A collection of translations from the French, including poems by Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Verlaine and Desbordes-Valmore and others.
 
Contents

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

The Evening Bells

The Divine Prowler

Without Forgetting

Too Late

The Stopped Clock

The Solitary Nest

The Ring-Necked Dove and the Slave

Summer at Twilight

Not Knowing, Not Wanting

Night Vigil

Listen Up

Impossible

Félix Arvers

Secret

Charles Baudelaire

The Sorrows of the Moon

The Death of Lovers

The Fountain of Blood

Jules Breton

Nocturne

Jean-Baptiste Chassignet

The Flower Must Contend

Francois Copee

Ritournelle

Jean Lorrain

Melusine

Gérard de Nerval

Epitaph

Delphic

The Golden Verse

Arthur Rimbaud

My Bohemia

Dream for Winter

First Night

Albert Samain

Retreat

Paul Valéry

The Spinner

Translator's Note

I have placed the collection of my translations of the work of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore first, for two reasons. Nearly half of the translations in this chapweb are of her poems. But more importantly, it was coming across her “Les Cloches du Soir” that inspired me to work on translations again, after almost a decade away from that form of poetic activity. My translations from other poets appear after in alphabetical order by author’s name.

The work of translating poetry is one that requires both discipline and humility: discipline in that one must work in service of the original work (not one's own ideas) and attempt to be as faithful to the original in as many ways as possible in the target language; humility in that one will fail in various ways. I offer these in hope that readers unfamiliar with these poems and poets might be intrigued enough to further explore (if possible for the reader, in the original French) these works and poets. Or perhaps be inspired to produce their own, and better, translations.

 

 

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

(1786-1859)

 

The Bells of Evening

 

When evening bells, with slow and weary peals,

sound the hour down hollows of the hills,

and you find no friend’s or lover’s company,

then think of me!

 

Because the evening bells will sing the score,

your solitary heart will speak once more,

and the air will shake you as the words ring free:

Love me! Love me!

 

But if the evening bells awaken fears,

then think of all the time between our tears

and find yourself, as you search your memory,

so near to me!

 

When evening bells, across the lonely space,

toll my rapt heart’s chimes, I see your face.

Ah, it is the song of heaven’s harmony

for you and me!

 

When evening bells, that wail with every breath,

through an open window speak to you of death,

then dream of one who waits for you eternally,

and think of me!

 

 

 

The Divine Prowler

 

Love, you burglar, slipping into hearts,

I know you’re there. I recognize the signs.

Somewhere near, your flashlight burns the dark.

We shiver, but the same light shines in every eye.

 

It’s him! Save yourself! Here come the tears!

He’ll add the love you give up to his haul,

but he’s come armed, a king of buccaneers.

And love just ain’t enough. He wants it all.

 

 

 

Without Forgetting

 

Without forgetting it, you can run from love.

Ban the word from conversation,

and, with absence as your consolation,

hide yourself from what you’re servant of

without forgetting it.

 

Without forgetting it, I saw the course

of water flow to other blooms, away;

I fled the grass, now colorless and gray,

to imitate the water that flees its source,

without forgetting it.

 

Without forgetting that voice, sad and dear

— how many days I’ve watched be born and die —

I fear it still, within some future sigh:

It is a voice which one can cease to hear,

without forgetting it.

 

 

 

Too Late

 

It spoke. The voice, though dear to me,

was cruel, as if it could foresee,

the words seemed tossed without a thought:

“You’re one who loves, but love me not.”

 

“Love not, dear heart, I cannot change,

for joy is something I never inspire.

Perhaps I’m obstinate and strange.

Love wants too much, the heart entire.

I hate its graces, tears and fire.

I won’t be caught in its iron knot.”

 

I still took pleasure there, and so,

the little voice would have me know,

in harsher tones the ugly plot:

“You’re one who loves, but love me not.”

 

“Don’t love me! The heart demands the heart.

The fervent insect on the flower

may burn and flash; no fire will start.

The rose stays cold beneath its power.

Though you’ve escaped the ash, vain spark,

my brilliant fate would bind you in its knot.”

 

It speaks, the one I thought so kind,

to force the reason to my mind.

But still too late the lesson’s taught:

“You’re one who loves, but love me not.”

 

 

 

The Stopped Clock

 

Dear clock, from which each hour bound

alive in golden purity,

like the bird whose songs and cries resound

when nested safe in some sure tree,

your breaths, once equal, steady, gay,

in that cold dial no longer drum:

you’ll count no more the dawning day.

Is that the way the end will come?

 

 

 

The Solitary Nest

 

Go, my heart, above the passing crowds,

and bathe, an untamed bird, among the clouds.

Go look, and don’t return until you’ve found

my lovely dream concealed beneath the ground.

 

But I wish silence, on that my life depends;

my cage admits no visitors or friends.

No sob escapes this narrow nest; I’ll see

my fate pursue, outrun the century.

 

The century that blustered in now flees,

dragging all its flotsam through the seas:

bouquets and prayers, oaths proved true or vain,

jetsam of desire, and bloodstained names.

 

Go, my heart, above the passing crowds,

and bathe, an untamed bird, among the clouds.

Go look, and don’t return until you’ve found

my lovely dream concealed beneath the ground.

 

 

 

The Ring-Necked Dove and the Slave

 

My dear, wild dove, the wind unfurls your wing,

so leave to my broken fingers your slave’s ring.

You only have to cry to your sky: Love.

Be happy as he: save yourself and don’t come back, my dove.

 

And when you climb the clouds or skim the wave,

remember, please, a world away, the slave:

the slave who freed you to return to love.

As he, leave me: save yourself and don’t come back, my dove.

 

Go find upon the air life’s lush delights,

Go drink divine kisses along your flights,

Stream down sunbeams and plunge into love.

Go ‘way! Go ‘way! Go ! Save yourself and don’t come back, my dove.

 

I keep the ring; and though a wingless bird,

my soul finds heaven first, upon my word.

Now go! I feel your wings aquake with love.

Ring-dove, bless you. Save yourself and don’t come back, my dove.

 

From those who forged my chains, ask absolution;

I dropped my hate while fleeing execution.

Fly higher than even death, sustained by love.

Like him, have mercy … save yourself and don’t come back, my dove.

 

 

 

Summer at Twilight

 

The sun has broiled the shade, and the dry field

by twilight thirsts for a taste of rain;

and on the hill, now tinted gold, the strain

has pressed each flower to bow and yield.

 

And when, into the reddest of its light,

the star of fire folds into a sliver,

from rustling trees the prayers shiver,

and from each nest, “Good night! Good night!”

 

No wing desires to stretch into the blue,

no child to prowl the orchard’s dark arcade,

and in this calm, tones soften and fade,

the midges in agreement too.

 

 

 

Not Knowing, Not Wanting

 

I know not why I gave birth to my rage.

He speaks, the reason’s now a vanished thought.

His mouth would please, his pleading eyes assuage,

and there it goes, but where, my timid rage?

I know not.

 

I want not, now, to see the one I love,

for when he smiled, my tears I soon forgot.

In vain, by force or gentle, sweet temptation,

though Love and he again wish adoration,

I want not.

 

I know not how to flee from his absence

for all my promises have come to naught.

Will I betray myself if I brave his presence?

For short of death, how will I bear his absence?

I know not.

 

 

 

Night Vigil

 

When my lamp is out and I see no star gleams

to shimmer on the icy window pane

and at the dark horizon, no spark of flame,

and how the moon slips through the misty screens,

o virgin, o my light, watching the skies

my heart believes and sees your radiant eyes.

 

Not all is bad upon this floating world

though by the restless sea this ship is hurled.

By evening it will sink beneath the night;

at dawn will soar into the hopeful light.

Each soul must rest it wings upon the mast

and then return to timeless lands at last.

 

The passengers, all strangers, alien,

regard themselves and ask, “Where have we been?”

No one knows, but beneath their eyelids plays

divinity that weeps celestial rays.

I’m dazzled, frightened by these thoughts I’ve had;

I tell myself again, “Not all is bad.”

 

 

 

Listen Up

 

If your life of vague delight

falls beneath the shade of flowers,

your heart will storm though all is right

within this dream, your tearless bower;

by all the good the heavens have given,

listen up:

if you want this luck to be forgiven,

shut up!

 

But if the love of one sure hand

has beat you till no cure will do;

if, brooding, you’ve pined all you can,

and you wish to bid this world adieu,

with an audience to view the kill,

listen up:

with one last meek and mighty act of will,

shut up!

 

Look, you! The most profound of words,

which only spring from true despair,

do not enter hearts, flighty and absurd,

if they do not know such cares.

Tell God only what you must; meanwhile,

listen up:

And veiling your own death behind a smile,

shut up!

 

 

 

Impossible

 

Who will return these days to me, when life has wings

and soars, ascends just like the lark through shining skies

until such utter brightness fills its bursting eyes,

dazzled, it tumbles, falls to bedded blossomings

that perfume its simple nest, its heart, its dreams,

and shine its feathers till they blaze like the sun’s own beams?

 

Heavens! A golden thread that laces through my day,

a fragment of that prism of every brilliant hue.

The lovely hours, the lovely flowers, and all I knew

a dream where I am free, just barely born, to play,

 

When the future was my mother’s tenderness,

When no one had yet died within my family,

When — vain, conceited little girl — all lived for me,

When to live was heaven, memento to possess,

 

When I loved not knowing what I loved, each blast

of joy would drum my heart, and why? I did not know;

When flame and perfume was all the simple world could show,

When my arms were open to those days ... now past.

 

 

 

Félix Arvers

(1806 – 1850)

 

Secret

 

The secret of my life is a mystery:

a moment’s work, an everlasting love.

I cannot hope, no words can speak for me;

and this, the cause of all knows nothing of.

 

Unnoticed, I have passed so close, believing

I walk beside and find myself alone.

I will spend my time on earth unknown,

never daring to ask, never receiving.

 

And though the gods have made her fresh and sweet,

she goes her dreamy way and does not hear

the murmuring rumor of love as it flies.

 

She will faithfully read, when next we meet,

lines full of her and ask, a face sincere,

“Who is this girl?” and never realize.

 

 

 

Charles Baudelaire

(1821 – 1867)

 

The Sorrows of the Moon

 

The moon in indolence is dreaming tonight;

Like a beauty amid abundant pillow heaps

who caresses, with fingers thoughtless and light,

the contours of her breasts before she sleeps.

 

On satin avalanches down night's chasms,

dying, in long sighs she yields herself, swooning,

and casts her eyes upon those white phantasms

that ascend into the azure as if blooming.

 

And when at times out of her languid berth,

she suffers a furtive tear to fall to earth,

a poet, enemy of sleep's oblivion,

 

catches the pale tear in the hollow of his palm,

its rainbows like those that ripple opal's calm,

and hides it in his heart from the eyes of the sun.

 

(First published in The Formalist, 11.2 2000)

 

 

The Death of Lovers

 

Such perfumed beds shall we have to ourselves,

some couches, vast and deep, profound as the tomb,

and alien flowers there upon the shelves

which bloomed in fairer places than this room.

 

And vying with their last remaining heat,

our hearts become vast torches, unconfined.

Reflected in each other, two fires meet:

their double light then mirrored in each mind.

 

One night we have of mystic rose and blue

while we exchange a single lightning flash

as drawn out as a sob that says adieu.

 

Later, an angel pries the doors from their frames,

restores, in faith and joy amid the ash,

the tarnished mirrors and the long dead flames.

 

 

 

The Fountain of Blood

 

My blood escapes, it seems, in tidal throbs,

a fountain surging forth in rhythmic sobs.

I hear it flowing like a murmur crooned,

but I have tried in vain to find the wound.

 

It floods the town, as if a battlefield,

making islands of the walks. Congealed,

it sates the appetite of every beast

till all of nature’s spattered for the feast.

 

Often I have implored dissembling wines

for just a day to lull to sleep my fear:

but drinking clears the eye, refines the ear!

 

I’ve sought from love’s narcotic anodynes

oblivion: but love’s a razor bed

where pitiless girls drink from jets of red.

 

 

 

Jules Breton

(1827 – 1906)

 

Nocturne

(after Gabriel Marc)

 

The night still mingles bands of pallid crepe;

a dawning star’s reflection on the bog,

blurred and dim, does not disturb the frog.

The fields, the woods have neither hue nor shape.

 

With chalice closed, each bloom and bud is sleeping.

Above, the melting sickle’s rusting blade

is glimpsed through fissures in the mists that braid

the pearls that fall so freely from her weeping.

 

The constellations are not quite awake;

the songbirds, huddle in some black leaf brake,

and savor, beak in wing, the peace of rest.

 

And in this sleep of being and earth, till dawn,

with all the dreamy sweetness of the blest,

the toads, like melancholy flutes, sing on and on.

 

 

 

Jean-Baptiste Chassignet

(1571-1635)

 
The Flower Must Contend

 

With so much risk the flower must contend:

tarnished by wind or pressed beneath the feet,

burned by sunlight, roasted by the heat,

devoured by beasts, unleaved, all green must end.

 

Our days are woven from regret and loss,

so like the flower: bloom as flowers bloom,

age and wilt the same, and share their doom,

as much by heat tormented as by frost.

 

Our ship is loaded not with iron or lead,

but with summer’s fragrant apples; unballasted,

our days drift on directionless and vain,

and leave no more fame than that perfume

that lingers once the fruit has been consumed,

passing, mildly, from memory, till nothing remains.

 

 

 

Francois Copee

(1842 – 1908)

 

Ritournelle

 

Down unworn paths that run through yellow fields,

the best and fairest home of sweet July,

we’ll chase what wingéd things the summer yields:

a verse for me; for you, a butterfly.

 

And we will choose that most bewitching trail

that runs beneath gray willows near the rushes

to hear the singing things within the vale:

a rhythm for me; for you, a choir of thrushes.

 

Along the river banks’ lush blandishments,

where waters whisper joys that will be ours,

we two will glean the things with sweetest scents:

for me, some rhymes; for you, bouquets of flowers.

 

And love, to serve our summer fantasy,

will summon all of his enchanted lore:

I’ll be the poet, you the poetry,

ever lovelier, I’ll love ever more.

 

 

 

Jean Lorrain

(1855 – 1906

 

Melusine

 

Bare arms banded in gold, her silver dress

tattered, thickets of hawthorn slashing brocade,

Melusine appears on the grass of a flowered glade;

bleeding, hair in revolt, cheeks colorless.

 

Though the pallid splendor of her throat dazes,

the feral flash of teeth divinely bright,

Melusine is mad and in her flight

in wild ravines beneath the firs she grazes.

 

A hundred years through fairy forest glooms

she’s strayed, a fairy too; her strange, soft spells

summon the wolves and foxes to midnight howls.

 

Her eyes in the night sky enchant the owls,

while next to her, erecting its pink blooms

a gladiolus from the leaves of holly swells.

 

 

 

Gérard de Nerval

(1808 – 1855)

 

Epitaph

 

At times he lived as gaily as a starling,

by turns impulsive, amorous and gentle,

then somber and dreamy as some lovelorn minstrel.

And then, one day he heard his doorbell ring.

 

It was Death! So he asked her the favor of waiting

till the period on his last sonnet was set down,

and then he was laid out, without stirring,

his body shivering in the icy ground.

 

He was an idler, history will tell;

he let the ink too often dry in the well.

He wished to know all things, but he knew none.

 

At last, one winter night, his hour was tolled,

when, tired of this life, Death seized his soul,

he went away asking, "Why did I come?"

 

 

 

Delphic

 

That ancient ballad, Daphne, can you still sing

under white laurels, or sycamore billows,

or myrtle, olive tree, or trembling willows,

that song of love forever beginning?

 

Recall the Temple, immense peristyle,

and the bitter lemons imprinted by your teeth,

and the grotto, fatal to fools, where far beneath

the seeds of the vanquished dragon sleep awhile?

 

They will return, those gods you give your tears!

Time will restore the order of ancient years;

a breath of prophecy makes the trembling earth afraid.

 

And still the Roman sybil sleeps unseen

and dreams beneath the arch of Constantine.

— and nothing has disturbed the silent colonnade.

 

 

 

The Golden Verse

 

Well, then! All is sentient!

                        — Pythagoras

 

Man, free thinker, thinking you think alone

in a world where life explodes from everything,

you wish your freedom or advice were king;

the universe pays no more heed than a stone.

 

In beasts there is an acting will; each flower

Nature unfolds reveals the soul they keep;

in metal the mystery of love may sleep:

“All feel and know!” And every part has power.

 

So fear the blind wall, for it watches you.

To matter itself a verb is bound:

be sure your acts serve what is pure and true.

 

Within dark being a secret god is found;

and like a nascent eye within its lidded shells,

beneath the bark of stones a pristine spirit swells.

 

 

 

Arthur Rimbaud

(1854 – 1891)

 

My Bohemia

 

I journey, hands in pockets with torn seams;

my topcoat, likewise, is quite perfect now.

Beneath the sky, to you I pledge my vow,

my Muse. What splendid loves I’ve known in dreams!

 

My only pants are torn along the thigh.

I dream and pluck my rhymes along the way:

in Ursa Major, my inn at end of day.

My stars make velvet rustlings in the sky;

 

I sit and listen beside the avenues

these fine September nights and feel the dews

upon my face like wine, robust and tart.

 

In wondrous shadows, there I rhyme and sing,

and like a lyre, I play the trembling string

of my wounded boot, a foot pressed to my heart.

 

 

 

Dream for Winter

 

First frost, we’ll go in a carriage painted pink,

blue cushions every place we look.

A nest for crazy kisses (we’ll thrive, I think)

in every cozy nook.

 

You’ll close your eyes, so not to see, the faces

of night in the windows grinning there,

the snapping monstrous mob of those dark spaces,

black wolves and demons everywhere.

 

But then upon your cheek you’ll feel a prickling,

a kiss, as if a silly spider tickling,

then on your neck, and down.

 

You’ll tilt your head, command my hot pursuit,

and we will take our time to find this brute

that really gets around.

 

 

 

First Night

 

While she begins undressing,

the wicked oak trees leer

with leaves malignly pressing

the panes, so near, too near.

 

As she sits in my big chair,

half-nude, her hands entwine.

On the floor, and shivering there,

her dainty feet, so fine.

 

I watch a waxy ripple

of fluttering light which flows

along her smile, her nipple –

a fly upon a rose.

 

I kiss her ankles, want more,

and travel up her calf.

Her soft, coarse giggles soar

to a trilling, crystal laugh.

 

Feet flee into chemise.

“Will you stop it! I’m cold!”

The dare of her first tease,

her laugh pretends to scold.

 

I kiss closed lids, her eyes

trembling beneath her brow.

She throws her head back, cries,

“Oh, that’s much better now!”

 

“Dear sir, I have some words to say.”

Each breast receives a kiss.

She stops and laughs away,

a laugh that wishes this.

 

Now she is quite undressed,

as wicked oak trees leer

with leaves malignly pressed

on panes, so near, too near.

 

 

 

Albert Samain

(1858 – 1900)

 

Retreat

 

Retrace, with languid strokes, the stream of years,

and, your eyes closed, suspend your oars awhile;

as once sweet breezes in the peristyle

inclined all souls within the garden’s tiers.

 

Away from burned-out roads, your heart, instead,

sees fields of thick, green grass and crosses,

and listens to the voices of your losses,

and kisses the heart of your small, faded dead.

 

Dream such poignant sights as the day escapes.

The hours that stroked love’s golden shapes

will sing beneath the bow in lyric tones.

 

A lapidary of ordinary evenings,

carve your memories in precious stones

and set the ancient gems into your rings.

 

 

 

Paul Valéry

(1871–1945)

 

The Spinner

 

Within the casement’s blue, the spinner sits

as the garden rocks melodiously in its bed;

her will, numbed by the old wheel’s snore, submits.

 

Weary, drunk with azure, winding thread

which escapes her feeble fingers, she dreams,

and lids half-closed, she tilts her dainty head.

 

The hedge and pure air, suspended in the beams

of daylight, spray the idle dreamer’s bower,

a fountain splashing petals from its streams.

 

One stem, where the vagrant wind rests its power,

bows in vain salute to its starry grace,

magnificent, and dedicates its flower.

 

But the sleeper spins a thread of lonely space;

the fragile shadow divides its tresses,

somehow, as her absent sleeping fingers lace.

 

With angelic sloth, the dream digresses,

and trusting the spindle, the locks ceaselessly

writhe at the pleasure of the caresses.

 

Behind the blooms, the azure hides in secrecy,

a spinner garlanded with leaves and light:

the whole green sky is dying; ablaze, the last tree.

 

Your sister, the rose with the smile of an anchorite,

with her innocent breath, perfumes your hazy head,

and you feel you are languishing, smothered by night

 

within the casement’s blue where you spin the thread.

© 1990-2019 Joel Lamore