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John Ashbery’s illumination of a mercurial adolescent.

A Fortnightly Review of

Illuminations
by Arthur Rimbaud.
Translated by John Ashbery.
£12.30 [$16.47 US] W.W. Norton 176 pages.
£11.81 Carcanet Press 80 pages.

By Martin Sorrell.

UP TO AND INCLUDING Une Saison en enfer, written in the summer of 1873, the ill-behaved, foul-mouthed, and doubtless foul-smelling Rimbaud is a poet with a social sense. That is to say, what he writes, and what he seeks when he first goes to Paris, implies a comprehending readership. He may despise that readership, top-heavy as it might be with the pantouflards who get derided in his verse poems, particularly the early ones. He may appear to have not an ounce of forgiveness in his unyielding young heart, but we know that the inconsiderate, elusive homme aux semelles de vent is the same whimpering lad who in panic runs down to Tilbury Docks to plead with Verlaine not to leave him. He may be the unanchored Drunken Boat that scorns the safety of the mapped world, but he still wishes for connection: ‘J’aurais voulu montrer aux enfants ces dorades…’ The tenderness that produces occasional flashes speak of a human being unable fully to be shot of a sense of fellowship. The apocryphal story of Rimbaud’s death-bed conversion to Christianity has its logic.

In 1873, Rimbaud’s shutters go up, if not on all poetry, as used to be thought when scholars took Une Saison en enfer to be the last literary work ever to be written by Rimbaud, but on poetry as agent of change for the individual and for society, poetry as a public act. He had already begun to write the pieces which were to become, posthumously, Les Illuminations, and which, the consensus has it, are the summit of his achievement. And one mark of these gnomic prose utterances is something akin to solipsism. A connection with the reader is no longer part of Rimbaud’s reckoning. Whilst, for all its opacities, Saison reads as a sad statement issued to the world, Illuminations are intransitive. They say, take it or leave it. Rimbaud is more intransigent than ever, and in retrospect it seems inevitable that his next step as a poet had to be — silence. Or, to borrow Iris Murdoch’s vivid image, the electrical circuit of his poetry had become so overloaded that it fused and burned out.

TO ADD TO THE many translations of Illuminations, there now comes one that has been eagerly awaited for a while as it’s by that towering force in modern American poetry, John Ashbery. Let me say right away that Ashbery has achieved something quietly splendid with these translations. We marvel at the poise of these distillations of a lifetime spent in the company of Illuminations. The general view of these final Rimbaud texts is that, because they are uncompromisingly self-referential and private, they are hugely difficult to translate, if not impossible. Or rather, to translate well. I’ve heard expressed the view that it is only an unstylised word-for-word translation of poetry that can be legitimate. This is what Oliver Bernard did decades ago with his Penguin Rimbaud. But a right-or-wrong attitude to language sometimes can’t bend and stretch with poetry’s mobility. Illuminations is full of catches and ambiguities. So the temptation for the translator to move to the opposite end of the stylistic spectrum can be strong. Of the translations of Illuminations I’ve read, the one that most represents the freer, interpretative end is Paul Schmidt’s, of 1976. What Schmidt does, seeing shapes and rhythms beneath Rimbaud’s prose, is to set out each illumination in free verse. Thus the monolithic blocks of French become fluid stretches of English. It certainly catches you by surprise, and initially there’s a freshness about it which I find compelling – or did, because now I’m not sure about it. Rimbaud’s starkness, the glare of his prose, becomes corralled and less angular. The tone is softer. The medium really does seem to change the message. Sometimes, Schmidt writes splendid lines. In ‘Ornières’, Rimbaud’s final sentence has night-time hearses ‘filant au trot des grandes juments bleues et noires’. Schmidt doesn’t just see these horses, he hears their clip-clop. His line, loosely spondaic, is excellent on the ear: ‘And out trot great fat blue black mares’. I do like it, and many others in Schmidt. But I’m not sure that he isn’t too intrusive, in the end, a feeling not reduced by the way he decides to re-order the accepted sequence of Rimbaud works. What he’s done is to regroup everything into a series of ‘eight seasons’.

ASHBERY IS QUITE DIFFERENT – his own presence in his translations is more discreet. He manages to be faithful and distinctive. Somehow, he contrives to give us a volume that is majestic and spacious. As I said earlier, I feel sure that what’s so telling is that Ashbery has had a lifetime to ponder the Illuminations, and only now, in his rich maturity, has he chosen to set about them.

An example of translation I consider just: the second paragraph of ‘Royauté’.

Rimbaud: ‘En effet ils furent rois toute une matinée où les tentures carminées se relevèrent sur les maisons, et toute l’après-midi, où ils s’avancèrent du côté des jardins de palmes.’

Ashbery: ‘In fact they were regents for a whole morning as crimson hangings were raised against the houses, and for the whole afternoon, as they moved toward groves of palm trees.’

There’s an admirable restraint about this. The sentence contains exactly thirty words, both in the original and in the English. Of those, in Rimbaud nineteen are monosyllables, and arguably fewer if words with mute ‘e’s are voiced. In Ashbery, there are twenty-two monosyllables. Other translators are “busier” here, but Ashbery is cleaner, as it were. Plus, the individual words are exactly right – ‘regents’, ‘against’, ‘groves’. It’s the contained power of true elegance.

Elsewhere, ‘Le paradis des orages s’effondre’ becomes ‘The paradise of storms caves in’. The verb is perfect, with its moral implications. It also gives the sentence good balance. Or: ‘les gentilshommes sauvages chassent leurs chroniques sous la lumière qu’on a créée’, ‘savage gentlefolk hunt down their gossip columns by artificial light’. Not ‘hunt’, but ‘hunt down’ – darker, more ominous, in line with ‘savage’, while ‘gentlefolk’ avoids the tweedy English specificity of ‘gentlemen’. Then, elsewhere again, there’s a host of judiciously chosen nouns: ‘credenzas’ for ‘consoles’; ‘neck’ for ‘poitrail’; ‘seawall’ for ‘digue’; the stations [of life]’ for ‘arrêts’. The list could go on, and would include many justified freedoms and subtle expansions on the French, done with tact and sympathy for the original. As Lydia Davis has written, Ashbery brings inventiveness without sacrificing fidelity.

I DO HAVE RESERVATIONS, however. First, towards the end of ‘Vies’, Rimbaud has the sentence: ‘Mon devoir m’est remis’. Ashbery takes this as ‘My homework has been handed back to me.’ Homework? Really? It’s got to be ‘duty’. We’re back with social versus private. Isn’t Rimbaud indicating that duty (i.e. something social) has been postponed or taken away altogether? The sentences that follow support this, situating Rimbaud in a new life beyond mortality (he says he’s from beyond the grave). In his review for the TLS, Edmund White praises Ashbery’s ‘homework’. White would be more persuasive if he’d read the French correctly; Rimbaud doesn’t write ‘devoirs’, plural. That’s important, as just possibly it would have made ‘homework’ more understandable.

More important, though, is the matter of the definite article. Many a time, Ashbery chooses not to render Rimbaud’s ‘le’, ‘la’, or ‘les’. Of course, as French is more or less obliged to use articles, and English isn’t, one might think that’s not worth stopping over. But take ‘Il fit flamber les palais’ (in ‘Conte’). The definite article implies, surely, palaces the poet already knows, and which are of some significance to him if obscure to us. Rimbaud’s definite article leads us deeper into his visionary world.

But even then, Ashbery isn’t consistent. In ‘Après le déluge’, he has ‘children in mourning looked at marvelous pictures’, no article, but a couple of sentences earlier, where one might have expected no definite article either, i.e. ‘Beavers built’ for ‘Les castors bâtirent’, it appears. Are the beavers already known to the poet, whereas the palaces are not?

These matters aside, the translations made by an American octogenarian of a mercurial French adolescent bring us as close as we are likely to get in English to the wellspring of his genius. The distance in age and place between poet and translator is a happy irony. Ashbery’s Illuminations are set to become classic.


Martin Sorrell is a BBC radio playwright and Emeritus Professor of French at Exeter University, where he teaches an MA course on Literary Translation. Among his publications are Paul Verlaine: Selected Poems,  Arthur Rimbaud: Collected Poems, Federico Garcia Lorca: Selected Poems (all OUP), Elles: A Bilingual Anthology of Modern French Poetry By Women (University of Exeter Press), and Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (Oneworld Classics). In June 2010, his two new translations of Verlaine appeared in the Fortnightly Review‘s New Series.

More in The Fortnightly Review: Read Rimbaud’s Mad Boat: Some thoughts on translating poetry, by Martin Sorrell.

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