‘Hope like a wisp of straw…’

 

Claude Monet: Haystack. End of the Summer. Morning.

Claude Monet: Haystack. End of the Summer. Morning.

Hope like a wisp of straw shines in the stable.

Why do you fear the crazed flight of the drunken wasp?

See, still the powdered sunlight shows in some recess.

Why didn’t you sleep, your elbow on the table?

 

Poor soul, drink at least this frozen water

From the well. Then sleep. There, see, I’ll stay

And cradle the dreams in your sleep,

And you’ll coo like a cradled child.

 

Midday strikes. I beg of you madame, go.

He’s asleep. It’s startling how women’s feet

Send echoes through the heads of poor unhappy men.

 

Midday strikes. I’ve had water sprinkled round the room.

Go on, sleep. Hope shines like a stone in a hollow.

Ah, when will September roses flower again?

 

Martin Sorrell 1999

From ‘Six French Poets of the Nineteenth Century’, Oxford World’s

 

Here is a wonderful poem by the French poet, Paul Verlaine. Verlaine is known to English readers as much for his life as for his poetry: abandoning his wife and child, Verlaine ran off with a young Rimbaud for a long tempestuous affair in England and France, which culminated in Verlaine shooting Rimbaud in a jealous drunken rage, for which he spent some time in prison, where he completed the collection of which this poem is a part. He’s also known as a heavy drinker of Absinthe, a vice of which his later conversion to Catholicism apparently did not cure him.

Martin Sorrell’s translations are faithful to Verlaine’s originals (this is even apparent to someone, like me, with only school-boy French and a dual language edition). He does not attempt to keep recreate the rhyme of the French poems, so some of the sense of craft of the originals is lost, but this allows him to use precisely translated phrases and words, to the extent that a translation can be precise. After you have had a look at Sorrell’s, try looking at Gertrude Hall’s – which uses rhyme but has, I think, a very different tone from Sorrell’s.

Like a French impressionist painting, this poem is both blurry and indistinct and deeply evocative. The very first line carries the suggestion of a dab of light on an otherwise darkish painting – a streak of yellow on a man’s face as the door opens and someone comes in to see him, or else a candle flickering. That ‘wisp of straw’ – brin de paille – gives this hope the connotation of the brittleness and poverty that we associate with straw.

The speaker, the characters and even the setting are imprecise. I imagine a sick bed, a man lying poorly, and a woman who fleetingly comes to see him. We form glimpses of the room rather than see a coherent picture of it – that glimmer of light, a wasp circling madly – as if the poorly man is only vaguely aware of these things. There is more that we don’t know: is the man physically ill, or mentally worn out? Is this his wife or lover?

There are snatches of dialogue too: two questions in the first stanza and the comforting words of the second. Is this the woman, perhaps, soothing the poorly man – is she saying these words out loud or merely thinking them, or is he imagining her saying them. In the third stanza, the tone changes, and perhaps the speaker too: who is telling the woman to leave? Is this her own internal voice, or is it his? Or is it Verlaine’s watching, or is it God? In the last stanza, it seems to be the woman talking again, but to whom is she talking? We can’t quite know, and yet it doesn’t really matter.

From these glimpses and snatches of speech we piece together a scene… though there is much that remains unknown, the emotional effect is powerful.

My favourite line comes at the end of the third stanza: It’s startling how women’s feet send echoes through the heads of poor unhappy men. If the first two stanzas have formed an impression of a present scene, this third hints at problems in the man’s past.

The last stanza concerns the future, albeit uncertainly. That water around the room – that’s the woman freshening the place up, right? But it’s also ominously redolent of the last rites. There is a different simile to describe hope, but one that again makes us think of death – something buried in the ground or a chamber (there are religious echoes here too – this reminds us of the cave in which Jesus was buried, just as the stable’s straw evokes His birth). The last line expresses – even if unconsciously – a yearning for rebirth, but it is phrased as a question – will the sick man be around to see September? Is his wish for the coming of autumn a wish for the passing of the feverish light, an unconscious yearning for the relief that sleep (a word repeated throughout the poem) brings, or that death brings?

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