Friday, June 10, 2011
Number 182: Paul Verlaine "Claire De Lune"
Like most of Verlaine's poetry, it's short so I've given you a few translations:
Claire De Lune
Your soul is as a moonlit landscape fair,
Peopled with maskers delicate and dim,
That play on lutes and dance and have an air
Of being sad in their fantastic trim.
The while they celebrate in minor strain
Triumphant love, effective enterprise,
They have an air of knowing all is vain,—
And through the quiet moonlight their songs rise,
The melancholy moonlight, sweet and lone,
That makes to dream the birds upon the tree,
And in their polished basins of white stone
The fountains tall to sob with ecstasy.
Translated by Gertrude Hall
Claire De Lune
Your soul is the choicest of countries
Where charming maskers, masked shepherdesses,
Go playing their lutes and dancing, yet gently
Sad beneath fantastic disguises.
While they sing in a minor key
Of all-conquering love and careless fortune,
They seem to mistrust their own fantasy
And their song melts away in the light of the moon,
In the quiet moonlight, lovely and sad,
That makes the birds dream in the trees, all
The tall water-jets sob with ecstasies,
The slender water-jets rising from marble.
-- Paul Verlaine
Translated by A.S. Kline
Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.
All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,
With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.
Translated by Chris Routledge
Hap Notes: Are we really gonna tackle Verlaine (1844-1896) on a Friday? Well, sure. He's the easiest of the French Symbolists to understand and this is a pretty famous poem seeing as how it's been set to music or inspired music by Faure', Debussy, Ferre' and Poldowski just to name a few. Bob Dylan mentions him, too. Verlaine's sensuous descriptions inspire music.
In point of fact Verlaine is all about the sound, feel and colors of words and his poems are written in the moment, deeply felt, passionate and often wistful or sorrowful or besotted with love and beauty. If you are just learning French, he is a good choice for reading and translating and if you ever go to France and can recite some Verlaine, ooh la la, mes amis.
Verlaine's life is that scary and cautionary tale one always hears about the dangers of absinthe, a green liquor that had properties much like liquid marijuana in the late 1800s. It's a delicious licorice/anise flavored herbal drink that is no longer made to induce the high that Verlaine and his compadres got from it. Verlaine is the guy who called it "the green fairy."
Verlaine was born in Metz and started writing poetry early, his first poem was published when he was 19. Verlaine seems to have been two people trapped in one body. One of the people, let's call him V1, had a civil service job, fell in love, married, and had a child.
The other person in Verlaine, V2, got a letter from a young poet, Arthur Rimbaud, whom Verlaine , 27, thought talented and at least a man of 30 years old. Rimbaud was handsome, wild and 17. Verlaine's passionate and tumultuous affair with Rimbaud was ecstatic and degrading. Rimbaud disturbed the Verlaine household and encouraged the ultra-sensitive Verlaine to live a life of debauchery and alcohol. Verlaine didn't need much persuasion.
Verlaine left his wife and son and bummed around with Rimbaud. They went to England and things just kept deteriorating. It ended after a year or so, with Verlaine shooting Rimbaud, injuring the young poet's wrist. Rimbaud pressed charges, mostly out of concern for Verlaine's mental state, and Verlaine went to jail.
While in jail, Verlaine read voraciously, Shakespeare and Cervantes etc. etc. and wrote like a madman. He converted to Catholicism (V1) and wrote letters to Rimbaud (V2). Rimbaud said that when Verlaine got out of prison and visited him in Germany, he had, after plying him with drink, shattered most of the commandments. Okay, Rimbaud's actual words were "he made the 98 wounds of Christ bleed again." They were a romantic, passionate, wild and rather vile couple, all in all.
Verlaine was probably inspired and encouraged by Rimbaud's youthful genius but he sank into the life of V2- the drunken, dirty, beggar/poet who lived the rest of his life in slums and public hospitals, always still writing and remembering. Rimbaud, whose poetry is often called genius, became a merchant and never wrote another word after the age of 21.
Verlaine was in a bad way towards the end of his life but the French love artists and poets and a small pension was arranged for him. He was even given the title of "Prince of Poets" an unofficial title honored by French poets. He succeeded Leconte' de Lisle and preceded Mallarme' in the position. Verlaine died at 51.
Rimbaud wanted to break the frames of standard poetry and he saw that Verlaine's talent was in the impression rather than the facts. Verlaine's work is tied up with Rimbaud like smoke is tied to fire. Verlaine wanted to use language like music and memory like paint. He generally succeeds in this.
In today's poem, we see the results of Verlaine's ultra-sensitivity. His poems are generally short and loaded with moonlight, love, loss, fragrance and signifiers like puppets, masks, statues and clowns. There is nobody who writes with more wistful longing. It is not hard to imagine masked dancing people who do not seem to believe in their happiness, is it?
Here is David Oistrakh playing Debussy's Verlaine inspired piece Claire De Lune. That's almost assuredly a Stradivarius he's playing. While it was originally intended for piano, this really captures the "feel" of the Verlaine: www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKd0VII-l3A
Here is the original French version of the poem. Remember that Verlaine wanted the words to feel and sound appropriate to the mood so the French adds yet another dimension.
Clair de lune
Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.
Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L’amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n’ont pas l’air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,
Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d’extase les jets d’eau,
Les grands jets d’eau sveltes parmi les marbres.
-- Paul Verlaine
Here's a good Verlaine quote:
"The poet is a madman lost in adventure."You can find more Verlaine here: www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/8426
The masthead picture is Verlaine in 1892, seated with pens, paper, hat, cane and absinthe.