Tuesday, December 1, 2009


It’s not only Translation Tuesday, but it’s also a new month! There are five Tuesdays in December, so I’ll be posting translations on December 1st, 15th & 29th; we’ll have B.N.’s poems on the 8th & the 22nd. The three translations all will be poems by Guillaume Apollinaire.

I don’t know this for a fact, but I suspect that I’ve posted more poems by Apollinaire on Robert Frost’s Banjo than those by any other poet. His poetry has resonated with me for many years—I remember how electrified I was by Beckett’s translation of “Zone,” & after reading this, I sought out Apollinaire in both French & English translation. During my spate of translating French poetry I devoted a lot of time to his 1913 collection Alcools & translated the better part of it.

The picture at the top of the post is Henri Rousseau’s “La muse inspirant le poète” (“The muse inspiring the poet”); it shows Apollinaire & the painter Marie Laurencin—Laurencin & Apollinaire were lovers, & this poem is dedicated to her. However, there’s apparently some question as to whether this poem was actually composed before they met!

The final line does present a rather obscure reference: the French word that I’ve translated “thrice majestic” is “Trismégiste,” & is the epithet attached to a form of the Greek god Hermes (actually a deity that combined aspects of Hermes with the Egyptian god Thoth). A number of writings dating from before the Christian era are attributed to “Thrice Majestic Hermes” (as he was often styled in English translations), & these writings later became important texts for alchemists & magicians in the Middle Ages & Renaissance. You can read more about Hermes Trismegistus on Wikipedia here.

Hope you enjoy the poem!


à Mademoiselle Marie Laurencin

Brushed by the dead’s shades
On the grass where day grows weary
Columbine strips naked
And observes herself in the pond

A twilight charlatan
Boasts of tricks he’s about to do
The colorless sky is spangled
With stars as pale as milk

On stage the pasty harlequin
Begins by greeting the spectators
Magicians from Bohemia
Several fairies and some sorcerers

And then unhooking a star
He holds it in outstretched arms
While a hanged man claps
The cymbals with his feet

A blind man sings a baby lullaby
A doe goes past with her fawns
And the dwarf sadly watches
While harlequin grows thrice majestic

Guillaume Apollinaire
translation by John Hayes, © 1990-2009


  1. It is full of wonderful and memorable images. Another excellent selection.

  2. This piece is so wonderfully dream like and scary-wonderful. I especially like "While a hanged man claps the cymbals with his feet." Creepy! Love this series, John.

  3. I understand why Apollinaire means so much to you, and the image is a perfect accompaniment.

  4. Hi Alan, Willow & Dave

    Alan: Thanks--glad you enjoyed it!

    Willow: The hanged man image is really amazing. Thanks!

    Dave: Thanks!

  5. Really bizarre! Interesting, the use of grow with "harlequin" since many plants get named with that word as well.
    I find that "thrice majestic" a really unfathomable term.

  6. Ah fabulous! I'm entranced, these days, by medieval Europe, something that never fascinated me before, so this is perfectly timed.

    And beautifully rendered! Thank you!

  7. Lovley imagery, and what a good pairing with the Rousseau.

  8. Hi Kat, Reya & ArtSparker

    Kat: Hermes Trimegistus was considered a tripartite deity, with one part being human. Interestingly, Apollinaire scholar Anne Hyde Greet believes that beside the juxtaposition of the alchemical god with the lowly magician, Apollinaire also intends us to see the lines "Le nain regarde d'un air triste/Grandir l'arlequin trimegiste" as suggesting that the pale harlequin has been made magnificent. Greet translates the last line as "As harlequin grows/And grows/And grows"

    Hi Reya: Wow, Medieval Europe is such a fascinating time. At one point in my checkered academic career I was thinkign quite seriously of becoming a medievalist!

    Hi ArtSparker: So glad you liked it--the Rousseau image does work pretty well I think. Thanks!

  9. What an interesting poem!This does have many appealing images.


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