Thursday, January 20, 2011

Oh the autumn the autumn has been the death of summer - an Apollinaire poem

Autumn, Guillaume Apollinaire, from Alcools (1913)

A bow-legged peasant and his ox receding
Through the mist slowly through the mists of autumn
Which hides the shabby and sordid villages

And out there as he goes the peasant is singing
A song of love and infidelity
About a ring and a heart which someone is breaking

Oh the autumn the autumn has been the death of summer
In the mist there are two gray shapes receding

Another W. S. Merwin translation, p. 130 of Selected Translations 1948-1968.  I also just finished Roger Shattuck’s book, Selected Writings of Guillaume Apollinaire (1948), which does not include this poem but is full of other original and amazing things.

Does this Apollonaire poem seem particularly original?  Observed scene followed by small revelation about the poet – that’s an old form.  How many T’ang Dynasty poets wrote how many variations of this form?  The French poem looks even more conventional, by which I mean, it rhymes:

Dans le brouillard s'en vont un paysan cagneux
Et son bœuf lentement dans le brouillard d'automne
Qui cache les hameaux pauvres et vergogneux

Et s'en allant là-bas le paysan chantonne
Une chanson d'amour et d'infidélité
Qui parle d'une bague et d'un cœur que l'on brise

Oh ! l'automne l'automne a fait mourir l'été
Dans le brouillard s'en vont deux silhouettes grises

Merwin only hints (-ing, -ing, -ing) at the French rhyme scheme (ABA BCD CD).  The sounds of the rhymes are wonderful, and it’s a shame to lose them.  The switch from the dark, round (-eux, -onne) to the bright, sharp (-é, -ise) vowels is pleasing.

Shattuck helpfully informs me that Apollinaire’s rhymes violate all sorts of rules of classical French prosody, which is a nightmarish tangle that I don’t pretend to understand.  He also identifies Apollinaire’s expungement of punctuation marks, even at the occasional expense of sense.

Apollinaire repeats “Dans le brouillard” in the first and last lines.  Merwin repeats “receding.”  He can’t repeat “brouillard / mist” because, curiously, he has rearranged the first two lines to emphasize the repetition – “Through the mist slowly through the mist of autumn.”  Odd.  But he is then able to keep the ox and the peasant together in the first line, more closely resembling the two silhouettes grises at the end.

I’m fussing around, ignoring what I really like.  Two things, the obvious ones.  First, the peasant’s song, which the reader can never quite hear, but which now has a tune, almost, and all because of the single concrete object, the ring.  That one small addition turns a generic song into the suggestion of a specific one.

And second, of course:  “Oh the autumn the autumn” etc.  Poor mournful poet.  What happened last summer?  He’ll never tell.  Or, he has already told all he can.


  1. I love Merwin's decision to convey the sense of rhyme through the -ings. Subtle.

    By the way--I assume you know Vendler's books on Shakespeare's sonnets and the new one on Emily Dickinson. She's a brilliant close reader and if you aren't familiar with her work, take a look at it.

  2. I know of Vendler's books. That's pretty much the same thing, right? No?

    I actually read a lot of Vendler's reviews, in The New Republic and elsewhere, of other people's books. Suppose I should try her out. That Dickinson book would be a good candidate for my "read but do not finish" resolution.

  3. I think even Vendler herself would support dipping your toe in her books here and there.

  4. I am *extremely* fond of Apollinaire but have never tried him in translation. He does a lot of wordplay, of course, which would make that difficult. In his poem "Annie," the French word "bouton" means both "bud" and "button" and makes the poem what it is. How to translate? But it's lovely.

  5. I thought Shattuck's book was excellent - worth looking at even if you know French. The poems are in French and English, some wonderfully bonkers prose in English only, and Shattuck's long essay is most helpful.

    "How to translate"? - choose your poison, that's how. Or translate and re-translate, trying every which way, which sounds nuts, but is basically what Michael Hamburger did with his Hölderlin translations.

  6. Actually, that doesn't sound nuts. Chip away everything that doesn't look like an elephant, sort of; or else make fifty statues and choose the one that looks most like an elephant. Right?

  7. It's wonderful, isn't it? Michael Hamburger is an outstanding translator, but his lifetime of perseverance with Hölderlin is almost unbelievable.

  8. I am really not in love with that first translated stanza. It would have been perfectly fine in English, in a poem, to follow the French syntax exactly. The worst it would have been is conventional. But it's definitely bugging me to put the two "mist"s on the same line like that.

    And while I'm fine with breaking the rhyme scheme, something rankles me about breaking it and then faking it. The -ings aren't in the right places.

    Talk about fussing around. I believe I have now ruined all possible enjoyment for myself in this poem. But the ring is the best part.

  9. Merwin does not exactly hide his presence, does he? Those are big, arguable changes.

  10. Wishing (selfishly) that you would do a big post on 20th-century translators of poetry... Oh, well, nobody's going to do that...

    About Merwin: When I was young (whenever that was), Bly and Merwin seemed to be everywhere as translators, and they both left a strong imprint of themselves.

    Just ordered David Young's Petrarch and a couple of volumes of translations by Ted Hughes (the Ovid and a mishmash anthology collection.)

  11. It's a good idea, isn't it? But difficult. A lot of work. Merwin and Hughes and a few other has at least had the courtesy to collect their translations in single volumes, which helps.

    Maybe I should read Young's Petrarch. It is tempting.

  12. I'm almost done with the introduction (though of course I've dipped a bit elsewhere.)

    It is difficult. But I wish somebody would do it! I'd like to be a little less blind in in a rural area means a certain amount of guesswork.

  13. A university library, with all of the translation in a line, is the most luxurious of luxuries.