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My experience with reading poems by Keats

January 31, 2016 31 comments

Poems by John Keats. French copy: Seul dans la splendeur.

keats_poèmesAfter reading his letters to Fanny Brawne, I thought that the least I could do was read some of Keats’ poems. I know, I’m doing things a little bit backwards. Let’s face it, reading poetry in another language is hard. Reading their translation is not satisfying and bilingual editions are the best compromise. So I got myself Seul dans la splendeur, a bilingual edition of a collection of poems by Keats. The English is on the left page, and the French translation by Robert Davreu is on the right page.

I am not going to review poems by Keats only armed with my high school literary baggage and an imperfect knowledge of the English language. The poems are beautiful, eerie, light as feathers and yet deep. They are imprinted with that deep awareness that life is fleeting that only chronically ill persons seem to perceive. (When I Have Fears That I May Cease to Be) I preferred the poems with no reference to other literary works (On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer doesn’t fascinate me) or Greek mythology. It spoke to the readers of that time but so much to me. I always find it bombastic. Anyway.

I want to write about my reading experience with these poems, even if it’s probably not of much interest to anyone but myself.

I wasn’t happy with the translation. There were complicated French words and I had to look at the original to understand the verse (!!) That’s on me, I should have known these words. Sometimes I felt like the French was taking too much liberty with the original poem. Here’s an example with On Fame (II).

Keats_On_Fame

I don’t understand how grateful becomes qui rend grâce and not reconnaissante or why ripe plum becomes once prune mûre and then prune à maturité when the original repeats ripe plum twice. These are details. My main concern is about the two last verses. In the next to last verse, teasing the world for grace is translated as importun assoiffé de la faveur du monde. If I translated it back, I’d write something like unwelcome visitor greedy for the world’s grace. Does it sound like the original? Teasing sounds light, like poking slightly someone to have them do what you want. Assoiffé is another level of passion and it’s negative.

The last verse goes on with the negative vibe coming off the translation of the previous one. Again, if I translated back Pourrisse son salut pour une idolâtrie barbare, I’d write Ruins his salvation for barbarian idolatry. How can fierce miscreed become barbarian idolatry? Does the English have another meaning in Keats’ times? Were the words stronger then than they sound to me now? I hope an English native reader also fluent in French can help me with that. And of course, the next question is “who am I to challenge the work of a professional translator”?…

Something entirely different. My being a French reader did something funny when I arrived to On the Grasshopper and Cricket.

keats_grasshopperAs you can see in the translation of the title, a grasshopper is une sauterelle. Sauterelle is a feminine word and the end of the word with elle suggests femininity as well. If I were a cartoonist and I had to draw a sauterelle with human characteristics, it would be an elegant and graceful woman. So, I can’t picture a grasshopper as a he and when I read the original poem, it was a bit disturbing. It’s strange how our native language shapes our minds.

The footnote on this poem says that Keats wrote it in a contest between he and Leigh Hunt to see whether they were able to whip out a poem about grasshoppers and crickets in fifteen minutes. That’s how talented Keats was: fifteen minutes to write a beautiful poem that transports us to a hot summer day in a second. His untimely death seems such a waste of talent. Or perhaps it’s wishful thinking on our side and his talent was a comet in his youth, like Rimbaud.

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