Jean Cassou (1897-1985): He and She

Translated by Timothy Adès

Sonnet 9: Elle et Lui

Traduit de Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Une coupe au bord de la bouche,
elle allait d’un si ferme pas
et la main si sûre que pas
une goutte ne se versa.

Il montait un cheval farouche.
Si sûre et ferme était sa main
que, frémissant au coup de frein,
le cheval s’arrêta soudain.

Et pourtant, quand la main légère
à l’autre main gantée de fer
cette simple coupe tendit,

ils tremblaient si fort, elle et lui,
que les mains ne se rencontrèrent,
et le vin noir se répandit.

Curved her lip, and curved the cup
carried safely in her hand;
sure and easy was her tread,
not a single drop was shed.

Sure and steady was his hand,
and his horse high-spirited;
he with mastery pulled up,
made the startled creature stand.

Did the strong hand grasp the cup
that the fair one offered up?
It was not done easily.

How they trembled, he and she!
Hand by hand was never found,
and the dark wine stained the ground.

Jean Cassou, imprisoned by the Nazis, translated the poem of Hofmannsthal into French. Louis Aragon wrote this in his blazing Introduction:-

‘…For it would be absurd to see no more in these sonnets than the outcome of those nights of captivity: they are also a drawing-out of linguistic skill and poetic meditation by a craftsman of verse, a proven master of the modern handling of antique metre: and we must mention how far he goes in rhyming, at the limits of assonance, and his systematic taste for the weak rhyme, often combined with a rare word; and a way, too, of bringing in colloquial words and idiomatic makeweights (a donc which the unsuspecting might see as a filler, when it is the whole beauty of the line, and of the stress); and the high point of my proposition is perhaps that moment when he takes a poem of Hugo von Hofmannsthal … but, for this story, we need to stop.

‘A sonnet of Hofmannsthal. A German sonnet, to which the patriot in the shadowy depths will give its French expression. Let no-one tell me that this confrontation of the nations is excessive: on the contrary, it is what gives this episode its unexpected value. Below the translation there is a commentary, since, for once, the captive found he could not do without a commentary:
(The prisoners were forbidden anything to read. One day, though, a fragment of an issue of the Pariser Zeitung
came into my hands. My cellmate and I devoured the evil print which was at any rate something to read. I had the
joy of lighting on a sonnet of Hofmannsthal: Die Beiden, a famous piece from the anthologies which had always
charmed me and which I adapted into our language by great efforts during one of my nights of insomnia).

‘One will not quickly forget this intellectual adventure at the heart of the most terrible of wars: this moment of reunion … Put Jean Noir and Hofmannsthal in prison and two poets fraternise, with all the burden of condemnation that rests on this accord beyond and outside their loyalties, against their gaolers and that Germany which their gaolers obey. One will not quickly forget this adventure, pregnant with all the future, where the French part is sustained with its double splendour of moderation and excess, which charges a sonnet so powerfully that my sentence explodes, founders, drunk with a national pride whose ingredients are courage, incomparable poetry and resolve, and that loftiness of spirit that makes our poets the equals of our heroes. I imagine it was pride pure and simple that night which filled him, a man who was in prison for resisting the Germans, and yet marvellously translated Hofmannsthal in his prison. I can imagine his feelings, and by doing so I know much more than I would from a faithful report of the indomitable character of the French in captivity. I learn from this what no-one, not even this poet of ours, would presume to relate. I understand, beyond his modesty, beyond that reserve always maintained by those who have touched the pit of horror, I understand the mechanism which has come into play so often in these inexpiable years, which will amaze the world with our martyrs, this harvest of heroism, this unbelievable profusion of magnificent lives and deaths, which give today’s France a hundred or a thousand times that which sufficed to make the grandeur of Rome. I understand by this anecdote of the translated sonnet the greatness of our heroes, their simplicity, even their silence. One will not quickly forget this intellectual adventure.’

From Jean Cassou, 33 Sonnets of the Resistance and other poems, Arc Publications

Translation: Copyright © Timothy Adès

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