Translated by C. C. Mambretti (Copyright 2013 by C.C. Mambretti)
Like a grand lily
on calm, black water
beneath sleeping stars,
floats white Ophelia,
floats very slowly,
couched in her long veils. . . .
—In distant woods sounds the hallelujah of a hunter’s horn!
More than a thousand years, sad Ophelia
—white phantom—voyaged on the long, black flood.
More than a thousand years, her sweet madness
babbled her romance, on the night breezes.
Now wind smacks her breast, betrays her to view
in a garland of veils that languidly
rocks on the water. Shivering willows
weep on her shoulder. O’er her grand, dreaming
forehead water reeds reverently bow.
Water-lilies wilt, sighing around her.
From time to time she seems to arise
like a small, fluttering wing escaping from
the nest-like alder bush where she’s sleeping.
—From the golden stars falls a mysterious chant. . . .
O, pale Ophelia, lovely as snow! Yes,
child, you perished, swept away on the flood.
—The winds that descend Norway’s grand mountains
carry a message: freedom is bitter.
Whirling your grand hair, their breath portended
to your dreams strange bruits. Your heart heard chants of
nature in the trees’ moans and the nights’ sighs.
The insane sea’s voice—a vast death-rattle—
broke your inner child, so humane, so sweet.
Then one April morn, a fine, pale rider—
poor, handsome madman—lay mute in your lap.
Heaven! Liberty! Love! O, poor mad girl!
You melted to him like the snow to fire.
Your words were strangled by your grand visions
—And the terror of Infinity turned
your blue eyes to stone. . . .
—And the Poet says
that you sought only
the light of stars, night,
the flowers you plucked;
and that on the waters
he has seen white
couched in her long veils
like a grand lily.
The French original is written in pentameter with a four-line-stanza ABAB rhyme scheme. I have taken liberties with the form in order to preserve both meaning and connotation.
Stanza 1: The hunter’s horn—an image of death and possibly even intentional killing—foreshadows the appearance of a man on horseback in stanza 6.
Stanza 2: One thousand years before the writing of the poem would have been the ninth century C.E. (A. D.), roughly the era in which the story of Hamlet and Ophelia is set. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was not the first such story. Shakespeare drew on sources that included the twelfth-century Saxo Grammaticus, a compilation of Scandinavian histories, and Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, both of which would also have been available to Rimbaud. In this poem Rimbaud clearly refers to Scandinavian sources as well as to Shakespeare, as shown by his reference in stanza 5 to Norway rather than to Shakespeare’s setting, Denmark.
Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s French refers to this figure as the “un beau cavalier pâle,” which I have translated as “a fine, pale rider.” The English word “cavalier” is derived from the French word, which means “horseman” or “horse rider.” Because the English word has connotations of a dashing, handsome aristocrat or courtier, I have chosen to translate it literally as “rider,” since the phrase “cavalier pâle” clearly alludes to the Biblical “Pale Rider” of the Apocalypse (Revelations 6:8): “Behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death. . . .”
Stanza 7: Rimbaud’s original French phrase is “s’assit muet à tes genoux,” for which the literal translation is “sat on your knee.” The idea of a horseman sitting on frail Ophelia’s knees (or lap) is ludicrous. So instead I relied upon the passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act III, scene ii, in which Hamlet banters obscenely with Ophelia and suggests he would like to “lie between” her legs and then moderates the suggestion: “I mean, my head upon your lap.”
Stanza 8: “[Y]ou melted to him like a snow to fire” emphasizes her purity succumbing to passion, that is, the triumph of the profane over the sacred in their relationship.
Stanza 8: Rimbaud’s French describes Ophelia’s eyes as “effara ton oeil bleu.” Among the English translations of effara is “astonished,” and the etymology of that word is the Early English word “astonied” from “turned to stone,” as in the effect Medusa had on those who looked upon her face.
For my discussion of the fate of Shakespeare’s Ophelia see: blog.thejurorinvestigates.com/2013/01/10/the-coroner-rules-on-hamletrsquos-opheliamdashaccident-suicide-or-murder.aspx
When this blog was posted on 11/18/13 the French original was available at:
See also: Arthur Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters, translated by Wallace Fowlie, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.