I decided to read something a little different today, so I got my complete collection of works by Rimbaud, translated by Wyatt Mason down from the shelf and flipped through. It is, by the way, an excellent book and I encourage you to invest in a copy.
Because I have been thinking about music a lot lately, the poem “To Music” caught my attention. I am including Mason’s translation here for reference purposes only and to provide context for my analysis of the poem.
Pruned into stringy plots of grass, the public square,
Where trees and flowers and everything is just so,
Finds wheezy bourgeois strangling in the heat,
Trotting out petty jealousies on Thursday nights.
—The military band, in the middle of the garden,
Balance their shakos while playing the “Waltz of Fifes.”
—Around them, in the first rows, dandies strut,
The notary hangs from his own monogrammed fob.
Women wearing ruffles like advertisements
For themselves flounce like elephant wranglers
Around bloated bureaucrats and bloated wives:
Petty bourgeois with lorgnettes hang on every clinker;
On green benches, clubs of retired grocers rest
Poking the sand with knobbed canes,
Discussing treaties with great sobriety,
Taking snuff from their silver boxes, saying: And so…!”
Spreading the roundness of his rump across the bench,
A bourgeois with bright buttons and a Flemish gut
Savors his pricy Onnaing pipe overflowing with tobacco:
“This stuff’s still illegal, don’t-you-know?”
All along the green lawn, little hoodlums sneer;
Naïve young soldiers smoking roses,
Made lovesick by the sad trombones,
Pat the heads of babies to charm their nannies….
Me? Looking like a scattered student
I follow exuberant girls through the green chestnuts:
They know I’m there, and turn towards me
Laughing, eyes brimming with indiscretion.
I don’t say a word: I just stare at the flesh
Of their white necks framed by tresses:
I follow the curve of their shoulders down
Their divine backs, hidden by bodices and flimsy finery.
Soon I’m ogling their boots and socks…
Burning with fever, yearning for flesh.
They think I’m silly. They whisper to each other…
—And I feel kisses blossom on my lips…
The poem describes Rimbaud’s impression of a day at the Railway Square in his childhood home town of Charleville. While a band is playing music, Rimbaud observes and comments on the bourgeois loafing around the park. You get a sense of Rimbaud’s disdain at the superficial qualities of these people. They are almost alien to him, absorbed into their own worlds and oblivious to what is going on around them.
The tone of the poem shifts about halfway through and becomes more reflective. He begins to fantasize about the girls he sees, and I get the feeling that these fantasies are fueled by the music. It is a strange combination of lust and innocence, something that is familiar to most adolescent males.
Overall, I really liked this poem. It is a great combination of impressionism and personal reflection, and Mason does an amazing job of capturing the cadence of the language in this translation.