Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Give me some powder and some shot – Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo (1802-85), a giant. By age 30, he was France’s most famous living poet, a leading playwright, and the author of Notre Dame de Paris, with Quasimodo, now more famous than his creator. And he would continue to write important books for another 50 years. Not someone you get to know by reading one or two books.

Hugo wrote poems about man and nature, the usual Romantic stuff. He also wrote a lot of poems about his children:

My Two Daughters

Twilight now with cool
shadows falling on the day
as two girls, one a swan,
one a dove, sisters, each
beautiful and both content,
sit on the threshold of the garden
in sweetness, at peace, when
above them white carnations –
their slender stalks set in a marble urn –
are taken by the wind,
lean trembling in the shade,
resembling a flight of butterflies
held there for a moment,
in rapture.

In French this is a ten line poem with regular end rhymes. Here, the translator has abandoned the original form and made Hugo into a free versifier. He keeps the images, the metaphors, the mood. I notice that the line “Voyez, la grande soeur et la petite soeur” (“Look, the big sister and the little sister”, I think) has completely disappeared. Translators have a lot of power.

Here’s a different side of Hugo:

The Boy

The Turks were here. Ruin. Grief.
Chios, island of vines,
now a charred reef –
Chios, once shaded with blossom,
Chios, whose tides advancing
mirrored great woods, slopes, palaces,
sometimes at dusk a chorus
of young girls dancing.

All is deserted. Save
near blackened walls where
one blue-eyed child, a Greek boy, sits
head bowed in shame. He has
for shelter, for support one
hawthorn, white-flowering,
like him in the havoc forgotten.

Will you smile again if I give you
a fair bird of the forests
singing more sweetly than the flute
more gaily than the cymbals?
What can I give you – flower, sleek fruit,
wondrous bird? The child then,
the Greek boys with blue eyes, said, ‘Friend,
‘give me some powder and some shot.’

That’s still a little shocking, I think, even though the politics of Greek independence are lost in the past.

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