Musée Rimbaud, Charleville-Mézières/Scala/White Images/Art Resource

Arthur Rimbaud in bed after Paul Verlaine shot him in the wrist; painting by Jef Rosman, 1873


Poems Under Saturn was the first book published by the twenty-two-year-old Paul Verlaine. Illuminations was the last book written by Arthur Rimbaud, at the age of twenty or twenty-one, after which he not only gave up writing but refused a year or so later even to discuss any literary subject, while his work was gradually becoming famous. In the end, Verlaine and the ten-years-younger Rimbaud, along with Stéphane Mallarmé, are the only French poets of the last third of the nineteenth century to have reached an impregnable position in the pantheon of great classic writers. They are also famous for a scandalous and stormy relationship that lasted almost two years, ending in Brussels with Verlaine (whose drunken rages often skirted the homicidal) shooting Rimbaud in the wrist, for which he spent a year in prison, where he became a born-again Christian. They met only once more and Rimbaud mocked his new devotion, nicknaming him “Loyola,” and took him out to a café to get drunk and blaspheme. (“We made the 98 wounds of Our Lord bleed again,” he wrote to a friend.)

With all his genius and considerable charm, the young Rimbaud must have been difficult to bear. Insolent with most everyone, he was embarrassing in public and he never washed. To the spectacular diary of those inveterate (and homophobic) gossipmongers the brothers Goncourt we owe the story of Rimbaud proclaiming in a café that he didn’t mind being regularly sodomized by Verlaine but found it disgusting that Verlaine demand that he reciprocate on his own less youthful body. A letter from Verlaine of April 16, 1875, to a friend of Rimbaud (Ernest Delahaye) to justify his final breaking-off of the relationship gives a picture, revealing although necessarily prejudiced, of the affair:

Let’s liquidate the Rimbaud question.

In the first place, I did everything not to break with him. The last word of my last letter to him was “cordially.” And I explained there in detail my arithmetical reasons for not sending him money. He responded by (1) impertinences decorated by obscure threats of blackmail, (2) apothecary accountings in which he demonstrated to me that it was a good business investment to “lend” him the sum in question…. In a word, speculation on my former stupidity, on my guilty folly of a short time ago of wishing to live only for him and his inspiration—plus the coarse manners at last insupportable—of a child that I spoiled too much and who pays me (o logic, o the justice of things) with the most stupid ingratitude; For has he not really killed the hen with the golden eggs:

Therefore, I have not broken with him. I am waiting
for excuses without promising anything, and if I sulk, well, then, I
sulk…. Eighteen months of what you know, my little savings
considerably diminished, my marriage destroyed, my advice rejected, with
the grossest lack of manners! Thank you!

After Rimbaud’s permanent withdrawal from literature, Verlaine collected as much of his work as had not been burned vengefully by Verlaine’s wife, and began after some years to publish it.

Rimbaud’s precocity was perhaps the most astonishing in the history of literature, with some of his most famous poems written when he was sixteen. His work fundamentally altered the subsequent history of literature, and had a profound influence on the French Surrealists and later French poets, as well as on the Americans Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, and Hart Crane. In an address at Harvard in 1936 on freedom in literature, Stevens chose only a single quotation to illustrate his topic, a paragraph from one of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, called “Ruts” in John Ashbery’s new translation. He introduces the quotation with a comment that gives us a good idea of the fundamental importance of Rimbaud for modern literature. Stevens asks:

When we find in poetry that which gives us a momentary existence on an exquisite plane, is it necessary to ask the meaning of the poem? If the poem had a meaning and if its explanation destroyed the illusion, should we have gained or lost?

Stevens returns to Rimbaud later in the lecture with the observation:

In spite of the cynicisms that occur to us as we hear of such things, a freedom not previously experienced, a poetry not previously conceived of, may occur with the suddenness inherent in poetic metamorphosis. For poets, that possibility is the ultimate obsession. They purge themselves before reality, in the meantime, in what they intend to be saintly exercises.

You will remember the letter written by Rimbaud to M. Delahaye, in which he said:

It is necessary to be a seer, to make oneself a seer. The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense and reasoned unruliness of the senses…. He attains the unknown.

It was this venture into the unknown that gave Rimbaud his international stature.


Rimbaud admired Verlaine and learned from him. Nevertheless, Rimbaud’s finest work had a classical mastery that equaled the older man’s, and his last works after the age of nineteen contained a radical vision that had no rival except in the very different work of Mallarmé.

Illuminations may not be the absolutely final work of Rimbaud as these prose poems both precede and follow the writing of the semi-autobiographical A Season in Hell, a book that Rimbaud himself had printed, and then left the copies unpaid for at the printers, to be rediscovered more than twenty years later. Verlaine’s work has a variety of effects with a kind of virtuosity that makes him look occasionally like a trickster when compared with Rimbaud; he was technically the most accomplished poet of his time, with the exception of the old Victor Hugo, who overlapped with the beginning of his career.

The tasks of translating the late prose poems of Rimbaud and the intricate and elaborate verse constructions of Verlaine are very different ones. It must be said that John Ashbery’s project of rendering Rimbaud’s prose is the simpler one. Ashbery, already enshrined as a classic in the Library of America, never loses his sense of ease and grace. He is the great surviving representative of the New York School of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch; but he rarely indulged in the roughhouse that occasionally marked their style, and he had from the beginning an easygoing serenity and a delicate ear for sound that was all his own. His translation has sharpness as well as serenity, and he transmits the elegance of the original. His version of “Mystical” keeps the force as well. This poem conveys with a studied precision the freewheeling power of irrational imagery that so fascinated Stevens in Rimbaud. It opens:

On the slope of the embankment, angels swirl their woolen dresses through pastures of steel and emerald.

Meadows of flame leap to the top of the knoll. On the left, the compost of the ridge has been trampled by all the homicides and all the battles, and all the catastrophic sounds describe their curve. Behind the right-hand ridge is the line of orients, of progress.

This is a landscape not only of imagination, but of an imagination still affecting us profoundly, from which logic has been tossed aside. While “pastures of steel and emerald” gives us a jolt that does not entirely pass away when we realize it is a metaphor for color, the phrase retains its force along with the narrative that follows, which is inexplicable but does not seem to call for explanation.

The opening landscape of another prose poem, “Historic Evening,” is even more challenging:

For example, on whatever evening the naïve tourist finds himself retired from our economic horrors, the hand of a virtuoso animates the harpsichord of the fields; they’re playing cards at the bottom of the pond, mirror that conjures up queens and favorites, they have female saints, veils, and threads of harmony, and legendary chromaticisms, against the sunset.

He shudders at the passing of huntsmen and hordes. Comedy drips onto the trestles of the lawn. And the confusion of the poor and the weak at those stupid levels!

It was with such radical measures that Rimbaud liberated the poetry of the next century when his work was at last discovered by other poets and the public.

As Stevens warned us above, the proper approach to poems like these is certainly not a stern “What do you mean by this?” like a parent dealing with a recalcitrant child. Nevertheless, many of the prose poems in Illuminations have inspired elaborate commentary, some of it useful and even valuable, into which we shall not enter here. There is, indeed, probably always a meaning, but it must be found starting with the effect of the prose on our sensibility and emotions, with analysis playing a secondary role.

There are a few unimportant inaccurate details in Ashbery’s translations. The evident wish to avoid anything stilted causes him to miss a few nuances. In “Childhood” he writes, “That’s her, the dead little girl, behind the rosebushes.—The dead young mother descends the front steps.” But Rimbaud contrasts “la petite morte” with “La jeune maman trépassée.” Trépassée is more highfalutin than morte, and the “dead young girl” should be followed by “the deceased young mother” (or mama). Ashbery often uses colloquial contractions like “that’s” and “don’t.” Some of Rimbaud’s verse is often in a popular vein with demotic slang, but the prose of Illuminations is consistently formal. The long poem called “Genie,” which Ashbery and other critics consider the most impressive of all, is rendered eloquently. It is the invocation of a Christ-like figure, but one that is disconcertingly individual and original. I single out a few details:


He is affection and the future, strength and love that we, standing amid rage and troubles, see passing in the storm-rent sky and on banners of ecstasy….

He won’t go away, nor descend from a heaven again, he won’t accomplish the redemption of women’s anger and the gaiety of men and of all that sin: for it is now accomplished, with him being, and being loved….

His body! The dreamed-of release, the shattering of grace crossed with new violence!…

His day! the abolition of all resonant and surging suffering in more intense music….

O world! and the clear song of new misfortunes!

This is a very modern savior, who comes with the acceptance of violence and new misfortunes.

As Ashbery remarks at the end of his very fine preface, after musing on modernism in the arts:

Somewhere at the root of this, the crystalline jumble of Rimbaud’s Illuminations, like a disordered collection of magic lantern slides, each an “intense and rapid dream,” in his words, is still emitting pulses. If we are absolutely modern—and we are—it’s because Rimbaud commanded us to be.

Reading through the whole translation is an extraordinary and moving experience, however, and we must be grateful to Ashbery for making accessible a great monument of early modern literature in a rendering that is a convincing and continuous pleasure.


Karl Kirchwey achieves some masterful effects in his translation of Verlaine’s large collection Poems Under Saturn. Here is the fine opening of a poem called, in French as well as English, “Nevermore”:


Musée d’Orsay, Paris/Erich Lessing/Art Resource

Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud; detail of a painting by Henri Fantin-Latour, 1872

Memory, memory, what do you want from me? I remember
Autumn made the thrush fly through the lifeless air,
And the sun launched a monotonous ray where
The north wind exploded in a wood growing yellower.

This is very eloquent. The rhyme of “where” and “air” is lovely. Yet the final “er” of the last word is a touch awkward, and may seem to be unnecessary. It is there because Kirchwey wants a half rhyme for “remember.” In fact, Kirchwey has added “I remember” to Verlaine in order to be able to duplicate the fact that Verlaine rhymes all his lines in this stanza. Of course, Verlaine’s rhymes are always perfect rhymes, not half rhymes, since it is much easier to rhyme in French than in English. Even the rules for rhyming in French are more lax than in English as one needs to match only the final syllable, but two words are not considered a proper rhyme in English unless there is a different first consonant on the last accented syllable of both words—which makes possible the famous extravagant rhymes of Byron (“ladies intellectual”/”hen pecked you all”) and Ogden Nash (“the pelican/Whose beak holds more than his belly can.”)

With complex verse forms, the initial question for a translator is: What aspect of the poem must be translated into the new language? And there is no truly satisfying answer to this question; there are only temporary compromise decisions that must depend on the individual nature of each work that is to be translated. Which aspect seems important enough to retain? And can it be reproduced in the second language? There is first the content or the meaning of the words; if that is all that is necessary, a prose crib will do, a simple word-by-word rendering. That is not enough for many poets, but that is what many readers would want for Lucretius’ immensely long exposition of the Epicurean philosophy, On the Nature of Things. Perhaps there is much more to Lucretius than that but the little Latin I learned in high school is not good enough to tell me.

We can also try to preserve the pattern of the line-end rhymes, or the arrangement of syllables per line if that seems important; or to reproduce the rhythm of the accents, which will make a problem going from French to English as every French word (or every group of words considered as a unit) is accented only on the final syllable unless the final syllable is a “mute” e, that is only lightly sounded in poetic diction but not pronounced at all in conversation, except by inhabitants of the south of France. English verse is not written that way, although the great poet Marianne Moore wrote English in something like the French system, counting syllables and not accents to determine the length of a line.

Kirchwey can be wonderfully accurate in rendering the meaning of Verlaine’s words and is very sensitive to the rhythm of the lines. His translation of the final stanza of “Evening Star” is remarkable:

The barn owls awaken and, silent,
Oar the black air with their heavy wings,
And the zenith fills with dull glimmerings.
Pale Venus rises, and it is night.

Using “oar” as a verb is a touch of genius and enlivens the verse.

One aspect of poetry essential for most readers is hard to define, and it is the most difficult for a translator to deal with. We may call this aspect “tone”; it is the general sound or texture or atmosphere and interaction with meaning that makes some poems absolutely individual. It is hard to define because it is a changeable harmony of various elements. The sonority of different vowels, the alliteration of consonants, the character of the meter, the length of the inner phrases, and many other rhetorical devices must all be taken into account. Verdi said that each of his operas had a different tinto, a coloring that defined its musical character and made each unique; tone in poetry is like that. A famous example in English may illustrate:

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past….

The heavy alliteration on the letter s gives a hushed quality to the lines that is striking and individual. The pacing also counts in making the thought effective. The first half of the first line is light and swift and is delayed to force us to dwell on “sweet silent thought” with the stronger accents. That is also true of the second line where “things past” forces a more emphatic, heavier pace. The combination of sense and sound is so striking that a translation that fails to reproduce it is bound to disappoint.

Poets who depend largely on tone, like Leopardi, are particularly hard to translate. Heine, it seems to me, translates well, but Goethe’s lyric poetry is rarely successful in another language because he has a command of such a wide variety of different styles. It is hard for a non-Russian speaker to understand why Pushkin is considered so great; Vladimir Nabakov’s commentary helps us somewhat to comprehend how he is appreciated but his translation does not read like great poetry. I do not know what Cavafy is like in Greek but almost any translation makes him appear very grand.

Verlaine depends heavily on tone; in “Autumn Song,”

Les sanglots longs
Des violons De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur Monotone…

the long vowels of “longs,” “violons,” “automne,” and “monotone” sound like someone moaning with grief. When it is translated into

The long sobbing
Of autumn strings, Grievous,
Wounds my heart
With a langour that Is monotonous…

much of the reason for the poetry to exist disappears. Kirchwey’s use of half rhymes (“heart”/”that”) to duplicate Verlaine’s original scheme is sometimes effective but not here.

In fact, the respect of the rhyme scheme sometimes prevents Kirchwey from achieving an English equivalence for the basic tone. As an example, I give the first stanza of his translation of “Classic Walpurgisnacht,” but I hasten to add that it is much admired by one with a greater authority than I can pretend to, the distinguished poet Richard Wilbur:

It’s the sabbath of Faust Part Two rather than the other,
A rhythmical sabbath, rhythmical, extremely
Rhythmical.—Imagine a garden by Lenôtre,
Ridiculous, charming and seemly.

Kirchwey’s version is absolutely accurate until the last line:

C’est plutôt le sabbat du second Faust que l’autre.
Un rhythmique sabbat, rhythmique, extrêmement
Rhythmique.—Imaginez un jardin de Lenôtre,
Correct, ridicule et charmant.

Kirchwey wants “seemly” instead of “correct” because he needs a rhyme for “extremely,” but this spoils the tone of the stanza. This tone is already considerably weakened by the change of language. Verlaine’s classical sabbath is in a strikingly modern neoclassical style, like Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony, harsh and hard-edged. The second line in French, since “rhythmique” is pronounced reetMEEK, is much more percussive and insistent than the English, which has the accent on the first syllable and the softer th sound. “Seemly” does not have the snappy sonority of “correct,” and is altogether gentler, less dissonant. (“This is not seemly” I would associate with Victorian melodramatic phrases like “Unhand me, sir!”) It edulcorates the extraordinary wit of the opening stanza. “Ridiculous, charming and seemly” has less bite than “Correct, ridiculous and charming.”

There is a radical approach to translation I have not mentioned above: that is to despair of a faithful reproduction in a different language of the original style, but to compose a poem in one’s own manner inspired by the older work, as Robert Lowell did in his splendid “translation” of Racine’s Phèdre. This is what Ezra Pound did in Cathay, his translations of Chinese poems, and in the masterly Homage to Sextus Propertius. When reproached with his infidelity to the original meaning of Propertius, he replied shortly that if he wanted to render the original meaning, he had the Loeb Library translation of the texts before him at the time. He simply used the sound of the Latin to suggest more interesting ideas for English verse. These two works rank with his greatest poetic achievements.

A certain freedom and infidelity used to be presumed, although the translator was once expected to bring the original up to date for modern taste, as in Dryden’s great seventeenth-century translation of Juvenal, or Pope’s eighteenth-century Horace. There was always, however, a certain disapproval of infidelity; someone acidly remarked about Pope’s trans- lation of the Iliad: “A very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer.” One further extreme solution exists with Hölder- lin’s strangely idiosyncratic translation of Sophocles, about which it was said, “He did not translate Sophocles into German—he translated German into Greek.”

As successful as Kirchwey’s Verlaine often is, his attempt to remain faithful to both the meaning of the words and the original systems of rhyme and meter often disturbs the unified effect of the original French and ends up with poetry that is never as beautiful as the best of his own poetry, made from his own inspiration, unconstrained by the presence of a previously fashioned model. In his new book, Mount Lebanon,* the poem about a lighthouse called “Barnegat Light” finishes with two wonderful stanzas:

A crack in the breakwater seemed to widen
between neighbor and friend
at such a rate it risked becoming soon
too deep ever to mend,

and ancient darkness lifted its thick muzzle,
poised to close from the east
upon the faltering torch once visible
thirty miles at least.

Here, in these moving lines, the half rhyme of “muzzle” and “visible” persuades the ear with exquisitely audible effect.