Le Dormeur du Val

C’est un trou de verdure, où chante une rivière
Accrochant follement aux herbes des haillons
D’argent; où le soleil, de la montagne fière,
Luit: c’est un petit val qui mousse de rayons.

Un soldat jeune, bouche ouverte, tête nue,
Et la nuque baignant dans le frais cresson bleu,
Dort; il est étendu dans l’herbe, sous la nue,
Pâle dans son lit vert où la lumière pleut.

Les pieds dans les glaïeuls, il dort. Souriant comme
Sourirait un enfant malade, il fait un somme.
Nature, berce-le chaudement: il a froid.

Les parfums ne font pas frissonner sa narine;
Il dort dans le soleil, la main sur sa poitrine,
Tranquille. Il a deux trous rouges au côté droit.

                                    Arthur Rimbaud 1870

English Translation – The Valley’s Sleeper

It’s a hollow of green, where a river sings
Crazily hanging its silvery rags on the foliage
Where the sun from the proud mountain
Shines: it’s a little valley, frothing with sunshine.

A young soldier sleeps, open-mouthed, bare-headed
And the nape of his neck bathing in the cool blue watercress;
He is stretched out on the grass, under the sky,
Pale in his green bed, where the light rains upon him

His feet amongst the gladioli, he sleeps.  Smiling
The way a poorly child would smile; he is napping:
Nature, hold him warmly: he is cold.

Perfumes no longer make his nose quiver;
He sleeps in the sunshine, his hand on his chest,
Tranquil.  He has two red holes in his right side.

Arthur Rimbaud 1872

This is one of two French poems I learnt at school (for the Alliance Française competition, I think).  Apparently Rimbaud was only sixteen when he wrote it.   It paints a lovely, peaceful picture of a young soldier sleeping – until we get to the last line and find out about the two red wounds.

As is often the case, a lot is lost in the translation (like the rhyme scheme and the fact that the word ‘trou’ is used both at the start and the end of the poem, each time with a different meaning – the hole or hollow of the valley versus the hole a bullet makes). 

Arthur Rimbaud (1854 – 1891) was born in Charleville, in the Ardennes in France.  He was known as a libertine and part of the “decadent movement”, producing his best known works while still in his late teens.   He travelled extensively, had a scandalous love affair with Paul Verlaine (who at one point shot him in the wrist), hung around with other poets on the boulevard Saint-Michel, and indulged in absinthe and hashish.  By the age of 21, he had given up writing poetry and later spent some time as a gun runner in Africa.  He died from cancer at only 37.