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The Times Stephen Spender Prize 2012
Open, commended

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John RG Turner

Classical Walpurgisnacht


Think Sabbath. Faust. No, not Part One, the other!
A rhythmic, very rhythmic ground, becoming
A garden in the manner of Lenôtre:
   Proper, over the top, and charming.

Walks ruler straight. Hubs. Fountains in the middle.
Venus supine at various intersections.
Ocean gods in bronze; woodlanders in marble.
   Camomile lawns. Quincunctial junctions.

Dwarf roses, here, sculpted by informed pruning.
Further away, yews coaxed into a cone.
Horse chestnuts. Flowerbeds as landscape. Shining
   On all of this, an August moon.

Twelve chimes – From the dynastic park an answer:
A soulful slow sweet melody, the kind
Of sweet slow haunting hunting song Tannhäuser
   Heard as he crept from underground.

A muted choir of horns, lontani, cushion
The vertigo of heart and mind, that turn
To the sweet sorrow of inebriation.
   Then, on the blowing of the horn

Pale sudden shapes that couple and uncouple
In the green shade of leafage, interweaving
A lucent whiteness that the moon tints opal
   – A Watteauesque Raffet engraving –

And now, weaving in the green shade of leafage,
Listlessly round the statuary, round
The plantings, with that unrecovered grief age
   Deepens, perform their antique round.

Unsettled spirits, rhythmical as surfers,
Are they the drunken poet's thoughts? Indeed
Are they regrets, or the remorse he suffers?
   Or are they just, instead, the dead?

Your conscience then, my inappropriate dreamer,
These spectral gyres in non-stop motion? Hey!
Remorse, regret and guilt that stake their claim? Or
   Are these the dead who would be gay?

Who knows! They never stop, these frantic phantoms,
These lindy-hopping, jitterbugging leapers,
Gnats in the sun, a shaft of dust and atoms,
   That instantly revert to vapours

As the damp daylight, one after another
Blots all the horns out. And the mists re-forming
Just nothing. Just a garden by Lenôtre,
   Proper, over the top, and charming.

Translated from the French by John RG Turner
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Nuit du Walpurgis classique


C'est plutôt le sabbat du second Faust que l'autre.
Un rhythmique sabbat, rhythmique, extrêmement
Rhythmique. — Imaginez un jardin de Lenôtre,
   Correct, ridicule et charmant.

Des ronds-points ; au milieu, des jets d'eau ; des allées
Toutes droites ; sylvains de marbre ; dieux marins
De bronze ; çà et là, des Vénus étalées ;
    Des quinconces, des boulingrins ;

Des châtaigniers ; des plants de fleurs formant la dune ;
Ici, des rosiers nains qu'un goût docte effila ;
Plus loin, des ifs taillés en triangles. La lune
    D'un soir d'été sur tout cela.

Minuit sonne, et réveille au fond du parc aulique
Un air mélancolique, un sourd, lent et doux air
De chasse : tel, doux, lent, sourd et mélancolique,
    L'air de chasse de Tannhäuser.

Des chants voilés de cors lointains où la tendresse
Des sens étreint l'effroi de l'âme en des accords
Harmonieusement dissonants dans l'ivresse ;
    Et voici qu'à l'appel des cors

S'entrelacent soudain des formes toutes blanches,
Diaphanes, et que le clair de lune fait
Opalines parmi l'ombre verte des branches,
    — Un Watteau rêvé par Raffet ! —

S'entrelacent parmi l'ombre verte des arbres
D'un geste alangui, plein d'un désespoir profond ;
Puis, autour des massifs, des bronzes et des marbres,
    Très lentement dansent en rond.

— Ces spectres agités, sont-ce donc la pensée
Du poète ivre, ou son regret, ou son remords,
Ces spectres agités en tourbe cadencée,
    Ou bien tout simplement des morts ?

Sont-ce donc ton remords, ô rêvasseur qu'invite
L'horreur, ou ton regret, ou ta pensée, — hein ? — tous
Ces spectres qu'un vertige irrésistible agite,
    Ou bien des morts qui seraient fous ? —

N'importe ! ils vont toujours, les fébriles fantômes,
Menant leur ronde vaste et morne et tressautant
Comme dans un rayon de soleil des atomes,
    Et s'évaporant à l'instant

Humide et blême où l'aube éteint l'un après l'autre
Les cors, en sorte qu'il ne reste absolument
Plus rien — absolument — qu'un jardin de Lenôtre,
    Correct, ridicule et charmant.

Paul Verlaine
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Translation commentary


As the Duchess of Plaza-Toro has it: 'It's extraordinary what unprepossessing people one can love.' Ditto, poems. I fell in love with this little-known Verlaine while in the out of body state induced by a train journey. The embarrassing bit (and 'it feels almost like confessing to a murder') is that while I can get a poem like this from a straight read (plus a little dictionary research), I seldom do things the right way round: understanding the poem and then preparing a carefully judged translation. Normally, I don't actually understand a poem until I've translated it or, a bit less embarrassing, the translating and coming to an understanding are part of the same process.

Getting deep into the 'Walpurgisnacht' unearths some problems. In Verlaine's defence, and to use a quotation that he would later employ as an epigraph '[Il] était si jeune', I maintain that the poem has some enchanting moments, and scholastically it is significant in revealing embryonic themes and techniques that would later become trademarks: almost a dry-run for the Fêtes Galantes (ancien régime park with figures), and on into much later poems; but instead of the lightly suppressed eroticism, this poem seems to be about being drunk – a subject he has picked up from Baudelaire, but which considering its importance in his life, is very little represented in his art! Knowing what Tannhäuser had been up to in the Venusberg, the poet must have had one pig of a hangover.

The poem tends to have too many foci, and his celebrated vagueness comes out more as inconsistency. As always with Verlaine the landscape is visually full of self-contradiction (what style of garden is this?); and referencing literature, music, graphic art and landscape design in one poem is, as he says of Lenôtre's designs, just a bit over the top. And let's face it, one of the stanzas verges on the dire.

But I still love it! I have used strict metre – the only other modern translation I know is free – because the unexpected short line, along with the rather extreme enjambement, produces a slight sense of things being off-balance – much less diatonic at 5:4 feet even than the original at 12:8 syllables – and you can't be 'unexpected' if the metre generates no expectations. I felt slant rhymes went better here than conventional ones, with the exception of one homophone and one that is simply outrageous.

Not a little of the delight comes from the way Verlaine imitates Baudelaire – as often at this stage in his life – but then undercuts him: are these figures the poet's reproachful conscience? Nah, they're just a bunch of old ghosts! The thing being that Verlaine didn't do guilt and remorse. As a psychopath, they were probably outside his capacities. (Reproach though, he could manage, particularly with the much put-on Mathilde, and he did in the end make a convincing fist of repentance.)

Rather than imitating the original Baudelaire imitation, I let the imp of the perverse insert a few stolen phrases from my elders and betters. Spotting them requires no great scholarship, to put it mildly, though the Yeats is just one word. The double meanings, as in 'ground' and 'ruler', are intended. Lontano: the direction for the instrument[s] to be played within earshot from another room. A quincunx is an arrangement of five related objects – say a water-god and four naiads – at the centre and corners of a square, like the '5' on the dice. They must have had a wow effect when placed on radiating paths round a hub.

John RG Turner