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Translating Alexandrines: Sonnets of Ronsard and Baudelaire Thomas Carper

by Thomas Carper
29 May 1998, Vol. 2, No. 1

© Thomas Carper 1998

In his 1962 collection Imitations, Robert Lowell wrote this in his preface: "Most poetic translations come to grief and are less enjoyable than modest photographic prose translations . . . . Strict metrical translators still exist. They seem to live in a pure world untouched by contemporary poetry. Their difficulties are bold and honest, but they are taxidermists, not poets, and their poems are likely to be stuffed birds. A better stragegy would seem to be the now fashionable translations into free or irregular verse." Lowell admits that this method "commonly turns out a sprawl of language, neither faithful nor distinguished," and so he calls instead for "expert and inspired" translation, or "imitation." Many are likely to agree that much free-verse translation is undistinguished, but some is useful and moving. And surely, as the "captives" section of "Sparrow" magazine and translations in journals like "The Formalist" have demonstrated for years, there are numerous top-notch translators who reproduce admirably in meter and rhyme the meanings and the poetry of their originals. These poets are not taxidermists. But there are always areas where more might be done. My particular concern is with translations from French Renaissance and Romantic poets, specifically those writing in alexandrines--the twelve-syllable line that is as integral to a vast number of wonderful French poems as the iambic pentameter is integral to a vast quantity of poetry in English. First, it must be said that there is a wealth of French verse written in eight- and ten-syllable lines. When these poems are translated into English, tetrameters and pentameters usually convey the rhythms of the originals effectively. But those who translate poems written in the longer French alexandrines almost invariably use the English norm, pentameter (a notable exception is Edna St. Vincent Millay). In the past, I myself thought that pentameters were the only way to go. But for translating many French poems, English alexandrines can be made to work well. Alexandrines in English are relatively rare, and the reason seems to be that a six-foot iambic line, a hexameter, tends to break in two--as though you have two trimeters jammed together. Nevertheless, as Derek Attridge notes in The Rhythms of English Poetry, the alexandrine has been used for long poems by Drayton, Swinburne, and Morris, and with considerable frequency as a "special device to achieve a feeling of closure" (128). When it is so used, the effect of the six-beat line can be magical, as in the Spenserian stanza and, here, Spencer's "Epithalamion":

Then I thy soverign praises loud will sing,
That all the woods shall answer and their echo ring.
Or it can be impressive, as at the end of Longfellow's sonnet "Mezzo Cammin":
And hear above me on the autumnal blast
The cataract of Death far thundering from the heights.
And of course during the nineteenth century Longfellow's popular "Evangeline" was written in dactylic hexameters. So alexandrines and hexameters have occasionally been used with distinction and success--though their effect can seem forced and laborious, as Pope notes amusingly in his famous lines from the "Essay on Criticism,"
A needless Alexandrine ends the song,
That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along.
Yet in French, alexandrines are usually elegant and musical, and I hope that by giving ear to examples of alexandrines in English we may conclude that it is possible to bring those qualities of elegance and musicality, and their pleasures, into this language as well. But there are pitfalls, and one of them is demonstrated by my own experience with a poem by the sixteenth-century poet Pierre de Ronsard, author of hundreds of marvelous love poems dedicated to Cassandra, to Marie, to Hélène--and others! A friend of French kings and known both as "the prince of poets" and "the poet of princes," he claimed that he was responsible for bringing alexandrines "into vogue and honor." Two summers ago I undertook a project to make a sequence of several translations of Ronsard sonnets interspersed with new sonnets about the places where he was born, where he met one of his loves, Marie Dupin, where his middle years were spent, and where he died--all places my wife and I had visited. The idea was to bring together poems of the present and the past. In translating six Ronsard sonnets I tried to replicate his alexandrines and to follow, as closely as practicable, his Petrarchan-style rhyme schemes. (For my own sonnets I used a conventional Shakespearian style.) But several years earlier I had translated one of the poet's love poems, a sonnet to Hélène, which I wanted to use in the sequence. It had appeared in "Sparrow," and I hunted it up. For that first translation I had managed a longer-than-pentameter line which at that time satisfied me ("When, one day, you are very old, spinning or skeining wool . . ." ); yet looking at the translation afresh, I realized that it was rather sing-songy, and that it strayed far from the twelve-syllable norm; I had fallen into an easygoing meter which I would have to correct. I'll demonstrate what had happened. Here in French are the first four lines of "Quand vous serez bien vieille":
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
"Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle."
These are the opening lines of my first translation--which I later determined weren't right:
When, one day, you are very old, spinning or skeining wool
At evening by the fire, by a single candle's flame,
Then you will murmur poems of mine in wonder, and exclaim,
"Ronsard celebrated me when I was beautiful."
Certainly the rhythm wasn't that of the pentameter line I was trying to lengthen, but it wasn't alexandrines either. What I had done was to fall into an insistantly rhythmical seven-foot iambic line--fourteeners, or heptameter. I had gone from familiar pentameter to the next-longer "easy" rhythmical meter, entirely skipping over what I was aiming at. So, displeased with my own first version's looseness, I revised my way back to a twelve-syllable iambic line. Here is the version I found more satisfactory, being more representative of the French:
When you are very old, spinning or skeining wool
At evening by the fire, pale in the candle's flame,
You will recite my poems in wonder, and exclaim,
"Thus Ronsard honored me when I was beautiful."
This revision permitted my English to represent better the solemn, somewhat melancholy tone of Ronsard's French. Here is a comparison, line by line:
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir à la chandelle,
When you are very old, spinning or skeining wool

Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
At evening by the fire, pale in the candle's flame,

Direz chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
You will recite my poems in wonder, and exclaim,

"Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j'étais belle."
"Thus Ronsard honored me when I was beautiful."
The ordering of ideas and images in the translation is, of course, not identical to Ronsard's ordering, and meanings sometimes shift a bit. But I do feel that a better sense of what Ronsard wrote--even of his speaking tones--comes through in this effort with rhymed alexandrines than with less-formal styles. (Of course Ronsard rhymes his octave in the strict Petrarchan way--a b b a, a b b a, while I, despairing of enough rhymes, had to fall back on the easier a b b a, c d d c.) A more cheerful Ronsard poem, written for an earlier love, is "Marie, levez-vous," which I translated for my project and called "Awakening Marie." As with the "Sonnet for Hélène," I'll compare lines from the first quatrain in the two languages and, then, give the complete translation, hopeful that it will strike you as being a fair representation of the original's rhythm, tone, and meaning--and, at the same time, a poem.
Marie, levez-vous, ma jeune paresseuse:
Marie, arise! Arise, my young, my lazy love;

Jà la gaie alouette au ciel a fredonné,
Already in the sky the lark begins to sing,

Et jà le rossignol doucement jargonné,
And from his pine the nightingale's soft jargoning

Dessus l'épine assis, sa complainte amoureuse.
Has long been sent abroad from the high branch above.
Here's the complete sonnet:
Marie, arise! Arise, my young, my lazy love;
Already in the sky the lark begins to sing,
And from his pine the nightingales soft jargoning
Has long been sent abroad from the high branch above.
Get up! So we may walk out into dewy land
To see your rosebush crowned with buds prepared to flower,
And small carnations which, at evening's twilight hour,
You watered with such care, a pitcher in your hand.
Last night, when at the edge of sleep, your eyes expressed
A pledge to be awake this morning before me,
But like so many young, you linger in your rest,
Your eyes still sealed, while I regard you peacefully.
Well, now. I'll have to kiss your breasts, to kiss your eyes
A hundred times--thus I will teach you to arise.
Moving from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth, one encounters new subjects, images, and attitudes, but of course the sonnet form remains the same, and the same problems of adequate translation exist. As with Ronsard, over the years there have been more-or-less strict metrical translations of sonnets and other poems from Baudelaire's Les fleurs du mal. In the book of translations by Edna St. Vincent Millay and George Dillon, after remarking in a preface that "to translate formal stanzas into free verse . . . is to fail the foreign poet in a very important way," Millay goes on to say that "to many poets, the physical character of their poem, its rhythm, its rhyme, its music, the way it looks on the page, is quite as important as the thing they wish to say; to some it is vastly more important" (vii). She laments that, generally, a translator "takes the poem, no matter what its form may be, and forces it into the meter and form to which he is most accustomed, the one in which he writes most easily." Many may, like Robert Lowell, say "bravo," but it seems to me that Millay holds to a higher standard. And therefore she commits herself to what subsequent translators have generally backed away from: Baudelaire's alexandrines translated into English alexandrines. Even though in achieving the desired result a poem may, perhaps, be "pretty roughly handled," as Millay says, "its anatomy at least is still intact." (One might add that many translators who avoid meter, or rhyme, or both, handle poems pretty roughly, too.)
Let's consider the beginning of three versions of Baudelaire's "L'Ennemi," or "The Enemy," which illustrate varying rhyming patterns, degrees of rhyming, and strictness of meter. The first is Millay's (from Flowers of Evil), then Robert Lowell's (from Imitations), and then Richard Howard's (from Les Fleurs du mal). Millay:
I think of my gone youth as of a stormy sky
Infrequently transpierced by a benignant sun;
Tempest and hail have done their work; and what have I?--
How many fruits in my torn garden?--scarcely one.
My childhood was only a menacing shower,
cut now and then by hours of brilliant heat.
All the top soil was killed by rain and sleet,
my garden hardly bore a standing flower.
My youth was nothing but a lowering storm
occasionally lanced by sudden sun;
torrential rains have done their work so well
that no fruit ripens in my garden now.
Only the first, Millay's, uses alexandrines. As with the Ronsard poems, one can hear how rhymed alexandrines can give the reader, or listener, both meaning and the original poem's anatomy:
Ma jeunesse ne fut qu'un ténébreux orage,
I think of my gone youth as of a stormy sky

Traversé çà et là par de brillants soleils;
Infrequently transpierced by a benignant sun;

Le tonnerre et la pluie ont fait un tel ravage,
Tempest and hail have done their work; and what have I?--

Qu'il reste en mon jardin bien peu de fruits vermeils.
How many fruits in my torn garden?--scarcely one.
Some of the language here, particularly in the second line, is less direct and plain than Baudelaire's; but for me Millay's preservation and transmission of rhyme and meter make it the most effective of the three opening quatrains--and the most effective translation as a whole. A second Baudelaire poem, "Le gouffre," has attracted many translators. Its central comparison is one between the poet and the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who suffered vertigo from imagining a gulf always beside him. Because I like the poem, and because all of the versions I've seen are based on the pentameter, I tried a translaton using the rhymed alexandrines of the original. Here are the opening four lines of Lowell's and Howard's translations of "Le gouffre," or "The Abyss," and then my complete one. But first, what Baudelaire wrote:
Pascal avait son gouffre, avec lui se mouvant.
-- Hélas! tout est abîme, -- action, désir, réve,
Parole! et sur mon poil qui tout droit se relève
Mainte fois de la Peur je sens passer le vent.
Now, from Robert Lowell's imitation:
Pascal's abyss went with him at his side,
closer than blood--alas, activity,
dreams, words, desire: all holes! On every side,
spaces, the bat-wing of insanity!
It's pentameters here (though the sixth line of the imitation, "the silence! And the Lord's right arm," is a tetrameter). And though these opening lines may be said to rhyme "abab," rhymes--full and half--in the rest of Lowell's version seem randomly distributed. Whatever the merits of this imitation, Baudelaire's form is only distantly approximated. Here is Richard Howard's translation:
Pascal had his abyss, it followed him.
But the abyss is All -- action and dream,
language, desire! -- and who could count the times
the wind of Fear has made my blood run cold!
Again, fine pentameters throughout, but without what the translator calls, in the preface to his book of 157 translations, the "minor stratagem" of rhyme. To rhyme the entire Fleurs du mal is indeed a daunting proposition, but without rhyme the pentameters lose, for me, much of their music and energy. And lastly, my effort to use both rhyme and alexandrines in the translation:
Pascal had his abyss, sensed ever at his side.
--Alas! all is a gulf--to dream, to love, to act,
To speak! Often I've felt my bristled skin contract
As winds of Fear have passed and left me terrified.

Above, below, it's there, in deeps, and on the shore,
In silence, in the space that frightens and beguiles . . .
Even in depths of dream no vision ever smiles
As God's finger inscribes one dreadful nightmare more.

I fear oncoming sleep as if a hole were there,
Filled with unknown horrors, leading who knows where;
Through every window's frame I see the void again;

And my long-dizzied mind is jealous to possess
Eternal vacancies in realms of nothingness.
--Ah! never to be freed from Numbers and from Men!
To compare the rhythms of first lines for a final time:
Pascal avait son gouffre, avec lui se mouvant.

Pascal's abyss went with him at his side,
Pascal had his abyss, it followed him.
Pascal had his abyss, sensed ever at his side.

Some will undoubtedly ask themselves, is the effort to replicate in English the technical features of verse written in other languages worthwhile? And of course many answers have been given. We know what Edna St. Vincent Millay had to say, and Robert Lowell was quoted as saying, pretty much, do what you like, but be "expert and inspired." Other ways of sensing the effects and getting to the meanings of poems in languages other than English have been suggested. Stanley Burnshaw, in his book The Poem Itself, recommends our trying to pronounce original texts so that we may experience their rhythms and sounds, and then seek meanings with the help of line-by-line prose renderings and commentary by specialists (xi). Some, too, are satisfied with Sergeant Joe Friday's "Dragnet" approach ("Just the facts, ma'am"), where a literal meaning--insofar as that's posssible to ascertain--is rendered in straight prose or a poetical language of one sort or another, free verse or rhythmical. But though the perfect translation is a chimera, we as readers continue to hope for the best, so that worlds whose languages are not ours may be visited with some sense of familiarity. And what about "just the facts"? The final line of Baudelaire's "Le gouffre" is "Ah! ne jamais sortir des Nombres et des Etres!" What, in fact, does "êtres" mean? My Larousse dictionary gives "existence," "living things," and "persons, individuals" as definitions for this common word. Our translators render "des Nombres et des Etres" as follows: "numbers and form," "Numbers and Beings," and "Numbers and Men." (I've also seen "Numbers and Entities.") Which rendering might Baudelaire say best expresses his meaning? We'll never know. But we do know one thing for sure: When composing "Le gouffre," Baudelaire was writing a poem--one with a definite structure, or anatomy, inherited from his predecessors like Ronsard. Perhaps if he were here now, he would shake his head sadly at all of our attempts to put his poems into English, but certainly the one thing he would notice and, I'm pretty sure, approve, is every attempt to honor the forms that he honored. The meters would count. The rhymes would count. Should we not, then, encourage our translators to renew their efforts to achieve the best-possible versions of whatever other-langauge poems have moved them--both by content and by form--so that the poetic experience they have valued may be brought more vividly to life for others?

Works Cited

Attridge, Derek. The Rhythms of English Poetry. London: Longman, 1982.
Burnshaw, Stanley, The Poem Itself. New York: Holt, 1960.
Carper, Thomas. "A Sonnet for Hélène." Sparrow 59 (1992): 13; revised version, Sparrow 64 (1997): 30.
Howard, Richard. Les Fleurs du mal. Boston: Godine, 1982.
Lowell, Robert. Imitations. New York: Noonday, 1961.
Millay, Edna St. Vincent, and George Dillon. Flowers of Evil. New York: Harper, 1936.


Thomas Carper
Contact Information

Received: 6 March 1998; Published: 29 May 1998

Keywords: translation alexandrines, translation theory, translating poetry, poetics, alexandrine, Ronsard, Baudelaire

[This paper was first presented in a slightly different version at the 1997 "Exploring Form and Narrative" conference on New Trends in American Poetry at West Chester University, June 1997.]


ISSN 1546-0401