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

Love Song

antique-violin

Today I celebrate Valentine’s day on the blog with a ‘soulful’ poem written by Rainer Maria Rilke, the early 20th century Bohemian-Austrian poet and mystic. His poetry speaks deeply to me, as it undoubtedly does to countless other people. I remember that when I first read a collection of his poems, I bookmarked almost every page as I found something there that tugged at me. His poems have the ability to startle and leave you with the enormous feeling of relief that here is someone who ‘gets’ you.

Love Song

by Rainer Maria Rilke

How can I keep my soul in me, so that
it doesn’t touch your soul? How can I raise
it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn’t resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin’s bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Here’s the original in German:
Liebeslied

Wie soll ich meine Seele halten, daß
sie nicht an deine rührt? Wie soll ich sie
hinheben über dich zu andern Dingen?
Ach gerne möcht ich sie bei irgendwas
Verlorenem im Dunkel unterbringen
an einer fremden stillen Stelle, die
nicht weiterschwingt, wenn deine Tiefen schwingen.
Doch alles, was uns anrührt, dich und mich,
nimmt uns zusammen wie ein Bogenstrich,
der aus zwei Saiten eine Stimme zieht.
Auf welches Instrument sind wir gespannt?
Und welcher Spieler hat uns in der Hand?
O süßes Lied!

There are two distinct parts to this poem. In the first part, the speaker/ poet expresses his fear of falling in love. He is afraid of the closeness to the person he loves. To love is to be raw and vulnerable. To love is to take the risk of getting hurt or rejected. You expose your naked emotional self as you re-open wounds from the past. There is no love without loss. Love and pain go hand in hand. Love is not calm waters but the dizzying heights and crashing lows of waves in the ocean. And that is why he wants to shelter his soul “among remote lost objects, in some dark and silent place” far away from the beloved.

The word ‘yet’ expresses the futile attempt to resist the beloved and links the first part to the second. If you love, you wear your heart on your sleeve. He is irresistibly drawn to the love of his life. Falling in love is inevitable. He cannot hold his emotions in check even if he wants to.

The second part describes the perfect union of souls. The two souls in love are part of an identical energy force; their vibrational frequency is the same. They are no longer disparate and disembodied beings but have merged together and are completely in tune with each other. The concept of soul mates which seems like a modern invention, in fact, harkens back to antiquity. In Plato’s Symposium, the philosopher Aristophanes discusses the concept of mirror souls. Zeus, the King of Gods, split androgynous human beings into two separate parts, male and female, and they spend their whole lives in pursuit of their other halves so that they could become whole again: “Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”

The two lovers are like two separate violin strings on a violin that vibrates with one sound. They come together to create music. Their oneness emanates from a deep love and understanding. The musical metaphor reminds me of a similar train of thought in Kahlil Gibran’s meditation on love and marriage in The Prophet: ” Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music… “
Two human beings in love can come together to create one whole relationship and still maintain their distinct individuality and not lose sight of their own unique purpose in life.

There is a fatalistic tone to the poem as it alludes to a force greater than the two of them that brings them together in union. Maybe their love was written in the stars. Is the musician God and the instrument upon which they are spanned the Universe or Fate itself? Man and woman come together as one to have a common spiritual communion with God. Their love is transcendent as both entwined souls surrender themselves in exultation into the hands of Divinity. Soul mates are your spiritual catalysts too and there is a sacredness to the union.

In the first part of the poem, the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘You’ ( ‘ich’ and ‘dich’ in German) are used to convey the separateness.  After the speaker utters ”yet” you have the words ‘us’, ‘me and you’, ‘together ‘and ‘we two’ ( ‘uns’, ‘dich und mich’, ‘zusammen’ and ‘ wir’ in German) to emphasize the fusion of the souls. The poem begins and ends with questions. The frenzied questions about how to protect his heart from love are followed by the description of the bliss of union and more questions revealing the incertitude about their destiny and culminating in the rapturous but resigned sigh that he lets out: “Oh sweetest song!”

This beautiful poem about soul mates touched me to the depths of my soul. Hope you enjoyed it too!

You Who Never Arrived

female-downy-woodpecker

Every now and then you come across a poem that simply takes your breath away. One such poem that moved me immensely is Rilke’s “You who never arrived”.

You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of
the next moment. All the immense
images in me — the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and un-
suspected turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods–
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.
You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house– , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me. Streets that I chanced
upon,–
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back
my too-sudden image. Who knows? Perhaps the same
bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, separate, in the evening…
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Here is the original poem in German:

Du im Voraus
verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bildern in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.
Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus—, und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich,—
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild.—Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?
Rainer Maria Rilke

Have you ever wondered if there is a person in the world just right for you whom you haven’t met yet? Your paths haven’t crossed though you have come close to encountering each other. You may be on the verge of meeting each other, moving in close proximity, but never quite set eyes on each other. The speaker is addressing an elusive beloved, a soul mate who would be perfect, who seems to be hovering around him but yet remains distant, elusive, unreachable and out of his grasp. The sense of almost meeting but missing each other creates an air of suspense and mystery and gives an otherworldly and haunting quality to the poem.

The poem is written in free verse with no rhyme scheme matching the speaker’s disparate thoughts. The informal “du” is used as opposed to the formal “Sie” in German conveying a tone of familiarity and intimacy whereas “Sie” would convey distance. This subtlety is lost in translation as in English we employ a generic “you” no matter what our relationship is to the person addressed. From the first stanza itself, a sense of melancholy pervades the poem. The beloved is “lost from the start” implying that there is no promise of union. He is emphasizing the profound loneliness of human beings in search of their ideal yet unattainable soul mate. The words “never”, “lost from the start”, “I don’t even know”, “given up trying” and “forever elude me” reinforce his sense of despair and hopelessness. The speaker resorts to hyperbole to convey the importance of the beloved in his life. The epithets “immense”, “deeply-felt and “powerful” indicate her looming presence or rather absence in his life. She who represents lands and landscape “pulsing with the life of gods” is alive within him and has a strong presence but yet she is an inconceivable being, intangible, an abstract idea that forever eludes him. Is he speaking of an unrequited love? Or could it be that he has an idea of who the perfect person is for him but no one in reality measures up to his image of the person. Has he made up the person?

The second stanza is more interesting as there are traces of hope compared to the pessimism of the first stanza with the image of the open window and the question “Who knows?” The open window and the streets and shops frequented by both of them give us the feeling that the beloved is tantalizingly close. She is lurking around the corner and may step out any moment to surprise him. The personification of the mirrors makes us wonder if the beloved is looking back at him too. “ The mirrors were still dizzy with your presence and, startled, gave back my too-sudden image.” It is possible that what he is seeking is reflected back to him and exists within him be it his Muse, a creative source or something larger than life, his God or the Divine within. Many of the motifs and metaphors used by Rilke bring to mind the symbolism found in mystic poetry especially in Sufi literary traditions. The garden is a place of contemplation and meditation. It is also a primal place, an earthly paradise. I am reminded of Rumi’s lines:

I am a bird of the heavenly garden,
I belong not to the earthly sphere.
They have made for two or three days,
A cage of my body.

The bird stands for the human soul longing for eternal union. This image of the yearning bird singing about its unfulfilled union also brings to mind a text called “The Conference of Birds” which is a long Persian parable in which birds cross seven valleys to find the legendary Simorgh, a mystical Persian bird. Many drop out during the arduous journey. The thirty birds that remain see only their reflection in a lake. The trapped human soul like the bird has to return to its primordial source from which it is separated. The mystic’s yearning for oneness with the Divine is beautifully captured in the lines: “Perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us yesterday, separate, in the evening.”

The spiritual marriage is a leitmotiv in many religious texts the most famous example being the “Song of Songs’ or “The Song of Solomon” of the Old Testament which is interpreted by many scholars to be an allegory of Christ and his bride, the Christian Church, or more broadly speaking of God’s love for humankind. The symbolism of the spiritual marriage is also found in the poetry of the mystics of Hinduism and Sufism where God is the bridegroom and is called ‘mehboob’ or “beloved” and the soul is the mystical bride yearning for the union. In this poem too he addresses the unknown entity as ‘Beloved”. We could say the poem is more like an apostrophe than a monologue as the speaker is addressing an imaginary character, someone who is absent and intangible.

The speaker is still searching and seeking for someone to complete him and make him whole at the end of the poem. The poem describes our universal human condition of loneliness and the quest for the Absolute in such a beautiful and striking way that it leaves us too, startled and dizzy like the mirrors reflecting back our “too-sudden image.”