From La Jeune Parque by Paul Valéry
Paul Valéry's La Jeune Parque is widely considered one of the most important poems of the twentieth century, yet it's one that few American readers know. It's easy to see why. The poem is written in the French heroic line—rhymed alexandrines (hexameters)—held together by extraordinary attention to syntax, enjambment, and pacing. Most of the line breaks correspond to natural syntactic turns or punctuation, many are end-stopped, and well-placed caesuras abound (as we'd expect in hexameters). It is difficult to produce an English equivalent that conveys the original's elegance and fluency. Add to these factors a narrative in which nothing much happens, at least not in the usual sense: A young woman stands outside on a starry night, overlooking the ocean, contemplating her connection to time, death, and the natural world as day approaches. In Jacques Duchesne-Guellemin's summary, the Young Fate "presents herself to us with her thoughts, her memories, her questionings, all on the verge of tears; bristling, listening to her own heartbeats; blushing with shame or pale with fainting" ("Introduction to La Jeune Parque," Yale French Studies 44: 1970). Despite Valéry's success in depicting shifting emotional states through vivid metaphor and images, this is not a recipe for easy reading.
Yet the poem's influence—and its author's—are undeniable. Writing in the June 1982 Critical Quarterly, Tony Pinkney observed, "Few writers commanded as much of T. S. Eliot's critical attention as did Paul Valéry.… Eliot was convinced that it was Paul Valéry 'who will remain for posterity the representative poet, the symbol of the poet, of the first half of the twentieth century—not Yeats, not Rilke, [End Page 168] not anyone else.'" Eliot's introduction to Valéry's The Art of Poetry (Bollingen edition) confirms his admiration for the poet some call "the last symbolist"—"Valéry in fact invented, and was to impose upon his age, not so much a new conception of poetry as a new conception of the poet"—and Eliot further maintains that Valéry's two greatest poems (La Jeune Parque and "Le Cimetière Marin") are "likely to last as long as the French language."
Eliot is not the only world poet Valéry influenced. Tony Brinkley points out that echoes of "Le Cimetière Marin" are present in the "oceanic rhythms" of Wallace Stevens poems such as "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," and he also reminds us that one of Rilke's last creative projects was to translate the poetry of Valéry ("Reading Valéry in English," Cerise Press 3:7, 2011). But not La Jeune Parque, which, according to Rilke, was "untranslatable … (if only someone could convince us otherwise!)." Years later, in response, Paul Celan attempted to do just that in Die junge Parze, a version that was more Celan's than Valéry's. The Young Fate has found her way into Italian and Spanish versions, too. For those seeking a look at early editions, MoMA's permanent collection includes a beautiful 1921 edition published in Paris by Revue Nouvelle Française with a lithograph by Picasso.
La Jeune Parque has attracted several translators to English. The versions most widely available are those by David Paul (in Paul Valéry: An Anthology, Princeton University Press, 1976), and a version by Jackson Mathews (in Selected Writings of Paul Valéry, New Directions, 1950/1964). Both follow Valéry's pace in English texts that literally parallel the original—in part because the original's rhymed alexandrines, and the poem's length, are central to the ways that Valéry's thought unfolds. To alter the pacing would undermine the poem's intensity—the way its speaker responds to constantly changing perceptions.
But the differences are instructive: Paul's version ("The Young Fate") is faithful to the author's content in unrhymed lines that fall loosely into pentameter or hexameter, while Mathews's "Fragments from 'The Youngest of the Fates'" accepts the challenge of producing [End Page 169] an English version in smoothly rhymed heroic couplets. To a contemporary reader, Mathews's version seems outdated in some of its heightened syntax and use of archaic words like "henceforth" or "whither"; the version in print is also incomplete, with the full scope of the protagonist's meditations missing. Even so, I was impressed: it's surprising how much of the original French meaning (where the meaning is clear) he captures within self-imposed limits. (James Kirkup's 1970 version, The Eternal Virgin, Orient Editions, approaches the poem through heroic couplets also, but in more stilted language.)
The overall best version I'm aware of is Alistair Elliot's La Jeune Parque (Bloodaxe, 1997). He, too, relies on iambic pentameter but in blank verse, though his strong ear produces a rich music of assonance and internal rhyme. In his introduction Elliot acknowledges the original's difficulty ("at some points I was completely unable to understand the original. The words could be grasped individually, but I couldn't see what they drove at"), but a side-by-side comparison of French to English yields long passages of impressive accuracy (where accuracy is possible). Elliot's commitment to striking a balance between being faithful to form and faithful to meaning reflects many intelligent compromises and, quite often, impressive effects.
I began my own translation of La Jeune Parque because its centennial of first publication will soon be on us (2017) and because I'm unaware of any recent attempt by an American to bring the work into rhymed metrical verse meant to suggest the music of the original. Anyone who attempts to retranslate a classic builds on the work of predecessors, reacting favorably or critically to previous translators' decisions, while making decisions of his or her own that will reflect further biases, compromises, and limitations. It would be easy if Dryden's idea of "metaphrase" (word-for-word translation) could result in poetry, but except for phrases or short sentences here and there, it rarely does. I more often rely on a mix of paraphrase and imitation, but I try to rein in the latter impulse. When I do give in, I keep the passage short and try to capture or suggest the original's music, mood, and setting. (I should [End Page 170] mention here that I was introduced to Dryden's distinctions by the distinguished poet and translator Charles Martin during seminars held at the Sewanee Writers' Conference and West Chester University Poetry Conference.) Ideally, I'd like to produce a version that approaches the clarity and accuracy of Alistair Elliot's translation, but in heroic couplets that produce the paired, successive sonic resolutions that lend the original much of its auditory power.
Interestingly, J. D. McClatchy's collection Mercury Dressing (Knopf, 2011) includes a sequence, "The Young Fate," inspired by Valéry. McClatchy's note on the poem acknowledges the debt, as well as the original's unique achievement: "The poem takes its title and trope from Paul Valéry's La Jeune Parque, but nothing in the poem resembles—or could resemble—the original." Perhaps he's being modest? By the second section, the youth who speaks the poem is declaring his fearlessness in terms that wouldn't sound out of place on the Young Fate's seaside promontory: "As Death inhales the perfume of the moment, / He cannot touch me! Ominous and clear, / My body refuses him its fire, its solution … I am at the very edge, unafraid." McClatchy's reinvention of the Parque is wholly his own, but the way he makes use of a terminology and speaker with roots in Valery's masterpiece is further testament to the continuing influence of La Jeune Parque on contemporary poetry and some of its foremost practitioners.
To translate is to compromise. Elliot's compromise is to craft a distinguished blank verse version that admirably preserves content while providing a different music. In his version, the correspondences of rhyme and syntactical mastery that propel the original French text energetically forward are absent—a virtue that my own version seeks, imperfectly, to restore. This version-in-progress already reflects compromises that not all readers of the original would accept; but my goal is not the same as Elliot's. I agree it's essential to preserve a text's meaning when we translate; but, at the same time, poems are sonic structures whose music is central to their purpose. Confronted with translation's unavoidable compromises, I find myself making decisions [End Page 171] that prioritize suggesting the poem's original music and reliance on successive rhyme-pairs. At the same time, my use of pentameter instead of hexameter is consistent with the choices of several predecessor translators and reflects the view that sound-based differences between English and French make iambic pentameter a good choice.
Time alone can confirm whether a translator's approach will have lasting value. Most translations have a "shelf life" that corresponds to the natural evolution of language and daily speech—subtle changes which accumulate through decades, then combine to signal that a long-accepted mode has lost its currency. Nor do aesthetic expectations remain static. For these reasons, retranslating an established work may help readers overcome the barriers of time, language, and taste to experience glimmers of the original through the translator's mediation. [End Page 172]
THE YOUNG FATE
Did Heaven create this wondrous form to serve as dwelling for a snake?—Pierre Corneille
Who's crying, if it isn't just the wind,with diamonds far away? Who's near at handWhen I, too, feel that I'm about to cry?
Across my face this hand moves absently,Adrift in dream, responsive to some purpose,Or to trace a tear of human weakness …The purest fate from all the rest will partAnd bring its light to a divided heart.The surf's dark murmur—not without reproach—Retreats toward rocks, withdraws across the beachA thwarted thing, a bitter drink swilled fast—Rumor of grief, diminishments that last.Bristling, alert, what is it that you'll do?Cold hand … and what leaf-shiver touches you,Islands of my bared breast? Tonight, I shine,The night sky far, unknowable, yet mine—Stars gleaming, I thirst for catastrophe.
Inevitable, almighty stars, I seeYour bright light through time's distance, alienYet pure, mysterious beyond conception;Mortal tears fall at the grief you send,A regal light the weapon you commandAgainst us with your far, eternal glance.Alone, my bed left empty—the immenseCliff gnawed, eroded—shivering, I askWhat pain provokes this heartbreak, what cruel taskOr wrong did I commit or suffer from? …Or was it from some claustrophobic dream(The lamps' gold light snuffed by a velvet breath),Grief followed, my head shielded beneathRaised arms, my soul kept from the lightning's flash?Yes, I'm the only sovereign of my flesh— [End Page 173] A shiver stilled its strange geography,And in our shared bond, looking back at me,I saw myself, blood-trapped, as both of usBeheld our depths, a forest limitless.
Bit by a snake, I followed on its trail.
What precious things were caught within its coil!A clutter of riches dragged away beforeI sprang—but how it loves to disappear …
A ruse! Light flooding down, I felt exposed,Less hurt than had. Its jaws had opened, closed—My traitor's soul itself supplied the poison;I felt the venom spread, a kind of sunThat showed me to myself and to the worldIn sudden color, shade: jealous, imperiled—How? What silence speaks to my possessor?
Gods! In the wound I bear, a secret sisterBurns, and favors tireless vigilance.
Innocent Snake, leave now, and keep your distance—I don't need you to suffer vertigo.Self-embraced, I don't care what you do,Fleeing as you predict my every move.Go decorate some ruin. My soul's enough.Into my shadow she will draw all harmAnd there, by night, nip at those rocks that charmHer with their milk of lasting reverie …Allow that jewel-clad arm to fall awayBefore desire can jeopardize my vow …Nothing would feel crueler to me now,Less fortunate. … Calm down. Let waves subside,Call back your tainted oath, the whirling tide …No longer shocked, I see with open eyes—Lush deserts led me to expect no lessThan such a birth, its fury like a braid [End Page 174]
Entwining endlessly; horizons madeBarren, drought-parched—as, hopeless, I walk throughThe hell my own thoughts summon into view.I know … My own fatigue is just a show—Even a pure mind isn't always so—Idols tempt it; ardor's like a flameThat blazes back the dank walls of its tomb.Wait long enough, and all will be revealed—Some agonies would make a shadow yield.The needful soul, half-free, feels for the monsterTwisting on the threshold of a fire …But though you bend or change course on a whim,Pulsing as if caressed, how do you seem,Reptile, after each surge or languid pause,Compared to night? … You watched me as I was—
Asleep, carefree and unaware, perhaps;And yet I set myself such clever traps,Their co-conspirator, O sacred staffOf Dionysus … slide away, go offAnd find some sleeper's eyes to watch you dance,Some other bedroom where you'll shed your garmentsSoon, successively; another heartWhere pain can germinate, till day cuts shortYour guileless dreams as you lie breathing fast.Awake, I'll stride out, pale as I step past(Wet with the tears that I refuse to cry)From the abyss, a void that's shaped like me,Mortal, a prodigy … Breaking the tomb,Unsteady, leaning—even so, I amUnmatched. I see such visions in the night—Their slightest move acknowledges my pride.
But I shook, afraid to face the certain lossOf holy grief. I bowed my head to kissThe bite-mark on my hand—my body gone,Fire-edged, had vanished to oblivion:
Goodbye to ME, the lie, the mortal sister … [End Page 175]
Harmonious ME, no dream, whose silence pressed herToward pure acts; a woman supple, firm,With clear brow, hair swept up in waves that formVague flashes, light-caught, lifted by the wind,Bright strands risen to fly past sea and sand,Say it! I was day's wife, his sole supportAnd equal, and the vast sky I adored(I smiled with love) reached far, omnipotent …
What brightness blinded me, its gilded glintOn lashes, lids weighed down by all that nightHolds in its trove … I prayed, groping for lightThrough darkest gold, and let eternityDevour the velvet fruit I offered freely.No one said a death-wish might well upIn blond flesh the sun would soon turn ripe.I didn't yet perceive my bitter taste,Though to the light itself I'd sacrificedMy naked shoulder while the honeyed skinOf breasts born tenderly—a kind of heaven—Welcomed the world to rest awhile in peace.In bright day, like a prisoner who flees,I ranged the open earth as if on fire,Shadows set free beneath the dress I wore—I was happy then, tall as the sheaves from harvest,Flower-tops bending as my hem swept past,Their frail pride no defense against disgrace;And if despite the freedom of that space,My dress caught on a briar that rebelled,I would have seen my body's arc unfold,Naked, veiled in the flowers' living colors,Our beauty not less when compared to theirs.
I almost miss the useless power I had—One with desire, I was what lay ahead—Obedience on bended knee upheld;Each wish of mine was instantly fulfilled,Faster, it seemed, than I could think of it;The blond clay of my flesh swam in the lightOf senses firing; in artless dreams that burned [End Page 176] With calm, my countless steps would never end.—If only I could lose this nemesis,O Luminary!—my shadow: changing, weightless,Sliding along the ground, a self and absenceLike a death determined to advance.I see it taking cover near the rose,Dust dancing up, still gliding without pause,No leaf disturbed as, everywhere, it breaks. …Funeral barge, glide on …
Alive, awake,I wield an emptiness I show no one—Though one cheek looks as if it burns with passion;I breathe a wind that smells of oranges,and glance at day as if we're only strangers …How much will my divided heart's dark sideIncrease as if in answer to the night,My art grown more profound with every test!Far from safe haven, caught, I can't resistSuch cloying fragrances—so strong I feelI've turned into a statue, living marbleShivering beneath the sun's stray touch.And yet, my vanished gaze remains on watch—Through my dark eye I'll enter Hell's abode!I think—my hours wind-scattered, lost for good,My soul amid the asphodel, abandoned—I think—in gold light at horizon's end—About the pythoness whose blessed lipsBetrayed a keen taste for apocalypse.My riddles and my gods renewed in me,Delayed by words directed toward the sky,I pause in thought. … What iridescent wingIn motion catches sun and, varying,Blazes or fades away, erased in flight?My marble skin is dusk from such a height.
What peril to let your own gaze prey on you! [End Page 177] From afar, the mind maintained its view—Too many days that, shining, ran their course,Their colors long foretold; but what was worse,Was all the tedium that traced their path—I previewed life and every aftermath.Dawn brought my enemy: another day.Half-dead, half-touched with immortality,I felt the future was, at best, a dream,A final diamond for the diademWhere sorrows glitter interchangeablyWith grief to come: a crown adorning me.
Will Time sift through the past and all its gravesTo resurrect an evening filled with doves—An evening that some scrap of cloud reflectsWhen, childlike, I obeyed, ashamed of actsUnknown, a blush tempered with emerald? [End Page 178]
NED BALBO's newest book is Upcycling Paumanok (Measure Press). He was awarded the Poets' Prize and Donald Justice Prize for The Trials of Edgar Poe and Other Poems. He received a 2017 NEA fellowship for his translation-in-progress of Paul Valéry's "La Jeune Parque" ("The Young Fate").