Spleen – Spleen – Spleen

During her fascinating talk about the interdisciplinary nature of Decadence at our event in Oxford, Professor Jane Desmarais (Chair of the British Association of Decadence Studies) raised a question that struck a chord with everyone in the room: given the importance to the movement of a French poet like Paul Verlaine, she asked, how do you teach his work to students who may only be able to read in one language? Translations, like the work of Arthur Symons discussed in a previous blogpost, have an important role to play here. But could there be a risk that we substitute translations for the original?

In my own teaching I try to get round this by presenting students with more than one version of the same poem. Here, for example, is the first four lines of Verlaine’s short poem, ‘Spleen’, which is only twelve lines in total.

Paul Verlaine – Source wikipedia

Les roses étaient toutes rouges,

Et les lierres étaient tout noirs.


Chère, pour peu que tu te bouges,

Renaissent tous mes désespoirs.

Symons’ version of these lines is fairly plain:

The roses were all red,

The ivy was all black:

Dear, if you turn your head,

All my despairs come back.

The only liberty here is the translation of ‘renaissent’ (are reborn) as ‘come back’. Otherwise, Symons follows Verlaine’s word order and offers a more or less literal version of the original lines. Compare this, however, with the version that his contemporary, John Gray published in his collection Silverpoints (1893):

John Gray – Source: Wikipedia

Around were all the roses red,

The ivy all around was black.


Dear, so thou only move thine head.

Shall all mine old despairs awake!

In contrast with Symons, Gray adopts a more complex syntax and word order, shifting between ‘Around were all’ and ‘all around was’. I think he was aiming to emulate here the modulation in Verlaine’s poem between ‘toutes’ and ‘tout’: although these adjectives both mean ‘all’, they differ in spelling because they have to agree with the gender of the nouns they describe. And this has to be sounded out in the rhythm of the poem: the rules of French prosody demand that ‘toutes’ be pronounced ‘tout – eh’. In other words, Gray’s rendition seeks to translate some of the music of the original poem.

The front cover of John Gray’s Silverpoints (1893), designed by Charles Ricketts. A copy can be consulted in Special Collections at the University of Glasgow Library

Gray’s unusual choice of word order (‘around were all’) is significant too. In The Translator’s Invisibility, the critic Lawrence Venuti argues that translators have a moral and political duty to ‘foreignise’ in their work – to remind the reader that they are reading a text that originated in another language. And this seems to be what Gray is doing. His word order and unusual vocabulary choices (‘mine old despairs’) create an artificial, even stilted tone that tugs at the reader’s ear.

Gray’s stylistic choices work as a reminder that we are reading a work in translation; but they also allude to the nature of decadence itself. His translation performs for us the kind of refined, artificial sensibility that is intrinsic to decadence.

These may seem like minor points, but this is only a short poem. Its atmosphere is intimate and febrile: the title, ‘spleen’ points to the breakdown of the despairing relationship sketched in these opening lines. Small details acquire greater significance in a short work like this, which is, perhaps, one reason why I’ve found it such a useful tool in my teaching. Comparing Gray and Symons not only reveals the subjective nature of translation (no version is right or final), it also draws us into close consideration of the sounds and poetics of Decadence itself.

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