Week 65: Le Convoi d’une pauvre Fille, by Auguste Brizeux

When reading poetry in another tongue it is natural to have a bias of sheer gratitude towards language we can understand and feelings we can relate to. I like this poem by the Breton poet Julien Auguste Pélage Brizeux (1803-1858) very much, finding it rich and stately. Do French readers find it naïve? I don’t know; I’m happy just to be grateful. The translation that follows is my own.

Quand Louise mourut à sa quinzième année,
Fleur des bois par la pluie et le vent moissonnée,
Un cortège nombreux ne suivit pas son deuil:
Un seul prêtre, en priant, conduisait le cercueil;
Puis venait un enfant, qui, d’espace en espace,
Aux saintes oraisons répondait à voix basse;
Car Louise était pauvre, et jusqu’en son trépas
Le riche a des honneurs que le pauvre n’a pas.
La simple croix de buis, un vieux drap mortuaire,
Furent les seuls apprêts de son lit funéraire;
Et quand le fossoyeur, soulevant son beau corps,
Du village natal l’emporta chez les morts,
A peine si la cloche avertit la contrée
Que sa plus douce vierge en était retirée.
Elle mourut ainsi. — Par les taillis couverts,
Les vallons embaumés, les genêts, les blés verts,
Le convoi descendit, au lever de l’aurore.
Avec toute sa pompe avril venait d’éclore,
Et couvrait, en passant, d’une neige de fleurs
Ce cercueil virginal et le baignait de pleurs;
L’aubépine avait pris sa robe rose et blanche,
Un bourgeon étoilé tremblait à chaque branche;
Ce n’étaient que parfums et concerts infinis,
Tous les oiseaux chantaient sur le bord de leurs nids.

When Louise died in her fifteenth year,
A woodland flower, plucked by the wind and rain,
No great procession followed after her:
A single priest, at prayer, led the train.
Behind him came a child, at intervals
Responding to the prayers in muted tone,
Because Louise was poor – even in death
The rich have honours to the poor unknown.
An ancient pall, a boxwood crucifix,
Such were the ornaments of her last bed
And when they came to bear her body off
From its first home to dwell among the dead
Scarcely a mortbell warned the country round
That its most gentle maid was gone away.
Such was her death. But as the convoy went
By furze and leafy copse, at break of day,
Through fields of young green wheat and fragrant vale
April in all its glory was made new:
The coffin of that maiden, as it passed,
Was snowed with blossom, bathed with tears of dew.
A starry bud was trembling on each bough,
The hawthorn, pink and white, was lately dressed.
All was sweet scents and endless harmony
And every bird was singing from its nest.


Week 64: The Ballad of Rudolph Reed, by Gwendolyn Brooks

Unsubtle it may be, but I can recall few poems that have left me so shaken with anger and pity as this one. Auden famously said that poetry makes nothing happen: not directly maybe, but if the better angels of our nature do, as some claim, slowly and insecurely prevail, it is hard not to believe that works like this have some part in it.

The Ballad of Rudolph Reed

Rudolph Reed was oaken.
His wife was oaken too.
And his two good girls and his good little man
Oakened as they grew.

‘I am not hungry for berries,
I am not hungry for bread,
But hungry as hungry for a house
Where at night a man in bed

‘May never hear the plaster
Stir as if in pain.
May never hear the roaches
Falling like fat rain.

‘Where never wife and children need
Go blinking through the gloom.
Where every room of many rooms
Will be full of room.

‘Oh my home may have its east or west
Or north or south behind it.
All I know is I shall know it
And fight for it when I find it.

It was in a street of bitter white
That he made his application.
For Rudolph Reed was oakener
Than others in the nation.

The agent’s steep and steady stare
Corroded to a grin.
‘Why, you black old, tough old hell of a man,
Move your family in!’

Nary a grin grinned Rudolph Reed,
Nary a curse cursed he,
But moved in his House. With his dark little wife,
And his dark little children three.

A neighbor would look, with a yawning eye
That squeezed into a slit.
But the Rudolph Reeds and the children three
Were too joyous to notice it.

For were they not firm in a home of their own.
With windows everywhere
And a beautiful banistered stair
And a front yard for flowers and a back yard for grass?

The first night a rock, big as two fists.
The second a rock, big as three.
But nary a curse cursed Rudolph Reed
(Though oaken as man could be).

The third night, a silvery ring of glass.
Patience ached to endure.
But he looked, and lo! small Mabel’s blood
Was staining her gaze so pure.

Then up did rise our Rudolph Reed
And pressed the hand of his wife,
And went to the door with a thirty-four
And a beastly butcher knife.

He ran like a mad thing into the night.
And the words in his mouth were stinking.
By the time he had hurt his first white man
He was no longer thinking.

By the time he had hurt his fourth white man
Rudolph Reed was dead.
His neighbors gathered and kicked his corpse.
‘Nigger – ‘ his neighbor said.

Small Mabel whimpered all night long,
For calling herself the cause.
Her oak-eyed mother did no thing
But change the bloody gauze.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Week 63: The Sundial, by Gillian Clarke

I hear that this poem initially found its way into Gillian Clarke’s wastepaper basket. While the wastepaper basket may be a much underused accoutrement in most poets’ homes, in this case at least I’m glad the poem found its way out again: I do admire its febrile precision, and in particular the strangely compelling image in the last two lines.

The Sundial

Owain was ill today. In the night
He was delirious, shouting of lions
In the sleepless heat. Today, dry
And pale, he took a paper circle,
Laid on the grass which held it
With curling fingers. In the still
Centre he pushed the broken bean
Stick, gathering twelve fragments
Of stone, placed them at measured
Distances. Then he crouched, slightly
Trembling with fever, calculating
The mathematics of sunshine.

He looked up, his eyes dark,
Intelligently adult as though
The wave of fever taught silence
And immobility for the first time.
Here, in his enforced rest, he found
Deliberation, and the slow finger
Of light, quieter than night lions,
More worthy of his concentration.
All day he told the time to me.
All day we felt and watched the sun
Caged in its white diurnal heat,
Pointing at us with its black stick.

Gillian Clarke

Week 62: Quondam Was I, by Sir Thomas Wyatt

This bitter poem of betrayed love may not have quite the same force as Wyatt’s masterpiece, ‘They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek’, or Donne’s ‘The Apparition’ (let’s face it, Elizabethan poets didn’t have much luck when it came to finding a nice steady girl) but it shares the same quality of a speaking voice, direct and passionate, straining at the seams of the convention that contains it.

Quondam Was I

Quondam was I in my lady’s grace,
I think as well as now be you;
And when that you have trad the trace,
Then shall you know my words be true
That quondam was I.

Quondam was I. She said forever:
That lasted but a short while;
Promise made not to dissever.
I thought she laugh’d – she did but smile,
Then quondam was I.

Quondam was I: he that full oft lay
In her arms with kisses many one.
It is enough that this I may say
Though among the moo now I be gone,
Yet quondam was I.

Quondam was I. Yet she will you tell
That since the hour she first was born
She never loved none half so well
As you. But what altho she had sworn,
Sure quondam was I.

Sir Thomas Wyatt