This is a famous poem by Gérard de Nerval (1808 – 1855)

El Desdichado

 Je suis le Ténébreux, – le Veuf, – l’Inconsolé, / Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la Tour abolie : / Ma seule Etoile est morte, – et mon luth constellé / Porte le Soleil noir de la Mélancolie.

 Dans la nuit du Tombeau, Toi qui m’as consolé, / Rends-moi le Pausilippe et la mer d’Italie, / La fleur qui plaisait tant à mon coeur désolé, / Et la treille où le Pampre à la Rose s’allie.

Suis-je Amour ou Phébus ?… Lusignan ou Biron ? / Mon front est rouge encor du baiser de la Reine ; / J’ai rêvé dans la Grotte où nage la sirène…

 Et j’ai deux fois vainqueur traversé l’Achéron : / Modulant tour à tour sur la lyre d’Orphée / Les soupirs de la Sainte et les cris de la Fée.

It’s difficult to describe the effect this poem had on me when I first found it, via T S Eliot’s The Waste Land I suspect. I was a bit of a poetry nerd and did tend to follow up obsessively anything I didn’t understand, whatever the language. I only had A Level French, but I had a feel for languages. If you asked me now to hold a simple conversation with a real French person – order a cup of coffee, say, or remark on the weather – I would be struck dumb, and yet even after all these years I can get the sense of a page of French without a dictionary, and can translate it pretty accurately with one. (Mind you, I can do that with languages I have never learned. I once translated a page of the German version of Harry Potter – though it did take me hours and I couldn’t have done it without a dictionary.)

With El Desdichado – I didn’t understand many of the words, or any of the references to classical myth and French fairy-tales, but I did sense that here was something magical, very strange, and somehow relevant to me. I have written before, I think, about the tower motif.

At the time – long before there was an internet – before I possessed a computer – studying a poem in depth was a laborious process. It was a matter of books. You actually had to get on the bus, clutching your notebook and pencil, go to the library and look for them. I remember for this particular ‘project’ getting the train in to Ashford library because I was stuck on le Pausilippe, among other things. I asked the advice of the Head Librarian and he was so helpful, came to the shelves with me and spent ages trying to find a book or dictionary that might refer to it. He seemed genuinely interested in the madwoman’s quest.

If you were unable find the right book there and then you had to order one, which meant filling out a Green Card and paying a £3 fee. Sometimes I would order four books at a time. I was always ordering library books, many of which I had forgotten about by the time the expensively-ordered item arrived weeks later. They would even go to the length of purchasing a book if the library system as a whole did not have a copy. For all I know, Kentish libraries are even now clogged up with obscure volumes that nobody has ever heard of or is ever likely to request.

Nowadays, of course, you go online. As I write what I am very much afraid will become a series of posts on Gérard de Nerval and his poem, I am nipping backwards and forwards, from Word to Google, Google to Word, checking troublesome details, following up on trains of thought, researching and, better still, finding interesting stuff by accident. The internet has made things easier for writers – but I do rather miss the library, and my kind librarian. Poor old soul, he’s probably dead by now.

The thing with translation is, it’s best not to do it. The best, most respectful and most poetic response to a great poem – and I mean this – is to learn the language the poem happens to be in, even if it takes you years. A poem is only a poem in its own language. As soon as you translate it – it’s a cliché, but it’s true – you lose it. You may have a general idea of the meaning but the poetry’s evaporated.

The only way you could do it would be to try to create an equivalent poem in your own language – and do it brilliantly. The trouble with this is, to create an equivalent poem in your own language you have to ditch accuracy and translate very loosely indeed, and then – well, what have you got? If you can bear an example of what you get if you overdose on ‘loose’, take a look at this:


I’m not claiming that my translation is any good either. Like the lady above

[who managed to include in her hyper-loose translation of what is after all a Victorian poem the lines On my face is the hickey where Her Majesty kissed me and mimicking a ravished pixie’s raw, climactic cries without seeing or hearing anything ghastly in them – sensual yes, highly-charged yes, deeply erotic yes – teenage gross nooooo!]

I just had to try, thought it was a doomed enterprise and it would undoubtedly have been better if I hadn’t.

The Disinherited

I am the shadow-man, the widower, unconsoled / the Prince of Aquitaine with the ruined tower / My sole star is dead, and my star-strewn lute / bears the black sun of Melancholy.

In the night of the tomb, you were my consolation / returning to me Posilipo and the Italian sea / the flower which so delighted my desolate heart / and the arbour where the vine and the rose become one.

Am I Love or Phoebus, Lusignan or Biron? / My brow still burns with the kiss of the Queen / I have dreamed in the grotto where the Siren swims…

And twice, victorious, crossed the Acheron / coaxing in turn from the lyre of Orpheus / the sighs of the saint and the fairy creature’s cries.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s