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Featured Poem: Clair de lune by Paul Verlaine

Written by Chris Routledge, 30th March 2009
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Today is the 165th Birthday of French poet Paul Verlaine (1844 - 1896). 

Deeply influenced as a teenager by reading Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), Verlaine went on to become one of the leaders of the Symbolist movement and a key figure in Paris's vibrantly decadent fin de siècle cultural scene.

'Clair de lune' ('Moonlight') is from Verlaine's early collection Fêtes galantes (Gallant Parties, 1869). It is presented here in the original French with a simple English translation below. Any inaccuracy or inelegance is my own. (Note: a "bergamasque", or "bergamask", is a rustic dance originating in Bergamo, Italy. Apparently.)

Clair de lune

Votre âme est un paysage choisi
Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques
Jouant du luth et dansant et quasi
Tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques.

Tout en chantant sur le mode mineur
L'amour vainqueur et la vie opportune,
Ils n'ont pas l'air de croire à leur bonheur
Et leur chanson se mêle au clair de lune,

Au calme clair de lune triste et beau,
Qui fait rêver les oiseaux dans les arbres
Et sangloter d'extase les jets d'eau,
Les grands jets d'eau sveltes parmi les marbres.

Moonlight

Your soul is a select landscape
Where charming masqueraders and bergamaskers go
Playing the lute and dancing and almost
Sad beneath their fantastic disguises.

All sing in a minor key
Of victorious love and the opportune life,
They do not seem to believe in their happiness
And their song mingles with the moonlight,

With the still moonlight, sad and beautiful,
That sets the birds dreaming in the trees
And the fountains sobbing in ecstasy,
The tall slender fountains among marble statues.

Paul Verlaine, 1869

Reacting against realism and rhetoric, the Symbolists tried instead to evoke a mood, an essence, an Ideal. Just as the Moon takes its light from the Sun, they sought to illuminate seemingly inaccessible subjects indirectly, by creating reflections. Here we have masks and dancing, fantastic disguises, fountains sobbing in ecstasy, moonlight: a swirl of suggestive images that speaks volumes about the human soul without really saying anything. Rather like music, in fact. Both Ravel and Fauré composed pieces based on Verlaine's poetry, and this poem inspired Claude Debussy to write his own 'Clair de lune', the third movement of his Suite bergamasque and the work for which he is now most famous. (A wonderful performance by David Oistrakh and Frida Bauer can be found here. "Sad and beautiful" doesn't even get close.)

Have a good Monday! Or if you prefer, lundi. Either way, it means the same thing: "Day of the Moon".

Posted by Mark Till

13 thoughts on “Featured Poem: Clair de lune by Paul Verlaine

This is one of the better translations I’ve found online of Verlaine’s “Clair de lune”.
Thank you for posting!

Doug says:

Great translation. Thanks! Don’t forget this beautiful performance of Fauré’s song:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGf0w0zghFI

[…] Featured Poem: Clair de lune by Paul Verlaine March 2009 2 comments and 1 Like on WordPress.com, 4 […]

[…] Today is the 165th Birthday of French poet Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896). Deeply influenced as a teenager by reading Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil, 1857), Verlaine went on to become one of the leaders of the Symbolist movement and a key figure in Paris's vibrantly decadent fin de siècle cultural scene. 'Clair de lune' ('Moonlight') is from Verlaine's early collection Fêtes galantes (Gallant Parties, 1869). It is presented here … Read More […]

[…] more information as well as the French poem and English translation, check out this post by The Reader Online. Today is the 165th Birthday of French poet Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896). Deeply influenced as […]

[…] is (the poem) about your soul and how it is better when mixed with moonlight—¹ […]

[…] movement in the composition Suite Bergamasque by Claude Debussy.  It’s also inspired by a poem by Paul Verlaine of the same name.  I’ve always been familiar with the song.  It was reintroduced to me […]

lettersfromladyn says:

Reblogged this on Letters From Lady Nakatomi and commented:
“et quasi
tristes sous leurs déguisements fantasques” Thanks Mark Till and the reader online for this and translation…and link from commentator (scroll down) to the Verlaine song. Beautiful.

[…] We could call this E.M.O.T.I.O.N.S.  (Evidence for MOL Operations Tanking In Our National Setting) Eleven. As we engage in reflective self-assessment, let’s remember that when we do that, it should be about so much more than the mask of MOL. It should speak to the soul and speak volumes about what doctors and patients strive to achieve together, Featured Poem: Clair de lune by Paul Verlaine | The Reader Online. […]

[…] found this translation here, in another blog. He also gave a short background on Verlaine, gave his own insights on the poem […]

[…] Bargamesque”, a piece for piano, was inspired by a poem of the French writer Paul Verlaine: Clair de lune (Moonlight), part of the cycle “Fêtes Galantes”. It was written during the spring of […]

Eva says:

Nice to know is that Verlaine was greatly inspired bij Watteau. A 18th century painter. When you have seen those paintings you can see the poem before you!

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