Autumn Song (My translation of Verlaine’s Chanson D’Automne)

I live in one of the most beautiful places on earth to experience autumn. So embedded is the season in the local psyche that over time I have become an autumn person. Not only do I revel in the glorious hues of changing foliage and savor the textures, sounds and smells of the season, I also experience the melancholy that goes with the time of the year. I slow down to contemplate and see my own fate and the fate of everyone else around me in the transience of leaves. Autumn is after all the season of melancholia and introspection, a mood captured so poignantly by poets.

As I was walking in the woods around my home in southern New Hampshire the other day, I noticed a pile of dead leaves. It was late autumn and the leaves were a sodden mess, withered, bleached of color, and in a state of decay, considerably different from the vibrant palette on the tree tops just a few weeks ago. I was face to face with my mortality as I picked up a ‘feuille morte’ and thought instinctively of the poem “Chanson d’automne” or ”Autumn Song” by Paul Verlaine, one of the leading French poets associated with the Symbolist movement.

I had first studied ” Chanson d’automne” in college and I can still recite it by heart. I had always loved the poem but now with the passing of the years the symbolism resonates more than ever and living in New England makes me understand autumn better. The poem is included in Verlaine’s first collection, Poèmes saturniens, published in 1866 and is part of the “Paysages tristes” or ” Sad landscapes” section of the collection. One interesting fact about this poem is that the BBC used a song recording of it to send secret messages to the French Resistance about the timing of the forthcoming invasion of Normandy during World War 2.

” Chanson d’automne” also happens to be one of the most translated poems of all time. Although it is written in simple French, it is difficult to translate it in English as it is a musical poem. “ De la musique avant toute chose’’ or ” Music before everything else” was after all Verlaine’s mantra and to retain the musicality of the poem along with conveying its melancholy is of utmost importance when rendering it from French into another language. But it is also such a brief and simple poem that it is best to keep the translation almost literal. You can see that translating the poem is no mean task. A lot of the translations extant stray too far from the meaning of the original in order to make the poem lyrical but I didn’t want to dilute the impact made by the French poem. I have tried my best to reconcile the two. So here is the original followed by my humble attempt at translation:

Chanson d’Automne

Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon cœur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Autumn Song

The long sobs 
Of autumn violins
Make my heart throb
With chagrin
And a monotonous
Languor.

All choked up 
And pale, when
The hour sounds,
I remember with a sigh
Days long gone
And I cry.

And I let myself go
With the ill winds that blow
Which carry me
Hither, thither
Similar
To a dead leaf. 

( Translated by Jayshree – Literary Gitane) *

My translation is pretty literal but I have made some accommodations to recreate the plodding rhythm of the original which follows the effect of a violin playing slowly with the use of stylistic techniques like rhymes, internal rhymes, alliteration and consonance. I could have translated ‘blessent mon coeur’ as ‘hurt my heart’ but I thought rhyming the word ‘violin’ with a word like ‘chagrin’ along with the use of the rhymes ‘long’, ‘sob’ and ‘throb’ would convey the effect of the pulsating sound of a heart beat and the rhythmic sound of a violin that I was looking for to accentuate the monotony and the melancholy of the lines. Similarly in the second verse I added ‘with a sigh’ to rhyme with ‘cry’ and the words ‘long gone’ to create the musicality with the internal rhyme and consonance. Throughout my translation, I have attempted the techniques of consonance and assonance to make the experience of the poem more auditory. In the concluding lines I was playing with ‘to and fro’ to rhyme with ‘blow’ but settled on ‘hither thither’ as I thought these two consonant sounds would best replace the words “Deçà, delà”.

This poem beautifully illustrates how an interior landscape corresponds with the exterior one. It employs the metaphor of autumn to bemoan a past that is irretrievably lost. It is interesting how it starts with the first person but by the end of the poem, the poet/ speaker becomes a dead object, one with the dead leaf, one with the season. “Autumn Dirge” would have been a more apt title to this poem, in my opinion, than “Autumn Song” but perhaps the poet either wished to be ironical or simply to emphasize the paradox of the sorrow triggered by the desolation of the season along with the calm of resignation and acceptance.

I hope you enjoyed the poem and my translation. 🙂

  • Translation cannot be used without the permission of the author- Copyright- Literary Gitane

2 thoughts on “Autumn Song (My translation of Verlaine’s Chanson D’Automne)

  1. So lovely – thank you for translating this and also explaining certain choices behind it. I have very limited French and so if I’m looking at something bilingual there’s always the risk that I might just be looking for a literal rendering. It’s so interesting to hear how that approach is not always be the best!

    Liked by 2 people

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