Van Gogh Night Sky
Van Gogh’s Night Sky, Musee D’Orsay

Longfellow spent much of his professional life translating poetry and using his multicultural and linguistic skills to enrich his works.  His linguistic gifts are perhaps best recognized in his translation of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri which gave the American reading public its first access to Dante’s writings. As he also used his linguistic abilities to translate many volumes of literature into German, French, and Italian, it was important for him to stay close to the meter and structure and avoid too many variations and lose the central meaning of the author.

While I disagree with scholar  R. Jackobson who said, “Poetry by definition is untranslatable” (cited in venuti, 2000, p.118), there are many linguistic challenges in keeping to the original physiognomy when translating poetry to a different language. Each translator must make these personal decisions as he is translating into a different language and culture. Instructors of second language acquisition in France are teaching this lesson to their students by using the works of Longfellow to learn English. In fact, according to Professor Cook , these modifications in physiognomy seem to interest his students the most and can be used as an instructional tool to point out variations in meter and structure and how/if it changes the meaning of the poem. (135).

As a new student to nineteenth century American Poetry and an Instructor of second language acquisition, I decided to apply my newly acquired skills of prosody and scansion to translating a French poem to English.  Even though Charles Baudelaire, a famous French poet of Flowers of Evil, states, “Poetry should not, and indeed cannot properly be translated except by poets”, as a layperson, I will give it a try!  I have chosen the nineteenth century poem by Baudelaire, Paysage, to translate as it is a beautiful expression of French language and voice.

The first step in translating this poem was to listen to an AUDIO link of the reading by a native French speaker to help detect the meter.  I have also included the French translation to read along:     AUDIO link:

PAYSAGE  (1868)  — Charles Baudelaire
Je veux, pour composer chastement mes églogues,
Coucher auprès du ciel, comme les astrologues,
Et, voisin des clochers écouter en rêvant
Leurs hymnes solennels emportés par le vent.
Les deux mains au menton, du haut de ma mansarde,
Je verrai l’atelier qui chante et qui bavarde;
Les tuyaux, les clochers, ces mâts de la cité,
Et les grands ciels qui font rêver d’éternité.
II est doux, à travers les brumes, de voir naître
L’étoile dans l’azur, la lampe à la fenêtre
Les fleuves de charbon monter au firmament
Et la lune verser son pâle enchantement.
Je verrai les printemps, les étés, les automnes;
Et quand viendra l’hiver aux neiges monotones,
Je fermerai partout portières et volets
Pour bâtir dans la nuit mes féeriques palais.
Alors je rêverai des horizons bleuâtres,
Des jardins, des jets d’eau pleurant dans les albâtres,
Des baisers, des oiseaux chantant soir et matin,
Et tout ce que l’Idylle a de plus enfantin.
L’Emeute, tempêtant vainement à ma vitre,
Ne fera pas lever mon front de mon pupitre;
Car je serai plongé dans cette volupté
D’évoquer le Printemps avec ma volonté,
De tirer un soleil de mon coeur, et de faire
De mes pensers brûlants une tiède atmosphère.

This poem, whose speaker is the author,  is written in Iambic anapest tetrameter, a light verse, with the first stanza, an octet, in rhyming couplets. The second stanza has 18 lines of rhyming couplets (perhaps a sonnet of 14 lines plus a quatrain even though there is no stanza break). The typography of  is  visually striking with the rhyming couplets and the matched lengths of lines 1,2  / 7,8  of first octet and lines 5,6 /  13,14 / and 15, 16 of the second stanza . There is romantic irony of wanting to live close to the stars but also to write these experiences in poetry on the Earth.  Baudelaire also uses personification in making the garden a stairway to the sky and showing fountains that weep.

The second step is to start translating from French to English.  It is important to understand a combination of all the components in Baudelaire’s text such as: meaning, form, content, semantic and physical features.of the poem. In the first stanza, I believe he is focusing on the outer landscape (Paysage). He is inspired by the astrologers in ancient times (eclogue) who correlate their environment and nature to romance; who sleep as close to the stars as they can, in order to experience the visual pleasures of the expansive sky and the auditory symphony of hymns from the belfries.The second part deals with the inner landscape,or the heart of the poet, and is introduced by anaphoric de . Just as creation reproduces outwardly, the poet must reproduce his thoughts, ideas and concepts of his own world through the power of writing.

The third step is to take this meaning and translate it while keeping the figurative language, the creativity and faithfulness of the translator instead of translating word for word.  I also chose to include these pesky tetrameters of iambic anapests instead of focusing on the rhyming couplets. It was challenging to  keep the prosody of the original French sound patterns and effects such as alliteration, assonance, euphony, and onomatopoeia in leaving out the rhyme.  Consequently, Voila! Here is the closest English translation that I could make:

 I want to compose chastely my eulogy/ To sleep close to the sky as astrologers/  And neighbor of belfries to listen, dreaming/Their solemn hymns brought by the wind/My chin cupped in both hands, from high my mansard / I shall see the workshop which sings and prattles/  The chimneys, the belfries, those masts of the city, / And the skies that make one dream of eternity.
It is sweet, across the mist, to see the birth/ The star in the blue sky, the lamp on the sill, / The floods of smoke rise up in firmament/  And the moon pours out her pale enchantment /  I shall see the springtimes, the summers, the autumns ./ And when winter comes in monotonous snow, / I shall close all the shutters and draw all the drapes, / To build in the night my fairy palaces. / Then I shall dream of pale blue horizons / Of gardens, of  jets weep into fountains of stone, / Of kisses, of birds singing morning and eve, / And of all that is idyll and most like a child. / The riot, storming vainly at my window/ Will not make me raise my head from my desk / For I shall be plunged in voluptuous thrill / Of evoking the Springtime within my will, / Of drawing forth the sun from my heart and making) / My burning thoughts a warm atmosphere.

The final step is to find a legitimate French to English translation from an actual translator/ poet to redeem Baudelaire’s intentions to communicate this lovely verse.  This nearest translation by date of issue is by George Dillon in 1936:


I want to write a book of chaste and simple verse,
Sleep in an attic, like the old astrologers,
Up near the sky, and hear upon the morning air
The tolling of the bells. I want to sit and stare,
My chin in my two hands, out on the humming shops,
The weathervanes, the chimneys, and the steepletops
That rise like masts above the city, straight and tall,
And the mysterious big heavens over all.
I want to watch the blue mist of the night come on,
The windows and the stars illumined, one by one,
The rivers of dark smoke pour upward lazily,
And the moon rise and turn them silver. I shall see
The springs, the summers, and the autumns slowly pass;
And when old Winter puts his blank face to the glass,
I shall close all my shutters, pull the curtains tight,
And build me stately palaces by candlelight.
And I shall dream of luxuries beyond surmise,
Gardens that are a stairway into azure skies,
Fountains that weep in alabaster, birds that sing
All day — of every childish and idyllic thing.
A revolution thundering in the street below
Will never lure me from my task, I shall be so
Lost in that quiet ecstasy, the keenest still,
Of calling back the springtime at my own free will,
Of feeling a sun rise within me, fierce and hot,
And make a whole bright landscape of my burning thought.

— George Dillon, Flowers of Evil (NY: Harper and Brothers, 1936)

While I think this translation is pleasing to the ear and the rhyming couplets give a tonal quality, I feel that Dillon did miss some of Baudelaire’s imaginative language and emotional effect in trying to fit this verse into a rhyming scheme.  However, I have to agree with Baudelaire and admit that as a poet, Dillon’s translation was more substantial than mine!  I shouldn’t quit my day job (or evening job).

Consequently, translating of Paysage was a delightful, learning experience and I am currently hard at work translating the poem  A Albert Dürer (1837) by my favorite French author, Victor Hugo!

Works Cited

Cook, Mercer. “Longfellow for the French Class”. The French Review. 13.2. (Dec., 1939): 135-

  1. Web. 10 Feb. 2016

Jakobson, R. (1959). On linguistic aspects of translation. In L. Venuti (Ed.), (2000), pp. 113-118.


Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (