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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2010

Open category, commended

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John Turner

Sonnet for Autumn
by René François Armand (‘Sully’) Prudhomme

The sky is a gently ruckled sheet.
The leaf dithers, loses grip, and leaves.
In the wood aisles, under thinning eaves,
The sunflecks, grown large, are not so bright.

What the sap has willed the sap achieves:
The cep and the bramble are replete;
Boughs in orchards flex with their own weight;
Summer, fulfilled, moulders among leaves.

The earth taught us this eight thousand years.
The thickest of thatches will grow sparse
And speckled with hoarfrost. In the chill

Furrows will mark the blandest of lands.
We work in a harvestable soil,
Fearing to grow old with empty hands.

Translated from the French by John Turner


L’azur n’est plus égal comme un rideau sans pli.
La feuille, à tout moment, tressaille, vole et tombe;
Au bois, dans les sentiers où le taillis surplombe,
Les taches de soleil, plus larges, ont pâli.

Mais l’œuvre de la sève est partout accompli:
La grappe autour du cep se colore et se bombe,
Dans le verger la branche au poids des fruits succombe,
Et l’été meurt, content de son devoir rempli.

Dans l’été de ta vie enrichis-en l’automne;
Ô mortel, sois docile à l’exemple que donne,
Depuis des milliers d’ans, la terre au genre humain;

Vois : le front, lisse hier, n’est déjà plus sans rides,
Et les cheveux épais seront rares demain:
Fuis la honte et l’horreur de vieillir les mains vides.

René François Armand (‘Sully’) Prudhomme

Translation commentary

The nose-dive in Sully Prudhomme’s reputation seems to have been as severe as that of Tennyson, without the revival: in my local library, his collected works had last been borrowed in 1988. But, thought I, the winner of the first Nobel Prize for Literature cannot have been a complete slouch. Cautiously turning the pages, I found that this sonnet, while a bit conventional, had a personal meaning for me which went beyond the superficially obvious one about saving enough money to buy an annuity (although that one must be uppermost in everybody’s mind at the moment!).

Moralising Victorian poetry is still pretty much out of fashion, and in the hands of lesser practitioners, so wonderfully parodied in Alice, it can be dire. But even though the particular form it takes here, drawing a moral from nature, has an honourable history going back at least to the medieval bestiary – besides being something the human race might like to return to before it gets itself into really serious trouble – I do find Prudhomme’s original sextet rather irritatingly preachy. I have bent it in the direction of being meditative rather than hortatory.

As far as I know, Prudhomme was not a formal innovator – it was the ‘lofty idealism’ of his thought that his contemporaries valued – nor even a particularly adept formalist. The original here is in conventional metre, but I felt that the mood of the poem, and of the collection it comes from, called Pointless Endearments (Les Vaines Tendresses), suited a less conventional English impair metre consisting of iambic pentameters shorn of a syllable.

John Turner