Nature withheld Cassandra in the skies

Poetry is often said to be untranslateable simply because the depth of context, nuance, linguistic effects, rhyme, alliteration and reference can never be satisfactorily matched in another language. The great exception I have previously highlighted on this blog with several posts is Ftizgerald’s translation of the “Rubai’Yat of Omar Khayyam”, which was a very free translation, capturing the intent of the original while greatly adapting the vocabulary and emphasis.

Today’s poem matches up two of the masters of verse from different cultures. It is Keats translating Ronsard. But there is a big clue in the title – the original Ronsard poem was a sonnet, yet counting the lines of Keats’ version I only get to twelve. What happened to the rest? This just illustrates the perils and challenges of translating poetry.

Translated From A Sonnet Of Ronsard

Nature withheld Cassandra in the skies
For more adornment a full thousand years;
She took their cream of Beauty’s fairest dyes,
And shap’d and tinted her above all Peers:
Meanwhile Love kept her dearly with his wings,
And underneath their shadow fill’d her eyes
With such a richness that the cloudy Kings
Of high Olympus utter’d slavish sighs.
When from the Heavens I saw her first descend
My heart took fire, and only burning pains
They were my pleasures — they my Life’s sad end;
Love pour’d her beauty into my warm veins…

John Keats

From <;

It is a mythological subject – the great beauty Cassandra being formed to perfection by the Gods over a thousand years or more, in particular the goddess of love imbuing her with seductive charms which caused the Gods themselves to swoon. Then finally Cassandra is allowed to come to earth to set the poet’s heart on fire, such that he expires with the exquisite pain of love.

The hyperbole is striking throughout the poem, and when pushed so hard, I always wonder whether the poet was serious or just writing tongue-in-cheek. But however you want to take it, I find the poem entertaining, and the connection with Keats’s great predecessor Ronsard is fascinating. Even giants can stand on the shoulders of giants.

Since writing the above, I pulled my battered copy of Ronsard’s poems off the shelf to look for the original. I think this one is the closest, but you will see that Keats’ translation is very free.

Nature ornant la dame qui devait
De sa douceur forcer les plus rebelles,
Lui fit présent des beautés les plus belles,
Que dès mille ans en épargne elle avait.

Tout ce qu’Amour avarement couvait
De beau, de chaste et d’honneur sous ses ailes,
Emmiella les grâces immortelles
De son bel œil, qui les Dieux émouvait.

Du ciel à peine elle était descendue
Quand je la vu, quand mon âme éperdue
En devint folle, et d’un si poignant trait

Le fier Destin l’engrava dans mon âme,
Que, vif ne mort, jamais d’une autre dame
Empreint au cœur je n’aurai le portrait.


Pierre de Ronsard.
From <;

So, its two for the price of one today

The Poetry Dude

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