13 June, 2011Issue 16.4LiteraturePoetryTranslation

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A Single Immense Swoon

Caroline Ardrey

Poems Under SaturnPaul Verlaine, trans. Karl Kirchwey
Poems Under Saturn
Princeton University Press, 2011
176 Pages
ISBN 978-0571232086


A complete English translation of Paul Verlaine’s Poèmes saturniens was long overdue. Nevertheless, it’s a bold undertaking. Famous as a poète maudit, Verlaine was jailed for 18 months in 1872 for shooting at and injuring fellow enfant terrible and sometime lover, Arthur Rimbaud. His later life was chequered by drug and alcohol abuse, and he died in 1896 at the age of just 51. Given his wayward reputation, entering into any kind of relationship with Paul Verlaine is not something which should be done without careful consideration.

American poet and translator Karl Kirchwey exercises the necessary caution in approaching Verlaine’s 1866 debut collection. As such, the course of his translation of Poèmes saturniens runs smoother than the famously turbulent relationship of Verlaine and Rimbaud. While the prologue contains the occasional awkwardness of a new romance, these early stages of acquaintance are short-lived. Kirchwey soon becomes more confident with the peculiarities of Verlaine’s style, resulting in an impressive and vibrant set of translations.

Poems Under Saturn is framed by a prologue and epilogue which consider the role of the poet throughout the ages and place the collection in the context of an almost infinite history of versification. The prologue thus prepares the way for poems such as “Night Effect”, which transform age-old themes into a Parnassian context. This haunting sonnet is set against the backdrop of a “livid sky” which

Pierces the lacework
Of spires and towers, the silhouette of a Gothic
Town dim in the gray distance.

The image echoes the earlier romantic sense of mal du siècle, while the cityscape hints at a Baudelairean modernity. The poem tells the tale of three prisoners

Walking barefoot, two hundred twenty-five halberdiers,
Their shining upright weapons at cross-purposes,
With the lances of the rain, like the spikes of a portcullis.

Kirchwey’s translation is characterised by a creative fidelity; here this is achieved by seizing upon key words in Verlaine’s poem. In the English rendering, the “ciel blafard” (literally a “pallid sky”) becomes “livid”, while the three “livides prisonniers” (livid prisoners) take on the pallor of the sky in the French original. This enables an accurate yet inventive translation, and creates a pleasing sense of harmony for the bilingual reader. The military twist which ends this melancholic snapshot harks back to the medieval massacre of the Chanson de Roland, highlighting the importance of the prologue as the foundation for the internal coherence of the collection.

The prologue serves as a sort of roll call of poetic heroes, transporting the reader through time on an epic voyage from Greek mythology via medieval France to 19th-century Paris. Kirchwey’s translation triumphantly conjures up the vast theatre of Verlaine’s original prologue, in which Orpheus tames tigers and bears, and Charlemagne and Roland appear in “the huge superb butchery / in the time of the Emperor whose beard was flowery.”

This introductory section thus situates Verlaine in the midst of history’s great poets as he unites Greeks and Franks, gods and monsters in his own thundering epic. This almost infinite cast of famous fictional figures will be joined by other phantasmal characters who take centre stage later in the collection, dramatising Verlaine’s own nightmares and reveries. The prologue’s vivid journey through literary history reaches its glittering conclusion in the 19th century with the Parnassian cliché of the poet-prophet. Finally back in the present, the speaker submits himself to his literary fate: “Now go my Book where chance may indicate.”

Kirchwey’s translation, too, is guided by chance. Poems Under Saturn shifts effortlessly through the different sections of Verlaine’s collection, intuitively capturing the undertones of sexuality, alchemy, and melancholia bound-up with the saturnine theme. Nature is tainted with a heady sense of the erotic, creating a rich and intoxicating effect:

… amid the unhealthy fragrances, the exhalation
Of heavy hot smells from which the poison–
Dahlia, tulip, buttercup and lily–Drowning my senses, my spirit and my reason,
Mixes, in a single immense swoon, Twilight together with Memory.

In the introduction, Kirchwey notes his frustration with existing translations of Verlaine’s early poems, claiming that they water down these works’ profound ennui and youthful garrulousness. He laments the prudishness of MacIntyre’s 1948 translations, which dilute Verlaine’s vivacious poems with stuffiness of contemporary cultural conventions. No such frigidity is to be found in Poems Under Saturn: Kirchwey’s full-bodied, lively renderings capture the latent sexuality of Verlaine’s early poems. This can be seen throughout the collection, in poems such as “After Three Years” in which “throbbing roses” and “huge proud lilies” give voice to the poet’s nostalgia for the virility of adolescence.

Poems Under Saturn consists of five sections. The first, “Melancholia”, is reflective yet erotic, elegantly capturing the poetic energy of the young Verlaine who wrote many of these poems while still at the Lycée in Metz (in fact, it seems he may actually have drafted some of these poems in class). From this first section, we pass through “Etchings”, the second group of poems, moving on to the seven poems which make up the “Sad Landscapes”, before submitting to the whimsical nostalgia of the fourth section, “Caprices”.

The final section, “Other Poems”, consists of 12 poems including “Serenade”, which uses elements of Greek mythology to root the speaker in the morbid underworld of Parnassian ennui, and “Il Bacio”, in which the poem becomes a romantic offering, a substitute for a kiss: “Resonant and graceful Kiss, heavenly Kiss! / Nonpareil voluptuousness, intoxication indescribable.” Kirchwey’s translation of this poem seems to refer obliquely to the difficulties faced by the translator of poetry. The romantic metaphor in “Il Bacio” can be extended further, as the struggles of the translator echo the romantic and literary trials of the speaker:

Me, I can’t do it, this bouquet of childish strophes
Is all I can offer, a sickly trouvère of Paris.
Be kind and, to reward me, come down on the mischevious
Lips of one I know, Kiss, and laugh.

The section concludes with “The Death of Philippe II”, a heroic poem which calls to mind the tragedy of Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland (already mentioned in the preface) and which anticipates the return to the epic style of the epilogue. These internal references afford a sense of wholeness to the collection, underscoring the need to translate it in its entirety.

Kirchwey admirably reproduces the careful construction and internal harmony of Verlaine’s poetry. The collection is a fine tapestry of images and emotions from the exotic to the erotic, the nostalgic to the splenetic, the banal to the awe-inspiring. Reading this exquisitely woven text, one is struck that it has taken until 2011 to see a complete translation of Poèmes saturniens. As it is, Karl Kirchwey is the ideal man for the job; he reveals the many shades of this collection to the Anglophone reader with skill and finesse.

“The translator of poetry must be a poet,” states Burton Raffell in The Art of Translating Poetry, and Poems Under Saturn leaves no doubt as to Karl Kirchwey’s credentials in this respect. In his introduction to the collection, Kirchwey claims to have found the necessary departure from strong rhyme in his English version troubling. However, he never allows any crises of confidence to show. Poems Under Saturn deals skilfully with those inevitable stumbling blocks of verse translation: rhyme, rhythm, and metre. By introducing near-rhymes, these translations manage to echo Verlaine’s use of “rime suffisant” and “rime pauvre“. Occasionally, Kirchwey’s rhymes are rather more impoverished than the originals, settling instead on assonance. On the whole, however, this technique works very well. His verse never seems forced, and perfect rhyming couplets can be treated as a happy coincidence.

“When a writer finds a kindred spirit, he may assume, like a lover, that he perfectly understands that spirit, whereas true understanding comes with long cohabitation”, says Kirchwey in the introduction to Poems Under Saturn. Such understanding is evident in his translations, which bear witness to the compromises required to make the relationship between poet and translator work. The third stanza of “Resignation” almost seems to document this process of acquaintance: “…knowing I must bend / I have been obliged and have restrained / (though not too much restrained my lovely fit).” Kirchwey maintains this “lovely fit” without compromising his own poetic values:

So we carve with the chisel of our Thought,
The untouched block of Beauty ….

So that one day, in beams of slate and rose,
Posterity’s Dawn, daughter of sad Time,
Might touch it like a new Memnon, the serene masterpiece,
And make resound through the future air our name!

It is a pleasure to see that Verlaine’s early verse writings have finally been translated within the context of the collection. Poems Under Saturn will, no doubt, be welcomed by scholars and enthusiasts of 19th-century poetry. The collection does not disappoint. Kirchwey’s translations embody those virtues to which all lovers and translators of poetry aspire: it is both faithful and creative.

Caroline Ardery is reading for a DPhil in French Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford.