Baudelaire’s Autumn Song

Winter is upon us, and it brought to mind Baudelaire’s poem ‘Chant d’automne’ in which he sadly waves goodbye to glorious summer days, and with morbid thoughts of death and gloom, awaits the winter months.

Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts!
J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

                                                     Charles Baudelaire

I came across a site with a number of English translations of the poem and as usual I found all the differences in them fascinating, so I picked out just the first verse above (which pretty much outlines what the whole thing is about – old Charles having a good moan about the cold, and death) to have a closer look at. Most of the translations respect the ABAB rhyming scheme (apart from Aggeler’s, that rebel), but they all find different ways to do it with more or less precision and success.

soon shall we plunge ‘neath winter’s icy pall;
farewell, bright fires of too-brief July!
even now I hear the knell funereal
of falling fire-logs in the court close by.

Lewis Piaget Shanks, 1931

Soon into frozen shades, like leaves, we’ll tumble.
Adieu, short summer’s blaze, that shone to mock.
I hear already the funereal rumble
Of logs, as on the paving-stones they shock.

Roy Campbell, 1952

Soon we shall plunge into the cold darkness;
Farewell, vivid brightness of our short-lived summers!
Already I hear the dismal sound of firewood
Falling with a clatter on the courtyard pavements.

William Aggeler, 1954

Soon we will plunge ourselves into cold shadows,
And all of summer’s stunning afternoons will be gone.
I already hear the dead thuds of logs below
Falling on the cobblestones and the lawn.

Steven Monte

Shortly we will plunge within the frigid gloom,
Farewell swift summer brightness; all too short–
I hear already sounding with a death-like boom
The wood that falls upon the pavement of the court.

From 1909 (?)

‘Icy pall / July / funereal / close by’ I’m not too keen on as a rhyme, nor ‘shadows / be gone / below / the lawn’ for that matter. ‘gloom / short / boom / court’ is much snappier, as is ‘tumble / mock / rumble / shock’, but then I don’t think Baudelaire was really going for ‘snappy’ with this poem. So let’s see what the imagery offers us.

I love the image that the poet uses in the first line: ‘Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres’, and the translations have kept this idea of ‘plunging’ or ‘tumbling’ into the darkness of winter, the involuntary, frightening action of it. Other options for ‘plongerons’ might be ‘plummet’, ‘fall’, ‘stumble’… And as for ‘ténèbres’ we can choose from: darkness, obscurity, gloom, black, shadows, shades, murkiness, night, tenebrocity…

In the second line he speaks directly to summer, bidding her ‘Adieu’, and I like the idea of keeping this direct speech here, with a ‘farewell’, or really just keeping the French ‘Adieu’ as a little reminder of the poem’s origin. Then there’s the question of whether to keep that exclamation point or not… sometimes I feel they work better in French than in English for some reason, but let’s see…

In the third line he gets really gloomy: ‘J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres’. I don’t think it’s enough to just talk about ‘loud thuds’ or ‘dismal sound’, there has to be that introduction of the idea of death in there, although I’m not convinced that a ‘funeral knell’ is the right sound to compare to falling logs either…

There’s a last and hugely important element to consider when translating Baudelaire’s poetry, and it’s also a hard-to-define quality. His poems have a certain rhythm and balance to them which feel, when you read them out loud, as if you are being softly rocked by the words. In this verse, he paints a very dreary picture, but all the while lulling you gently with all those vowels. It’s a feeling that none of the translations I have come across have been able to reproduce in me.
So here it is again, Baudelaire’s version, take it all in before considering my offerings below.

Bientôt nous plongerons dans les froides ténèbres;
Adieu, vive clarté de nos étés trop courts!
J’entends déjà tomber avec des chocs funèbres
Le bois retentissant sur le pavé des cours.

Soon we shall plunge into coldness and night
Adieu to the summer, the brief warmth of its glow.
I hear those loud thumpings as death now takes flight
Of firewood falling on the stone down below.

And here’s another version which I quite like but with an AABB rhyming scheme. Who knows, maybe over the Xmas holidays I’ll even tackle the whole poem in this unorthodox style!

Soon we will stumble into coldness and night,
Adieu, the short summer; farewell, the bright light!
Already the sound of the death-knell I hear
As fire-logs crash on the pavements so near.

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