Two Sonnets of José-Maria Hérédia
I don't know how many of our readers know enough French to work through this brief poem, but for them, I shall give a few notes as well as the bald translation. If anyone knows of a good translation, I shall add it to the post.
I am posting this sonnet because it exemplifies one aspect of poetry that Cleanth Brooks once described as the quality of a "well-wrought urn." Hérédia was born in Cuba, but his family moved to Paris, where he grew up in affluence, free to cultivate his art and appreciate life in those wonderful days at the end of the 19th century. He and his mentor, Leconte de Lisle strove for formal perfection and often came close to achieving. Unlike their contemporary Baudelaire, who also sought perfection, they were not overly concerned with expressing their feelings or ideas. The rhetoric and sentimentality of the Romantics had soured them. A little later Verlaine would reject the entire tradition of rhetorical poetry in France with his "Prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou." Tale eloquence and wring its neck.
So, then, here is an early poem, "Nessus." Nessus was the centaur--half man half horse--who was asked to transport Heracles' wife Deianira across a river. En route, he attempted to ravish her but he was killed by her husband who shot the beast with poisoned arrows. As revenge, Nessus told Deianira to save his poisoned blood as a love charm in case her husband ever went astray. Years later she used it and unwittingly caused him to die an extremely painful death.
A few things to note. The poem's dramatic quality--typical of Hérédia--is enhanced by being put in the first person. It creates a sympathy for the poor beast, whose misery results from being drawn to the human side. His bestial appearance and innocence is stressed. Even the power he hold over his native region is a "vague empire," that is it is fuzzy, ill-defined, hard to quantify--a his nature is. He is ignorant of "the better and the worse" lot in life--a wonderful definition of the unawakened beast who is most human naive beings. I don't know who wrote the rather wretchedly banal translation.
Du temps que je vivais à mes frères pareil
Et comme eux ignorant d'un sort meilleur ou pire,
Les monts Thessaliens étaient mon vague empire
Et leurs torrrents glacés lavaient mon poil vermeil.
Tel j'ai grandi, beau, libre, heureux sous le soleil;
Seul. éparse dans l'air que ma narine aspire,
La chalereuse odeur des cavales d'Épire
Inquiétait parfois ma course ou mon sommeil.
Mais depuis que j'ai vu l'Épouse triomphale
Sourire entre les bras de l'Archer de Stymphale,
Le désire me harcelle et hérisse mes crins;
Car un dieu, maudit soit le nom dont il se nomme!
A melé dans le sang enfièvré de mes reins
Au rut d'étalon l'amour qui dompte l'homme.
Harceler: harass, disturb, pester
Crin: animal hair
The better things or deeper ills unknown,
My roving rule Thessalian hills did own,
Whose icy torrents laved my ruddy hair.Thus in the sun I grew, free, happy, fair;
And day or night nought vexed me, save alone
When to my nostrils' eager breath was blown
The ardent scent of the Epirus mare.But since the mighty archer's spouse I've seen
Smiling triumphantly his arms between,
My hairs are bristled and desires torment;For that some God, in his accursed plan,
Has in my loins' too feverous blood all blent
The lust of stallion with the love of man.
Errait le fier troupeau des Centaures sans nombre ;
Sur leurs flancs le soleil se jouait avec l'ombre ;
Ils mêlaient leurs crins noirs parmi nos cheveux blonds.
Seules. L'antre est désert que la broussaille encombre ;
Et parfois je me prends, dans la nuit chaude et sombre,
A frémir à l'appel lointain des étalons.
Des fils prodigieux qu'engendra la Nuée,
Nous délaisse et poursuit la Femme éperdument.
Le cri qu'il nous arrache est un hennissement,
Et leur désir en nous n'étreint que la cavale.