Saturday, March 28, 2015

no one reads sully prudhomme anymore

[ i can find no credit for this photograph of Prudhomme ]

No one reads Sully Prudhomme anymore, not even in France, I suppose, unless forced to do so at school, and then with the same ill-will that American teenagers bring to Longfellow or E. A. Robinson. It isn't hard to see why. His is not a fashionable poetics, nowadays seeming stilted and quaint in an unhappy way that we might call "didactic" or "moralizing." And yet, back in 1901, Prudhomme won the first-ever Nobel Prize in Literature, capping a career as a very popular poet and intellectual, popular even among the young. He was at the center of mainstream culture and “establishment poetry” in late-19th century, bourgeois Europe, whereas the Decadent and Symbolist poets we remember today were decidedly “fringe,” in comparison. No one reads Sully Prudhomme anymore, but everyone did, once.

But --- if we can manage to look a little askew around the corners of what we expect him to be --- there is still some interesting poetry in him, after all. Prudhomme is a poet of careful, insightful thought in graceful language under the control of craft that often enough rises to be called art. Perhaps he will never replace Mallarmé or even Paul Valéry as anyone's favorite turn-of-the-century poet, but he still deserves some attention, at least
to be remembered, now and then.

I won't belabor these two poems, after all pretty short ones, with exegesis. (They aren't his most popular or best, simply the two that caught my fancy.) But in “The Ideal” Prudhomme quietly manages a very impressive bit of ideological heavy-lifting. Applying an awareness of modern cosmology --- he knows that some stars are so distant that their light hasn't yet reached the earth, billions of years after the universe came into existence --- he switches his attitude toward the ancient philosophical notion of “the Ideal” from a metaphysical plane to locate it henceforth in spatial imagination, a matter of inconceivably vast, but not infinite, distances in a physical cosmos.

“The Cliff” is another poem that re-orients traditional verities and is in harmony with the changing understanding of human nature in Prudhomme's day. It is not, of course, the ocean that modulates its message to suit the hearer, but rather each human subjectivity that perceives a different world, filtered through a shifting self made of accumulated experience, conscience, and response.

But, the poems ….

L’Idéal / The Ideal

La lune est grande, le ciel clair
Et plein d’astres, la terre est blême,
Et l’âme du monde est dans l’air.
Je rêve à l’étoile suprême,

The moon is broad, the sky
Clear and rich with lights, and air
The world's soul over pale earth.
I dream of that farthest star,

À celle qu’on n’aperçoit pas,
Mais dont la lumière voyage
Et doit venir jusqu’ici-bas
Enchanter les yeux d’un autre âge.

Which no one has ever yet seen,
But whose light is long on its way
And will at last arrive here
To charm the eyes of a later day.

Quand luira cette étoile, un jour,
La plus belle et la plus lointaine,
Dites-lui qu’elle eut mon amour,
Ô derniers de la race humaine!

You, then, last of the human race,
When that star appears above,
The fairest and most far,
Tell her of me, that she had my love.


La Falaise / The Cliff

Deux hommes sont montés sur la haute falaise;
Ils ont fermé les yeux pour écouter la mer:
« J'entends le paradis pousser des clameurs d'aise.
Et moi j'entends gémir les foules de l'enfer.»

Two men labored up a high cliff's steep rise
and closed their eyes to hear the ocean swell.
“I hear sighs of pleasure from paradise.”
“I hear throngs of the damned, shrieking in hell.”

Alors, épouvantés des songes de l'ouïe,
Ils ont rouvert les yeux sous le même soleil.
L'Océan sait parler, selon l'âme et la vie,
Aux hommes différents avec un bruit pareil.

Frightened by such vagaries of hearing, again
They look and find the same sun overhead.
---The Ocean speaks in one voice to different men,
but fits its sense to match the lives they've led.

--Sully Prudhomme
(my translations)


  1. Thank you for those beautiful translations. Anatole France was particularly fond of Sully's The Danaids and The Big Dipper sonnets.

    The Danaids

    Toutes, portant l’amphore, une main sur la hanche,
    Théano, Callidie, Amymone, Agavé,
    Esclaves d’un labeur sans cesse inachevé,
    Courent du puits à l’urne où l’eau vaine s’épanche.

    Hélas ! le grès rugueux meurtrit l’épaule blanche,
    Et le bras faible est las du fardeau soulevé :
    « Monstre, que nous avons nuit et jour abreuvé,
    Ô gouffre, que nous veut ta soif que rien n’étanche ? »

    Elles tombent, le vide épouvante leurs coeurs ;
    Mais la plus jeune alors, moins triste que ses soeurs,
    Chante, et leur rend la force et la persévérance.

    Tels sont l’oeuvre et le sort de nos illusions :
    Elles tombent toujours, et la jeune Espérance
    Leur dit toujours : « Mes soeurs, si nous recommencions ! »

    All of them carrying the amphora, hand on hip,
    Sisters Theano, Callydia, Amymone and Agave,
    Slaves to their eternally unfinished task,
    Run towards the urn where water pours in vain.

    Alas! rough clay bruises their white shoulders,
    And their weak arms tire of the lifted burden:
    "Oh Monster, whom we have day and night watered,
    Abyss, what does your unquenchable thirst want from us?

    They fall, the void fills their hearts with dread;
    But then the younger sister, always the less sad,
    Sings, and gives them the strength to persevere.

    Just like that is the toil and fate of our dreams:
    They always fall short, but evergreen, young Hope
    To them always says, "My sisters, let's begin again!"

    The Big Dipper

    La Grande Ourse, archipel de l’océan sans bords,
    Scintillait bien avant qu’elle fût regardée,
    Bien avant qu’il errât des pâtres en Chaldée
    Et que l’âme anxieuse eût habité les corps ;

    D’innombrables vivants contemplent depuis lors
    Sa lointaine lueur aveuglément dardée ;
    Indifférente aux yeux qui l’auront obsédée,
    La Grande Ourse luira sur le dernier des morts.

    Tu n’as pas l’air chrétien, le croyant s’en étonne,
    O figure fatale, exacte et monotone,
    Pareille à sept clous d’or plantés sur un drap noir.

    Ta précise lenteur et ta froide lumière
    Déconcertent la foi : c’est toi qui la première
    M’as fait examiner mes prières du soir.

    1. Cleanthess ah, i like La Grande Ourse ... and now i begin to itch with the idea of translating it, too ..

      thank you for these:-)


  2. the first one made me remember a romanian poem by Eminescu, have i ever showed it to you? here it is in translation:

    To The Star
    Up to the star that's just appeared
    The journey's long, and so
    For thousand years its light careered
    To reach us here, below.

    It may have faded on its way
    Of old, in blue spheres bright
    Though only now its shining ray
    Unfolds to this our sight.

    The image of the star that died
    Comes slowly to the fore:
    It used to be when it would hide -
    We see what is no more.

    And likewise, while our yearning dove
    Died in the deepest night,
    The light of the extinguished love
    Still follows us in flight.

    tr. Andrei Bantas

    and the original:

    La Steaua

    La steaua care-a răsărit
    E-o cale-atât de lungă,
    Că mii de ani i-au trebuit
    Luminii să ne-ajungă.

    Poate de mult s-a stins în drum
    În depărtări albastre,
    Iar raza ei abia acum
    Luci vederii noastre,

    Icoana stelei ce-a murit
    Încet pe cer se suie:
    Era pe când nu s-a zărit,
    Azi o vedem, şi nu e.

    Tot astfel când al nostru dor
    Pieri în noapte-adâncă,
    Lumina stinsului amor
    Ne urmăreşte încă.

    1. Roxana: no, i don't think i have seen this before!!! it is beautiful :-) thank you. it should be alongside the prudhomme poem ...

      the translation ... obviously, it is a real accomplishment staying so close to the form of the original ... but there are a few little things, aren't there? ... i regret seeing "al nostru dor" become "our yearning dove," which is really an extra dose of sentiment that the poem doesn't need ... but then, i don't know if i could do any better ... (i start looking for other solutions .. oh, what have you done to me?:-))