Sous la nuit

Sous la nuit

The absent ones blow greyly and the night is dense. The night’s the colour of the dead man’s eyelids.
        All night I’m on the run, I channel the pursuit and flight, I sing a song for my misfortunes, black birds upon black shrouds.
        I scream mentally, the demented wind rebuts me, I confine myself, I pull away from the twitching hand, I don’t want to know anything other than this clamor, this howl in the night, this wandering, this not being found.
        All night I make the night.
        All night you abandon me slowly as water falls slowly. All night I write to find who is looking for me.
        Word by word I write the night.

Alejandra Pizarnik

Translation by John Lyons

pizarnikAlejandra Pizarnik (April 29, 1936 – September 25, 1972), an Argentinian poet, greatly respected and supported by such writers as Octavio Paz and Julio Cortázar, had a long and ultimately unsuccessful struggle against depression. The intensity and intimacy of her poetry places her firmly in the tradition of Emily Dickinson, whose verse she greatly admired. In her “Notes for an article”, written in 1964, she states : “Intense need for poetic truth. It demands the freeing of visionary energies while maintaining, simultaneously an extraordinary aplomb in the handling of this energy. I’m not sure if I’m talking about poetic perfection, freedom, love or death.”


Day by the Danube


Day by the Danube

Cycled out to the Danube
             : on the far side
of the blue wide water
             white swans swam in lines
sticking close to the bank
             as they made their way north
The river was silent
             except where it sucked
at the stones on the shoreline
             where tiny wavelets broke

And time passed
             and nothing was done
and my mind floated off
             into the distance
and everywhere
             became nowhere
and now became then
             and it was good

John Lyons

Versión en español

Un día en el Danubio

Nos dirigimos al Danubio
             en bicicleta : y al otro lado
de las anchas aguas azules
             los cisnes nadaban en fila
pegados a la orilla
             en camino hacia el norte
Silencioso el río
             excepto donde chupaba
las piedras de la ribera
             y se rompía en pequeñas olas.

Y el tiempo pasó
             y nada se hizo 
y mi mente flotó en la distancia
             y todas partes llegaron a ser
ninguna parte
             y el ahora 
se convirtió en ya se fue
             y fue bueno

The art of translation

The art of translation

In 1936 Samuel Beckett was a contributing translator to Thorns of Thunder, a brief selection of the poems of Paul Eluard. 

Later that year Beckett wrote to his friend and fellow translator, Tom McGreevy:

“My copy of Eluard came, duly signed by author & all available translators. He does come through after a fashion, the frailty & nervousness. But no attempt seems to have been made to translate the pauses. Like Beethoven played strictly to time.”



Apollinaire, by Picasso


Anemone and columbine
Have grown in the garden
Where sadness sleeps
Between love and disdain

Here our shadows come too
That the night will dissipate
The sun that deepens them
With them will disappear

The deities of breathing waters
Let their hair run free
Go on you should pursue
That beautiful shadow you desire

Guillaume Apollinaire (from Alcools)

Translation by John Lyons

* * *
French original


L’anémone et l’ancolie
Ont poussé dans le jardin
Où dort la mélancolie
Entre l’amour et le dédain

Il y vient aussi nos ombres
Que la nuit dissipera
Le soleil qui les rend sombres
Avec elles disparaîtra

Les déités des eaux vives
Laissent couler leurs cheveux
Passe il faut que tu poursuives
Cette belle ombre que tu veux

When you’re old – Paul Eluard


Paul Eluard, by Picasso

           I can’t do a thing, I can’t see a thing.

When you’re old, you shouldn’t go out
You should stay indoors by the fire,
With warm clothes and the day tempered
Each evening by the night and the lamplight.

When you’re old, you shouldn’t read anymore.
Words are bad and meant for other lives.
You should stay in, your eyes glazed, resigned
Motionless, in a corner.

When you’re old, you shouldn’t talk anymore
You mustn’t sleep anymore. . . You must remember
That others are constantly thinking:
“When you’ve seen it all, you’re miserable
And when you’re old, you’ve seen it all!”

Paul Eluard (1895-1952)

Translation by John Lyons

French text :

         Je ne peux rien faire, je ne peux rien voir.

Quand on est vieux, il ne faut plus sortir
Il faut rester dans la chambre avec le feu,
Avec de chauds vêtements et le jour adouci
Chaque soir par la nuit et la clarté des lampes.

Quand on est vieux, il ne faut plus lire.
Les mots sont mauvais et pour d’autres vies.
Il faut rester, les yeux perdus, l’air résigné
Dans un coin, sans bouger.

Quand on est vieux, il ne faut plus parler
Il ne faut plus dormir. . . Il faut se souvenir
Que les autres pensent sans cesse:
« Quand on a tout vu, on est misérable
Et quand on est vieux c’est qu’on a tout vu! »

Paul Eluard (from Le devoir et l’inquiétude, 1916-1917)


Le Pont Mirabeau – Guillaume Apollinaire

apollinaire Metzinger

The poem below by Guillaume Apollinaire (1880 –1918) is taken from Alcools, one of the first great modernist texts, published in 1913. A young Samuel Beckett, recognising the importance of this landmark collection, translated the first of its poems, entitled ‘Zone,’ which establishes, as its title suggests, a brave new, modern territory for writing in the 20th century.

‘Le Pont Mirabeau,’ however, is a rather more traditional lament to the passing of time and the fading of love. The bitter-sweet, melancholy tone was inspired by the poet’s troubled and ultimately doomed relationship with Marie Laurencin.

In addition to writing poetry, Apollinaire was a journalist and an art critic and is credited with having invented the terms ‘surrealism’ and ‘cubism’ He was a very close friend of Picasso and also of Gertrude Stein.

‘Le Pont Mirabeau’ has become one of the best-loved and most famous poems of French literature, and the first lines of the poem appear on a metal plaque on the Paris bridge in memory of this great poet.

The illustration is Étude pour le portrait de Guillaume Apollinaire, by Jean Metzinger, and it dates from 1911.

Under the Mirabeau Bridgemirabeau

Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine
            Just like our loves
      Must I recall
The joy that always followed pain

            Night falls the bell tolls
            The days fade but here I remain

Hand in hand let’s stand face to face
            While beneath the bridge
      Of our arms the waves
Of eternal longing flow languidly by

            Night falls the bell tolls
            The days fade but here I remain

Love fades away like the water that flows
            Love fades away
      How slow is life
And how aggressive is Hope

            Night falls the bell tolls
            The days fade but here I remain

Days pass the weeks pass too
            Neither time gone by
      Nor our loves will return
Under the Mirabeau Bridge flows the Seine

            Night falls the bell tolls
            The days fade but here I remain

Guillaume Apollinaire (translation, John Lyons)

Fernando Pessoa – what’s in a name?

pessoaI began to study Portuguese as an optional special subject, in my second year at Oxford. The Portuguese tutor in literature was Tom Earle, and it was he who first introduced me to the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, the colossus of 20th Century Portuguese poetry. Pessoa spent his early childhood in Durban and grew up completely bilingual. He wrote a number of poems in English, notably a sequence of sonnets in the Shakespearean mode. But he is far better known for his poetry in Portuguese.

Pessoa (his surname means ‘person’ in Portuguese) is famous for having written under the guise of around seventy-five heteronyms. Far more than simple pseudonyms, Pessoa imagined entirely different personae for these fragments of personality within himself and described the experience of being possessed by the different characters at different times and being driven to write in a style markedly peculiar to each individual.

Below, I have chosen to translate poems written by four of these heteronyms: Pessoa himself, Ricardo Reis, who wrote odes in a more classical style, Alberto Caiero and Álvaro de Campos. The selection is insufficient to give anything more than a taste of Pessoa’s craft, but interested readers will find plenty of information online to sate their curiosity.

In the end I was not able to complete my special subject, but the phenomenon of Fernando Pessoa has been with me all my life, and his poetry a constant source of pleasure.

It’s raining. There’s silence

It’s raining. There’s silence, because the rain itself
Makes no noise but falls gently.
It’s raining. The sky sleeps. When the soul’s a widow
Which you can’t know, feelings are blind.
It’s raining. Who I am (my being) I disown. . .

So calm is the rain that drifts in the air
(there seem to be no clouds) so that it seems
Not to be rain but a whisper
That of itself, with a whisper, forgets it exists.
It’s raining. No wish to do a thing. . .

No hovering wind, no sky that I can sense
It’s raining far far away and indistinctly,
Like a certainty that deceives us,
Like some big desire that lies in our face.
It’s raining. I feel nothing inside. . .

Fernando Pessoa


Come sit with me, Lydia, by the river’s edge

Come sit with me, Lydia, by the river’s edge.
Quietly watch it flow and understand
That life goes on, and our hands aren’t clasped.
(Let’s clasp hands.)

Then think, as children who have grown up, that life
Flows by, never lasts, leaves nothing, never returns,
But flows on into a far-off sea, at the foot of the Fado,
Beyond the gods.

Let’s unclasp hands because no point in us tiring.
Enjoy it or not, we flow on like the river.
Better to understand how to move silently with the flow
Without major upsets.

Without love, nor hatred, nor passions that cry out,
Nor longings that over-excite the eyes,
Nor cares, for regardless of cares the river flows on,
Will always run down to the sea.

Let us love without fuss, thinking that we could,
If we wanted, exchange a kiss, an embrace, a caress,
But it’s better just to sit side by side
And listen and watch as the river flows by.

Let’s pick flowers, you gather them and keep them
In your lap, and let their scent soften the moment
This moment when at peace we have no beliefs,
Innocently decadent pagans.

At least, if once there were shades, you should remember me
But not let my memory burn or hurt or move you,
Because we never clasped hands, nor ever kissed
Were never more than children.

And should you hand the dark boatman his coin before me,
There’ll be nothing to bring me pain when I remember.
Gently my memory will recall you thus – by the river’s edge,
My own sad pagan with flowers in your lap.

Ricardo Reis


That lady has a piano

That lady has a piano
Which is nice but not the flow of rivers
Nor the murmur the trees make. . .
Why must one have a piano?
It’s better to have ears
And to love Nature.

If I could crack the whole earth

If I could crack the whole earth
And feel it had a palate,
I’d be happier for a moment. . .
But I don’t always want to be happy.
You have to be occasionally unhappy
In order to be natural . . .

It’s not all sunny days,
And the rain, after much drought, is required.
So I treat unhappiness and happiness the same
Of course, as one not surprised
That there are mountains and plateaux
And there are rocks and grass. . .

What’s required is to be natural and calm
In happiness or unhappiness,
Feel like someone who notices,
Think like someone who walks,
And when you’re dying, remember that the day dies,
And that the sunset is beautiful, beautiful the night that remains. . .
So it is and so be it. . .

Alberto Caeiro



When will this inner night, the universe, pass
And me, my soul, have its day?
When will I wake from being awake?
I don’t know. Impossible to stare
As the sun on high glares.
The stars shimmer coldly
And can’t be counted.
The heart beats so remotely
And can’t be heard.
When will this theatreless drama
Or this dramaless theatre pass
So I can go home?
Where? How? When?
Cat staring at me, eyes agog with life, what do you hold deep inside?
He’s the one! He’s the one!
Like Joshua he’ll order the sun to stop, and I’ll awake;
And then it’ll be day.
Smile, as you sleep, my soul!
Smile, my soul, it’ll be day!

Álvaro de Campos