Departure: the Great Dream by William Jay Smith
From the Memoir by William Jay Smith. Dancing in the Garden: A Bittersweet Love Affair with France, to be published by Bay Oak Publishers, Ltd. (Dover, Delaware), Fall 2008.
For many years now when I awake in the morning I recite to myself the lines of a poem. Those lines form a kind of bridge between dark and light, between sleep and waking, between the world of dream and reality. Recently the poem that has come to me is not one in English but in French. It is the famous sonnet of Ronsard’s, which begins:
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle . . .
When I was young I thought that sonnet was the most beautiful poem ever written. There were, of course, others like Shakespeare’s
Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,
Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds . . .
or Robert Herrick’s
When as in silks my Julia goes,
Then, then methinks how sweetly flows
That liquefaction of her clothes . . .
But those were poems in my own language and were my birthright, whereas Ronsard’s was in another language that I had learned and hence was all the more precious and so today I savor every word of it as I say it over and over to myself. I put it down here just as Ronsard wrote it in the sixteenth century; I have simply modernized the spelling:
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant:
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.
Lors vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.
Je serai sous la terre, et, fantôme sans os,
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos:
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain:
Ceuillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.
I have known that poem by heart for over fifty years and have also over those years read any number of translations of it by English poets living and dead. Suddenly one morning I thought it strange that of all those English renditions, however successful they have been, I could not remember a single line. In my drowsy state I began to attempt myself to turn the poem into English. What I ended up with is an approximation, not a finished poem, because I have dispensed with the rhyme scheme and the splendid Petrarchan form of the sonnet. But I’ve tried at the same time to retain the natural conversational tone of the original and have used the same twelve-syllable line rather than the ten-syllable one that translators ordinarily adopt for the English:
When you are old one evening by candlelight,
Unwinding thread and spinning there beside the fire,
You’ll say, enchanted by my poems you recite,
“How Ronsard sang my praise when I was beautiful!”
And not a single maid within your household then
Will not, half-drowsy from her final daily chore,
Awaken at the mention of my famous name
And that enduring glory that I brought to yours.
I shall be underground, bereft of my bare bones,
A spirit now at rest within the myrtle shade,
While you, an old bent woman, crouch beside the fire,
Regretting my true love that you once proudly scorned.
Believe me, live today, tomorrow is too late:
Come, gather while you may the roses of this world.
However well this may approximate what the poet is saying, how little it captures the immediacy of the scene he depicts and of the message it carries, which is immediacy itself. Ronsard’s words evoke in one a powerful sensuous response to the wrinkled candlelit face of the old woman with her thin thread, as if it were time itself passing through her bony fingers. We hear the somber room resound to the words that Ronsard is supposed to have written and that he is, of course, now writing. The “boneless phantom” sends a shiver down one’s spine as does the bent and bony old woman crouching beside the fire, seeking a bit of the warmth she might have had earlier had she accepted the poet’s love. No translation can possibly do justice to a poem which, with the sound of every word, every note, moves forward with an elegance akin to that of Mozart. Consider the subtle nuances of the vowels and the breathtaking repetition of the r in the lines:
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos:
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie . . .
That last word alone, the translation of which the dictionary gives exactly as “stooping, cowering, crouching, squatting” loses all the force of the original where the sound is the action.
The poem has in it all of life and death, poised as on a knife-edge one against the other, light against dark, every breath a precious moment which, if lost, can never be recovered. It is all pure feeling, compressed and conveyed in the most precise language. If viewed historically, this sonnet is just a conventional treatment of the ancient theme of carpe diem ¾ seize the day ¾ so favored by Latin poets and echoing down the centuries ever
since. It is on the surface simply the expression of a poet’s revenge for unrequited love, but the triumph in reality is of language itself. Nowhere in all French literature is the beauty of French more forcefully and magnificently distilled.
All my life I have felt close to France and to things French. I was born in the little town of Winnfield in central Louisiana, not far north of the Red River, along which the French had settled on what they called la côte joyeuse. I was disappointed to find that my family, who had come by oxcart from Georgia before the Civil War, were probably Anglo-Irish rather than French. But my paternal grandmother’s maiden name was “Faith,” which originally had been “La Foi,” I was sure. Although I had no proof of it, I was convinced that her family had arrived with the French Huguenots in Charleston early in the l800s.
During World War I my father had enlisted in the regular Army and had been transferred to Jefferson Barracks, just south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, where he served as a clarinetist in the band. I was only three years old when we arrived at the Barracks, as it was always called, but I grew up there thinking that Louisiana, where my grandmother still had the family farm on the edge of a bayou not far from la côte joyeuse, was where I really belonged. I was pleased to discover that St. Louis was originally a French city, as its street names testified: Laclede, Chouteau, Gravois, and that the section of St. Louis County, adjacent to the Barracks, where I went to school, was named Carondolet after its founder. Carondolet had completely lost its French flavor with the arrival of the more recent German immigrants, who now occupied it almost entirely. I hated the white clean-swept steps of their houses, the neat little pots of Mother-in-law’s tongue in their windows, their beer gardens, their orderly predictable responses to everything in life. The general in command of the Barracks when I was a boy had come from Prussia as a young man and had risen through the ranks of the Army. His iron hand kept the soldiers ramrod-straight, clicking their heels, and saluting at every hour of the day or night. His presence confirmed my impression that Carondolet and its surroundings had become a suffocating German enclave.
It was a descendant of the original settlers of Carondolet, Marguerite Des Loges, who still spoke the French that her parents and grandparents had spoken, who introduced me to the French language. She was the wife of Sergeant Stevens, who had the unromantic position of supervising the hog ranch on the reservation, but with it went a delightful little house in a wooded area near the ranch. Approached down a secluded winding lane, it looked for all the world like one of the ivy-covered cottages in the Doré illustrations of Perrault’s fairytales and Marguerite Des Loges, as she always remained for me, rather than Mrs. Stevens, was indeed a kind of fairytale figure. When I went every afternoon after school with Hugo’s thick French grammar in my hand to listen to her lift the wonderful words from its pages and put them into resonant sentences, I felt that she was leading me into an enchanted realm. The price of entry into that realm was the time spent working my way through the exercises in what seemed then a rather hefty book but it was a price I gladly paid. I worked hard and it was my sessions with her that permitted me to excel in French in high school, to win a scholarship to Washington University in St. Louis and further scholarships for graduate work that led, after World War II, to the years of college teaching, from which I have recently retired.
On this cold January evening I am sitting at the window of our New York apartment on York Avenue. It is on a corner of the twentieth floor, looking out, on the east, toward the East River and the Triborough Bridge, and on the south, out over Manhattan with the Chrysler Building and the Empire State in the distance. My wife and I have lived here for fifteen years since the building of some thirty-five floors went up, much to the displeasure of those occupants of the far more elegant Park Avenue apartments whose view of the river it now blocks. It is classified as a luxury building, but in reality it was badly built and is badly maintained. The apartments are outrageously overpriced and although supposedly “stabilized,” the rents have continued to climb and have become for us, as for many other original occupants, unaffordable. With its pathetic little two-pronged fountain in a semicircle of unkempt greenery, it exudes an air of elegance, which prompted a taxi driver one day to refer to it as “Miami East.” But I have come to love the place and love it even more now when I know that we are leaving it for good, as indeed we must.
The apartment is empty except for a couple of folding chairs, a bridge table, and a canvas army cot under the window next to the radiator. I have come back to the city for a few days to finish some chores and to turn over the keys to the superintendent and then to join my wife at our little house in the Berkshires, where we’ll spend what are referred to rather prettily but not very optimistically as our “declining years.” The bare room now resounds with every step I take and every word I utter. A friend who just telephoned said that I seemed to be speaking from inside a tomb. Perhaps it is this sepulchral emptiness that makes me appreciate all the more Ronsard’s vision of himself resting in the cold earth under the myrtle leaves.
When you are old — how the words echo as I say them over to myself. And I am old ¾ in a few days just after we leave here, I’ll be seventy-five. I shall have lived half a century since committing Ronsard’s sonnet to memory. Here I have no blazing fire to bend to like the old crone in his sonnet but only this small electric radiator.
Carpe diem ¾ seize the day, of course. But the older I get, the more difficult that becomes, not just physically but also mentally. The only way now to seize the day, it seems, is, as with everything else, to wait until it has passed so that it may be enriched by memory. Life appears to have a circular pattern to it and with age the greater part of that circle is occupied by the past, which is lit up with varying degrees of brilliance, and the future which clearly takes up less and less of the circle, is the darker part. Dividing light and dark is the thin hairline of the present, and magnificent though it is, I cannot wait for it to move into the past, to be lit up fully so that it may endure.
Tonight I sit here crouched over the radiator with no light behind me and gaze out on a scene that will be forever etched in my memory and that I shall carry with me to the grave. The apartment building directly in front blocks my view of the river but between it and Doctor’s Hospital to my right I can see the tip of Gracie Mansion, the Mayor’s residence, and the dark foliage of Roosevelt Island. To the left on the edge of another apartment I have a full view of Hell’s Gate, the narrow, once perilous, passage on the rocks of which ships in the past had foundered. It was here that the most deadly peacetime maritime disaster in United States history occurred when in June 1904, the steamboat General Slocum burned and sank with the loss of over a thousand lives. The currents are still treacherous but the river, on this cold night with its full moon as it opens out toward the Triborough Bridge, is a broad black looking glass held up by the double strands of green lights that trail from the towers of the bridge and edge the lights of cars moving along on the opposite bank. From time to time a blood-red streak of light blinking in the distance cuts across its fish-scaled surface and the light on a circling plane against the black sky shimmers like the brush stroke in a Monet painting.
I have turned away from the scene several times, wanting to fix it forever in my mind, but when I turn back and gaze down, the lines of Ronsard’s poem keep running through my head and I see mirrored below me in the black water the familiar face of a beautiful young woman and then with the flickering of light that face changes into the brooding face of the wrinkled old woman she has become and then, as I gaze further, beside the young woman’s face is that of a young man and with a further flickering it too has changed into the lined bent face of an old man. The face of the young woman is one I have not seen in more than fifty years and the face of the young man is mine. I close my eyes and when I open them again, I see the young pair in an amorous embrace caught as on a medallion on the moonlit water. I see clearly now why Ronsard’s lines have been returning to haunt me regularly: inextricably linked to their every syllable like vine leaves circling a marble slab are the threads of a story that I have to tell.
It begins when at the age of twenty I set off to study in France for three months at the Institut de Touraine in Tours. On an afternoon in early June 1938, I sat in New York in my cabin on the SS Champlain of the French line and reviewed in my mind all that had brought me to this point of departure into what I felt was a great dream that would change the course of my life.
1 - 2