One of the cruellest
, and most misguided
, poems ever written. The poet Alfred de Musset
was one of many who attended the Paris salon
s of, and inevitably fell in love with, the extraordinary Princess Cristina di Belgiojoso
(1808-1871). She was a striking, dark-eyed and dark-haired, pale-skinned beauty, whose suites were always in sombre
hues to set off her own pale and dark. There gathered the luminaries of mid-nineteenth-century Paris
, such as Balzac
, and Heine
. Many tried to win her favours; few or none succeeded. She was as intelligent as any of them; and she was a hero of the 1848 revolution
s in Italy
, running a nursing
corps in the thick of battle in Rome
before Florence Nightingale
began. She deserves a large node of her own, but for now it suffices to say that Musset cast his heart at her feet, was received as a friend and refused as a lover, and in his agonies wrote this poem.
Everyone knew who the poem meant. Musset quickly repented, and (as I recall, which might be incorrectly) tried in vain to recall it from the press. It was published in the Revue des deux mondes on 1 October 1842. It agonised him; and she forgave him. To this day it's one of the best-known of French poems. Here is my unpolished translation.
Sur une morte
On one dead
Elle était belle, si la Nuit
Qui dort dans la sombre chapelle
Où Michel-Ange a fait son lit,
Immobile peut être belle.
She was beautiful, if the Night
Who sleeps in the sombre chapel
Where Michelangelo made her bed,
Motionless, can be beautiful.
Elle était bonne, s'il suffit
Qu'en passant la main s'ouvre et donne,
Sans que Dieu n'ait rien vu, rien dit,
Si l'or sans pitié fait l'aumône.
She was good, if it's enough
That in passing the hand opens and gives,
Without God having seen anything, said anything,
If gold without pity makes alms.
Elle pensait, si le vain bruit
D'une voix douce et cadencée,
Comme le ruisseau qui gémit
Peut faire croire à la pensée.
She thought, if the idle noise
Of a sweet and cadenced voice
Like the brook that burbles
Can make you believe in thought.
Elle priait, si deux beaux yeux,
Tantôt s'attachant à la terre,
Tantôt se levant vers les cieux,
Peuvent s'appeler la Prière.
She prayed, if two beautiful eyes,
Now fixing on the ground,
Now lifting towards the heavens,
Can be called Prayer.
Elle aurait souri, si la fleur
Qui ne s'est point épanoui
Pouvait s'ouvrir à la fraicheur
Du vent qui passe et qui l'oublie.
She would have smiled, if the flower
That hasn't bloomed at all
Could open itself to the freshness
Of the wind that passes and forgets it.
Elle aurait pleuré si sa main,
Sur son cœur froidement posée,
Eût jamais, dans l'argile humain,
Senti la céleste rosée.
She would have wept if her hand,
Placed coldly on her heart,
Had ever, in human clay,
Felt the heavenly dew.
Elle aurait aimé, si l'orgueil
Pareil à la lampe inutile
Qu'on allume près d'un cercueil,
N'eût veillé sur son cœur stérile.
She would have loved, if pride
Like the useless lamp
That we light near a coffin,
Had not kept vigil over her sterile heart.
Elle est morte, et n'a point vécu.
Elle faisait semblant de vivre.
De ses mains est tombé le livre
Dans lequel elle n'a rien lu.
She is dead, and hasn't lived at all.
She made an appearance of living.
From her hands is fallen the book
In which she has read nothing.