Ausiàs March

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That Ausiàs March (1400-1459) is unknown to general readers in English is a serious omission to a proper conception of the breadth of the western poetic tradition. A knight and nobleman working in the shadow of Petrarch, he abandoned the conceits of the troubadours and the somewhat virginal idealism of stilnovismo for a more concrete and intimate treatment of his obsessions. In his morbidity, he recollects the Kirchhofsgedanken of the German poet and dramatist Andreas Gryphius, though March is elegant and sorrowful whereas Gryphius is grotesque. I first encountered March’s name in the epigraph to Edmund White’s Farewell Symphony:

QUI no és trist, de mos dictats no cur, / o’n algun temps que sia trist estat

Only those who are sad / or have been sad at some time/ need bother with my works.

Robert Archer, Cervantes Emeritus Professor at King’s College, London, has done valuable work on Ausiàs, but there is still no rhymed translation of his work in English. I have toyed with the idea of doing one, but the difficulty I’ve had in getting easier or more patently appealing authors published is potent suasion thereagainst, particularly as even a poor rendering of the original requires a great deal of effort.

I don’t consider that there’s much room for absoluteness in translation, and whether mimicry of rhyme and meter yield the best version depends on the poet in question, the translator’s sensibility, the in-and out-languages, and the reader’s particular tolerances and proclivities. As a translator, I instinctively feel there is something lackadaisical about translations indifferent to the form of the original, but as a reader, I must admit that the singsong qualities of the many rhymed translations of, say, Pushkin or Baudelaire, is a deeply irritating distraction.

Regardless, I have stopped working crosswords because I don’t know enough about movies or sports, and attempting a rhymed translation, however questionable the result, offers a similar sort of amusement. It is not perfect: “erstwhile friends” seems very weak to me, and “Absence eats into it,” which I hear as –––UUU, is cacophonous.  I am having trouble cutting and pasting the original Catalan, but it is the first poem in this anthology, which also includes English prose versions.

Take me as one who savors dreams,
Who savor finds in frenzied thoughts:
As one whose fancies harbor naught
But vanished time, and absence deem
A solace lorn that torment feigns to flee
But falters, and falls prone before its claims.
No good do times to come proclaim:
For me, what’s best nor was nor is to be.

My heart dilates with love for time expired,
With love for what is not, for absence pure,
Until my thoughts, in reveries immured
Are rent from bliss and singed by loss’s fire:
Like one condemned to death, who waits,
Deplores his fate, but lately solace meets,
Is given word that soon he will be freed,
But rashly slain when falls the fated date.

Pray God my thoughts were rendered dead,
My life elapsed in listless sleep;
Wretched is he whose recreant musings reap
The fruits of languor in his rival’s stead;
Whose dreams, when he for succor pleads
And cries for venom’s bitter taste
Are like a foolish mother’s haste
His ruinous vagaries to heed.

Better were to suffer pain
Than add a modicum of bliss
To the anguish in my mind’s abyss.
For when the thought of cheer has fled again,
My joy perforce to torment turns,
As a sick man’s craving something sweet
Makes every meal a joyless deceit,
Short solace is by doubled sorrow spurned;

Or like the hermit long estranged
From home and from his erstwhile friends,
Convinced his plaints have met their end,
Then finds his memories unchanged
When chance brings one across his way
Who breathes new life in pleasures passed
Then leaves, and joy cannot hold fast;
For sorrow heeds the call when good abates.

Envoi

Wise woman, when love is old and grey
Absence eats into it like a worm
If constancy does not hold firm,
Ignoring what the envious say.

 

The Exhaustion of the Poetic Lexicon

Every language has words that determine its poetry; words in one language are possessed of a poetic efficiency that they lack in another. Think of the sonority of morte: in Italian it carries great weight, for one thing the syllables are similar to notte, the words are almost synonyms… In part, certain words determine thematics, while others have ceased to be poetic for the abuse they have undergone; “los labios rojos,” for example, no longer functions poetically, now it has to be said a different way. There are many words in Catalan from the XV century that have not aged, that have been preserved in their disuse…

Thus Pere Gimferrer in a recent interview. It is true that words need to be left in peace to be adequate for poetry; if we think of the ideas of making-strange, making new, of the uneven Venetian pavers in Proust that symbolize those ripples in the tranquil effluence of time through which poetic awareness comes into flower, we see that the inappositeness thereto of any word that has been too much handled, the coarse textures or irregularities of which have been smoothed away by too many hands. Cyril Connolly remarks that in the age of Dryden, there was really no such thing as bad English writing; the act of putting words to paper was too new, nothing had yet been corrupted.

I wonder is the caducity of words always the outcome of mendacity. When Gimferrer refers to the poetic concept of “red lips,” he is speaking of something that gained its force as a departure from the strictly real; red lips are a striking image to the extent that the color of lips is not red, by use of this adjective they are made to stand out like Derain’s blue mountains or scarlet trees. But at the point at which people forget what color lips actually are, the word “red” becomes shorthand for the supposed color of a detail in nature that readers and writers have ceased to really look at; the cliché has supplanted the reality in the collective imagination. The words ruined by Business English are characterized generally by patent dishonesty (what large company has not at various times described its customers, its shareholders, its employees, its employees’ well-being, etc. as its “number-one priority”?) or by a kind of brute augmentation that is the linguistic equivalent of plastic surgery, hiding the paucity of thought behind syllabic superfluity: proactive for active, reference for refer, orientate (once a charming word meaning “to face the orient”) for orient, operationalize for use… Borges, commenting on Jorge Manrique, praises the power of the simplest words and metaphors, which he claims have greater immunity to such destruction; I am not sure if he is right.

The poetic possibilities of a language are defined in part by what ambits remain untouched by this progressive degradation. Anyone who reads in various languages can attest to the perdurant vitality of themes in one language that have been poetically exhausted in others. “I would die for you,” “I would walk to the ends of the earth for you,” and so on can no longer be said in English because the rank dishonesty with which they infest popular culture has left them toothless, but one can imagine a less meretricious culture in which they might still hold force. Gimferrer complains that Castilian is losing “poetic efficiency” from overuse, and has advocated for Catalan as a “prestige tongue,” perhaps in the hopes that a marginal but ceremonial status will preserve it from lyrical enervation.

Of course languages can be renewed as well. Acquaintances have always shown themselves perplexed by my interest in rap music, and generally consider it a conceit, a kind of reverse dandyism or provocation. That is absurd. For me English-language poetry in general, though I am not an expert, has become so withered and bound up in packaged arrogance and literary posturing –– this without mentioning its entrenchment in a system of privileges and perquisites dispensed on the basis of social placement, particularly in the academic realm, and hence, in the final analysis, on class –– that it inspires distaste rather than interest.

Rap has continued to engage, with the full battery of poetic resources, a sphere of authentic, lived concerns –– however truncated or ignoble they may be –– at a time when the majority of poets have lost all relation to their real longings and true natures, whether as social or spiritual beings. In addition, the best rappers have emphasized the fundamental importance of assonance, alliteration, variable stresses, and internal rhyme to English poetry –– the more naturally poetic elements of the language, as against a fixation on Italianate and Provencal forms grafted onto a tongue that diverged drastically from both its Germanic and Latinate progenitors. However distasteful many listeners may find rap to be, there is a force in its words and their employment that lies worlds apart from the soggy linguistic attenuation of a great deal of modern English poetry and popular song.

On a different note, Hölderlin describes the Ideal as the subjective ground of poetry in his (for me) very difficult essay Über die Verfahrungsweise des poetischen Geistes. I wonder if Proust has something similar in mind when he speaks of the spiritual obligations that impend upon us as though from another world when he describes the death of Bergotte:

Toutes ces obligations, qui n’ont pas leur sanction dans la vie présente, semblent appartenir à un monde différent, fondé sur la bonté, le scrupule, le sacrifice, un monde entièrement différent de celui-ci, et dont nous sortons pour naître à cette terre, avant peut-être d’y retourner revivre sous l’empire de ces lois inconnues auxquelles nous avons obéi parce que nous en portions l’enseignement en nous, sans savoir qui les y avait tracées – ces lois dont tout travail profond de l’intelligence nous rapproche et qui sont invisibles seulement – et encore ! – pour les sots.

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf

Someone approached me recently about doing a volume of poetry by Alfred de Vigny. My interest in the project was married to a degree of timorousness about my capacity to respect the formal constraints the abandonment of which renders the translation of a poet of this type pointless. To see if I could do it, I chose one of his classic poems, La mort du loup. The English version follows the French. [Update: this project appears dead in the water, but this poem still attracts tons of traffic, so if anyone knows a publisher that might be interested in doing a Vigny volume, please let me know.]

Alfred de Vigny, La Mort du loup (1843)

I.

Les nuages couraient sur la lune enflammée
Comme sur l’incendie on voit fuir la fumée,
Et les bois étaient noirs jusques à l’horizon.
Nous marchions sans parler, dans l’humide gazon,
Dans la bruyère épaisse et dans les hautes brandes,
Lorsque, sous des sapins pareils à ceux des Landes,
Nous avons aperçu les grands ongles marqués
Par les loups voyageurs que nous avions traqués.
Nous avons écouté, retenant notre haleine
Et le pas suspendu. — Ni le bois, ni la plaine
Ne poussait un soupir dans les airs ; Seulement
La girouette en deuil criait au firmament ;
Car le vent élevé bien au dessus des terres,
N’effleurait de ses pieds que les tours solitaires,
Et les chênes d’en-bas, contre les rocs penchés,
Sur leurs coudes semblaient endormis et couchés.
Rien ne bruissait donc, lorsque baissant la tête,
Le plus vieux des chasseurs qui s’étaient mis en quête
A regardé le sable en s’y couchant ; Bientôt,
Lui que jamais ici on ne vit en défaut,
A déclaré tout bas que ces marques récentes
Annonçait la démarche et les griffes puissantes
De deux grands loups-cerviers et de deux louveteaux.
Nous avons tous alors préparé nos couteaux,
Et, cachant nos fusils et leurs lueurs trop blanches,
Nous allions pas à pas en écartant les branches.
Trois s’arrêtent, et moi, cherchant ce qu’ils voyaient,
J’aperçois tout à coup deux yeux qui flamboyaient,
Et je vois au delà quatre formes légères
Qui dansaient sous la lune au milieu des bruyères,
Comme font chaque jour, à grand bruit sous nos yeux,
Quand le maître revient, les lévriers joyeux.
Leur forme était semblable et semblable la danse ;
Mais les enfants du loup se jouaient en silence,
Sachant bien qu’à deux pas, ne dormant qu’à demi,
Se couche dans ses murs l’homme, leur ennemi.
Le père était debout, et plus loin, contre un arbre,
Sa louve reposait comme celle de marbre
Qu’adorait les romains, et dont les flancs velus
Couvaient les demi-dieux Rémus et Romulus.
Le Loup vient et s’assied, les deux jambes dressées
Par leurs ongles crochus dans le sable enfoncées.
Il s’est jugé perdu, puisqu’il était surpris,
Sa retraite coupée et tous ses chemins pris ;
Alors il a saisi, dans sa gueule brûlante,
Du chien le plus hardi la gorge pantelante
Et n’a pas desserré ses mâchoires de fer,
Malgré nos coups de feu qui traversaient sa chair
Et nos couteaux aigus qui, comme des tenailles,
Se croisaient en plongeant dans ses larges entrailles,
Jusqu’au dernier moment où le chien étranglé,
Mort longtemps avant lui, sous ses pieds a roulé.
Le Loup le quitte alors et puis il nous regarde.
Les couteaux lui restaient au flanc jusqu’à la garde,
Le clouaient au gazon tout baigné dans son sang ;
Nos fusils l’entouraient en sinistre croissant.
Il nous regarde encore, ensuite il se recouche,
Tout en léchant le sang répandu sur sa bouche,
Et, sans daigner savoir comment il a péri,
Refermant ses grands yeux, meurt sans jeter un cri.

II.

J’ai reposé mon front sur mon fusil sans poudre,
Me prenant à penser, et n’ai pu me résoudre
A poursuivre sa Louve et ses fils qui, tous trois,
Avaient voulu l’attendre, et, comme je le crois,
Sans ses deux louveteaux la belle et sombre veuve
Ne l’eût pas laissé seul subir la grande épreuve ;
Mais son devoir était de les sauver, afin
De pouvoir leur apprendre à bien souffrir la faim,
A ne jamais entrer dans le pacte des villes
Que l’homme a fait avec les animaux serviles
Qui chassent devant lui, pour avoir le coucher,
Les premiers possesseurs du bois et du rocher.

III.

Hélas ! ai-je pensé, malgré ce grand nom d’Hommes,
Que j’ai honte de nous, débiles que nous sommes !
Comment on doit quitter la vie et tous ses maux,
C’est vous qui le savez, sublimes animaux !
A voir ce que l’on fut sur terre et ce qu’on laisse
Seul le silence est grand ; tout le reste est faiblesse.
– Ah ! je t’ai bien compris, sauvage voyageur,
Et ton dernier regard m’est allé jusqu’au coeur !
Il disait : ” Si tu peux, fais que ton âme arrive,
A force de rester studieuse et pensive,
Jusqu’à ce haut degré de stoïque fierté
Où, naissant dans les bois, j’ai tout d’abord monté.
Gémir, pleurer, prier est également lâche.
Fais énergiquement ta longue et lourde tâche
Dans la voie où le Sort a voulu t’appeler,
Puis après, comme moi, souffre et meurs sans parler. ”

Alfred de Vigny, The Death of the Wolf (1843)

I.
The clouds eloped across the moon in flames
Like smoke above the bonfire whence it came,
The woods were black, to vision’s furthest pass,
We walked in silence through the dew-damp grass,
Brambles teemed beneath the heather’s fronds,
Until, under sap trees like those of Landes,
We saw the gashes from the daunting nails
Of the wandering pack of wolves we had trailed.
We listened, standing fixed, our breath restrained,
Our bodies still, while neither wood nor plain
Was racked or heaved by breezes fulminant;
The weathervane beseeched the firmament
In grief; for the drafts in the heights respired
And only grazed the solitary spires,
While pitched against the stones, the oaks below
Seemed huddled on their elbows in repose.
No sound rang out; when lowering his head,
The oldest of the hunters knelt and said,
— That man who thereabouts had never erred —
While at the crosshatched sand he keenly stared,
Quite softly, that those tracks so freshly laid
Attested to the truculent parade
Of deer wolves with their stripling cubs in flight.
The knives were brandished in the veil of night,
The rifles hidden, with their gleam so white,
Across the brake, we strode toward the fight.
Three men stopped short, and searching what they saw
I glimpsed two flaming eyes, a famished maw,
And four lean forms distinguished there below
Frisking in heather in the moonlight’s glow,
As every day, with leaps and howling voice
At master’s return, the harriers rejoice.
Their forms were like, alike as well their dance,
Though quiet were the wolf-cubs as they pranced.
Aware that two steps nigh and half-asleep,
Their adversary, man, was poised to leap.
The father posed arrect aside a tree,
His wife, marmoreal, impassively
Stayed, like the beast by Romans praised whose breast
Nursed Romulus and Remus, men of flesh
With souls divine. The wolf steps out and stands,
His long claws sinking in the sorrel sand.
He was condemned, we trapped him unawares,
Our men had blocked the path back to his lair.
And then he seized, in fauces hot with hate
Our prize hound’s throat, his fury was so great;
His iron jaws would not forebear to thresh,
Not even when our bullets pierced his flesh;
Our knives, like pincers, made a dreadful clank,
And clashed and clanged as in his bowels they sank,
Till the moment when the choked and lifeless hound,
Now long dead, fell at his feet to the ground.
He glared at us, let fall what he had killed,
Our knives were plunged in his flanks to the hilt
And to the blood-caked dust the beast was pinned;
In crescent cruel our rifles hemmed him in.
Collapsing, still he stares, a hellish gloat,
His face bestrewn with blood heaved from his throat.
In pride he spurned all deference to his death,
He closed his eyes, and fell without a breath.

II.

Against the smoking gun I lad my head,
My feeble will on ill-formed vigor fed,
I thought to chase the she-wolf and her brood,
Who full of rue had vanished from that wood;
Without her cubs, that widow, noble, grave
Would not have left her mate his death to brave;
But she was pledged, her progeny to keep
To teach them to bear hunger, not to weep,
To not submit to machinations vile
That bind the beast of burden to man’s wile,
At his behest to run, to hunt, to kill
The erstwhile lords of forest, rock, and hill.

III.

Alas! I thought, despite all earthly fame,
Our cowardice redounds to our great shame.
That is your wisdom, animals sublime!
To know what you were, and what you leave behind.
Silence alone is great, all else is frail.
— O savage wanderer, well I’ve heard your tale,
Your dying gaze has set my heart afire,
It said: “Your soul by study should aspire
To that degree of stoic haughtiness
That I, though feral-born, have yet accessed:
To wait, to weep, to pray are futile all;
Instead you’d fain your weighty task recall:
To take, as I, that path that fate decrees,
To live, to suffer, and die wordlessly.”