Friday, 27 May 2011

Romances of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore

One of the most celebrated poets of 19th century French literature, an inspiration to Baudelaire and the whole symbolist movement in poetry, I would like to share my translations of some of the romantic poetry of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore: actress, poet, writer and great lady of letters, born just before the French Revolution. Only a handful of her poems seem to have been translated and published before in English, and only the first of the following as far as I can tell (see here for a lovely alternative translation, blog and photos of the poet), but that is sure to change in the coming years because the omission is so glaring. Having said that, it is understandable that they haven't been translated: her poems are often songs and indeed many were written set to music, so it isn't easy to capture their spirit and the playful language and rhyming. We can but do our best!

These were all written in the early 1800s. If you click on the titles, they link to the original French. I'd love to hear which ones you like, suggested improvements, corrections etc.

Separated Hearts

Don’t write. I’m sad and pensive, burning up my fire.
Bright summers without you are like a darkened room.
My arms clasped tight again, but not with their desire.
Beating at my heart is like beating at a tomb.
          Do not write!

Don’t write. Let us learn only to die to our flame.
Ask but God… ask but yourself, if I loved you!
Plunged into your absence, to know you feel the same
Is to hear of heaven, yet never climb there too.
          Do not write!

Don’t write. I fear your presence, lest my memory sink
So long she kept your voice, so often she recalls.
Don’t take me to the fountainhead where I can’t drink
The living portrait painted by a lover’s scrawls.
          Do not write!

Don’t write those sweet words which I dare no longer read
I feel your voice smothering them over my heart
And burnished across your smile, engulfing my need.
It seems that every kiss would stamp them on my heart.
          Do not write!

Confession Allowed

Come, my dear Olivier, I have three words to say to you
My mother has allowed it, she said they’d bring you joy.
Well, I dare no longer, but tell me, can you read?
My mother has allowed it, look into my eyes.

Here you see my downcast eyes. God! how I’m confused!
My cheeks have gone red. Can you see, it’s because I’m shy.
My mother has allowed it; you will be excused;
While I’m blushing, put your hand upon my heart.

How your air of worry torments and touches me!
These three words are so delicate! my heart says them so well!
You do not understand? take them then on my mouth;
I’ll close my eyes, take, but don’t talk to me about them.


First Love

Do you remember that young friend
With tender eyes, her expression wise and sweet?
Almost, alas! at the spring of her life,
Her heart feeling that it was made for you.

About to make a confession, about to make an empty promise,
Still so young, one knows them not.
Her soul pure and drunk with passion
Delivering itself without shame or struggle.

She lost her darling idol.
Happiness so sweet lasted but a day!
She is no more at the spring of her life.
She is already in love for the first time.


The Waking    ...a better rhyming translation in my next post!

On this bed of reeds, can I fall asleep again?
I feel the fragrant air surrounding your body.
Your mouth is a flower whose perfume devours:
Come closer, oh my treasure! and burn only me.
          Wake up! Wake yourself up!

But this breath of love, this kiss that I long for
On your lips, I still dare not relish it
With your heart’s consent, my life would double
Your sleep goes on, because of you I’m dying.
          I dare not relish it.

Come under the banana trees, we shall find some shade.
The birds will sing at the sight of our lovers’ play
The sun is jealous, it hides itself behind a cloud
And it is in your eyes only that I seek the day.
          Come set alight my love.

No, no you sleep no more, you share my flame
Your kisses are the honey that produces our blossom
Your heart lets out a sigh; will you come look for my spirit?
Here it is on my mouth; it would dry out your tears.
          Hide me under blossom.


To Poetry

O sweet Poetry!
Covered in flowers and lace
The sad dream
That makes tears run down my face;
My tender soul
Hurts still with its deceit.
I want to wait no more
For my amorous pleasures.

Give to the lines of my lyre
A good-natured colour,
Your grace to my madness,
Your charm to my heartache.
Would that the dark cloud
That cloaks my destiny
Flee like a shadow
At your divine sign.

Be ever attentive
To my mournful songs;
With a fearful modesty
Sheathe my confessions.
Hide that burning Error
That threatens my happiness:
But, O God! how slow she is
To leave my heart.


  1. Firstly and most importantly, I applaud you for such a great effort, I have tried to translate some poems from estonian myself and I know what a heart-ache it is, when you know and feel the difference and that which inevitable gets lost, for its so difficult to translate. And to keep the rhyme, I am not a strict lover of rhyme but I noticed that the original was quite strictly structured and rhymed, well done on the first poem to keep it the same.
    Anyway it was a nice discovery, never heard of this poet before. Thanks.

  2. Rhyming has a real danger of losing the lightness of touch of the words. And it takes longer... So I tried at the beginning, but then just wanted to convey the spirit for the other poems. The Waking especially reminded me of your selections by Neruda which you posted. Is it just me, or just the subject matter? Maybe a bit more shy than Neruda though:)

  3. They say the signs of a good poet is to have you feel what they want you too even if you have not experienced it. Not just understamd it. I think she has done well in these examples.

    I do applaud you as well for the translation.
    I was not aware of her but I will look for more now. Thank you for the share

  4. You're welcome, and you'll be hard pressed to find more! (unless you look in French) Even her name is really difficult for me to remember, lol.

    I think a lot of her poems have a quite similar theme and melancholic air. She fell in love and had a child with someone who then left her but she still loved him (and then I think her child died also later). The song "First Love" is almost like a mini-autobiography. The last line says literally "she is already in love for the first time", but the implication seems to be "she has already been in love for the first time" as if she hasn't caught up yet with the turn of events, or maybe the love is for her child? I don't quite understand it...

    And regarding translating into rhyme, perhaps with more "effort", these could be turned into rhyming verse like the originals, in which case translating naturally seems to be a useful stepping stone regardless. It's going to be hard like I was saying earlier for the results not to be awkward. A good example:

    fleurs-douleurs-pleurs ...rhyming words French poets love

    You need to have a tricky imagination to turn these back into rhymes!
    e.g. I tried "flowers and lace" rhyming with "tears run down my face"
    for a one-off rhyme in the last poem, even though this wasn't completely literal. To keep repeating the feat, you risk writing a new poem almost. And yet sometimes you get lucky and everything works out easily.

  5. Two things... I managed to get her name wrong in my original blog - this is now corrected!

    And secondly, I have a revised rhyming translation of "The Waking" which I've made a video of in my next post, and I think and hope you will all really enjoy it!!!