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The Brother of Us All

I grew accustomed to pure hallucination: I saw quite frankly a mosque in place of a factory…. At the end I looked on the disorder of my mind as sacred…. My disposition grew embittered. I said farewell to the world in the form of light poems [romances]:

CHANSON DE LA PLUS HAUTE TOUR

Qu’ù jamais j’oublie.
Le temps dont on s’éprenne.

J’ai tant fait patience
Qu’à jamais j’oublie.
Craintes et souffrances
Aux cieux sont parties.

SONG OF THE HIGHEST TOWER

May it come, may it come
The time we will fall in love with.

I have been patient so long
That I have no memory left.
Fear and suffering
Have fled to the heavens.

A child could have written it; a child could understand it—or so it seems. All five of the texts he quotes (or rather misquotes: he keeps forgetting his own lines and supplying an inferior approximation) as the products of his madness and terror on the very edges of the world surrounded by darkness and the whirlwind—all these texts display a comparable simplicity. Is he being ironic? Is he mocking himself? On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to assign a single meaning to any of these poems; they are pure rhythm and music, a congeries of evocations that has not congealed into rational discourse. Three out of the four such poems called “Festivals of Patience” are written in end-stopped lines of five syllables, with more half-rhymes than correct rhymes, and using a child’s vocabulary. Even Verlaine, in his famous presentation of Rimbaud in Les Poètes maudits, seems not to grasp the importance of these romances even though he went on himself to echo their style in his own Romances sans paroles.

Can it be true that these beautiful, almost invisible poems represent Rimbaud’s most extreme effort to “note down the inexpressible”? Indeed it is true, even though we are now confronted with a paradox of style. The intricate, fast-paced texts of the Illuminations reach out toward the smoothness and order of a newly created universe. By an inverse relation of things, it is out of the throes of Rimbaud’s deliberate dislocation of mind and sensibility that issue the deceptively cool tonalities of “Festivals of Patience.” In this Rimbaud is not alone. Like magic buoys, Shakespeare’s songs often mark the real depths in his plays, moments when his usual rhythms would seem inadequate and when the most feeling use of words is a child’s ditty. And there are Yeats’s Crazy Jane poems. The educated Frenchman may tell you that Michelet is the French Shakespeare. I find a far more exciting encounter in Rimbaud’s romances and Shakespeare’s songs.

Elle est retrouvée
Quoi?—L’éternité.
C’est la mer allée
Avec le soleil.

It has been found again.
What has?—Eternity.
It is the sea gone off
With the sun.

But for such an encounter, translation is all.

PROFESSOR WALLACE FOWLIE’S two volumes now make all Rimbaud’s texts available in English for the first time, and contain in addition a commentary on the most difficult sections. The Complete Works really are as complete as one could ask, including all the prose and poetry (except three minor satires out of the playful Album Zutique), and a fine selection of thirty-odd letters. The only omission one could possibly regret is the first drafts of A Season in Hell. It is all cleanly printed with facing English and French in one mediumsize volume with a brief Introduction and a minimum of footnotes. The texts appear in rough chronological order, with the Illuminations following A Season in Hell. The only liberty Fowlie has taken is to arrange the Illuminations not in the random order in which they have been discovered (we remain ignorant both of the order of composition and of Rimbaud’s intended arrangement) but in five categories according to theme. Reading them thus imposes a kind of sequence which I very much doubt Rimbaud would have wanted and which strikes me as too tidy. It mutes some of the inner contrasts and reflections that a less systematic arrangement brings out. The reason for this order is that the volume of texts conforms to the groupings proposed in the companion volume Rimbaud: A Critical Study. The two are intended for use together; in effect the one is a sustained commentary to the other.

Wallace Fowlie has been writing on all aspects of French literature and culture for some thirty years, translating and editing and reviewing indefatigably. When collected under catch-all titles as books, his essays are uneven and sometimes show a Catholic bias (A Guide to Contemporary French Literature; The Clown’s Grail). When he works on a single author who challenges his sensitivity to literary values, he can produce a work of genuine substance. Fowlie’s Mallarmé is one of the two or three important books in English on a very difficult poet. A Reading of Proust has the modesty to remain a reader’s hand-book of great practical and intellectual value. At his best, Fowlie is a superb interpreter whose learning rarely interferes with a direct reading of the text. This kind of writing clearly springs from a lifetime dedicated to the teaching of literature. There is no hiatus here between “teaching and research.”

Fowlie’s critical volume on Rimbaud is a re-make of two earlier volumes: a not very successful biographical study, now completely revised and tightened; and a study of the Illuminations, reproduced with only a few changes. Not so well sustained as the Mallarmé and the Proust studies, this is nevertheless a very useful book. It deals judiciously with disputed issues such as Rimbaud’s doubtful deathbed conversion, and subsequent billing as a Catholic poet, and the dating of the works. The interpretations are suggestive and cite many other critics. My reservations about the book concern its critical approaches. Fowlie has a tendency to value a poem according to its autobiographical content. “Every major poem by Rimbaud is the microcosm of his complete story” (p. 20). Such statements are either commonplace or misleading. The adjective “ornate” crops up a few times applied to Rimbaud’s style. But his sensibility was too impatient to traffic with rhetoric and ornament; any ornateness belongs to the vision itself and is not glued on. Fowlie’s last chapter, “Angelism,” elaborates a metaphor for Rimbaud that was dear to Claudel and Cocteau. In A Season in Hell, for example, Rimbaud referred to himself as “magician or angel, exempt from all morality.” But there is just as much about the devil and even more about an exasperated, supercharged humanity that sounds very much like Nietzsche. I do not feel the force of the angel figure and believe it will be a distraction to most readers.

The book as a whole, however, does not turn on the theme of angelism. Fowlie makes his points well when he demonstrates how in Rimbaud “the word is an action, rapid and devastating,” and how in the Illuminations particularly he achieves a nearly total fusion of dream and reality. These are the essentials.1

NOW THE TRANSLATIONS. There is no other complete collection in the field. New Directions keeps available Louise Varèse’s translations with the French of A Season in Hell and “The Drunken Boat,” and of Illuminations. Almost thirty years ago New Directions also published Delmore Schwartz’s translation of A Season in Hell. After a second edition it was allowed to go out of print.2 Individual poems and prose selections have appeared in translation in hundreds of reviews and little magazines in this country and England since the Twenties.

In Fowlie’s volume, with the original staring implacably across from the lefthand page, one has to be content with a faithful prose version of everything.3 The regular verse neither rhymes nor scans in English and no apologies are made. We are given the sense; the sound is left behind. The pressure, inevitably, is off, and the pleasure halved. Take one of the crucial stanzas near the end of “The Drunken Boat.”

Mais, vrai, j’ai trop pleuré! Les Aubes sont navrantes.
Toute lune est atroce et tout soleil amer:
L’âcre amour m’a gonflé de torpeurs enivrantes.
O que ma quille éclate! O que j’aille à la mer!

The language revels in two pairs of sonorous rhymes, several series of harsh alliterations, and an explosive rhythm at the end. Fowlie renders it thus:

But, in truth, I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking.
Every moon is atrocious and every sun bitter.
Acrid love has swollen me with in- toxicating torpor.
O let my keel burst! O let me go into the sea!

It is accurate; no neophyte, looking for a reliable platform from which to plunge into the French, will be misdirected. But the lines are limp in English. It reads like unsuccessful free verse. Most poetry is translated in just this fashion today. The trot serves a genuine purpose, but what happens to one’s ear? Louise Varèse tries a more compressed line.

True I have wept too much! Dawns are heartbreaking:
Cruel all moons and bitter the suns.
Drunk with love’s acrid torpors,
O let my keel burst! Let me go to the sea!

It comes off better if only because faster moving. But for that reason it makes a less satisfactory trot, without yet being a poem. Robert Lowell found he could hammer out only fifteen stanzas when he squared off with this twenty-five stanza poem. Having, naturally, eliminated the facing original, he introduces some startling new elements.

I cannot watch these purple suns go down
Like actors on the Aeschylean stage.
I’m drunk on water. I cry out too much—
Oh that my keel might break, and I might drown.

Oddly enough the first two-and-a-half lines read more like Baudelaire than Rimbaud, even though ivre d’eau is salvaged from an earlier stanza. The rhymes do not begin to rival the richness of the French. Nevertheless, if only because of its rhythm (echoing the St. Louis Blues?), one wants to sound out these four lines with conviction and excitement. And, though not strictly accurate, Lowell has found a convincing version of the last words.

The songs of “Festivals of Patience,” quoted in A Season in Hell, are if anything harder to translate. Pure crystal:

J’ai tant fait patience
Qu’à jamais j’oublie.
Craintes et souffrances
Aux cieux sont parties.

I have been patient so long
That I have no memory left.
Fear and suffering
Have fled to the heavens.

Why, oh why not use a contraction to catch the beat? Why retain a superfluous “that” in English? Merely replacing “heavens” with “skies” clips off a dangling line.

I’ve been patient so long
My memory’s gone.
My griefs and my fears
Have fled to the skies.

Not much better. But it is the direction one must go with such a poem. Louise Varèse opts for rhyme, but the result is still clumsy.

I’ve been patient too long,
My memory is dead,
All fears and all wrongs
To the heavens have fled.

There should be a trophy permanently awaiting anyone who can English such a poem, or even improve on earlier versions. Delmore Schwartz whittles it down even finer.

Patient so long,
I forgot forever.
Fear and Suffering
Are lifted away.

Now let us take a prose passage and see how far apart three translators can move.

Rimbaud:

On ne part pas.—Reprenons les chemins d’ici, chargé de mon vice, le vice qui a poussé ses racines de souffrance à mon côté, dès l’âge de raison,—qui monte au ciel, me bat, me renverse, me traîne.

La dernière innocence et la dernière timidité. C’est dit. Ne pas porter au monde mes dégoûts et mes trahisons.

(Mauvais Sang—Bad Blood)

Fowlie:

You cannot get away.—Let me follow the roads here again, burdened with my vice, the vice that sank its roots of suffering at my side as early as the age of reason—and that rises to the sky, batters me, knocks me down, drags me after it.

The last innocence and the last shyness. It has been said. I will not take into the world my betrayals and what disgusts me.

Varèse:

We’re not going.—Back over the old roads again, laden with my vice, the vice whose roads of suffering have flourished at my side since reason dawned,—that rises to the skies, belabours me, knocks me down, drags me along.

The last innocence and the last timidity. It’s settled. Not to display my betrayals and disgusts to the world.

Schwartz:

There is no escape.—Let’s go over the track once more from here on, carrying my vice, the vice which has put forth roots of suffering in my side since the age of reason,—the vice which rises to the sky, strikes me, throws me down, drags me along.

The ultimate innocence and the ultimate timidity. That’s settled. No parading before the world my disgusts and my treacheries.

Is it sheer perverseness that makes me find Schwartz’s out-of-print version the best? “In my side” is not very accurate, but it hardly does violence to the passage. The hardest parts seem to be the short sentences. “On ne part pas…. C’est dit.” Schwartz alone catches both of them.

I can best describe Rimbaud’s writing, poetry and prose, as an endlessly renewed coming to his senses. Having punished them, over-stimulated and overtaxed them, he finally arrests the hallucination thus induced and releases his senses to seek innocence and peace. It is not a savory story but a true one, in the flesh and in the work.

Letters

Translation August 24, 1967

  1. 1

    One misleading error has crept in on page 116. The Illuminations were first published not in 1880 but in 1886, after Victor Hugo’s death, at a moment when the newspapers were just beginning to talk about something called Symbolism.

  2. 2

    There is, in addition, a still unpublished translation of the complete works by Paul Schmidt. It is far and away the best version I have seen and should not be allowed to languish in limbo. The poems come through as poems in English. Because of the lack of any tradition in English to support the prose poem, he decided to render the Illuminations in a form close to free verse. It is a revealing success.

  3. 3

    There is one serious textual error on page 304. After Rimbaud quotes “Le Coeur supplicié” in the letter to Izambard of May 13, 1871, he adds the sentence: “Cela ne veut pas rien dire.” (“That’s not nonsense.”) Following the Pléiade rather than the more recent and accurate Garnier edition, Fowlie omits the crucial negative particle, pas. It is far too easy to dismiss Rimbaud as nonsense without this inadvertent support.

    Naturally one must disagree with many of the choices Fowlie makes in translating such elusive texts. I shall cite only three. There is no “corn” in “The Men Who Sit.” They are sitting on straw seats and the “épis” belong to rye or wheat. Page 193: “The story of one of my follies.” I insist that it is madness at stake here, and much turns on the word. On page 305 the sentence about “a Young France” comes out badly garbled.

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