Thursday, June 30, 2016

José-Maria de Heredia – 5 Le Voeu

In the late decades of the 1800s, there was a buzz of interest among scholars, historians and archaeologists, over certain Stone Age and Bronze Age remains in the Pyrenees. Among relics of a much later date, after the Roman conquest of the region that the victors named ‘Gaul’, were blocks of marble carved with a thankful message from the votary to the deity, and described as altars. Like this one – of particular interest to José-Maria de Heredia’s sonnet,
Le Voeu (The Vow):

Perhaps it was because of what he heard in the salon of Gaston Paris, writer, professor of Romance languages, and philologist, as well as historian, palaeologist and specialist in epigraphs, that Heredia took a holiday in Bagnères-de-Luchon. That was during 1885 or 1886. While there, he became acquainted with a monograph by a learned local man, Julien Sacaze, Épigraphie de Luchon (available online, along with Histoire Ancienne de Luchon by Sacaze). The result was a set of five sonnets, grouped as Sonnets Épigraphiques, in the section titled Rome and the Barbarians.

Le Voeu is the first sonnet, and in it he declares his intent in writing the set. Each sonnet will be his own votive altar, therefore the next sonnet takes up the “Subterranean Nymphs” in the last line, and its last line leads to the dedication of the following sonnet. The Garumnian of Le Voeu reappears in the third sonnet.

Luchon is a corruption of Ilixon or Lixon, the local deity, tutelary genius of the healing, sulphurous hot springs. In 76 BC, Pompey, returning to Italy from Spain over the Pyrenees, founded Lugdunum Convenarum (now St. Bertrand-de-Comminges). One of his soldiers, afflicted by a skin disease, was advised by a local tribesman to seek a cure by immersion for 21 days in the waters of Ilixon’s thermal springs. He was completely healed. That was recorded and remembered. The Emperor Claudius is said to have had pools dug and thermal baths built at the springs, “the baths of Ilixon”, now “

Another name that occurs in the votive marbles set up (by Romanised tribesmen and tribeswomen) was Iscitt, worshipped at Garin. The votive marbles were inscribed as seen in the illustration, with the deity’s name, the donor’s name, and V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) M(erito) which means in effect “this is in fulfilment of a vow, gladly and gratefully”.

Vervain, verbena, ‘Juno’s tears’ was a sacred herb, and mallow was offered to Apollo. This might apply as well to the worship of Celtic gods, or it might be the effect of Roman culture. These details don’t matter now. Heredia’s mentor, to whom
Les Trophées is dedicated, Charles Leconte de Lisle, was provoked to laughter by the whole business: the Celtic gods Iscitt and Ilixon, solemnly invoked by Heredia, Hunnu son of Ulohox, the painted Garumnian, and “bald Venasque”. Port de Venasque is a pass in the Pyrenees near Luchon. In a photograph of 1875 by Eugène Trutat, the massive rocks bare of vegetation (bald?) may be seen, and they are part of that same moraine the sonnet refers to:

Provided I kept tongue firmly in cheek, it was possible to make a translation in lines of twelve syllables, but not in Heredia’s rhyme scheme, unless I did violence to sensible English. But Edward R. Taylor wrote his translation in the revised edition according to the rules. For me this exercise was undertaken mainly because curiosity about Iscitt and Ilixon led to a lot of interesting information, partly to complete a set of seven translated sonnets, and mostly because it was amusing to translate a sonnet I, like Leconte de Lisle, find rather absurd! The original sonnet is followed by a literal translation in prose, mine in verse, and Taylor’s second version.

Le Voeu


Jadis l'Ibère noir et le Gall au poil fauve
Et le Garumne brun peint d'ocre et de carmin,
Sur le marbre votif entaillé par leur main,
Ont dit l'eau bienfaisante et sa vertu qui sauve.

Puis les Imperators, sous le Venasque chauve,
Bâtirent la piscine et le therme romain,
Et Fabia Festa, par ce même chemin,
A cueilli pour les Dieux la verveine ou la mauve.

Aujourd'hui, comme aux jours d'Iscitt et d'Ilixon,
Les sources m'ont chanté leur divine chanson;
Le soufre fume encore à l'air pur des moraines.

C'est pourquoi, dans ces vers, accomplissant les voeux,
Tel qu'autrefois Hunnu, fils d'Ulohox, je veux
Dresser l'autel barbare aux Nymphes Souterraines.

Prose translation (literal):
Once the dark Iberian and the Gaul with tawny body hair [hair on the head is cheveux] and the brown Garumnian painted with ochre and carmine, on votive marble cut/ carved with their hands, told of the water beneficent and its power to save.
Afterwards the Emperors, below bald Venasque, built the pool and the Roman thermal baths, and Fabia Festa, by the same road/ in the same way, gathered for the Gods vervain and mallow.
Today, as in the days of Iscitt and of Ilixon, the springs have sung to me their divine song; sulphur smokes/ fumes again in the pure air of the moraine.
That’s why, in these verses, fulfilling vows, as in past times Hunnu, son of Ulohox, I want to dedicate a rude/ crude/ barbarian altar to the Subterranean Nymphs.

THE VOW (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)


Once, the dark Iberian, the tawny Gaul, and brown
Garumnian with ochre and with carmine painted,
These waters’ powers to heal, do good and save made known
On the votive marble their own hands engrav

Came Emperors who built the pools and thermal baths
In Roman style, below Venasque’s bald rock crown,
And Fabia Festa, she who trod the Roman paths,
Mallow and vervain, before the Gods to lay down.

The springs to me have sung their song divine again,
As in bygone days of Iscitt and Ilixon;
Sulphur infuses the pure airs of the moraine.

As Hunnu, Ulohox’ son, made thanks-offering,
Vow to fulfil, these verses are my orison
To Nymphs Below – an altar crude I’m proffering.

THE VOW (Tr. by Edward R. Taylor, 1906)


The brown Garumnus smeared with red and ochrous stain,
The swart Iberus and the light-haired Gaul, of old,
Upon the votive marble cut by them, have told
The virtues of the water and its power o'er bane.

Below Venasque bald the Emperors then were fain
To build the pool and thermae of the Roman mould;
And next 'twas Fabia Festa who, like them controlled,
Collected for the Gods the mallow and vervain.

To-day, as when Ilixon and Iscitt were young,
The springs their song divine to me have sweetly sung,
Where still the sulphur fumes in the moraine's pure breath.

Hence in this vow-fulfilling verse 'tis mine to raise,
Like Hunnu, son of Ulohox, in the bygone days,
A rudely-fashioned altar to the Nymphs beneath.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

José-Maria de Heredia - 4 Villula

The Romans, especially Romans of the Republic, do not give the impression of being sentimental or given to fancy. Yet they did have one ideal – that of rustic simplicity – which sounded well in poetry but was not so popular in real life. Few Romans elected to be another Cincinnatus. Virgil and Horace wrote pastoral poems, which José-Maria de Heredia certainly read, but only Horace loved his ‘Sabine farm’, living in a villa there. Did this inspire Villula?

Heredia’s Gallus lived in a little villa (villula) on his small ancestral holding. Heredia is particular to set it on a Cisalpine hill. Cisalpine, “the hither side of the Alps”, designated the region across northern Italy in which the Gauls (Galli) settled after much opposition. Having settled, they began to adopt Roman ways of living. Finally, as always happens, they were accepted as ‘Romans’ or at least as ‘Roman citizens’. Gallus went from being a noun, the singular of Galli, to becoming a personal name, regardless of the ethnic origin of the owner. All this is by the way, in order to make the sonnet better appreciated. Heredia was intelligent and could be subtle, as we shall see at the end of this series of commentaries.

Villula belongs in the section of Les Troph
ées titled Rome and the Barbarians. In the case of Villula the category is appropriate for an account of one who is probably a Romanised barbarian – else why the mention of the Cisalpine hill? Heredia suggests Gallus’ transformation by giving him a diet of favoured Roman food, and in other ways indicating that he chose to live the Roman ideal of simplicitas. He could have titled his sonnet in French, but Petite Villa sounds rather feeble beside the robust Latin – so I think! At first glance, one might think that this sonnet is one of those whose rhyme scheme is not Heredia’s usual. But in conformity with the rules of French versification (Oh those rules!) passage and sage are not akin to héritage, étage etc. The consonne d’appui – the consonant preceding the vowel - is different.

First the original, followed by the prose translation, my version and then E. R. Taylor’s from the 1906 revision. I have retained the original title in Latin.


Oui, c'est au vieux Gallus qu'appartient l'héritage
Que tu vois au penchant du coteau cisalpin;
La maison tout entière est à l'abri d'un pin
Et le chaume du toit couvre à peine un étage.

Il suffit pour qu'un hôte avec lui le partage.
Il a sa vigne, un four à cuire plus d'un pain,
Et dans son potager foisonne le lupin.
C'est peu? Gallus n'a pas désiré davantage.

Son bois donne un fagot ou deux tous les hivers,
Et de l'ombre, l'été, sous les feuillages verts;
À l'automne on y prend quelque grive au passage.

C'est là que, satisfait de son destin borné,
Gallus finit de vivre où jadis il est né.
Va, tu sais à présent que Gallus est un sage.

Prose translation (literal):
Yes, it is to old Gallus that the inheritance belongs which you see on the slope of that little Cisalpine hill; the whole house fits under the shade of a pine and the thatched roof covers at most one floor/ storey.
It suffices to host one guest. He has a vineyard, an oven to bake more than one loaf, and in his kitchen garden harvests lupins.
[The Romans enjoyed eating the legume seeds of the lupin, called lupin beans.] It is little? Gallus does not wish for more.
His woods supply a bundle or two every winter, and shade in summer under the green foliage; in autumn one can catch some journeying thrush there.
[Romans also prized thrushes for eating.]
It is there that, satisfied with his limited lot, Gallus is finishing his life where once he was born. Go, you know now that Gallus is a wise man.

VILLULA (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)

Yes, that’s old Gallus’ inheritance you see
Perched on the slope of the Cisalpine hill. Small
It certainly is – fits in the shade of a single pine tree,
And what the thatched roof covers, that is all.

But it suffices. He can give one guest a bed,
His kitchen garden yields lupins for his store,
There’s a vineyard, his oven bakes enough bread -
You find it little? But Gallus wants no more.

In winter his woods yield a bundle or two,
Under green shade summer days he can spend,
In autumn he catches a thrush passing through;

It’s here, where he was born, Gallus means to end,
Satisfied with his destiny’s narrow span.
Go, now you know that Gallus is a wise man.

A LITTLE VILLA (Tr. by Edward R. Taylor, 1906)

Yes, that's the heritage of Gallus hoar
Thou dost on yon cisalpine hill descry;
A pine his humble house is sheltered by,
Whose lowly roof the thatch scarce covers o'er.

And yet for guest he has sufficing store:
His oven is large, his vines make glad the eye,
And in his garden lupines multiply.
'Tis little? Gallus ne'er has longed for more.

His grove yields fagots through the winter hours,
And shade in summer under leafy bowers,
While autumn brings some passing thrush for prize.

'Tis there, contented with his narrow round,
He ends his days upon his natal ground.
Go, now thou knowest why Gallus is so wise.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

José-Maria de Heredia - 3 Soleil Couchant

Before passing on to the subject of this instalment, a Postcriptum to the previous one. Floridum Mare was very much a painting in words, and there are two paintings which could illustrate it. One may even be called La Bretagne et la mer (Brittany and the Sea), if one sees it on the website of the Galerie Enora (, where it is not identified but I read the signature as “A(ndré) Wilder”. The other is La moisson au Pouldu (Harvest at Le Pouldu) [on the coast of Brittany] by Adolphe Beaufrère ( Both paintings are protected by copyright and so here are only postage-size images to guide an online search:


The second sonnet to surprise me, after the effect made by L’oubli, is another in the group called The Sea of Brittany. It was a mixed pleasure to read it. To me it seems more artificial than the two sonnets already considered, as if Heredia has not got to grips with that time between day and night always appealing to a poet, or with the strange, rather wild setting. A comment by the poet Eli Siegel is pertinent: “
Heredia had his fourteen-line form and then looked for something in history (or it might be just in landscape, with history faint) to become words, lines, sentences, rhymes, rhythm”. Has the writer of this sonnet been too artful in making use of two clever ideas that he had – the infinite sea beginning where the land ends, and the sun’s last display as a fan of red with golden ribs? (It was satisfying to match the French “sans fini ... finit” with the exact equivalent in English, “endless ... ending”. Such an opportunity seldom comes to one translating into English verse!)

Here is Soleil Couchant followed by a literal translation in prose, my attempt in verse, and a translation each by two poets:

Soleil Couchant

Les ajoncs éclatants, parure du granit,
Dorent l'âpre sommet que le couchant allume;
Au loin, brillante encor par sa barre d'écume,
La mer sans fin commence où la terre finit.

À mes pieds, c'est la nuit, le silence. Le nid
Se tait, l'homme est rentré sous le chaume qui fume;
Seul, l'Angélus du soir, ébranlé dans la brume,
À la vaste rumeur de l'Océan s'unit.

Alors, comme du fond d'un abîme, des traînes,
Des landes, des ravins, montent des voix lointaines
De pâtres attardés ramenant le bétail.

L'horizon tout entier s'enveloppe dans l'ombre,
Et le soleil mourant, sur un ciel riche et sombre,
Ferme les branches d'or de son rouge éventail.

Prose translation (literal):
The shining gorse/ furze, adornment of the granite, gilds the rugged summit/ height which the sunset lights up; far away, still shining through its tide of foam, the endless sea begins where the land ends. [Backing up my choice of gorse over furze, a choice based on its sound in the context of the other words, there is Sabatini’s The Marquis of Carabas, which mentions gorse alongside “surging blocks of granite” but never furze.]
At my feet it is night, silence. The nest holds its peace, the man has gone in under the smoking thatch; only the evening Angelus disturbs the mist/ haze, to the vast clamour/ roar of Ocean it joins/ unites itself.
Then, as from an abyss’ depths the trails, the moors, the ravines, rise up faraway voices of tardy herders/ shepherds collecting/ rounding up their livestock.
[See footnote.]
The entire horizon is wrapped in shadow, and the dying sun, on a sky rich and sombre/ darkening, shuts up the golden ribs of his red/ crimson fan.

SETTING SUN (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)

Splendid shines the gorse, granite cliff adorning,
Which the sun in setting gilds on rugged height.
Far off, its foaming tide once more made bright,
The endless sea begins where land is ending.

Night spreads below my feet, silent. The nest
Is hushed, man has returned ‘neath smoking thatch;
The Angelus alone disturbs the mist,
And the vast roar of Ocean strives to match.

As from an abyss’ depths there now arise,
To gather their flocks, tardy shepherds’ cries
From out the moors, the ravines, and the trails.

Shadow takes the horizon in its span,
As the sun, in a rich, sombre sky, fails,
Furling up gold ribs of his crimson fan.

SUNSET (Tr. by Edward Robeson Taylor, 1906)

The blossomed furze gem of the granite's crest
Gilds all the height the sun's last glories fill,
And far below, with foam refulgent still,
Unbounded spreads great ocean's heaving breast.

Silence and Night are at my feet. The nest
Is hushed; the smoking thatch folds man from ill;
And but the Angelus, with melodious thrill,
Lifts its calm voice amid the sea's unrest.

Then, as from bottom of abyss, there rise
From trails, ravines and moors the distant cries
Of tardy herdsmen who their kine reclaim.

In deepening shade the whole horizon lies,
And the dying sun upon the rich, sad skies
Shuts the gold branches of his fan of flame.

(Tr. by Maurice F. Egan, ca 1902)

The sunlit brush light to the dark rock lends,
And gilds the summit of the mountain dome
Where sets the sun; beyond—a bar of foam—
The endless sea begins where the earth ends:

Beneath me, night and silence; tired man wends
To where the smoking chimney marks his home.
The Angelus, deadened by the mists that roam,
In the vast murmur of the ocean blends.

As from the depth of an abyss, the sound
Of far-off voices in the space around
Comes from belated herdsmen with their clan.

The western sky is clothed in shadows gray;
The sun on rich dark clouds sinks slow away
And shuts the gold sticks of his crimson fan.

Even a minor English poet can make a pastoral evening scene personal and unforgettable:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;
Thomas Gray’s ploughman is recognisable; “homeward” evokes a certain response. In Soleil Couchant, we have this: “l'homme est rentré sous le chaume qui fume”. What man? The “smoking thatch” may be a clever phrase but does it really give such an immediate sense of nostalgia as “homeward” does? Can the unseen shepherds and scattered flocks of the sonnet compare with “the lowing herd” or “the drowsy tinklings” which “lull the distant fold”? Heredia’s Angelus has to struggle for a place beside “the curfew tolls the knell of parting day”.

It is a question of what happens to French words used in classically structured poetry. They become symbolic signs – what in computer-influenced jargon are named (with possibly unintended disrespect) icons. In English poetry words can be crammed with connotations and take on an almost incantatory power: those “immemorial elms”, “innumerable bees”, “darling buds of May”, “autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa”, “like a garment, wear the beauty of the morning”. One could quote a bookful of such phrases and lines, all powerfully evocative, holding a particular emotional resonance for the reader. (In some sonnets, Heredia does find the memorable phrase or line but often one gets the feeling that the rules govern his choice of words, and so the words become counters in a game.)

English has a rich vocabulary but is poor in possibilities for rhyme. Heredia’s sonnets are known for their rhyme scheme, and the skilled use of the feminine rhyme. This is difficult to reproduce in English, as are the alexandrines – syllabic verse where twelve syllables usually fall into two sections by means of the stress, although they may be divided into three or four such sections. As for the rules regarding rhymes, I find them so complicated that I would never dream of trying to write verse in French! Furthermore, what about being true to every detail in the original, Heredia being known for his care over choice of detail; and what of striving to make of the English version something as near as possible to an acceptable poem, not a collection of lines forced into a rhyme scheme to match the French? It seems to me more productive to compose something that is likely to tempt the reader on to the original sonnets, rather than to be very strict with metre and rhymes but write something very artificial, with odd word formations or amending the original either by omission or by addition.

Footnote: “Pâtre” is synonymous with either “berger” or “pasteur”, (and is generally kept, along with “pasteur”, for literary use), signifying one who minds the “betail”, which could mean bulls, cows, sheep or goats. A “pasteur”, or a “berger”, however, only tends sheep and must be rendered as shepherd. Although he was careful to put in certain details as they suited his purpose, I doubt that Heredia greatly cared whether it was cattle or sheep that he heard, for both are to be found in Brittany, but chose “pâtre” and “betail” for the effect on his line. Taylor and Egan opt for cattle. I could as well have used herdsmen and beasts for the French, the syllables are a match, but the connotations are not comparable with shepherds and sheep.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Friday, June 17, 2016

José-Maria de Heredia - 2 Floridum Mare

The last grouping of sonnets in Les Trophées is haphazard. The title is Nature and Dream but to my mind some sonnets don’t fall into that category. There is an inner group titled The Sea of Brittany, but so little heed was paid to the grouping of the last handful of sonnets that they, too, are allowed to remain under this sub-title, and so it continued through 15 reprints including a revised edition which added a 118th sonnet, placed in Greece and Sicily.

The Sea of Brittany had two surprises for me. In one, Jos
é-Maria de Heredia the impassible Parnassian has almost turned into Vincent van Gogh, the impassioned Post-Impressionist. Floridum Mare, a Latin title which sounds silly in English as Flowering or Flowery Sea, has some typical Heredia motifs (dark profile; land to sea and back and forth) but it is painted, in many colours, and describes two groups of creatures deliriously excited. That, surely, is far removed from the presumably calm, controlled activities of Parnassians in their studies or salons.

L’oubli has a blue sky, green acanthus, and tawny earth, besides the dark profile. For sounds it has an antique melody sighing in a horn, and the lamentations of the sea. Movement is only suggested – the drover with his buffaloes. In Floridum Mare we have a palette of colours, some unexpected when applied to the sea, others to be imagined (apart from a field described as full of golden corn): many-coloured fields ripe for the harvest, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies. There is, too, that dark profile, with an unusually imaginative association to characterise it. Indeed, there is an unusual imagination very busy in this sonnet. Also busy is the movement: a breeze that rocks the crops but lifts and lowers the object in profile suggestively, as if it were in a storm; another breeze which is “honey-sweet”; the tide that surges landward causing “whirlwinds” of gulls to follow it “with joyous cries”, and as it ebbs, breaks up the white wave-crests so that the scattered foam looks like a flock of sheep; and flights of butterflies over the sea like so many flowers. These last are said to be in ecstasy (or, less politely, drunk). Whatever was the poet’s own mood as he wrote this sonnet?

Apart from Van Gogh and his Lark over a Cornfield, there are other personal associations which for me added plausibility to the cornfield by the sea, and the gulls’ interest in agricultural activities. For the first there is the novel, The Bird in the Tree by Elizabeth Goudge. For the second there is Ivor Gurney’s lovely song-setting of Joseph Campbell’s I Will Go With My Father A-Ploughing.

But returning to the sonnet, Floridum Mare is another of the sixteen exceptions. Its rhyme scheme is ABBA ABBA CCD CCD. Here is the literal translation in prose, followed by the original, and some verse translations:

The harvest overflowing the multi-coloured plain rolls, undulates, unfurls in the cool wind cradling it; and the profile, on the distant sky, of some harrow seems like a ship pitching and raising a black bowsprit.
And beneath my feet the sea, right to the purple sunset, sky-blue or pink or violet or perse
[see footnote] or white with the wave-crests [see footnote] dispersed by the ebb is greened to infinity like a great meadow.
Also, gulls follow the tide towards the ripe corn that swells like a golden surge, with joyful cries, flying in whirlwinds;
while from the land a honeyed breeze spreads at the will of their winged ecstasy over the flowery Ocean flights of butterflies.

Floridum Mare

La moisson débordant le plateau diapré
Roule, ondule et déferle au vent frais qui la berce;
Et le profil, au ciel lointain, de quelque herse
Semble un bateau qui tangue et lève un noir beaupré.

Et sous mes pieds, la mer, jusqu'au couchant pourpré,
Céruléenne ou rose ou violette ou perse
Ou blanche de moutons que le reflux disperse,
Verdoie à l'infini comme un immense pré.

Aussi les goëlands qui suivent la marée,
Vers les blés mûrs que gonfle une houle dorée,
Avec des cris joyeux, volaient en tourbillons;

Tandis que, de la terre, une brise emmiellée
Éparpillait au gré de leur ivresse ailée
Sur l'Océan fleuri des vols de papillons.

FLORIDUM MARE (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)
Over patchwork plain a harvest overflowing
Cradled by cool wind rolls, undulates, unfurling.
Harrow in profile dark against the distant sky
Lifts bowsprit as of ship, pitching and tossing high.

Beneath my feet the sea, purple where the sun sets,
Sky-blue, perse, hued like a rose, or violets,
Save where the ebb tide spreads the wave-crests white, like sheep
On the great green meadow of the infinite deep.

Gulls follow the surging tide with shrill, joyous cries,
Over the ripe corn, their flocks in a whirlwind rise
Where it swells like a golden influx of the seas;

While from the land is flowing a honey-sweet breeze
That flowers o’er the Ocean with flights of butterflies,
Scattered at the will of their winged ecstasies.

FLOWERY SEA (Tr. by Edward Robeson Taylor, 1906)

O'er pied plateau the wave-swept harvest flows,
Rolls, undulates and breaks, with wind rocked high,
And yon dark harrow, profiled on the sky,
Seems like some vessel in the tempest's throes.

With blue, cerulean, violet or rose,
Or fleecy white from sheep the ebb makes fly,
The sea, far as the West's empurpling dye,
Like boundless meadow verdurously glows.

The gulls, that watch the tide with eager care,
On whirling wing with screams of joy fly where
The ripened grain in golden billow lies;

While from the land a breeze of sweets possessed
Disperses o'er the ocean's flowery breast
In winged rapture swarms of butterflies. 

Footnotes: Perse – There is no single English word equivalent for this colour, which has long been accepted as a dark blue-gray on the way to, but not reaching, indigo. Perse has a confusing history from documents of at least the 14th century onwards but that is irrelevant to the modern perception. Perse is not ultramarine (although Anthony Hartley thinks so), because the ‘marine’ does not indicate the colour of the sea. “Ultramarine” means “from beyond the sea” (the Mediterranean) and Afghanistan is far enough from Western Europe. Its lapis lazuli ground up yielded the madly expensive colour, a blue so deep it is like the sky nearing nightfall, before it goes black.
Moutons – can be either sheep or white wave-crests. A gift to a poet. Hartley translates “blanche des moutons” as “the white horses”, which is puzzling. What is a sheep to the French may well be a horse to the English, but calling wave-crests sheep is bad enough – a dictionary soon solves that – calling them horses is unnecessarily mystifying.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

José-Maria de Heredia - 1 L'oubli

French poetry is radically different from English poetry in ways best explained by someone learned in this subject. I had to be content with the Introduction to the Penguin Book of French Verse Volume 3 from which, I fear, I carried away very little. Not because Anthony Hartley failed to explain well enough; rather, because I have never taken an interest in French Literature as such, merely reading a work here and there for its own sake. But a Sunday Times competition in 1968, set and judged by George Steiner, for the best translation of Baudelaire’s Spleen, was so captivating that it resulted in my purchase of the book I cited, and in my first, halting attempt to translate – of all daunting tasks that only an ignoramus would attempt – a sonnet by the Cuban-born Jos
é-Maria de Heredia (1842-1905).

Did the surname attract me? Perhaps. But it was the poem itself, L’oubli, which caught my imagination and held fast. Greece, Ancient Greece, cast a spell over me when I was six or seven. (That’s part of another story.) For W. J. Turner it was “Chimborazo Cotopaxi took [him] by the hand” (Romance). For me it was Poseidon’s temple on the headland at Cape Sounion. L’oubli was a natural magnet.

Heredia was a perfectionist. His first published collection of poems (many had been published individually) Les Troph
ées (The Trophies), containing 117 sonnets and some other poems, was published when he was fifty. (The printed date is 1893, but the actual release was in December 1892.) It was enormously successful, which surely pleased the poet yet may also have puzzled him. Heredia’s sonnets, the greater part of his verse output, are not only strictly disciplined, they are also for the most part quietly reflective. Some might therefore have found them unappealing. But that was not the popular perception. He was acknowledged to be an outstanding French poet, a matchless writer of sonnets. That admiration continues.

Thou, with ambition modest yet sublime,
Here, for the sight of mortal man, hast given
To one brief moment caught from fleeting time
The appropriate calm of blest eternity. ~ William Wordsworth

Les Troph
ées opens with L’oubli, and it is ironic that such a poem, so poised and still, like a Grecian shrine of marble, should have an effect that the French would describe as éclatant, meaning sensational or dazzling. It makes an instant impression and is unforgettable. Yet it says nothing extraordinary. How, then, does Heredia achieve this effect?

In the tradition of the French literary sonnet, it adheres to the Petrarchean model of an octet consisting of two quatrains, followed by a sestet comprising two tercets, there being “a veiled climax” (Maurice Egan) in the closing tercet, which should “have a certain element of surprise.” (Egan)

In a hundred and one of the sonnets in the first edition, Heredia keeps to the rhyme scheme of two rhymes only for the octet – A and B – in the line order 1, 4, 5, 8 for A and 2, 3, 6, and 7 for B. The sestet usually has three rhymes – C, D and E, arranged as CCD EDE or CCD EED. In the other sixteen, the sestet may have only two rhymes, C and D, or three rhymes, C, D, and E in varying arrangements. L’oubli is one of the exceptions.

The sonnet records a scene observed by the poet in either Greece or Sicily, or in his imagination visiting one of those regions (it is placed in the section of Les Troph
ées titled Greece and Sicily), with his understated response to it. There are only three images: the ruins of a temple (columns, statues) overgrown by grass; a herdsman playing an old tune on his horn; the sea, not so much seen as heard. The first quatrain and the first tercet are concerned with the ruins. The second quatrain and tercet are about the herdsman and the sea.

(The sea and the sky appear often in those sonnets which especially attracted my notice, and they are always described as vast or infinite. The frequent juxtaposition of things on land and others in or on the sea is another aspect I have remarked.)

To translate any poetry into verse is a tricky business, and translating Heredia’s sonnets is especially so. Aside from the impossibility of strictly reproducing his rhyme scheme while also writing unstilted and genuinely poetic lines, there is the scansion, not to mention the effect only possible with French words, and further, there are words with no single equivalent in commonly used English vocabulary (the colour perse is one), or with many alternatives from which the poetically right choice must be made (‘forgetfulness’ or ‘oblivion’). French verse for centuries was rigid in its rules of metre, rhyme and rhythm, governed by the syllable – whereas English verse had much freedom and was governed by the stress.

More than one poet has tried, nevertheless, and Edward R. Taylor did reproduce Heredia’s rhyme scheme – in one poem even his alexandrines – yet even Taylor had to revise in the fourth edition of 1906 his first translations of 1897, realising that he had missed some important point. Although some succeed, do his translations reproduce the poetry of the originals? Not the versification, but the poetry?

The difficulties presented by L’oubli begin with the title. In his prose translation for the Penguin book, Anthony Hartley selects “forgetfulness”. Every other translator who is a poet, and whose translation I have read, recognises that only “oblivion” will serve.

This is my literal translation in prose, verse by verse, with comments as required:
On the top of the promontory/ headland the temple is in ruins. And Death has mixed up, in tawny earth, marble Goddesses and bronze Heroes whose glory only the/ alone the/ the solitary/ the lonely grass buries/ entombs. [‘Promontoire’ rhymes with ‘gloire’ but promontory in an English poem is clumsy. ‘Fauve’ can also mean ‘feral’ or ‘wild’ but obviously not in the context of the soil, which is reddish brown or tawny. Alone or only imply that the gods, heroes, and temple are not remembered, as the last verse will reveal, and so only the grass entombs past glory, but the poet’s intent goes a tiny step further – a thought which only just came to me, 46 years after my first translation, underscoring the ease with which one may choose the wrong word – simply that the spot is little frequented.]
Only/ alone, sometimes, a drover/ cow-herd leading his buffaloes to drink, (while) in his horn there sighs an ancient melody/ tune filling the calm sky up to the sea’s horizon, against the blue infinity raises his dark shape/ form. [There are buffaloes in Sicily and in northern Greece, yet those are not the animals that would come to mind in this setting. Boeufs (oxen) could have been used, since a bouvier can be either a drover or a cow-herd, but then the line would lack a syllable. B
étail (cattle) would be as long as buffles, but try the sound of bétail boire versus buffles boire and notice the difference.]
Earth, motherly and gentle to old Gods, makes, every spring, with vain eloquence, on the broken capital another acanthus grow green.
But Man, indifferent to the dream of his ancestors, hears without trembling, in the depth of serene nights, the Sea lamenting as she weeps for the Sirens.

Now the pattern I mentioned is plain – the ruins buried by grass link with the acanthus which maternal Earth has caused to grow afresh on the broken capital. The drover whose melody is heard only by the sea and sky is the indifferent Man, and the sighing of his old tune connects with the lament of the Sea. As the old Gods and Heroes have passed into oblivion, so have the lost Sirens.

The poet is there, observing, recording, yet impersonally for all the melancholy of his theme. He makes a judgement (“Indifferent”, “hears without trembling”) on Man’s lack of response to the losses that he, the poet, has listed, but without entering emotionally into that judgement. Heredia belonged to the circle of writers called The Parnassians. Their motto was “Art for Art’s Sake”. In most of his sonnets he gives the impression of being impassible, that is, incapable of feeling pain, a word generally used in theological discussion. But he is not so impassible that he cannot feel anything at all, as a number of sonnets attest to his pleasure in whatever he is writing about, Floridum Mare being one, and Au Trag
édien E. Rossi being another. He is certainly well able to give a frisson to his reader with a concluding line or two, as we shall see by and by.

Heredia was a great sonnet writer in a land with a tradition of, and a reverence for, that form. Was he also a great poet? Edmund Gosse thought he lacked the breadth of vision and the humanity, but declared him a great poetic artist. I agree. Read L’oubli below, followed by my revised translation, to decide for yourself. (My original version was posted in a blog of June 2006 to which the link below will take you.) After that, try E. R. Taylor’s revised translation from 1906 and, at  you will find a modern translation by Clark Ashton Smith.


Le temple est en ruine au haut du promontoire.
Et la Mort a mêlé, dans ce fauve terrain,
Les Déesses de marbre et les Héros d'airain
Dont l'herbe solitaire ensevelit la gloire.

Seul, parfois, un bouvier menant ses buffles boire,
De sa conque où soupire un antique refrain
Emplissant le ciel calme et l'horizon marin,
Sur l'azur infini dresse sa forme noire.

La Terre maternelle et douce aux anciens Dieux
Fait à chaque printemps, vainement éloquente,
Au chapiteau brisé verdir un autre acanthe;

Mais l'Homme indifférent au rêve des aïeux
Écoute sans frémir, du fond des nuits sereines,
La Mer qui se lamente en pleurant les Sirènes.

OBLIVION (©2016 by Ruth Heredia)

High on the headland a ruined temple looms.
Death in red-brown earth has tumbled
Goddess marble, with bronze Hero jumbled;
The lonely grass their fame entombs.

Alone, dark form against a blue infinity,
Sometimes a drover leads his cattle to the bourn.
Filling the calm heavens, sighs in his horn –
Searching the sea’s bounds – an ancient melody.

Earth’s a kindly mother to old Gods; each spring
The fallen capitals with acanthus green
She crowns anew.  In vain her gentle pleading.

Indiff’rent to his forebears’ dream, Man hears
Unmoved in the dark depths of nights serene,
Her Sirens lost, the Sea lament with tears.

OBLIVION (Tr. by Edward Robeson Taylor, 1906)

On headland's height the temple's ruins lie,
Where Death has intermixed bronze Heroes slain
With marble Goddesses whose glory vain
The lonely grass enshrouds with many a sigh.

Only at times a herdsman, driving by
His kine for drink, piping antique refrain
That floods the heavens to the very main,
Shows his dark form against the boundless sky.

The Earth, sweet mother to the Gods of old,
At springtime vainly, eloquently weaves
Round the rent capital acanthus leaves;

But man, no more by ancient dreams controlled,
Hears without tremor, in the midnight deep,
The grieving Sea for her lost sirens weep.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.

Thursday, June 02, 2016


Rafael Sabatini enjoyed many sports and pastimes, of which fishing was the favourite - to the extent that he said it was his "business" and writing was only an "amusement".

Indoors, he played card games, games of chance, and chess as well as billiards. He fenced, too. 
Outdoors, he enjoyed boating on a river (mostly in a canoe) when he was young, later on it was mainly tennis; in winter it was skiing and skating that filled his holidays.
There are no photographs of Rafael playing tennis or fencing, nor of him playing cards. But other photographs, besides those readily found online, are these:

Rafael and Ruth Sabatini in a canoe on the Thames, soon after their marriage

Rafael fishing at Cockermouth
Rafael and Ruth skating

unknown; Rafael, Rafael-Angelo and Ruth

 A staged game of chess between estranged husband and wife.

Ruth Heredia is the originator and holds the copyright to all material on this blog unless credited to some source. Please do not use it or pass it off as your own work. That is theft. If you wish to link it, quote it, or reprint in whole or in part, please be courteous enough to seek my permission.