Week 504: Nuits de juin, by Victor Hugo

This week being the week of the summer solstice I thought this lyric by Victor Hugo would make an appropriate offering for today. It was Hugo who in a poem about the biblical Ruth, ‘Booz endormi’, gave us that most beautiful image of the summer sky at night, when at the end of the poem Ruth looks up and wonders

Quel dieu, quel moissonneur de l’éternel été,
Avait, en s’en allant, négligemment jeté
Cette faucille d’or dans le champ des étoiles’.

(‘What god, what harvester of the eternal summer,
Had, as he went, so carelessly thrown down
That golden sickle in the field of stars’).

But this lyric too seems to me to capture beautifully the airy, dreamlike quality of these short June nights.

The freeish translation that follows is my own.

Nuits de juin

L’été, lorsque le jour a fui, de fleurs couverte
La plaine verse au loin un parfum enivrant;
Les yeux fermés, l’oreille aux rumeurs entrouverte,
On ne dort qu’à demi d’un sommeil transparent.

Les astres sont plus purs, l’ombre paraît meilleure;
Un vague demi-jour teint le dôme éternel;
Et l’aube douce et pâle, en attendant son heure,
Semble toute la nuit errer au bas du ciel.

Victor Hugo

June Nights

In summer, when day’s fled, and on the plain
Flowers pour their heady scents out far around,
Our eyes shut, ears half-open still for sound,
We lie in lucid sleep, or wake again.

Purer the stars now, sweet the shaded bower,
The heaven’s dome still flushed with day’s last light,
While, at the bottom of the sky, all night
The white dawn wanders, waiting for its hour.

Week 503: Deaths of Flowers, by Edith Scovell

Last week’s offering by Frances Horovitz led me to remember this other fine flower-and-death-themed poem by Edith Scovell (1907-1999). If you are going to stake a whole poem on one image it had better be a good one and it had better be original, but I think Edith’s beautifully observed tulip certainly does the job in this elegiac yet life-affirming piece. And take a moment to appreciate the precision of that ‘flamboyant’ in the penultimate line, and how fittingly the word’s modern sense of ‘showy’ is underpinned by an awareness of its etymology, coming as it does from the French flamboyer, to flame or blaze.

Deaths Of Flowers

I would if I could choose
Age and die outwards as a tulip does;
Not as this iris drawing in, in-coiling
Its complex strange taut inflorescence, willing
Itself a bud again – though all achieved is
No more than a clenched sadness,

The tears of gum not flowing.
I would choose the tulip’s reckless way of going;
Whose petals answer light, altering by fractions
From closed to wide, from one through many perfections,
Till wrecked, flamboyant, strayed beyond recall,
Like flakes of fire they piecemeal fall.

E. J. Scovell

Week 502: Flowers, by Frances Horovitz

This week another elegiac poem by Frances Horovitz (1938-1983), foreshadowing her own early death (see week 80).

I have tried to figure out if the particular flowers mentioned, soapwort and figwort, are meant to have any special symbolic resonance for the poem, but nothing obvious comes to my mind. Soapwort yields a vegetable saponin used as a laundering agent by mediaeval fullers, figwort is so named not because it had anything to do with the fruit, but because it was used as a curative for the ‘fig’, or piles. So possibly one has to ascribe their particular appearance in the poem to happenstance: these are simply the flowers the poet picked that day that stuck in her mind, perhaps because they are not especially well-known or celebrated.

But the poem as a whole surely does have a resonance, and a mythopoeic one at that. That final image of the poet holding up the flowers ‘as torch and talisman/Against the coming dark’ – just so, one thinks, might the flower-gathering Persephone have held up her blooms in a last affirmation of life and springtime before dark Hades carried her off to his underworld.

(for Winifred Nicholson)

a dozen or more,
I picked one summer afternoon
from field and hedgerow.
Resting against a wall
I held them up
to hide the sun.
Cell by cell,
exact as dance,
I saw the colour,
structure, purpose
of each flower.
I named them with their secret names.
They flamed in air.

But, waking
I remember only two
– soapwort and figwort,
the lilac and the brown.
The rest I guess at
but cannot see
– only myself,
almost a ghost upon the road,
without accoutrement,
holding the flowers
as torch and talisman
against the coming dark.

Frances Horovitz

Week 501: Ho sceso, dandoti il braccio, by Eugenio Montale

This is one of the poems from the sequence ‘Xenia II’, written by the Italian poet Eugenio Montale in 1967 in memory of his wife Drusilla Tanzi (see also week 370). A recurrent theme in the sequence, as here, is her short-sightedness, paradoxically played off against the acuteness of her vision in other ways, her gift, the poet claims, for seeing what is truly important in life, that allowed her to transcend the limited, quotidian view of reality believed in by some. Like the other poems in the sequence, it manages to combine restraint with poignancy.

Going downstairs together, of course, is not just to be taken literally, but as a symbol for negotiating life’s difficulties as a couple.

The translation that follows is my own.

Ho sceso, dandoti il braccio

‘Ho sceso, dandoti il braccio, almeno un milione di scale
e ora che non ci sei è il vuoto ad ogni gradino.
Anche così è stato breve il nostro lungo viaggio.
Il mio dura tuttora, né più mi occorrono
le coincidenze, le prenotazioni,
le trappole, gli scorni di chi crede
che la realtà sia quella che si vede.

Ho sceso milioni di scale dandoti il braccio
non già perché con quattr’occhi forse si vede di più.
Con te le ho scese perché sapevo che di noi due
le sole vere pupille, sebbene tanto offuscate,
erano le tue.’

Eugenio Montale

Giving you my arm, I have gone down

Giving you my arm, I have gone down,
At least a million stairs.
And now you are no longer here I feel
The void at every step.
So after all it has been short
This long shared voyage of ours.
Mine still goes on, and now I need no more
Coincidences, reservations,
Traps, the scorn of those believing
That reality is only what we see.

I have gone down, giving you my arm,
A million stairs, not just because
With four eyes one maybe sees more.
I went down with you because I knew
That between us two the eyes that truly saw,
For all their being so obscured, were yours.