Sunday, April 24, 2016


I'll go anywhere I can to learn about writing, and tonight I was drawn to a play by someone I'd not read before: Henry Arthur Jones.

I was prompted by a statement of William Archer's, in his book, Play-Making, A Manual of Craftsmanship (1912):

"The first three acts of [Mrs Dane's Defence] may be cited as an excellent example of dexterous preparation and development. Our interest in the sequence of events is aroused, sustained, and worked up to a high tension with consummate skill. There is no feverish overcrowding of incident.... The action moves onwards, unhasting, unresting, and the finger-posts [the foreshadowing details] are placed just where they are wanted."

Out of curiosity, I read the play, and it was indeed well-handled. It held my attention from the first page to the last, which is more than I can say for too much of what I read these days, or try to read.

Beyond the craftsmanship, though, what struck me was the writer's attitude towards the conventional sexual morality of his day (1905). This play about a "fallen woman" does not lack compassion, but it does lack rebellion, or even perspective on the social and political nature of morality:

MRS. DANE: Good-bye, Sir Daniel. Don't you think the world is very hard on a woman?

SIR DANIEL: It isn't the world that's hard. It isn't men and women. Am I hard ? Call on me at any time, and you shall find me the truest friend to you and yours. Is Lady Eastney hard? She has been fighting all the week to save you.

MRS. DANE: Then who is it, what is it, drives me out?

SIR DANIEL: The law, the hard law that we didn't make, that we would break if we could, for we are all sinners at heart -- the law that is above us all, made for us all, that we can't escape from, that we must keep or perish.

I can just imagine Oscar Wilde, H. G. Wells, Anton Chekhov, Guy de Maupassant, or Henrik Ibsen raising their eyebrows at this idea of "the hard law from above." But it does make me realize that almost every writer I've taken to heart over the decades has been oppositional, individualistic, skeptical, or humane enough to pick a fight with conventional ideas from his or her own time, to the point where I expect this opposition automatically.

I'm glad that I read Mrs. Dane's Defence, but not only because it's a well-crafted play; it also reminded me that rebellion, in art as in life, is exceptional, never the norm.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

I completed this translation last year, in September, but was never happy with it. This morning, I changed a few nouns, then decided that enough was enough -- here it is.

(I'm still unhappy, because I re-arranged the emphasis in the final stanza. I do what I can to preserve the poet's choice of structure, but in this case, I ended with a pronoun that he had placed much earlier. I was wrong to do this, but my way seemed to work slightly better... at least, in English. That's no excuse, I know!)

by José-Maria de Heredia.

In what chill oceans, for how many winters -- who will ever know, frail and nacreous conch? -- have the currents, the swells, and the tides rolled you in the hollows of their green abyss?

Today, under the sky, far from the tide's bitter ebb, you have made for yourself a soft bed in the golden arena, but you hope in vain. Drawn-out and despairing and always within you moans the great voice of the seas.

My soul has become a sounding prison: and just as the moaned refrain of that ancient clamour still weeps and sighs within your folds,

In the same way, dull, slow, numb yet somehow eternal, growls the distant, stormy din from the deeps of this heart too full of Her.

- - - - -


Par quels froids Océans, depuis combien d'hivers,
-- Qui le saura jamais, Conque frêle et nacrée! --
La houle, les courants et les raz de marée
T'ont-ils roulée au creux de leurs abîmes verts?

Aujourd'hui, sous le ciel, loin des reflux amers,
Tu t'es fait un doux lit de l'arène dorée.
Mais ton espoir est vain. Longue et désespérée,
En toi gémit toujours la grande voix des mers.

Mon âme est devenue une prison sonore:
Et comme en tes replis pleure et soupire encore
La plainte du refrain de l'ancienne clameur;

Ainsi du plus profond de ce cœur trop plein d'Elle,
Sourde, lente, insensible et pourtant éternelle,
Gronde en moi l'orageuse et lointaine rumeur.

-- From
LES TROPHÉES, by José-Maria de Heredia.
Alphonse Lemerre, Éditeur. Paris, 1893.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Coal-Cored Comments

Communities have torn themselves apart,
Blackened lives for principle, denounced
The stranger at the door for being strange.
Sometimes, knocking at the door at all
Is flint enough to spark a scorching fight.
Your thoughts, and mine, have blistered at the touch
Of coal-cored comments. How the ashes fly
On currents that affection cannot ride
When we speak at our best, and for the best.
Anger is the torch that fires a town
When friendship's glow could hardly warm a speck.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Veins and Stars

Elizabeth Bowen:

Callie reached out and put off her bedside lamp.

At once she knew that something was happening -- outdoors, in the street, the whole of London, the world. An advance, an extraordinary movement was silently taking place; blue-white beams overflowed from it, silting, dropping round the edges of the muffled black-out curtains. When, starting up, she knocked a fold of the curtain, a beam like a mouse ran across her bed. A searchlight, the most powerful of all time, might have been turned full and steady upon her defended window; finding flaws in the black-out stuff, it made veins and stars. Once gained by this idea of pressure she could not lie down again; she sat tautly, drawn-up knees touching her breasts, and asked herself if there were anything she should do. She parted the curtains, opened them slowly wider, looked out -- and was face to face with the moon.

-- "Mysterious Kôr," from Ivy Gripped the Steps. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1946.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

De grands chantiers d'affolement

Translating Verhaeren is beyond my skill, and so I forced myself to do it. I've never been wise.

The Corpse,
by Émile Verhaeren.

In her dress the colour of bile and poison, the corpse of my reason is dragged along the Thames.
The bridges of bronze, where the carriages bang together with an interminable sound of hinges, and the sails of dark boats, let their shadows fall upon her. Without a moving handle on its clock face, a tall belfry masked in red stares at her like someone immensely [preoccupied?] with death and sorrow.

She died from having known too much, from having wanted too much to sculpt the motive, on the pedestal of black stone, of every being and of every thing; she died, atrociously, from an expert empoisoning; she died, as well, from a delirium for [towards] an absurd and red empire. Her nerves had burst, on some bright evening of celebration, when she felt its triumph drift, like eagles, over its head. She died not being able to take any more, with her ardours and desires crushed; infinitely exhausted, she killed herself.
Along the funereal walls, along the iron foundries where the hammers beat out sparks, she is dragged to the funeral.

These are wharves and barracks, always wharves and their lanterns, unmoving and slow spinners of dim gold from their lights; these are sadnesses of stone, a brick house, a castle keep of black where the windows, glum eyelids, open to the fog of night; these are vast marinas of insanity, full of dismantled boats and of sail yards docked against a sky of crucifixion.

In her dress of dead jewels that solemnizes the horizon's hour of purple, the corpse of my reason is dragged along the Thames.

She moves toward the perils in the depths of shadows and fog, to the long, dull noise of heavy bells breaking their wings at steeple corners. Unfulfilled, leaving behind her the great city of life, she heads for the black unknown, to sleep in the tombs of the night, down there, where the slow, strong waves, opening their limitless pits, swallow, for all eternity, the dead.
- - - - -

La Morte,
Émile Verhaeren.

En sa robe, couleur de fiel et de poison,
Le cadavre de ma raison
Traîne sur la Tamise.

Des ponts de bronze, où les wagons
Entrechoquent d'interminables bruits de gonds
Et des voiles de bateaux sombres
Laissent sur elle, choir leurs ombres,
Sans qu'une aiguille, à son cadran, ne bouge,
Un grand beffroi masqué de rouge
La regarde, comme quelqu'un
Immensément de triste et de défunt.

Elle est morte de trop savoir,
De trop vouloir sculpter la cause,
Dans le socle de granit noir,
De chaque être et de chaque chose,
Elle est morte, atrocement,
D'un savant empoisonnement,
Elle est morte aussi d'un délire
Vers un absurde et rouge empire
Ses nerfs ont éclaté,
Tel soir illuminé de fête,
Qu'elle sentait déjà le triomphe flotter
Comme des aigles, sur sa tête.
Elle est morte n'en pouvant plus,
L'ardeur et les vouloirs moulus,
Et c'est elle qui s'est tuée,
Infiniment exténuée.

Au long des funèbres murailles,
Au long des usines de fer
Dont les marteaux tonnent l'éclair,
Elle se traîne aux funérailles.

Ce sont des quais et des casernes,
Des quais toujours et leurs lanternes,
Immobiles et lentes filandières
Des ors obscurs de leurs lumières
Ce sont des tristesses de pierres,
Maison de briques, donjon en noir
Dont les vitres, mornes paupières,
S'ouvrent dans le brouillard du soir;
Ce sont de grands chantiers d'affolement,
Pleins de barques démantelées
Et de vergues écartelées
Sur un ciel de crucifiement.

En sa robe de joyaux morts, que solennise
L'heure de pourpre à l'horizon,
Le cadavre de ma raison
Traîne sur la Tamise.

Elle s'en va vers les hasards
Au fond de l'ombre et des brouillards,
Au long bruit sourd des tocsins lourds,
Cassant leur aile, au coin des tours.
Derrière elle, laissant inassouvie
La ville immense de la vie;
Elle s'en va vers l'inconnu noir
Dormir en des tombeaux de soir.
Là-bas, où les vagues lentes et fortes,
Ouvrant leurs trous illimités,
Engloutissent à toute éternité
Les mortes.

- - - - -

POÈMES, by Émile Verhaeren.
Mercure de France, Paris, 1917.