Sunday, 5 May 2013

Portsmouth Point Poetry: 'Tristesses de la Lune'

Three English translations of Charles Baudelaire's "Tristesses de la Lune", by Aladdin Benali, George Cunningham and Melissa Smith.

Tristesses de la Lune

Ce soir, la lune rêve avec plus de paresse;
Ainsi qu'une beauté, sur de nombreux coussins,
Qui d'une main distraite et légère caresse
Avant de s'endormir le contour de ses seins,

Sur le dos satiné des molles avalanches,
Mourante, elle se livre aux longues pâmoisons,
Et promène ses yeux sur les visions blanches
Qui montent dans l'azur comme des floraisons.

Quand parfois sur ce globe, en sa langueur oisive,
Elle laisse filer une larme furtive,
Un poète pieux, ennemi du sommeil,

Dans le creux de sa main prend cette larme pâle,
Aux reflets irisés comme un fragment d'opale,
Et la met dans son coeur loin des yeux du soleil.

Charles Baudelaire


Baudelaire conveys the sublime power of nature (both external forces and our inner, human nature). There is a beautiful image of the moon  “mesmerized” and “enthralled” by the sight of white clouds that “effloresce”, blooming like flowers, expanding (apparently forever) “in the dark like firework flowers”. This image intimates a sense of transcendence, of something beautiful beyond words (hence the beautiful imagery of indeterminate meaning). The moon’s tear, similarly, is conveyed without guidance as to its meaning. Is it a metaphor for rain, for early morning dew? Or is it a typically symboliste image—vivid, evocative but beyond clear, definable meaning? Why is the tear “surreptitious”? Is it a secret sadness, conveying a sense of isolation and incommunicability? Is the moon an objectification of the feelings of the narrator?

The poem shifts from two quatrains to two three-line stanzas. Does this portend a sense of diminution, of isolation, suggestive of the man “alert, alone”? Who is this “reverential man”? What does he revere or worship? Is it the moon? Or does he have a sense of the sacred, of the transcendent, perhaps represented by the “pallid gem/That has an opal’s iridescent gleam”? Again, the meaning of this gem, this tear, is unclear, presumably deliberately so. It represents the unrepresentable—this poem is replete with imagery that suggests indefinability: the efflorescent clouds, the iridescent (multi-coloured, luminous) but pallid (colourless, empty) gleam of the opal. The description of the gem is deliberately oxymoronic and paradoxical, intimating a sublime, incomprehensible beauty at the heart of things.

The final line is enigmatic. Why is the man’s heart dark—does it suggest something evil, something hidden, something depressed? Why does he hide the gem from the Sun? The sun is clearly supposed to represent something different from or opposite to the moon, but, again, what exactly either of them represent is left unclear. Does the Sun represent reason, civilization, the super-ego or some such rationalizing entity? Does the moon represent the irrational, the id, the dark regions of the human mind, the melancholy, reflective (and perhaps creative) aspect of human consciousness? Possibly. But Baudelaire is not interested in definite meanings, he wants to be suggestive and evocative, interested, as he said, in “correspondences” rather than meanings.

Read three thoughtful (and interestingly divergent) translations of Baudelaire's enigmatic poem below:

The Moon’s Sorrows

Tonight, the moon dreams with fresh languidness,
Besides beauty; on numerous pillows,
Who of slight and careless hand caress,
Before falling asleep, the contour of her breasts,

On the satin back of soft avalanches,
Dying, she gives way to long stupor,
And descends her eyes upon the white visions
Reaching to the sky like young blooms.

When sometimes on this globe, in her idle lassitude,
She spills a furtive tear,
A pious poet, enemy of sleep,

In the palm of his hand takes that pale tear,
With iridescence like a fragment of opal,
And places it in his heart, out of sight of the sun.

Translation by Melissa Smith

Sorrow of the Moon

Tonight, the moon dreams ever more indolent
Like a beauteous woman, on a bed of cushions
Who, before sleeping, with a dreamy hand,
Lightly caresses the contour of her breasts,

On the satin back of soft avalanches,
Dying, she gives way to dizziness,
And lets her eyes rove over visions of white
That rise in the soul, like a blossoming of flowers

When, sometimes on this globe, in her idle languor,
She lets a furtive tear drop,
A pious poet, defier of sleep,

In the palm of his hand, he takes this pale tear,
Of glittering reflections like a shard of opal,
Places her in his heart, distant from the eye of the sun.

Translation by Aladdin Benali

Sadness of the Moon
Tonight, the moon dreams with laziness
And a beauty on many cushions,
That a careless hand and gentle caress
Before going to sleep the outline of her breasts,

On the back of the soft satin avalanches
Dying, she indulges in long swoons,
And moves his eyes on white visions
Rising into the sky like blooms.

When sometimes on this globe in his idle languor
She lets go a furtive tear,
A pious poet, enemy of sleep,

In the palm of his hand takes the pale tear,
The iridescent opal as a fragment,
And puts it in his heart away from the eyes of the sun

Translation by George Cunningham

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