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• Verlaine, in praise of Saturn’s modern melancholy.

By EDMUND WHITE [TLS] – This is not to say that Verlaine, in his more traditional way, did not want to be modern – even in the poems now translated by Karl Kirchwey as Poems Under Saturn. In fact Verlaine was always praising the “modernity” and “melancholia” of Baudelaire. In an article Verlaine wrote at the same time as the publication of Poèmes Saturniens he attacked the Romantic idea of inspiration and of “life” and “human nature” and came out in favour of a poetry completely mastered, controlled and formal. Nor did he in his best work present “themes” that preceded and were external to the actual poems; as we read we feel that we are watching those poems materialize under his pen, just as Chopin’s Nocturnes come to life under his improvising fingers. Nevertheless, since this first book brought together some very early poems written in his collège days as well as his most up-to-date experiments, it is something of a grab-bag, and anything but consistent or programmatic.

The first poem in the collection, “The Ancient Sages”, places the whole book under the sign of Saturn, the melancholy god who murdered his father and was castrated by his son. (Baudelaire had already called his Les Fleurs du mal “a saturnine book”.) We learn that anyone born under the sign of Saturn shares “a large part of misfortune and bile”. In the “Prologue” we are given a rapid tour of other mythologies and then told that action and dream used to be fused but now are broken asunder – which has brought about the disaster of modern life. Unfortunately, the end of this poem shows how resistant Verlaine’s French is to translation into Kirchwey’s English (and perhaps English tout court).

Continued in The Times Literary Supplement | Prof Martin Sorrell’s translations of Verlaine in The Fortnightly Review | More Chronicle & Notices.

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