“L’invitation au voyage” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Wilbur

Title page to the first edition of Les fleurs du mal with notes by Baudelaire.

Translation can be a controversial topic, and poetry translation is even more so. In any act of translation, the obstacles posed by the two languages’ differing histories, cultural contexts, and nuances of meaning can be almost insurmountable. Add to that the fact that the very existence of a poem depends on its being intimately involved with the features of its own language. Sound, rhythm, denotation, connotation, and even the histories of individual words or phrases can all carry meaning. To move a poem from one language to another and keep the poetic aspects of it is nearly impossible. Some believe that it is impossible. I personally prefer to take a more optimistic view: will Baudelaire in English ever be the same as Baudelaire in French? Of course not. Can we hope that some intrepid Anglophone might create for us, if not the same thing, at least something similar to the experience of Baudelaire in French? I think so.

Wilbur in the 1960s.

An ideal poetry translator should, as far as he is able, respect the form, sound, and wording of the original poem. At the same time, he should make it pleasant to read as English verse. One translator who succeeded marvelously at that was Richard Wilbur. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Wilbur is justly heralded for his original poetry, but he has also translated dozens of poets from French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. He never, to my knowledge, published a book dedicated solely to translations, but scattered throughout his collections are gems like “L’invitation au voyage,” works that, without completely sacrificing lexical and formal fidelity, still capture some of the original’s beauty in English.

First, here’s the poem as originally published by Baudelaire in Les fleurs du mal:

“L’invitation au voyage”

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble !
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble !
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l’âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

Vois sur ces canaux
Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l’humeur est vagabonde;
C’est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde.
— Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D’hyacinthe et d’or;
Le monde s’endort
Dans une chaude lumière.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme, et volupté.

And now Wilbur’s English version, from 1988’s New and Collected Poems.

“L’invitation au voyage”

My child, my sister, dream
How sweet all things would seem
Were we in that kind land to live together,
And there love slow and long,
There love and die among
Those scenes that image you, that sumptuous weather.
Drowned suns that glimmer there
Through cloud-disheveled air
Move me with such a mystery as appears
Within those other skies
Of your treacherous eyes
When I behold them shining through their tears.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

Furniture that wears
The luster of the years
Softly would glow within our glowing chamber,
Flowers of rarest bloom
Proffering their perfume
Mixed with the vague fragrances of amber;
Gold ceilings would there be,
Mirrors deep as the sea,
The walls all in an Eastern splendor hung —
Nothing but should address
The soul’s loneliness,
Speaking her sweet and secret native tongue.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

See, sheltered from the swells
There in the still canals
Those drowsy ships that dream of sailing forth;
It is to satisfy
Your least desire, they ply
Hither through all the waters of the earth.
The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

There, there is nothing else but grace and measure,
Richness, quietness, and pleasure.

The French language poses some interesting challenges for poetry translators. Not only do the French measure lines differently than we do in English (counting syllables instead of beats per line), they also have far more rhymes than we do. There is a clear and tight rhyme scheme in Baudelaire’s original, but the limitations of English often mean that translators either have to forgo rhyming altogether or else say something strange and unwieldy to get the rhymes to work. (For example, the beginning of Roy Campbell‘s translation of the same poem: “My daughter, my sister, / Consider the vista / Of living out there, you and I, / To love at our leisure, / Then, ending our pleasure, / In climes you resemble to die.”) Part of the brilliance of Wilbur is that he’s able not just to imitate the meter of the original but also to preserve the original rhyme scheme without feeling forced or unnatural.

Of course, this requires that some adjustments be made to the wording. Even so, whatever changes Wilbur makes still strive to match the spirit and the ideas of the original. For instance, an interview he gave in 1988 has him defending his use of the word “kind” in line 3: “Were we in that kind land to live together.” The original French line, translated literally, reads, “Of going there to live together.” There’s no equivalent word for “kind.” Wilbur explains:

What I’ve done there has been to reach down into the rest of the poem where Baudelaire talks about this land which would mirror the soul and anticipate that idea by the word “kind,” which suggests “akin.”

The land is kind not just in that it pleases the speaker but also because it is of the same “kind” as him. A sort of kindred spirit with him. It, in a way, has its own personality and its own soul that seem to complement his. He has the feeling that this is where he truly belongs.

This ideal land of Baudelaire’s was apparently inspired by his travels in Holland. (Photo by Eddie Hooiveld)

One of the trickier lines to render in this poem is line 6: “Au pays qui te ressemble.” A literal translation of that line could read either “in the country that resembles you” or “in the country that is like you.” Taking the line out of its original context, either translation would work because “ressemble” can refer to similarities either in physical appearance or in character and behavior. So, when translating to English, the question is which sense did Baudelaire mean to use? Or did he want to evoke both? And if he did, how to represent that in English?

Some translators go with the closest etymological cousin of “ressemble,” which of course is “resemble”: “in that land that resembles you” (Keith Waldrop). This, however, flattens the comparison, locking it into the realm of the visual only when there are other, more interesting possibilities available in the French word. That’s why Wilbur’s choice of “image” for “ressemble” is so brilliant: “image” keeps the idea of a shared physical beauty at the fore, but it also suggests a spiritual similarity between the woman and this country. Think of the phrase “he’s remaking [x] in his own image”: this doesn’t mean that x looks like this person, but rather that it now reflects his ideas and values. Similarly, the Christian/Jewish idea that humans bear the “image of God” does not mean that human beings are visual facsimiles of God per se, but rather that they share spiritual attributes in common with him.

So “image” has more to say than “resemble.” If the land “images” the lady, she, like the narrator, is “akin” to it, sharing not just its outward beauty but also its mysteriousness (Wilbur, lines 7-11), its storminess (9-12), and perhaps sometimes its “grace and measure.”

Another Wilburism that especially stands out is at the end of the fifth stanza:

The sun at close of day
Clothes the fields of hay,
Then the canals, at last the town entire
In hyacinth and gold:
Slowly the land is rolled
Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire.

In the original French, translated as literally as I know how:

The setting suns
Clothe the fields,
The canals, the entire city
In hyacinth and gold;
The world falls asleep
In a warm light.

As you can see, the language, especially of those last couple of lines, is not quite as ornamented as Wilbur’s verse. And yet, I think the ornamentation serves this poem well. Of course, “Sleepward under a sea of gentle fire” is much more interesting and much more memorable than “In a warm light,” but Wilbur never adds to poems unless he believes the addition is justified by the poem itself. In this case, I think we can see that it is.

Sketch of Baudelaire by Edouard Manet, 1862.

The first stanza introduces us to a couple in love, but it also gives us reason to wonder what goes on behind the scenes. The speaker has a tender regard for this woman, calling her—in an echo of the Song of Songs—“My child, my sister.” The mention of “treacherous eyes” lets us know that, despite this regard, she has hurt him in someway in the past, perhaps through infidelity. She too must have some cause to be unhappy in the relationship if her eyes are “shining through their tears.”

And yet in spite of this unhappiness, they stay together. The speaker even says that he wants to spend the rest of his life with her: “There love and die.” They don’t want to give each other up, even if the result causes them pain.

So it is a deep love, but not an untroubled one. Passionate, but with the kind of passion that hurts both the lover and the beloved. It is a “sea of gentle fire.” How can fire, so destructive to everything in its path, be “gentle”? How can two people love each other and still make each other unhappy? With this new metaphor, Wilbur touches ever so briefly and elegantly on the paradox inherent in this poem.

That’s all for now. Let me know in the comments what you thought about this poem, and of my analysis of it. If you can recommend me any other pretty French poems (originals or translations), mention those too!


Bookish Links — July 2018

Photo by Sydney Rae.
  • Another neat Youtube project I found recently is Blank Verse Films, a video series for readings by contemporary poets. You can check that out here.
  • “Growing up in America, I was made to think poetry is useless, that it’s dead or elitist or merely decorative. In Iran, meanwhile, there is no higher art form. Poets aren’t just venerated—they are loved. Everyone seems to have a favorite poet and can recite whole poems by heart. Iranians know that when you memorize a poem it becomes part of you. You carry it with you, even if in fragments, even in another country”: on the work of the controversial Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad.
  • Finally, I’m currently reading (and loving) Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths so my friend Matthew recommended this to me: a slightly strange and fascinating interview that Borges gave to William F. Buckley in 1977.

Book Review: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1945

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2015

Number of Pages: 160

Publisher: Zondervan

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Speculative fiction

Subjects: Heaven, Hell, damnation, death, desire

Buy it here (disclosure: I use affiliate links).

I glanced round the bus. Though the windows were closed, and soon muffed, the bus was full of light. It was a cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then—there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus—I caught sight of my own.

And still the light grew.

Chapter 2

As I mentioned in last month’s “Bookish Links” post, I’m participating in an online book club started by Joy Clarkson of the podcast Speaking with Joy. Basically, we read two chapters of The Great Divorce every week, Joy posts questions about the chapters on social media, and then we answer them and discuss what we read. Joy has studied this book inside and out, so the discussions she starts and the insight she provides—through her blog and her podcast—are incredibly illuminating. It’s also really fun to study this book with other Lewis fans.

The club is currently up to chapter eight out of fourteen, but since this book is so short and the material was so interesting to me, I decided to read it straight through.

The story begins with our narrator (who, though he is never named, appears to be Lewis himself) wandering around a dreary gray town at sunset. He comes across a group of people waiting at a bus stop and decides to join the queue, if only so that he won’t be alone anymore. When the bus finally comes, it whisks these lost souls away to a new and strange place, one that is larger, brighter, and feels altogether more real than anywhere else they have ever been. The narrator soon finds out that he and his fellow passengers were in Hell before and have been allowed to take a sort of “holiday” in Heaven. They can even stay in Heaven if they want to; the problem is most of them don’t want to. Between their misguided loves, their cynicism, and, most of all, their selfishness, it takes nothing short of a miracle to get these people into Heaven for good.

I think James Motter, an independent C. S. Lewis scholar, probably summed it up best: “if it is solely entertainment you seek, there are better books. We read [The Great Divorce] instead for the light it sheds on Lewis’s theology.” That’s not to say that the book holds no entertainment or artistic value whatsoever. On the contrary, the ideas Lewis discusses would undoubtedly lose some of their power and clarity if Lewis had stuck to his usual apologetic prose. The imaginative elements in this book are part of the argument. Nevertheless, I do believe that Lewis is writing to explain and educate more than to entertain. Without pretending to give a factual account of what Heaven is like, Lewis instead uses this story as a parable to talk about salvation. The story consists mostly of our protagonist observing interactions between the souls from Hell (he calls them “Ghosts”) and the residents of Heaven—the “Spirits”—who desperately want to bring the Ghosts over to the other side.

So, if you’re looking for a rip-roaring fantasy yarn, this may not be your book. If, however, you are interested in Christian ideas about Heaven, Hell, and human desire, read on.


One of the defining features of Lewis’s Hell is the lack of any sort of community. As the narrator observes when he first joins the queue, even the couples can’t get along with each other for very long and everyone is constantly bickering and sniping at each other. Once the bus ride is underway, we learn from one Ghost—the narrator calls him “the Intelligent Man”—that, typically, the longer a person stays in Hell, the further they remove themselves from their neighbors:

“As soon as anyone arrives, he settles in some street. Before he’s been there twenty-four hours he quarrels with his neighbour. Before the week is over he’s quarreled so badly that he decides to move. Very likely he finds the next street empty because all the people there have quarreled with their neighbours and moved. So he settles in. If by any chance the street is full, he goes further. But even if he stays, it makes no odds. He’s sure to have another quarrel pretty soon and then he’ll move on again. Finally he’ll move right out to the edge of the town and build a new house. You see, it’s easy here. You’ve only got to think a house and there it is. That’s how the town keeps on growing.” [Chapter 2]

Naturally, some residents of Hell have noticed this lack of camaraderie and believe it is a problem. But their ideas for solving it couldn’t be further from the spirit of true community. For instance, the “Intelligent Man” hopes to start a market-based economy in Hell by bringing items back with him from Heaven and selling them. “If they needed real shops,” he reasons, “chaps would have to stay near where the real shops were. If they needed real houses, they’d have to stay near where builders were. It’s scarcity that enables a society to exist. Well, that’s where I come in.” He describes his role in this scheme as that of a “public benefactor,” when his motive is clearly personal economic gain. He’s not as interested in a real community of people who help and care for each other as he is in finding a customer base to make money off of.

Similar to Dante in Inferno, Lewis imagines Hell as a series of concentric circles, formed as the Ghosts move further and further away from each other. (“The Abyss of Hell” by Sandro Botticelli)

Another Ghost the narrator meets on the bus is identified as the “Tousle-Headed Poet,” a former writer and Marxist agitator. He tells the narrator that he’s going to Heaven in hopes of finding “Recognition” and “Appreciation” for his (alleged) talents as a poet, decrying the “appalling lack of any intellectual life” in Hell. He describes his failed attempts to form a writing society in Hell, before assuring the narrator that, of everyone on the bus, he is the only one who will be staying in Heaven permanently. In his mind, he is the only one of them who is sophisticated enough to appreciate Heaven.

So where the Intelligent Man’s main motive for seeking community was based in profit, this poet’s motive is to find a group of people who will praise him and acknowledge his perceived superiority. In either case, their motives stem primarily from love of the self.

“Saint Augustine in His Cell” by Sandro Botticelli

And to Lewis, that’s the main problem that these souls need to overcome if they are going to stay in Heaven: they must forget themselves, their works, their sin, and leave everything behind for the sake of God and his love. One really interesting point that Joy has brought up in the course of the book club is how Lewis’s ideas here complement those of St. Augustine in his book City of God. According to Augustine, human beings only exercise two kinds of love: love of God and love of the self. Even when we love other people, we either are loving them “in” God (in such a way that pleases him and draws us closer to him) or we are exercising self-love (loving a person not for their own sake but for what they can do for us). And because it is ultimately our loves that motivate us to act, all of our actions become either a way of serving and drawing closer to God or a way of serving ourselves. “Friend,” a Spirit begs one of the Ghosts once it reaches Heaven, “can you just for one moment think of something other than yourself?” The point here is not to obliterate the self, as some philosophies and religions teach we must do: rather, to enjoy communion with God, God must be foremost in the worshiper’s mind and heart. When we pass out of love of self and into love of God, Lewis says, it is only then that we can find rest and fulfillment.


As Joy has taken the care to highlight during the book club, this story draws on many different sources. The whole idea that “the damned have holidays” was inspired by the ancient theologian Tertullian, who believed that all souls, saved and unsaved alike, will reside in Hell until the Final Judgment. However, he wrote, the saved are sometimes permitted to experience Heaven temporarily, as a means of “refreshing” their souls. (Tertullian called this temporary experience of Heaven “refrigerium,” Latin for “refreshment.” It is, incidentally, also the root of the English word “refrigerator.” So that’s where my mind was during one chapter.) Lewis tweaks that idea slightly, instead presenting a situation in which the souls of the unsaved to visit Heaven and given the choice to stay.

Given Lewis’s background has a scholar of medieval literature, it’s not surprising that there are some Dantean influences on the story too. The narrator even has an angelic guide to lead him through Heaven in the form of George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Scottish preacher, poet, and novelist. MacDonald’s writing was a huge influence on Lewis throughout his career, especially as a young man. In his memoir Surprised by Joy, Lewis credits MacDonald’s novel Phantases with “baptising” his imagination so that he could better understand the idea of holiness as presented in the Bible. Lewis even takes a quotation from MacDonald’s sermon “The Last Farthing” as the epigram of The Great Divorce:

No, there is no escape. There is no heaven with a little of hell in it—no plan to retain this or that of the devil in our hearts or our pockets. Out Satan must go, every hair and feather!

Even the title of the book itself has its roots in another author. As Lewis explains in his preface to The Great Divorce, the title was inspired by William Blake’s poetry collection The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. While not necessarily responding to the work directly, Lewis did want to write about the “divorce” of Heaven and Hell, and to describe why they are and must always be considered completely separate entities. “If we insist on keeping Hell (or even Earth),” he writes, “we shall not see Heaven: if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.”

But in the very next sentence,

I believe, to be sure, that any man who reaches Heaven will find that what he abandoned (even in plucking out his right eye) has not been lost: that the kernel of what he was really seeking even in his most depraved wishes will be there, beyond expectation, waiting for him in the “High Countries.”

And that’s another Lewisian theme we see in this book: God as the ultimate satisfaction of all human desire.

I think it would be fair to say that the concept of desire is a dominant theme across Lewis’s work. He wrote about it extensively in Surprised by Joy, and returned to the topic many times throughout the years. He understood the longing that most feel for something bigger than and beyond themselves, and he knew that nothing found on earth could satisfy that longing permanently. And so, while he does often employ reasoned arguments to prove the claims of Christianity, a good portion of his writing—in this and other books—addresses that longing in particular as well.

Lewis was a firm believer that art could be a means of pointing souls toward where they needed to go in order to fulfill this desire. And so, while the book isn’t quite the type of novel I was expecting, it is still very artful. It weaves layers and layers of symbolism and imagery together to try to represent imaginatively what would be much harder to represent conceptually.

A perfect example of this is in the descriptions of Heaven itself. When the Ghosts first arrive in Heaven, they find that the grass is too rigid for their feet to bend it. It actually hurts them to stand on it for too long. They also find that the light in Heaven is so strong that they can see through other Ghosts as if they were pieces of paper held up to a lamp. What all of this is saying is that, compared with sin-stained creation, God is much realer and more solid even than the physical world as we know it. He is saying that with God, things and people become more “solid,” more lasting, as God himself is everlasting.

It’s one thing to try to explain the point that God is the true reality. But in Lewis’s writing, decked as it is in the imagery that he’s known for, it becomes much clearer and much more real to the reader. Lewis doesn’t bypass the imagination for the sake of the brain, he tries to treat both of them at once.

That’s not always something you get from Christian teachers. Many Christians grow up in the belief that Christianity is primarily an affair of the brain, a series of mental apprehensions which eventually lead to the salvation of your soul. There is very little in this brand of Christianity to address the heart, the imagination, the emotions, or the senses. What Lewis presents instead in this book is an idea of faith that encompasses the whole person. “[H]itherto you have experienced truth only with the abstract intellect,” one of the Spirits tells a skeptical Ghost. “I will bring you where you can taste it like honey and be embraced by it as by a bridegroom.” Lewis believes that God wants the whole person to be saved and transformed—mind, spirit, and body—and so he tries to involve as much of the person as possible, including the imagination and, through his keen sensory descriptions, the body as well.

That’s one of the things that intrigues me about Lewis and his approach to apologetics. That’s why I read this and will keep on reading him for a long time.

Bookish Links — June 2018

Man on a Bus by Alex Iby.
  • Joy Clarkson, of the podcast Speaking with Joy, is running an online book club for C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce! We’re five chapters in already, but the chapters are short so there’s time to catch up. More info here.
  • “In his oeuvre, ecstatic tones mixed with sober reflection; there was no easy way to classify this poetry—it burst taxonomies. It was not ‘nature poetry,’ it was not a ‘poetic meditation on History,’ neither was it ‘autobiographical lyric’—it was all of those. The ambition of this poet knew no limits; he tried to drink in the cosmos”: Adam Zagajewski on discovering Czesław Miłosz’s banned poetry as a young man in Poland, and why he “can’t write a memoir of Czesław Miłosz.”

“The Bowl-Maker” by C. P. Cavafy

On this wine-bowl—beaten from the purest silver,
made for Herakleides’ white-walled home
where everything declares his perfect taste—
I’ve placed a flowering olive and a river,
and at its heart, a beautiful young man
who will let the water cool his naked foot
forever. O memory: I prayed to you
that I might make his face just as it was.
What a labour that has turned out to be.
He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago.

[Translated by Don Paterson]

This is a krater. Yes, it’s tin and bronze instead of silver. But it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

For those unfamiliar with him, C. P. Cavafy (born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) was a Greek poet who lived from 1863 to 1933. Despite spending most of his life in Egypt, Cavafy was fascinated by his family’s homeland and his poems are filled with influences from Greek history, mythology, and culture. This particular poem describes an imagined scene from ancient Greece of a silversmith hard at work on a new krater, a type of vessel for mixing wine with water.

It’s important to understand how personal this piece of work is for the silversmith. Herakleides may have requested a scene of a young man sitting next to a river, but it seems unlikely that he would ask for a portrait of the smith’s friend specifically. After all, Herakleides is upper class and this silversmith is just a hired craftsman. They travel in different circles, which means that he likely never even met the young man. In that case, it was the silversmith himself who decided to put the man’s portrait on the bowl.

So, if the task is simply to carve a picture of young man, why did he choose to carve this young man? Obviously, a person likes to keep pictures of the people they love, just to remember them by. But I think there is another reason why he might have decided to do this, one that has to do with the deeper ideas underlying this poem.

“Orpheus and Eurydice” by Christian Gottlieb Kratzenstein-Stub, 1806.

One theme that seems to occur often in literature, and especially in poetry, is the idea that art negates death. We see it in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, where he promises to make his mistress immortal through his poetry, and in Donne’s “The Canonization,” in which the speaker looks forward to the glory and honor that he and his lady will amass for themselves after death thanks to this poem. Going further back to ancient Greece itself, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is often interpreted as the story of the artist’s attempt to achieve immortality through art. I think our craftsman was attempting a similar thing with his bowl. Somewhere in him, there was the hope (however vague it might have been) that, if he could capture the man’s likeness in silver, it would be like capturing a bit of him. Whether anyone remembered the man or not, whether anyone knew his name, this bowl would go on preserving some semblance of him, even after the craftsman and everyone else who knew him was dead.

But the smith can’t do it. His memory is faulty. Like Orpheus on his journey to the Underworld, it’s not the art itself that fails per se, but the person practicing it.

So there is a sort of moral here: don’t make art a god. Though it can help to guard things and people from oblivion, it will never be perfect until the people creating it are. It’s an idea that I think I personally need to be reminded of from time to time, given the fact that so much of my life revolves around writing and poetry. At the same time, this poem speaks to me on a purely emotional level, oddly enough because of its unemotional exterior.

Auden, 1939.

Whether this is the result of my reading him in translation or not, I’ve always gotten the feeling from Cavafy that he can be very dry (in the best sense) and matter-of-fact. There’s a real anguish that’s being communicated here, but not in the torrents of language you might find in, for instance, Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., nor even in the cavalcade of images and metaphors one finds in a piece like Auden’s “Stop all the clocks.” Cavafy’s language is terse. It’s minimal. Until the craftsman addresses “memory” to complain about his unanswered prayer, the poem consists almost entirely of a recitation of facts, a description of outward realities. This affects the experience of reading the poem, but it also affects the way we read the speaker.

Because the grief, and the reaction to the grief, is described here in such brief and vague terms, it frees the reader to bring her own emotions and experiences to the poem. The speaker tells us very little about the deceased and even less about himself. As for the speaker’s own feelings, they are suggested but never overtly described. By leaving the details of the speaker’s emotional state unsaid, Cavafy allows his readers to put some of their own experience into the piece. He makes the poem personal for everyone who reads it.

Of course, this craftsman is not a completely blank slate onto whom the reader can project anything she wants. There are a few clues to who he is and what he’s feeling, and the sparseness of the language is one of them. When I read this poem, short and to-the-point as it is, I get the impression of a speaker who is entirely done. He is worn with grief and has no desire to continue explaining himself to others, as if they deserved an explanation. He avoids talking about anything interior to him, as the focus on outward objects and realities suggests.


And really, that avoidance of interiority gets to the heart of what this poem is about: this speaker looks to external reality as a sort of refuge, both from grief and from forgetting. At the same time that this poem points to the limits of poetry, I think of it as a sort of ars poetica too, explaining why poets—and artists in general—are motivated to make art. And in this case, they make art to honor the things and people they love. To preserve memories and to give those things a physical presence outside of the artist. In a way, he’s trying to do what I try to do every time I sit down to write one of these essays: he wants to externalize his love, give it a shape and a form in the real world so that it no longer exists only in his own head.

So while Cavafy critiques the creative impulse, this poem is not anti-art. True, art will never live up to our ideal for it, but it will stand—for a time—as a testament to what we loved and what was important to us. It might make that thing or person important to others too, if they find that the work satisfies something in them as well.

Six Poems about Fathers That Aren’t Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

Before I say anything else, let me make it clear that this post’s headline does NOT mean that I think there is anything wrong with “Those Winter Sundays.” On the contrary, Hayden was a genius and that poem is one of the greats. And because it’s so great, it’s starting to become over-familiar. For this list, I wanted to branch out into a few less famous poems, and highlight some modern work that I think is interesting along the way. Sounds OK? Good, let’s begin.

1: “A Letter of Recommendation” by Yehuda Amichai

Like “Those Winter Sundays,” this poem sheds a light on a loving but complicated relationship between a father and a son. Amichai’s poetry often points toward a sort of strained relationship—not necessarily with his father himself but certainly with the beliefs his father gave him and the culture he brought him up in. But in this poem, all of those differences give way to a tenderness that is just as much a part of the son as the Ten Commandments he learned as a child, so ingrained in him now that he can’t help repeating them “like an old tune someone hums to himself.”

2: “Little Father” by Li-Young Lee

Lee’s father, Lee Kuo Yuan, is easily one of the biggest influences on his son’s poetry. His spirit and personality is an almost unavoidable presence in Lee’s  work, from his first collection Rose to more recent poems like “Three Words.” Growing up as Lee did in a “old-fashioned Chinese family,” his father was the center of the household, and thus he becomes the center of many poems. Lee casts his father’s persona in a number of roles: life-giver, protector, healer, and even a sort of conduit to God. And while the most famous of these poems is “The Gift,” I find “Little Father” touching as well, balancing a son’s grief over his father’s passing with his hope for a life after death and his determination to go on living as his father would have wished.

3: “The Harvest Bow” by Seamus Heaney

Heaney is another poet whose father, Patrick, often preoccupies his imagination. His first book opens with “Digging,” a young poet’s attempt to explain himself and his craft to a father who can’t understand either, and his last book, a posthumously published translation of Aeneid Book VI, began as a tribute to Patrick in the collection Seeing Things.

One thing that becomes apparent about Patrick Heaney if you read his son’s interviews is that he was a man of few words, one for whom action was almost always preferable to speech. This is why the speaker in the poem feels the need to “glean the unsaid off the palpable”: the things his father makes give him the connection to him that was missing in their communication. In a way, I think this makes the poem comparable to “Those Winter Sundays”: it’s about recognizing love even when it’s not expressed as we would expect or wish.

4: “I Wash the Shirt” by Anna Swir

Similar to “The Harvest Bow,” this poem is about the poet finding a connection to her father—silenced now by death instead of disposition—through physical objects, in this case, his sweat-stained shirt. Like much of Swir’s poetry, it is an illustration of a scene, simple and understated, but moving and powerful.

5: “Learning to Pray” by Kaveh Akbar

A lot of poems focus on the father as a sort of model—of strength, heroism, virtue, or what have you. In this one, he seems to his child—and consequently, to the reader—to be almost otherworldly. I love the phrase “that twilit stripe of father”: “twilit” because he prays at sundown, but this word also suggests to me the idea that his father is approaching a liminal space, halfway on earth and halfway in heaven. The father is his son’s first idea of something beyond, his first vision of “wonder,” as Akbar likes to call it.

6: “Why do you stay up so late?” by Don Paterson

At first glance, this one might seem a little off-theme, and maybe my reasons for including it will not be as apparent to everyone else as they are to me. But, this poem is dedicated to the author’s son, and it does feature a father in a real, earnest dialogue with his child about one of the most important things in his life. There’s an intimacy about it that draws me into it. All of the other poems I’ve mentioned so far are written by children addressing their fathers and seeking to understand them better. Here we have the reverse, a father who wants to meet his child where he is and bring him into his own private world.


That’s all for now. What are some of your favorite poems about fathers and children? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — May 2018

Image by Kate Ilina.
  • “In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to ‘indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.’ He held that ‘art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.'”: from The Point, an essay on the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and his “moral responsibility to be useless.”


Book Bloggers: An Appreciation

Image by Igor Ovsyannykov.

I’m a bad blogger: while I usually respond to comments on my own site, I often neglect to leave comments on other people’s sites. And that’s not a good thing—a person likes to know when someone appreciates their work, right? So today’s post is all about appreciation for some of my favorite book blogs and bloggers. This isn’t an exhaustive list of all of the blogs I like, just a few in particular that I wanted to highlight.

  • Christopher Adamson from The Golden Echo. Christopher is a PhD candidate studying Victorian literature, but his interests and his writing go far beyond that, into areas of medieval literature, church history, punk rock, and disability issues. His one main topic, though, is the work of Gerard Manley Hopkins (as you might have guessed from his blog’s title). It’s because of this site that I decided to give Hopkins another try after being less than impressed by him in high school. It’s a good site, one that I visit often.
  • Patrick Kurp from Anecdotal Evidence. I probably don’t need to mention this blog because everyone probably reads it already. Still, I thought I’d single it out as one of the rare blogs that A) posts consistently every single day and B) never puts up a bad or boring post.
  • Steven Dodson from Language Hat. This is relatively recent find. Like Anecdotal Evidence, this blog posts nearly every day and it’s always something interesting. Unlike the blogs I’ve mentioned already, this one varies between posts on literature and posts on languages and linguistics. Either way, I love it.
  • Melissa Beck from The Book Binder’s Daughter. Another fairly popular one, and also one of my favorites. Melissa has very eclectic reading tastes: just since I’ve been following her, she’s reviewed correspondence, poetry, philosophy, and plenty of classical literature. Her background in classics gives her extra insight into the works of Greek and Latin literature she reviews.
  • Clarissa from The Stone and the Star. Compared to most, Clarissa’s blog has gotten a lot of notice in the past for her posts on poetry, and rightly so. Not only is she a dedicated student of poetry, both in English and in translation, she’s also a poet and a translator herself: she knows her stuff.
  • Ashok Kara from Rethink. Ashok writes informal but thoughtful essays on the books and poems he loves. His stuff got me interested in writing my own essays on poetry.
  • Marcel from shigekuni. Marcel is a polyglot author who blogs on fiction, poetry, and translation. Having as he does a command of multiple languages (German, English, and French, as far as I know) gives his posts a more global aspect. His is one of the blogs that helped to show me just how narrow my idea of contemporary literature used to be, being limited mostly to what had been written in English.

That’s all for now. Feel free to name some of your favorite bloggers (bookish or otherwise) in the comments!

National Poetry Month 2018

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

In case you didn’t know, April was National Poetry Month in the States. This year, same as last, I decided to celebrate by posting a different poem every day on Twitter. My post collecting all of last year’s poems got a great response, so here I am again with a whole new set of poems!

(There are a few inadvertent repeats from last year. But, as a friend of mine said, some poems are worth repeating.)

April 1: “Lightenings XII” by Seamus Heaney

Though it is technically about Good Friday, I thought it would be fitting to share on Easter too.

From the collection Seeing Things.

April 2: “Spoken For” by Li-Young Lee

Text from Poets.org. You can also find this in the collection The Undressing.

April 3: “Echo” by Christina Rossetti

From Christina Rossetti’s Complete Poems.

April 4: “Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House” by Billy Collins

This choice was inspired by my neighbor’s dog. Life imitates art.

Text taken from PoemHunter.com. Also in Sailing Alone around the Room.

April 5: “Holy Sonnet X” by John Donne

From the Penguin edition of the Complete English Poems.

April 6: “Hurrahing in Harvest” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

From Poems and Prose.

April 7: “Motive” by Don Paterson

From Rain.

April 8: A haiku by Kobayashi Issa (translated by Robert Hass)

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also find it in The Essential Haiku.

April 9: “The day is gone and all its sweets are gone!” by John Keats

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also in The Complete Poems of John Keats.

April 10: “Low Branches” by Yves Bonnefoy (translated by Beverley Bie Brahic)

Text from The Book Haven. Also printed in The Present Hour.

April 11: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost

Available in pretty much any collection of Frost’s poems. This is a nice one.

April 12: “Sunday Afternoons” by Yusef Komunyakaa

Find it in Komunyakaa’s collected poems, Pleasure Dome.

April 13: “At the Wellhead” by Seamus Heaney

In honor of Heaney’s birthday.

From Selected Poems: 1988-2013.

April 14: “The More Loving One” by W. H. Auden

Find it in Selected Poems.

April 15: “In my craft or sullen art” by Dylan Thomas

From Thomas’s Collected Poems: 1934-1953

April 16: “I died for beauty” by Emily Dickinson

Text from Bartleby. Find it also in Dickinson’s Complete Poems.

April 17: “The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

From The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

April 18: “Senza Flash” by Adam Zagajewski (translated by Clare Cavanagh)

From Without End: New and Selected Poems

April 19: “Track” by Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robert Bly)

From The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Susan Harris.

April 20: “Good Bones” by Maggie Smith

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also find this in the collection Good Bones.

April 21: “The Beautiful Changes” by Richard Wilbur

From New and Collected Poems

April 22: “Morning Song” by Sylvia Plath

From Plath’s Collected Poems

April 23: “When I have seen by Time’s fell hand defaced” by William Shakespeare

From The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

April 24: An excerpt from “The Separate Notebooks” by Czesław Miłosz (translated by Miłosz and Robert Hass)

From Miłosz’s Selected Poems: 1931-2004.

April 25: “Innocence” by Patrick Kavanagh

From Collected Poems.

April 26: “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” by John Keats

Find it in The Complete Poems of John Keats.

April 27: “Skunk Hour” by Robert Lowell

From a very old, out-of-print anthology. You can find this in Life Studies and For the Union Dead.

April 28: An excerpt from “My God, It’s Full of Stars” by Tracy K. Smith

Text from the Poetry Foundation. Also in the collection Life on Mars.

April 29: “Oneness” by Pablo Neruda (translated by Stephen Kessler)

From The Essential Neruda

April 30: “Ithaka” by C. P. Cavafy (translated by Philip Sherrard and Edmund Keeley)

Suggested by my friend Tom and seconded by his friend Don.

From The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry.

That’s all thirty! Let me know in the comments which are your favorites.

First Impressions: The Confessions of Saint Augustine

Let the proud deride me, O God, and all whom you have not yet laid low and humiliated for the salvation of their souls; but let me still confess my sins to you for your honor and glory. Allow me, I beseech you, to trace again in memory my past deviations and to offer you a sacrifice of joy. Without you I am my own guide to the brink of perdition. And even when all is well with me, what am I but a creature suckled on your milk and feeding on yourself, the food that never perishes? And what is any man, if he is only man? Let the strong and mighty laugh at men like me: let us, the weak and the poor, confess our sins to you.1

“St. Augustine” by Sandro Botticelli.

I got it in my head about a week ago to start reading the Confessions. I can’t even entirely remember what reminded me of this book that I had heard about for so long but never attempted to read. One day, I’m not thinking about Augustine at all and the next, I have a five Amazon tabs open so I can use the previews to compare some of the major English translations. Like a lot of ancient literature, Confessions is divided into “books.” I have now read four out of thirteen of those books. Whatever the thing was that brought Confessions to my attention again, I’m glad it did.

Though Confessions is usually cited as one of the earliest examples of autobiography, it’s much more than that. True, the story of Augustine’s life and conversion makes up a large part of this book, but much of it is also concerned with theology, philosophy, beauty, even, I was surprised to find out, language.

In light of what I’ve learned so far about Augustine, however, it’s not very surprising at all: his entire education was devoted to making him an excellent rhetorician. Before converting and joining the priesthood, he had also been a teacher of rhetoric and an official speech writer for the imperial court. His skill in the use of language was immense, as you’ll see in this book.

Some credit, of course, is due to the translator of my edition, R. S. Pine-Coffin, who I think has produced one of the more beautiful English translations out there. But, good as the translator might be, he becomes an afterthought in the face of the passion with which Augustine writes. I expected an intellectually challenging book, as well as something that would encourage me in my faith. I didn’t expect for Augustine’s words to have such an emotional impact on me. Passages like the one at the top of this post, for instance, are deeply moving to me for reasons that are hard to put into words. The humility with which he writes strikes me as well. A friend said that Confessions was one of the most beautiful things he had ever read excluding the Bible and now I know why.


One of the fun things about reading the very old and very famous books is that you get to find out what all of the other books you’ve read were referencing. Writers often write in response to other writers: reading a book like Confessions means you get to see the other side of that conversation.

One person who took up a conversation with Augustine was C. S. Lewis, who mentions Confessions in his book The Four Loves. While writing about our duty to love our neighbors without counting the personal cost, Lewis alludes to Book IV, the first half of which describes the death of Augustine’s close friend and the effect that this had on him. (Lewis incorrectly identifies the friend as Nebridius. In reality, Augustine never gives the friend’s name.) Rather than quote Augustine directly, Lewis summarizes:

This is what comes, he [Augustine] says, of giving one’s heart to anything but God. All human beings pass away. Do not let your happiness depend on something you may lose. If love is to be a blessing, not a misery, it must be for the only Beloved who will never pass away.2

In the long paragraph that follows, Lewis repudiates what he considers Augustine’s cold and calculating view of love, saying that it is even farther from “Love Himself” than “lawless Eros, preferring the beloved to happiness.”3 Having read Augustine in context, however, I don’t think he is presenting a cold and calculating view of love at all. He writes not against love itself but against idolatrous love for created things.

I think it would be fair to characterize Augustine’s love for his friend as idolatrous. In Book IV chapter 6, for instance, he writes that, although he “shrank from death,” he was also “sick and tired of living” following the death of this man.4 He felt as though his life could have no meaning and no purpose because his friend was dead. He loved this man more than anything, especially more than God, which is the definition of idolatry. Furthermore, the first sentence of Book IV chapter 7 reads, “What madness, to love a man as something more than human!”5 Not as a human, but as more than human. I don’t think Augustine has anything to say against loving your fellow creatures, even if that love is very deep. Instead, he wants to discourage us from pinning all of our hopes on created things and instead rely on God as the primary source of meaning and stability in our lives. That’s the conclusion that I came to, but if I’m misreading either Augustine or Lewis, feel free to leave me a comment.

1 Confessions by St. Augustine, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin. Penguin Books, 1961. Pg. 71.

2 The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis. Mariner Books, 2012. Pg. 120.

3 The Four Loves, pg. 121.

4 Confessions, pg. 77.

5 Confessions, pg. 78.

“Like a breath of wind over my soul”: Thoughts on Chekhov’s “The Beauties”

Portrait of Chekhov by his brother Nikolai, 1889.

For a number of reasons, my reading lately has tended away from fiction. Where I used to breeze through a new novel at least every month, now I’m struggling to finish the ones I start. I’m too easily distracted by all the new poetry and nonfiction that I want to read instead. But one fiction author who’s managed to hold my attention all this time is Anton Chekhov. Partly because his works are short, so they don’t take much time away from my other books, and partly because I find he and I are similar in some ways (not many, but some), I’ve gotten more from him than I have from any other fiction writer in a while. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I discovered one of his most famous stories, “The Beauties.” It’s very short, so you have time to read it here and then come back. Or you can listen to this reading that Philip Pullman recorded for the Guardian Short Story Podcast. He’s a good narrator.

One complaint that readers sometimes have with Chekhov is that “nothing happens” in his stories. In this case, I have to admit that they’re right: a boy meets a beautiful girl. He does not speak to or spend time with the girl, just admires her and then leaves. Years later, he sees another girl who is also very beautiful. He admires her for a few seconds and then leaves. The end. In some of Chekhov’s later stories, he seems to be less interested in crafting intricate plots and more interested in creating a mood: showing us who the characters are and what events in their lives mean by recreating their emotional state in the reader. “The Lady with the Dog,” with its famously abrupt ending, does this, and so does “The Beauties.” Here, the story is not about anything the protagonist does but rather about what happens to and around him. It’s about an encounter with a kind of beauty that is so far beyond ordinary life that it seems permanently out of reach. It comes for the hero and he always just misses it.

And because he’s in this constant state of expectation, it seems fitting that we should spend practically the whole story anticipating drama that never comes. Several times, Chekhov teases the reader with possible plots, none of which ever come to fruition. I thought the narrator would at least speak to Masha—he does not. I thought the girl at the train station was Masha, that the hero was finally getting his second chance with her and was going to do something about it—but it wasn’t her. I thought he was going to try to make something happen with the new girl—he doesn’t. Even in non-speaking side characters like the telegraphist and the guard at the rail station, there’s the potential for drama, but only suggestions, never actual facts. Chekhov hints at a whole tragic history behind the face of the guard, one that “wore a look of tenderness and of the deepest sadness, as though in that girl he saw happiness, his own youth, soberness, purity, wife, children ….” But, whatever that history is, we’ll never know it. Finally, we come to the end and to what I think is one of the most striking passages in the story:

The station no longer screened off the sunset, the plain lay open before us, but the sun had already set and the smoke lay in black clouds over the green, velvety young corn. It was melancholy in the spring air, and in the darkening sky, and in the railway carriage.

The hero expected to see the sun setting, but instead he see’s a lit sky and the sun gone. A hint of what had been there but is there no longer. Here, the feeling that pervades the whole story of having just missed something spectacular is encapsulated in only two sentences. It’s a perfect ending.

So though this is a story where “nothing happens,” it’s also a story draws you deep into the character, his mind and his emotions. It’s poetic and empathetic to a degree that I have rarely seen matched by any other writer. It reminds me of one of the main reasons why I keep coming back to Chekhov: not just because he understands people and their inner lives so well but also because he is able to transfer that knowledge to his readers in such palpable ways. In a short time, he’s become one of the writers I look up to most.

Bookish Links — March 2018

Image by Annie Spratt.


I hope you’re all well and have a happy Easter tomorrow!