Dinnerplate dahlias spinning against a deep-blue, cloud-grazed sky in Maine transported me to the notes of Paul Verlaine‘s dahlia (“Un Dahlia”). Like a cool courtesan, the flower rises full and jewel-like, yet lacking the earthy perfume and oil of humble jasmine. Verlaine broke with the formality and philosophical leanings of earlier 19th-century poets to express the natural musicality of the French language and the power of everyday images.
Translation is a funny thing. Out of curiosity, I flipped through Bergen Applegate’s Paul Verlaine: His Absinthe-Tinted Song, which appeared 20 years after the poet’s death in 1896. His translation of “A Dahlia” plods heavily. Verlaine’s movement toward modern word-music disappears.
Courtesan with hard breast and eye opaque and brown,
That slowly opens like the calm eyes of a steer,
Your thick stem shines like marble, newly cut and clear.
Flower plump and rich, yet odorless, all your renown,
Is in your tempting body, serene as summer skies,
That dully glows, displaying its rare harmonies.
Nor have you flesh like those fair ones who all day
Strew on the summer fields the rows of new mown hay,
Enthroning you, dumb idol, ‘midst the incense light.
Thus, the kingly Dahlia, clad in robes of splendor,
Rises without pride his head that has no odor
Disdainfully, among the taunting jasmines white.
Fast forward almost 100 years: Norman Shapiro’s translation (One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine: A Bilingual Edition, page 23) rings cleanly, as shown in the first verse:
Hard-bosomed courtesan, magnificent
Marble-glossed figure; eye opaque, of solid
Brown, opening like a bull’s, languid and stolid.
For the remaining copyright-protected verses, you’ll need to order the print version or peruse it online. Shapiro’s contemporary word choices and superior syntax create a satisfying read. Nonetheless, something lyrically gets lost in translation when you’re not reading the original aloud (click on the audio below to hear the poem in French).
Courtisane au sein dur, à l’oeil opaque et brun
S’ouvrant avec lenteur comme celui d’un boeuf,
Ton grand torse reluit ainsi qu’un marbre neuf.
Fleur grasse et riche, autour de toi ne flotte aucun
Arôme, et la beauté sereine de ton corps
Déroule, mate, ses impeccables accords.
Tu ne sens même pas la chair, ce goût qu’au moins
Exhalent celles-là qui vont fanant les foins,
Et tu trônes, Idole insensible à l’encens.
—Ainsi le Dahlia, roi vêtu de splendeur,
Elève sans orgueil sa tête sans odeur,
Irritant au milieu des jasmins agaçants!