Posted on:Wednesday 5th May, 2021
Whenever I spend time with professors, modern Areopagites, or simple friends and the topic of conversation turns to Paul Verlaineʼs poetry, – which I have to admit, does not happen all that often – the first things that come to minds and lips are music and nuance. Music and nuance. So what about the music and nuance in the English translation of Paul Verlaineʼs Songs for Her and Odes in Her Honour which I have just prepared for publication? That would be a good subject for a blog, wouldn’t it? But here’s the thing: there isnʼt any. Nuance, I mean. Sure, thereʼs music, plenty of it. But the nu-ance is simply not there, not so much…
Now, we all know what music means when it comes to poetry: rhythm, metre, rhyme, effectively. But when pressed by my interlocutors to toss specifics into the barathrum of the musical argument Iʼm making, like plug nickels into an empty violin case, and defend a position that they share, I might say things like ‘end rhymes particularly, masculine rhymes,’ or, just to sound literary, I might repeat what Huysmans said about Verlaineʼs poetry, through his mouthpiece Des Esseintes. Hereʼs what that affected esthete, that thrice-decadent son of the family Floressas des Esseintes has to say about it:1
Muni de rimes obtenues par des temps de verbes, quelquefois même par de longs adverbes précédés dʼun monosyllabe dʼoù ils tombaient comme du rebord dʼune pierre, en une cascade pesante dʼeau, son vers, coupé par dʼinvraisemblables césures, devenait souvent singulièrement abstrus, avec ses ellipses audacieuses et ses étranges incorrections qui nʼétaient point cependant sans grâce.2
Furnished with rhymes obtained from verb tenses, sometimes even from long adverbs preceded by a monosyllable from which they fell as if over the edge of a rock, in a heavy cascade of water, his verse, interrupted by improbable caesura, often became unusually abstruse, with its bold ellipses and its strange improprieties that were not at all however graceless.
But these musical attributes of Verlaineʼs poetry, although exemplary, are not unique to him, and a whole library of other poetsʼ works, in English, French, and other languages, Arabic, Greek, et cætura, exists, for thousands of years now, from before the library in Alexandria burned down – with those exact same musical (letʼs say poetic) characteristics.
Nuance requires more explanation: in the case of Paul Verlaine, it boils down to phrases like ‘par un beau jour de septembre attiédi,’ ‘lasse de vivre, ayant peur de mourir,’ ‘une aube affaiblie,’ ‘Le ciel si pâle et les arbres si grêles,’ ‘Le soir tombait, un soir équivoque dʼautomne’...3 where so much is tenuous, evanescent, of a memory or of a dream, of a breath hovering in the mystical air, ready to be snatched up by some predatory animal, to vanish behind the bush, or to come crashing down to earth at the slightest misstep or sound. Of course, Verlaine is concrete in many places – but it is his nuance that captures oneʼs attention in especial and remains fixed in the mind and memory – at once and for many years afterwards. ‘Il pleure dans mon cœur/Comme il pleut sur la ville,’ is a phrase that has stuck with me since the first time I read it, and to which I have recurred at various moments in my life, for more than thirty years now.
But taken together, music and nuance – it is through his heightened employment simultaneously and regularly of those two attributes, of those two mesmerizing attributes of his often absinthe-like poetry, that Paul Verlaine, the poet, really shines, – brightly, not incandescently, but fluorescently, like the greenish-blue polestar on a winterʼs night as seen through a thin piece of Philomèneʼs batiste or cambric lingerie. With the music and nuance, simultaneously employed, his poetry stands out in a dark, cold, but velvety northern sky, – leaving most other great poets standing, from Tibullus to Robert Frost, along the periphery or against a wall, merely gleaming, fadingly, with embarrassed grins, and rightly so, as if someone, the Big Bear of criticism, had just pulled their trousers down, or the Little Bear of popular dilettantism, their dickies up.
I remember pitching a translation of these same two books of poetry of Verlaineʼs – Songs for Her and Odes in Her Honour – to a respectable small press in the states recently that showed some interest in the proposal initially. But when the conversation turned to platinum tacks and translation mechanics, and I said I didnʼt plan to make the poems rhyme (but would happily include end rhymes when and where they worked), the conversation faltered quickly and the project was eventually dropped. I since found another publisher4 who warmed up to my æsthetic, and both books of poetry, translated into English, have been published.
As if the music – the metre, the rhythm, and the rhyme – of a poem in French could ever be translated into English without sacrificing the authorʼs original intent, his intended signification; unless of course the music is the intent, but Paul Verlaine, unlike Marshal MacLuhan, is more than that. As if poetry in translation could ever be anything more than an approximation, or loose imitation. It can be an intimation though. And there are always happy occurrences that no translator worth his crushed nutmeg would leave on the cutting board – if they worked. When meaning and metre, the right word and end rhyme, all line up perfectly, like happy stars, with or without undue fudging, that is a miracle. Miracles happen, like the Star of Bethlehem two thousand some odd years ago did, but not often. And, like lightning, they hardly ever strike or fall in the same place twice (scil. poem, or book of poetry). Syllogistically then, when you read a book of poetry originally written in French, translated into English, and the music (metre, rhythm, and end rhyme) are all preserved (translated), you can be fairly sure that something was sacrificed; given it wasnʼt the music or the form, it was likely the diction, and its corollary, across multiple lines: the meaning or signification of the poem.
The nuance is easier than the music to get right in idiomatic English translation, from French, almost always. And the absence of nuance? That is surely by design. Think about it. If you were going to write a paean (not paeon) to some woman or man, – your ‘partner’ as we say in the extreme West, because weʼre all cowboys on the last frontier, right? – if you were going to write a lyric, an ode, a rondeau, or a blazon, in two or twenty-four poems, and you wanted to get as close to the metal, i.e. the flesh, that palpitating knot of voluptuous nerves and muscle, and the orgasm, as close as you could get (without incurring fines or being thrown into prison) – you too probably, like Verlaine, would choose to speak in blunter, but more down-to-earth terms, like breast, belly, nape, loin.
He didnʼt set out to be Petrarch in these two books of poetry. And neither Philomène, the tantalizing tart at least twenty years his junior, the ‘her’ in Odes in Her Honour; nor Eugénie, his practical and good-hearted if not somewhat ugly and thick-necked bed partner, the ‘her’ in Songs for Her, – neither of them, those two muses, are like Laura. You, if a poet, might, like Shakespeare, write an anti-blazon for them. Verlaine, instead, wrote positive blazons, with all the talent he possessed, and little nuance.
Most readers and appreciators of Verlaineʼs poetry who have thus far cast in their critical two-thumbs-up, five-stars, or ten-tomatoes assessment of his verse base this on the first four or six or seven volumes of poetry that he wrote. That includes Poèmes saturniens, assuredly, Romances sans paroles, without a doubt, and possibly even Cellulairement, Sagesse or Jadis et Naguère even. The best lyrical pieces of the latter were written while Verlaine was incarcerated in Mons Prison, and describe events, recollected in tranquil captivity, that happened earlier in time, in the period during or just following Romances sans paroles. When reading Songs for Her or Odes in Her Honour these appreciators may be disappointed, at first blush, because of misplaced and misguided expectations. But if one leaves oneʼs expectations, along with oneʼs hat, at the door, the indulgent reader may find that the informal, popular songs found in Songs for Her and the more formal verse forms – the sizains and quatrains, with their hexasyllabic, octosyllabic, decasyllabic, and alexandrine lines, for instance – and its diction, as discovered in Odes in Her Honour, – the happy reader may find, as I have found and continue to find, that the poetry stands up solidly on its own, like a mushroom after a spring rain, or a British milestone. For example, hereʼs something from Songs for Her:
I love you like you think
And my crazy desire that grows,
Like a mushroom in a field,
Erects itself like the Finger
Of a Term5 expressly.
Hereʼs another example of pure Verlaine, without the nuance, Verlaine the poet we all musically know and love, from Songs for Her again:
After our nights of robust love
I leave your arms strengthened,
Your rich caress is the just caress
With none of my flesh disappointed,
Your love decants valiance
Into all my being, like wine,
And, alone, you know the science
Of making my heart feel divine.
For, without you,
I can do nothing,
I am nothing.
Here is an example of more formal verse, with ever the ubiquitous Verlainian music, but little nuance, this time from Odes in Her Honour:
You were a great paramour
In your fashion, the only good one
For it is your fashion, and nobody
Was more miserable than you,
After a crisis of good fortune
That you carried honourably.
Yes, you were like a heroine,
And now you persist, a statue,
Ever beautiful on the ruins
Of a hope that perpetuates
In spite of evident Fortune,
But you persist nevertheless!
Cast a glance of complaisance,
O strong woman, O saint, O queen,
On my fatal insufficience,
Doubtless, of making you serene:
Ever saddened by withered time,
At least, smile on this old damned man.
In short summary, the poetry found in Songs for Her (published in 1891) and Odes in Her Honour (published in 1893) is somewhat contrary to the commonly held ideas of what Paul Verlaineʼs poetry is or ‘should be,’ in terms of nuance, but just as musically virtuosic or experimental as his earlier poetry was, which we all know and love. Because these are poems of mostly physical love, but also emotional love, between a middle-aged man and a woman (two women actually, just not à trois) – there is arguably little need for, and little use of, nuance. They are paeans to physical love.
As a sort of prosaic envoi, readers might be surprised, or intrigued, or impressed, to learn that in the same year that Verlaine published Songs for Her, he also finished and published Bonheur, the third book of his Catholic trilogy (the other two books being Sagesse and Amour). Also, in that same year, he published My Hospitals, an autobiographical prose work. One year later, in 1892, he published Liturgies intimes, another book of Catholic poetry. And, finally, in 1893, he published, My Prisons,6 also an autobiographical prose work, as well as Odes in Her Honour. Sandwiching Catholic books with bawdy books. His writing didnʼt stop there, but we do (for now). Cheerio!
1From chapter XIV of À rebours.
2Furnished with rhymes obtained from verb tenses, sometimes even from long adverbs preceded by a monosyllable from which they fell as if over the edge of a rock, in a heavy cascade of water, his verse, interrupted by improbable caesura, often became unusually abstruse, with its bold ellipses and its strange improprieties that were not at all however graceless.
3‘on a beautiful temperate day of September,’ ‘weary of living, afraid of dying,’ ‘a dim dawn,’ ‘The sky so pale and the trees so spindly,’ ‘The evening fell, an equivocal Autumn evening.’
4Sunny Lou Publishing.
5Term: a quadrangular stone pillar, with a bust on top of it, found beside a road, marking the distance from some place. A milestone.
6My Hospitals and My Prisons, available in English translation by Sunny Lou Publishing, 2020.