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Paul ValÉry Variations on the Eclogues
Paul ValÉry Variations on the Eclogues Translated by Denise Folliot One of my friends asked me, on behalf of certain persons who wish to produce a fine book, to translate the Eclogues in my own fashion. And desiring a symmetry that would make visible to the eye their plan to compose noble, firm, and well-balanced pages, they decided that it would be well if the Latin and French were to correspond line for line. They therefore set me this problem of the equality of appearance and numbers. Latin is, in general, a more compact language than our own. It has no articles; it is chary of auxiliaries (at least during the clas­sical period); it is sparing of prepositions. It can say the same things in fewer words and, moreover, is able to arrange these with an enviable freedom almost completely denied to us. This latitude is most favorable to poetry, which is an art of continuously con­straining language to interest the ear directly (and through the ear, everything sounds may provoke of themselves) at least as much as it does the mind. A line is both a succession of syllables and a com­bination of words; and just as the latter ought to form a probable meaning, so the succession of syllables ought to form for the ear a kind of audible shape, which, with a special and as it were peculiar compulsion, should impress itself simultaneously on both voice and memory. The poet must therefore constantly fulfill two separate demands, just as the painter must present to the simple vision a harmony, but to the understanding a likeness of things or people. It is clear that freedom in arranging the words of a sentence, to which French is curiously hostile, is essential to the game of verse making. The French poet does what he can within the very narrow bounds of our syntax; the Latin poet, within the much wider bounds of his own, does almost what he will. As I therefore had to translate Virgil's famous text into French, line for line, and as I was inclined to allow, from myself as from others, only the most faithful translation that the differences in lan­guage would admit, my first impulse was to refuse the proposed task. Nothing marked me out for it. My small amount of school­boy's Latin had faded, after fifty-five years, to the memory of a memory; and as so many men, among them the most scholarly and erudite (not to mention others), had toiled in the course of three or four centuries at the translation of these poems, I could only hope to do much worse what they had accomplished so well. In addition, I must confess that bucolic themes do not excite my in­terest uncontrollably. Pastoral life is quite foreign to me and strikes me as tedious. Agricultural industry requires precisely the virtues I lack. I am depressed by the sight of furrows—including those made by my pen. The recurrence of the seasons and of their effects illustrates the stupidity of nature and of life, which can persist only by repeating itself. I think, too, of the monotonous efforts required to trace lines in the heavy soil, and I am not surprised that the obligation inflicted on man of "earning his bread by the sweat of his brow" should be considered a harsh and degrading punish­ment. This rule has always seemed to me ignominious. If I am reproved for this sentiment, which I confess and which I do not pretend to excuse, I shall say that I was born in a port. No fields round about, only sand and salt water. Fresh water had to be brought from a distance. No cattle were seen except as cargo, when the poor beasts, more dead than alive, hung between heaven and earth, dangling their hooves in the air, as they were hoisted rapidly up and deposited, all bewildered, on the dusty quayside. They were then driven in a herd to the dark trains, trotting and stumbling over the rails, urged on by the sticks of fluteless herdsmen. But in the end the sort of challenge posed by the difficulties I have mentioned, together with the very comparisons to be feared, acted as incentives, and so I yielded. My habit is to give way to those agents of fate known as "Others." I have no will, except on two or three absolute and deep-rooted matters. For the rest, I am pliable to the point of weakness and stupidity, as a result of a curi­ous indifference that is founded, possibly, on my conviction that no one knows what he is doing or what he will become, and that to will one thing is at once to will an infinity of other things that will inevitably, when their time comes, appear on the horizon. All the events of my life, though apparently my own acts, were the work of some other, and each is signed with a name. I have ob­served that there is scarcely more advantage than disadvantage in doing what one wants, and this leads me to ask and to refuse as little as possible. The most reasonable decision, in view of the com­plexity and confusion of things, is no different from the toss of a coin; if you do not realize it the same day, you will a month later. So I again opened my school Virgil, where, as is usual, there was no lack of notes revealing the erudition of some professor but revealing it to him alone, for on the whole they are wonderfully calculated to entangle the innocent pupil in philology and doubts—if, that is, he should consult them, which he is careful not to do. O classroom Virgil, who would have thought that I should have occasion to flounder about in you once more? Having sworn on this childhood Virgil to be as faithful as pos­sible to the text of these occasional pieces which nineteen centuries of fame have rendered venerable and almost sacred, and in view of the condition I mentioned of the correspondence line for line be­tween Virgil according to Virgil and Virgil according to me, I de­cided to write a verse for a verse, an alexandrine opposite each hexameter. However, I did not even consider making the alexan­drines rhyme, for this would undoubtedly have led me to make too free with the text, whereas I allowed myself scarcely more than a few omissions of detail. Again, here and there the practice of writ­ing verse made easier, and as it were more natural, the pursuit of a certain harmony, without which, where poetry is concerned, fidel­ity to meaning alone is a kind of betrayal. How many poetic works, reduced to prose, that is, to their simple meaning, become literally nonexistent! They are anatomical specimens, dead birds! Some­times, indeed, untrammeled absurdity swarms over these deplor­able corpses, their number multiplied by the teaching profession, which claims them as food for what is known as the "Curriculum." Verse is put into prose as though into its coffin. This is because the finest verses in the world are trivial or sense­less once their harmonic flow has been broken and their sonorous substance altered as it develops within the time peculiar to their measured movement, and once they have been replaced by an expression of no intrinsic musical necessity and no resonance. I would even go so far as to say that the more an apparently poetic work survives being put into prose and retains a certain value after this assault, the less is it the work of a poet. A poem, in the modern sense (that is, appearing after a long evolution and differentiation of the functions of speech), should create the illusion of an indis­soluble compound of sound and sense, although there exists no ra­tional relationship between these two constituents of language, which are linked word by word in our memory; that is, by chance, to be called on at need—another effect of chance. I shall now relate quite simply my impressions as a translator, but, according to my peculiar habit of mind, I shall not be able to help first laying down a few principles and turning over a few ideas—for the pleasure of it. . . . . Writing anything at all, as soon as the act of writing requires a certain amount of thought and is not a mechanical and unbroken inscribing of spontaneous inner speech, is a work of translation exactly comparable to that of transmuting a text from one language into another. This is because, within the range of any one language, used by everybody to meet the conditions of the moment and of circumstance, our interlocutor, our simple or complex intent, our leisure or haste, and so on, modify our speech. We have one lan­guage for ourselves, from which all other ways of speaking differ more or less. One language for our friends, one for general inter­course, one for the rostrum. There is one for love, one for anger, one for command, and one for prayer. There is one for poetry and one of prose, if not several in each category, and all this with the same vocabulary (more or less restricted or extended as the case may be) and subject to the same syntax. If the discourse is a considered one, it is as though composed of halts; it proceeds from point to point. Instead of embracing and permitting the utterance of what comes to it as an immediate result of a stimulus, the mind thinks and rethinks (as though in an aside) the thing it wishes to express, which is not yet in language, and this takes place in the constant presence of the conditions it has set itself. A man writing verse, poised between his ideal of beauty and his nothingness, is in a state of active and questioning expectation that renders him uniquely and supremely sensitive to the forms and words which the shape of his desire, endlessly resumed and re­traced, demands from the unknown, that is from the latent re­sources of his constitution as a speaker. Meanwhile, an indefinable singing force exacts from him what the bare thought can obtain only through a host of successively tested combinations. The poet chooses among these, not the one which would express his "thought" most exactly (that is the business of prose) and which would therefore repeat what he knows already, but the one which a thought by itself cannot produce, and which appears to him both strange and a stranger, a precious and unique solution to a problem that is formulated only when it is solved. This happy formulation communicates to the poet the same state of emotion which sud­denly engendered the formulation: it is not a constructed expres­sion, but a kind of propagation, a matter of resonance. Here lan­guage is no longer an intermediary annulled by understanding, once its office is accomplished; it acts through its form, and the effect of form is to be immediately reborn and recognized as itself. The poet is a peculiar type of translator, who translates ordi­nary speech, modified by emotion, into "language of the gods," and his inner labor consists less of seeking words for his ideas than of seeking ideas for his words and paramount rhythms. Although I am the least self-assured of Latinists, the slender and mediocre knowledge of the language of Rome that I still retain is very precious to me. One can quite easily write in ignorance of that language, but I do not believe that, if one is ignorant of it, one can feel that one is constructing what one writes as well as if one had a certain awareness of the underlying Latin. One may quite well draw the human body without having the least knowledge of anatomy, but he who has this knowledge is bound to profit some­what by it, if only by abusing it in order more boldly and success­fully to distort the figures in his composition. Latin is not merely the father of French; it is also its tutor in matters of the grand style. All the foolishness and extraordinary reasoning that have been put forward in defense of what are vaguely and untruthfully called the Humanities do but obscure the evidence of the true value for us of a language to which we owe what is most solid and dignified in the monuments of our own tongue. Latin is related to French in two ways, a fact in itself both remarkable and unusual. First of all, Latin gave birth to French through a succession of imperceptible self-modifications, during which evolution a good many other factors and borrowings were irregularly annexed and incorporated down the ages. Later, when our French language was well established and quite distinct from its parent stock, learned men and the most no­table authors of their time chose out of the long history of literary Latin one period, rather short but rich in works of the first order, which they hailed as the epoch of perfection in the arts of speaking and writing. One cannot prove that they were right, since this is not a field in which proofs can be made, but it would be easy to show that the close study and assimilation of the writings of Cicero, Livy, or Tacitus were essential to the formation of our ab­stract prose in the first half of the seventeenth century, which con­tains the finest and most substantial works produced by France in the realm of Letters. Poor Latinist though I am, this is what I feel. But I should be dealing with poetry and with Virgil. After a while, as I went on with my translation—making, un­making, remaking, sacrificing here and there, restoring as best I could what I had first rejected—this labor of approximation with its little successes, its regrets, its conquests, and its resignations, produced in me an interesting feeling, of which I was not imme­diately aware and which it would be better not to confess, if I cared about other readers than those reflective enough to understand it. Faced with my Virgil, I had the sensation (well known to me) of a poet at work. From time to time I argued absently with myself about this famous book, set in its millennial fame, with as much freedom as if it had been a poem of my own on the table before me. At moments, as I fiddled with my translation, I caught myself wanting to change something in the venerable text. It was a naive and unconscious identification with the imagined state of mind of a writer in the Augustan age. This lasted for one or two seconds of actual time and amused me. "Why not?" I said to myself, returning from this short absence. Why not? At bottom there are always the same problems—that is, the same attitudes: the "inner" ear alert for the possible, for what will murmur "of itself" and, once mur­mured, will return to the condition of desire; the same suspense and the same verbal crystallizations; the same oriented sensitivity of the subjective vocabulary, as though all the words in the mem­ory were watching their chance to try their luck in reaching the voice. I was not afraid to reject this epithet, to dislike that word. Why not? Two coincident remarks may serve to justify this involuntary amusement. As a diversion the critic may explain himself to him­self. First of all, there is the fact that the Eclogues are a work of youth. Then, there is the state of Latin poetry at the time of their composition. The man was young, but the art of verse in Rome had reached the point where it was so conscious of its means that the temptation to employ them for the pleasure of it and to develop them to the limit outran the true, primitive, and simple need of self-expression. The taste for producing the effect became the cause: put a weapon into the hands of a boy, and flee from him. This is because awareness of strength urges us to use it, and abuse of power is inevitably suggested by the knowledge that one has it. So, in the arts, there appear the virtuosos with their superb indif­ference to the subject they have to treat or interpret. But to produce this mental state it is not necessary that tech­nical ability, the possession of supple means, and the free play of an articulate mind be really as assured as the budding artist imagines after making a few attempts whose daring and novelty astonish and enrapture him. It is almost enough to have some inkling of them, and to feel in himself the necessary audacity, for him to experience the sensation of wresting from his probable genius one or two se­crets of producing Beauty. . . . I have gone into this subject because anything useful I have to say about Virgil I have gathered from some experience of his craft. Indeed, erudition (which I do not possess) can only point out amid so much uncertainty a few landmarks of biography, reading, or the interpretation of terms. This has its importance, but it is mainly external. It would doubtless be interesting to know whether the poet practiced the kind of love he attributes to some of his shep­herds, or whether a certain plant named in his verse has its equiv­alent in French. Philology can ponder laboriously, and even bril­liantly, over these problems. But for myself, I can only wander along quite different paths. I proceed, as is my method, from the finished poem, crystallized as it were in its fame, back to its nascent state. I agree that this is a matter of pure imagination, but imagi­nation tempered by reliable memories. I cannot, then, think of Virgil as a young poet without remem­bering the time when I, too, was a beginner. The work of transla­tion, done with regard for a certain approximation of form, causes us in some way to try walking in the tracks left by the author; and not to fashion one text upon another, but from the latter to work back to the virtual moment of its formation, to the phase when the mind is in the same state as an orchestra whose instruments begin to waken, calling to each other and seeking harmony before begin­ning their concert. From that vividly imagined state one must make one's way down toward its resolution in a work in a different tongue. The Eclogues, drawing me for a moment out of my old age, took me back to the time of my first verses. They seemed to give me the same impressions. I believed I could see in the text a mix­ture of perfections and imperfections, of felicitous combinations and graces of form together with palpably clumsy expressions and sometimes rather surprising commonplaces, of which I shall give an example. I recognized in this unevenness of execution a talent in its youth, and one, moreover, that had budded at a critical age of poetry. When I was twenty, our own poetry, after four centuries of magnificent production, was prey to a restless search for entirely new developments. The widest variety of forms and modes of expression was permitted, and our art was given over to every pos­sible experiment that could be suggested, by both the wish to break with the poetic systems followed till then and the positive idea of enriching it with inventions that were sometimes bizarre, born of the subtlest analyses of the stimulating powers of language. I was attracted by research of this kind. Soon I had more liking for it than was perhaps necessary merely for the making of verse. My passionate interest in the creative process itself detached me from the initial motive of works, now become a pretext, and in the end gave me a sensation of freedom toward "ideas," and of the supremacy of form over them, which satisfied my belief in the sov­ereignty of the mind over its functions. I made up my mind that thought is only an accessory to poetry and that the chief thing in a work in verse, a thing proclaimed by the very use of verse, is the whole, the power resulting from effects compounded of all the at­tributes of language. These explanations, far too personal perhaps, are intended to show that I found myself assuming an attitude of familiarity, rather shocking but inevitable, towards a work of my own trade. I might also observe that Latin verse differs much more from prose than does French verse, which grazes it and even blends too rhyme, which is unknown in "classical" Latin. French verse will stand being made from a verbal substance that does not necessarily display the musical quality of the "language of the gods." Our syl­lables follow one another without any rules requiring them to do so as harmoniously as possible. This was where Malherbe and Boi-leau erred, forgetting the essential part of their code while proscrib­ing the unfortunate hiatus, and thus sometimes making life very difficult for us and depriving us of charming effects such as the most necessary tutoiements. Only a few poets have spent their en­ergy in the search for continuous euphony in their verses, which in most cases is infrequent and almost incidental. I admit that I have attached prime importance to euphony and made great sacrifices to obtain it. I have often said: for me, since the language of the gods should be as distinct as possible from the language of men, all means of differentiating it should be retained as long as they also conduce to harmony. I am a partisan of inversions. Being imbued with these sentiments, I could not help looking at the text of the Eclogues, as I translated them, with the same crit­ical eye as at French verse, my own or another's. I may disapprove, may regret, or may admire; I may envy or delete; I may reject, erase, then rediscover, confirm my discovery, and looking on it with more favor the second time, adopt it. When an illustrious work is in question, this way of treating it by analogy may, and indeed probably does, appear naive and pre­sumptuous. I can only contend that it was quite natural for me to do so, for the reasons I have mentioned. Moreover, I thought that by thus imagining the still fluid state of a work now far beyond being merely completed, I could most feelingly share in the very life of that work, for a work dies by being completed. When a poem compels one to read it with passion, the reader feels he is momentarily its author, and that is how he knows the poem is beautiful. Finally, my illusory identification all at once dispelled the schoolroom atmosphere of boredom, the recollection of wasted hours and rigid programs that brood over those unhappy shep­herds, their flocks, and their loves (of various kinds), and which the sight of my "classic" brings back to me. I know of nothing more barbarous, pointless, and consequently more stupid than a system of education that confuses the so-called acquisition of a language with the so-called comprehension and enjoyment of a literature. Marvels of poetry or prose are droned out by children who stumble over each word, lost in a vocabulary and syntax that teach them nothing but their ignorance, whereas they know only too well that this forced labor leads to nothing and that they will abandon with relief all these great men who have been turned into instruments of torture for them and all these beauties whose too early and per­emptory acquaintance engenders, for the most part, nothing but distaste. Let us now face the Eclogues as readers tempted to play the poet. One needs some courage to be this particular poet. In age he is between a youth and a young man. He knows the pleasure of writing verse. He is already able to sing of whatever he likes; he finds a thousand "motifs" in his Italic countryside—both nurse and mother. He is its son and lives by it, body and soul. Besides being well versed in letters, he is more familiar than anyone with the people, the customs, the works and days of this very varied land, where wheat and vines are cultivated, where there are fields and marshes, wooded mountains and bare, stony patches. The elm and cypress grow there, each in its own particular majesty. There are also oaks, sometimes struck by lightning—which signifies some­thing. Moreover, the whole region is haunted or inhabited by dei­ties or divinities who each have some part to play in the strange economy of nature found in Latium, which was a singular combi­nation of the mystical and practical sides of existence. The common task of this mythical population was to animate men's relations with the products, metamorphoses, caprices and laws, benefits and hardships, regularities and irregularities they observed in the world around them. In those days nothing was inanimate, nothing was senseless and deaf unless deliberately, for those Latin peasants, who gave their real names to the springs, the woods, and the grottoes and knew how to speak to things, to invoke and adjure them and call them to witness. So between things and men there grew up an intercourse of mystery and service that we cannot call to mind without thinking: "Poetry"—thus eliminating the whole value and seriousness of this system of exchanges. But what we call Poetry is in fact only what remains to us of an epoch that knew only how to create. All poetry derives from a period of innocent creative aware­ness and has gradually emerged from a primary and spontaneous state in which thought was fiction in all its force. I fancy that this power has become progressively weaker in towns, where nature is ill received and badly treated, where fountains obey the magis­trates, nymphs have dealings with the vice squad, satyrs are looked at askance, and seasons are thwarted. Later on, the countryside also became depopulated, not only of its charming and redoubtable ghosts but also of its credulous and dreaming men. The peasant became an "agriculturist." But, to return to our poet of the year 40 B.C., it must be ad­mitted that one sings of fauns, dryads, Silenus, and Priapus more gracefully when one believes much less in their existence than in the magic of accomplished verse and in the charm of exquisitely formed figures of speech. Virgil, the small landowner—though very different from many modern ones, who are moved only by the conversion of their toil and sweat into hard cash, and who cut down a fine tree on the edge of a field as though the preservation of that magnificence were a crime against their virtuous economy—Virgil, who felt himself di­vided between the different ways of looking at the country around him, Virgil, whose view was double, sometimes invested the coun­tryside with the contentment, fears, and hopes of a man who pos­sesses and is often obsessed by the cares of the property that pro­vides him with a living. At other times a different consideration assailed him. His ambitions ceased to be rural; he was no longer a simple man; there emerged in him a polished spirit, learned in Greek refinements and attracted by subtler compositions than these songs of the artless herdsmen. He could have written an eleventh eclogue between him and himself. But then he was, or had just become, a victim of the disorders that civil war and its brutal con­sequences had brought into the orbit of his life. So: a poet, whose desire and artifices are developing, a man of the fields, yet a man threatened with expropriation and practically ruined by the exactions of the victorious soldiery, reduced to ap­pealing to the powers of the day and arranging for protectors— such is the threefold state of the author of the Eclogues. Virgil's whole poetic career was to be the most graceful development of the Latin language and its musical and plastic means in a field of polit­ical forces, with his native soil at once a foster mother, a bearer of history or legend, and a treasure house of images, furnishing him with the different pretexts, settings, episodes, and personages of his successive works. This would be a good place for a short consideration of the poet's relations with the authorities. It is a vast subject, a perennial question. If I had not so often teased History, I should suggest a thesis or treatise: "On the Relations of Poetry with Various Re­gimes or Governments." One could also conceive of a Fable in the manner of La Fontaine: "The Poet and the State," on the lines of "The Cobbler and the Financier." Or make a commentary on the famous saying of the Gospel: "Render unto Caesar," etc. This problem admits of as many solutions as the mood and state of each man, or the circumstances, suggest. There are eco­nomic solutions—for one must live. Others are of a moral order. And some are purely affective. A regime attracts either by its ma­terial perfections or by its glory and triumphs; one leader by his genius; another by his liberality, sometimes a mere smile. In other cases opposition is provoked by the state of public affairs. The man of intellect rebels more or less openly or shuts himself up in a work that secretes a kind of intellectual insulation about his sensibility. In fact, every type can be observed. Racine adores his King. Chdn-ier curses his tyrants. Hugo goes into exile. Corneille begs proudly. Goethe prefers injustice to disorder. Majesty dazzles. Authority im­presses. Freedom intoxicates. Anarchy terrifies. Personal interest speaks with its powerful voice. One must not forget, either, that every individual distinguished by his talents places himself in his heart among a certain aristocracy. Whether he wishes it or not, he cannot confuse himself with the masses, and this unavoidable feel­ing has the most various consequences. He notices that democracy, egalitarian in its essence, is incapable of pensioning a poet. Or else, judging the men in power and the men dominated by these, he despises both but feels the temptation to appear in politics himself and to take part in the conduct of affairs. This temptation is not infrequent among lyric poets. It is remarkable that the purest of human occupations, that of taming and elevating beings by song, as Orpheus did, should so often lead to coveting the impurest of occupations. What is one to think? There are examples of every­thing, since we are speaking of History. . . . Virgil cannot stand disorder and exactions. He sees himself plundered, torn from his home, deprived of his means of existence by measures of political expediency. He sees a threat to his leisure to be himself and to become what he dreams of—that most pre­cious possession, that treasure of free time, rich in latent beauties that he is sure of bringing forth. He sees no further. How should one expect him not to welcome the favors of a tyrant, not to sing of the man who assures him peaceful days and thus restores his reason for living? Ludere quae vellem calamo permisit agresti Virgil did not hesitate between the independence of the citizen and that of the creator of poems. Perhaps he did not even think that he was sacrificing anything in professing to praise Caesar, even to dei­fying him: Erit ille semper deus . . . Just imagine all the sentences that could be written for or against that attitude, according as one judged as a modern or took account of the relativity of feelings and circumstances. In those days there was yet no question of the Rights of Man. The problem of conscience that might be introduced here, in­soluble though it is, becomes particularly interesting if it is trans­formed into a problem of values. If the submission to a despot, the acceptance of his favors, which degenerates into, or reveals itself in, expressions of gratitude and praise, is a condition of the pro­duction of works of the first order, what is one to decide, to do, to think? This problem is hardly introduced before it develops into endless arguments. I shall take care not to enter upon them.
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