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Two poems from the hôpital Broussais, September 1893.

By Paul Verlaine.
First translations by Martin Sorrell.

Paul Verlaine in the hôpital Broussais. A portrait by his friend Edmond Aman-Jean, 1892.

VERLAINE’S FIRST ACQUAINTANCE WITH hospital life was the short period which, in 1885, he spent in the Hôpital Tenon. This palatial edifice in the Menilmontant quarter was where Verlaine was to serve his months of ‘apprenticeship’ in the business. The real centre of his hospital life was, however, to be the Hôpital Broussais, in the rue Didot, which he first entered in December 1886. Verlaine always had a weakness for this particular hospital. It consisted of a series of wide-spreading huts connected by arcades and supported upon wooden piles. One had the sense of camping-out in the country: of being in a way, adventurius:and one lost the galling impression of existing as no more than a burden to the earth: a weight upon the charity of the ‘Assistance Publique.’ And then there was Dotor Chauffard, who was always ready to shut one of his two kinfdly eyes, and the arcades to smoke under, and the green lamp beside his sleepless bed at night-time, and the sound of the ‘ceinture’ trains, and the ‘Get up, lazy’ of the nurses in the morning.
– Harold Nicolson, in Paul Verlaine (1921).

 

RETIREMENT

Paris leaves you stranded, notwithstanding
Grim accommodations with its circus
Of error, its brute luxury, and the justified rage
Of the poor — so goes our great society
Born in the storm of ’89–
Yes indeed, new old Paris leaves you stranded.
I’m too much the old-school Parisian
To cope with today — old habits die hard.
Still, to handle the hellish noise, the abject sun,
I’ve tried to wear a heart roughly like mine.
You, poor battered souls, grief beyond your years –
But toddlers at heart, out of your depth –
Dry your tears, make earnest supplication
For a future a touch more benign.
Forget daft plans, adventures; just sleep,
Deaf to the white noise of vehicles and creeps.

 

RETRAITE.

On s’isole à Paris—quelle que soit l’horreur
Apparente de vivre en ce cirque d’erreur,
De luxe dur et des trop plausibles rancunes
Du pauvre y voyant rouge—ainsi vont nos fortunes
Sociales, depuis ce bon Quatre-vingt-neuf.
Oui, l’on s’isole, même en le laid Paris neuf.
Moi, vieux parisien, je ne puis: l’habitude!
Mais j’ai tenté, pour fuir l’âpre disquiétude
De tous ces bruits méchants, et de ce plat soleil,
D’habiter dans un cœur qui soit au mien pareil.

Pauvre cœur douloureux, vieux de deuils, non point d’âge,
Etant restés bien trop enfants pour tant d’usage,
Ah, consolez vos peurs passés, pieusement
Priez Dieu qu’il vous fasse un présent plus clément
Et, sans rêves, dormez à deux, las d’aventures,
Loin du bruit amorti des sots et des voitures!

 

FEARS

My Lord Jesus, know how sincerely I repent
The crimes, the many crimes
Of my abominable apostasy –
Please, forgive me.

For crimes they were — the spirit was weak,
Floundering, tepid, then worse
When finally my faith went cold; prayer
Gave no warmth. So then, alas, the easy options

As my lazy spirit drifted, benumbed
On Arctic floes, tracked
By beasts and prowlers.

But, your great victory over my demons
Cancelled, the old despair you saved me from
Was at my throat again, and ingloriously

I fetched up here, hopeless, neglectful of
Contrition, forgetting you’d set me
Back on the narrow path –
Made too treacherous perhaps

By my exuberant pride
(Me, touched by grace!).
Choked with flesh,
Frozen, mortified, I repent.

Yet what if I go wrong?
Deliver this wretch from temptation,
O Lord, and bring peace again
To your cloistered servant, Paul Verlaine.

 

CRAINTES.

Jésus, mon sincère retour
Après la fuite abominable,
Pourra-t-il expier un jour
Les crimes dont je suis coupable?

Crimes surtout, crimes d’esprit:
Doutes, tiédeurs et sécheresses,
Ma foi caduque ne les prit
Pas en oraison. Le paresses

Vinrent et vinrent les froideurs,
Las! et la désertion toute.
Depuis rôdeurs et maraudeurs
Furent mes compagnons de route.

Quand le Malheur qui me sauva,
Aux grands jours de votre victoire
Sur me démons, se retrouva
Devant moi, témoin de ma gloire

D’alors et de ma honte ici,
Qui me ramena dans la voie
Où j’allai, contrit et transi;
Mais peut-être, hélas! que ma joie

De me croire en grâce rentré
Exulte à tort, et qu’il se mêle
A mon repentir franc, navré
Pourtant, de la chose charnelle.

Ah, Seigneur, si je me trompais?
J’ai tant peur des tours de l’Immonde!
Ah oui, pour encor votre paix
Encor moi sequestré du monde!

 

Note: These poems were published untranslated in the Fortnightly Review in April 1894. This is their first appearance in English.

The translator: Martin Sorrell is Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University, where he teaches an MA course on Literary Translation. He has published widely in the field of translation, including three volumes in the Oxford University Press World’s Classics series, and the first substantial anthology of modern French poetry by women. He has won tranlsation prizes, and has also received an award for one of the radio plays he has written for the BBC. American readers can use the following link to order Prof Sorrell’s translation of Verlaine’s Selected Poems. British and European readers can follow this link to order the collection.

An interesting comment on the lithographic version of Aman-Jean’s Verlaine portrait is made on poet Neil Philip’s Adventures in the Print Trade blog. Neil Philip’s post also includes a translation of Verlaine’s “Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit…” as well as a link to TextEtc‘s discussion of Verlaine translations, here and here.

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One Comment

  1. Paul Verlaine has been a great source of inspiration for many artists, including me.

    Friday, 4 June 2010 at 13:26 | Permalink

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  1. [...] Classics series, and the first substantial anthology of modern French poetry by women. In June, his two new translations of Verlaine appeared in the Fortnightly Review. His most recent publication is Baudelaire: Paris [...]

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