Thursday, November 7, 2013

Maurice Scève's Délie - Its deep, & divine excellence \ So stunned my Soul

The Góngora post went all right.  I’ll try another tough one, the Délie of Maurice Scève, a collection of poems published in 1544 in the most pleasant city in France, Lyon, then the innovative center of French publishing.  The poems are mostly dizains, ten lines of ten syllables each, little poetic boxes, 449 of the little suckers.  There exists an unpublished doctoral dissertation that translates them all, but otherwise, to remain sane, everyone picks out favorites.

My choice this time was Emblems of Desire, the 2003 translation by Richard Sieburth, reissued in 2007 by Archipelago Books.  The poems were originally accompanied by allegorical emblems, and Sieburth includes a number of them (please sample them at the Archipelago site – click “Extras”) along with the sixty or so poems he translates.  I will ignore those.  What is more tedious than early modern emblems.

Poems  aside, Scève is most famous as the discoverer of the tomb of Petrarch’s Laura, a phony publicity stunt, but relevant here since Délie is although not a sonnet sequence an imitation of Petrarch’s Canzoniere.  Délie is Scève’s Laura, his poetic love object, but rearrange the letters to L’Idée, “the idea”, to get a better idea of what is going on.

I lived at liberty in the April of my life,
My youth exempt from every care,
When my eye, unschooled in strife,
Was caught by that presence fair
Which by its deep, & divine excellence
So stunned my Soul, & common sense
That the cruel archer of her eyes
Took my freedom as his prize:
And from that day on, without cease,
In her beauty lies my death, & life. (6)

And then this goes on for hundreds of poems, with minute variations in imagery and ironic effect, mostly lamenting the absence of this idea or possibly woman.  The poems are hardly as elaborate as Góngora, but that cruel archer is a buried classical reference, although an easy one, and “April of my life” is a clear reference to a Petrarch poem – clear once Sieburth points it out in a footnote, I mean.

One by one, they do not necessarily seem like much, and I would not argue for a cumulative effect, either.  Rather the art of Délie lies in the subtle emotional shifts as words and images are repeated and varied.  And this with a selection, and in translation!  But with Sieburth’s help I can piece it together.

Here is a dizain that does stand on its own.  Again, Scève is riffing on Petrarch, a poem where the poet says he is like a ship that is adrift.  Scève makes a big change:

Like a corpse adrift on the open Sea,
Plaything of Winds, & pastime of Waves,
I floated astray in this bitter Abyss,
Buoyed by the ground-swells of my woes.
    Then, O Hope, you who arise
From the vain mirages of my mind,
In the name of her, you wake me
From the deeps in which I died:
And my ears staggered by this sound,
I was at a loss to fathom who I was.  (164)

Sieburth includes the early modern French, which is something to see:

Commes corps mort vagant en haulte Mer,
Esbat des Ventz, & passetemps des Vndes,
I’errois flottant parmy ce Gouffre amer,
Ou mes soucys enflent vagues profondes.

And so on, easier to convert than early modern English, certainly.

So, more early modern puzzle poetry, but a different kind of puzzle, and one, for the poor sap stuck with English, missing eighty percent of its pieces.


  1. What fun that early modern French is! Until now, it had never occurred to me that waffles are called "gouffres" in French because they resemble a bunch of "abysses."

    I only know of Scève from a memorable article I read a few years ago on the peculiar genre of 16th century French poetry known as "blasons," short poems devoted to discrete features of female anatomy (Scève wrote a handful of them, including ones devoted to the eyebrow and the forehead) and often accompanied by emblems which, for those able to puzzle them out, were (at least by 16th century standards) anything but tedious, as quite a few served pornographic purposes. Alas, the ones on the Archipelago site don't look very titillating.

  2. I have not seen the blasons. They sound similarly, what do I want to say, conceptual.

    The theory is that the emblems in Délie, which in and of themselves are not much fun, are actually leftover from something else. This is what you get in the headquarters of early printing - minimal waste. But then Scève cleverly wove them into the book. Poems refer to the illustrations, sometimes directly, sometimes quite obliquely.

    I forgot, how irritating, to urge everyone to visit, when in Lyon, the Museum of Printing, the Musée de l'Imprimerie to learn all about early modern French printing. They have some great curiosities, and the visitor to Lyon needs something to do between sumptuous feasts, something active that builds the appetite.

  3. Being a big fan of Quevedo, my favorite stanzas from the Delie are obviously:

    Sceve's La Delie, CCLXXIII

    La Mort pourra m’oster & temps, & heure,
    Voire encendrir la mienne arse despouille:
    Mais qu’elle face, en fin que je ne vueille
    Te desirer, encor que mon feu meure?
    Si grand povoir en elle ne demeure.

    Death might erase me and the hours and time
    might want to turn to ashes my mortal remains
    But for Death to make me no longer to desire
    you, and for Death to extinguish all of my fire?
    so much power Death does not contain.

    Tes fiers desdaingz, toute ta froide essence,
    Ne feront point, me nyant ta presence,
    Qu’en mon penser audacieux ne vive,
    Qui, maulgré Mort, & maulgré toute absence,
    Te represente a moy trop plus, que vive

    Your heated disdain-fullness and all your cold essence
    will make no difference, My love won't need your presence.
    In my dead daring memories you'll go on living,
    and in spite of Death, and against all absence
    will bring to me, who am not, you, who are, living.

  4. This one is not in Sieburth. It has a 5-5 structure, how unusual.

    To what work of Quevedo are you referring? I have read only a few of his poems. I remember Grossman's versions as impressive, and there is a recent University of Chicago Press translation that looks promising.

  5. That's CCLXIV in my edition (Mercure de France, 1974). Are there different shufflings of "Délie"?

  6. Please excuse the poor translation of Quevedo's glorious lines:

    The last shade of the fleeting white
    day might very well my eyes close ,
    and that hour which I gladly await
    might myself from my soul set loose.

    But I will not, by the other side's dim
    riverside abandon the memory of your name,
    how to swim in cold waters knows my flame
    and has no respect for laws unjust and grim.

    This soul the god Cupid has kept a prisoner,
    my body it may well leave, but not its desires.
    This Blood has given so much fuel for fires,
    to ashes it may well turn, but to ashes aware.
    These bones have burned with such brilliant glory,
    dust they might become, but dust in love with thee.

    Cerrar podra mis ojos la postrera
    sombra que me llevare el blanco dia
    y podra desatar esta alma mia
    hora a su afan ansioso lisonjera;

    mas no, de esotra parte en la ribera,
    dejara la memoria en donde ardia:
    nadar sabe mi llama l'agua fria
    y perder el respeto a ley severa.

    Alma a quien todo un dios prision ha sido,
    venas que humor a tanto fuego han dado,
    medulas que han gloriosamente ardido

    su cuerpo dejara, no su cuidado;
    seran ceniza, mas tendr? sentido;
    polvo seran, mas polvo enamorado.

    As Borges already pointed out in 'Otras Inquisiciones', the last two lines are derived from Propertius (Elegies I.19):
    Non adeo leviter nostris puer haesit ocellis
    Ut meus oblito pulvis amore vacet.

    Mr. Skinner, I'll confirm the numbering on my version as soon as I get home tonight, most likely it's just a typo on my part.

  7. Apologize, please no, thank you. I have read that one, but did not remember it at all. Maybe I will now.