The shadows beckon,
Pledging no expectation
The shadows beckon,
Pledging no expectation
This post is in response to a comment and question left by the translator Steve Rawcliffe at my prior post on Eve, a poem written by Charles Peguy. Mr. Rawcliffe was looking for feedback on and examples of a translation of one of the most quoted quatrains from the poem.
In the French, the section reads:
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour la terre charnelle,
Mais pourvu que ce fût dans une juste guerre.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour quatre coins de terre.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts d’une mort solennelle.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts dans les grandes batailles,
Couchés dessus le sol à la face de Dieu.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts sur un dernier haut lieu,
Parmi tout l’appareil des grandes funérailles.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour des cités charnelles.
Car elles sont le corps de la cité de Dieu.
Heureux ceux qui sont morts pour leur âtre et leur feu,
Et les pauvres honneurs des maisons paternelles.
I am only aware of two previous attempts to translate this section, and Peguy generally, into English. Both occurred in the mid-20th century. I’m not sure whether this is a reflection more on Peguy’s obscurity in the English speaking world or the state of modern poetry.
The excerpt below is free verse translation of this section by Julien and Anne Greene, from their book Basic Verities, which includes samples from many of Peguy’s works. This book is out of print, but Cluny Media (the subject of my next post), will be reissuing it soon.
Blessed are those who died for carnal earth
Provided it was in a just war.
Blessed are those who died for a plot of ground.
Blessed are those who died a solemn death.
Blessed are those who died in great battles.
Stretched out on the ground in the face of God.
Blessed are those who died on a final high place,
Amid all the pomp of grandiose funerals.
Blessed are those who died for carnal cites.
For they are the body of the city of God.
Blessed are those who died for their hearth and fire,
And the lowly honors of their father’s house.
The other version is a formal verse translation by Lady Lamb, which was included in The Mysteries of the Holy Innocents and Other Poems (this was reissued just this year by Wipf). Lady Lamb translated several excerpts of Eve, in addition to a translation of the poem named in the title. She largely preserves Peguy’s paired rhyme scheme and the 12 syllable Alexandrine structure.
Happy are they who die for a temporal land,
When a just war calls, and they obey and go forth,
Happy are they who die for a handful of earth,
Happy are they who die in so noble a band.
Happy are they who die in their country’s defence,
Lying outstretched before God with upturned faces.
Happy are they who die in those last high places,
Such funeral rites have a great magnificence.
Happy are they who die for their cities of earth,
They are the outward forms of the City above.
Happy are they who die for their fire and their hearth,
Their father’s house and its humble honour and love.
Mr. Rawcliffe shared his version of the first quatrain:
Happy are those who die for this our carnal earth,
But let their death have been in a war that was just.
Happy are those who die for four corners of dust.
Happy are those who die removed from wit or mirth.
Mr. Rawcliffe, your version seems to be a very faithful translation (except for the last line, as you note), arguably more faithful than Lady Lamb’s. I have observed that in some of her other translations of Eve that she seems to sacrifice accuracy in order to preserve the rhyme scheme and meter. This is not a criticism, as I was forced to do the same in my version in a fair number of places. Your effort sounds fine to my untrained ear. I doubt that the rhythm could be duplicated in English for any length without a superhuman effort.
I find it difficult to advise you much beyond this, as I am not a professional translator (Eve was my first attempt) or fluent in French. The only alternative that came to me, and this may sound very odd, is to change the last line to:
“Happy are those who die through a solemn rebirth.”
In the Christian faith, death is sometimes compared to a second birth, or being born into the next life, Heaven. And maybe “rebirth” connects in a way with the word “carnal” from the first line of the quatrain, with its association with flesh and sexuality? This keeps the rhyme scheme and the 12 syllable meter. But I think your version is perfectly acceptable, and its often best to go with our original instinct in these matters.
Personally, I am partial to formal verse, yet Eve is just so long that I think it would take a large team of dedicated translators to put together a complete, respectable version that mimics Peguy’s form. It may be easier (and saner) for someone to attempt a free verse version that both accurately conveys the meaning and has a pleasing rhythm.
Thank you very much for sharing your translation and comments. Good luck with your project.
Every womb is holy.
I have made it so.
I am born anew with every soul.
My Father’s temple stood in Jerusalem long ago.
His presence dwelled in the inner room,
Shielded by the temple veil.
The temple fell, but lives again in the womb
Of every woman, a Holy Grail.
So be modest, and guard this font of birth,
This chamber of my sons and daughters,
My Church here on Earth.
“Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics,” said my friend.
But the body politic is not my body.
I am the Mystical Body, the E Pluribus Unum,
A heavenly internationale of brotherhood.
I am the head and your people are my bones, flesh and blood.
They are the sign of my kingdom to come.
As I wait, I listen to your hymn, a divine prelude,
Of endless skies and graceful harvests.
You are my brave little solider, forged for a purpose.
A nation of Joans that fear the fires,
Yet always answers honor’s summons.
Heed only my word, and do not listen to the flames.
But you are mischievous children,
Stealing my praise and carving it on coins,
Playing like caesars, while you play innocent with me.
You would eat your cake and keep it too if I let you!
You are a sign of contradiction, a teacher’s pet,
Strutting about in your coat of many colors,
Proclaiming my commands,
While forgetting your lessons.
I know all your tricks, my clever copycats.
You plucked my eyes for your stars,
And drank my blood and water for your stripes.
(My back was striped too)
When you leave me for those cold toys,
I grow angry, but then you surprise me,
By running back with great hot tears,
And my love I cannot deny thee.
You are my last child, the one that stayed young
For so long.
Do not forget me as you grow old…
…if you must age, but do not grow cold.
For your gates are mine, you poor, miserable ones.
I would free you from sin to see and breathe my glory.
I am standing at your door and knocking,
But only the flame bearing virgin is there to greet me.
Yet your mercy is a bother to all the world.
While the elder brothers seek your death,
You give scandal and stay the sword hand.
I love this shameful weakness best.
So there will always be a room in my unruly house for you.
And a place at my table, my darling child.
When I ring the bell, I hear your running feet from a long way off.
I will come out to meet you and gather you inside.
There I long to hear you pray the blessing,
The words you know by heart.
My youngest child of the nations, forget me not,
And never shall we part.
“I am a sinner, but there is no sin in my work.” – Charles Péguy
This guy. But since he was French, he might have been this “Guy.” But rather, his name is Charles Péguy.
Be careful with this guy, cause if you read him, you might actually start writing poetry. I know nothing about poetry, but after reading him, I was inspired to write some of my own. As I said, I know nothing about poetry, but some people who do think he might be the best Catholic poet of the last few hundred years. Those who like Gerard Manley Hopkins would probably disagree. Hopkins was a genius, and smart people who truly understand poetry can explain why he was. I am not a genius or a poet, so don’t ask me to explain Hopkins.
Péguy perhaps was a peasant genius. He wrote in free verse, with little to no rhyme or consistent meter. His poems were long, used simple vocabulary, and much repetition. If this were Seinfeld, he would be Charles Festivus, the “Poet for the Rest of Us”, the 99%. His work is accessible.
But he is largely unknown right now.
Why? He had too much integrity. He came from very modest beginnings, and when he grew older became a socialist and agnostic. He was a very much a defender of Dreyfus, a famous French Jew wrongly accused of treason. However, he fell out with most of his friends on the Left over time due to what he perceived as their pursuit of political advantage over the truth. “Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics” is a famous quote of his.
He came to occupy a lonely place, neither trusted nor wanted by the Left or the Right. He was a patriot, and a French nationalist, and his basic politics was one of solidarity with the common man. Unfortunately for his reputation, and despite his defense of Dreyfus, the fascists of the 30s and 40s later tried to claim him as a patron for their twisted politics. And when you put God first, you eventually realize that there is no ideology or political party that can really express what you want. So you hang there, suspended between two thieves, one on the right and another on the left.
But he had integrity, and so when the Great War came, he enlisted, even though he was 41 years old, married and his wife pregnant with their fourth child. He was a little guy too. Because while he was a French nationalist and a patriot, he was not going to let some 18 and 19-year-old kids do the dying for him. And so he died for them, leading from the front, shot through the forehead in 1914.
But the politics are less interesting than the faith. When he married he did not believe, but by 1908 he had come back to the Catholic faith of his baptism. But his wife was an atheist, and refused to allow their children to be baptized. And because he was not married in the Church, his conscience did not allow him to receive the Sacraments, ever. And out of solidarity with his family, he did not go to Mass. But that did not stop him from making a forty mile pilgrimage on foot to the Cathedral of Chartres in thanks to Our Lady when his son recovered from an illness. Integrity.
A man in such a situation can get lonely. And you might find yourself falling in love with the young Jewish girl (and she with you) who works at your literary journal. But a man with integrity doesn’t have an affair. Instead, like Péguy , you play matchmaker and find her a husband.
All this pain and sadness generated great diamond tears of words, a series of poems and plays written during the five years before his death. Much of it is out of print, of course, because that’s the way things are right now. The real treasures of the past have to be unearthed. I am going to copy a few excerpts of his poems in some future posts (My understanding of U.S law is that there is no copyright for the works of foreign authors who died before 1923).
Oh yes, his family … His wife converted after he died, and had their children baptized. As it will always be, a man and father will die for the sake of his people.