314. (Yves Bonnefoy)

As a translator of Shakespeare into French, Yves Bonnefoy has reckoned with the chasm separating the French and English poetic traditions. Though many have written of that chasm, few have charted it with the experience and achievement of Bonnefoy to guide them. To make sense of it, he reflects, as others have, on the difference between Shakespeare and Racine; but his reflection is illuminated by a third point of reference, Baudelaire, for whom his admiration is profound. Bonnefoy begins is 1959 “Shakespeare and the French Poet” with speculative history: “Although historically speaking the idea is absurd, it is a lasting pity that no one thought of extemporizing a translation in Shakespeare’s own day. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, before Malherbe’s influence turned the scale and while the impression of Garnier’s breathless verse still lingered, something of the essence of Shakespeare could have seeped into our poetry and modified it, perhaps profoundly. But the taste for classicism soon barred any genuine understanding of Shakespeare. In an age dominated by Racine, one can hardly imagine anyone translating Macbeth.” After Racine, even “tragedy” means something distinct for the French. While granting the variety within English and French poetries, Bonnefoy nonetheless traces the divergence:

English poetry, Shakespeare’s at least, rejects archetypal realism but only in order to follow the inalienable liberty of man with greater flexibility…With French poetry it is a different matter. Generally, with this more cautious, more self-contained kind of poetry, it is a fact that the words seem to state what they denote only to exclude immediately, from the poem’s field of reference, whatever else is not denoted. The poet’s statements do not set out to describe external reality but are a way of shutting himself in with certain selected precepts in a simplified, more circumscribed world. For instance, in his plays, Racine rejects all but a few situations and feelings. By stripping them of all the contingent or accidental details of real life, he seems to raise to the dignity of the Platonic Idea, as if he wished to reduce his dramatic structure to the bare relations of congruence or opposition which hold between these Ideas. A more coherent world of intelligible essences is substituted for the real world. And, for all that, it is not an abstract world, for the Platonic Idea is profoundly double-natured, in the sense of taking on the life of sensible appearance in its most intense and specific form. But this world is, despite everything, a place apart where the bewildering diversity of the real can be forgotten, and also the very existence of time, everyday life, and death.

There is much here that a reader who has struggled with French poetry will recognize; it makes clear in part the nature of surrealism and symbolism in French poetry, and explains also in part a guiding principle for post-surrealists like Philippe Jaccottet or Bonnefoy himself. And it in order to illuminate Bonnefoy’s own poetry that I quote the criticism here and now. Though I find it valuable in considering other poets, it helps me make sense above all what I have read and found especially moving in his verse, especially Debut et Fin de la Neige. For Bonnefoy, though he translates Shakespeare and attempts to bring his poetry into French, is without having any choice in the matter, a post-Racine French poet. But not only post-Racine. He is also a successor and inheritor of Baudelaire. No sooner has he characterized Racine’s greatness than he turns:

Not all French poetry, of course, can be identified with the art of Racine. And in one case, that of Baudelaire, it went counter to Racine’s design for poetry: but even then without moving out of this magic circle by which words circumscribe the mind. In rediscovering and reaffirming for himself the notion of poetry which was already implicit in the work of Villon and Maynard, Baudelaire was asserting against Racine the very existence of sensible things, the particular reality as such, the stubborn entities that people our mortal horizon, as if giving himself up completely to the phenomenal world and abandoning the hieratic use of language. Baudelaire is the most consistent and determined opponent of the Racinian theory. And yet this “principle of exclusion” I have referred to still governs his poetry. Even though he is dealing with this particular or that particular woman rather than with swan or woman as such—with the idea, that is, of swan or woman—it is not, for all that, what these particular entities are like that matters to him. What matters is simply this mystery—that the Idea should have strayed into the very marrow of the sensible world, that it should have agreed to undergo limitation and death and that, while retaining its absolute status, it should have entered into this world of Shadows and chance. Baudelaire is not trying, at any level of penetration, to describe things as they are: he is trying to convey the act of being, and the passion and moral feeling that can be based on it. An intense and narrow aim that restored to poetry that almost obsessional detachment from the phenomenal world which seems to be the fate of our main body of work. It is as if words, in French excluding instead of describing, brought into the poem the possibility (for the poet) of entering upon the threshold of a divine world, a possibility that shakes off the disintegrating diversity of things: as if they made the work of art a world of its own, a closed sphere. [A footnote here reads: And that is why English poetry “means” so much more than French poetry. The former, whose words have no pretension to be Idea, will be able to put the world into words, to interpret and formulate it. The latter can only reveal the Idea, manifest beyond words and concepts. From this opposition the profound divergences of Anglo-Saxon ad French literary criticism can also be deduced.]

Bonnefoy, I think, largely accepts the fate he describes, but he also sees his own poetry as crucially modifying it. Against Baudelaire’s poetry of “psychology,” he sees, emerging in French poetry of the 1950s, a poetry of “salvation”—a poetry that, remaining distinct from the English tradition and Shakespeare, nonetheless gives the French poet a new hope for translating it. Of such recent French poetry, he writes:

It conceives of the Thing, the real object, in its separation from ourselves, in its infinite otherness, as something that can give us an instantaneous glimpse of essential being and thus be our salvation, if indeed we are able to tear the veil of universals, of the conceptual, to attain it.

Whether this ambition is well-grounded or not is of little importance. The essential thing we must bear in mind is the demand it makes on language—to be open to this most remote kind of object: the being of things, their metaphysical thereness, their presence before us, most remote from any verbalization, and receive them in their pure existence, their stubborn atomicity, and their opaque silence. While it continues to exclude the complexity of phenomena, this poetry is an attempt to lose its identity, to go beyond its nature, to the point where the universal becomes the particular (the ontologically unique), an ecstatic plunge into what is.

However French and English criticism might differ—as Bonnefoy in his footnote suggests—the French and English poet-critics at least share a propensity to announce their own aspirations and visions in their criticism of others. In the last sentence above, Bonnefoy accepts the fate of his own poetry (“while it continues to exclude the complexity of phenomena”), while also affirming its novel direction, an attempt at opening language to “the being of things, their metaphysical thereness.”

There is no great difference between the Hamlet who realizes that the reign of law has passed away (and that justification is to be found, if anywhere, in a subjective choice without ground or warrant) and our contemporary French poetry which has abdicated its age-old kingdom to take, like the Prince of Denmark, its chance with Angst, impotence, and silence.

How telling the italicized German of “Angst” in this essay on translating English into French, suggesting as it does a surfeit of thought beyond the capacity of English.

I find Bonnefoy’s first collection of poetry (from 1953), translated by Galway Kinnell, On the Motion and Immobility of Douve, to be pronouncedly uneven in reckoning with a program that he likely was on in the initial phases of formulating. Too often, Douve rests squarely not in the realm of Platonism, but in the realm of myth, and too often also, the voice speaking to Douve, speaks to her without sufficient orientation of pitch: it neither imprecates, or begs, or communicates with Douve, but instead announces itself to her or else seems an excuse for announcing her:

            Wounded, lost among the leaves,

            But gripped by the blood of vanishing paths,

            Accomplice yet of life.


            I have seen you, sunk down at struggle’s end,

            Falter at the edge of silence and water,

            And mouth sullied by the last stars

            Break with a cry the horrible nightwatch.


            O raising into the air suddenly hard as rock

            A bright gesture of coal.

Or, also too portentously insisting on Douve’s significance without specifying or clarifying it:

I awaken, it is raining. The wind pierces you, Douve, resinous heath sleeping near me. I am on a terrace, in a pit of death. Great dogs of leaves tremble.


The arm you lift, suddenly, at a doorway, lights me across the ages. Village of embers, each instant I see you being born, Douve,


Each instant dying.

More powerful are the poems where Douve is not so neatly or easily elevated into myth or symbol, and when the utterance reaches out towards a presence—her presence, platonic or not—even as it evades the words:

The weird music starts in the hands, in the knees, then it is the head that cracks, the music declares itself under the lips, it surges across the underslope of the face.


Now the woodwork of the face comes apart. Now begins the tearing out of sight.

To me, the effect is not far from what Montale manages with Clizia. Here also:


            O gifted with a profile where earth rages,

            I see you disappear.


            On your lips bare grass and flintsparks

            Invent your last smile,


            Deep knowledge which burns to ashes

            The old bestiary of mind.

I quote from this first collection, though, because it shows, in somewhat raw form, the nascent principles that Bonnefoy works through in the essay on translating Shakespeare. What is especially apparent, and what I think Bonnefoy in this first collection of his poetry has not yet solved, is the problem of death-in-poetry. Douve’s mortality, and the imagery of blood, seem to me to coincide—though perhaps this is the translation—with the heavy-hand of mythologizing, so that death is named rather than thought, and named with an insistence that it do philosophic work that the poetry declines to take up. That is not to denigrate what Bonnefoy writes, as if it were a simple matter to think death in poetry—but it is what Bonnefoy does and can achieve, as few others I’ve read can, elsewhere. It is also a topic he takes up in his criticism of Baudelaire.

Already in the essay on translating Shakespeare, he glances towards the topic, when he writes that for Racine the reality of death can be forgotten and that for Baudelaire, “what matters is simply this mystery—that the Idea should have strayed into the very marrow of the sensible world, that it should have agreed to undergo limitation and death and that, while retaining its absolute status, it should have entered into this world of Shadows and chance.” Death is fleeting in the sentence, but it integral to what it means to be in and of the marrow of the sensible world; it is integral also to what Bonnefoy sees as Baudelaire’s great contribution to French verse.

One might quote almost at random from his 1955 essay, “Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal,” to find Bonnefoy expatiating on the subject: “Baudelaire chose death, that death might grow in him like a conscious, that he might know through death…Poetic discourse, which changes its role for Baudelaire—also changes its nature thanks to him. This discourse that once concealed death casts off the poor tricks it used for that end…Body, place, face. Grown to stellar proportions once they are recognized as mortal, these are the new horizons of Les Fleurs du mal and the salvation of discourse.” In the Douve poems, the body is a a place; the face a landscape; and the death of Douve, the dying that that is synonymous with the event of encounter between Douve and the poet, is never other than bodily.

Nonetheless, Bonnefoy also provides the terms for assessing the limitations of those poems, for seeing how their sense of death is something less than Baudelaire’s: “There are no Olivias or Delias in Les Fleurs du mal. No myth comes to insert its distance between speech and the world. The truth of speech, unconscious and unadorned for the first time in our letters, issues directly from this meeting of the wounded body and immortal language.” On this reading, Baudelaire has within him the germ of the mid-twentieth century revolution in French poetry that Bonnefoy describes in the Shakespeare essay (Baudelaire opens language to the body in a new way); it also suggests that, soon after the Douve poems, Bonnefoy was reassessing his own strategy in furthering that revolution.

Hear how different the address in Bonnefoy’s second collection, 1958’s Yesterday’s Desert Dominion. The second part of “Threats of the Witness” (translated by Anthony Rudolf):

See, all the paths you went along are closed now,

No longer are you granted even the respite

To wander even lost. Earth, failing, sounds

With your footsteps which are going nowhere.


Why did you allow brambles to cover

That high silence you’d arrived at? The fire,

Empty, watches over memory’s garden

And you, shadow in the shadow, where are you, who are you?


Or else, the remarkable “Iron Bridge”:


No doubt there is still at the far end of a long street

Where I walked as a child a pool of oil,

Rectangle of heavy death under black sky.


Since then, poetry

Has kept its waters apart from other waters,

No beauty, no color can retain it—

Iron and night

Cause it to suffer.


It nourishes

A dead shore’s long grief, an iron bridge

Thrown towards the other even darker shore

Is its only real love, its only memory.

In these poems, Bonnefoy opens language towards the world so as to open language towards silence and death; death enters the poems even where it is not named. If I had to say why, I would not want to suggest that Bonnefoy has, in 1958, any better understanding of death, which is not something that can be understood, but instead that Bonnefoy has a better understanding of time, and of the death that conditions human temporality. This is the a decisive step towards what is perfectly realized in The Beginning and the end of the Snow.

 I do not know nearly enough of Bonnefoy’s work to trace more of those steps, or to say how many peaks there are along the way, but one other seems worth mentioning: a poem of unusual beauty, poise, and restraint, that seems to accept the fate of French poetry as Bonnefoy describes it (its Platonism), as well as to move in the direction of metaphysical openness towards being and thereness. It is the untitled second section from “The Foam, The Reef” in the 1965 collection (Bonnefoy’s third) Words in Stone, translated by Richard Pevear and Emily Grosholtz, but followed here by the French, owing especially to what happens in the final stanza, where I think the translation falls notably short:


Mouth, you will have drunk

Of the dark savor,

Of silted water,

Of Being without return.


Where the bitter water

Mingles with the sweet,

You will have drunk

Where unbearable love shines.


But do not be distressed,

O mouth that asks

For more than dim reflections,

More than shadows of day.


The soul is made by loving

The unresponding foam,

Joy gives life to joy,

Love saves what is not love.



Bouche, tu auras bu

A la saveur obscure,

A une eau ensablée,

A l’Être sans retour.


Où vont se réunir

L’eau amére, l’eau douce,

Tu auras bu où brille

L’impartageable amour.


Mais ne t’angoisse pas,

O bouche qui demandes

Plus qu’un reflet troublé,

Plus qu’une ombre de jour :


L’âme se fait d’aimer

L’écume sans réponse.

La joie sauve la joie.

L’amour le non-amour.

The last stanza especially has all of the inevitability and limpid brilliance of the Racinian Platonism while also looking out—or feeling its way towards—a thereness, a world’s presence whose exclusion from the verse is made an acknowledgment of its otherness, its silence beyond language. It does not admit death per se, but in its yearning for transcendence is situated achingly within a world conditioned by “Being without return.” It is as intensely erotic a poem as any of the Douve poems, without the invocation of a human body except for the mouth, that portal of ingestion, pleasure, language, and breath—its desire is inseparable from mortality.

I’ve looked ahead several times in this post to The Beginning and The End of the Snow, but that will best wait for a subsequent post, this having pushed on for too long already.


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