[Translated poetry] Disquiet and stillness

It’s fascinating to see two literary texts which, though written 180 years apart, match as perfectly as if one author had meant to answer the other.

The first text is a prose passage from the novella René, by French writer François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848). The second is a short poem by the German philosopher Frithjof Schuon (1907-1998).

Both texts speak of the mal du siècle — a depressed, romantic boredom with life — and use the image of migrating birds to convey that burdensome and nameless longing that disguises itself as a yearning for far-off lands.

But while Chateaubriand’s character yields to his daydreaming, the speaker in Schuon’s poem reacts against “the mirage of time, that strings together one dream upon another”. At the end of his musings, René is “possessed by the demon of his heart”, whereas the poet finds peace by dwelling in the “golden Here” with his “wise heart”.

It’s interesting to note how drawn-out René’s musings are, and how succint is Schuon’s poem — Chateaubriand perfectly renders the endless maze of the troubled soul, while Schuon conveys the simplicity and clearness of objectivity.

The original texts in French and German come after the translations.

How could I utter that throng of fleeting sensations I experienced in my walks ? The sounds that render the passions in the emptiness of a lonely heart resemble the murmur of winds and waters in the silence of a desert; one can enjoy, but not paint them.

Autumn surprised me in the middle of these uncertainties: enraptured, I entered into the month of tempests. (…) By day, I strayed into great heaths bordered by forests. How little did it take to set me daydreaming! a dry leaf the wind chased before me, a cabin from which smoke rose to the naked treetops, moss trembling under the breath of the north wind on the trunk of an oak, an isolated rock, a deserted pond where the withered rush murmured!

The solitary steeple rising far away in the valley often attracted my sight; often my eyes followed the passing birds which flew above my head. I imagined the unknown strands, the distant climates where they go; I wished I could have been on their wings.

A secret instinct tormented me: I felt I myself was but a traveller, but a voice from the heavens seemed to say: “Man, the season of your migration is not yet come; wait till the wind of death rises, and then will you set on your flight towards those unknown regions your heart longs for.”

“Rise swiftly, desired storms that will take René to the spaces of another life!” Thus saying I walked in broad strides, my face on fire, the wind whistling in my hair, feeling neither rain nor fog, spellbound, tormented, and as if possessed by the demon of my heart. 

*

Seest thou the birds that to the south do fly?
So is impermanence: gone by, gone by.
Be still, yield not to the mirage of time,
That strings together one dream upon another.

Nostalgia longs for far-away Elsewhere;
In golden Here the wiser heart doth dwell.
Let go the dream of matchless places far —

Thou bear'st in thee the sun and ev'ry star.

*

Comment exprimer cette foule de sensations fugitives que j’éprouvais dans mes promenades ? Les sons que rendent les passions dans le vide d’un cœur solitaire ressemblent au murmure que les vents et les eaux font entendre dans le silence d’un désert ; on en jouit, mais on ne peut les peindre.

L’automne me surprit au milieu de ces incertitudes : j’entrai avec ravissement dans le mois des tempêtes. (…) Le jour, je m’égarais sur de grandes bruyères terminées par des forêts. Qu’il fallait peu de chose à ma rêverie ! une feuille séchée que le vent chassait devant moi, une cabane dont la fumée s’élevait dans la cime dépouillée des arbres, la mousse qui tremblait au souffle du Nord sur le tronc d’un chêne, une roche écartée, un étang désert où le jonc flétri murmurait !

Le clocher solitaire s’élevant au loin dans la vallée a souvent attiré mes regards ; souvent j’ai suivi des yeux les oiseaux de passage qui volaient au-dessus de ma tête. Je me figurais les bords ignorés, les climats lointains où ils se rendent ; j’aurais voulu être sur leurs ailes.

Un secret instinct me tourmentait : je sentais que je n’étais moi-même qu’un voyageur, mais une voix du ciel semblait me dire : « Homme, la saison de ta migration n’est pas encore venue ; attends que le vent de la mort se lève, alors tu déploieras ton vol vers ces régions inconnues que ton cœur demande. »

« Levez-vous vite, orages désirés qui devez emporter René dans les espaces d’une autre vie ! » Ainsi disant, je marchais à grands pas, le visage enflammé, le vent sifflant dans ma chevelure, ne sentant ni pluie, ni frimas, enchanté, tourmenté, et comme possédé par le démon de mon cœur.

*

Siehst du die Vögel nach dem Süden ziehn?
So is Vergänglichkeit: dahin, dahin.
Sei still, verfalle nicht dem Trug der Zeit,
Die einen Traum an einen andern reiht.

Die Sehnsucht strebt nach fernem Anderwärts;
In goldnen Hier verharrt das weise Herz.
Laß ab vom Traumbild unerreichter Ferne –

Du trägst in dir die Sonne und die Sterne.

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