ciel étouffant
Et le Fleuve, à travers le Delta noir qu'il fend,
Vers Bubaste ou Saïs rouler son onde grasse.
Et le Romain sentait sous la lourde cuirasse,
Soldat captif berçant le sommeil d'un enfant,
Ployer et défaillir sur son coeur triomphant
Le corps voluptueux que son étreinte embrasse.
Tournant sa tête pâle entre ses cheveux bruns
Vers celui qu'enivraient d'invincibles parfums,
Elle tendit sa bouche et ses prunelles claires;
Et sur elle courbé, l'ardent Imperator
Vit dans ses larges yeux étoilés de points d'or
Toute une mer immense où fuyaient des galères.
Prose translation (literal):
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA
Together they looked on, from the high terrace, as Egypt slept under a stifling sky, and the River, traversing the black Delta which it divides, towards Bubastis or Saïs rolled its thick/ oily/ broad waves.
And the Roman felt below his heavy cuirass, captive soldier lulling a child’s sleep, lying and fainting on his triumphant heart the voluptuous body his embrace strained [to him].
Turning her pale head/ face amid her brown, dark hair towards him who was drunk on irresistible perfumes, she offered her lips and her clear eyes.
And over her bent, the ardent Imperator saw in her large eyes starred with points of gold all of an immense sea in which galleys were fleeing.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)
Entwined together they gazed, from a terrace up high,
On Egypt lying torpid beneath a stifling sky;
And River - broad waves rolling to Saïs or Bubaste
On the black Delta divided by them as they passed.
A soldier cradling a child's sleep, captive of her art,
Her voluptuous body strained close in his embrace,
Pliant it was and swooning, on his exultant heart,
Beneath his heavy breastplate the Roman felt it press.
Pale amidst dark tresses, her face to him she raised,
Her mouth to him she offered, as her clear eyes gazed
On him, inebriated by her bewitching scent.
Commander-in-chief, love-maddened, over her he bent,
And saw in those wide eyes, starred with points of light
A vast seascape unfolded, and galleys all in flight.
ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA (Tr. by Edward R. Taylor, 1906)
On Egypt sleeping under stifling sky
From lofty terrace gazed the wistful twain,
And watched the Flood that cleaves the Delta's plain
Toward Sais or Bubastis onward ply.
'Neath his cuirass the Roman's heart beat high,
A captive soldier soothing infant's pain,
As her voluptuous form was fondly fain
Within his arms in yielding swoon to lie.
Turning her pale face mid its locks of brown
Toward him whose reason perfumes had struck down,
She raised her mouth and luring, lustrous eye;
And o'er her bent, the chieftain did behold
In her great orbs, starry with dots of gold,
Only unbounded seas where galleys fly.
"True poetry," said M. de Heredia in his discourse on entering the Academy, "dwells in nature and in humanity, which are eternal, and not in the heart of the creature of a day, however great." [Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition]
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