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Four Poems.

Some fundamental things do change. In this time of gender sensibility and sexual politics, it might seem odd, even dangerous, for a male translator to offer a bouquet of poems about women embedded (pun intended) in a prehistory we have rightfully come to distrust. Yet, however enlightened and righteous our present, however idyllic our future, the past is present in those other tenses. That is the nature of art.

Petrarch, drawing from a medieval courtly tradition, set a theme recognizable and echoed by Gerard de Nerval's flaneur five hundred years later. One poet watches a young woman on a riverbank, the other a young woman-could it be the same one? -passing in a public garden.

About the same time, Nerval's exact contemporary in Russia, Yevgeny Baratynsky, observes his own muse more closely, but speaks with a similar combination of engagement and detachment. In this quartet of poems, only the twentieth-century poet Nikolai Gumilev closes with the woman of whom he writes, doing so here with a distancing metaphorical and mystical framework that might have been taken from his own fourteenth century.

These are, all four, savory poems of small consequence, still fun to read, even more fun to translate. Or the other way around.

Francesco Petrarca

Nova angeletta sovra l'ale accorta
scese dal cielo in su la fresca riva,
la 'nd'io passava sol per mio destino.

Poi che senza compagna et senza scorta
mi vide, un laccio che di seta ordiva
tese fra l'erba, ond'e verde il camino.

Allor fui preso; et non mi spiacque poi,
si dolce lume uscia degli occhi suoi.

Gerard de Nerval

Elle a passe, la jeune fille
Vive et preste comme un oiseau
A la main une fleur qui brille,
A la bouche un refrain nouveau.

C'est peut-etre la seule au monde
Dont le coeur au mien repondrait,
Qui venant dans ma nuit profonde
D'un seul regard l'eclaircirait !...

Mais non,--ma jeunesse est finie...
Adieu, doux rayon qui m'as lui,--
Parfum, jeune fille, harmonie...
Le bonheur passait,--il a fui !


A novice angel winged her way on down
from heaven to the open riverbank
where I, by chance, was walking all alone,

and, seeing me without a friend or guard,
she set a springnet, woven out of silk,
hidden in the greenery of my road.

Then I was snared, but not unwillingly,
so sweet the glow her eyes bestowed on me.


She's just gone by, a lively girl
Bird-like in her gaiety,
In her hand a daffodil,
Singing a song unknown to me.

In all the world there's no one else
Perhaps, who could engage my heart,
Or, with a single look, dispel
The heavy night upon my spirit.

But no, my youth is also gone.
Farewell, sweet light, a fleeting ray--
A scent, a girl, a snatch of song--
And happiness--has fled away.

[phrase omitted]

Yevgeny Baratynsky

I am not blinded by my Muse:
She couldn't be called beautiful,
And young men, seeing her, don't lose
Their minds or hearts head over heel.

She doesn't have the skill to flaunt
The come-on of a teasing taunt,
A fetching hat, a playful eye--
But still, her face is lightened by

A subtle, unexpected glow
Disarming scornful denigration,
Her way of speaking--quiet, slow--
Invites an easy admiration.

[phrase omitted]

Nikolai Gumilev

In that forest tree-stumps loomed
Abruptly whitish in the gloom,

From earth, root after root emerged,
Hands of inhabitants locked in prayer.

Under the shade of fiery leaves
Giants, pygmies, and lions lived,

While fishermen saw lines in the sand
Of a six-fingered human hand.

Never had Charlemagne's peers guessed
This place, or those on Arthur's quest.

No outlaw perched among these thickets,
No monk retreated to these rocks.

Once, only once, on a threatening wind
Came a woman with a feline head,

But crowned with a cast silver crown,
She sighed and whimpered all night long,

And died a quiet death at daylight
Before a priest could bring last rites.

This all occurred, all in those years
Of which no trace or track appears,

This all occurred, all in that realm
You will not find even in your dream.

I thought it all up, looking at your
Hair, in rings like snakes of fire,

[phrase omitted]

And at your intensely blue-green eyes
As full of pain as Persian turquoise.

Maybe that forest is the soul in you,
Maybe that forest is my love for you,

Or it may be, when we come to die,
We'll go there together, you and I.

Petrarch * Nerval * Baratynsky * Gumilev

Translations from Italian, French, and Russian by J. Kates

doi: 10.5744/delos.2019.1018

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article]
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Author:Petrarch; Nerval; Baratynsky; Gumilev
Publication:Delos: A Journal of Translation and World Literature
Article Type:Poem
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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