Tuesday, February 28, 2012

"Spleen" (Times Three)

One could not be a Decadent poet of the 1890s without having an acquaintance with "spleen."  In this case, "spleen" derives from the ancient "four humors" theory of the body.  This theory posits that our maladies, as well as our temperaments, may be traced back to the four humors:  blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm.  Black bile is usually associated with the spleen, and, in turn, with melancholia.   Suffering a bout of "spleen" was quite attractive to the Decadents.

This attraction was heightened by the importance of "spleen" to the French Symbolist poets from whom the poets of the Nineties took their lead.  For example, both Charles Baudelaire and Paul Verlaine wrote poems with that title.  Not surprisingly, the Decadents tried their hands at translating the poems.  Three versions of Verlaine's "Spleen" follow -- by John Gray, Ernest Dowson, and Arthur Symons.

                  Spleen

The roses every one were red,
And all the ivy leaves were black.

Sweet, do not even stir your head,
Or all of my despairs come back.

The sky is too blue, too delicate:
Too soft the air, too green the sea.

I fear -- how long had I to wait! --
That you will tear yourself from me.

The shining box-leaves weary me,
The varnished holly's glistening,

The stretch of infinite country;
So, saving you, does everything.

John Gray, Silverpoints (1893).

                          John William Inchbold, "Bolton Abbey" (1853)

                  Spleen

Around were all the roses red,
The ivy all around was black.

Dear, so thou only move thine head,
Shall all mine old despairs awake!

Too blue, too tender was the sky,
The air too soft, too green the sea.

Always I fear, I know not why,
Some lamentable flight from thee.

I am so tired of holly-sprays
And weary of the bright box-tree,

Of all the endless country ways;
Of everything alas! save thee.

Ernest Dowson, Decorations (1899).

 John William Inchbold, "Springtime in Spain, near Gordella" (1869)

                 Spleen

The roses were all red,
The ivy was all black:
Dear, if you turn your head,
All my despairs come back.

The sky was too blue, too kind,
The sea too green, and the air
Too calm:  and I know in my mind
I shall wake and not find you there.

I am tired of the box-tree's shine
And the holly's, that never will pass,
And the plain's unending line,
And of all but you, alas!

Arthur Symons, Knave of Hearts (1913).

I prefer Gray's version.  This is solely a matter of emotion, and is not based upon any knowledge of the French original.  Dowson's version seems a bit overwrought, and Symons's seems a bit flat.  Of course, it could certainly be said that choosing between the three is a matter of "six of one, half a dozen of the other."

                                              John William Inchbold
                         "The Moorland (Dewar-stone, Dartmoor)" (1854)

6 comments:

William A. Sigler said...

A wonderful way to spend a late February morning contemplating Verlaine and the Decadents – the movement that rose like a flame and so quickly burned out. I agree that Gray’s is the best of the bunch, in sound and sense – especially the last stanza, which is not burdened with the “alas” that doesn’t rhyme in English with “tired.” It’s interesting to me, though, how much … decadence all three poems miss from the fairly straightforward French. All three seem content to weave a wispy ode of loss and longing, instead of the doomed and toxic relationship Verlaine so subtly wrung out. They skip over, for example, the word "atroce" that sticks out in the original like a sore thumb, and evade the double meaning of countryside and campaign (as in battle) in the last stanza. Here is the original French:

Les roses étaient toutes rouges,
Et les lierres étaient tout noirs.

Chère, pour peu que tu te bouges,
Renaissent tous mes désespoirs.

Le ciel était trop bleu, trop tendre
La mer trop verte et l'air trop doux.

Je crains toujours,- ce qu'est d'attendre!
Quelque fuite atroce de vous.

Du houx à la feuille vernie
Et du luisant buis je suis las,

Et de la campagne infinie
Et de tout, fors de vous, hélas!

Here is a more literal translation, taking into account some minimum standards of English rhyme and metrical schemes:


The roses were always red,
And always black was the ivy.

My dear, all the times you have fled
My despair is always revived.

The sky was too blue, too tender,
The sea too green, the air too sweet.

I’m always afraid – what to wait for!
What seeps now from your atrocity?

The holly with its varnished leaf,
The boxwood sheen I am weary,

And the endless campaign of grief
And everything, but you, dreary.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: thank you for providing the original French text, and, of course, for offering your own version.

My French-language training ended after my first year of college, so I am not competent to opine on the pros and cons of the various versions. However, I give all of the translators credit for respecting the formal qualities of the original as best they could. As for the emotional resonances, I suppose that they are where the true poetry resides, and, thus, they may not be translatable, in the end.

As always, it is good to hear from you.

Bill Knott said...

John Gray, such a wonderfully gifted young poet, destroyed in his art as so many other poets were by the Wilde persecution . . . Yeats termed those 1890s poets "the tragic generation."

I have a poem to Gray in my book of Homages, which is posted in its entirety on my blog—

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Knott: thank you for visiting, and for your thoughts. I suppose that Gray found some measure of contentment after being ordained as a priest, at least it seems so. I like his poetry for its tone -- it seems somewhat less melodramatic than a great deal of the Nineties poetry.

Thanks again.

Bill Knott said...

don't know if this collection of Verlaine translations might interest you:

http://billknottpoetry.blogspot.com/2012/03/captain-hook-books-redux.html

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Knott: thank you very much for the link -- I haven't worked my way through all the translations yet, but I will. Have you seen the book Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei by Eliot Weinberger? It evaluates 19 different translations of a 4-line poem by Wang Wei. It is very interesting.

Seeing Verlaine's poem reminded me that lines from it were transmitted to the French resistance by Radio Londres just prior to D-Day in order to inform them that the invasion was imminent.

Thank you again.