Thursday, April 23, 2015

And in his speech he laugh’d and laugh’d again - D. G. Rossetti translates

Mostly with older poets I ought to stick with some kind of Selected Poems.  That is what I used to do.  I began to feel, though, like I was missing something important about the context, about the books as such, so I have been reading more poetry books in their original form, or something like it.  All of the poems in order, at least, although I have come to appreciate the scanned copies of the  original books, stray thumbs and all.  Most of what I read recently were original texts.  In only one case was this a mistake, a waste of time.  That case was not Dante Gabriel Rossetti, even if his final 1881 book was second-rate by his own standards.

Rossetti is a funny case, though, because a Selected Poems is almost moot for him.  He wrote two perfect books, if you have any taste for his verse, the 1870 Poems and the books of translated Italian verse that I think of as Dante and His Circle (1874 – there is an 1861 version titled The Early Italian Poets).  I assume any Selected edition is mostly just going to choose from these two books, perhaps just from Poems, the home of “The Blessed Damozel” and “The Woodspurge” and the best “House of Life” sonnets.

And the Villon translations.  I do not have much of a taste for Rossetti’s painting, so I selfishly wish that he had sacrificed a few to create more translations. 

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
    Where are they gone, nor yet this year,
Except with this for an overword,-
  But where are the snows of yester-year?  (from “The Ballad of Dead Ladies”)

The Dante book, which includes the strange prose-poetry hybrid The New Life (1295) along with numerous poems written by Dante and others – many written to Dante by others – now seems to me like one of the greatest Victorian translations, alongside Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat and perhaps Longfellow’s Manrique.  Rossetti had a knack for capturing the voice of the pre-Raphaelite poet:

And I wrote this sonnet:-

I felt a spirit of love begin to stir
    Within my heart, long time unfelt till then;
    And saw Love coming towards me, fair and fain
(That I scarce knew him for his joyful cheer),
Saying, “Be now indeed my worshipper!”
    And in his speech he laugh’d and laugh’d again
    Then, while it was his pleasure to remain,
I chanced to look the way he had drawn near…

And then there is some stuff about Beatrice, of course, but what I like here is the naturalness with which Rossetti understands the allegorical figure.  Rossetti has the properly archaic imagination to envision Dante and Love wandering around Florence, looking at girls, looking for one in particular.

I think one of Rossetti’s tricks is that he has studied and absorbed poets like Thomas Wyatt and Henry Howard, the ones who brought the Italian sonnet into English in the early 16th century, so even if it is a two hundred year anachronism they feel right, not as fancied up as Shakespeare, but not antique, either.

I don’t know how he did it.


  1. Perhaps the paintings were important to the poems in ways we can't see. Going back and forth between modes can be fruitful.

    I loved Rossetti when I was young. Perhaps I should read him again and see now that I am not. I certainly have a love for Wyatt and Surrey.

  2. Yes. I regret the post that never gelled about Rossetti's many ekphrastic poems.

  3. The ultimate Villon translations - only two, I'm afraid - are W.E. Henley's versions in thieves' slang:


    "Tout aux tavernes et aux filles."

    Suppose you screeve? or go cheap-jack?
    Or fake the broads? or fig a nag?
    Or thimble-rig? or knap a yack?
    Or pitch a snide? or smash a rag?
    Suppose you duff? or nose and lag?
    Or get the straight, and land your pot?
    How do you melt the multy swag?
    Boose and the blowens cop the lot.

    Fiddle, or fence, or mace, or mack;
    Or moskeneer, or flash the drag;
    Dead-lurk a crib, or do a crack;
    Pad with a slang, or chuck a fag;
    Bonnet, or tout, or mump and gag;
    Rattle the tats, or mark the spot;
    You can not bank a single stag;
    Boose and the blowens cop the lot.

    Suppose you try a different tack,
    And on the square you flash your flag?
    At penny-a-lining make your whack,
    Or with the mummers mug and gag?
    For nix, for nix the dibbs you bag!
    At any graft, no matter what,
    Your merry goblins soon stravag:
    Boose and the blowens cop the lot.


    It's up the spout and Charley Wag
    With wipes and tickers and what not.
    Until the squeezer nips your scrag,
    Boose and the blowens cop the lot.

    You bible-sharps that thump on tubs,
    You lurkers on the Abram-sham,
    You sponges miking round the pubs,
    You flymy titters fond of flam,
    You judes that clobber for the stramm,
    You ponces good at talking tall,
    With fawneys on your dexter famm--
    A mot's good-night to one and all!

    Likewise you molls that flash your bubs
    For swells to spot and stand you sam,
    You bleeding bonnets, pugs, and subs,
    You swatchel-coves that pitch and slam.
    You magsmen bold that work the cram,
    You flats and joskins great and small,
    Gay grass-widows and lawful-jam--
    A mot's good-night to one and all!

    For you, you coppers, narks, and dubs,
    Who pinched me when upon the snam,
    And gave me mumps and mulligrubs
    With skilly and swill that made me clam,
    At you I merely lift my gam--
    I drink your health against the wall!
    That is the sort of man I am,
    A mot's good-night to one and all!

    The Farewell.

    Paste 'em, and larrup 'em, and lamm!
    Give Kennedy, and make 'em crawl!
    I do not care one bloody damn,
    A mot's good-night to one and all.

    The original of Long John Silver too!
    Even Invictus stops being vainglorious when you know Henley wrote it when he had lost one foot to T.B. of the bone and was having long and agonising treatment to save the other.

  4. Roger, I wanted to check what Galway Kinnell did with this amazing poem before I responded to you. The answer appears to be nothing; Kinnell skipped the poems in cant, and I don't blame him, but that makes Henley's mad attempt even more valuable. Thanks!