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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.

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne

January 26, 2016 10 comments

Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1819-1820) French title: Lettres à Fanny. Translated by Elise Argaud.

As far as they regard myself I can despite all events but I cannot cease to love you.

keats_fannyI don’t remember how I came to buy Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne. It was probably on a display table in a bookstore and since I enjoy reading letters…

I knew Keats by name but had never read him. I’m not used to reading poetry, even in French. And in English, well, it’s very difficult. Reading his letters to Fanny was an opportunity to read about Keats, his life, his untimely death. What a waste of talent, like Pushkin or Petőfi. It’s disgruntling to think of all the poems he could have left us if he had had more time. It pushed me to get a bilingual edition of a collection of his poems. I read them after the letters and I thought there was a contrast between the sheer ethereal beauty of the poems and the relative plainness of the letters. We’re talking about Keatsean plainness, which means it’s still beautiful literature for anyone else.

These letters have the usual moans, angst and happy moments that you expect in love letters. Looking for signs. Playing his own game of she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not. Keats complains about giving away his heart and freedom and not liking it.

Ask yourself my love whether you are not very cruel to have so entrammelled me, so destroyed my freedom.

These letters seem written by someone insecure, someone who’s not sure his love is requited. If the foreword hadn’t told me that Keats and Fanny met almost daily at the time, I would have sworn that they were apart. There is no mention of their meetings, their story sounds mostly epistolary when it was not.

The most moving aspect of Keats’s letters are his declining health. He’s ill, most of the time. It cripples him and gets in the way of his love, his happiness and his relationship with Fanny. He’s not well enough to party and he doesn’t want to imprison her, to deprive her of the fun she deserves at her age. (She’s only 18)

I would never see anything but Pleasure in your eyes, love on your lips, and Happiness in your steps. I would wish to see you among those amusements suitable to your inclination and spirits; so that our love might be a delight in the midst of Pleasure agreeable enough, rather than a resource from vexations and cares.

We reader know that Keats will die soon. And we read his letters knowing his fate while he suspects it but obviously doesn’t know the actual term of his life. It adds to the emotion and to the impression of fleeting moments that need to be cherished.

My edition of the letters includes an informative foreword by Laurent Folliot. He explained that when they were published in 1878, it was a scandal. The letters showed a side of Keats that the Victorian society wasn’t ready to see. He’s needy, in love and this love is not just cerebral and poetic. Fanny is not a poet’s muse. She’s disconnected from poetry and Keats doesn’t want their love to be a literary relationship or more precisely, a relationship based upon her admiration for his poems.

I must confess, that (since I am on that subject) I love you more in that I believe you have liked me for my own sake and for nothing else. I have met with women whom I really think would like to be married to a Poem and to be given away by a Novel.

Fanny is not a Laure, a Beatrice or an Hélène. She’s a flesh and blood love. She’s wife material; meaning she sees him fully. Not just the poet façade or the thrill to be associated to a poet. He wants to be loved for himself. I find this consideration very modern. It is a pity that Fanny’s letters are lost to us. Keats destroyed them. I wonder who she was, what she looked like, how she moved. I wonder about her wits, her conversation or her dispositions.

I’m not comfortable with writing about Letters to Fanny Brawne and I hope I didn’t write anything stupid. Since I know nothing about poetry at the time, I’m sure I’m missing their invaluable worth. I can’t read between the lines and connect one detail or the other with a poem or an element of Keats’s life. For me, it was a reconnaissance, images and information to store and use for further exploration of his work.

Next billet will be about my experience with reading the actual poems and till then let’s read Bright Star, a poem allegedly written for Fanny. Enjoy.

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —

Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night

And watching, with eternal lids apart,

Like Nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,

The moving waters at their priestlike task

Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,

Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask

Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —

No — yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,

Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,

To feel for ever its soft swell and fall,

Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,

Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,

And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

 

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