by Paul Verlaine, trans. Abbey von Gohren
Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), one of the finest poets of the French language, is known for his meteoric rise and tragic early death, as well as dramatic relationships with other poets, especially Arthur Rimbaud. His poems frequently dwell on dark themes, extravagant excesses, and violence. Though he led an undeniably troubled life, he claimed an indebtedness to the Christian church throughout his life. One collection of poems in particular, Liturgies intimes (“intimate liturgies”), bears witness to his abiding interest in the Christian story. Each poem references feasts in the liturgical calendar (though Lent and Easter are mysteriously missing!) In “Noël” (“Christmas”), Verlaine reflects on the necessity of lowliness and how the arrival of the Almighty as a baby reminds us that we too must become like children to enter to kingdom of God. This includes a particular moral state (ignorance of sin) and physical weakness (inability to do much of anything but sleep). We offer you our translation of this somewhat sombre but tender poem as we approach the celebration of the birth of the Christ Child, along with the Nativity scene above from the Symbolist painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943), who illustrated a number of Verlaine’s other works.
Below is Abbey von Gohren’s original translation of Verlaine’s “Noël.”
Merry Christmas from all of us at Veritas Journal!
O Little Jesus, little we must be,
If we wish to behold God the Father,
Grant that we may be reborn
As pure babes, naked; no home
But a stable; no companion
But an ass and ox, humble pair;
Having the infinite ignorance
And immense all-weakness
Which blesses lowly birth;
Our actions yet unable to wound
Our flesh, nevertheless innocent
Still of the slightest caress–
Our weak eyes not yet able
To feel the light of a pale dawn
Painfully, or feel even the light
Of coming dusk, supreme glow,
Without desiring anything but
A long, tepid, pallid sleep…
As pure babes, which bleak life
Destines for some bitter end,
Or sweet? – a crowd of slaves
Or a people freed – o, which Calvary?
header image: Nativité (detail), Maurice Denis, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Beautiful poem; beautiful translation. Thank you!