Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of Verlaine

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of VerlaineIt’s been just over a year since I published Selected Poems of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, and it’s actually not been a bad little seller. Of course, it doesn’t sell as many copies as Quincy Lehr’s Heimat or Heidi Czerwiec’s Self-Portrait as Bettie Page, but every now and then, someone randomly buys it, which is probably because, as far as I know, it is the only book-length publication containing English verse translations of 18 of Marceline Desbordes-Valmore poems.

I probably haven’t done enough to support or publicize this brave and scholarly little book, partly out of modesty and partly out of an ineptitude with social media which was somewhat rectified by Don Lafferty’s workshop at the recent Philadelphia Writers’ Workshop.

To promote the book, of course, is also to promote awareness of the poet herself outside of her native France, where she has long been revered, and it is for that additional reason that I thought I would publish here on my blog the essay on Desbordes-Valmore included as part of my introduction to the poems (in my own translation) which was originally written by Paul Verlaine and included in his landmark book Les Poètes Maudits (French Edition).

(The footnotes are included, but some of them refer to my own complete verse translations which appear in the book. If you’re curious, well, you will just have to buy it, won’t you?)

Marceline Desbordes-Valmore, Translation of Verlaine

In spite of the effect of a few articles, one very detailed by the marvelous Sainte-Beuve[i], the other perhaps, dare we say it? a little too short by Baudelaire, even in spite of a kind of good public opinion which does not compare her totally with the distant Louise Collet, Amable Tastu, Anais Segalas and other unimportant blue stockings, (we are forgetting Loisa Puget, in addition, it would seem she can be amusing, for those who like that sort of thing), Marceline Desbordes-Valmore has deserved, through her seeming yet absolute obscurity, to be placed among our Accursed Poets, and from henceforth it seems to us to be essential to speak of her in as much length and detail as possible.

In the past, M. Barbey d’Aurevilly[ii] has brought her out of the ranks and pointed out, with that strange skill he possesses, her own strangeness, and the genuine, if feminine, ability that she had.

As for us, notwithstanding our interest in good or beautiful poetry, we were ignorant of her, contenting ourselves with the word of the masters, when Arthur Rimbaud, to be precise, got to know us and practically forced us to read everything that we believed to be a jumble with some beauty within.

Our vast astonishment needs some time to explain.

First of all Marceline Desbordes-Valmore was actually from the North and not from the South of France, a distinction one was not aware of. What is believed to be from the North is usually thought well of (The sunny South of France is even better, but this kind of better can above all be the enemy of the genuine,)—and this pleases us because we are believed to be from the North too, in the end!

Next, she is no pedant and has a good enough use of language, along with expending enough effort so that she does not show herself up as a mere businesswoman. Quotations will provide evidence of this self-asserted wisdom.

While we are waiting for them, can we revisit this total absence of the South of France in this relatively large body of work? And besides that, understand as passionately as possible her Spanish North, (but doesn’t Spain have a composure, an arrogance, even colder than Britain’s?) Her North

Où vinrent s’asseoir les ferventes Espagnes.[iii]

Yes, none of that grandiloquence, none of that fakeness, none of that bad faith which one must disparage among the most obvious work from across the Loire. And nevertheless it’s all so warm—these romances of her youth, these memories of womanhood, these maternal fears! And gentle, and sincere, and everything! What landscapes, what love of landscapes!! And though this love is chaste and discreet, it is nevertheless fierce and moving!

We have said that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore’s language was good enough, it has to be said that it is very much good enough; only we ourselves are such purists, such pedants, that we must add, before someone calls us decadent, (an insult to take on the chin, between parentheses, during a picturesque sunset in fall) that a certain naïveté without any stylistic ingenuity could occasionally awaken our literary prejudices which aim at perfection. The truth of our reassessment will be brought to light in the course of the quotations we are going to produce.

Still the chaste yet fierce passion that we have pointed out, the almost excessive emotion that we have praised, mean it needs to be said, without overstatement, no! after a somber reading of our first paragraphs from the necessity of being conscientious, that we support their opinion of her.

And here is the proof:

Une Lettre de Femme[iv]


Les femmes, je le sais, ne doivent pas écrire ;

J’écris pourtant,

Afin que dans mon coeur au loin tu puisses lire

Comme en partant.


Je ne tracerai rien qui ne soit dans toi-même

Beaucoup plus beau :

Mais le mot cent fois dit, venant de ce qu’on aime,

Semble nouveau.


Qu’il te porte au bonheur ! Moi, je reste à l’attendre,

Bien que, là-bas,

Je sens que je m’en vais, pour voir et pour entendre

Errer tes pas.


Ne te détourne point s’il passe une hirondelle

Par le chemin,

Car je crois que c’est moi qui passerai, fidèle,

Toucher ta main.


Tu t’en vas, tout s’en va ! Tout se met en voyage,

Lumière et fleurs,

Le bel été te suit, me laissant à l’orage,

Lourde de pleurs.


Mais si l’on ne vit plus que d’espoir et d’alarmes,

Cessant de voir,

Partageons pour le mieux : moi, je retiens les larmes,

Garde l’espoir.


Non, je ne voudrais pas, tant je te suis unie,

Te voir souffrir :

Souhaiter la douleur à sa moitié bénie,

C’est se haïr.


Isn’t this divine? But wait!

Jour d’Orient [v]


Ce fut un jour pareil à ce beau jour

Que, pour tout perdre, incendiait l’amour !


C’était un jour de charité divine

Où dans l’air bleu l’éternité chemine ;

Où dérobée à son poids étouffant

La terre joue et redevient enfant ;

C’était partout comme un baiser de mère,

Long rêve errant dans une heure éphémère ;

Heure d’oiseaux, de parfums, de soleil,

D’oubli de tout… hors du bien sans pareil.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Ce fut un jour pareil à ce beau jour

Que, pour tout perdre, incendiait l’amour !


We must restrain ourselves, and keep our quotations for a different purpose.

And, before moving onto to the strictest test of sublimity, if it is allowed to speak thus of a part of the work of this adorable sweet woman, let us, literally with tears in our eyes, recite this from her pen:

Renoncement [vi]

Pardonnez-moi, Seigneur, mon visage attristé,

Vous qui l’aviez formé de sourire et de charmes ;

Mais sous le front joyeux vous aviez mis les larmes,

Et de vos dons, Seigneur, ce don seul m’est resté.


C’est le mois envié, c’est le meilleur peut-être :

Je n’ai plus à mourir à mes liens de fleurs ;

Ils vous sont tous rendus, cher auteur de mon être,

Et je n’ai plus à moi que le sel de mes pleurs.


Les fleurs sont pour l’enfant ; le sel est pour la femme ;

Faites-en l’innocence et trempez-y mes jours.

Seigneur ! quand tout ce sel aura lavé mon âme,

Vous me rendrez un coeur pour vous aimer toujours !


Tous mes étonnements sont finis sur la terre,

Tous mes adieux sont faits, l’âme est prête à jaillir,

Pour atteindre à ses fruits protégés de mystère

Que la pudique mort a seule osé cueillir,


O Sauveur ! soyez tendre au moins à d’autres mères,

Par amour pour la vôtre et par pitié pour nous !

Baptisez leurs enfants de nos larmes amères,

Et relevez les miens tombés à vos genoux !


How this sadness transcends that of Olympio[vii] and “To Olympio,”[viii] however beautiful (especially the last) these two overly proud poems may be! But, dear readers, forgive us, on the threshold of other sanctuaries within this church of a hundred chapels, for chanting with you after us:

Que mon nom ne soit rien qu’une ombre douce et vaine,

Qu’il ne cause jamais ni l’effroi ni la peine !

Qu’un indigent l’emporte après m’avoir parlé

Et le garde longtemps dans son coeur consolé !


Have you forgiven us?


And now, let us turn to the mother, the daughter, the young daughter, and the troubled but deeply devout Christian that was the poet Marceline Desbordes-Valmore.



We have said that we shall try to speak of the poet in all her aspects.

Let us proceed in order, and, we are sure you will be pleased with this, using as many examples as possible. Therefore here to begin with are some abusively long specimens by the young romantic girl from 1820, like a better Parny[ix], in a form scarcely different, yet nevertheless developing in an entirely different manner.


Qu’est-ce donc qui me trouble, et qu’est-ce que j’attends ?

Je suis triste à la ville, et m’ennuie au village ;

Les plaisirs de mon âge

Ne peuvent me sauver de la longueur du temps.


Autrefois l’amitié, les charmes de l’étude

Remplissaient sans effort mes paisibles loisirs.

Oh ! quel est donc l’objet de mes vagues désirs ?

Je l’ignore, et le cherche avec inquiétude.

Si pour moi le bonheur n’était pas la gaîté,

Je ne le trouve plus dans ma mélancolie ;

Mais, si je crains les pleurs autant que la folie,

Où trouver la félicité ?

.           .           .           .           .           .           .


Next she addresses her “Reason”, commanding and renouncing it at the same time, very gently! Above the rest, we admire for our part this monologue in the manner of Corneille[xi] which seems more tender than Racine but dignified and proud in the style of both great poets though with a whole other angle.

Among a thousand sweetnesses occasionally soppy, but never dull and always astonishing, we beg you during this rapid examination to look at several isolated lines with the aim of tempting you to read the entire thing.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Cache-moi ton regard plein d’âme et de tristesse[xii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

On ressemble au plaisir sous un chapeau de fleurs[xiii]

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Inexplicable cœur, énigme pour toi-même[xiv]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Dans ma sécurité tu ne vois qu’un delire[xv]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

.                 .                 . Trop faible esclave, écoute,

Ecoute et ma raison te pardonne et t’absout.

Rends-lui du moins les pleurs! Tu vas céder sans doute?

Hélas non! toujours non! O mon cœur, prends donc tout![xvi]


As for “The Lost Prayer,” the poem from which these last few lines are taken, we are making honorable amends for just a moment on account of the word “sweet” which we have over-used. With Marceline Desbordes-Valmore one hardly knows what one should say or not say, this genius troubles you so deliciously, enchanting even the sorcerer himself!

If anything about passion has been as well-expressed as by the best elegies, it’s indeed this, or we don’t want to know anything more about it.

And of the pure friendships and at the same time chaste loves of this tender and haughty woman, how can one describe them well enough except to offer the advice to read her complete work? Listen once again to these two short excerpts:

Les Deux Amours[xvii]


C’était l’amour plus folâtre que tender;

D’un trait sans force il effleura mon cœur;

Il fut léger comme un riant mensonge.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Il offrit le plaisir sans parler de Bonheur.[xviii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

C’est dans tes yeux que je vis l’autre amour[xix]

.           .           .           .           .           .           .

Cet entier oubli de soi-même,

Ce besoin d’aimer pour aimer

Et que le mot aimer semble a peine exprimer

Ton cœur seul le renferme et le mien le devine.

Je sens à tes transports, à ma fidélité,

Qu’il veut dire a la fois Bonheur, éternité,

Et que sa puissance est divine.[xx]
Les deux amitiés[xxi]


Il est deux Amitiés comme il est deux Amours.

L’une ressemble à l’imprudence ;

C’est une enfant qui rit toujours.
And in charming manner it describes divinely the friendship of two little girls. Then,

L’autre Amitié, plus grave, plus austère,

Se donne avec lenteur, choisit avec mystère ;[xxii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Elle écarte les fleurs, de peur de s’y blesser.[xxiii]

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Elle voit par ses yeux et marche sur ses pas :

Elle attend, et ne prévient pas.[xxiv]


Here is the serious note.




Alas, how discontented we will be, once we have finished this study. What pleasant and local marvels! What scenery of Arras and Douai![xxv] What banks of the Scarpe! How sweet and somewhat odd (we hear ourselves and you understand us) these young Albertines, these Ines, these Ondines, this Laly Galine,[xxvi] these exquisite “my beautiful country, my fresh birthplace, pure air of my green homeland, be well, sweet center of the universe.”

However we must keep our poor examination of a truly great poet within the fair (or unfair) limits that cold logic imposes on the desired size of our little book. But—but! What a shame to confine ourselves to only quoting fragments like these, written well before Lamartine[xxvii] burst forth and which are, we insist on it, like a chaste and peaceful Parny!

Dieu! qu’il est tard! quelle surprise!

Le temps a fui comme un éclair;

Douze fois l’heure a frappé l’air.

Et près de toi je suis encore assise ;

Et, loin de pressentir le moment du sommeil.

Je croyais voir encore un rayon de soleil !


Se peut-il que déjà l’oiseau dorme au bocage?

Ah ! pour dormir il fait si beau !

.               .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Garde-toi d’éveiller notre chien endormi ;

Il méconnaîtrait son ami,

Et de mon imprudence il instruirait ma mère.

.                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .                 .

Écoute la raison, va-t’en. Laisse ma main !

Il est minuit…[xxviii]


Is it pure, this “let go of my hand,” is it romantic, this “it is midnight,” after this ray of light that she thinks she still sees!


Let us, even as we sigh, leave the young girl. We saw the woman at the start of this, what a woman! Such a friend! The poem on the death of Madame de Girardin![xxix]


La mort vient de fermer les plus beaux yeux du monde.[xxx]


The mother!


Quand j’ai gronde mon fils je me cache et je pleure.[xxxi]


And when this son goes to college, it requires an agonized scream, doesn’t it?

Candeur de mon enfant, comme on va vous detruire[xxxii]

The least ignored works by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore are her adorable fables, unluckily for her, which are after the manner of bitter old La Fontaine[xxxiii] and the nicer Florian[xxxiv]:

Un tout petit enfant s’en allait a l’école;

On avait dit: allez! Il tachait d’obéir.[xxxv]


And “The Little Fraidy Cat” and “The Little Liar!”


Oh we beg you, stop with these dull and affected niceties!


Si mon enfant m’aime,[xxxvi]


sings “The Sleeper,” which we want to call here “The Lullaby,” since this would be a much better title.


Dieu dira lui-même:

J’aime cet enfant qui dort.

Qu’on lui porte un rêve d’or.[xxxvii]


But, noting that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore—the first poet of her age to do so—used to great effect uncommon rhythms such as eleven syllable lines, among others, and that she was a great artist without being too self-conscious and so much the better for that, let us resume our admiration with this fantastic poem.


[Verlaine here quotes the entire French text of “Les Sanglots” (“The Tears”), which can be found in full and with translation starting on page 55.]


Here we let our pen fall and delightful tears dampen our spidery scrawl. We find ourselves powerless to dissect such an angel any longer!


And, pedantically, because it is our pitiful role, we announce in a loud and clear voice that Marceline Desbordes-Valmore is, quite simply—along with George Sand[xxxviii], so different, long-lasting, though not without charming self-indulgencies, of serious common sense, of pride, and one might as well add attractive to men—the only woman of genius and talent from this century and from all the centuries in the company perhaps of Sappho, and of Saint Therese.

[i] Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-1869) who wrote the introduction to the 1860 posthumous Poésies

[ii] Jules Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808-1889), French novelist, short story writer and critic

[iii] “Where fervent Spaniards came to settle themselves.” This line is from “Rêve intermittent d’une nuit triste” (“Intermittent Dream During a Sad Night”).

[iv] See translation on page 25. (Also available on my website)

[v] See translation on page 17 (Also published online at Kin Journal)

[vi] See translation on page 53

[vii] “Tristesse d’Olympio” by Victor Hugo

[viii] “To Olympio” by Victor Hugo

[ix] Evariste de Parny (1753-1814)

[x] Translation on page 23 (Also published online by String Poet)

[xi] Pierre Corneille (1606-1684)

[xii] “Hide from me your soulful saddened look” from “Le Regard” (“The Look”).

[xiii] “We look like we’re happy beneath a flowered hat” from “Le Chien D’Olivier” (“Oliver’s Dog”).

[xiv] The next few quotations are all from “La prière perdue” (The Lost Prayer”). “Unexplainable heart, an enigma even to yourself”

[xv] ” When I am safe you’re just looking for thrills”

[xvi] “Listen, too weak slave, Listen! And my reason will forgive and absolve you: At least give it tears! There’s no doubt you’ll give in? Alas no! Always no! O my heart, take it all!”

[xvii] “The Two Loves.” It was a love more playful than tender; With a soft stroke it brushed my heart; It was light as a false laugh.”

[xviii] “It offered pleasure without speaking of luck.”

[xix] “It was in your eyes that I saw the other love.”

[xx] “This complete loss of self, this need to love for love’s sake, and that the word love scarcely seems adequate, your heart alone confirms and my heart guesses. I feel from your delights and from my faithfulness that it needs to say at the same time good luck, eternity and that its power is divine.”

[xxi] Verlaine has omitted line 3 without signaling the omission: “Faite pour l’âge heureux dont elle a l’ignorance.” The entire excerpt can be translated: “Two Friendships. There are two friendships like there are two loves. One looks like imprudence; made for the age of innocence, it’s a child that’s always laughing.”

[xxii] “The other friendship, more serious and severe, gives itself slowly, chooses mysteriously.”

[xxiii] “It moves flowers aside out of fear of hurting them.”

[xxiv] Verlaine has omitted the penultimate line of the poem without signaling the omission: ” Son abord est craintif, son regard est timide ;” The final 3 lines of the poem can be translated “It sees with [reason’s] eyes and walks in his footsteps; its aspect is fearful, its look timid. It waits, and does not anticipate.”

[xxv] Marceline was born in Douai, which is located on the River Scarpe about 25 km from the town of Arras, close to France’s Northern border

[xxvi] Names of Marceline’s childhood friends and sister

[xxvii] Alphonse de Lamartine (1790-1869), French writer, poet and politician.

[xxviii] This excerpt comes from “L’Adieu du soir” (“Farewell to Evening.”) See translation on page 19

[xxix] Delphine de Girardin (1804-1855), French author. The poem is “Madame Emile de Girardin”

[xxx] “Death has just closed the most beautiful eyes in the world.”

[xxxi] ” When I’ve rebuked my son, I hide and cry.” From “Hippolyte,” full translation on page 47

[xxxii] “Innocence of my child, how you will be destroyed.” The poem is “A mon fils,” (“To My Son.”)

[xxxiii] Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695), French poet and fabulist

[xxxiv] Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755-1794), French Poet and romance writer

[xxxv] “A very small child set off toward school; They had told him to go, and he tried to obey.” From “L’ecolier”, (“The Schoolboy.”)

[xxxvi] “If my child loves me.”

[xxxvii] “God will say to himself: I love this sleeping child. Let him be send a golden dream.”

[xxxviii] George Sand, pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (1804-1876), French novelist and memoirist.

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