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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2011

Open, commended

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John Turner

Sobriety, book III, poem 12

Well there you are, my simple better thoughts:
Hope – that’s a must; penance for good abjured;
Kindness of heart with steel rods in the soul;
The watchfulness; a recommended calm;
And all the others. Steady on your feet,
Quite wide awake, but hesitant – the hot
Night and the heavy dream entangles you:
Let’s see who’s first to stumble! – a slow train
Bewildered by the broad light of the moon.
As ewes that exit from the fold, by one,
By two, by three; and then the rest are there
Keeping their heads down and their eyes wide shut;
So what the first sheep does the others do,
Shunting up close behind her if she stops,
Glaikit, silent, not understanding why.

My flock. The canny shepherd is not I,
But greater, how much greater: it was he
Who kept you penned for such an ache of time
To move the hurdle when the hour came right.
Follow him – for his crook is kindness, and
His voice a balm for bleating.
                                                    As for me:
I am the faithful dog that runs behind.

Translated from the French and Italian by John Turner

Sagesse, livre III, poème xii

Vous voilà, vous voilà, pauvres bonnes pensées !
L’espoir qu’il faut, regret des grâces dépensées,
Douceur de cœur avec sévérité d’esprit,
Et cette vigilance, et le calme prescrit,
Et toutes ! – Mais encor lentes, bien éveillées,
Bien d’aplomb, mais encor timides, débrouillées
À peine du lourd rêve et de la tiède nuit.
C’est à qui de vous va plus gauche, l’une suit
L’autre, et toutes ont peur du vaste clair de lune.
« Telles, quand des brebis sortent d’un clos. C’est une,
Puis deux, puis trois. Le reste est là, les yeux baissés,
La tête à terre, et l’air des plus embarrassés,
Faisant ce que fait leur chef de file : il s’arrête,
Elles s’arrêtent tour à tour, posant leur tête
Sur son dos, simplement et sans savoir pourquoi. »
Votre pasteur, ô mes brebis, ce n’est pas moi,
C’est un meilleur, un bien meilleur, qui sait les causes,
Lui qui vous tint longtemps et si longtemps là closes,
Mais qui vous délivra de sa main au temps vrai.
Suivez-le. Sa houlette est bonne.
                                             Et je serai,
Sous sa voix toujours douce à votre ennui qui bêle,
Je serai, moi, par vos chemins, son chien fidèle.

Paul Verlaine

Purgatorio, canto III, 79–84

Come le pecorelle escon del chiuso
a una, a due, a tre, e l’altre stanno
timidette atterrando l’occhio e ’l muso;
e ciò che fa la prima, e l’altre fanno,
addossandosi a lei, s’ella s’arresta,
semplici e quete, e lo ’mperchè non sanno…

Dante Alighieri

Translation commentary

A way round the substantial problem of reading all through Verlaine’s huge and uneven output is to tag onto the judgement of others. This is one of the less known poems from Sagesse, and I have yet to find a translation; but François Coppée put it in his Choix de poésies de Paul Verlaine, and while his taste may not be modern, he surely knew something good when he saw it. It wasn’t long before I took a shine to Verlaine’s sheep. The embedded Purgatorio quotation also furnished the unusual pleasure of translating two poets and two languages at once. There is a slight feeling, with the style and the Dante reference, of something that may have influenced the Four Quartets.

I have not discovered how Verlaine came to read and translate (or versify from a prose translation?) the Purgatorio. In his memoire (not quite) entitled My Porridge, he names a number of suitably sobering books the prison governor encouraged him to read, but this is not one of them. After long and cautious contemplation, I finally made the formal decisions rather rapidly – I live in hope that time gives one an instinct for what will ‘do’ a particular poem. I rejected terza rima, or heroic couplets for the Verlaine blending in and out of terza rima for the Dante, not because any such scheme would – as always – require a negotiated treaty with the content, but because any cleverness might fatally get in the way of the poem’s simplicity. Likewise the temptation to deploy nine- or eleven-syllable iambics. Verlaine has elected the plainest form available in the conventions of his time (alexandrines in rimes plates) and I have gone for the English equivalent: good old blank verse, which bloodied but still functioning, has survived its twentieth century pounding. There are two unobtrusively placed exceptions.

The Purgatorio quote could have turned into a stage in that game we all play with our autotranslators: taking Hamlet from English to Swedish to Thai back to English. So the Dante is translated mostly directly from the Italian, with a slight nod to Verlaine’s way of putting it. This was a very interesting experience: translating Dante is deeply different from translating Verlaine.

The usual learning-curve applied. ‘Poor’ for ‘pauvres’ was obvious enough, but a bit of a faux ami; it seemed good to seek out double meanings in English; ‘and all the rest’.

I am much indebted to Richard Andrews, who pinned down the location of the original quotation in Purgatorio, and to Catherine Kaiserman for elucidating the colloquialism.

John Turner