Poems under Saturn/Poèmes Saturniens

Poems under Saturn/Poèmes Saturniens

Poems under Saturn/Poèmes Saturniens

Poems under Saturn/Poèmes Saturniens


Poems Under Saturn is the first complete English translation of the collection that announced Paul Verlaine (1844-1896) as a poet of promise and originality, one who would come to be regarded as one of the greatest of nineteenth-century writers. This new translation, by respected contemporary poet Karl Kirchwey, faithfully renders the collection's heady mix of classical learning and earthy sensuality in poems whose rhythm and rhyme represent one of the supreme accomplishments of French verse. Restoring frequently anthologized poems to the context in which they originally appeared, Poems Under Saturn testifies to the blazing talents for which Verlaine is celebrated.

The poems display precocious virtuosity, mingling the attractions of the flesh with the longings of the spirit. Greek and Hindu myth give way to intimate erotic meditations and wickedly satirical society portraits, mythological landscapes alternate with gritty narratives of mid-nineteenth century Paris, visions of happiness yield to nightmarish glimpses of deep alienation, and real and imaginary characters--including Achilles, Valmiki, Charlemagne, and Spain's baleful King Philip II--all figure as the subject matter of a supremely ambitious young poet.

Poems Under Saturn presents the extraordinary devotion and intense musicality of an artist for whom poetry remained the one true passion.


In the late summer of 2006, I began to translate a few favorite early Verlaine poems. This innocent amusement somehow became an obsession—and a kind of love affair. What has by now become a complete translation of Verlaine’s first book, the Poèmes saturniens (Poems Under Saturn) of 1866—so far as I know the only complete translation of the book in English—began with two motivations common to most, if not all, translations: admiration for the original work, and a certain impatience with the existing translations. of the former I shall say more in a moment.

The Verlaine translations I knew first were those by C. F. MacIntyre (dating from 1948), which have long been standard in English. Yet I came to feel that these somehow condescend, both to Verlaine and to the contemporary reader, in a way that simply would not do. They also ride on now-unaccountable complacencies of culture and gender, even after we make allowances for those present in the original. “How fresh and adolescent the whole poem is!” MacIntyre exclaims at one point; elsewhere, he speaks of “Those lovely girls of one’s first fine flush of rapture!” Often, in his attempt to preserve Verlaine’s rhymes, MacIntyre sacrifices syntax or diction or both, and includes padding, as do later translations of Verlaine by Doris-Jeanne Gourévitch (1970).

Joanna Richardson’s translations (1974) alternate between free verse and metrical verse, though meter shapes some of her best lines. Her commitment to rhyme is similarly variable. Among contemporary translations, Norman Shapiro’s (1999) are probably the most successful, but like the other translators mentioned so far, he is trying to represent the whole span of Verlaine’s work in a single volume.

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