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Nocturnal Meditation in Translation, "Clair de Lune"

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Translation is at best a difficult and dissatisfying, often even frustrating, task; yet I feel drawn to try my hand at it from time to time.

This is a poem of Paul Verlaine, he of the sad and broken love affair and infatuation with the younger poet, his sometime admirer Arthur Rimbaud. The poem was also the inspiration for Claude Debussy's orchestral rendering in his piece of the same name, part of his Suite Bergamasque.

Verlaine paints a moonlit landscape grounded in that moonlight as the permeating theme. Its light infuses a scene with shadowy characters, revelers somehow sad even in the midst of their revels, as if their hearts do not believe the joy they are enacting. Nevertheless, their doubts and turmoil, their superficiality, are all illumined, subsumed, by the "calm moonlight, sad and beautiful," with the powerful images of the last two lines providing the resolution of the vacillating moods in the first two quatrains.

For the many admirers of French culture (whether of scent, literature, or music) who nevertheless do not know the French language, I will put the text and my English of it here. Please do not expect a literal, word-for-word version from a translation of poetry. I've striven for the sense and mood of poetry, while still trying to be faithful to meter and rhyme in a poem whose original could not dispense with them; therefore, neither will the translator, even at the expense of literalism. Meaning, sound, and feeling all shape a translator's choices.

In any case, here's the original together with one man's effort to be in some way true to all its essential elements:

—Paul Verlaine

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques,
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

—Paul Verlaine

Your soul is a landscape, choice and prime
That masked folk and bergamaskers beguile;
Playing their lutes, they dance in stately time
Half-sad though costumed in fantastic style.

All the while singing in a minor tone
Of conquering love and lives of pleasant dreams,
No happiness their manner seems to own
As their song entwines moonlight's palest beams.

In the calm moonlight, somber yet sublime,
That sets lulled birds in the trees to dreaming
And the fountains' ecstatic sighs to climb,
Amid marbles, their slender jets streaming.

[Translation mine]

Here's the poem, read in French :

Updated 27th July 2017 at 05:21 AM by JaimeB

Personal Reflections


  1. JaimeB's Avatar
    I recorded the French version and added it to the blog entry. Click the link at the bottom of the original post, and click on the play arrow under the waveform panel. Enjoy!
  2. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Nice! I think you did a really great job preserving all of the competing aspects with as little overall loss as possible. So difficult to do what you did there - I would almost certainly have given up on getting it to rhyme, yet with far worse results!

    The sound file seems to be missing when I go to the page - not sure what happened to it. Maybe I just didn't see it.

    Do you think Verlaine is speaking of Rimbaud here, or somebody else? Whoever it is, it's a fascinating and powerful description.

    Thanks for this - greatly appreciated!
  3. JaimeB's Avatar
    Thanks for your kind words. Of course, it went through many redactions before I got it to some degree of satisfaction — I still look at and want to change something or other, but once you call it "done" that's what it is...

    About your question, the poem couldn't have anything to do with Rimbaud. It appeared in a literary publication in Spring 1867, and Verlaine later included it in a volume called Fêtes galantes, which appeared in 1869. He didn't meet Rimbaud until late in 1871. By then he had married (1870) and his wife was expecting their child. After he met Rimbaud, he abandoned his budding family and commenced a raucous and rocky trip to London and an affair that eventually ended with him wounding Rimbaud in Brussels in 1873, shooting him twice in his left wrist. As you might imagine, by then their affair was already going badly. They had separated, and their meeting in Brussels was Verlaine's attempt to patch it up. As a result of the shooting, Verlaine spent a while in jail in Mons, in southern Belgium. Rimbaud wrote A Season in Hell (Une Saison en enfer, 1873) about their affair.

    You can read more about them in the Wikipedia Article on Rimbaud.
  4. Redneck Perfumisto's Avatar
    Thanks for that answer, Jaime, and thanks for getting that sound file working! Yes - I can hear you now, and your French definitely sounds like the real deal, too. If I use my imagination, I think I can hear some "not French", but I swear it sounds more native French than not, and in fact like some French person I can't place, so very nice indeed.


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