D M Black


Sample translations


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)



The Diary

...aliam tenui, sed iam quum gaudia adirem,
admonuit dominae deseruitque Venus

                                                                       – Tibullus

We often hear, and in the end believe it,
man's heart has depths no plumbline ever sounded,
and that by sin, however we conceive it,
Christian and heathen are alike confounded.
Best is, we shake hands and refuse to grieve it,
or by these doctrines we'd be sadly hounded.
Often, when devils come to tempt and hurt you,
some other Power prevails, and rescues virtue.

Once to my loyal wife I was returning
after long travel seeking earthly gain,
yet still, for all my hoard of wealth and learning,
her image only in my heart and brain.
So when night fell, and heaven's bright stars were burning,
and memory brought far love close again,
I'd take my pen and sketch for her amusement
in sweet words how the day's events and news went.

And now, near home, the coach refused to park right,
and caused, alas, another night's delays.
One obstinate skewed axle would not work right
(and I already dreamed of love's embrace!).
In futile pique I swore at smith and arkwright;
they hammered on with stiff and silent face.
Each craft has its own mystery and training:
what could I do? I stood around complaining.

And then a Star, upon an inn-sign, called me.
I went and looked. The place (I thought) was bearable.
A girl came out – her lovely shape enthralled me –
and lit the lamp. Life seemed less unendurable.
Hallway and stairs were bright; nothing appalled me;
the little bedrooms, frankly, looked adorable!
When sinful Man's abroad, and his nerves jangled,
it is in Beauty's net he gets entangled.

I sat down to some paperwork, and then
turned to my journal's pages, neatly numbered,
intending to give pleasure once again
to my sweet wife, while all the country slumbered.
But for some reason my so-fluent pen
this evening seemed resistant and encumbered.
The girl comes in. Quick and polite, she brings
a laden tray with welcome supper things.

She goes and comes; I speak, she speaks; I thought her
sweeter with every word, in all sincerity.
And now she carves the bird as Mother taught her,
moving her hand and arm with pert dexterity –
fluttering the feathers in my craziest quarter! –
Enough! I grow confused, and with celerity
jump up, and overturn the chair, and throw
myself on the dear child; she whispers: "No! –

my auntie's an old dragon, and she keeps
her eagle eye on every move I make.
While I'm up here her envy never sleeps,
and if I'm slow she'll beat me, no mistake!
but often what dusk sows the midnight reaps:
just leave your door unlocked and keep awake!"
Deftly she twists her limbs from my embrace,
then slips away – but turns, to watch my face,

and is the modest maidservant again.
But now at every glance a heavenly prospect
opens before me, and she can't restrain
the sighs that lift her bosom's lovely aspect,
or hide how love's delicious blushes reign
about her ears and neck – entirely perfect!
At last, finding no more to do, she starts,
looks round, goes off, delays, and so departs.

Midnight now lays his hand on street and house
and on the wide bed where my hope resides.
Along one edge I lie, taut like a mouse,
as Love in his far-sighted wisdom guides.
The candle's flame I still forbear to dowse –
and now I hear her, softly though she glides!
With ardent gaze the tall-Gestalt I joy in;
she sinks down, and the sweet-Gestalt I join.

She wriggles free, saying: "First, an explanation.
I would not have us love as total strangers.
You'll think me common, but by reputation
I'm one who's cold, and shuns all men as dangers.
Never before tonight has sexual passion
inflamed me – I never understood the rangers,
never till now. O, let me not be coy: you
conquered my heart! I vowed I should enjoy you.

You have me new, and pure. All that is best
about me, take! In my book, words and action
are indissoluble." Against my breast
she snuggled in delicious satisfaction.
But as I kissed eyes, mouth, hair and the rest
I found I'd a most untoward reaction:
for what so often played the Master hotly
now, like a schoolboy, shrank away completely.

She seemed content with words and sweet caresses,
as if these things were all her heart desired.
How chastely she makes free love's dear recesses
and those contours by which delight is fired.
And now lies still: her smiling joy expresses
so sense of lack in what has just transpired.
I too lay still and watched, with kindly pride,
and on the Master hopefully relied.

Then as I sensed the course the night was taking,
though jeering mockery wouldn't do the trick,
I cursed myself and gave myself a shaking,
and listened to the clock's infernal tick.
There she lay sleeping, lovelier than waking;
the candle flickered low, with lengthening wick.
To young folk, tired out by the working day,
sleep arrives quickly, never far away.

Like Heaven among the sheets, with limbs outspread,
she did not care what corners she might sprawl to,
while, squashed to Hell and barely on the bed,
powerless lay he, whom she permitted all to.
Just so the traveller, parched with thirst, drops dead
of snakebite by the spring, about to fall to.
She breathes so sweetly (sweet dreams only take her!);
he holds his breath, in order not to wake her.

Now sober thought succeeds this loss of face.
He chides himself: "Well! now you know the reason
why bridegrooms cross themselves and wish for grace
and keep far off from things knotted or freezing.
Better war's hideous fears than this disgrace!
How different things were in that earlier season
when you, as you still joyfully recall,
first glimpsed your true-love in that brilliant hall.

Then how your heart, and how your senses, leapt up!
the whole man was entranced, and sought the twosome.
Into a rapid dance at once you swept up
her whom your arms held less than did your bosom.
You wooed like one whose passion passion stepped up,
each motive in you seemed to shoot and blossom
as love's gifts, wit, vivacity, synthesised so –
and, always to the fore, our friend the Maestro!

Sweet lust with love grew hand in hand in power:
betrothed in Springtime as the days increased
(and she herself the Springtime's loveliest flower)
that mad delicious hunger never ceased;
and then the wedding bell clashed in the tower!
Let me confess it. There, before the priest,
before the altar, muttering the holy Latin,
(forgive me, God!) the Maestro raised his baton.

And you, rich bedclothes of the bridal night,
you pillows, spread in plump and even measure,
you quilts, that hid with silken wings from sight
that rapturous eagerness for our bodies' treasure,
you cage-birds twittering songs, that at first light,
(never too early!) woke us to new pleasure –
how well you knew us, bowered in your protection,
how generous, how tireless, our affection!

And often we pretended we were not
entitled to these joys: as if we cheated,
in reeds, in waving cornfields, any spot
perversely chosen, as my nerve permitted,
how promptly we were serviced! and with what
readiness that slave his offices repeated –
slave whom I curse now! How asleep you lie,
and spitefully your lord's delight deny."

The Maestro has his moods, for good or ill;
vainly you bluster, he only will decide.
And suddenly he stands, erect and still,
holding himself aloft with noble pride.
And now the traveller has all his will;
he need not thirst all night at the well-side.
He leans to kiss her, to reduce the distance –
but stops, like one encountering some resistance.

What brought this change that let his strength recover
save her dear image, key to his desire
in age as once in youth – she is the lover
who now has lit this fresh and vigorous fire.
So he whom impotence has caused to suffer
now is by potency made oddly shyer.
He frees himself. With painful, slow delay
from that sweet magic place he slides away;

and sits, and writes: "Returning home with passion,
these last hours seemed to lead me far from you.
And yet to you, and in the strangest fashion,
I've pledged the loyalty of my heart anew.
I end these notes with this gnomic conclusion:
Sickness it is, that proves if health is true.
Much that is good this diary has told;
the last, and best of all, I must withhold."

Cock-crow! The girl sprang up in dawn's dim light
and threw her vest on out of habit purely.
Then, realising how she'd spent the night,
she hesitated, blushed, and looked demurely.
And then she vanished. On his faithful sight
her lovely image stayed imprinted surely.
The post-horn sounds. He flings his clothes on fast,
and lets the carriage bear him home at last.

And since we hope, in all our verse or prose,
to bring some cure to men's perplexing fevers,
I'm glad to find this moral at the close
which will content both cynics and believers:
we stumble often as life's journey goes,
and yet in this mad world two mighty levers
gear things in ways we can be thankful for:
Duty does much; Love – infinitely more!


***


The second translation, also from Goethe, is entitled Phenomenon. The reference is to a meteorological phenomenon: very occasionally, on mist, a 'white rainbow' is seen.

Phenomenon

When with the wall of rain
bright Phoebus mates,
brilliant, that bow again
heaven creates!

I see the same arc show,
in white mist drawn,
white, but yet still that bow,
still heaven-born!

Old man, you may still be
joyful enough.
White though your hair may be,
yet you will love.

***


Dante (1265-1321)
Divine Comedy: Purgatorio XXV


Introduction. Dante, Virgil and Statius are now close to the top of the Mountain of Purgatory. At the start of the canto they are leaving the terrace of the Gluttonous, where the shades are emaciated because of their constantly frustrated hunger.

All shades in Purgatory are in a hurry: this is the realm where time makes a difference. But as so often, Dante delays: he is puzzled by something. How can it be that, though 'shades', the souls he is meeting are altered, emaciated, because they're unable to eat? As a pagan, Virgil is out of his depth with this question, which has Christian implications to do with the soul, so he calls on Statius to explain. The interest of the canto is largely in Statius's account of the engendering of both body and soul – interesting to us now, perhaps, as an example of 'pre-scientific' understanding, but also of medieval thinking that has its eye on considerations that modern biology would have no place for.

Following this talk of bodily matters, the canto ends with their arrival on the terrace of the Lustful. Lust is 'the last wound of all' in Dante's vision, repented on the topmost terrace of Purgatory, and a sin that he treats with particular sympathy and understanding.


You wouldn't want to be crippled at this hour!
for the sun had left the circle of the meridian
for Taurus (and midnight for Scorpio),

and therefore like a man who doesn't pause
but keeps on his way whatever may occur,
as if jabbed by the spur of sharp necessity,

we entered through the gap in single file,
each giving place to each to take the stairway
that's so narrow that it separates the climbers.

And as the fledgling stork lifts up his wing,
wanting to fly, but doesn't dare as yet
to quit the nest, and lets it fall again,

so too was I as my desire to question
was lit and quenched and even went so far
as to make me move like one starting to speak.

My gentle father, though, for all our haste,
had me in mind – he said to me: 'Release
the arrow of your speech, now drawn to the metal.'

And then more confidently I opened my mouth
and spoke my doubt: 'How could one become thin
if where one is one has no need of feeding?'

'If you call to mind the story of Meleager
and how his life burned up as a stick burned,
this may not seem,' he said, 'such a hard question.

And if you think how at your smallest twitch
your image in the mirror twitches also,
what seems hard may appear a trifle easier.

But to put yourself at ease within your will,
here's Statius; I summon and request him
to bring some better healing to your wounds.'

'If here in front of you I speak to him
of eternal truths,' said Statius, 'let my excuse
be that I am not able to refuse you.'

He then began: 'And if, my son, your mind
can cherish and accept what I will tell you,
my words will shed some light upon that "how?"

Perfected blood, the semen, never drunk
by the thirsty veins, and therefore left untouched
like food that's later taken off the table,

acquires in the heart a shaping power for all
the limbs of the human body, like that carried
through the veins by the other blood that makes those limbs.

Purified, it descends where it's more lovely
to be silent than to speak, and later falls
onto another's blood in the natural vessel.

There the one and the other fuse themselves together,
the one disposed to passiveness, the other active
because of the perfect place from which it's pressed.

Then, thus united, they begin to operate,
first by coagulation, then by bringing
life to the matter they have made homogenous.

The active power now acquires a life-force
like that of a plant but with this difference:
one has reached the harbour, one's still voyaging;

and now already it can move and feel
like a marine fungus; from where it starts
to organise the functions it has founded.

Now is unfurled, my son, and now expands
the force that is from the heart of the begetter,
by which nature intended every organ.

But how from the animal it becomes a speaking
subject you've not yet fathomed; at this point
one wiser than yourself once went astray
[1],

and in his teaching disconnected from
the soul the now-developing intellect
because he saw no corresponding organ.

Open your heart now to the truth that follows:
and learn that in the embryo, as soon as
the brain's articulation is completed,

to it, and joyfully, the Prime Mover turns,
and in his joy at nature's handiwork
breathes a new breath into it full of power,

which takes what it finds active there and draws it
into its substance: creating a single soul
to live and feel and centre on itself.

In order that my words may less astound you,
think of the heat of the sun, that turns to wine
when joined with the juice the generous vine produces.

When Lachesis has no more thread
[2], the soul
eases itself out from the flesh, retaining
its faculties, both human and divine,

the senses mute, now, every one of them,
but memory, intelligence, and will
far more acute than in their former functioning.

The soul by a marvel finds itself at once
either by Tiber or by Acheron
[3]
and there learns first the road that it will travel.

As soon as that place writes itself about it,
the forming power radiates out around
just as it does when it shapes the living body,

and as the atmosphere when full of rain
is adorned with gorgeous diverse colours by the
rays from another source reflected in it,

so there the neighbouring air conforms itself
to the shape imprinted in it by the unique
character of the soul that's made a stop there;

and similarly then to the small flame
that follows the fire wherever the fire moves,
the new-formed form follows the moving spirit.

And since from this it has thenceforth its semblance,
it is called a shade; from this it makes the organs
for every sense, even including sight;

from this we make our speech; from this our smiles;
from this we make the weeping and lamenting
you must have met with everywhere on the Mountain;

and as the different affects affect us
with feelings or desires, the shade takes shape:
this is the cause of what caused you amazement.'

Already we'd reached the Circle's final winding,
and as we turned off now to the right hand
a new anxiety seized our attention.

The bank at this point shoots out blazing flame
and a blast blows upward at the edge that drives it
back on itself, leaving a way beside it,

so that we had to go, one at a time,
along the open edge, on one side fearing
the fire, and on the other fearing falling.

My leader said: 'As you go past this place
you need to keep a tight rein on your eyes;
else you may go astray for very little.'

Then from the womb of that great burning I
heard sung a hymn: God of the greatest mercy,
which gave me back my eagerness to turn,

and I saw spirits walking through the flames,
so that I looked at them and at my footsteps,
having to divide my gaze at every instant.

That hymn ended, they sang the words that Mary
spoke to the angel: I know not a man,
and then they quietly re-began their hymn;

and, that one finished, all together chanted:
Diana kept to the forest and drove out
Callisto stung by Venus's bee-sting.
[4]

Then they turned back to singing, and sang of women
and married men who remained faithful to chastity
as virtue and the marriage vow command.

And it seemed to me they found this tune sufficient
for all the time that fire tormented them:
for only by such food and such a cure

can the last wound of all be closed and healed.



Notes

[1]a reference to Averroes.

[2]i.e. at the moment of death.

[3]by Tiber if destined for salvation, by Acheron if destined for Inferno.

[4]Dante is giving two examples of chastity, one Christian and one classical.



This translation was first published in the Long Poem Magazine no. 17 (May 2017).