More French Poetry


Dylan mentioned a poem by Paul Verlaine that has always been a favorite of mine. It also demonstrates a contention I have made regarding some of the less likable qualities of the prose of St. Therese. Isn't it wonderful the way God arranges these juxtapositions?

"Il pleut doucement sur la ville" - Arthur Rimbaud
Paul Verlaine.
Romances Sans Paroles (1874).

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville,
Quelle est cette langueur
Qui penetre mon coeur?

O bruit doux de la pluie
Par terre et sur les toits!
Pour un coeur qui s'ennuie,
O le chant de la pluie!

Il pleure sans raison
Dans ce coeur qui s'ecoeure.
Quoi! nulle trahison?
Ce deuil est sans raison.

C'est bien la pire peine
De ne savoir pourquoi,
Sans amour et sans haine,
Mon coeur a tant de peine!

And once again an attempt at translation. This being symboliste is a bit more difficult and variable than Jacques Prevert, but I'll try to make it serviceable, if not great verse.

"It rains softly (sweetly) on the city" Arthur Rimbaud [another French Symboliste]
Paul Verlaine
from Love Songs without Words (1874)

My heart weeps*
As it rains on the city,
What is this languor
That penetrates my heart?

O sweet sound** of the rain
On the ground and on the roofs!
For a bored heart,
O the song of the rain!

There is senseless crying
in this heart which is disheartened.
What? No breach of faith?
This sorrow is without reason.

Truly*** the worst pain [is]
Not knowing why
Without love and without hate
My heart has so much pain.

*Literally-It cries in my heart or There is crying in my heart
**or gentle noise
***literally--That's right

Yes, it doesn't make it into English very well, largely because it builds on a sort of punning twin of pleure (cry)and pleut (rains) probably stemming from a common Latin root and a conceit that the rain are the tears of the sky. There is also the neat verbal trick of coupling coeur (heart) twice with a reflexive verb "s'ennuie" and "s'ecoeure." All of this verbal play in French that sounds good and makes a sort of sense. In addition, it plays on a phrase of Blaise Pascal--"The heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know." In fact the whole poem is a sort of variation on Pascal's phrase (odd considering Verlaine himself).

The main point I wanted to make with this poem however is that it predates Therese only by about 20 years. It is considered highly respectable, not sentimental poetry. But such maundering on and on about bored hearts and pained hearts just doesn't go over well in English. In fact, it is nearly painful to American ears and doubt that it does a whole lot for other native English speakers. There is no way to bring the poem into English that doesn't sound over-the-top melodramatic. Many complain of a similar quality in Therese's writing and attribute it, I think wrongly, to the sentimental piety of Victorian Era French. I think rather it is a matter of the two languages at odds in taste in sensibility. Nevertheless, the end result is that Therese winds up sounding saccharine in our ears. That's a shame, as when this is filtered out, as it seems to be in Clarke's translation, even the most eccentric verbal tropes come out not sounding so bad as they might in lesser translations. For example, the whole bit about being Jesus' toy is not nearly so awful in Clarke's translation as it is in Beevers and others.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 8, 2002 6:17 PM.

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