Tomorrow, at dawn…

It’s been a while, but I recently read this poem by Victor Hugo and thought I’d give it a shot. Hugo wrote this piece about visiting his daughter’s grave after she drowned in the Seine river aged 19. It’s full of weighted melancholy and portrays his walk to her tombstone as a metaphor (in my mind) for his long walk through life towards his own grave, the only place where they may finally be reunited.

Demain, dès l’aube…

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.


The flow of this poem is so natural that it took me multiple readings, during which I was just absorbed by the atmosphere and story, before I realised that there was actually a rhyming scheme. So I started by doing a quick translation of the poem, then another one just after without looking at the first, to see what variations I came up with, without thinking it through too much. Comparing these results left me with some interesting decisions to make:

Ln1.  when the first light whitewashes the fields, /  when the fields are white with dew,

Ln2-3. I’ll set off / I’ll leave / I’ll go

Ln4. I cannot stay far from you much longer. / No longer can I stay away from you.

Ln. 7 Alone, unknown, with bent back and crossed arms, / Lonesome, a stranger, crouched over with crossed arms,

Ln.8 Woeful, and the day for me will be as night. /  Filled with sadness, in day as in night.

Ln.9 I will see neither the gold of falling night, / I’ll not see the golden night descending,

Ln.10 Nor the far-off sails moving to the harbour, / Nor the distant sails glide towards Harfleur,


The differences I got seem quite striking considering the few minutes that separated the writing of each.

Some of Hugo’s images are also ambiguous. What did he mean, for example, by “à l’heure où blanchit la campagne”? Is the countryside white with dew, with frost, with a morning fog? I kept trying to interpret this in my translations – “at the white hour of dawn”/ “when the fields are silver-white”, none of that was very satisfying. I ended up using “frosted white” here, but that’s just the image his words painted in my mind.

After merging the two to get an initial translation I liked, I tried out at a rhyming version, keeping the ABAB, CDCD rhyme scheme that Hugo has. This implied a little more liberty with the meaning and some added imagery, but not a whole lot in the end. Hugo rhymes “tombe/tombe” (“tomb/fall”) in the last verse, so I replicated the homonym with “grave/grave”. The other rhymes aren’t perfect, I’ve got a couple of “still/hills”, “feathers/heather” in there, and it feels more forced than in the French, but nevertheless I think I actually prefer my rhymed version. Here are both with the rhyming one on the right.



Tomorrow, at dawn
Tomorrow, at dawn, when the fields are frosted white,
I’ll set off. You see, I know that you await.
I’ll set off across the forest, I’ll set off across the mountain.
From you no longer can I stay away.

I’ll walk, my sight set upon my thoughts,
Seeing nothing, hearing nothing,
Lonesome and unknown, with bent back and crossed arms,
Woeful, and the day for me will be as night.

I’ll not see the golden light of evening,
Nor the distant sails glide towards Harfleur,
And when I get there, on your grave I’ll place
A bouquet of holly an heather in bloom.

At dawn tomorrow
At dawn tomorrow, when the fields are white and still,
I’ll go. I know that you await, you see.
I’ll go across the forests and the hills.
So long, so far from you I cannot be.

My eyes fixed upon my thoughts, I’ll roam,
Seeing nothing, hearing nothing, all empty and endless.
With curved back and crossed arms, unknown and alone,
My day as my night, filled with sorrow and sadness.

I’ll not look to the golden dusk so grave,
Nor to distant sails which float like feathers,
And when I get there, I’ll place upon your grave
A bunch of green holly and flowering heather.