night in the lonesome October

9:39 AM Posted by James Owens

In all that I endured there was no physical suffering but of moral distress an infinitude. My fancy grew charnel, I talked "of worms, of tombs, and epitaphs." I was lost in reveries of death, and the idea of premature burial held continual possession of my brain. The ghastly Danger to which I was subjected haunted me day and night. In the former, the torture of meditation was excessive - in the latter, supreme. When the grim Darkness overspread the Earth, then, with every horror of thought, I shook - shook as the quivering plumes upon the hearse. When Nature could endure wakefulness no longer, it was with a struggle that I consented to sleep - for I shuddered to reflect that, upon awaking, I might find myself the tenant of a grave. And when, finally, I sank into slumber, it was only to rush at once into a world of phantasms, above which, with vast, sable, overshadowing wing, hovered, predominant, the one sepulchral Idea.

Edgar Allan Poe, "The Premature Burial"

La Première Nuit

Voici venir le soir doux au vieillard lubrique.
Mon chat Mürr, accroupi comme un sphinx héraldique,
Contemple inquiet de sa prunelle fantastique
Monter à l'horizon la lune chlorotique.

C'est l'heure où l'enfant prie, où Paris-Lupanar
Jette sur le pavé de chaque boulevard
Les filles aux seins froids qui sous le gaz blafard
Vaguent flairant de l’œil un mâle de hasard.

Moi, près de mon chat Mürr, je rêve à ma fenêtre.
Je songe aux enfants qui partout viennent de naître,
Je songe à tous les morts enterrés d'aujourd'hui.

Et je me figure être au fond du cimetière
Et me mets à la place en entrant dans leur bière
De ceux qui vont passer là leur première nuit.

Jules Laforgue

The First Night

Here comes the evening, sweet to old letches.
My cat Mürr, crouched heraldic sphinx, watches
-- uneasy behind his fantastic pupil -- the moon
Gliding chlorotic across the horizon.

This is the hour when the child prays, when Paris-Lupanar
Ejects its cold-breasted girls onto the boulevards,
And they trawl the gaslit pavements, bold to try
Any random male with the wink of an eye.

But at the window, with Mürr, I lead my revery.
I think of all the babies drawing their first breath.
I think of the day’s new dead laid in the earth.

And I imagine myself in the depth of the cemetery
And put myself in their place, stretched on the bier--
Those who will be spending this first night there.

(my translation)

Happy Halloween!


S. Etole said...

a bit of morbidity here!

Marion McCready said...

I watched a docu-drama on Poe the other night, really been meaning to read more of him. That's one scary looking cat!

James Owens said...

Susan: Well, after all, it is a Halloween post! (A little public morbidity cuts down on the really dangerous private kind, I think....)

James Owens said...

Marion: The critic/poet John Crowe Ransom wrote, "Here comes Poe with his raven, like Barnaby Rudge, / One half genius, the other half fudge."

Fudge, i.e., dark and too sweet and not very good for you, and Barnaby Rudge, alluding to an unfortunate fondness for opium.... But I think Ransom also meant it about the "one half genius" part, and I agree. I love Poe, for all his abundant faults!

And the extra credit question is, who made the best and most popular translations of Poe's stories into French? (I think it is one of the most significant facts of 19th century literature.)

Roxana said...

i was reading some of his poems again, the other day, Poe i mean, and marvelled again at the beauty and music of his language... and his stories were among my favourite when i was young, oh, those days when i only lived among his dreadful beauties...

as i marvel at your translation, it is perfect!!!
the only thing i don't particularly like is this vrese: I think of all the babies drawing their first breath, i don't like "babies", after all he doesn't say "bebes" in french :-)
but then again, he simply repeats "enfants" and i suppose you wanted to avoid that.
i am not very fond of this poem, actually, yet reading it in french and english it is quite the linguistic experience :-) and perfect for such a post :-)

James Owens said...

Roxana: Coincidences follow us around like stray dogs (or pet ravens). The day after I made this post, I read that Nina Cassian’s father was a translator of Poe. Supposedly his version of “The Raven” is very good. I wonder if you have ever seen it? It seems to me that that poem -- all sound and mood, as it is -- would be exquisitely hard to translate....

Yes, I have spent my days lost in Poe’s stories and his poems. I don’t know that I could really trust anyone who doesn’t respond to Poe (well … I might … but reluctantly….). I have to read “Ulalume” several times a year:

The skies they were ashen and sober;
The leaves they were crisped and sere -
The leaves they were withering and sere;
It was night in the lonesome October
Of my most immemorial year:
It was hard by the dim lake of Auber,
In the misty mid region of Weir -
It was down by the dank tarn of Auber,
In the ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.

About the translation: I pondered weak and weary over the questions in the “enfants --- children, infants, babies” enigma…. There is (as always :-) no really satisfying answer. I guess I could have said “I think of all the children drawing their first breath” and no one would have ever mentioned it --- but “children” obscures the contrast in those two lines between leaving the womb (mother) and entering the tomb (earth). Of course, perhaps “babies” puts more emphasis on the irony than the original does. (Sigh)

But then, I could have said “infants” (I know that “infants” isn’t the same as French “enfants,” but it is closer than “enfants” and “babies”). ... And “babies” is the wrong level of diction, I know, it feels out of place, a popular, demotic word ... but what are you going to do, when I simply insist on being perverse??? I like the awkwardness, the out-of-place-ness of it.

And Laforgue tends to mix levels of diction, too (though not in this poem, sigh again). The perversity seems to me “Laforguian”….

Thank you so much for the intelligent and sensitive attention you have given to my translations, this and many others. Touched by your breath, even my bent and limping words learn to fly :-)