01 February 2016

Poem of the Week 2016/5

First we'll have the French original (this is sixteenth-century French, so don't panic if it looks different from your remembered high school textbooks or even what you picked up in that university year abroad).

Sonnet XIX

Diane estant en l'espesseur d'un bois,
Apres avoir mainte beste assenee,
Prenoit le frais, de Nynfes couronnee:
J'allois resvant comme fay maintefois.

Sans y penser: quand j'ouy une vois,
Qui m'apela, disant, Nynfe estonnee,
Que ne t'es tu vers Diane tournee!
Et me voyant sans arc & sans carquois,

Qu'as tu trouvé, o compagne, en ta voye,
Qui de ton arc & flesches ait fait proye!
Je m'animay, respons je, à un passant,

Et lui getay en vain toutes mes flesches
Et l'arc apres: mais lui les ramassant
Et les tirant me fit cent & cent bresches.

Louise Labé

Next we have two contemporary American translations:

Diana, retired in the depth of the woods,
Having just hunted down many a stag,
Was taking the air, her Nymphs at her back:
I wandered by in my usual dreamy mood,

When I heard a voice call out to me, now
Saying: O Nymph who looks so astonished,
Why did you not turn to glimpse the goddess?
Seeing me without quiver, without bow:

Whom did you meet, dear friend, upon your way,
Who took your bow & arrow as their prey?
I took aim, said I, at some passerby,

And hurled my arrows at him, all in vain,
And then my bow; but gathering these to his side,
He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain.

Louise Labé, translated by Richard Sieburth


[A Meeting with Diana]

Diana, standing in the clearing of a wood
after she had hunted her prey and shot it down,
breathed deep. Her nymphs had woven her a green crown.
I walked, as I often do, in a distracted mood,
not thinking – when I heard a voice, subdued
and quiet, call, "Astonished nymph, don't frown,
have you lost your way to Diana's sacred ground?"
Since I had no quiver, no arrows, it pursued,
"Dear friend, who were you meeting with today?
Who has taken your bow and arrows away?"
I said, "I found an enemy on the path,
and hurled my arrows at him, but in vain –
and then my bow – but he picked them up in wrath,
and with my arrows shot back hundreds of kinds of pain."

Louise Labé, translated by Annie Finch

In her brief (twenty-four poem) sonnet sequence, Labé is both playing in a sophisticated way with classical and Petrarchean traditions of love poetry and writing emotionally direct poetry. This sonnet has in its background the classical myth, extremely popular in the Renaissance, of Diana and Actaeon. He was a princely young hunter who inadvertently stumbled on Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt, and her nymphs bathing naked. Though he was innocent of any voyeuristic intent, Diana (in the arbitrary way of the gods) punished him by turning him into a stag. His own dogs tore him to pieces.

In this poem, the innocent human wanderer is intruded upon by Diana, who has been out hunting when she stumbles upon the poet. The goddess plaintively asks why she is no longer seeking Diana's company, and further, why she no longer has her bow and arrows. Wandering from the company of the virgin huntress is our hint that the poet has fallen in love. And indeed, the poet came across a passerby and, in the style of Cupid, shot her arrows at him, though with less success than the ruthless little god; the untouched youth gathered her arrows and bow and used them to shoot back at her, causing her the endless pains of love. In a witty reversal of Actaeon's punishment, in this case it is the mortal man who has destroyed the votary of the goddess.

Both translations gesture towards preserving the original rhyme scheme. And both have the poet hurling her arrows at the youth, which may be faithful to the original but reads oddly in English. You can hurl a javelin or a rock, but you shoot arrows. Finch preserves the cumulative effect of the and / and / and at the beginning of the last three lines, but oddly makes the encounter between lover and love-object much more violent than seems warranted by the original: Sieburth translates un passant as some passerby, which seems closer than Finch's an enemy. I also don't see where she's getting that he picked up the bow and arrows in wrath. The poet's pain is more likely caused by indifference or uncertainty; the images of lover / beloved as hunter / hunted and of love as a physical wounding are tropes that don't need to be justified by some alleged enmity. Sieburth's He fired, welcoming me to a world of pain loses the specificity and closer translation of Finch's hundreds of kinds of pain, but fired brings with it a nice sense of the flames of love, and welcoming me to a world of pain conveys the nice ambiguity of the onset of love here, which is both welcoming and a cause of immense pain. I do love Finch's green crown woven by the nymphs; green seems like a reasonable clarification of what type of crown was made by these nymphs wandering the woods.

The first translation is from Louise Labé: Love Sonnets & Elegies, translated by Richard Sieburth with a preface by Karin Lessing, in the NYRB Poets series. The second translation is from Louise Labé: Complete Poetry and Prose, edited with critical introductions and prose translations by Deborah Lesko Baker and poetry translations by Annie Finch, in the University of Chicago Press series The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe. Both editions are bilingual.

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