9:16 AM Posted by James Owens

from Les Quatrains Valaisans


Beau papillon près du sol,
à l'attentive nature
montrant les enluminures
de son livre de vol.

Un autre se ferme au bord
de la fleur qu'on respire:
ce n'est pas le moment de lire.
Et tant d'autres encor,

de menus bleus, s'éparpillent,
flottants et voletants,
comme de bleues brindilles
d'une lettre d'amour au vent,

d'une lettre déchirée
qu'on était en train de faire
pendant que la destinataire
hésitait à l'entrée.

Rainer Maria Rilke



Lovely butterfly drifting lightly,
catching nature’s attention
with an illumination
from its book of flights….

Another closes on the border
of the flower we breathe—
now’s not the time to read.
And many another,

delicate blues, scatter,
floating and fluttering,
like a love letter
in blue bits on the wind,

a letter you started and tore
to scraps, had labored over
while your lover
hesitated at the door.

(my translation)


Read very much of Rilke, and you start to think he can do anything. From what seems an impossibly clichéd starting place, he brings this poem, within a few short lines, to a rich and subtle image that opens out into a world of correspondences. As unsatisfying as the translation may be, I hope at least some sense of the energy of R’s creation manages to get through. The original has the strength and delicacy of fine silk.

This poem is one in a sequence of thirty-nine landscape poems, Les Quatrains Valaisans, that R wrote about the country around Muzot in the early 1920s, just about the same time he was writing Sonnets to Orpheus. The French poems share something with the Sonnets, though without the vatic frenzy (which can, let’s admit it, become a bit tiresome after a dozen or two dozen sonnets) --- they are devoted to an attention to the things of the world that allows the ordinary scene to speak its poetry.

If you are interested, another translation from the sequence is here



Roxana said...

James, this is amazingly good! it is perfect! :-) i can't get these alliterations off my mind, the opening line is a blow: lovely butterfly drifting lightly... but the 'l' keeps coming back, reaching a peak with those flicker sounds: floating and fluttering... the butterfly lives in the lightness of this rhythm, it is astonishing. i almost like it more that Rilke's version, it has a sweeter music to my ears...

sam of the ten thousand things said...

I like your version, James. Good piece.

James Owens said...



I am made speechless in front of you (but glowing happily)


James Owens said...

Sam: Thank you. You know, I was afraid to try this. It's the kind of thing that would be so easily turned into sentimental mush --- but if you say you like it, then I'm glad I did....

Gigi said...

I am amazed by this poem--both the original and your translation--by how it telescopes out so delicately yet powerfully. That move from the butterfly itself to "book of flights," then to "now's not the time to read" shifts our perspective outward, but can't prepare us for that movement back inward, especially since the movement is not back to the butterfly, but to the self, the "you." This is a poem to come back to again and again. Did you take that lovely photo, by the way?

suzi said...

That intense blue butterfly against the red - stunning. Good translation, thank you, but the original is sublime. The flickering exists in the sounds of the original, so light and delicate, you have managed to capture this well in your translation.