135. Les paradis d'Anna de Noailles

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Different Kinds of Paradise
February 27, 2010 at 7:19 pm (Literary Criticism, Poetry)
Le paradis, c’est vous, beaux cieux lourds de nuages,
Cieux vides, mais si vifs, si bons et si charmants,
Où les arbres, avec de longs et verts jambages,
Pointus, larges, légers, agités ou dormants,
Écrivent je ne sais quelle suprême histoire,
Quel livre de l’espace, odorant, triste et vain,
Quel mystique Koran, qui relate la gloire
De l’azur éternel et de l’éther divin.
Le paradis, c’est vous, voyageuse nuée,
Robe aux plis balancés d’un dieu toujours absent,
Vers qui montent sans fin, ardeur exténuée,
Les vapeurs du désir et le parfum du sang.
C’est vous le paradis, jardins gais ou maussades,
Lustrés par le soleil ou le vent du matin,
Où les fleurs de couleur déroulent leurs torsades,
Et jouissent en paix du sensuel instinct ;
Et c’est vous, sol poudreux, argileux, tiède terre,
Le paradis naïf et muet qui m’attend,
Lorsque la mort viendra rompre le mol mystère
Qui me lie, ô douceur ! à la beauté du temps… (Anna de Noailles)
This poem — the English version of which is given at the end of this post — is rather more subtle than may at first appear and has a very satisfying emotional and psychological progression which is typical of Anna de Noailles and marks her impeccable (and very feminine) sense of design .
Who has not spent blissful moments stretched out on the grass staring up at the clouds? Summer clouds speak to us of a wholly different kind of existence, a carefree, non-human existence which yet manages not to be abstract and frigid. This ‘idea’ is what Anna de Noailles introduces in the first verse, though she adds the rather original, and certainly very striking, ‘conceit’ that the tracery of the branches, through which she sees the cloud, is a sort of ‘book’ which has a hidden meaning. This simile is further developed in the second verse.
As a pantheist, Anna de Noailles does not believe in Plato’s eternal Forms, or in any other transcendent truth supposedly revealed in one of the the sacred books of the world (or, we might add in a collection of ‘scientific laws’ or mathematical formulae). The ‘sacred book’, the Koran, the Principia Mathematica of Newton, is, she suggests, there above us in the tracery of the branches etched against the sky beyond — if only we could read it.
We have thus : Verse 1 the well-known human situation of staring up at the clouds, verse 2 the idea of ‘mystery’ and of something semi-divine which is yet ‘commonplace’ in the sense that is there in front of us. verse 3 for the first time introduces a jarring note : the simile of a human or animal sacrifice to an idol . We now have the contrast between human life ‘down here’, which is unsatisfying (‘les vapeurs du desir’) and, by implication because of the image of human or animal sacrifice, cruel and unjust, and the carefree and innocent existence of the wandering cumulus cloud. The cloud is likened, not to a god or goddess — the sort of beings who are ‘human’, i.e. degraded, enough to require sacrifices — but simply to the dress of an ‘absent god’, absent doubtless because he does not really exist.
verse 4 takes us right down from the cloudy sky to the earth but to the life of flowers and plants (not the human world). This also is ‘a kind of paradise’, especially perhaps because flowers (which are biologically speaking sexual organs in a quite literal sense) can interact with each other freely and harmoniously while humans cannot — “jouissent en paix du sensuel instinct”.
The opening of verse 4, which comes at first as a shock though as it transpires a necessary one, takes us further downwards , into what is below the surface, in other words into the tomb. In general, Anna de Noailles views death with horror, certainly not with arms outstretched as the Romantics pretended to, but from time to time also she welcomes death because it is the return of the individual to the great matrix of Nature into which she will be fully and finally absorbed. No one but Anna de Noailles could have turned up a line, so surprising and yet so simple and so ‘right’ as ‘le paradis muet et naif qui m’attend’ to serve as an image of death.
And yet, despite all, she cannot quite reconcile herself to personal extinction (as is required by the Buddhistic and Schopenhauerian attitude to existence) because she nonetheless regrets in the very last line of the poem the ‘beaute du temps’.
We have thus a complex and thoroughly satisfying linear psychological trajectory — one could almost plot it on a graph — from the original image of the poet lying on the ground staring up at the sky full of clouds (verse 1), to the tracery of the branches (verse 2) which lie between the observer and the sky, up once more to the wandering cloud of verse 3 so far removed from sordid human life, then down to the carefree life of garden plants (verse 4), finally deeper into the Earth’s crust as we follow the metamorphosis of the corpse (verse 5) with a surprise return to life above ground, the life in which the poet is still immersed and in some sense wishes to be immersed, in the very last line of all.

Different Kinds of Paradise
Paradise is you, beautiful white cloud-laden sky,
Or you, empty expanse, so lively and demure,
Where green-leaved spreading branches cross and multiply
Like lettering, upright, sloping, flat, ornate or pure,
Spelling out some new masterpiece the world awaits,
A book in space, sweet-scented, melancholy, rare,
A mystical Koran whose wisdom celebrates
The eternal azure and the clear sidereal air.
And paradise is you, far ranging cumulus,
Robe of an absent deity, to whom a flood
Of worn out hopes and fears each day ascend from us,
Vapours of dead desires perfumed by our heart-blood.
You also, garden paths, sombre or debonair,
Given lustre by the sun, or by the morning breeze,
Where multi-coloured flowers let down their twisted hair,
And idly preen themselves in carefree sensual ease.
You also are a paradise, earth that will cover me,
A mute unthinking paradise of dust and clay,
When death at length destroys the languid mystery
That binds me, oh so gently, to the beauty of today…
Incidentally, Mme Mignot-Ogliastri, the principal French biographer of Anna de Noailles, and who has done so much to keep her memory alive in adverse times, has suggested to me personally that the last line of my translation would be better rendered as That binds me, oh so gently, to the beauty of the day… (and not ‘today’). This is perhaps more what Anna de Noailles wanted to express, namely the beauty of this world as opposed to the next, but I have not managed to reconcile myself completely to the substitution. I leave the reader to judge for him or herself. Sebastian Hayes