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

*

Magnificat

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