Week 126: Elle avait pris ce pli, by Victor Hugo

The French poet Victor Hugo (1802-1885) lost his beloved elder daughter Lėopoldine when she was only nineteen: she drowned along with her husband in a boating accident on the Seine. Hugo wrote many moving poems in her memory; this is one of them. The translation that follows is my own.

‘Elle avait pris ce pli…’

Elle avait pris ce pli dans son âge enfantin
De venir dans ma chambre un peu chaque matin;
Je l’attendais ainsi qu’un rayon qu’on espère;
Elle entrait, et disait: Bonjour, mon petit père;
Prenait ma plume, ouvrait mes livres, s’asseyait
Sur mon lit, dérangeait mes papiers, et riait,
Puis soudain s’en allait comme un oiseau qui passe.
Alors, je reprenais, la tête un peu moins lasse,
Mon oeuvre interrompue, et, tout en écrivant,
Parmi mes manuscrits je rencontrais souvent
Quelque arabesque folle et qu’elle avait tracée,
Et mainte page blanche entre ses mains froissée
Où, je ne sais comment, venaient mes plus doux vers.
Elle aimait Dieu, les fleurs, les astres, les prés verts,
Et c’était un esprit avant d’être une femme.
Son regard reflétait la clarté de son âme.
Elle me consultait sur tout à tous moments.
Oh! que de soirs d’hiver radieux et charmants
Passés à raisonner langue, histoire et grammaire,
Mes quatre enfants groupés sur mes genoux, leur mère
Tout près, quelques amis causant au coin du feu!
J’appelais cette vie être content de peu!
Et dire qu’elle est morte! Hélas! que Dieu m’assiste!
Je n’étais jamais gai quand je la sentais triste;
J’étais morne au milieu du bal le plus joyeux
Si j’avais, en partant, vu quelque ombre en ses yeux.

Victor Hugo

From her earliest years, this was her thing
To come into my room a while each morning.
I’d wait, as for a sunbeam to appear.
She’d march in, say ‘Good morning, little father’,
Sit down on my bed, take up my pen,
Open my books, muddle my papers, laughing,
Then like a bird of passage she’d be gone
And I, with clearer head, begin again
My interrupted work, often to find
Some zany arabesque she’d left behind
Among my manuscripts, a sketch she’d traced,
And then, blank pages that her hands had creased.
Somehow, my best lines fell between those folds.
She loved God, flowers, starry skies, green fields.
Before she was a woman, she was spirit
And from her clear eyes her bright soul shone out.
She quizzed me constantly, upon all things.
Ah, but the warm glow of those winter evenings
When we’d talk language, grammar, history,
Their mother near, four children at my knee,
A few friends by the hearth and much to say –
That was a life to which content came easy.
And now to think that she is dead! God help me,
For I, when she was sad, was never happy.
I took no joy in joyous balls and parties
If parting I’d seen shadow in her eyes.

Week 125: Elegy for Minor Poets, by Louis MacNeice

It is probably not a good idea for poets to worry much about whether their poems are major or minor: far better to concentrate on just getting the damn things right and let posterity do the worrying. But I do like this rueful elegy by Louis MacNeice, which covers so many of the ways that things can go wrong for the many that are called as compared with the few that are chosen.

Elegy for Minor Poets

Who often found their way to pleasant meadows
Or maybe once to a peak, who saw the Promised Land,
Who took the correct three strides but tripped their hurdles,
Who had some prompter they barely could understand,
Who were too happy or sad, too soon or late,
I would praise these in company with the Great;

For if not in the same way, they fingered the same language
According to their lights. For them as for us
Chance was a coryphaeus who could be either
An angel or an ignis fatuus.
Let us keep our mind open, our fingers crossed;
Some who go dancing through dark bogs are lost.

Who were lost in many ways, through comfort, lack of knowledge,
Or between women’s breasts, who thought too little, too much,
Who were the world’s best talkers, in tone and rhythm
Superb, yet as writers lacked a sense of touch,
So either gave up or just went on and on–
Let us salute them now their chance is gone;

And give the benefit of the doubtful summer
To those who worshipped the sky but stayed indoors
Bound to a desk by conscience or by the spirit’s
Hayfever. From those office and study floors
Let the sun clamber on to the notebook, shine,
And fill in what they groped for between each line.

Who were too carefree or careful, who were too many
Though always few and alone, who went the pace
But ran in circles, who were lamed by fashion,
Who lived in the wrong time or the wrong place,
Who might have caught fire had only a spark occurred,
Who knew all the words but failed to achieve the Word–

Their ghosts are gagged, their books are library flotsam,
Some of their names–not all–we learnt in school
But, life being short, we rarely read their poems,
Mere source-books now to point or except a rule,
While those opinions which rank them high are based
On a wish to be different or on lack of taste.

In spite of and because of which, we later
Suitors to their mistress (who, unlike them, stays young)
Do right to hang on the grave of each a trophy
Such as, if solvent, he would himself have hung
Above himself; these debtors preclude our scorn–
Did we not underwrite them when we were born?

Louis MacNeice

Week 124: Elegy of Fortinbras, by Zbigniew Herbert

I much admire this original take on ‘Hamlet’ by the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), in which he seems to come down firmly on the side of Fortinbras, Hamlet’s conqueror and the practical man of action, against the self-torturing introspective held up to us by Shakespeare as the hero. It is clear that for Herbert, a political activist who fought in the Polish resistance against the Nazis, the role of poet in no way excuses one from civic duty and civic action. Quite. And yet it is the unjust power of poetry that the words Shakespeare puts in the mouth of Hamlet continue to resonate with us rather more than the sewer projects and prison reforms that Herbert deploys to such beautifully bathetic effect in the last stanza. I am not sure that Herbert is as rueful about this –‘what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy’ – as, speaking in the character of Fortinbras, he makes out. For there is also in any poet a bit of Hamlet too…

The C.M. of the dedication is Herbert’s fellow Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who also assisted in what seems to me (not that I know any Polish to judge) a remarkable piece of translation.

Elegy of Fortinbras

To C.M.

Now that we’re alone we can talk prince man to man
though you lie on the stairs and see no more than a dead ant
nothing but black sun with broken rays
I could never think of your hands without smiling
and now that they lie on the stone like fallen nests
they are as defenceless as before The end is exactly this
The hands lie apart The sword lies apart The head apart
and the knight’s feet in soft slippers

You will have a soldier’s funeral without having been a soldier
the only ritual I am acquainted with a little
There will be no candles no singing only cannon-fuses and bursts
crepe dragged on the pavement helmets boots artillery horses drums
drums I know nothing exquisite
those will be my manoeuvres before I start to rule
one has to take the city by neck and shake it a bit

Anyhow you had to perish Hamlet you were not for life
you believed in crystal notions not in human clay
always twitching as if asleep you hunted chimeras
wolfishly you crunched the air only to vomit
you knew no human thing you did not know even how to breathe

Now you have peace Hamlet you accomplished what you had to
and you have peace The rest is not silence but belongs to me
you chose the easier part an elegant thrust
but what is heroic death compared with eternal watching
with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair
with a view of the ant-hill and the clock’s dial

Adieu prince I have tasks a sewer project
and a decree on prostitutes and beggars
I must also elaborate a better system of prisons
since as you justly said Denmark is a prison
I go to my affairs This night is born
a star named Hamlet We shall never meet
what I shall leave will not be worth a tragedy

It is not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos
and that water these words what can they do what can they do prince

Zbigniew Herbert (tr. Czeslaw Milosz and Peter Dale Scott)

Week 123: No Answer, by Laurence Whistler

Laurence Whistler (1912-2000) is best known as a glass engraver, but before that he was a poet of some accomplishment, as shown by this moving elegy for his first wife, the actress Jill Furse, who died in 1944, the same year in which his brother Rex was killed in Normandy. He wrote an account of his life with Jill in ‘The Initials in the Heart’, published in 1964. I find the closing lines of this poem particularly affecting.

No Answer

In the slow lapse of unrecorded afternoons
When nothing seems to change but history itself
Unfolding at the pace of clouds or even weeds
The window murmurs lightly to the vacant room
And seems as if it commented with mild surprise
On some arrival, timely or unique;
Slow by the rapid stream, perhaps, or quick in the slow skies.

Why does the window murmur – and to whom?
What notable event does it report
That’s far above the heads of furniture,
Nor heeded by the absent-minded room?

Is it first cuckoo-fall? – the double word
Dropping like seed into the wood, instant with spring?

Or is it rose-fall? – end of the first rose,
Spilled from the hand of Summer, pensively?

Perhaps first apple-fall? – scatter and thud,
And Autumn here that moment, cornucopia?

Or is it only the first snow-fall? – one,
One, and then one, slid furtive down, as if
Winter himself had thought the moment haunted?

Windows look out of rooms at poetry,
That pours back through them, lyrical in birds,
Epic in weather, narrative in streams.
But they look only out, half-conscious of a being
Shadowed behind them, borrowing their eyes.

O window, when you murmur, ‘Do but look!’
Don’t ask who listens now. Never enquire
Why soundlessness should grow into a habit,
Helpless and final as the dust.


She may be resting yet in the great bed,
Tuned always to your accent, though her heart
Is listening miles away to mine. – Might she
Not lie so still? Never so long, so still?
Should there, long since, have come to you at least,
The flicking over of a page – at least
Her busy pencil, whispering word by word
The letter she would send – at very least
A sigh?

So would she sigh
In the dark ages of the afternoon,
When you would draw her to some poetry
(Fall of the word, the rose, the fruit, the fleeting crystal),
So would she sigh a war away – since tears,
If tears were let, would rain away the world:
Sigh in the great bed for its emptiness,
The waste of poetry, the waste of years.

Laurence Whistler