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This item is taken from PN Review 183, Volume 35 Number 1, September - October 2008.

Letters from David Gervais, Jane Thorp
Paulin's (Con)versions


I'd like to pursue Adam Watt's thoughts on Tom Paulin's versions of Baudelaire and Mallarmé. I am prepared to give Paulin the rein with Baudelaire but not Mallarmé, for whom his aggressive tactics don't begin to 'shock, surprise and bully' their way into my 'reading mind'. He is too subtle to yield himself up to such assaults, and Paulin's only consolation is a knotty and abrasive diction that draws more attention to his own style than to his author's. I therefore confine these remarks to his Baudelaire, not exactly Baudelaire himself but what makes for an intriguing alternative to him. Though visibly written, in a way that is all Paulin's own, this displays both wit and energy. What it misses is any sense of the musical harmony of the original:

Qui suivent, indolents compagnons de voyage,
Le navire glissant sur les gouffres amers.

The Racinian flow of the alexandrines is sweet as well as bitter but it evaporates in English. Paulin's version may work as a translation but it does not feel very French.

This lacuna extends beyond Racine to include Victor Hugo as well. Hugo is one of those foreign poets that the English have never quite digested. For every translation they have made of his verse one can find about twenty versions of Baudelaire's, undertaken by English poets who see it as the proper route to qualifying in French poetry. Yet this does not really serve Baudelaire as much as it is meant to. L 'Art Romantique makes it quite clear that his own inspiration came from Hugo. If readers miss this it is perhaps because Hugo himself is so protean a poet. In Les Contemplations one can sometimes find as many as eight or more poems, one after the other, all in quite distinct modes, from elegy to satire and the lyric to the grotesque. Such diversity would have been beyond Baudelaire, who preferred to plumb just a few recurring themes as deeply as he could. His poetry is not a world in the way Hugo's was. If one thinks of, say, his preoccupation with the poor and the old - with ragpickers and clochards and the like - one at once realises that Hugo is behind them. Baudelaire did not share Hugo's democratic fervour but many of his Parisian poems would not have been written but for the Hugo of Les Châtiments and the pathos of Les Misérables. They gave him what he needed to work on. The point is a general one that concerns us too. Eliot would never have responded so strongly to Baudelaire's 'fourmillante' Paris had not it been already implicit in Hugo's.

I won't detail all the Hugolian subject-matter that later poets commandeered; one only needs to mention Baudelaire's own debt to Hugo's fascinated horror with what he called 'le gouffre' and 'le néant', the metaphysics of the void. Such spectres haunt both poets and confirm their deep affinities. Baudelaire was from a younger generation and a different France but such differences are in the end secondary: it is clear where the poetry came from and what fuelled it. A defender of Paulin might retort that this takes us beyond his remit but I would reply that 'L'Albatros' is not, in any case, a poem that reveals Baudelaire's full range. This, however, is only a detail. The real point is that one should not see French poetry as if it were simply a succession of individual poets, first Hugo, then Baudelaire, then Mallarmé. The greatest French poetry of the time exists in a single continuous movement. Hugo is a vital part of his successors, not just a precursor who can be left to the literary historians. We are in no position to pick and choose from the poets as our translators do. Baudelaire's reader ('mon semblable, mon frère') is already under the same spell as Hugo's long-suffering 'lecteur'. It is for this reason that we need to see both poets in a wider context than we usually do in England. Unless we understand Hugo better we are unlikely to have adequate versions of Baudelaire.


Love is Waiting


In Trevor Barnett's review (PNR 182) of Against Heaven, the posthumous collection of poems by the Cuban poet, Dulce Maria Loynaz, he quotes from 'Island': 'surrounded everywhere by the sea/ I am an island'. He suggests that, in this poem, Loynaz 'relates herself with Cuba, and the sea becomes a metaphor for oppressive forces'. He then goes on to state that Loynaz was 'censored and intimidated by the regime following the Revolution', but that 'her poetry remained more classical than political'.

This particular poem was written at least two decades before the Revolution, when Loynaz enjoyed the comforts and luxuries of life in one of Cuba's finer families, her father being a famous general and veteran of the Cuban War of Independence. It is true that after the Revolution the family paid dearly for their previous status, and that Loynaz was vilified and oppressed by the Castro regime. My point is that she did not write any political poems that I can find in this selection. She addresses God, she addresses love and lovers (she was married twice), but most of all she addresses herself. Her emotional, intellectual and sensual responses to love serve to enhance her solitary communion with her own psyche. Poems of startling tenderness are anchored in compressed lucidity:

How my solitude becomes you!
    It even smells like you, as if you slept on it, as if my solitude were a pillow you rest your head on, the white sheet that keeps you warm in the night.
    How my solitude becomes you! How I find you! How I love you! How I die in you! My solitude!

This love poem is reminiscent of Rilke's assertion that 'the highest task of a bond between two people [is] that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other'. Loynaz' solitude is everywhere in this selection and it is full of joy, pain and solace:

Who is this mad farmer who walks all night long scattering stars that will never take root in the earth?
    And who is this mad labourer who ploughs the earth day after day preparing the ground for rows of stars?

Her poetry pulls at the space between heaven and earth, body and soul. She is, by turns, joyful, sad, exuberant, resigned, passionate, contemplative, fearful, objective, loving and questioning. This is a rich inner life unreservedly exposed - no wonder she says:

Love is waiting, and then cutting yourself open. Poetry is cutting yourself open, and then waiting. The two together form a painful vigil over a few drops of resin.

She has, indeed cut herself open, and I venture to suggest that the oppressive forces in 'Island' are those of her own unsparing honesty and self knowledge.


This item is taken from PN Review 183, Volume 35 Number 1, September - October 2008.

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