How that came about is recounted here:
Gerald Bullett’s notes for students in Methuen’s Anthology of Modern Verse were read in youth but made no lasting impression or I should never have dared to try translation, because this is what he wrote (in which I note an element of contradiction):
By the time I re-read this passage it was far too late to retreat! But I recalled what Birje – whose whereabouts I learned only in early 2010, whereupon I contacted him and enjoyed his friendship for a brief five years until his death – Birje wrote this to me:
My translations in mid-2016 of José Maria de Heredia were possible only because all that Birje taught me guides me still. There were a few sonnets that I almost did work on then, but they are not Heredia’s best work and his sonnets do begin to pall after a while. Recently I had reason to wish for mental exercise and returned to those sonnets. It was not the cleverest thing to do, but a streak of stubbornness drove me.
Although two years ago it seemed that they were not worth the attempt, I picked up one that was conversational and fairly informal, rather like Villula, and the reference to old age breaking one’s knees had a poignant appeal. However, this one was far less easily interpreted. Gallus in Villula stood for a man of Gaulish descent in a line long Romanised. Who is Sextius? Apparently this sonnet is of the carpe diem type but the details are random and odd. First a look at the sonnet:
Le ciel est clair. La barque a glissé sur les sables.
Les vergers sont fleuris, et le givre argentin
N'irise plus les prés au soleil du matin.
Les boeufs et le bouvier désertent les étables.
Nous pressent, et, pour toi, seul le jour est certain
Où les dés renversés en un libre festin
Ne t'assigneront plus la royauté des tables.
De vivre. Déjà l'âge a rompu nos genoux.
Il n'est pas de printemps au froid pays des Ombres.
D'immoler à Faunus, en ses retraites sombres,
Un bouc noir ou l'agnelle à la blanche toison.
The literal translation:
Everything holds on. But Death with its funereal fables oppresses us, and as for yourself, only that day is sure when the dice that are cast at a liberal (?) banquet will not assign to you anymore the lordship of the tables.
Life, O Sextius, is short. Let us hasten to live. Already age has broken our knees. It is not springtime in the cold land of Shadows. Come then. The woods are green and this is the season to sacrifice to Faunus in his dark retreats a black billy goat or a female lamb with a white fleece.
This is altogether an odd concoction and to my mind seems vaguely sinister at the end. Orchards in bloom, fields clear of frost, oxen and herdsmen off to the fields, clear skies, all make sense as signs of spring. But what has a boat “gliding” over the sands to do with anything?
That life goes on in the natural world is a given. It may well be that Death is near; certainly near enough if the knees have already given way. Equally certain is it that the dice will not always fall Sextius’ way to make him master of the revels.
And what is the choice the speaker offers him? Since it is spring and the woods are green, let them seek out Faunus (an early Roman deity later merged with the Greek Pan) in his dark hiding places (what a comforting thought, and in spring!) and sacrifice to him a black billy-goat or a white-fleeced female lamb. What is the significance? Goats (colour unspecified) are associated with the worship of Faunus, and it was believed that sleeping in his precincts on sheep fleeces brought visions revealing the future – but why is the poet choosing a female lamb? To me that sounds unpleasant.
Whatever arcane significance these lines have escapes my Philistine non-French mind and the sonnet is what I call empty. Edward R. Taylor painstakingly measured out his alexandrines and reproduced Heredia’s rhyme scheme. The result does not impress me. My relatively free translation was probably a waste of time, but I believe it is less dull than that by the correct Mr Taylor.
Under clear skies the boat glides swift ashore;
Orchards are in bloom; fields shimmer no more
As silv’ry frost melts under the morning sun.
Oxen and herdsmen out of stables run.
Life goes on. But Death’s funereal fables
Oppress us. For you at festive tables
Surely the fall of dice will fail some day
Over the revels to allot you sway.
Life’s short, O Sextius. Let’s hasten to seize
The moment. Even now age wrecks our knees.
There is no springtime in the Land of Shades.
Come then. In this season of fair green glades,
Let’s offer Faunus in his haunts remote
A white-fleeced female lamb or a black goat.
As usual, I began to look up the historical references. What I discovered provoked me to write what is not a strict translation, is not in sonnet form, does not adhere strictly to any forms or rules, is not even very good verse, but does some little justice to one of Hannibal's typical victories. First the original sonnet:
L'aube d'un jour sinistre a blanchi les hauteurs.
Le camp s'éveille. En bas roule et gronde le fleuve
Où l'escadron léger des Numides s'abreuve.
Partout sonne l'appel clair des buccinateurs.
La Trebbia débordée, et qu'il vente et qu'il pleuve,
Sempronius Consul, fier de sa gloire neuve,
A fait lever la hache et marcher les licteurs.
À l'horizon, brûlaient les villages Insubres;
On entendait au loin barrir un éléphant.
Hannibal écoutait, pensif et triomphant,
Le piétinement sourd des légions en marche.
The literal translation:
Dawn of an ominous day has whitened the heights. The camp awakens. Below rolls and rumbles the river where the squadron of Numidian light [cavalry] drink. Everywhere the clear calls of the buccina players sounds.
For in spite of Scipio, and the lying augurs, the overflowing Trebbia, and the fact that it is blowing and raining, the Consul Sempronius, proud of his new glory, has caused the axe to be raised and the lictors to march.
The villages of the Insubres burn, their lugubrious blazes reddening the black sky on the horizon; from a distance is heard the trumpeting of an elephant.
And below, on the bridge, leaning back against an arch [odd sort of bridge on a minor stream] Hannibal hears, thoughtful and triumphant, the dull sound of the legions on the march.
If the heights are whitened by dawn, how is the black sky reddened by “lugubrious” blazes? Is “lugubres” there to rhyme with “Insubres” or the other way round? The Insubres were punished by Scipio in November; this is happening around the winter solstice; can those insubordinate Insubres still be trying to douse the blazes? Augurs were consulted before a battle. In what way did these augurs lie? Was it from the historian’s point of view? That would have been ‘because of’ not ‘in spite of’. From Sempronius’ point of view? If he was assuming – on no foundation – that they lied, Heredia should explain that. No account mentions a bridge over the river at the point of conflict, else the Roman soldiers – most probably the Italic auxiliaries – would not have had to wade through the usually shallow and now freezing Trebbia, getting too wet and cold to fight well. Lictors marched ahead of the Consul on special ceremonial occasions; centurions could qualify to become lictors – but only after retirement. Never have I read of an axe being raised to signal the start of a battle. The lictors sometimes carried a ceremonial axe tied up in the fasces as a sign that the man in charge (Consul or Dictator) had the power of life and death; what use would that be in a battle? Like the bridge and the Insubres’ dwellings aflame, Heredia’s lictors are a piece of poetic licence, but can poetic licence justify so much falsifying of an historical event?
BATTLE AT THE TREBBIA
À J. M. de Heredia
En forme peut être parfait
Mais à son sujet
Pas justice fait.
Freezing, dawn breaks on both camps by Trebbia river,
Mid-winter flood makes shallow waters rise the while,
Threatening they roll and rumble through a steep defile;
Snow peaks frown darkly where Gaulish dwellings smoulder.
His men have risen early, oiling themselves well,
Numidian cavalry drink where the waters swell;
Hannibal’s deep in thought as elephants respond
When they hear across the camps trumpet calls resound.
For over the river, Romans are stirring too,
As Sempronius Longus, proud of his laurels new,
Winner of his own battle, Scipio disdains,
Who’ll have no part when he another victory gains.
Consul’s order given, the men begin to march;
Hannibal, sensing victory, continues to watch
As through an icy flood the Roman army goes –
They will have no chance at all when the trap’s jaws close.
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