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

Hérisser: bristle

Crin:  animal hair

Rut: rut/heat

Étalon: stallion

When I of life had but my brothers' share,
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.

La centauresse

Jadis, à travers bois, rocs, torrents et vallons,
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.
L'été fleurit en vain l'herbe. Nous la foulons
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.
Car la race de jour en jour diminuée
Des fils prodigieux qu'engendra la Nuée,
Nous délaisse et poursuit la Femme éperdument.
C'est que leur amour même aux brutes nous ravale ;
Le cri qu'il nous arrache est un hennissement,
Et leur désir en nous n'étreint que la cavale.
I did this crude translation in a few minutes.
In former times, across woods, rocks, torrents and valleys
Roamed the proud troop of the Centaurs without number;
On their flanks the sun played with shadow.
They mingled their black bristles among our blond tresses.
In vain does the Summer flower the grass.  We trample it,
Alone.  The den is deserted, encumbered by scrub;
And sometimes, in the warm dark night, I start
To tremble at the distant  call of the stallions.
Because the race, day by day diminished,
Of those prodigies, the sons engendered by the Cloud
Abandons us and chases desperately after Woman
It is that their love itself reduces us to brutes;
The cry it tears from us is a whinnying,
And their desire embraces in us only the mare,
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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

9 Responses

  1. Harry Colin says:

    I have heard of Heredia, but had never read his poetry, or even realized he composed it in French. It reawakens my appreciation for the French belles lettres, refined after four years of high school French and a couple semesters in college. I confess to probably not noticing how the first person narrative engages our sympathetic tendencies. Thanks for sharing both the poem and the insight. We can’t get enough poetry. (Even Baudelaire; a man who loves Poe that much earns my admiration).

    As to translation, if I may stray for a moment…my 87 year-old father, despite a French name and ancestry, has always loathed all things French, made only worse by a couple of visits to Paris. Recently, however, he has become enamored of the Bruno Cremer Maigret series, which we watch together. On occasion I will criticize the sub-title translations, as I do with the Brunetti series, and he will nod a time or two before he tells me to “shut-up and watch the film! ” putting my presumptive arrogance in its rightful place, no doubt.

  2. Katherine Boyer says:

    A fine poem and new to me and my Stratford French; I like the first person very much, at this moment of dismayed and furious self-understanding.

  3. Kellen Buckles says:

    My French is very poor. It enables me to recognize individual words but usually fails to turn them into meaningful sentences. I did not recognize the penultimate word “dompte” but I certainly could not relate it as translated “love of”. defines it as “tames” and I suppose “domesticates” might be appropriate here, yet that would not fit the spirit of the poem. I wonder if you can comment on the choice of that particular word.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The Maigret series is television at its best. The only Maigret that can stand comparison with Cremer (and in my view win) is Jean Gabin, but then Gabin was better at doing Bogart roles than Bogart could ever dream of being. As a book of the month to read, any one of a dozen or more Maigret novels would be good, especially for the moral perspective. From what little I know, Simenon was not an especially “nice” man, but he seems to have had a deep understanding of human frailty.

    I had a little French in high school, and as a college freshman I got kicked out of elementary French because I knew too much. When I, hoping for a crip course, complained that I had not yet learned the subjunctive, the professor looked at me with a jaundiced eye and observed that if I knew enough to know what the subjunctive is, then it would be no trouble. It was the right move, and I took three semesters of French every year and had enough for a major. I was even given at graduation our college’s award for achievement in modern languages, though this caused some grumbling, since I majored in Greek.

    Let me say flat out that since the 13th century or thereabouts few non-French writers in any period can equal their French counterparts. Yes, there is Dante. And Shakespeare. But I am running out of names. By far the greatest poet of the 19th century is Baudelaire, and, I were a list-maker, which I am not, I might put Leopardi second, but, although I cannot endure Hugo, there is so much from, say, Musset to Verlaine and Mallarmé.

    This was not Hérédia’s most celebrated poem or even one of the more famous. The poem everyone is supposed to know is his sonnet on Antony and Cleopatra, but I also like many others including the poem preceding “Nessus”–on Hercules and the Stymphalian birds and the succeeding one on the lady-centaurs (disturbingly they are the opposite of Nessus in regressing to the bestial.) If anyone wishes–or at least any two–I’ll put up perhaps two more. There is a handy edition of his “Trophées” with unhelpful lit crit notes. Athlone Press 1979.

    It’s odd how things stick. For many decades I have remembered the Heredia and Leconte de Lisle I read in college without bothering to buy an edition. The whole Parnassien movement is important and powerfully influenced Baudelaire.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Kellen, “dompter”–which I imagine goes back to domitare, tame–is an important word in these poems. Two poems back in the volume, the poet tells the story of Hercules and the lion of Nemea in which he refers to the hero as “Le Dompteur”, the Tamer. Conventionally, Hercules’ greatness partly consists in his taming of savagery and making Greece a safe place. In my view these tales reflect the unsettled times when the Greeks entered into the peninsula, conquered the natives, and produced a period of dangerous instability. In any event, just as Hercules “tamed” or suppressed or killed the savage beasts and monsters, so Nessus is tamed by his love for a woman. In the poem on the Centauresses, we see the opposite in a poem that is if anything more poignant. When I have a moment, I’ll type it in, since I don’t know where to borrow it.

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    I added “La Centauresse” with a crude translation done by me in great haste.

  7. Harry Colin says:

    I would concur heartily on a Maigret novel for our book series. There are many to pick from and readily available, too.

    As for Simenon, I have read two biographies of him, and aside from identifying me as someone who needs counseling for such habits, I can say they agree with Dr. Fleming’s assessment. Simenon took a little too literally the biblical injunction to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Astonishing to me he found the time to write 75 or so Maigret stories along with a few romans d’urs; at least a few had to be written without his drawers being on.

    My HS French teacher was an enthusiastic advocate of French writers, especially the existentialists. While that meant we had to suffer through Sartre, the legend in his own mind, we did get Camus and Beckett exposure.

  8. Michael Strenk says:

    We saw the Bruno Cremer Maigrets a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed them. It’s a shame that he was too ill to continue. He lived well for some years after, but throat cancer ravaged his voice, apparently.

    I also heartily concur on reading a couple of Maigret books although with some trepidation, as I am, and always have been, quite behind on our current projects, but making progress.

    I only had one year of French, first grade. I enjoyed it, but we subsequently moved to a suburb with “an excellent school district”, so they threw me in with the animals and that was the end of that.

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Foreign languages are like the virtues: They are acquired and improved not by abstract thought processes–though there is an important intellectual component in the study– but by practice