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Favourite poem: A Sunset by Leconte de Lisle

Favourite poem: A Sunset by Leconte de Lisle

Favourite poem: A Sunset by Leconte de Lisle

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There is something about a sunset that stirs the soul. It’s majestic, inspiring – the colours and textures; like some almighty being in the heavens is using the sky as a canvas. I defy anyone to notice a beautiful sunset and not be moved; to miss the romance of the moment. For me, ideas for writing are embodied in that still, settled moment where day becomes dusk becomes night.

People ask: If you could throw a dinner party and invite anyone, whom would you ask? Top of the list for me would be nineteenth-century French poet Leconte de Lisle. I think, over a bottle of fine wine and some French cuisine, we would find common ground. For his poetry has been inspirational for me in finding my style as a writer. Like me, de Lisle was a man obsessed with detail, determined to paint scenes in vivid hues and transport the reader of his work to the location to describe, to feel, touch, taste, hear, see each element. His poem ‘A Sunset’ is one of my favourites, because it transports me to an exotic location where nature is undisturbed and wild animals run free. It is passionate, powerful and wonderfully evocative.

As always, my thanks go to John Harding for his expert translation; and I provide the original French version of the poem, which I highly recommend you read aloud because the French phrasing is so pleasing on the ear, and so passionate. The final couplet sends shivers down my spine: La nuit traîne son noirs velours / Sur la solitude du monde.

 

A Sunset

 

On the shore of a fair land,

Beyond the Pacific swells,

Two tall spreading palm-trees

Sway their stately fronds.

 

In their shade, like some nabob

Lying dreaming near mid-day,

There sleeps a great Punjab tiger,

Stretched out upon the rosy sand;

 

And, down along the gleaming boles,

As in paradise at the first creation,

Two serpents wind round their knots

In glowing coils.

 

Nearby, a satiny bay,

In which the foliage is reflected,

Washes an old Byzantine palace

Of red and purple bricks.

 

Next, black swans, in thousands,

With wings spread to the wind frolicking there,

Mark out their course, at the foot of the flights of steps, along the border

Of the crystal water with their prows.

 

The horizon is vast and cloudless;

Scarcely is there seen, in the calm heavens,

Rising and falling in the azure blue

The throbbing of the palms.

 

But it is now that, in the bright red sunset,

The Roc arises, scarlet:

In its beak it holds the sun,

And thunderbolts in each clawed foot.

 

On the breast of the aged bird,

Which smokes, sparks and bursts into flame,

The heavenly light sinks down and lets out a stream

Coloured in gold, amber and topaz.

 

A resplendent Niagara,

That mighty river tumbles down into the cloud-banks,

And rebounds, leaving behind

A mass of foam pierced with flashes.

 

Suddenly, Orion the giant,

Or some ancient sagittarius,

Towards the northern expanse

Stands up tall and athletic.

 

The Hunter bends his iron bow,

Drawn all red from the forge,

And, taking a step upon the sea,

Shoots the Roc through the throat.

 

With a beat of its wing, the bloodstained bird

Plunges across the outstretched sky;

And the sun falls burning,

And shatters its bulk in distraction.

 

Then wreathes of fire

Devour far-spreading grasslands,

Spring forth, and, from the blue zenith,

Rain down floods of gemstones.

 

On the face of the moving heaven

Flaming fragments lie;

A last gush blows out into the wind

Eddies of crimson and of shadow;

 

And swelling out by clumsy fits,

Dumb, baleful, unfathomed,

The night draws its black velvet

Over the earth’s loneliness.

 

 

Un coucher de soleil

Sur la côte d’un beau pays,
Par delà les flots Pacifiques,
Deux hauts palmiers épanouis
Bercent leurs palmes magnifiques.

À leur ombre, tel qu’un Nabab
Qui, vers midi, rêve et repose,
Dort un grand tigre du Pendj-Ab,
Allongé sur le sable rose ;

Et, le long des fûts lumineux,
Comme au paradis des genèses,
Deux serpents enroulent leurs noeuds
Dans une spirale de braises.

Auprès, un golfe de satin,
Où le feuillage se reflète,
Baigne un vieux palais byzantin
De brique rouge et violette.

Puis, des cygnes noirs, par milliers,
L’aile ouverte au vent qui s’y joue,
Ourlent, au bas des escaliers,
L’eau diaphane avec leur proue.

L’horizon est immense et pur ;
À peine voit-on, aux cieux calmes,
Descendre et monter dans l’azur
La palpitation des palmes.

Mais voici qu’au couchant vermeil
L’oiseau Rok s’enlève, écarlate :
Dans son bec il tient le soleil,
Et des foudres dans chaque patte.

Sur le poitrail du vieil oiseau,
Qui fume, pétille et s’embrase,
L’astre coule et fait un ruisseau
Couleur d’or, d’ambre et de topaze.

Niagara resplendissant,
Ce fleuve s’écroule aux nuées,
Et rejaillit en y laissant
Des écumes d’éclairs trouées.

Soudain le géant Orion,
Ou quelque sagittaire antique,
Du côté du septentrion
Dresse sa stature athlétique.

Le Chasseur tend son arc de fer
Tout rouge au sortir de la forge,
Et, faisant un pas sur la mer,
Transperce le Rok à la gorge.

D’un coup d’aile l’oiseau sanglant
S’enfonce à travers l’étendue ;
Et le soleil tombe en brûlant,
Et brise sa masse éperdue.

Alors des volutes de feu
Dévorent d’immenses prairies,
S’élancent, et, du zénith bleu,
Pleuvent en flots de pierreries.

Sur la face du ciel mouvant
Gisent de flamboyants décombres ;
Un dernier jet exhale au vent
Des tourbillons de pourpre et d’ombres ;

Et, se dilantant par bonds lourds,
Muette, sinistre, profonde,
La nuit traîne son noirs velours
Sur la solitude du monde

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