I thought I would tackle one of France’s great modernist poets this month, a true precursor to Surrealism, Guillaume Apollinaire. This innovative soul broke boundaries with his words before dying all too young of the Spanish flu in 1918. His earliest collection of poems ‘Alcools’ had been sitting on my shelf since my student days when I first analysed his poetry. So this month I brought it out again with fresh eyes and an aim to translating a few pieces, and this process brought out more new insights into his language and poetry.
The first poem I tackled is ‘Nuit Rhénane’. At first it looks like quite a classic poem, structured with Alexandrine quatrains and crossed rhymes and opening with a simple use of simile. Soon however we start to note the lack of punctuation, the surreal qualities of his images and his innovation with words. Apollinaire paints a picture of himself, drunkenly sailing down the Rhine, the sights and sounds, both real and imagined, overwhelming his senses. He speaks of green-haired fairies (perhaps an absinthe-induced hallucination?) and incantations, talking to (imaginary?) fellow passengers as he describes these experiences.
The lines, with their lack of punctuation, flow like the steady waters of the Rhine, and the poet’s words conjure up the reflections and movements of the river which carries him on his trip (in every sense of the word). The last line, in which his wine glass shatters, brings the poem to an unexpected and abrupt end, as we, like him, are suddenly awoken from our daydream. There’s also an interesting use of homophones in this poem with the words ‘verre’ and ‘vert‘ (glass and green), without forgetting the ‘vers’ (line of verse) of the poem itself. So perhaps in this last line, it is not only the glass (verre) but also the verse (vers) which is intentionally shattered.
I enjoyed translating this poem’s images and sense of flow whilst keeping the abab cdcd rhyme scheme. To do this I had to change things round a bit in the last stanza, perhaps obscuring the meaning a little as I did. There’s not much I could do about the homophone play, but nevertheless here’s my first attempt at translating Apollinaire.
Nuit Rhénane by Guillaume Apollinaire
Mon verre est plein d’un vin trembleur comme une flamme
Ecoutez la chanson lente d’un batelier
Qui raconte avoir vu sous la lune sept femmes
Tordre leurs cheveux verts et longs jusqu’à leurs pieds
Debout chantez plus haut en dansant une ronde
Que je n’entende plus le chant du batelier
Et mettez près de moi toutes les filles blondes
Au regard immobile aux nattes repliées
Le Rhin le Rhin est ivre où les vignes se mirent
Tout l’or des nuits tombe en tremblant s’y refléter
La voix chante toujours à en râle-mourir
Ces fées aux cheveux verts qui incantent l’été
Mon verre s’est brisé comme un éclat de rire
Night on the Rhine
My glass is full of wine trembling like flames
Listen to the boatman’s slow tuneful sound
Singing of the moon and below seven dames
Wringing out their long green hair to the ground
Get up sing louder and dance in circles
So that I no longer hear that boatman’s sound
And bring me close those golden-haired girls
With their steady stares and hair tightly bound
The Rhine the drunken Rhine where vines I spy
And that voice forever singing its death-chant
While trembling gold falls and reflects from the sky
Of green-haired fairies which summer incant
My glass shattered like a burst of laughter