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Women / Men , by Paul Verlaine

Femmes/Hombres: Women/Men - Paul Verlaine, Alistair Elliot


Portrait of Verlaine by Edmond François Aman-Jean (c. 1892)



Intrigued after recently learning that Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) wrote and (partly) published sous le manteau poems that Stefan Zweig termed flatly and most disapprovingly "pornographic" in his little biography of the poet, I dug up a bilingual edition(*) of the most clandestine of these publications: Femmes, published in Brussels under a pseudonym at the end of 1890, and Hombres, which appeared posthumously in 1903/04. 


First of all, what appeared at the turn of the 20th century to a very young Stefan Zweig to be pornographic strikes me instead as erotic, at most. Over a century later I'd say that pornographic art is primarily concerned with the curious mechanics of intercourse in its manifold varieties, whereas erotic art elides most of the hydraulics and focuses on the beauties of the human body, the initial mounting excitement and the pleasurable and appreciative sensations of the aftermath. I'd also claim that erotic art has no need of euphemisms, blurry focus or the many other kinds of prevarications I've witnessed over the years.(**)


In the poems in this book, some of which are every bit as finely crafted as his earlier work, Verlaine does not use euphemisms or blur the focus. That could disturb some readers, but for most denizens of the early 21st century there is nothing here to shock. In fact, Verlaine makes good use of tongue in cheek  humor. Though these poems do not supplant his more serious work, they do not in the least evoke images of dirty old men in grubby overcoats (however the portrait above certainly does). 


Without any doubt, the pièce de résistance of this volume is a collaborative effort of Verlaine with his young companion, Arthur Rimbaud: in perfectly classical sonnet form, two of the greatest poets of the French language apostrophize our nethermost orifice. I give the original without further comment; four rather lame translations can be found here: http://www.practicalalchemy.com/troudecul.htm (Eliot's is a bit better). The two quatrains are due to Verlaine; the closing tercets are inscribed Arthur Rimbaud invenit.


                    Le Sonnet du Trou du Cul


Obscur et froncé comme un oeillet violet
Il respire, humblement tapi parmi la mousse
Humide encor d'amour qui suit la pente douce
Des fesses blanches jusqu'au bord de son ourlet.


Des filaments pareils à des larmes de lait
Ont pleuré, sous l'autan cruel qui les repousse,
À travers de petits caillots de marne rousse,
Pour s'en aller où la pente les appelait.


Ma bouche s'accoupla souvent à sa ventouse ;
Mon âme, du coït matériel jalouse,
En fit son larmier fauve et son nid de sanglots.


C'est l'olive pâmée, et la flûte caline ;
C'est le tube où descend la céleste praline :
Chanaan féminin dans les moiteurs éclos !


It should be mentioned that this poem was written, at least to some extent, as a parody of a book of sonnets by Albert Mérat dedicated to every portion of the female anatomy except one. Verlaine and Rimbaud felt obliged to remedy the oversight. 


I'll close with a few words about the English translation in this edition, which I only sampled. The British poet Alistair Elliot chose to try to reflect the poetic structures of the original, succeeding nearly perfectly with the rhyme. This can only be done by reshuffling phrases and sometimes entire sentences and by choosing words this translator certainly knows are not near equivalents to the original. The few translated poems I read did not misrepresent the content of the originals, but I must warn that they are less elegant, less soigné than Verlaine's stanzas and so come off cruder than the models do. This is a serious matter in this context, since already the subject matter is accompanied by a penumbra of crudity in the minds of many, so the balancing act between the abysses of the offensive on the one side and the ridiculous on the other is a challenge. A little example from Ouverture:


Vos bras, j’adore aussi vos bras si beaux, si blancs,
Tendres et durs, dodus, nerveux quand faut et beaux
Et blancs comme vos culs et presque aussi troublants,
Chauds dans l’amour, après frais comme des tombeaux.


Rendered as:


Your arms, so fine, so pale, excite my reverence:

Tender and hard, and sinewy at need, but plump

And warm in love, though after chilled as monuments,

So pale, so fine, they stir my senses like your rump.


Though the semantic content corresponds closely enough and the abab rhyme scheme is reproduced, Eliot found himself forced into a crudity that badly misrepresents the poetics of the original. English has at its disposal two very different classes of words, one stemming from Anglo-Saxon and the other from French and Latin. The former is folksy, crude and so very handy for rhythmic effects; the latter is something else entirely. The rhyme "plump"/"rump" not only introduces an Anglo-Saxon uncouthness into the translation that is totally absent from Verlaine's idiom, but the maladroit placing of "rump" at the end of the stanza results in an emphasis on the word and the object that is closer to doggerel than it is to the role of "culs" in Verlaine's poem. Perhaps in British English the connotations are different, but in American English "rump" is usually reserved for animals, and when applied to a human it is either somewhat humorously derogatory or condescending. Altogether, this is a high price to pay for a rhyme. Just to mention one example...



(*) Women/Men, Femmes/Hombres (1979), introduced and translated by Alistair Elliot


(**) But that's just one man's view.