Paul Verlaine: Six Poems Translated by Peter Shor


      verlain sig*****

Paul Verlaine is one of the most famous French poets of the 19th century. He was born in 1844 and died in 1896. His first book of poetry appeared when he was only 22, and during his lifetime. he published nearly 20 collections of poetry. Although he did not receive much acclaim early in his career, he was pronounced ‘Prince of Poets’ in 1894, shortly before he died.


Peter Shor is a professor in the Mathematics Department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has loved poetry since his father read poems to him as a child. He has written poetry sporadically for the last forty years, and recently has started translating it. The only poem he has published so far was in one about a mathematician, published in a recreational mathematics magazine, The Mathematical Intelligencer.




One of the defining episodes of Paul Verlaine’s life took place between 1871 and 1873. In 1870, he had married Mathilde Mauté, who was only seventeen years old at the time. A year later, he received a letter from Arthur Rimbaud that contained several remarkable poems, and he invited Rimbaud to come visit him in Paris. Not long after Rimbaud arrived, he and Verlaine entered into a passionate affair. In 1872, Verlaine left his wife and young child in Paris and traveled with Rimbaud to Belgium and then England. This episode came to an end in 1873, when Verlaine shot Rimbaud in the wrist during a drunken argument. Verlaine was sentenced to two years in prison for attempted murder. In prison, he reconverted to Catholicism and wrote poetry, eventually earning an early release for good behavior. When he got out of prison, neither Arthur Rimbaud nor Mathilde was interested in continuing their relationship with him.

Verlaine’s life did not proceed smoothly after his release from jail. In 1880, together with a former student of his, Lucien Létinois, he bought a farm, and started farming it. The enterprise was a failure, and two years later Verlaine had to sell the farm. Less than a year after that, his beloved companion, Létinois, died of typhoid fever. Verlaine, who had always had problems with drug abuse and alcoholism, eventually became a confirmed drug addict and alcoholic, and eventually died, destitute and in ill health.


About these translations:

Paul Verlaine was given to experimenting with new techniques in his poetry. For example, while the common meters in classical French poetry all use lines of even length — twelve, eight, and ten syllables — Paul Verlaine often used odd-length lines — five, seven, nine, eleven, and even thirteen syllables. Some of his poems are sonorant with internal rhymes, and some of his poems have repeated phrases or grammatical parallelism, used to great effect. In these translations, I have tried to preserve some of these aspects, something thatnot all previous translators have done. More specifically, in ‘Love’s Shards’, I have used a pattern of repeated phrases that is close to the original pattern, while in ‘I came, calm orphan’, I have kept the original grammatical parallelism between the last lines of the verses.In some of Verlaine’s poems, there are a number of little hints that, when all taken together, reveal what the poem is about. I believe this is true of ‘Green”, and that ‘sweet moments  and splendid storm (‘les chers instants’ and ‘la bonne tempête’) are two of these hints. While you probably don’t need these hints to figure out what happens between the second and third verses, I have nonetheless tried to preserve these hints as accurately as possible in my translation.

Two of these poems, ‘The sun gently warms and bathes in golden light’ and ‘Madrigal’, were written to Paul Verlaine’s wife, Mathide Mauté: the first of these appears in the collection, La Bonne Chanson, written for Mathilde before they were married. While it appears that Verlaine was genuinely in love with Mathilde when he wrote La Bonne Chanson, ‘Madrigal’ seems to have been written after Verlaine’s first flush of love for Mathilde faded. It was first published in 1883, although it quite likely was written some years before then. I have untangled the convoluted word order in the last part of ‘Madrigal’. Two more comments on this poem: the name Mouse Princess (Princesse Souris) was one of Verlaine’s pet names for Mathilde, and there is an untranslatable play on words in the last two lines; in French, a ‘deaf’ sound is one that is muffled or faint, and not, as Verlaine seems to imply, one that can only be heard by deaf people.

The last two of these poems, ‘I came, calm orphan’ and ‘Over the Water’, were written in prison. These poems were originally slated to be published in Cellulairement, a collection of poems written in prison; however, Verlaine canceled its publication and distributed the poems over several other volumes. Any interpretation of ‘Over the Water’ should probably take into account where it was written. The poem ‘I came, calm orphan’ also has a connection to prisons: its subject is Gaspar Hauser, who was a teenager who appeared mysteriously in Nuremberg, Germany in 1828, claiming that he had previously been imprisoned in a dark cell for as long as he could remember.


NB: You can listen to the poems read in French if you click on the French titles. [Ed.]


Paul Verlaine: Six Poems translated by Peter Shor



The wind the other evening laid Love low,
Who stood in the park’s most mysterious corner;
For an entire day he made us ponder
On how he grinned and wickedly bent his bow.

The wind the other evening felled him, the marble
Scattered to the morning breezes. It’s a shame
To see the base, on which the artist’s name
Can just be made out, shaded by an arbor.

Oh, it’s a shame to see the empty base
So lonesome there. And coursing through my psyche
Are dismal futures that now seem all too likely,
Where I must, all alone, great troubles face.

Oh, it’s a shame! And you—do you, too, shudder
Inwardly, even though your frivolous eye
Follows a gold and purple butterfly
Fluttering above Love’s shards and the wind’s clutter?


L’amour par terre

Le vent de l’autre nuit a jeté bas l’Amour
Qui, dans le coin le plus mystérieux du parc,
Souriait en bandant malignement son arc,
Et dont l’aspect nous fit tant songer tout un jour !

Le vent de l’autre nuit l’a jeté bas ! Le marbre
Au souffle du matin tournoie, épars. C’est triste
De voir le piédestal, où le nom de l’artiste
Se lit péniblement parmi l’ombre d’un arbre.

Oh ! c’est triste de voir debout le piédestal
Tout seul ! Et des pensers mélancoliques vont
Et viennent dans mon rêve où le chagrin profond
Évoque un avenir solitaire et fatal.

Oh ! c’est triste ! – Et toi-même, est-ce pas ? es touchée
D’un si dolent tableau, bien que ton œil frivole
S’amuse au papillon de pourpre et d’or qui vole
Au-dessus des débris dont l’allée est jonchée.



The sun gently warms and bathes in golden light
Sparkling with morning dew, the rye and wheat,
And the blue has kept its freshness from the night.
One leaves without a goal except to leave,
Following the river through waves of yellow grass
On paths of turf lined with old alder trees.
The air is crisp. Now and then a bird flies past
With wisps of straw or berries in its beak;
Its reflection in the water lags behind.
That’s all.
xxxxxxxxxxExcept the rambler loves these scenes;
In this clear and gentle countryside, he finds
His dream of happiness caressed, and sees
The charming image of a girl in his mind,
Singing and scintillating, a bright dream
That the man holds dear and that the poet extols,
Evoking in his thoughts, as a smile sweeps
Across his face, the Partner he has found at last, the soul
For which his soul eternally yearns and weeps.


Le soleil du matin doucement chauffe et dore

Le soleil du matin doucement chauffe et dore
Les seigles et les blés tout humides encore,
Et l’azur a gardé sa fraîcheur de la nuit.
L’on sort sans autre but que de sortir ; on suit,
Le long de la rivière aux vagues herbes jaunes,
Un chemin de gazon que bordent de vieux aunes.
L’air est vif. Par moments un oiseau vole avec
Quelque fruit de la haie ou quelque paille au bec,
Et son reflet dans l’eau survit à son passage.
C’est tout.
xxxxxxxxxxMais le songeur aime ce paysage
Dont la claire douceur a soudain caressé
Son rêve de bonheur adorable, et bercé
Le souvenir charmant de cette jeune fille,
Blanche apparition qui chante et qui scintille,
Dont rêve le poète et que l’homme chérit,
Évoquant en ses vœux dont peut-être on sourit
La Compagne qu’enfin il a trouvée, et l’âme
Que son âme depuis toujours pleure et réclame.



In those white autumn days, you caused me much distress,
For in your eyes there shone the animal,
And you gnawed on me, little Mouse Princess,
With the sharp eyetooth of your smile.
Noble girl who set my agony ablaze
With rancid oil from old tears you had shed,
Yes, you fool, I would have died of your damned gaze,
But the pond sleeps down there, unsuspected,
And its still water has drunk the winds that flow
From the tall mast of the lily, boat that should have had high praise,
So now (you know you want to) go,
Jump in, paddle! I’ll ask forgiveness with so soft a word
That only were you deaf could it be heard.



Tu m’as, ces pâles jours d’automne blanc, fait mal
A cause de tes yeux où fleurit l’animal,
Et tu me rongerais, en princesse Souris,
Du bout fin de la quenotte de ton souris.
Fille auguste qui fis flamboyer ma douleur
Avec l’huile rancie encor de ton vieux pleur!
Oui, folle, je mourrais de ton regard damné.
Mais va (veux-tu?) l’étang là dort insoupçonné
Dont du lis, nef qu’il eût fallu qu’on acclamât,
L’eau morte a bu le vent qui coule du grand mât
T’y jeter, palme! et d’avance mon repentir
Parle si bas qu’il faut être sourd pour l’ouïr.



Here is some fruit, some flowers, some branches and some leaves.
And here, too, is my heart, that only beats for you.
Do not tear it apart with your two pale hands,
But in your eyes, so lovely, may my small gift seem good.

I arrive on your doorstep still drenched in morning dew
That the brisk dawn breezes have frozen to my face.
Permit my fatigue, lying at your feet,
To dream of those sweet moments that reinvigorate.

The echoes of your last kisses are still ringing in my head;
Allow it to roll upon your soft young breast,
So it can find some peace after the splendid storm,
And I can sleep a little while you rest.



Voici des fruits, des fleurs, des feuilles et des branches.
Et puis voici mon cœur, qui ne bat que pour vous.
Ne le déchirez pas avec vos deux mains blanches
Et qu’à vos yeux si beaux l’humble présent soit doux.

J’arrive tout couvert encore de rosée
Que le vent du matin vient glacer à mon front.
Souffrez que ma fatigue, à vos pieds reposée,
Rêve des chers instants qui la délasseront.

Sur votre jeune sein laissez rouler ma tête
Toute sonore encore de vos derniers baisers ;
Laissez-la s’apaiser de la bonne tempête,
Et que je dorme un peu puisque vous reposez.



Gaspard Hauser  sings:

I came, calm orphan with no riches,
Save only for my tranquil eyes,
To the men living in big cities.
They did not think me clever.

At twenty, yet another trouble
Under the name of love’s fever
Made me find women beautiful.
They did not find me handsome.

Though nobody would call me brave
And I have neither king nor country,
I went to war to find a grave.
Death did not want me, either.

Was I born too early or too late?
What am I doing in this world?
I tell you all, I am desperate—
Say a prayer for poor Gaspard.


Je suis venu, calme orphelin

Gaspard Hauser chante :

Je suis venu, calme orphelin
Riche de mes seuls yeux tranquilles,
Vers les hommes des grandes villes :
Ils ne m’ont pas trouvé malin.

À vingt ans un trouble nouveau,
Sous le nom d’amoureuses flammes
M’a fait trouver belles les femmes :
Elles ne m’ont pas trouvé beau.

Bien que sans patrie et sans roi
Et très brave ne l’étant guère,
J’ai voulu mourir à la guerre :
La mort n’a pas voulu de moi.

Suis-je né trop tôt ou trop tard ?
Qu’est-ce que je fais en ce monde ?
Ô vous tous, ma peine est profonde :
Priez pour le pauvre Gaspard !



I do not know why
Bitter thoughts take me
To fly on troubled and crazed wings above the sea.
All I hold dear,
With wings of fear
My love enfolds upon the waves. Why? Why?

Gull in melancholy flight
Following the swells, my spirit,
Buffeted by every wind,
Turning when the tide slants in,
Gull in melancholy flight.

Drunk on the sun’s rays
And on liberty
An instinct guides it across this immensity.
The summer breeze
Over crimson seas
Carries it gently in a warm half-daze.

Sometimes it cries so sorrowfully
That it alarms the far-off pilot.
It lets the wind take it, and soars, and stalls,
And plummets, then, wings wrenched in the fall,
Flies again, crying so sorrowfully.

I do not know why
Bitter thoughts take me
To fly on troubled and crazed wings above the sea.
All I hold dear,
With wings of fear
My love enfolds upon the waves. Why? Why?


Sur les eaux

Je ne sais pourquoi
Mon esprit amer
D’une aile inquiète et folle vole sur la mer,
Tout ce qui m’est cher,
D’une aile d’effroi
Mon amour le couve au ras des flots. Pourquoi, pourquoi ?

Mouette à l’essor mélancolique.
Elle suit la vague, ma pensée,
À tous les vents du ciel balancée
Et biaisant quand la marée oblique,
Mouette à l’essor mélancolique.

Ivre de soleil
Et de liberté,
Un instinct la guide à travers cette immensité.
La brise d’été
Sur le flot vermeil
Doucement la porte en un tiède demi-sommeil.

Parfois si tristement elle crie
Qu’elle alarme au lointain le pilote
Puis au gré du vent se livre et flotte
Et plonge, et l’aile toute meurtrie
Revole, et puis si tristement crie !

Je ne sais pourquoi
Mon esprit amer
D’une aile inquiète et folle vole sur la mer.
Tout ce qui m’est cher,
D’une aile d’effroi
Mon amour le couve au ras des flots. Pourquoi, pourquoi ?

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