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This poem is taken from PN Review 250, Volume 46 Number 2, November - December 2019.

A Suite of Rhapsodies
translated by John Gallas and Kurt Gänzl
Petrus Borel
John Gallas writes: Petrus Borel was born in Lyons, the twelfth of fourteen children. His early education rendered him atheistic and anti-clerical, solitary, erudite, pedantic and self-dramatizing, with a passion for things Mediaeval. He abandoned his Architectural profession and entered the Romantic Movement, and Le Petit Cénacle, a Parisian, anti-Classicist, revolutionary and Republican band of bizarristes who dressed, spoke, partied, wrote and posed in Freedom. The group included Gautier, Jehan de Seigneur, Devéria, Ourlioff, Bouchardy and Gérard de Nerval. Disappointed by the July Revolution of 1830 (‘I do need a vast amount of Liberty’) Borel and his friends buried themselves for a time in grotesqueries, the macabre, carnivals, Dandyism, and considered outlandish behaviour (‘Les Bouzingos’).

Petrus Borel published Rhapsodies, from which these poems are taken, in 1831. He thought it a book that ‘wrote itself’, filled with suffering, bitterness, revolution, and what Borel called the ‘slag of hot-metal refining’. Enid Starkie, however, the author of the only relatively modern biography of Borel (1954), considers the poems ‘mostly gentle and sentimental’. ‘There are in Rhapsodies however poems which give Borel the right to an individual and permanent place in French poetry.’ The book was an intense influence on Baudelaire. Publication created no stir.

Borel went on to write ‘gothicky’ short stories, the scandalous ‘Madame Putiphar’ (1838), became a journalist and magazine-writer and, declining in belief and remuneration, went to Algeria as a Civil Servant, where he (according to sources) did, or decidedly did not, do the administration work that was expected of him. He died in Algeria after being removed from his post and digging too long in his garden without a hat. ‘Everything God does he does well, and would have left me my hair if He intended to protect me’. There is no known grave.

The sobriquet ‘The Lycanthrope’, now universally applied to references to Borel, and the subtitle of Starkie’s biography, was originally simply Borel’s own opinion of his powers and desire to attack conventional society, tyrants, Classicism, traditionalism etc. Borel wrote a short story titled Champavert le Lycanthrope, professedly autobiographical, in his collection Immoral Tales (1838). The wild seductions, knifings, general bloodshed, sadism, sexual shenanigans, corpses, dissections etc. in these stories have subsumed the nickname into something simply spooky. His portrait, thin, dark-suited, his right hand on the head of a great hound, helps.

These poems were translated by the method used for The Song Atlas and 52 Euros (both Carcanet): a native speaker, in this case my brother, translated each word, line, verse and poem into meticulous and practical English: I then ‘re-poemed’ them. I have no beliefs, or even opinions, on the matter of translation, its theory or practise: if a poet gives his/her all to a translation, it will be rather like that poet’s own work. It is better that a reader gets my full-throttled versions of Petrus Borel, than a hesitant attempt to copy rhyme, rhythm, structure or contemporary contexts, which will, and cannot help but, lower the percentage of drive.

For the life of Petrus Borel there is really only, in English, ‘Petrus Borel: the Lycanthrope’ by Enid Starkie (Faber & Faber 1954). The French text of ‘Rhapsodies’ can be read in Wikisource.


For Jules Vabre, architect

To my dear friend, Jules Vabre:
excellent marrow!
with your little spyglass
on the Fat-Well-Off and their big-bald chins –
you and I must be Martians
on this pale and ordered Earth!
Ah, we must be emmets,
doing what we will, here,
in this pithless Paris,
...


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