Monday, June 09, 2008

Reading Boland's "The War Horse" (1975) Part 6

After “Naoise at Four,” three out of the following four poems deal with the theme of children as victims.

In “Anon,” the poem is compared to a “love child” the author abandons without giving it his name. In “Elegy for a Youth Changed to a Swan,” the mother-speaker prays for the woods to become a broad ocean, so that her forest-loving son, now a swan, may see not “the cold crest,/ But branches of the whitebeam and the maple.” “O Fons Bandusiae,” a translation of a Horatian ode (Book 3, XIII), devotes a stanza to the kid goat to be sacrificed to the sacred fount.

And tomorrow we will bring
A struggling kid, his temples sore
With early horns, as sacrifice.
Tomorrow his new trumpeting
Will come to nothing, when his gore
Stains and thaws your bright ice.

I don’t know how the Latin compares with this, but here are the same lines in an English translation by A. S. Kline I found by googling. Kline says he/she follows the original Latin meter, and gives a reasonably close English version.

tomorrow we’ll honour you
with a kid, whose brow is budding

with those horns that are destined for love and battle.
All in vain: since this child of the playful herd will
darken your ice-cool waters,
with the stain of its crimson blood.

I think Boland’s version shows her gift for the visceral detail: the temples sore with early horns, the new trumpeting, the hot gore thawing the bright ice.

The poem I like best in this group has nothing to do with children. In “From the Irish of Pangur Ban” a scholar-monk charmingly compares himself to his cat in their hunt for knowledge and mice. It is a translation of an Old Irish poem written in the 8th century. Pangur Ban, or “white waulker,” is the name of the cat, the poem being anonymous. (Waulking—or walking, or fulling, or tucking—is a step in woolen clothmaking which involves cleansing the cloth of impurities.)

Here’s a prose version of the 8-stanza poem, by J. Marchand:

1. I and White Pangur, each of us in his special craft. His mind is set on hunting; my mind is on my special subject.

2. I love resting (better than any fame) at my book, with diligent understanding; White Pangur is not envious of me; he loves his childish craft.

3. When we are (tale without tiredness), in our house, being alone, we have an endless sport, a thing to which we may apply our skill.

4. It is usual, at times, by feats of valor, that a mouse sticks in his net. As for me, there falls into my net, a difficult rule with hard meaning.

5. He points fiercely against an enclosing wall his eye, bright, perfect. I myself direct against the keenness of knowledge my sharp eye, though it be quite weak.

6. He is happy with swiftness of movement upon a mouse sticking in his sharp paws. Which I understand a difficult pleasant problem, as for me, I am happy, too.

7. Though we may be indeed (like this) at any time, neither disturbs his partner; good to each of us is his art, each rejoices in them.

8. He himself is master of it, the work which he does every day. To bring clarity to difficulty, I am at my own work.

Boland’s version uses quatrains with alternating long and short lines, and a rhyme scheme of abab. Her version of stanza 6 is particularly delightful.

And his delight when his claws
Close on his prey
Equals mine when sudden clues
Light my way.

I love the sonic and semantic sympathies in “claws, “close,” and “clues.” Also, the perfect proportion of the stanza divided between cat and monk, equals in deed, and in need.


Reading “From the Irish of Pangur Ban”

An Irish song to set alongside a Latin ode,
a monkish cell to a swelling fount,
you sing to all who walk on this black road,
what cat and monk and poet want.

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