Tuesday, January 29, 2013


Ophelia by John William Waterhouse
I once had a disagreement with my professor over the character of Ophelia. He, rather callously, maintained that she was a weak, even immoral, character, because she betrayed Hamlet's confidence for her father. This, to me, seemed a foolishly modern view of her. What's a young lady to do, caught between an eccentric and insane lover, her bonds of filial piety, and her duty to the court? Perhaps, she didn't deal with her situation as successfully as she could have, but that is a part of her character, and, were she any different, she would not be the lovely Ophelia. 

One of the most enchanting descriptions of Ophelia is Arthur Rimbaud's delightful poem "Ophélie". The poet has such tenderness for the young woman, her situation, and her child's heart. It illumines the result of throwing a barely adolescent into a world of politics, of duty, in short, of men. What could she do when her pale knight laid his head on her knee and spurned her even while courting her? 

Below I provide the original French and a fairly literal translation of my own. 


Sur l'onde calme et noire où dorment les étoiles
La blanche Ophélia flotte comme un grand lys,
Flotte très lentement, couchée en ses longs voiles...
- On entend dans les bois lointains des hallalis.

Voici plus de mille ans que la triste Ophélie
Passe, fantôme blanc, sur le long fleuve noir
Voici plus de mille ans que sa douce folie
Murmure sa romance à la brise du soir

Le vent baise ses seins et déploie en corolle
Ses grands voiles bercés mollement par les eaux ;
Les saules frissonnants pleurent sur son épaule,
Sur son grand front rêveur s'inclinent les roseaux.

Les nénuphars froissés soupirent autour d'elle ;
Elle éveille parfois, dans un aune qui dort,
Quelque nid, d'où s'échappe un petit frisson d'aile :
- Un chant mystérieux tombe des astres d'or


O pâle Ophélia ! belle comme la neige !
Oui tu mourus, enfant, par un fleuve emporté !
C'est que les vents tombant des grand monts de Norwège
T'avaient parlé tout bas de l'âpre liberté ;

C'est qu'un souffle, tordant ta grande chevelure,
À ton esprit rêveur portait d'étranges bruits,
Que ton coeur écoutait le chant de la Nature
Dans les plaintes de l'arbre et les soupirs des nuits ;

C'est que la voix des mers folles, immense râle,
Brisait ton sein d'enfant, trop humain et trop doux ;
C'est qu'un matin d'avril, un beau cavalier pâle,
Un pauvre fou, s'assit muet à tes genoux !

Ciel ! Amour ! Liberté ! Quel rêve, ô pauvre Folle !
Tu te fondais à lui comme une neige au feu :
Tes grandes visions étranglaient ta parole

- Et l'Infini terrible éffara ton oeil bleu !


- Et le Poète dit qu'aux rayons des étoiles
Tu viens chercher, la nuit, les fleurs que tu cueillis ;
Et qu'il a vu sur l'eau, couchée en ses longs voiles,
La blanche Ophélia flotter, comme un grand lys.


On the wave calm and black, where sleep the stars
The White Ophelia floats like a great lily
floats so slow, couched in her long veils
- You hear in the distant woods halloes.

Here more than a thousand years sad Ophelia
passes, white fantom, on the long black flood.
Here more than a thousand years her sweet folly
murmurs her romance to the evening breeze.

The wind kisses her breasts and arranges her
veils great as a crown, rocked gently by the waters;
the trembling willows weep on her shoulder,
the roses bow to her dreamer’s forehead.

The crumpled waterlillies sigh around her;
She awakens awhile, caught in a sleeping alder,
some nymph, from whom escapes the tiny shiver of a wing:
- A mysterious song falls from the golden stars.


O pale Ophelia! Lovely as the snow!
Yes, you died, child, carried off by the flood!
It was just the winds falling from the mountains of Norway
that spoke so softly of bitter freedom;

It was just a breeze, twisting your hair,
that brought strange sounds to your dreamer’s soul,
just that your heart listened to Nature’s song
in the groans of a tree and the sighs of night;

It was just that the voice of crazed seas, an immense rale,
Broke your child’s breast, too human, too sweet;
It was just that on an April morning, a pale, handsome knight,
a poor fool, sat silent at your knees!

Oh Heaven! Love! Liberty! What a dream, poor fool!
You melted to him as snow to fire:
your great visions strangled your speech
- And the terrible Infinite stunned your blue eyes!


- And the Poet says that in the regions of the stars
You come searching, at night, the flowers that you gathered;
And that he saw on the water, couched in her long veils,
White Ophelia floating, like a great lily.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Nabokov "In My Youth" or "We So Firmly Believed"

While looking Nabokov's Russian poetry and translations on the web, I came across this lovely blogpost, which is certainly worth sharing. Apart from how delightful Nabokov's voice is, this post is wonderful because it provides us with two versions of Nabokov's translation, the first as a very young man and the second as a more mature artist. 

To My Youth
We used to believe so firmly, you and I, in the unity
of existence; but now I glance back–and it is
astounding–how impersonal in color, how unreal in
pattern you have become, my youth.

When one examines the matter, it is like the haze of
a wave between me and you, between the shallows and the
drowning–or else I see a receding highway, and you
from behind as you pedal right into the sunset on your semi-racer.

You are no more myself, you’re a mere outline, the subject
of any first chapter–but how long we believed
in the oneness of the way from the damp gorge
to the mountain heather.

We So Firmly Believed
We so firmly believed in the linkage of life,
but now I’ve looked back–and it is astonishing
to what a degree you, my youth,
seem in tints not mine, in traits not real.

If one probes it, it’s rather like a wave’s haze
between me and you, between shallow and sinking,
or else I see telegraph poles and you from the back
as right into the sunset you ride your half-racer.

You’ve long ceased to be I. You’re an outline–the hero
of any first chapter; yet how long we believed
that there was no break in the way from the damp dell
to the alpine heath.

The first version is a bit clumsy, but the second is delightful. The refinement in style crystalizes the refinement in thought. Although I myself am in no position to look back upon my youth and meditate upon the caprices of time, I can certainly find Nabokov's words an immense encouragement. As we wrestle the angels of our disappointments, we cannot even imagine returning to a cheerier world, where the sun shines upon the heather. And yet, with this poem, Nabokov reminds the young and the heartbroken that such a place exists and that our current experiences are just the starting points of the path to that place.
A friend and teacher of mine commented that by 'alpine heath,' Nabokov means the Olympian Heights and is thus making a claim not dissimilar from Horace in Ode 1.1. And although Nabokov may be hubristic (and talented) enough to make such a claim, I am inclined to believe that he is speaking more as a human being and less as an artist. Nabokov wrote this poem as an exile from Russia. One can only imagine the immense weight of despair he must have felt at the prospect of a life of exile. And yet, in his exile, perhaps even on account of his exile, Nabokov was able to emerge as one of the most gifted writers of the twentieth century. 
My mother has told me now and again of the distance she feels when reflecting upon her youth. How like another life it is to her. How, when she emerged from the courthouse after her divorce, she could not even imagine the family and love she has now. In this poem, Nabokov is not simply boasting of his artistic and literary achievements, he is commenting upon human nature. As Pascal reiterates again and again in his Pensees, our perspective is so limited; we lack the means of fully understanding anything. Whether or not you find this a convincing point of view, you must certainly find it convincing a propos of our future. How unknowable it is! And yet, how much we long to know it!