625. "Exaltation". French text and English translation

Exaltation by Anna de Noailles
Translation and notes by Sebastian Hayes

I give the French first so that those who know the language can think how they would go about translating it. The English rendwering is at the bottom of the post.


Le goût de l’héroïque et du passionnel
Qui flotte autour des corps, des sons, des foules vives,
Touche avec la brûlure et la saveur du sel
Mon cœur tumultueux et mon âme excessive.

Loin des simples travaux et des soucis amers,
J’aspire hardiment la chaude violence
Qui souffle avec le bruit et l’odeur de la mer,
Je suis l’air matinal d’où s’enfuit le silence ;

L’aurore qui renaît dans l’éblouissement,
La nature, le bois, les houles de la rue
M’emplissent de leurs cris et de leurs mouvements ;
Je suis comme une voile où la brise se rue.

Ah ! vivre ainsi les jours qui mènent au tombeau,
Avoir le cœur gonflé comme le fruit qu’on presse
Et qui laisse couler son arome et son eau,
Loger l’espoir fécond et la claire allégresse !

Serrer entre ses bras le monde et ses désirs
Comme un enfant qui tient une bête retorse,
Et qui mordu, saignant, est ivre du plaisir
De sentir contre soi sa chaleur et sa force.

Accoutumer ses yeux, son vouloir et ses mains
À tenter le bonheur que le risque accompagne ;
Habiter le sommet des sentiments humains
Où l’air est âpre et vif comme sur la montagne.

Être ainsi que la lune et soleil levant
Les hôtes du jour d’or et de la nuit limpide ;
Être le bois touffu qui lutte dans le vent
Et les flots écumeux que l’ouragon dévide !

La joie et la douleur sont de grands compagnons,
Mon âme qui contient leurs battements farouches
Est comme une pelouse où marchent des lions…
J’ai le goût de l’azur et du vent dans la bouche.

Et c’est aussi l’extase et la pleine vigueur
Que de mourir un soir, vivace, inassouvie,
Lorsque le désir est plus large que le cœur
Et le plaisir plus rude et plus fort que la vie…

Anna de Noailles

Notes : This poem impresses by its controlled passion : the authoress is not ‘making literature’, she is giving her all. Yet the form is tight, the diction elegant.
The challenge for the translator is to render the violence of feeling while retaining the surface neatness. The latter requirement made it imperative to imitate the regular metre and rhyme scheme, which in turn meant the translation could not possibly be literal. I had to keep asking myself, “What would Anna de Noailles have written had she been English?”
When, for technical reasons, I found I had to depart from the French, I retained the message and the rhythm (as far as I could) . I had no scruples rendering
« J’ai le goût de l’azur et du vent dans la bouche »
by the free but ‘equivalent’
“Upon my lips there is the taste of honey and of gall”

However, I pulled back from embellishing or trying to improve on the original — a continual temptation for a translator. I could not resist rendering the title Exaltation as "Life-force", but, on the whole, I think this is defensible since 'exaltation' sounds rather peculiar in English and Anna de Nolailles' epoch was that of the philosopher Henri Bergson who made 'élan vital' the cornerstone of his philosophy and certainly she exemplified it. But when, at one point, I was tempted to translate

« Mon âme…est comme une pelouse où marchent des lions »
« I am an emerald lawn where mating lions roam »
but finally settled for
« I am an emerald lawn where mating lions roam »
This is preferable, I think, to the more literal
"My soul is a great lawn where lions roam" (which needs an extra couple of syllables anyway.
Above all I wanted to impart to the translation the insistent forward drive of the original : the poem moves to a crescendo in the penultimate verse and then dies away with the quiet but dignified and truly final ending.

I have the taste for what is ardent and intense,
Delirious crowds and bodies, a heroic role
In life, such bitter, acrid smells are like incense
To my tumultuous heart and my excessive soul.

From mundane tasks and cares I languish to be free,
Oh to be living now amidst the pent-up might
Of storm and spray, inhale the odour of the sea,
And breathe the morning air that silences the night.

Dawn breaks, the dazzled world returns to life again,
Birds sing, a clamour rises from the street below,
A thousand bustling noises fill my waking brain,
I am a canvas sail the wind swings to and fro.

To fill like this the days that lead towards the tomb,
Bearing a heart that’s swollen like a mellow fruit,
And leaves its juice and scent to beautify the room,
The mark of one who was in pleasure resolute.

To see spread out before me all that life can yield,
And clasp it to me fiercely like an infant boy
Hugging an unknown beast discovered in a field,
Who, ev’n when bitten, bloodstained, still is mad with joy.

To steel oneself for happiness, hand, will and eye,
Scaling the heights and depths of what the heart can bear,
To risk one’s all and the assaults of time defy,
To breathe the sparse and heady Himalayan air ;

To strive to emulate the wheeling sun and moon,
Monarch of golden day and night-time’s silvery queen,
To live like spumes of spray whipped up by a typhoon
Or like the unyielding thorn upon a wind-lashed green.

Sorrow and joy are lifelong comrades travelling home,
My heart yields always to their joint pulsating call,
I am an emerald lawn where pairs of lions roam,
Upon my lips there is the taste of honey and of gall.

And finally I celebrate that ecstasy
Of dying in full strength within the midst of strife,
Because desire exceeds my frame’s capacity,
And what I hold inside me bursts the bonds of life.

Translated by Sebastian Hayes