Ashbery as Symbolist A review of Illuminations by Arthur Rimbaud Translated by John Ashbery
When one speaks of Rimbaud's “intentions” as a writer, it should never be broached that the young voyant did not uniquely anticipate what is today understood as the Death of the Author. Je est un autre—“I am something else.” This insight reveals not only the depths of Rimbaud’s personal psychology (fodder for biographers and critics alike) but renders transparent the method Rimbaud practiced when he wrote what is generally thought to be his penultimate work: Les Illuminations. By way of the existential insight that the self is radically Other, Rimbaud created works that evince the fragility of the “I,” as far as what it perceives, feels, and can hope to rationally understand. English translators, however, too often impose their own moral presuppositions on his poetry, thereby giving us a mistaken idea of what Rimbaud was about—as though all the poems in Illuminations shared some common essence by virtue of their being bound under the same cover. The genius of Rimbaud was chaos. His languorous descent into Nothingness, his callous affirmations of destruction, are equally cries of lamentation and expressions of the most poignant endurance. Of all the translations I’ve come across, John Ashbery’s is the only one that renders Les Illuminations in such a way that we can actually hear Rimbaud speak from the depths of his confusion, giving voice to “what other men have sometimes thought they’ve seen.”
A decided mildness distinguishes Ashbery’s Illuminations. Even when he departs from the obvious sense of a word or phrase—as all translators must—he does so in a way that reimagines even more clearly the fundamental meaning of a certain image. Too often translators try to make Rimbaud shocking, translating his poetry with an eye to his politics or personal life. Ashbery, by contrast, focuses on the aesthetics of the poetry itself, noting Rimbaud's youthfulness by certain words or phrases:
“Aussitôt que l'idée du Déluge se fut rassise,
Un lièvre s'arrêta dans les sainfoins et les clochettes mouvantes et dit sa prière à l'arc-en-ciel à travers la toile de l'araignée.
Oh les pierres précieuses qui se cachaient,—les fleurs qui regardaient déjà.”
[“Après le déluge"]
“No sooner had the notion of the Flood regained its composure,
Than a hare paused amid the gorse and trembling bellflowers and said its prayer to the rainbow through the spider’s web.
Oh the precious stones that were hiding,—the flowers that were already peeking out.”
[“After the Deluge”]
Ashbery can render Rimbaud more clearly and convincingly than others because he understands him better. “Trembling bellflowers” is an excellent translation of “clochettes mouvantes.” It preserves the mysteriousness of the original image, without sacrificing any of its clarity; and the density of the poetic is maintained against what could too easily be translated abstractly.
The sheer effortless of the prose in this collection is nothing short of remarkable. Rather than recreating the sound and syntax of the prose-poem originals, Ashbery opts for pacific renderings that highlight the stark complexity of Rimbaud's visionary prose:
“Le long de la vigne, m'étant appuyé du pied à une gargouille,—je suis descendu dans ce carrosse dont l'époque est assez indiquée par les glaces convexes, les panneaux bombés et les sophas contournés— Corbillard de mon sommeil, isolé, maison de berger de ma niaiserie, le véhicule vire sur le gazon de la grande route effacée; et dans un défaut en haut de la glace de droite tournoient les blêmes figures lunaires, feuilles, seins.”
“Along the vineyard, placing one foot on a gargoyle to steady myself,—I entered this coach whose period is amply indicated by its convex windows, bulging panels, curved banquettes—Hearse of my sleep, lonely, rolling shepherd’s hut of my idiocy, the vehicle turns onto the turf of the effaced highway; and in a flaw at the top of the right-hand window, ashen lunar faces, leaves, breasts are swirling.”
One can do much worse than Ashbery’s recreations—and many have. Lesser translators, starting from the myth of the poète maudit, might have rendered this passage so that its tone were more arrogant, hateful, confused. Rimbaud's original wording does allow for this. But Ashbery focuses instead on the extraordinary perceptiveness intrinsic to the imagery, and gives us only that. Thus, Rimbaud's imaginative acuity is lucidly presented to us, cleansed of the dross of hagiography.
What makes Rimbaud's Illuminations so mysterious and beautiful is the way that they describe—lavishly, and in extensive detail—otherworldly scenes that nonetheless retain the dimensionality and vividness of mundane perception. This is what Rimbaud meant when he referred to himself as a voyant, “seer”—a word which in French relates to the notion of voyager, “to travel.” (Arguably, this is also what Rimbaud did when he turned away from poetry, and European civilization itself, toward more fertile regions of the globe.) The poet of Illuminations is an explorer mapping out unknown continents of experience. His prose-poems are legends, in the cartographic sense. Rimbaud's letters testify to how he struggled to bring home, to formulate in words, uncharted realms of consciousness, to describe them systematically:
Le poète se fait voyant par un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens. Toutes les formes d'amour, de souffrance, de folie; il cherche lui-même, il épuise en lui tous les poisons, pour n'en garder que les quintessences. Ineffable torture où il a besoin de toute la foi, de toute la force surhumaine, où il devient entre tous le grand malade, le grand criminel, le grand maudit,—et le suprême Savant!—Car il arrive à l'inconnu!
Too often, his translators have rendered him in a needlessly obscure fashion, making him uncharacteristically vague. The intuitive clarity of a line such as—
“Il y a une cathédrale qui descend et un lac qui monte”
has at one point been translated as: “There is a cathedral that goes down and a lake that goes up” (trans. Louise Varese).
But Ashbery renders the line so that its sense becomes starkly visible, a mystery in broad daylight:
“There is a cathedral that sinks and a lake that rises.”
Consider also the line:
“Ce ne peut être que la fin du monde, en avançant.”
Bertrand Matthieu translated this as: “This can only be the end of the world, this moving ahead.” But Matthieu translated Les Illuminations with the intention of making them slang; as a result, he rendered the line too frenetically. Ashbery's translation is far more lucid, and invokes the open kosmos verging on collapse:
“It can only be the end of the world, as you move forward.”
In light of past translations, such clarity is as astonishing as it is revealing. Ashbery avoids all pretense and showiness when he translates Rimbaud; he presupposes little, only the youthfulness of the author. As a result, the English-speaking world can finally inhabit the visionary clime of Rimbaud.