Posts Tagged ‘Love poetry’

Juana Inés de la cruz (12 November 1651 – 17 April 1695)



















Soneto 164

En que satisface un recelo con la retórica del llanto.


Esta tarde, mi bien, cuando te hablaba,
como en tu rostro y tus acciones vía
que con palabras no te persuadía,
que el corazón me vieses deseaba;



y Amor, que mis intentos ayudaba,
venció lo que imposible parecía:
pues entre el llanto, que el dolor vertía,
el corazón deshecho destilaba.




Baste ya de rigores, mi bien, baste:
no te atormenten más celos tiranos,
ni el vil recelo tu inquietud contraste




con sombras necias, con indicios vanos,
pues ya en líquido humor viste y tocaste
mi corazón deshecho entre tus manos.




















Sonnet 164

In which she allays mistrust with the rhetoric of tears.


This evening, my love, as I with you I was speaking,
When on your face, your feelings I observed,
And when my words I saw could not persuade you
To see whereof it was my heart desired,



Love came to my aid, to help me with my cause
And win what seemed to be beyond achieving.
Then between the ache and flooding tears
Was the essence of my dismantled heart distilled.




Enough my love, be done with harshness: Cease!
Neither let tyranny and jealousy torment you
Nor let vile suspicions your concern obstruct



With foolish shadows tinged with vanities,
When now in liquid form you see and touch
My heart unmade, undone, within your hands.



Translation Dia Tsung.


















It is late afternoon or evening somewhere in the Colonial Mexico of over three centuries ago. Dusk has not yet fallen, and two young women are locked together in the grip of shared emotion. Tears are shed, words, exchanged, and a lovers’ quarrel or lovers’ misunderstanding is being intently addressed. One of the women  is a noble of the viceregal court, in fact she is  married to no less a personage than the viceroy of Mexico himself. The other is a nun and a poet.

Perhaps the evening light pouring through the window finds them ensconced in a quiet room, the nun’s private quarters, a large room filled with hundreds books and several scientific instruments, or perhaps they are in a secluded spot in the palace grounds or a convent garden. They are alone in each others’ company.

The nun is speaking urgently and sincerely, trying to persuade and convince the lady that she has no need to feel tormented. In fact, it is the nun who has the most cause to be jealous and suspicious, because it is the lady who has other calls on her affections. But since it is the nun who happens to be the gallant in this pairing, it is she who must minister to the other’s need.

It may appear to an onlooker – if indeed there was one to watch the scene form behind a tree or a curtain (as we the readers do now) – that the scene is simply of one woman pleading with another to not be upset. But what we are really seeing is a highly skilled emotional operation – that of open-heart surgery.

The chest is cut open, and delved into. It must be so, because all the symptoms of lovesickness so dictate. Acute longing, ardent emotions, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety, tears and pent-up emotion have brought about a crisis. It is a tender but dangerous moment, and must be handled with the greatest care. The cause of all the trouble, jealousy,  mistrust, disquiet and suspicion, must be found, and lovingly addressed.

Everyone longs for this –  to not have to speak or explain, but to have one’s expressions, one’s feelings, perfectly intuited, one’s mind read, one’s heart seen into and touched, the vulnerary applied, the wound soothed and dressed and set well on its way to healing. Does the lover exist who who does not fervently long for this –  For her lover to see what is worrying and disturbing her and to tenderly  and gently administer the remedy?

And all this must be accomplished before the lady will consent to wipe away the tears of the nun, for the tears are a required propitiation, the price that must be paid. The nun’s tears are the proof of her devotion and of her surrender.

Therefore she must be assiduous. She must enter and delve into the lady’s heart, leaving nothing undone to appease it and heal it, to reassure and restore calm. She must not  seem detached, but be fully engaged in every instant. Her skill as a lover and a psychologist must exceed even her skill as a poet. All, and not just some, of the ingredients of healing an emotional wound must present, a wonderfully deft treatment and a profound understanding of female psychology must be brought to bear if the destructive event is to be made to pass peacefully. Complete healing is required, and not mere amelioration.

As we watch, we see that such is her perfection of insight and comprehension she that she is able to formulate and express the other’s feelings, to speak for her. She knows the torment of jealousy is corrosive, and with her unwonted skill she must catch it at its inception and lead the way from confusion to comprehension, and from the heavy sense of unknowing within the clouds of feeling into a peaceful clarity, yet remain within the ambiance of the cloud. She must understand the nature of limmerance (a ‘psychosis’ of sorts, related to falling in love, of limited duration and a word which will not be invented for several centuries), and reason must be so sweetened as to please, and  to not be rejected.

The nun seems to have succeeded in assuring the doubter of her love and of her constancy. It was as if Thomas did not even have to lift a finger to have his doubts and  suspicions allayed, but that Christ had himself tenderly taken the hand of the doubter and placed it on the wound. The one with a greater wound heals the one with the lesser.  Surely the lady, though married, possessed a vastly more ample freedom than the cloistered nun, and far less cause for jealousy. Nevertheless, she is the one who now receives the other’s care and comfort.

This is a profound feat of healing, requiring a perfect touch, almost an excess of skill, like a surgeon, a doctor, diagnosing, opening up the body, removing the obstruction, applying the remedy, closing the wound, and then caring for the post-operative trauma of the patient.

Nor, I surmise, was the lady disappointed. Her emotions were read and  sedulously interpreted. She was reassured and comforted. The storm  has spent itself into a gentle rain. The last line with its erotic tinge suggests that thirst has been quenched and all is refreshed with he tears which have been shed onto her palms. It is as if  though at first, in the kind of at-sea-ness of love, she has been safely guided to the shore.

This is one of  Juana Inés’s best-known poems, I wonder if it is it a scene from the past she recalls, or is it more immediate? An old memory? Did she present the lady with this sonnet the following day, or did she dispatch a servant of the convent  to carry it to the viceregal court, accompanied perhaps with a box of the best convent confections?  Or did she write it years later, when the lady had long since left for Spain, and when the news of her death reached Juana Inés in Mexico?

The poet is a secret jeweller and goldsmith, who is well able to recognise a gem, to hold it until the right moment, which may come years later, and cut and polish it and persuade it to reveal its inherent brilliance and glory in a setting of her apt devising. It demands seemingly mutually exclusive skills, those of complete immersion and complete objectiveness.  But if not objective but still in love, at what pains was she to achieve the distance to create this accurate account and set it in a sonnet from like a gem in an elegant ring?

Perhaps it is the inspiration of the personal transcending Muse who is able to transmute the variegated mass of personal feeling into the clear colour of  flawless poetry.

“Love came to my aid,” writes Juana Inés, but what was ‘Love’, if not her own intuition, and her own virtuosity in matters of love?



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Robert Graves (July 24 1895 - December 7 1985)













In No Direction

To go in no direction
Surely as carelessly,
Walking on the hills alone,
I never found easy.

Either I sent leaf or stick
Twirling in the air,
Whose fall might be prophetic,
Pointing ‘there’,



Or in superstition
Edged somewhat away
From a sure direction,
Yet could not stray.

Or undertook the climb
That I had avoided
Directionless some other time,
Or had not avoided,

Or called as companion
Some eyeless ghost
And held his no direction
Till my feet were lost.





















The Castle

Walls, mounds, enclosing corrugations
Of darkness, moonlight on dry grass.
Walking this courtyard, sleepless, in fever;
Planning to use – but by definition
There’s no way out, no way out –
Rope-ladder, baulks of timber, pulleys,
A rocket whizzing over the walls and moat –
Machines easy to improvise.



No escape,
No such thing; to dream of new dimensions,
Cheating checkmate by painting the king’s robe
So that he slides like a queen;
Or to cry,  ‘Nightmare, nightmare’!
Like a corpse in the cholera-pit
Under a load of corpses;
Or to run the head against these blind walls,
Enter the dungeon, torment the eyes
With apparitions chained two and two,
And go frantic with fear –
To die and wake up sweating by moonlight
In the same courtyard, sleepless as before.























The seven years’ curse is ended now
That drove me forth from this kind land,
From mulberry-bough and apple-bough
and gummy twigs the west wind shakes,
To drink the brine of crusted lakes
And grit my teeth on sand.

Now for your cold, malicious brain
And most uncharitable, cold heart,
You,  too , shall clank the seven years’ chain
On sterile ground for all time cursed
With famine’s itch and flames of thirst,
The blank sky’s counterpart.


The load that from my shoulder slips
Straightway upon your own is tied:
You, too, shall scorch your finger-tips
With scrabbling on the desert’s face
Such thoughts I had of this green place,
Sent scapegoat for your pride.


Here Robin on a tussock sits,
And Cuckoo with his call of hope
Cuckoos awhile, then off he flits,
While peals of dingle-dongle keep
Troop-discipline among the sheep
That graze upon the slope.

A brook from fields of gentle sun,
Through the glade its water heaves,
The falling cone would well-nigh stun
The Squirrel wantonly lets drop
When up he scampers to tree-top
And dives among the green.

But no, I ask  a surer peace
Than vengeance on you could provide.
So fear no ill from my release;
Be off, elude the curse, disgrace
Some other green and happy place –
This world of fools is wide.















The Presence

Why say ‘death’? Death is neither harsh nor kind:
Other pleasure or pains could hold the mind
If she were dead. For dead is gone indeed,
Lost beyond recovery and need,
Discarded, ended, rotted underground –
Of whom no personal feature could be found
To stand out from the soft blur evenly spread
On memory, if she were truly dead.




But living still, barred from accustomed use
Of body and dress and motions with profuse
Reproaches (since this anguish on her grew
Do I still love her as I swear I do?)
She fills the house and garden terribly
With her bewilderment, accusing me,
Till every stone and flower, table and book,
Cries out her name, pierces me with her look,
‘You are deaf, listen!
You are blind, see!’
How deaf or blind,
When horror of the grave maddens the mind
With those same pangs that lately choked her breath,
Altered her substance, and made sport of death.





















The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky.
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.






There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy, or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.





















Song of Contrariety

Far away is close at hand,
Close joined is far away,
Love shall come at your command,
Yet will not stay.

At summons of your dream-despair
She might not disobey,
But slid close down beside you there,
And complaisant lay.

Yet now her flesh and blood consent
In the hours of day,
Joy and passion both are spent,
Twining clean away.

Is the person empty air,
Is the spectre clay,
That love, lent substance by despair,
Wanes and leaves you lonely there
On the bridal day?




















Be assured, the Dragon is not dead
But once more from the pools of peace
Shall rear his fabulous green head.

The flowers of innocence shall cease
And like a harp the wind shall roar
And the clouds shake an angry fleece.

‘Here, here is certitude,’ you swore,
‘Below this lightning-blasted tree.
Where once it struck, it strikes no more.



‘Two lovers in one house agree.
The roof is tight, the walls unshaken.
And now, so must it always be.’

Such prophesies of joy awaken
the toad who dreams away the past
Under your hearth-stone, light forsaken,

Who knows that certitude at last
Must melt away in vanity –
No gate is fast, no door is fast –

That thunder bursts from the blue sky,
That gardens of the mind fall waste,
That fountains of the heart run dry.

















Sick Love

O Love, be fed with apples while you may,
And feel the sun and go in royal array,
A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway,

Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury:

Be warm, enjoy the season, lift your head.
Exquisite in the pulse of tainted blood,
That shivering glory not to be despised.

Take your delight in momentariness,
Walk between dark and dark – a shining space
With the grave’s narrowness, though not its peace.



















To the galleys, thief, sweat your soul out
With strong tugging under the curled whips,
That there your thievishess may find full play.
Whereas, before, you stole rings, flowers and watches,
Oaths, jests and proverbs,
Yet paid for bed and board like an honest man,
This shall be entire thiefdom: you shall steal
Sleep from chain-galling, diet from sour crusts,
Comradeship from the damned, the ten-year-chained –
And, more than this, the excuse for life itself
From a craft steered toward battles not your own.


















The China Plate

From a crowded barrow in a street-market
The plate was ransomed for a few coppers,
Was brought gleefully home, given a place
On a commanding shelf.

Quite a museum-piece,’ an expert cries
(Eyeing it through the ready pocket-lens) –
As through a glass case would be less sepulchral
Than the barrow-hears!



For weeks this plate retells the history
Whenever an eye runs in that direction:
‘Near perdition I was, in a street market
With rags and old shoes.’

‘A few coppers’ – here once again
The purchaser’s proud hand lifts down
The bargain, displays the pot-bank sign
Scrawled raggedly underneath.

Enough, permit the treasure to forget
The emotion of that providential purchase,
Becoming a good citizen of the house
Like its fellow-crockery.



Let it dispense sandwiches at a party
And not be noticed in the drunken buzz,
Or little cakes at afternoon tea
When cakes are in demand.

Let it regain a lost habit of life,
Foreseeing death in honourable breakage
Somewhere between the kitchen and the shelf –
To be sincerely mourned.






















Burn It!

Fetch your book here,
That you have fought with for half a year
(Christmas till May)
Not intermittently but night and day
Need but enhance your satisfaction
In swift and wholesome action.

Write off the expense
Of stationary against experience,
And salvage no small beauties or half-lines.
You took the wrong turn, disregarded signs
Winking along your track,
Until too close-committed to turn back.

Fetch the book here
And burn it without fear,
Grateful at least that, having gone so far,
You still know what truth is and where you are,
With better things to say
In you own bold, unmarketable way.

















Leaving the Rest Unsaid

Finis apparent on an earlier page,
Wit fallen obelisk for colophon,
Must this be here repeated?

Death has been ruefully announced
And to die once is death enough,
Be sure, for any life-time.

Must the book end, as you would end it,
With testamentary appendices
And graveyard indices?

But no, I will not lay me down
To let your tearful music mar
The decent mystery of my progress.

So now, my solemn ones, leaving the rest unsaid,
Rising in air as on a gander’s wing
At a careless comma,


















There are some poets to whom Poetry is a craft. To others it is an avocation, or a hobby, or merely a means of expression much resembling prose, only written in shorter lines.  None of these types is worthy of the name ‘poet’.

But once or twice in a century one comes across a man or woman who can truly be called a poet. Such beings possess the full panoply of skills, abilities and attributes the Muse demands: an honourouble character, a deep and extensive knowledge of his or her own native tongue, both historical and contemporary, a good grasp of his or her own poetic tradition, the languages related to his or her own native tongue, a thorough familiarity with Greek Mythology, the History, Geography, Literature associated with his or her own poetic tradition, Philology, Orthography, a superior intelligence,which is matched with superior intuition, and the ability to step easily and lightly between the trance and waking state.

Needless to say that all who claim to write poetry are not poets, and today this Royal calling is debased beyond all recognition. That is why Robert Graves is one of my best-loved poets. I have never found him to disappoint, nor does he fall the slightest bit short of the highest standards.  With the rarest skill, and the deftest touch he bends his skills to meet the exigencies of love, and beautifully resolve its dilemmas and conflicts. His appeal for me has never flagged, and his example in modern times has never been matched, let alone surpassed.

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)
















It has been claimed that to surrender one’s heart is to be enslaved, by which it could be meant that when the heart is owned by another, all the abject shamefulness of slavery devolves to one’s lot, such as lack of autonomy, enforced obedience, servility, victimhood, humiliation and more. This claim asserts that to give one’s heart is to cease to be free.

To what extent can this be true? Do we have any choice in the matter? That is, do we fall in love volitionally? Is being in love the equivalent of slavery? Does one indeed become a slave to another when one surrenders one’s heart? Does the one to whom the heart is given become a slave owner? If love is requited and a heart is given in return, do both parties become slaves of each other?

If the one to whom the heart has been given, becomes a master – then it follows by an inescapable logic, she is a debased human being. But is this so? Is the slave a mere possession, and the master a moral reprobate? Can giving and receiving of core affections be reduced to such an abject level as this?

It is true that some people  – and they tend mostly to be women – become the chattels of others under the auspices of contracts and conventions which are widely approved of and accepted by social and religious institutions alike, and marriage was, for women at least, just such an institution, and frequently is. Economic conditions too have their power to enslave, and most of the world’s population have no other choice than to exchange their labour in return for remuneration under the terms dictated by employers. Imprisoned people are slaves of sorts, as are the old, the severely ill, and the incapacitated. But these are not matters of the heart. All these many varieties of slavery have in common that they are, for the most part, without real reward, and that they are all essentially heartless.

When does a person who has given his or her heart to another become a slave? I suppose it could be when the heart (which signifies the love and devotion given to another) is not valued, or not returned, or not respected. Heartbreak is indeed a kind of enslavement, when pain and misery become the master, and a kind of all-pervasive negation becomes the element we find ourselves swimming in. The dismantling of one’s very self in an ensuing process of undoing and demoralisation more than resembles, and is perhaps worse than, slavery. But this is the result of losing one’s heart rather than giving it – by which I mean, it fails to be the ‘possession’ of either the giver or the recipient.  Such misadventures are the lot of many of us humans, and considering how painful and damaging they are, we fervently wish to escape them. We might wish to remain safe from the vicissitudes and dangers of love by avoiding the occasions of love, but what may be gained from such a resolve?

We may consider one woman’s thoughts on the subject – and one who was intimately familiar with the heart’s surrender, and with a more mundane form of enslavement as well – that of being the property of the Convent, and the Catholic Church. It would appear that Juana Inés Asbaje gave serious thought – and more – to the subject of love, and to love in the context of slavery and slave ownership. It was with grave sorrow and misgiving that she chose to become a nun, and bind herself in an indissoluble bond to the church and convent, thereby enslaving herself for life, with not the slightest hope of an eventual manumission.

Encarece de animosidad la elección de estado durable hasta la muerte.

Si los riesgos del mar considerara
ninguno se embarcara, si antes viera
bien su peligro, nadie se atreviera,
ni al bravo toro osado provocara.

Si del fogoso bruto ponderara
la furia desbocada en la carrera,
el jinete prudente, nunca hubiera,
quien con discreta mano le enfrenara.

Pero si hubiera algo tan osado,
que, no obstante el peligro, al mismo Apolo
quisiera gobernar con atrevida

mano, el rápido carro en luz bañado
todo lo hiciera, y no tomara sólo
estado, que ha de ser toda la vida.



She ponders the animosity inherent in choosing a way of life binding until death.

If the dangers of the sea were to be considered,
None would dare embark, upon once having viewed them.
Neither would one risk the peril of confronting
The fearsome bull within the fraught arena.

If the ardent and fiery brute-force of the race
Should go unchecked, surely the furious bolting   
Of the steed would not be dared by any rider,
Rather it would be bridled and discreetly handled.

But should there be another so daring, so undaunted,
That despite the self-same dangers, facing an Apollo,
She would seek to control and govern with fearless hand

The breakneck progress of that dazzling chariot,
She would dare all, and not elect to choose
An estate demanding lifelong possession of her very being.



In this poem, Juana Inés appears to mean the very opposite of what she is saying. If one considered the dangers inherent in certain choices, one would not choose them. If one considers the dangers, and still chooses, one is an equal of the gods.  As in the case of many of Juana Inés’s poems, her reasoning and the sense can be applied to many other situations as well. The conclusions are apt and applicable to a multiplicity of serious situations.

To which category then can we assign Juana Inés? She considered the perils of a lifelong commitment to convent life, and in eternal servitude of the church. She made this terrible choice, even though a freer spirit probably never drew breath. She did so after full consideration, which makes her daring all the more remarkable. But if we consider her statement that had she possessed sufficient daring she would not have made the choice she did (to be a nun) we have to see it as a self-deprecating sleight-of-hand. She did see, she did dare, and she did choose – even though the she had to choose between two different but equally  restrictive futures. She rejected the conventional roles available to women, all of them as the property of individual men. She became instead the property of a male institution, the church, but only because she aspired to write and study, to love, and to pursue learning. She was no mere nun, but a true and genuine poet.  Love and poetry were her true vocations. Exigency alone dictated her choice, and it was one which demanded the highest degree of courage and fortitude on her part.

But it was the choice to love unstintingly which gave Juana Inés her chief joy, and highest degree of freedom. It did not matter to her that she loved under nearly impossible conditions and enormous constraints. The fact was that she loved with her all, and surrendered her all to love. It appears to me that her experiences in loving unleashed a remarkable creativity, and drew deeply of her soul’s potential. It heightened and refined her humanity, and made of her an illumined being.


Expresa su respeto amoroso: dice el sentido en que llama suya a la señora virreina marquesa de la Laguna.


Divina Lysi mía:
perdona si me atrevo
a llamarte así, cuando
aun de ser tuya el nombre no merezco.

A esto, no osadía
es llamarte así, puesto
que a ti te sobran rayos,
si en mí pudiera haber atrevimientos.

Error es de la lengua,
que lo que dice imperio
del dueño, en el dominio,
parezcan posesiones en el siervo.

Mi rey, dice el vasallo;
mi cárcel, dice el preso;
y el más humilde esclavo,
sin agraviarlo, llama suyo al dueño.

Así, cuando yo mía
te llamo, no pretendo
que juzguen que eres mía,
sino sólo que yo ser tuya quiero.

Yo te vi; pero basta:
que a publicar incendios
basta apuntar la causa,
sin añadir la culpa del efecto.

Que mirarte tan alta,
no impide a mi denuedo;
que no hay deidad segura
al altivo volar del pensamiento.

Y aunque otras más merezcan,
en distancia del cielo
lo mismo dista el valle
más humilde que el monte más soberbio,

En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.


She expresses her loving respect, explaining what she means when she says Her Ladyship the Vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, belongs to her.


My divine Lysis
pardon me if I dare
then to address you thus,
since to be called yours exceeds my merit

and to this I cannot presume.
To call you mine I would be placed
at the mercy of your sovereign darting rays
if in my boldness I have overreached, and dared.

It is an error of the tongue
when that which is called imperial
and mastered, and of the dominion
appear to be the slave’s possessions.

“My king” declares the vassal,
“My prison” claims the prisoner,
and the most humble slave
without the slightest offense can claim her master as her own.

Thus when I call you mine
I am not in the least pretending
that you will be adjudged to belong to me,
but solely that I wish to be yours.

I saw you – but just stop there:
in order to say there is a fire
it is sufficient to show the cause
there is no need to affix blame on anyone for the result.

To see you so elevated
does not impede my audacity,
for there is no deity who can remain beyond
the reach of  lofty flights of cogitation.

And yet there are those, more deserving –
in their proximity to heaven –
equally placed is the humble valley
as the superbly high mountain.

Finally, I must be confessed
of this sin, which is my adoration –
and if you wish to chastise me,
your chastening will be my reward.




This poem, which appears to be of the utmost humility, is actually making a cosmic claim. Even as she calls herself a slave, she places her claim in a position superior to all dominion. How could this be? This playful equivocation with the first person possessive pronoun appears to be the object of a simple game – a play on words – and that is the usual interpretation of this poem. But when one takes the words of Juana Inés at face value, a whole hidden universe of deeper meaning tends to be missed.  This poem is really about the paradox of the ‘enslaved’ heart. The deepest truths are to found in paradox, and Juana Inés’s life was a master-class on the subject of paradoxical truth.

A heart that is given can never be enslaved. If it is refused, it may be freed by default. If it is taken, it becomes the possessor of its recipient. The one possessing it is engaged in a relation to the core of another, and this connection is one which binds both. The master is only a master if he or she possesses the slave. Therefore the status of ownership devolves on what is owned.  That which is owned becomes the definer. This is the subtle logic of relationships – call it metaphysical if you like, but it cannot be avoided.

In her servile situation as a nun, Juana Inés always had an eye on freedom. Her internal identity was  fixed neither by status nor by role,  both of which were in the end mere compromises and expediencies.  Though she may just as well as have been called a slave as a nun, neither was ever her true identity. She was in fact a lover and a poet.

But a master on the other hand depends on his or her possession of the slave, and the riches  the slave produces. As far as human relationships go, there is not much difference between a slave, or an employee, or an ordinary citizen living under the control of the state, for they exist in a contractual relationship with those they enrich. Though we may recoil in horror at this statement, it is one of of extreme banality.

The person whose own heart is her possession, ungiven and unsurrendered, owns an artifact of questionable worth. All joys accruing to such a person must be self-generated. Never could there be the joy of being possessed by love – which is as far from slavery as one can get, because such possession can truthfully be thought to be the highest  form of union. This is the central truth to which which all mystics fervently attest.

Juana Inés knew this profound truth. In giving herself away entirely she found the core of her genuine self. She loved with an astute recklessness, free of all self- serving evasions. She found the greatest wisdom in loving unwisely, and the greatest freedom in letting her heart be captured.

Death comes to all of us in the end and the claim made over us by oblivion is the final enslavement. It may be a matter of pride to us that we die free and unenslaved by love – masters of our own life and fate, and unbeholden to anyone. To be self-sufficient and not dependent on another for our personal happiness may be a worthy goal to strive for, and a safer one than rolling the dice on love – but what would the world be like if this was the choice made by people like Sappho and Petrarch and Catullus and Juana Inés, who found the greatest wisdom and beauty in loving unwisely, and never counting the cost?

I think it would be a much dimmer and darker place, and one I would not at all prefer to the one they left us as a result of their profligate choices.


*Translations Dia Tsung.

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Charlotte Mew (November 15 1869 - March 24 1928)



































On the Road to the Sea.




We passed each other, turned and stopped for half an hour, then went our way,
I who make other women smile did not make you–
But no man can move mountains in a day.
So this hard thing is yet to do.

But first I want your life:–before I die I want to see
The world that lies behind the strangeness of your eyes,
There is nothing gay or green there for my gathering, it may be,
Yet on brown fields there lies
A haunting purple bloom: is there not something in grey skies
And in grey sea?
I want what world there is behind your eyes,
I want your life and you will not give it me.

Now, if I look, I see you walking down the years,
Young, and through August fields–a face, a thought, a swinging dream
perched on a stile–;
I would have liked (so vile we are!) to have taught you tears
But most to have made you smile.
To-day is not enough or yesterday: God sees it all–
Your length on sunny lawns, the wakeful rainy nights–; tell me–;
(how vain to ask), but it is not a question–just a call–;
Show me then, only your notched inches climbing up the garden wall,
I like you best when you are small.

Is this a stupid thing to say
Not having spent with you one day?
No matter; I shall never touch your hair
Or hear the little tick behind your breast,
And as a flying bird
Brushes the branches where it may not rest
I have brushed your hand and heard
The child in you: I like that best
So small, so dark, so sweet; and were you also then too grave and wise?
Always I think. Then put your far off little hand in mine;–
Oh! let it rest;
I will not stare into the early world beyond the opening eyes,
Or vex or scare what I love best.
But I want your life before mine bleeds away–
Here–not in heavenly hereafters–soon,–
I want your smile this very afternoon,
(The last of all my vices, pleasant people used to say,
I wanted and I sometimes got–the Moon!)

You know, at dusk, the last bird’s cry,
And round the house the flap of the bat’s low flight,
Trees that go black against the sky
And then–how soon the night!

No shadow of you on any bright road again,
And at the darkening end of this–what voice? whose kiss? As if you’d say!
It is not I who have walked with you, it will not be I who take away
Peace, peace, my little handful of the gleaner’s grain
From your reaped fields at the shut of day.

Peace! Would you not rather die
Reeling,–with all the cannons at your ear?
So, at least, would I,
And I may not be here
To-night, to-morrow morning or next year.
Still I will let you keep your life a little while,
See dear?
I have made you smile.



















I started out to make this post with the idea that it would be of a single poem by Charlotte Mew, but that turned out not to be the case. I chose ‘On the Road to the Sea’ because of its largeness of scope, its inclusiveness of themes which fascinate and captivate me, and its psychological complexity.  I had foolishly thought that it would be possible to sort it out with a couple or three careful and thoughtful readings, but that  too turned out very much not to be the case.

I had an unexpectedly difficult time meeting my simplest requirement for a poem, which  is that I should be able to rewrite it to have ordinary prose sense.  My next requirement – one which I have adopted from Robert Graves –  is that I should be able to compress its meaning as in a telegram, and not have very much left over; this I abandoned because I did not wish to create a parody of over-simplification. Besides, telegrams are of course now a relic of the past.  Mew’s poems too appear to have gone the way of the telegram and fallen into what might seem to be an irremediable desuetude.

But trying to unravel all the hidden implications and the ‘between the lines-ness’ of Mew’s poetry might well be an impossible task. So much of the meaning — such as “As if you’d say ” —  comes with spoken inflection, and there are the parts of the poem where the Is and yous seem to snake between each other and switch places.  The central word in the poem, “Life,” too,  seems to carry a meaning that is quite different from the meaning suggested in the phrases in which it embeds itself.

And yet, this is truly a Muse poem. Strange homonymnical coincidence that — and also the fact that without the vertical stroke of the ‘E,’ Mew’s name reads the same both upside down and side to side.




Here is my attempt at a prose paraphrasal:



We ran into each other and after a brief conversation went our separate ways.  I found that even though I can make most women smile, I couldn’t make you. I would like to make you smile, but before I set myself such a difficult task I want your life. I want to know your inner world — even though it seems like a world that is without life except perhaps for a single “haunting purple bloom”.

Yet you will not give me this .

I can see into your past, and see you as a child, and even though it seems cruel of me,  I would have liked to have taught you to cry (that is to feel) but more than that I would have liked to have made you happy.

The past is the past, and this is the present, and neither is enough — but god sees both: your childhood days, and how you grew  – I like you best as a child.

Is this stupid of me to contemplate when I have not even spent a day with you?
I will never know the intimate things about you — how it feels to touch your hair  or hear your heartbeat or do more than brush your hand with mine.

I can imagine you as a beautiful child — small, dark, sweet,  grave and wise.
I wish we could have held each other’s hands then.

I won’t pry to deeply into your childhood because I don’t want to upset you. But I want to know you before my own life bleeds away. I want to know you here on earth – I want you now – I want the impossible, because I have sometimes found it to be possible….

You know how soon the days pass, and the days of our lives pass, from evening into night, and how soon life will be over.

You will have slipped away from this world not even leaving a shadow behind — and when you die then — what will become of your voice? Who would have had your kiss?  I know you will not answer this question. But I will not be the one who takes away – I who who have only the barest scantiest smallest handful of grain from your life’s fields after they have been harvested at the end of your life.

Wouldn’t you rather die in the midst of all the trouble and conflict of life? I know I would — and I might not live beyond this moment — but still, I want to hold your life in my heart and in my thoughts at least for now. I will let you have your secrets…

And I have made you smile ruefully at  the sheer presumption of my claim!

















Mew seems to be toying with her reader when she makes the claim “I want your life”.  And yet, far from being preposterous, her assertion is modest and humble. She is not claiming the power of life and death over her beloved — far from it — she is saying she wants the beloved to live — to come to life — and she wants to know about the portion already lived of her beloved’s  life. She has sensed an aridity and a greyness behind the  grave unsmiling face, and she wishes to animate it — to revitalise it, to vivify it.

There is more than an echo here of John Donne’s ‘The Flea’ and Andrew Marvell’s ‘Ode to His Coy Mistress’. Mew would never be so bold as to make such straightforward heterosexual assertions, but her message is no less clear than theirs. She does not wish to alarm the woman to whom this poem is addressed: I hear her use of the words “peace, peace” as someone would who is trying to calm a skittish animal.  She is using extraordinarily gentle means to  bring someone back to life from the brink of emotional death — someone she feels may have already surrendered to a death of the heart.

In order to do this she has to raise her hand and point a finger at the spectre of death itself,  but to do so in a quiet and unstartling way. It is a difficult task, because sometimes the only way to bring the nearly dead  back to life is to shock them into living.

Then again, it is possible that Mew may have wished there was someone to speak these words to her – and that the “I” in this poem is someone else – and she herself the unsmiling one. The only photograph of Mew as an adult shows a slender unsmiling woman in soberly tailored dark suit. The dark bow at her throat seems as unlike a frippery as it is possible to be.

When she committed suicide at the age of 59, Mew had come to the end of her endurance.  The third oldest of seven children of an architect who died without providing for his family, she lost three brothers while they were children. A brother and sister were committed to a mental asylum, and Mew and her sister Ann feared that they too would share a similar fate.

Mew’s mother died in 1924, and  Ann died in 1927.  Tormented by the thought that her sister Ann had been buried alive, Mew seemed to have felt her sanity beginning to unravel. She had neglected to leave instructions  for a vein to be opened  on Anne prior to burial, as a means of ensuring that there was no risk of a live burial. The gathering impetus of intense grief and guilt complicated by deep depression led her to be committed – or commit herself – to an institution. Under these grim and dismal conditions, Mew went out and bought the bottle of Lysol – a corrosive cleaning agent containing a lethal amount of creosote – which she drank in order to kill herself.  Mew had wished that her work be destroyed at her death. During her life she had used her manuscripts in order to light her cigarettes, but fortunately for us, her publications and some of her unpublished work survived her.

The elusiveness of obvious meaning, and even what might have seemed a willful incomprehensibility in some of her poems – ‘The Road to the Sea’ might be an example –  seem to have caused confusion in some of  Mew’s readers even during her own lifetime, when the common standard of English literacy and literary understanding was much higher than it is today. Certainly her poems did not conform to the simple clarity of ordinary speech. But even a contemporary reader with exposure to a century of intervening poetry might find find Mew’s poems difficult to work out, not because they lack sense  (as most modern poetry does) but because the sense is so cleverly devised and arranged. It makes one wonder if  one of the reasons Mew’s work is still so deplorably neglected today is that most of us who read poetry have grown accustomed to the idea that it is not meant to make sense – so that when  the sort of sense which only yields itself to persistent and dilligent effort is encountered, it is taken for nonsense.

Mew’s lifelong penury was relieved to a small degree by the pension she was awarded through the good offices of Thomas Hardy, John Masefield and Walter De La Mare.  Hardy’s memory must be blessed for this if for no other reason — he was a good and faithful benefactor to his impecunious friends (one of whom was Robert Graves) in their times of need.  Mew had many admirers amongst the illustrious literati: Virginia Woolf called her “the greatest living woman poet,”  and Thomas Hardy  said she was “far and away the best living woman poet of the day”.  Mew was respected and admired by  John Masefield, May Sinclair (for whom Mew cherished an unrequited love) Walter De La Mare, Virginia Woolf, Thomas Mann,  Rebecca West, Sigfried Sassoon, Vita Sackville West and Louis Untermeyer.

It is a judgement of our undiscerning times that Mew is so little known in our day. When I look at her image – this extremely petite (she was 4’10” tall) woman  with  arresting features,  in her dark tweed coat, and a strong pale right hand firmly grasping its lapel – I mourn her obscure brilliance and her unhappy life.  Mew herself was at considerable pains to ensure that not much biographical material would survive her. I think only only one photograph of her exists.

“Dead is dead, but that is why memory is all and all the immortality there is” wrote Gertrude Stein in The Making of Americans, and if indeed she is right, we have a solemn obligation to remember Charlotte Mew.
















Here are four more of Mew’s Poems.




The Peddler

Lend me, a little while, the key
That locks your heavy heart, and I’ll give you back–
Rarer than books and ribbons and beads bright to see,
This little Key of Dreams out of my pack.

The road, the road, beyond men’s bolted doors,
There shall I walk and you go free of me,
For yours lies North across the moors,
And mine lies South. To what seas?

How if we stopped and let our solemn selves go by,
While my gay ghost caught and kissed yours, as ghosts don’t do,
And by the wayside, this forgotten you and I
Sat, and were twenty-two?
Give me the key that locks your tired eyes,
And I will lend you this one from my pack,
Brighter than colored beads and painted books that make men wise:
Take it. No, give it back!

























The Changeling:














Toll no bell for me, dear Father dear Mother,
Waste no sighs;
There are my sisters, there is my little brother
Who plays in the place called Paradise,
Your children all, your children for ever;
But I, so wild,
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face, was never,
Never, I know, but half your child…

Sometimes I wouldn’t speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel’s feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat’s black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell’s sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That’s why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn’t do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything.
And when, for that, I was sent upstairs
I did kneel down to say my prayers;
But the King who sits on your high church steeple
Has nothing to do with us fairy people!























The Farmer’s Wife












Three Summers since I chose a maid,
Too young maybe – but more’s to do
At harvest-time than bide and woo.
When us was wed she turned afraid
Of love and me and all things human;
Like the shut of a winter’s day.
Her smile went out, and ’twasn’t a woman–
More like a little, frightened fay.
One night, in the Fall, she runned away.

“Out ‘mong the sheep, her be,” they said,
‘Should properly have been abed;
But sure enough she wasn’t there
Lying awake with her wide brown stare.
So over seven-acre field and up-along across the down
We chased her, flying like a hare
Before our lanterns. To Church-Town
All in a shiver and a scare
We caught her, fetched her home at last
And turned the key upon her, fast.

She does the work about the house
As well as most, but like a mouse:
Happy enough to chat and play
With birds and rabbits and such as they,
So long as men-folk stay away.
“Not near, not near!” her eyes beseech
When one of us comes within reach.
The women say that beasts in stall
Look round like children at her call.
I’ve hardly heard her speak at all.

Shy as a leveret, swift as he,
Straight and slight as a young larch tree,
Sweet as the first wild violets, she,
To her wild self. But what to me?
The short days shorten and the oaks are brown,
The blue smoke rises to the low gray sky,
One leaf in the still air falls slowly down,
A magpie’s spotted feathers lie
On the black earth spread white with rime,
The berries redden up to Christmas-time.
What’s Christmas-time without there be
Some other in the house than we!

She sleeps up in the attic there
Alone, poor maid. ‘Tis but a stair
Betwixt us. Oh, my God! – the down,
The soft young down of her; the brown,
The brown of her – her eyes, her hair, her hair!















The Call.

From our low seat beside the fire
Where we have dozed and dreamed and watched the glow
Or raked the ashes, stopping so
We scarcely saw the sun or rain
Above, or looked much higher
Than this same quiet red or burned-out fire.
Tonight we heard a call,
A rattle on the window pane,
A voice on the sharp air,
And felt a breath stirring our hair,
A flame within us: Something swift and tall
Swept in and out and that was all.
Was it a bright or a dark angel? Who can know?
It left no mark upon the snow,
But suddenly it snapped the chain
Unbarred, flung wide the door
Which will not shut again;
And so we cannnot sit here any more.
We must arise and go:
The world is cold without
And dark and hedged about
With mystery and enmity and doubt,
But we must go
Though yet we do not know
Who called, or what marks we shall leave upon the snow.
















Here is a Greek translation of ‘On the Road to the Sea’ by Olvia Papaeliou  from April 2000, which  serves to show that Mew is still sufficiently beloved in other lands to rate the  dedicated trouble of translating her poems.


Στο δρόμο για τη θάλασσα

Η μια την άλλη προσπεράσαμε, γυρίσαμε, σταθήκαμε λιγάκι
κι ύστερα συνεχίσαμε το δρόμο. Εγώ, που έκανα άλλες να γελούν,
δεν πήρα από σένα ούτ’ ένα τόσο δα χαμογελάκι,
μα σε μια μέρα μέσα δεν κουνήθηκαν βουνά,
πρέπει κανείς να περιμένει, για κάποια πράγματα, αρκετά.

Απ’ όλα πρώτα, θέλω τώρα τη ζωήσου’ πριν χαθώ,
τον κόσμο που ‘χεις στα παράξενά σου μάτια θέλω να δω.
Δεν έχει άνθη εύθυμα, πράσινα, να διαλέξω,
μα μέσα στα καφέ χωράφια, ίσως ένα μοναχά πορφυρό ανθάκι να συλλέξω.

Υπάρχει πάντα κάτι όμορφο θαρρώ
στη γκρίζα θάλασσα, στο σκούρο ουρανό.
Να δω τον κόσμο στη ματιά σου δε μ’ αφήνεις
και τη ζωή σου θέλω, μα δε μου τη δίνεις.

Τώρα, πίσω στα χρόνια αν ψάξω,
θα σε βρω στ’ Αυγούστου το χωράφι νεαρή.
Το πρόσωπο, τις σκέψεις σου, είσαι παλλόμεν’ όνειρο σε φράχτη κουρνιασμένο,
θάθελα, η φαύλη, τ’ όμορφο το πρόσωπο σου δακρυσμένο,
μα πιο πολύ θα ήθελα να σ’ είχα γελαστή.
Το τώρα δε μου φτάνει, ούτε το χτες,
μα παντεπόπτης είναι μόνο ο Θεός.
Το μάκρος σου στη χλόη, μες στο φως,
τις βροχερές, τις άγρυπνες νυχτιές.

Πες μου, κι ας είναι μάταιο που ρωτώ,
τις εγκοπές στον τοίχο, σου ζητώ,
που σκαρφαλώνοντας δείχνανε να ψηλώνεις•
τις εγκοπές του τοίχου σου, εκεί…
Σε προτιμώ όπως ήσουνα μικρή.
Θα φαίνεται αυτό που λέω χαζό –
ούτε μια μέρα δε σε έχω ζήσει εγώ…
Δε με πειράζει. Δε θ’ αγγίξω τα μαλλιά σου
ούτε θ’ ακούω το χτύπο της καρδιάς σου
κι ας είν’ εκεί. Και σαν πουλί πετούμενο που φεύγει
και να καθήσει στα κλαδιά δε στέργει,
έτσι αγγίζοντας το χέρι σου εγώ
σ’ άκουσα: Το παιδί που ήσουν προτιμώ.

Μικρούλα, καστανή, γλυκειά…
Κι ήσουνα πάντα τόσο σοβαρή, βαρειά;
Πάντα, νομίζω. Μα έλα τότε, δώσε το χέρι το μικρό σου να κρατήσω
και μες το σύμπαν των ματιών σου δε θα εισδύσω.
Δε θέλω να τρομάξω ό,τι αγαπώ
ούτε θα ήθελα εσένα να ενοχλήσω.
Μα θέλω τη ζωή σου,
πριν φύγει η δική μου αιμορραγούσα,
τώρα, κι όχι στο ουράνιο κατόπιν,
ένα χαμόγελο δικό σου ν’ αποσπούσα.
Το πιο τρελλό μου πάθος, κάποιοι είχανε πει,
ήταν να θέλω τη Σελήνη, κάποιες φορές την είχα βρει.

Ξέρεις, στο σούρουπο ενός πουλιού τραγούδι τελευταίο,
στο σπίτι γύρω νυχτερίδας πέταγμα,
μαύρα τα δέντρα, φόντο ο ουρανός,
κι ύστερα της νυχτιάς σκοτείνιασμα μοιραίο.

Ποτέ πια τη σκιά σου δε θα δω
ξανά σε κάποιο δρόμο φωτεινό.
Στην άκρη τούτου ‘δώ τη σκοτεινή,
ποιανού φωνή, ποιανού φιλί σε περιμένει;
Λες και ποτέ θα μου ‘χες πει.

Δε θάναι το δικό μου το φιλί,
όχι εγώ, κι ας περπατήσουμε μαζί
δε θάν’ η χούφτα η δική μου με καρπούς
που απ’ το χωράφι σου θα είναι μαζεμένοι.
Ησύχασε… Μα δε θα προτιμούσες να πεθαίνεις
κάτω από βρόντους κανονιών,
αντί άλλον να έχεις κι όχι εμένα;
Εγώ, αλήθεια λέω, θα προτιμούσα!
Ακόμα κι αν δεν ήμουν τώρα εδώ,
σήμερα, αύριο, τη χρονιά που μπαίνει…
Ωστόσο τη ζωή δε σου αφαιρώ,
μα παραδέξου το σε μένα, αγαπημένη,
πως να γελάσεις σ’ έκανα, μπορούσα.



μετάφραση: Όλβια Παπαηλιού
– Οδός Πανός – τχ. 108, Απρίλιος 2000









This is a poem by a poet to a poet – Elizabeth Bartlett to Charlotte Mew:

"Don't keep me, let me go." Charlotte Mew, last words.















Charlotte Mew *
Charlotte, to-day I walked along streets where you died,

That remote and desolate Spring of nineteen twenty-eight,

With Anne dead, Ma gone, and the other two immured inside

Some asylum still, or dead, but lost to you, all hate

Shadowed and masked and laid away, which ever way it was.

Charlotte, to-day the balustrated houses balanced in pity

Above the chimes of sunlight and waiting ambulances,

And all around, the soft and moulded web of your city

Hung like a shroud of sound, and the pigeons drank

From the gutters, nervously treading the sloping tiles.

Don’t keep me. Let me go, you said,

And I thought of the first sessions

Starting in the clinics, and the bread

For the day’s hunger in the ovens

Of the bakery, and the swirl of wings

Beating around the stained pillars

Of St. Marylebone church, and all the Springs

Which have restored to vogue or memory since then

Wavered and faded and dissolved until I saw you

As you went out alone and bought the disinfectant

Which killed you, Charlotte Mew, said to be a writer.

Don’t keep me. Let me go, you said,

And you lay with your small dead

Face turned to the grey light

On the blank brick wall.
















* When her death was reported in the local Marylebone newspaper, she was casually described as “Charlotte Mew, said to be a writer” –  from a memoir by Alida Munro.

And here are some important links. I regret that they are not ‘live’, but a ‘cut and paste’ will take you to their sites.




Charlotte Mew as a girl with her old nurse.






Charlotte Mew in her own words.

(Superb resource)


Charlotte Mew Chronology




























Subscribers to the London Review of Books will find in Vol 24 No.10 23 May 2002 a fine article about Mew’s life and death entitled ‘The Death of a Poet’ by Penelope Fitzgerald.




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Jacques Prévert (February 4th 1900 - April 11th 1977)





















Remember Barbara
It rained incessantly on Brest that day
And you walked smiling
Radiant delighted streaming wet
In the rain
Remember Barbara
It rained incessantly on Brest
And I came across you on Siam Street
You were smiling
And I smiled too
Remember Barbara
You whom I did not know
You who did not know me
Still remember that day
Do not forget
A man was sheltering under a porch
And he called out your name
And you ran to him in the rain
Dripping enchanted blossoming,
And you flung yourself into his arms
Remember that Barbara
And do not be mad if I address you as tu
I say tu to all those I love
Even if I have seen them only once
I say tu to all who love each other
Even if I do not know them.
Remember Barbara
Do not forget
This rain wise and happy
On your happy face
On this happy city
This rain on the sea
On the arsenal
On the boat Ushant
Oh Barbara
What a bloody farce this war.
What has become of you now
Under this rain of iron
Of fire of steel of blood
And the one who enclosed you in his arms
Is he dead or disappeared or indeed still living
Oh Barbara
It rains constantly in Brest
As it was raining before
But this is not the same and everything is ruined
This is a rain of mourning terrible and desolate
Now it is not even the storm
Of iron of steel of blood
But merely of clouds
That simply die like dogs
Dogs that disappear
In the water flowing over Brest
And will rot away
In the distance far from Brest
Of which nothing remains.



























Rappelle-toi Barbara
Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest ce jour-là
Et tu marchais souriante
É panouie ravie ruisselante
Sous la pluie
Rappelle-toi Barbara
Il pleuvait sans cesse sur Brest
Et je t’ai croisée rue de Siam
Tu souriais
Et moi je souriais de même
Rappelle-toi Barbara
Toi que je ne connaissais pas
Toi qui ne me connaissais pas
Rappelle-toi quand même ce jour-là
N’oublie pas
Un homme sous un porche s’abritait
Et il a crié ton nom
Et tu as couru vers lui sous la pluie
Ruisselante ravie épanouie
Et tu t’es jetée dans ses bras
Rappelle-toi cela Barbara
Et ne m’en veux pas si je te tutoie
Je dis tu à tous ceux que j’aime
Même si je ne les ai vus qu’une seule fois
Je dis tu à tous ceux qui s’aiment
Même si je ne les connais pas
Rappelle-toi Barbara
N’oublie pas
Cette pluie sage et heureuse
Sur ton visage heureux
Sur cette ville heureuse
Cette pluie sur la mer
Sur l’arsenal
Sur le bateau d’Ouessant
Oh Barbara
Quelle connerie la guerre
Qu’es-tu devenue maintenant
Sous cette pluie de fer
De feu d’acier de sang
Et celui qui te serrait dans ses bras
Est-il mort disparu ou bien encore vivant
Oh Barbara
Il pleut sans cesse sur Brest
Comme il pleuvait avant
Mais ce n’est plus pareil et tout est abimé
C’est une pluie de deuil terrible et désolée
Ce n’est même plus l’orage
De fer d’acier de sang
Tout simplement des nuages
Qui crèvent comme des chiens
Des chiens qui disparaissent
Au fil de l’eau sur Brest
Et vont pourrir au loin
Au loin très loin de Brest
Dont il ne reste rien.

















This translation is based on, modified and adapted from on-line sources who have not been credited. I read and rejected the widely-known translation by Lawrence Ferlinghetti because I felt that it was not sufficiently faithful to or respectful of Prévert’s pure and innocent original.

This beautiful evocative poem by the lovely poet Jacques Prévert  speaks so feelingly of one swift fleeting moment, in WW2 in the midst of an extended downpour.  An ordinary pedestrian glimpses a woman as she runs to meet her lover.

The woman smiles at the stranger – they do not know each other, but they do not need to – because so much can sometimes be known about a stranger without a word being exchanged.

She smiles at him – why? Probably because when one is happily in love, smiles and laughter are as irrepressible as breathing.

Prévert knows only that the woman’s name is ‘Barbara’ – because he hears her lover call out to her.

The rain that has gone on and on all day in the city of Brest cannot dampen the rapt intensity of feeling that she exudes, and which has made her so unforgettable to Prévert. When he recalls this moment, perhaps many years later, he is full of anxious questions. – What has become of this woman? What has become of the man – probably a soldier – she was racing to meet?

When Prévert asks these questions of her – but obviously to himself – he uses ‘tu’ used in French to address close friends and relatives and people with whom one is intimate, rather than the formal ‘vous’ reserved for strangers and non-intimates. He asks, touchingly, that she not be offended by his presumption, because, he says, he addresses in this intimate form all those he loves – and all those who love each other.

Prévert was gay, but he is sweeping into his inclusive nonjudgmental embrace all lovers, with whom he himself shares a deep bond. We also know how he feels, because most of us who read this poem will love Barbara too, and share Prévert’s anxiety about her fate.

This was around 1940 during WW2 when the city of Brest in the Brittany peninsula was bombed and the bridges destroyed and the city reduced to rubble by the allies in their effort to get rid of the deeply entrenched German invaders. The Germans surrendered the city to the allies in 1944.

Like Prévert, we too have to come to terms with the awful, sickening ‘not-knowing’ that comes with the aftermath of terrible and destructive events. We have to allow ourselves to wonder, without the slightest comfort of even the flimsiest assurance, about the fate of people and animals – lovers, women, soldiers, dogs – whose lives are suddenly swept away and who are never heard of again.

This feeling of intimate familiarity and concern that can flare up in us in response to catching a glimpse of the radiance of love in a passing stranger, is something that Prévert has captured with great fidelity and total simplicity.

He has wrapped up his heart in this small lucid moment and handed it to us – who are also strangers.

















Though the name of Jacques Prévert is not very well know by non-Francophones, his beautiful poem ‘Autumn Leaves’ (Les Feuilles Mortes) written in 1945 and set to music by Joseph Kosma, has been made popular by dozens of singers and musicians such as Jo Stafford, Edith Piaf, Julianne Greco, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Andrea Bocelli, Yves Montand and Chet Baker.

The English lyrics of this song were written by Johnny Mercer.

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Depiction of Bernart de Ventadorn ( 1130 - ?)



















When I see the lark beat his wings
for joy against the sun’s ray,
until he forgets to fly and plummets down,
for the sheer delight which goes to his heart,
alas, great envy comes to me
of those whom I see filled with happiness,
and I marvel that my heart
does not instantly melt from desire.

Alas, I thought I knew so much about love,
and really I know so little,
for I cannot keep myself from loving her
from whom I shall have no favor.
She has stolen from me my heart, myself,
herself, and all the world.
When she took herself from me, she left me nothing
but desire and a longing heart.

Never have I been in control of myself
or even belonged to myself from the hour
that she let me gaze into her eyes-
that mirror that pleases me so greatly.
Mirror, since I saw myself reflected in you,
deep sighs have been killing me.
I have lost myself, just as
handsome Narcissus lost himself in the fountain.

I despair of women,
no more will I trust them,
and just as I used to defend them,
now I shall denounce them.
Since I see that none aids me
against her who destroys and confounds me,
I fear and distrust them all
for I know well they are all alike.

In this my lady certainly shows herself
to be a woman, and for it I reproach her,
for she wants not that which one ought to want,
and what is forbidden, she does.
I have fallen out of favor
and have behaved like the fool on the bridge;
and I don’t know why it happened
except because I tried to climb too high.

Mercy is lost, in truth,
though I never received it,
for she who should possess it most
has none, so where shall I seek it?
Ah, one who sees her would scarcely guess
that she just leaves this passionate wretch
(who will have no good without her)
to die, and gives no aid.

Since with my lady neither prayers nor mercy
nor my rights avail me,
and since she is not pleased
that I love her, I will never speak of it to her again.
Thus I part from her, and leave;
she has killed me, and by death I respond,
since she does not retain me, I depart,
wretched, into exile, I don’t know where.

Tristan, you will have nothing from me,
for I depart, wretched, I don’t know where.
I quit and leave off singing
and withdraw from joy and love.

Can vei la lauzeta mover
de joi sas alas contra.l rai,
que s’oblid’ e.s laissa chazer
per la doussor c’al cor li vai,
ai! tan grans enveya m’en ve
de cui qu’eu veya jauzion,
meravilhas ai, car desse
lo cor de desirer no.m fon.

Ai las! tan cuidava saber
d’amor, e tan petit en sai,
car eu d’amar no.m posc tener
celeis don ja pro non aurai.
Tout m’a mo cor, e tout m’a me,
e se mezeis e tot lo mon;
e can se.m tolc, no.m laisset re
mas dezirer e cor volon.

Anc non agui de me poder
ni no fui meus de l’or’ en sai
que.m laisset en sos olhs vezer
en un miralh que mout me plai.
Miralhs, pus me mirei en te,
m’an mort li sospir de preon,
c’aissi.m perdei com perdet se
lo bels Narcisus en la fon.

De las domnas me desesper
ja mais en lor no.m fiarai;
c’aissi com las solh chaptener,
enaissi las deschaptenrai.
Pois vei c’una pro no m’en te
vas leis que.m destrui e.m cofon
totas las dopt’e las mescre,
car be sai c’atretals se son.

D’aisso’s fa be femna parer
ma domna, per qu’e.lh o retrai,
car no vol so c’om deu voler,
e so c’om li deveda, fai.
Chazutz sui en mala merce,
et ai be fai co.l fols en pon;
e no sai per que m’esdeve,
mas car trop puyei contra mon.

Pus ab midons no.m pot valer
precs ni merces ni.l dreiz qu’eu ai,
ni a leis no ven a plazer
qu’eu l’am, ja mais no.lh o dirai,
Aissi.m part de leis e.m recre;
mort m’a, e per mort li respon,
e vau m’en, pus ilh no.m rete,
chaitius, en issilh, no sai on.






The forty-five or so surviving poems of the most famous of the troubadours, Bernart de Ventadorn, were written in a language known as Oc or Occitan, which was the language used in an area  known in the middle ages as Occitania and   was widely spoken in parts of France, Spain and Italy.  It was also known as ‘Lenga d’ òc, and today its closest living relative is Catalan.  Relatives of the language of ‘Oc’ are the language of ‘Si’ – Spanish and Italian –  and the language of ‘Oil’ – French. All three syllables are variants of the English ‘Yes’.

Place names like Languedoc and Aquitaine, the demesne of Eleanor, Bernart’s queen, pertain to the region in which this language held currency.  It was the language of the troubadours and trobairises.

Bernart de Ventadorn was born sometime between 1110 and 1130. It is said he was the son of of a baker, but it is possible that he was the son of the Count Eble the Monseignur of Ventadorn.  He attended the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and there is no doubt that some of his songs were dedicated to her.

In an age of harshness and brutality, where sentiment  as we know it in our modern sense did not exist, and refinement was almost unknown, Bernart’s  songs and poems must have seemed unearthly in their strangeness and beauty. Here a lament for unattainable love is inspired by the joyous flight of the little bird who heralds the dawning day.

In Bernart’s poem of unrequited love and yearning and we can see the first evidence in Europen poetry of the formation

The Languedoc region

of a kind of self awareness of internal states and indeed an inner life which is intensely personal. This nuanced contemplation almost makes visible the process by which human emotions seem to emerge out of the awakening psyche and  assume a life of their own.  His voice is unique and personal,  and quite free of the stodginess we associate with medieval writing

A thousand years have gone by since his voice was heard, but most of  Bernart’s poetry (over 40 poems) as well as his music (about 18 compositions)  has come down to us through the ages, miraculously surviving the horrifying destruction wrought by the the virulently  anti-humanistic Catholic church.  Along with the destruction of the Albigensians and other inhabitants of the Oc who were burned alive for their religious and spiritual beliefs,  many troubadours were destroyed in the flames as well.

Bernart himself spent the latter part of his life in a kind of self-imposed exile, ending his life in obscurity.

Out of the ruins of that brutal age now buried in the darkness of a thousand years, still blooms this flower of music and poetry, to speak to our hearts directly and shower us with delight even to this very day.

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