Translating Herman Melville: “The Coming Storm” (1865)

ab lincoln

A poem, a painting, a plot of murder:  how is this triad connected?  In The Coming Storm, Herman Melville links the theme of this painting by Sanford Gifford and the owner of the painting, Edwin Booth, to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Gifford’s painting was purchased by Edwin Booth, a famous Shakespearean actor, two years before his brother, John Wilkes would assassinate President Lincoln.  Edwin Booth loaned the painting back to the National Gallery Exhibition in April, 1865, the same month of Lincoln’s assassination.  According to Evander Price, Melville saw The Coming Storm at the Exhibition and was struck by the fact that Edwin had purchased this painting in light of the recent assassination.  Price states that, “Melville saw that Gifford created in a landscape the unspeakable darkness that Shakespeare found in Hamlet and the unimaginable tragedy that was America’s loss of Lincoln” (30).

Melville begins this poem referring to Edwin: “All feeling hearts must feel for him/ Who felt this picture.   Presage dim –/ Dim inklings…. “(Melville, 13).  Melville uses the anaphora feeling, feel, felt in three different tenses, progressive, present and past, to perhaps signify Edwin’s emotions from the time of the assassination to now.  These emotions, or feelings, are then identified with a second anaphora of “dim–/ Dim” also signifying the foreshadowing of a storm. This storm can have two meanings: the assassination and the theme of Gifford’s painting.  Gifford depicts an approaching storm on Lake George and Melville describes with “A demon-cloud like the mountain” (13). Melville could be referring here to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes, and his passive accomplice, Edwin, as demons. He also describes Edwin’s reaction to the storm as a “pensive child” and being “fixed and fascinated” showing Edwin’s premeditated thoughts of Lincoln’s death (13).

Price also suggests in his essay that Melville accuses Edwin of knowing about his brother’s plans to assassinate the President and perhaps was an accomplice with the following lines: “The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware/…No utter surprise can come to him/ Who reaches Shakespeare’s core; “(13). Price also states that this parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the role which Edwin played, the Civil War tragedies, and Booth’s unstable mind and jealousies tied with sibling rivalry.

The final line of the poem, “Man’s final lore”, perhaps refers to Hamlet as an idea that whoever comprehends the intent of Shakespeare “understands the universe and human nature on a transcendent level” (32). Just as Whitman used his poems to elegize Lincoln’s death, Melville pays tribute to Lincoln in The Coming Storm while upbraiding his assassin.

This was a very difficult poem to translate as Melville’s vocabulary is very advanced. [better this poem than Moby Dick!, ne c’est pas].  Therefore, in my translation from the English to French (Part II), I took the following liberties:

1) I had difficulty translating the different ideas of “feeling”.  In English, we have feelings or sentiments, we use the sense of touch or feel, we experience or are aware of by feeling, and we use this word as a mental state as in “I feel tired”.  In the first line, Melville also uses the different meanings for feel 3 times: “All feeling hearts must feel for him/ Who felt this picture.  I chose to translate the first as sentiment, 2nd and 3rd as an emotion. The 3rd “felt” could also be interpreted as Booth’s physical touch of the painting;  2)In the second line, Melville actually uses the French word presage to describe the coming omen so this was a freebie for me! 3)Inklings translated could be impressions or suspicions, ideas; I chose soupcon. 4) What is an “urned lake”? I could not find a definition. Perhaps Melville is using a metaphor to Lincoln’s death, as the lake holds ashes of the dead? 5) ‘ware (aware) =consient as alliteration doesn’t translate! 6) antedate= you can’t go back and undo the past…dater d’avant? Fortunately, yet again, the cognate works here; 7) the last stanza: for “core of Shakespeare” I chose “the heart” instead of the physical trognon; 8) “Man’s final lore”= apothéose.

As with all my translations, I welcome any corrections or suggestions to help reach the meaning of these great works!

The Coming Storm by Herman Melville

gifford_coming_storm_c1860 melville

A Picture by S.R. Gifford, and owned by E.B.

Included in the N.A. Exhibition, April, 1865.

ALL feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture. Presage dim–
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere
Fixed him and fascinated here.

A demon-cloud like the mountain one
Burst on a spirit as mild
As this urned lake, the home of shades.
But Shakespeare’s pensive child

Never the lines had lightly scanned,
Steeped in fable, steeped in fate;
The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware,
Such hearts can antedate.

No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakespeare’s core;
That which we seek and shun is there–
Man’s final lore.

My French Translation:

 TOUS les cœurs du sentiment, ils doivent se sentir pour lui
Qui se sentait cette image. Présage réduite–
Des soupçons de la sphère sombre
On l’ai corrigé et lui fasciné ici.

Un nuage de démon comme la montagne
Éclatez sur un esprit aussi doux
Qu’un lac, la maison des nuances.
Mais l’enfant de Shakespeare pendant

Jamais les lignes n’avaient été scannées à la légère,
Imprégné de fable, imprégnée de destin ;
L’Hamlet dans son cœur était conscient,
De tels cœurs peuvent antidater.

Pas de surprise totale, on ne peut pas le lui venir
À celui atteint le cœur de Shakespeare ;
Ce que nous recherchons et évitons, il est là …
L’apothéose de l’homme.

 Copyright 2017 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

Works Cited

Hollander, John.  American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century.2. New York: Library of Congress, 1993. Print. 13

Price, Evander.  CoriolisInterdisciplinary Journal of Maritime Studies. 1.2 (2010). 30-33. Web.12 April 2016.

 

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