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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, commended

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John Turner


Parsifal has trounced the girls, their tender notes,
Their breasts, their gentle banter, and all the fancy
Turns that can provoke an untried youth to fancy
Their light breasts, their banter, and their gentle tones.
He has faced the beauty with the duplex soul,
The motherly bosom, the alluring back,
Has sent the whole hell crew packing, and comes back
Bearing in those arms no stronger than a boy’s
The lance whose weight the centurion thrust home.
He has healed the king, is king now in his turn:
And guardian of the essential sacred prize.
Gold robed celebrant, he adores in the vase –
Substance and luminance – the rubescent Wine.
And – how the boys’ voices shimmer in the dome.

Translated from the French by John Turner


Parsifal a vaincu les Filles, leur gentil
Babil et la luxure amusante—et sa pente
Vers la Chair de garçon vierge que cela tente
D'aimer les seins légers et ce gentil babil ;

Il a vaincu la Femme belle, au cœur subtil,
Étalant ses bras frais et sa gorge excitante ;
Il a vaincu l'Enfer et rentre sous sa tente
Avec un lourd trophée à son bras puéril,

Avec la lance qui perça le Flanc suprême !
Il a guéri le roi, le voici roi lui-même,
Et prêtre du très saint Trésor essentiel.

En robe d'or il adore, gloire et symbole,
Le vase pur où resplendit le Sang réel.
– Et, ô ces voix d'enfants chantant dans la coupole !

Paul Verlaine


Translation commentary

Verlaine’s response to Wagner’s Parsifal seems to have given this poem a longer shelf-life than his more direct religious poems – which do tend to read a bit like popular lithographs. It is such a straight account of the plot that one could use it as the synopsis in a theatre programme, but it has resonance beyond any simple rational analysis. Naturally it is ‘about’ his normal subject – himself: Amfortas the king, made sick by sexual indiscretion; Parsifal the innocent who can cure the damage through fleshly abstinence and spiritual exercise. As in the opera house, readers who don’t accept transubstantiation have to suspend disbelief.

I can imagine Dante Gabriel ‘fleshly’ Rossetti translating it rather successfully. Straight translations of figures such as ‘qui perça le Flanc suprême’, which would have sounded quite good in a nineteenth century context, would now be unacceptably clumsy. In making them more tangential I have probably made the poem more obscure. I have taken the translation away from the original’s technical convention – a perfect classical sonnet – by using not pentameters but eleven-syllable iambics, and rather a lot of the ways that English can rhyme: homophones, full rhymes, part rhymes, reversed rhymes. Perversely, various words are amenable to ‘straight’ faux amis translation: ‘essentiel’ does not need to become ‘quintessential’, because as a double meaning the modern, altered sense of ‘essential’ as ‘indispensable’ fits the function of the grail/spear rather well. I have gone back to the opera at some points, particularly in describing Kundry, ‘la Femme belle’.

The sound of the opera is the sound of backlit stained glass; one does not have to be synaesthetic to experience this. Anthony ‘Clockwork Orange’ Burgess once demonstrated that Verlaine’s last line, familiar to English readers from its quotation in The Waste Land, chimes beautifully when spoken across the closing chords. I have not tried particularly to imitate the French sounds, but rather to set up an equivalent kind of vibration. Regrettably the extraordinary assonance of ‘le Sang réel’, which in French sounds like ‘le Saint Graal’ (the ostensible subject of the poem, and of course, the opera) has defied imitation!

John Turner