In earlier blog entries I have written of the poetry of Leconte De Lisle. De Lisle writes with such passion of exotic locations and the beasts that stalk them, and as I wrote of the setting and the animals in Burning Embers, set in Kenya, I found myself often drawn to the French poet’s verse.
The following is a poem translated from the French (expertly, by my good friend John Harding) on the jaguar. The imagery is so vivid, and though the animal depicted is violent, a predator, it is beautiful. There is something so sensual about the language and the pace in this poem that makes us, the readers, feel an affinity with the animal.
Whenever I read this poem I find myself thinking of a lover who is powerful and dominating and wonderfully sexual but also lithe and sleek and graceful and flowing in movement. There is something of Rafe from Burning Embers here; though his prey would never be Coral, only whoever may dare to try to harm her.
Beneath the distant curtain of the dark escarpments
The light, in foaming billows, seems to sink;
And the gloomy pampas, where the shadows lengthen,
Dimly shivers in the cool of the evening.
From the marshes tufted with tall, rough plants,
From the sands, clumps of trees and naked crags,
There rise and roll out, in a scattering, beyond the solitary places,
Sinister sighs unknown to the sunlight.
The moon, kindling amidst the white vapours,
On the mudbanks of a river dully bubbling,
Coldly and hard, through the thick network of branches,
Casts a sheen on the caymans’ rugged backs.
Some of them, all along the bank dragging their bandy thighs,
Filled with hunger, snap their iron jaws;
Whilst others, like tree-trunks clad in rough bark,
Lie, with snouts half-agape in the draughts of air.
In the fork of a mahogany-tree, coiled like a reptile,
It is now that, with half-closed eye and muzzle thrust forward,
The hunter with beautiful fur sniffs a delicate smell,
A scent of live flesh wafting through the air.
Drawn up with his muscular loins tensed, he sets
His claws and teeth for his work of death;
He smoothes down his whiskers with his pink tongue;
He furrows the bark, tears it off and bites it.
Twisting his supple tail into a curl, he whips
The mahogany trunk, briskly winding it round;
Then on his stiffened paw he lays his head,
And, as if to sleep, breathes with a softly-rasping sound.
But now he falls silent, and, like a block of stone,
Motionless, lies sunk low among the branches:
A great pampas-ox comes into the glade,
Its horn raised and with two spouts of hot breath from its nostrils.
It takes three steps. Fear rivets it to the spot:
At the top of a trunk which it brushes in passing,
Fixed deep in a body through which an icy cold flows,
There flame two eyes flecked with gold, agate and blood.
Stunned, and wavering upon its unmoving legs,
It shakes the earth with a desperate bellow;
And the jaguar, from the hollow of the parted branches,
Lets fly as from a bow and seizes it by the neck.
The ox gives way, striking the ground with its horns,
Under the unexpected shock which forces it to bend double;
But soon, maddened, through the boundless plains
Off it carries haphazardly its tawny rider.
On the shifting sand which heaps itself in dunes,
Held back by marshes, cliffs and bushes,
They pass on, in the pale glimmering of the moon,
The one crazed, blind and bleeding, the other fastened upon its flesh.
They dash into the deepest black of the motionless space,
And the horizon goes on retreating and broadening;
And from moment to moment, their dwindling clamour
Fixes its dull sounds in the night and realm of death.